Well, it’s almost here. For the better part of this past year, I’ve been writing a series of columns about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and October 31st is the actual anniversary date.
What happened on October 31st back in 1517 is that a Roman Catholic monk and university professor named Martin Luther publically announced his disagreements with the Roman Catholic leadership. One thing led to another, as they say, and what started out as a local Roman Catholic theological controversy eventually led to the creation of over 32,000 different Christian organizations and groups.
And that process is still going on. In fact, right now, somewhere in Central Austin, there’s a small network of Christians that are talking about starting their own congregation—but they’re not even going to call it a congregation because they have so many negative associations with that word. They haven’t yet figured out what they want to call their project, but they are determined that it’s going to be different from anything that they’ve encountered so far.
You see, these folks have been friends for a while, and, over the years, they’ve attended a number of parishes and congregations together. However, they’ve always been dissatisfied with those experiences: the music was too traditional in one setting, and the preaching was too shallow in another place; there wasn’t enough structured worship in some of the venues, and the worship was too structured in other venues, and, at all those sites, there was just way too much emphasis on money.
So, this small collection of friends has decided that they are going to launch out on their own. They are going to be the Christians who finally ‘do’ music and preaching and worship and money in a way that is authentic and honest and genuine and, well, Christian.
Which means there will soon be 32,000 and 1 different Christian organizations and groups.
Of course, the only way that even works is if you regard the Church as a human organization. And that’s pretty much the approach most Protestants take. Now, Baptists, Lutherans, Calvary Chapel folks and other Protestants will tell you that the Church is a really special organization; in fact, Methodists and Episcopalians and Presbyterians (those groups are often referred to as “mainline Protestants”) will often use spiritual-sounding words like ‘holy’ and ‘apostolic’ to describe the Church. But if you can reformat the Church and tweak the Church and update the Church and roll out new versions of the Church, then it may very well be a very special and even a spiritual organization, but it’s also a very human one.
The problem is, that’s not how Holy Scripture describes the Church. And that’s actually a big problem, because most Protestants place a lot of emphasis on the Bible.
Let’s just look at one example. Holy Scripture frequently refers to the Church as the Body of Christ; St. Paul is especially fond of that image; in fact, it shows up in most of his letters. But that image isn’t organizational; it’s organic, and that tells us a couple of important things about the Church.
To begin with, if the Church is the Body of Christ, an organic spiritual reality, then there can only be one Church. After all, St. Paul doesn’t ever talk about the Bodies of Christ. So, there is only one Body, not 32,000 and 1 bodies.
In addition, if the Church is an organic spiritual reality, it cannot split. In fact, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul asks in disbelief, “Is Christ divided?” The apostle could ask that question rhetorically because he and everyone else knew the answer: The Church cannot be divided because the Church is the very presence of Christ Jesus in this world; the Church is His Body.
Of course, the Bible Church folks and the Churches of Christ and other Protestant groups are aware of all this, and they try to deal with the disconnect in a variety of different ways. Sometimes they insist that, deep down, all of those 32,000 and 1 different organizations really are united. But apart from vague generalities, they have a really hard time explaining what that looks like or how that works. Besides, if all these organizations are actually united, then why in the world are they running parallel operations and duplicating one another on so many different levels?
On the other hand, Protestants such as the Reformed folks and the Disciples of Christ and the United Churches of Christ will often just say that the Church is divided and that Christians ought to work at getting back together. But the way they go about that process is just further evidence that they believe that the Church is basically a human organization. Because what they end up doing is negotiating agreements and commissioning studies and undertaking trial mergers, and that’s precisely what organizations do.
So what’s the solution to this mess? How can we get back to the Church that is described in Holy Scripture?
The solution is to just walk back the process that was started 500 years ago this month. The first Protestants thought they could approach the Church like a human organization; all they ended up doing is generating thousands upon thousands of additional organizations. And even though, just like our hypothetical group of Austin friends, folks continue to put together new organizations, in the midst of all that chaos, the Church is still one, and the Body of our Lord and Master remains undivided.
And if you’d like find out more about the Church—or find your way to it—just get in touch with me. I’m ready to help in any way I can.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John the Forerunner Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at email@example.com.