A lot of people don’t know it, but 2017 is the anniversary of one of the most momentous events in the history of Western Christianity. It is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
It was back in 1517, that groups of Christians began breaking off from Roman Catholicism and forming new denominations. Those new denominations then began to further subdivide and branch out, eventually resulting in over 32,000 identifiable groups that today are known as Protestants.
However, as startling as those numbers might be, the Reformation brought about changes that are even more dramatic and more far-reaching. So, throughout the rest of this year, in my non-Round Table columns for the Hill Country News, I’ll be writing about those changes and the impact that they still have on all of us who are Christians.
Which actually brings me to my first topic, because there are a lot of you out there who are thinking something like this: “Hey, it’s your column. You can write on any subject you want, but the Reformation doesn’t have anything to do with me because I belong to a congregation that’s non-denominational. I’m not Protestant or Roman Catholic or whatever it is that you are. In fact, I don’t even like those kinds of labels. I’m just a Christian.”
What I am is Orthodox, and there aren’t many of us in this part of the country. But what you do find a lot of here in Central Texas is that whole “I’m not into labels” mentality.
But what a great many people refer to as “labels” are actually important historical designations, and you can’t escape history any more than you can escape ethnicity. Consequently, saying “I’m just a Christian” is a bit like saying “I’m just a human.” Because, yes, it’s true: we are all human, but there’s no such thing as a generic human. There are Japanese humans and Norwegian humans and Sudanese humans—and there are folks who are a mixture of several different nationalities. So while you may meet someone who is 25 percent Turkish and 30 percent Tahitian and 44 percent Tlingit, you will never, ever meet a human who has no ethnicity.
And it works the same way with Christians. There are Holiness Christians and Lutheran Christians and Reformed Christians and Anglican Christians. There are Christians who have constructed their own belief systems by picking and choosing the doctrines and practices that appeal to them. Nevertheless, you will never, ever meet a generic Christian because each and every one of our beliefs has a history, and you can’t step out of history any more than you can separate yourself from your ethnicity.
But we Americans like to believe that we can rewind history and start over. That’s why just about every new Christian movement that gets underway in this country does so with the conviction that it’s going to go beyond the labels and get back to the very roots of the Faith. Yet that conviction is itself a very Protestant desire.
Which shouldn’t be a surprise since, historically (there’s that word again), America has been a Protestant country. I’ll be writing about all this—and more—in the months ahead, but right now we should just go ahead and define the word Protestant.
The term first shows up in 1529. There was a meeting of the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire in that year, and, at that meeting, those groups who had left Roman Catholicism were condemned. The groups responded by publishing an objection to the parliament’s decision; that objection was called a “Protestation,” and that’s where we get the word Protestant.
In fact, the original term was sarcastic. The groups that had left Roman Catholicism preferred to be called “Evangelicals,” which means “followers of the gospel” nevertheless, it was the Protestant label that stuck. And, over the centuries, it has become something of an umbrella term. In other words, lots and lots of folks are now included in that designation.
So how do you know if you are a Protestant?
It’s actually pretty easy to figure out. If you or the congregation that you are part of does not recognize the authority of the Pope of Rome or the Pope of Alexandria and one of the five Patriarchs that are in communion with him (yes, there’s a Pope in Alexandria; look it up) or one of the 14 Orthodox Patriarchs, then you are yourself a Protestant or you belong to a Protestant group. That’s because, when you get right down to it, in world-wide Christianity, then are really only four choices: You are either Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox or Protestant.
Now at this point in the discussion, a lot of you are anxious to tell me why you or your congregation are an exception to all this, so I should go ahead and address some of those protestations (sorry; I couldn’t help it) before I run out of space.
“The community that I worship with is based solely and entirely on the Bible, so if you need to label us, just call us ‘Bible-believing Christians’.” That kind of exclusive emphasis on Holy Scripture is actually a core conviction for Protestants. I’ll be writing about that in the months ahead.
“I belong to a house fellowship. We don’t have a building, and we try to keep our organization as simple as possible, just like the first Christians. That means we don’t have Popes or Patriarchs, but it doesn’t mean that we are necessarily Protestants.” Popes and Patriarchs are just bishops, and the New Testament is full of bishops. Some Protestants have kept the office of bishop; other Protestants try to get by with as little structure as possible. I’ll be addressing all that down the road, but, if your group does not have bishops, or if your bishops don’t work for the Pope of Rome or the Pope of Alexandria (did you look that up yet?) or one of the 14 Orthodox Patriarchs, then, whether you realize it or not, your fellowship is a Protestant fellowship.
“I’m one of those people who likes to pick and choose between various Christian traditions. I like to read Calvin’s Institutes, and I use a rosary, and I collect icons, so I think that makes me unique, not Protestant.” Actually the idea that you can construct your own spirituality was central to the entire Reformation; we’ll discuss that in a few months. But if this is how you roll, you may very well be unique, but you are also Protestant with a capital P.
“You know, I chose the congregation I attend because a friend from work invited me and because I like their praise band. I didn’t decide to be a part of that group because they are Protestant or Roman Catholic or whatever the heck it is that you are. I just like hanging out with those people and worshipping Jesus.” Well, once again, what I am is Orthodox, but this right here is one of the most important reasons why I’m going to be writing all these columns in the weeks and months ahead. Because until we know who we are, until we can embrace our religious identity and the history that goes with it, we may, indeed, like worshipping Jesus, but we won’t have a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is all grown-up and fully self-aware.
So I will be coming back to this topic with my next non-Round Table column. In the meantime, if you are curious, or ticked off or just need more information, go ahead and get in touch with me. I’d love to hear from you.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.