Van Ens: Do Protestants protest too much, thus further fracturing the church? (column)
Why do Protestant churches split, and then split again, whereas the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t splinter?
“The Center for the Study of Global Christianity counts 45,000 (Protestant) denominations around the world, with an average of 2.4 new ones forming every day,” reports Jennifer Powell McNutt, associate professor of the history of Christianity at evangelical Wheaton College, outside Chicago (Christianity Today magazine, “Division is Not Necessarily Scandal,” January/February 2017, p. 43).
A made-up tale that makes a sharp point reveals why the Roman Catholic Church remains unified and Protestant churches divided. The story unfolds about two 19th century Italian Roman Catholics who sailed by ship with two Scottish Protestants into New York Harbor. They desired to make America their homeland.
These Catholics differed on what the Bible taught about the Virgin Mary. They let their differences pass, however, because the Roman Catholic Church possessed the truth about Mary. Once ashore, these Italian Catholics pooled resources and started a pizzeria in the Big Apple.
The Scottish Protestants disembarked from the ship and argued over a doctrine defining Jesus. Neither budged from their interpretations. Unlike the Catholics who showed unity, these Scots formed the First and Second Protestant churches.
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In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther didn’t want to split the Roman Catholic Church. He desired to reform the church, rather than revolt against it. Seeing himself an insider, Luther wanted to rid Catholicism of its faults without fracturing it.
Doctrinal disputes between Luther and Catholic bishops overheated and then exploded. The Church excommunicated Luther. This insider became an outsider. He led the 16th century Reformation that shook Europe. Protesters against Roman Catholic theology and worship practices were called “Protestants.”
How did this Protestant tendency to pick fights work to the advantage of an American author?
Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) preferred portraying feisty Protestants in her novels because Roman Catholics characters seemed flat, merely one-dimensional. An O’Connor fan asked why her Roman Catholic characters came off colorless but “her weird and grotesque characters, from the most secretive brooders to the most raving fanatics, were usually Protestant?”
She replied, “To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard of no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join. And you go about the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much …
“This is why I can write about Protestant believers more than Catholic believers—because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch.”
Protestants furnish the stuff of harrowing tales, said O’Connor, because each acts as personal judge and jury about what the Bible teaches. In contrast, Roman Catholics regard the Mother Church in Rome as referee regarding disputes over biblical interpretation. So, they hang together.
Who is right? Is each person his or her go-between with God about what the Bible teaches? Or is the Roman Catholic Church the go-between in matters of belief between believers and God?
Christians still fight over this unresolved question.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.