The End of Protestant Denominationalism and the Beginning of Regionalism?

end-of-prot-2According to Peter Leithart, the history of God’s people is a process of being creatively torn apart and put back together again in new, complex, more holistic ways. With each stage in the LORD’s dealing with his people, beginning from Adam after the fall, Noah after the Flood, Moses after the Exodus, down on into the present, there are separations and reunions. These result in new forms of arrangement, liturgy, and worship according to God’s good pleasure. Single sacrifices become altars, altars become Tabernacle, Tabernacle becomes Temple, Temple becomes Christ, Christ becomes Church, and so forth. Biblical history moves from “glory to glory” in that regard.

In Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, he argues the time has come for American Protestants to recognize that we must move forward once again.  While we should gratefully acknowledge the role denominations have played in God’s good history, they could only ever have been a temporary configuration. Jesus prayed to his Father for unity, but denominations institutionalize division, even if it’s a friendly one, that fails to display the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. And so we know another form of the church—a more unified one—is still to come.

Against the backdrop of church history, biblical theology, and discussions of the global and contemporary church, Leithart wants to offer up an interim program for Protestants (since he knows Catholics and Orthodox probably aren’t listening). He calls them to abandon their tribalism and to pursue a program of reform and ecumenism at the national, international, and local levels to help lead towards the church of the future. His vision is of a “Reformational Catholicism” that calls us to live out now what we will one day surely be.

In some ways, this amounts to calling for an “end of Protestantism.” It is its end insofar as it calls Protestants to die to the identity of being “not Catholics” or “not Orthodox.” It’s also its end in that it may result in new reforms, reunifications, and configurations that aren’t exactly “Protestant” in the way we typically recognize the concept. Finally, it’s the “end” of Protestantism in that it would fulfill what Leithart takes to be the initial thrust of the Reformers—the reformation of the worship of the Church of God according to the Word of God.

Appreciating the End

As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his blurb, “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book.” I was going to work my way through slowly, but I consumed it quickly this week, as the argument was engaging, the language fecund, and the theology provocative.

Typically, theologians find a natural partner in philosophical analysis, but Leithart mixes things up. One of Leithart’s unique gifts is the way he creatively sets biblical-theology conversation with sociological and anthropological sources. Indeed, those prove to be some of his most interesting sections in the work.

Two sections in his critique of denominationalism stand out as particularly helpful. First, I found his retrieval of H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the “social sources of denominationalism” (along the lines of race, class, culture) to be quite illuminating. Especially since he picks up and summarizes some of the most important work along those lines since then.

Also trenchant is his critique of the way the system of American denominationalism has capitulated and simply gone along with the American system. It’s tendency to allow denominations to play nice while not actually grappling with doctrinal differences fosters a civic religion that (counter-intuitively), plays down doctrine, practice, and therefore witness in the world. There is much to heed in this analysis.

Leithart’s section canvassing developments in the global church is another section worth pondering. This involves a survey of the varying forms of Pentecostalism growing worldwide, not all of which fit neatly under the moniker of “Protestant.” More interesting still are some of the unique new Christian sects (and cults) coming out of the African and Asian contexts, which creatively hybrid liturgical elements, theologies of healing, new festivals, and authority structures. New churches are being born whose members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions that don’t easily map into our typical boxes of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

In a sense, Leithart is calling us to realize that ripping and tearing, the unpredictable reunifications of the future are already happening around us. In which case, not only do we need to start taking the global church seriously as a theological conversation partner, we ought to be prepared to think about Christianity beyond the paradigm of American denominationalism. Whether you buy Leithart’s prescription or not, he’s surely correct in drawing our attention to the ecclesial significance of what’s happening outside our too-narrow, American imaginations.

Beyond that, his sociologist’s (and pastor’s) eye for the local situation, leads to any number of important insights that pastors and theologians looking to preach and pastor their people well in the 21st Century would do well to heed.

A Fuzzy, Regional End?

With all that said, I have to admit, I left the book feeling a bit…fuzzy. Leithart’s very upfront about the fact that he’s prognosticating future not easily pictured. Unsurprisingly, his imagined vision of a “Reformed Church” can feel like a jumble of open paradoxes. It’s sort of like asking to help plan for the 50th anniversary of a confirmed bachelor.

Of course, Leithart is too smart to be a foolish utopian. He openly owns that many, if not most, of his suggestions for implementing his “interim” ethic may just make things a bit messier in the meantime. There’s no guarantee. Which renders Leithart’s proposal pre-emptively impervious to critique. He’s probably conceded that any number of my worries are indeed possible, but insists that we should try anyways.

All the same, I think it’s worth imagining our way through some of his suggestions to see some potential problems down the road.

Among his many proposals, Leithart advocates an ecumenical Reformational Catholicism for pastors that involves a number of moves on the local level. Let’s imagine it for a minute.

Caught up in Leithart’s vision, the pastors from a number of local churches in Milwaukee from different traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran) start to meet, pray, and read the Scriptures together. Because Leithart rightly insists that doctrine matters, they have face to face debate and dialogue about real theological difference ready to receive wisdom as they try to share joint projects, and so forth. These go well enough they even reach the point where they work towards a common confession of faith, recognizing each other’s baptisms, sharing communion. They even take up the suggestion to form a local council of “Nicene Churches” for shared ministry, discipline, local political witness, and so forth. Overcoming their antithetical institutional identities, they’ve formed a functioning “micro-Christendom” within the city.

Here’s where my questions start.

Now that you’ve got this metropolitan gathering of pastors established, presumably there’s a strong chance some pastors in the same neighborhood did not sign on. Maybe they don’t share the Reformational Catholic vision. Or, maybe they do to a degree. But because Leithart (rightly) insists these conversations around doctrine are happening in light of tradition, history, and Scripture, despite all the prayer, meetings, and readings, one chap happens to stay confessionally Presbyterian.

And this not because he can’t imagine life as a “not-Catholic.” Perhaps he has read all the literature, but he still doesn’t think that New Perspective has brought us all that much closer to the Roman church on justification. Or on papal authority. Or the Mass. Or the saints. In other words, it’s not because he’s been squinting when reading all of the awkward verses in James, but because he thinks his tradition read James properly.

And yet half the neighborhood’s pastors are joining the lovely, new Reformational-Anglo-Catholic-Pentecostal Presbytery of Milwaukee. Including a couple of his fellows in the local Presbyterian Presbytery (who are now very excited about being Reformational Catholics and not every much about being Presbyterians). What of their unity? Or I wonder what the other Presbyteries will think of these councils at the General Assembly? Why is the local, Reformational Catholic unity more important than local or national denominational unity? (Rinse and repeat for the Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and so forth.)

I also wonder what happens with those practicing the sort of Reformational Catholicity Leithart is advocating in a different city, with a different makeup of pastors? The group in Milwaukee trends more Anglo-Catholic due to presence of several Anglican rectors in attendence, but the one in Topeka starts to look very Pentecostal and Baptistic. And who knows what’s been going on in the Portland region? So now we have new “Reformational Catholic” churches coming to a regional unity that varies from region to region. How do they start to get along?

In other words, I suspect Leithart’s suggestion for local reunion can’t help but initiate and institutionalize series of different divisions across the board. As these new “Reformational Catholic” congregations unite together, they end up becoming divided from their sister churches within the denomination within the same city that don’t share the vision, as well as from their national bodies. On top of that, they’ve set themselves on course to fall into a nascent regionalism of “micro-Christendoms” developing, possibly at cross-trends.

And this is a serious thing. One of the goods of national and international denominations, despite the social sources that may have originally helped form them, is that they keep us in contact with people who do not share all of our same, local myopias, temptations, and tendencies towards shared, cultural drift. Ironically enough, the regional Reformational catholicity of local metropolitan groups, if carried out in this fashion, may end up making them more parochial in a way that national and international denominations and communions help push back against.

My point here is that even if a large portion of the Protestant church in America, and even globally, signs on to become Leithartian Reformational Catholics, you’ve basically created a big, shiny, new polyglot (linguistically, theologically, liturgically), regionalist denomination that will exist alongside of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Anabaptists. Now, it might be the best, the most biblical, missionally-contextual, and deepest of all, but a new denomination it will be nonetheless.  And I only see things being exacerbated by the various global movements Leithart has charted.

I’m all for recognizing each other’s communions, being charitable, mutual prayer, and a host of the proposals Leithart makes. But I’m left wondering if this is really step ahead towards unity in comparison to the friendly relations between local ministries that often already exists in current denominationalism? Only this time, on top of denominational paperwork you have to do, you’ve got local, metropolitan paperwork as well.

I suppose my main impression is that many of his stimulating programmatic suggestions might work best if we had assumed a different, more classically Protestant sort of unity in the first place.And, of course, that would take rehabilitating and retrieving some of our Mere Protestant theological instincts.

Conclusion

While there is more to appreciatively explore as well as critique, I’ll leave things here and simply say that, as always, Leithart has offered up a stimulating meditation worth attending for all those who care about the future of the local and the global church.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “The End of Protestant Denominationalism and the Beginning of Regionalism?

  1. I appreciate your review, and your objections. I like Leithart’s idea and wonder if local council’s count as a good starting point. In my city (Södertälje, Sweden) we have a local Christian council where we encourage all churches to be a part (including Catholic and Orthodox). There’s no talk of laying down our denominational lines but we do have various activities together every year like prayer week, hosted by one church but every day a pastor or representative from a different church leads the devotional with a closing worship service where all participate. Every four years when our liturgical calendars are in sync we have a Good Friday parade with the stations of the cross that the Catholic and Orthodox churches lead.

    Thank you for the review. I doubt I will get the book to read but I appreciated reading about it.

  2. From your title, I am so glad you were COMMENTING on another’s, Peter Leithart’s, opinion. A major problem with all things ecumenical is that there is no such thing as THE CHURCH since the first church or assembly broke up under persecution and many started out a seed churches of the type defined under Matthew 18:19-20 (KJV):

    19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
    20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

    Of course the initial discussion concerning this schema of interpretation introduced by Moses called the law of two or three witnesses that establishes a matter involves discipline in a single church, but at the end where these verses are concerned, they map out a diagram of the lowest common denominator or number required for a an assembly of Christ to exist in…and with a LARGE hint that this dealt with the ministry of TESTIMONY, and that to the world when each complete assembly in Christ sets up in the form of verses 19 and 20 in ambushment before every gate of hell where a local and visible (since there IS no universal invisible or even visible assembly or church) can be set up. One thing common, or ought to be common to every one of these complete functioning bodies of Christ would be the archive of testimony called the Bible. In it the complete mind (if you want something unified) of what God desires us to know is found in the multiple individual eye witness testimonies of what Jesus said and did and of the acts of the apostles and other disciples and the Hebrew testimonies we call the Old Testament.

    The basic eyewitness testimony is that of the apostles who were commissioned to be witnesses of what Jesus said and did having Holy Spirit enhanced remembrance, and there were other disciples who witnessed what Jesus did that were vetted by the Apostles giving testimony as the apostles fulfilled their own definition of their office as being prophets and wise men and scribes. In mentioning prophets, this was the other form of eyewitness of what they saw prophetically and why the entire Bible ought to be considered not ONE witness but an ARCHIVE of testimony subject to the law of two or three witnesses that establishes a matter found in two corollaries, of which the name I am giving is actually the whole of Corollary One, while the following is Corollary Two.

    In the generic form given by Moses, Corollary One was basically one involving justice, where in the mouth of ONE WITNESS shall NO MAN BE PUT TO DEATH. But Jesus uses it in this manner of giving testimony of what HE saw GOD deliver to Him when He was in heaven, when He says in John, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.” This basic testimony involving the eyes is considered a basic knowledge, and as far as establishing a matter, or a judgment, or a truth, or DOCTRINE Peter warns us concerning the scriptures archiving that knowledge in 2 Peter 1:20 in this corrected to the Greek translation, “this first knowing that EVERY (single) PROPHECY is NOT OF ITS OWN INTERPRETATION.” Verse 21 puts this application concerning prophecy as Peter was making his commentary on Paul’s writings, no doubt of the discussions in 1 Corinthians 12-14 concerning SPIRITUALS, squarely in the law of multiple testimonies I call the Schema of Interpretation of Scripture, where Peter gives his concise wording of it. Corollary ONE which has involved ONE WITNESS being emphasized in verse 20 having a negative or incomplete credibility when he says in 2 Peter 1:21 (KJV):

    21 For the prophecy came NOT (negative) in old time by the will of MAN (a single witness also doing service as a class of humanity):

    but holy men (plural AND implying the positive value of multiple witnesses having the following credibility) of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (implying the enhanced state of the witnesses similar to John’s testimony of Jesus giving the apostles Holy Spirit enhanced remembrance).

    The churches’ being the ground and pillar of truth as spoken of by Paul is their ministry, having the modern extant gifts of discerning of spirits, a teaching gift found among the members (though the marvelous sign gifts to the Jews as credibility gifts headed up by tongues including special healing on demand and that of special miracles stopped in 70 AD and the Apostolic gift of Prophecy and the basic knowledge enhanced by the Holy Spirit remembrance was done away with in the person of John the Apostle according to Paul’s prophecy in 1 Corinthians 13:10 when the last archivable testimony of either his eyewitness in the GOSPEL OF JOHN or the prophetic eyewitness in REVELATION was complete) who have the responsibility in developing DOCTRINE.

    There ought not be any fear of having any more revelation this side of the rapture, in that the prophecy of John in harmony with all the other prophecies in the Bible gives a glimpse of the return of prophets and Holy Spirit endowed gifting similar to Pentecost to the “this generation” that Matthew speaks of in Chapter 24 who will, unlike the “this generation of Jesus’ peerage given only the sign of Jonah against the desire of the Jews of that generation demanding a “sign from heaven,” see a plethora of signs from heaven including JESUS HIMSELF IN THE HEAVENS who comes down to establish the millennial kingdom. THAT “this generation” already knew the TIMES (years) and SEASONS (parts of the season involving Jerusalem and Israel) that was denied the “this generation” of Jesus’ peerage and the church age saints, but not the “day or the hour.” That “this generation” which ironically COULD HAVE BEEN the “this generation” of Christ’s peerage were they to have but accepted Christ at this first coming, but their denial of Him stopped the 69 week of years clock involving Israel, the hiatus seeing the death and resurrection of Christ and the church age, but at the end of the church age after the rapture, the saints of that last seven years would know to count the seven years (times) from the rapture, but not be aware on what day His return would come, nor the hour.

    After the rapture there WILL be NO CHURCH or assembly of the manner and definition of what is happening now, but there will only be a congregation of church age saints that will be with Jesus throughout the millennial time and eternity, ruling and reigning with Him along with the resurrected tribulation saints, whose common resurrection we share in that while we WERE resurrected in our own unique church age resurrection or change in the rapture and find ourselves with bodies in HEAVEN, what good is a resurrection if we do not enjoy with our new bodies having our feet placed on the earth again as we rule over the child bearing righteous remnants of the last seven years of God’s dealing with Israel in the Millennial Kingdom, and how the GOSPEL of the KINGDOM is tied up in the ministry of the church age saints here on earth. You see if God does NOT honor his pledge to deal with Israel on earth, the likes of the millennial kingdom, a hint found in Zechariah 12-14 and in Ezekiel 20, in a blessed time, how could we be assured of promises to us during this church age?

    When we get our heads straight on what a church IS, we can speak of a slate of doctrines that each and every local and visible church (there is no other type) can find agreed on when we use the Schema of Interpretation to develop the truths, judgments and doctrines that can be a unity of mind. All this talk of Peter Leithart’s is but flim-flam and flooey. Paul speaks of a near event when the mind of God of everything He wants us to know may be found (and I believe at the last archiving of testimony by a Holy Spirit endowed member in particular [the EK MEROUS of 1 Cor. 12:27, 13:8-12, and the ANA MEROS of 1 Cor. 14:27] capable of testifying alive in the likes of the practice of the prophets and tongues speakers of 1 Corinthians 14, which John the Apostle appears to have accomplished) in one place, the Bible, and from IT were the churches so willing to accept it, we will no longer be swayed by any wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14) but by the breath of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21) that Peter gave amen to of Paul’s discussions. The test of WHO are the TRUE disciples of Christ will be that the only credibility giving gift left today (1 Corinthians 13) is that of AGAPE or unconditional love that is found ONLY in the true Christian but can be observed and emulated even in the arts of unsaved mankind, yearning for but not possessing such a love, the love shaped hole in their heart being felt about to know the dimensions of such. The last prophet and eyewitness of what Jesus said and did which Paul anticipates in 1 Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 4 has Jesus saying this, “IN THIS shall ALL KNOW that YE ARE MY DISCIPLES in that YE HAVE LOVE (agape) ONE TO ANOTHER.

  3. After reading this I immediately thought of Peter telling Jesus they’d need to build 3 tabernacles, and The Very God interrupted the whole deal. The Body of Christ under its Head is already in place and functioning. as today on planet earth the Holy Spirit determines the lives and actions in the lives of those men and women obedient to His word. The rest of the church is Man making plans and I suspect the end will be exactly as at the Council of Nicea – the silencing of the Copts and the elaborate structure of man-made systems. The further Balkanization of the church may be just what God wants these days.

  4. Pingback: Reformed Catholicism, Authority, and Unity | Singing & Slaying

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