The Future of Protestantism: A Personal Church History

Kicking Up Dust

A few months back, Dr. Peter Leithart kicked up some dust with his article titled “The End of Protestantism,” suggesting that although the Reformers were right to protest, the ground had shifted since the sixteenth century, and now was the time for their heirs to abandon tribal rhetoric and be at one with the church at large.

Though his call for church unity was admirable, the tack he took sparked a stir in the Protestant blogosphere, culminating in a talk at Biola. This mini-conference, “The Future of Protestantism,” featured Dr. Leithart, Dr. Carl Trueman, and Dr. Fred Sanders, with Peter Escalante moderating. Sectarianism was discussed as it effected intra-Protestant relations, confessional standards were referred to, and everyone gave their opinion on how to approach Catholics. Speculation ensued as to just what the future held for Protestantism, and how we ought to act in light of our place in that story.

During the Q&A period, one questioner asked whether perhaps the crisis was being exaggerated. Was institutional disunity really a problem? Doesn’t most of the country lump all Bible-believing Christians into one group? If that is how unbelievers see us, are denominational divisions really some sort of visible rift in the body of Christ?

This question resonated with me. I don’t believe the church has to be very monolithic in terms of doctrine, liturgy, or governance in order to live together in brotherly love, worship the same Savior, and preach the same Gospel. If the past saw Protestant sectarianism and division, everyone queuing up into their own little tribes, the future need not see us all join the same tribe in order to be part of the same body. Because I believe in justification by faith, I believe Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and any other brand of Christian are all part of the same body, regardless of whether they all send delegates to the same general assembly or subscribe to the same confession or statement of faith, or are ministered to by the same priesthood.

I say this as an individual with a history, a testimony of how my life in the Church has demonstrated the unity of Christ’s Body. My experience is not universal, but it does point to a way some people in some places have lived together in Christian brotherhood. I hope it can add something to the discussion.

Life of a Wandering Evangelical

My parents came to Christ and began attending church when I was very young, early enough that I’m not sure I remember a time when we didn’t follow the Lord. At first we attended a small Bible church on the campus of our local university. It was nondenominational, encompassing people of various broadly Evangelical, low-church bents.

Sunday nights all of us kids would participate in AWANAs, a non-denominational program used in churches across America. We memorized Bible verses, played games, learned lessons, and raced these awesome little wooden cars we made during the AWANA grand prix. There was also a Super Bowl Sunday thing, but that might have been just our church. But most of all, we learned the basics of the Gospel, and that Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.

During this time, my family began to listen to the local Christian radio station. There were actually two—one for teaching and talk, and one for contemporary Christian music. We did not spend a lot of time on the latter. This radio station connected us to the broader church in East Texas, the Bible Belt, and all over the USA. It was nondenominational, representing Evangelicals from widely scattered backgrounds. I heard more sermons during the years I listened to that station than the rest of my Sundays put together.

Eventually, I got into a groove. At six thirty in the morning—or was it seven?—I would listen to Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson. If I missed any of it, I could catch the rest in the evening at six. At six thirty was Adventures in Odyssey, also brought to you by Focus on the Family. By this time my family had usually gone their various ways, but I loved the seven o’clock show, Unshackled, which dramatized the conversion stories of countless people who had been wandering through life without Christ. And if I was having trouble sleeping, and midnight arrived, I could listen to Into the Night Live, with Dave Kirby and Dawson Macalister.

Sprinkled throughout the week, during the summers, and whenever my schedule was off, I could catch other preachers and speakers. I could hear Charles Stanley, Dr. Tony Evans, Chuck Colson, Adrian Rogers, or Alistair Begg. One of my favorite jokes—which I have so much trouble remembering—comes from a talk given by Ravi Zacharias. Nancy Leigh Demoss, Joni Eareckson Tada, David Jeremiah, and Ed Young all made significant dents in my soul. I’m sure my politics still carries the baggage of Kerby Anderson’s Point of View and Janet Parshall’s America.

Talk about a wave of nostalgia right there.

At the time I had no idea what denomination most of these guys were, nor did I care. The point was, they loved Jesus, and so did I. They wanted to see the world turned towards him, and so did I. The Bible was their book, and it was mine, and we were all in this together. Looking back, I realize that these folks included a slew of Baptists, what some have called a “Neo-Puritan,” a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several people associated with nondenominational, broadly evangelical ministries. But as they came over the airwaves, those affiliations didn’t matter.

Eventually we switched to a Reformed Church, where both the family as a whole and myself in particular developed a more robust theology. We became acquainted with the history of the Protestant Reformation, familiar with several creeds and systematic theologians, and became conversant on issues which divided church from church, denomination from denomination. Confronted with this challenge, I began to identify myself as Reformed.

But during this time, not only did I continue to listen to the Christian radio station, I began attending a nondenominational Christian school. Though much of the board and many of the teachers were either from my church, or would later join it, I began rubbing shoulders with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Baptist, and Bible Church people. On a daily basis I was confronted with serious Christians not from my denomination—people I loved, whose opinions I respected. Over the next seven or eight years of my life, I was thoroughly inundated in a broad, evangelical Christianity.

This is not to say that there were never any rough times as bumped into one another. There were, though I doubt many of them really had much to do with liturgy or doctrine so much as personality. But for eighteen years I lived in a world where Christians of differing backgrounds working together was simply the norm. Perhaps we did not worship at the same church, and our congregations were not linked by the same conference, classis, or episcopacy, but so what? One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Way Forward

I am not am academic theologian, a church historian, or a pastor. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but my experience does suggest that certain things are true.

First, Christians can work together despite denominational differences. It is achievable. In addition, it’s not a wild dream, a far off and unfulfilled item on a wish list. It has been done, is being done, and can continue to be done.

Second, we are already one Body. For those who recite the Apostle’s Creed, this is a part of our statement of faith we proclaim every Sunday. Not a goal, a statement of faith. We were all baptized into the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Not a Baptist Jesus, a Presbyterian Jesus, or a Pentecostal Jesus. One Lord. If we all worship him, we all confess him, all our hearts are changed by him, then it follows that in some respects we will never really be divided. That is the foundation of our unity.

But what about the things these three intelligent men suggested?

Does the Protestant church need to return to its confessional roots? Will this give us a robust theology, freeing us from having to define ourselves as not-the-other-guy? Or will it deepen divides by driving us back into various denominational ideals?

Will we find common ground in liturgical reform? Will common priorities in worship enable us to recognize our brothers washed with the same baptism and partaking in the same Supper? Or will our insistence that our brothers adopt a better sacramentology and theology of worship simply become another tribal marker?

Is dialogue the way forward? Should we meet our differences head-on, joining in discussion to find the truth together? Or does that open the way for concession and compromise and the slippery slope to a contentless faith?

I don’t know. These are all potentially fruitful areas of discussion. But as we pursue these lines of questioning, we ought to keep in mind that sometimes church unity is really not that far away. We find it in common schools or radio stations, shared ministries, and faith in the same Savior. Out of many members, there is one body. Denominational divisions need not be perceived as some crisis of disunity. Division may be a cause of discord, but it is also a prerequisite for harmony.

Just something to keep in mind.

Have a blessed evening.