Protestant Individualism and the Endless Divisionary Cycle

Protestantism was originally a protest against the Catholic Church as an institution.  It was originally a reform movement, meant to cleanse and reform what was seen as a corrupt and broken organization.  But protestantism ended in a breakoff group.  Luther went from hoping for change within the Catholic Church to calling it the ‘whore of Babylon’ and seeing no chance of redemption or reform.  And so protestantism was born. 

Protestantism has eversince been characterized by various independent breakoffs, usually in an attempt to find something somehow closer to ‘real’ Christianity.  Sometimes these breakoffs are at odds with their founding source (such as Luther, or the Anglican Church which broke from the Catholic).   Most were concerned with finding a purer Christianity, and were often movements of holiness and authentic revival in contrast with what they perceived as a dead church (such as the Weslyan holiness movement in the 1700s coming out of Anglicanism and becoming the Methodist church, or the many illegal house churches in Scandanavia who broke off from the official state Lutheran church and organized the Free Church movement).  Some denomenations were formed as two groups parted ways or felt obliged due to significant differences (northern vs southern baptists; Presbyterian Church of America, Reformed Church of America, Christian Reformed Church, Presbyterian Church USA, etc ad nauseum; or the more recent Episcopalian rift with the conservative churches going under the authority of the African bishops)

Now splitting and reforming is not unique to protestants.  Of course the Eastern Orthodox split from the Western Catholic Church (or visa versa depending on how you look at it) was an extremely significant split much before the Reformation of the protestants, and it was primarily over whether Roman Bishop and Rome had special authority.  This debate was really about whether there was a pope and where the pope would be located.  The Western church (western europe) argued that the Roman Bishop had priority over all other bishops, and so, had “papal” (yes, it comes from ‘papa’ as in adored father over the others) authority. 

Apart from that split, there was always reformation within the Catholic church– the monastic movement is in some ways a long history of one monastic movement starting up to help reform an older one which is seen to have gotten lax.  And there were obviously reformers before the protestants who didn’t completely break with Rome, like the Jansenists who claimed Pascal, or the Lollards of the 13oo’s under John Wycliffe ( )

So the splitting and reforming is not new.  But it also continues– almost without end.  Sometimes it happens because groups don’t seem to find anyplace else to fit.  That happened with simple free to some extent.  A lot of groups in recent years have started independent of denomenations, such as the Willow Creek movement or the Acts 29 movement, which claim to be non-denomenational although Williow Creek claims something like 11,000 affiliates (they may be members of other denomenations, or non-denomenational churches) and Acts 29 has claimed 300 affiliate churches. 

The benefit of starting anew and afresh is that you may be able to avoid problems or false steps of what you break from.  There are problems as well though.  One is that you may spend a lot of time reinventing wheels that other denomenations already have quite well developed.  In some cases hundreds of years of experience have given some valuable wisdom to particular denomenations.

A second problem is the lack of history.  Protestant denomenations in the US in particular are in many cases historically illiterate.  There is a tendency among evangelical protestants in particular to be extremely pragmatic– concerned only for winning souls and reading the Bible as it reads straightforwardly (ie, without much historic awareness).  Its likely that most people in, say, Evangelical Free Churches probably don’t know what the ‘free’ means (that they come from a movement which broke away from the State Lutheran churches of Scandanavia) and many don’t even know they attend an Evangelical Free Church, because they church may not use that name or highlight their affiliation.  But the same lack of historical awareness is common in most churches– especially protestant evangelical churches.  This lack of historical awareness is not strange.  A church with a long storied history is more likely to highlight it while one who has a short history probably wouldn’t, much as someone who was given to an orphanage as an infant and doesn’t have much history to refer to may not be as interested in their history as the descendant of Napoleon. 

A Third problem with this protestant tendency towards breakoff startupism is that there is a tendency to not submit to any authority.  If you can’t find anyone you find you can submit to, you decide to submit to yourself and start your own breakoff.  Catholics are good at submitting to authority in general, while protestants are not.  Now that is not all bad of course– there may be some good reasons to question the things Catholics submit to, but the point here is that often protestants don’t submit to much of anything.  Who is their authority?  Themselves and the bible (and their interpretation of it). 

This almost total lack of ultimate authority has led some frustrated protestants to turn back to the Roman Catholic Church– at least they provide an authority structure which has a long historic basis.  There have been various movements– back to Rome, over to the Eastern Orthodox church, etc.  Much of this is due to frustration with the lack of historical awareness and cultural sophistication, as well as lack of authority structure, within contemporary evangelicalism. 

Some feel like all churches should be united.  The recent Christianity Today reported that many pastors in Rio in Brazil think their 13 million people should be under one church.  I don’t.  Of course protestantism and resultant denomenational differences can be a matter of egos and hard headedness and evil division.  But not necessarily. We are fragile, finite, and fallen, and we do have honest differences of opinion about some issues that are substantial, or that at any rate would make it difficult to be in the same church.  (Examples: Female leadership, papal authority, worship styles, convictions about how much money should be spent on building, how much control the congregation should have, how to read certain passages, etc)  When people say that all people should be in the same church I think of a couple things right away: I think of someone saying that since everyone needs food, why can’t we just find one restaraunt to provide it nationwide?  (Its Dennys for everyone, or shut down McD’s Arbys Wendy’s and B-King and just leave it all to Hardees for the sake of unity).  I also think about the fact that the church is, while a gift of God, made up of humans and human institutions generally don’t perform more efficiently as large entities (compare the federal government to state government (or if that is a bad example compare California state government to Nebraska– large to small). 

Turning back to Rome is not an option for most protestants.  We are too Kierkegaardian for that. ( ) Instead, many, especially those in looser denomenations like the Evangelical Free Church, are destined to live with a certain fragility of situation– where their stability as a local congregation depends in large part on their leadership– particularly their pastors and elders/deacons having strong personal devotion to studying Scripture and maintaining a strong moral spiritual compass.  Daily devotions and prayers are the gas in the engine of evangelical Christianity.  It must be authentic, or it isn’t.   Nominal evangelical is an oxymoron in a way which non-practicing Catholic is not (although one can be involved in evangelical ‘culture’ (although that may seem to some like more of an oxymoron than ‘business ethics’ or ‘lawyer ethics’)).  This system bases on personal piety is a fragile position in some respects– in that it is dependent on a somewhat organic ongoing nurturing of a spiritual basis within the local congregation.  This highlights the importance of spiritual maturity and responsibility of the leadership of these kinds of protestant denomenations.  The local church is only as strong and likely to succeed as the current leadership because there is not a greater institution to sustain or supercede it. 

The upside to the protestant lack of focus on authority is that many protestant groups are pretty open-handed towards a wide variety of sources.  For example, simple free uses traditional hymns (some dating to the 5th century), Anglical Liturgy (which includes some prayers going back to the 2nd century), and more protestant Bible-study methods as well as a free-style prayer time in addition to our very structured liturgical prayers, and we do study groups on church history of the last 2000 years.  Some may see this to be an unprincipled hodgepodge.  Others may see it as using the best practices of a variety of key Christian traditions. 

What it is most important to remember is that while God may bring us in various directions, there is ultimately a Church universal which crosses denomenational lines and in that catholic sense (small ‘c’ catholic) all authentic Christ followers are members of that Church.  We may be brought by personal conviction to one denomenation or another, or perhaps no denomenation at all, but we must remember to submit to one another in love, and ultimately to Christ. 

May God have mercy on us all.  -Andy


10 responses to “Protestant Individualism and the Endless Divisionary Cycle

  1. The issue of ultimate autority, and lack there of, is very interesting. It’s obvious that human beings are inclined to try to find one of our own who we think knows better, or can interperet spirituality, the world, or the scriptures better than we do. It comes in many forms: Benedict XVI, Luther, Grahm, Koresh, Ghandi, Darwin, Joseph Smith, Oprah, Dobson, Obama, Neiche, Olsteen, etc.
    Its important to seek wisdom and guidance from others–especially those more learned than oneself, but I think it is very dangerous to put too much stock in to one man’s autority, interperetation, or words. I know people who follow some of the above named folks’ words as though they were Christ’s himself. I think the problem is when the words of spiritual leaders, scholars, etc. become a distraction from what truly matters and/or cause rifts between brothers and sisters in Christ, severing somehting huge and beautiful for the matter of something petty and insignificant.

  2. Nicely thought through, Andy. It is a matter of authority. Catholics like to think that Evangelicals are without authority. There is ALWAYS authority. Something or someone will run into the breach every time. The question is whether the authority is acceptable. Based on what? Evangelicals take Scripture as the ultimate earthly authority but fail to realize how much the Church has helped them interpret holy writ. I have been deeply impressed lately with the “ring of truth” in Scripture (J.B.Phillip’s term). The early Church had at least six authorities: God Himself (Pentecost was a directly interruption of God on earth and included a definite message); the Bible (Old Testament); the Apostles; and the teaching of the Apostles (the New Testament); subjective experience; and other members of the Church. I think that Simple Free is making a good decision when it centers on the Word, historical creeds, liturgies, each other, and subjective experience. Ephesians 4 indicates other authorities as well such as prophets, pastors, and teachers. It may be wise to revisit history and Scripture with regard to these authorities. I find myself to be exceedingly pragmatic. What DOES God bless? That is all that counts. I am intrigued by how the Body of Christ, with all of its parts, rises up to the stature of the fullness of Jesus Christ. Look at Ephesians 4. That’s what I would like to see! Just a footnote, Denomination is spelled with an “i”. God bless! Angus

  3. simplefreechurch

    Angus and Jeff– thanks a lot for your thoughts! Good stuff! I agree with you Jeff that leaders can be a distraction. I also know that SF for example suffers at times because it is so congregationally based. I mean we do have three church leaders and we try to give guidance, but there is not an expectation of a certain type of leadership which is basically expected from a pastor or priest… Angus, I do feel like the only pastoring prophecy and teaching we get is during our time when we look at the scripture together. I don’t know for sure, but I envision that it is somewhat like the synagogue was where various people could stand up and read and then speak on the scripture. The difference obviously is that we don’t have rabbis in our midst at Simple Free who have devoted themselves to the study of Scripture…

  4. Sometimes God calls a tent maker to be that Rabbi.

  5. Allison Evans

    This is interesting, Andy. I grew up Catholic and then was part of a Free church (though for only a few years). I found the atmosphere at the Free church much more authoritarian! I know that’s seems an oxymoron (to use your word, Andy) but it’s true. When there is an Authority, no one in the church question whether or not you subscribe to it. Whereas in the Free church I felt I had to continually witness to where I was in my walk. There’s a lot more head space in the Catholic Church; I found the Free church claustrophobic. As an outsider to evangelical culture — oh, yes, there is one — it again strikes me as more bound to self-appointed authorities and group think than any other group of its size I can think of.

    In the UK we found a home in Church of England church. Talk about head space! No one ever asked me “Where are you at?” No one ever asked me what I believed or to officially commit myself to anything, and yet they welcomed me from the word Hello with open arms. Their credo — as an Established church — was, Belong, Behave, Believe, in that order: If you’re here, you belong. That sense of belonging may influence you to behave differently, and then you may grow in belief. The more “free” the protestant church, the more I’ve felt those B’s were reversed: prove your belief, behave, and then you belong. I know which order I prefer and in which my faith thrives.

    Maybe there’s no escaping a human’s desire for authority. Pretend not to have one and you create an enormous invisible one that goes by another name.

  6. simplefreechurch

    Allison, I think you are right about there being a lot of legalistic authoritarianism in a lot of protestant churches. And I really like what you called “head space”– the anglican church does allow that for sure. Your thoughts on the order of belong behave belief were great too! Thanks for the entire response…do you think that churches with less authoritarian structure will necessarily be so legalistic?

  7. Allison Evans

    Andy, I think a yearning for rules and authority is the nature of the social beast called human. Yes, we want freedom, but within a structure that does some of the thinking for us. I don’t believe free churches are necessarily legalistic, but I can’t help but notice that the ones with the biggest congregations — the mega churches (which you don’t find in C of E or Roman Catholic or even Presbyterian) — ARE legalistic: taking hard stances on social behavioral issues (abortion, gays) while enjoying wealth that would have made the early church pale. Of course, the Catholic Church has notoriously hard stances on these same issues, but poll individual Catholics and I’m sure you’d find a wide diversity of opinion. You also don’t have to look hard to find missionary priests and nuns giving out condoms in Africa and living in the same impoverished conditions as the people they serve. Poll members of The Rock Evangelical congregation in San Diego, though, and I’d bet you’d find astonishingly high agreement, as well as a lot of BMW’s in the parking lot.

    But these are such easy criticisms to make! What do *you* make of them?

    Maybe it’s about numbers: keep it small and you can keep it simple and then you can really keep it free.

  8. What is disturbing, as we talk about authority, is the fact that, in the absence of authority, the individual becomes lord of all. I have a great deal of appreciation for my Catholic brethren who feel that it is necessary that authority exists. I also have a great deal of appreciation for the radical free church movements (like the Plymouth Brethren or the Mission Churches that predated the EvFree of today). Those movements produced incredible social action and missions. One example is the missionaries who gave their lives in Ecuador. It is intriguing that a member of a “free church movement,” Elizabeth Elliot went back to the very people who took her husband’s life. Her son did the same. That tribe is profoundly Christian today. What is key here is the fact that, in the absence of the authority of the Catholic church or Anglican, these individuals found authority in a personal walk with God and reliance on the Word of God. For me the issue is not about “head space” but whether the authority I am under is genuinely linked to God Himself. Is there anything else that really matters other than surrender to Christ? I find incredible latitude in the Bible and freedom from the mistaken mores of the local church. I find none of its political ideologies, or legalism. We mistake the local church’s hangups with the Bible and that simply is not true. Check out the story in Luke 15 of the Prodigal Son and get a breath of fresh biblical air!!!

  9. simplefreechurch

    Thanks Angus. I think that, strangely, maintaining the Bible as the working authority provides a lot of ‘head space’– ie, space to have a variety of views on various issues which are not clearly addressed in scripture. I with you think that most of the leglism we find in any church is rooted more in non-biblical views being authoritatively commanded as essential.

  10. If your ‘church’ is true, show us your line of succession back from the apostolic days. As Tertullian said around 200 A.D.:

    “[L]et them show the origins of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles. For this is the way in which the apostolic Churches transmit their lists: like the Church of the Smyrnaeans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John; like the Church of the Romans where Clement was ordained by Peter. In just this same way the other Churches display those whom they have as sprouts from the apostolic seed, having been established in the episcopate by the Apostles. Let the heretics invent something like it. After their blasphemies, what could be unlawful for them? But even if they should contrive it, they will accomplish nothing; for their doctrine itself when compared with that of the Apostles, will show by its own diversity and contrariety that it has for its author neither an Apostle nor an apostolic man. The Apostles would not have differed among themselves in teaching, nor would an apostolic man have taught contrary to the Apostles, unless those who were taught by the apostles then preached otherwise. Therefore, they will be challenged to meet this test even by those Churches which are of much later date – for they are being established daily – and whose founder is not from among the Apostles nor from among the apostolic men; for those which agree in the same faith are reckoned as apostolic on account of the blood ties with their doctrine. Then let all heresies prove how they regard themselves as apostolic, when they are challenged by our Churches to meet either test. But in fact they are not apostolic, nor can they prove themselves to be what they are not. Neither are they received in peace in communion by the Churches which are in any way apostolic, since on account of their diverse beliefs they are in no way apostolic.” [Tertullian (“an excellent early Christian writer” – although he would ultimately fall into heresy), c. 200 A.D.]

    Remember further that Apostolic succession of bishops has always been considered a criterion of truth. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent states, “That all, therefore, might know which was the Catholic Church, the Fathers, guided by the Spirit of God, added to the Creed the word Apostolic. For the Holy Ghost, who presides over the Church, governs her by no other ministers than those of Apostolic succession. This Spirit, first imparted to the Apostles, has by the infinite goodness of God always continued in the [Catholic] Church.” Where is your apostolic succession?

    The Catholic Church was founded by Christ himself. Yes, there have been earlier divisions from the Catholic Church including the Oriental Orthodox Churches (the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Church of the East which split after the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils respectively) and Eastern Orthodox divisions (4th and 10th Century Respectively) but these churches maintain so much similarity with the Catholic Church and there is possibility of reunification. There are also Eastern Catholic Churches which are under the Papacy which are various Churches comprised of those from multiple branches of these churches that have rejoined Catholicism. Unity is only possible under the Papacy and this was always how Christ intended.

    Unity of Christianity has been destroyed by the Protestant Reformation and its authority in claiming to be the One True religion of God has been severely damaged beyond repair. There is no evidence of the Great Apostasy, the only evasive explanation to claim any legitimacy for Protestantism. There were heresies starting from the very beginning of Christianity, the divisiveness is due to human nature’s inclination to create its own laws and escape authority. The Catholic Church was not one among many churches in the beginning, a study of early history and the Church Fathers can easily show that the authority of the Catholic Church was plain to see and the heretics had radical beliefs that were also plain to see as well (many of the Lost Gospels were fabricated to justify many of their beliefs). But none of these could be as damaging as rejecting all authority and creating total individualism. Any belief can be justified on that criteria and there is no end to denominations, even the Devil can quote scripture.

    If the Catholic Church was founded by Christ as his Church, and as the Church believes he has promised it protection from error in formal teaching and to last till the end of time (infallibility and indefectibility), it cannot have gone in error at some later stage as some Protestants claim. Ofcourse, the Church is not the exact same as it was during the time of Christ, and this is as Christ wished. All the essential and substantial doctrines were believed from the very beginning but they have been developed under the protection of the Church. Read The Development of Doctrine by Cardinal Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, who also stated “The study of History is the enemy of Protestantism.”

    Its very simple, its either Catholicism or chaos, not wanting to accept the full teaching as Christ intended but rather following a part here and rejecting the rest. Heresy, it turns out, is usually a distinct lack of common sense. A heresy is at best a half-truth, but usually even less than that. A heresy is a fragment of the truth that is exaggerated at the expense of the rest of the truth. This sounds polemical but all that I recommend is dispassionately search for Truth and go where it takes you, there is no other criteria for choosing a religion. If you have been intellectual honest and choose only on Truth, you have done your duty, wherever that is. Christian unity is needed now more than ever when the sociological environment and the implications of its assumed beliefs are deceiving to most people. Tremendous pressure exerted from the culture to accommodate more and more radical liberal agendas in the name of laxity and liberty are going to be hard to resist if your church is democratic in nature.

    Good Books to Read::
    The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church by Rod Bennett, Sep 17, 2015

    The Protestant’s Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism by Devin Rose

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