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 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard ) 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