The theological tenets of Protestantism as a movement within Christianity are, for the most part, fairly orthodox. And while there is much room for debate, that is not my aim in writing this article. Nonetheless, there is something much more dangerous going on in this ‘Protestant’ movement. It is the danger of a forced division within an institution meant to be unified in love. The Church, from the very first centuries, was called ‘catholic’ for a reason. Ignatius of Antioch, in 107 A.D., first used the word in a letter he wrote to Christians in Smyrna on the way to his martyrdom. Catholicity: it is a sign of love for Christ and a sign of purpose in adversity. It is a unification which produces strength in contrast to the division that produces weakness.
We’ve replaced the word today, in the Protestant movement, with universal; it is a replacement brought forth by a reaction stemming from a 500 year old disagreement between Martin Luther and the Church.
But catholic means much more than universal. It means to be unified. While there is truth to the universality of the Church, it does not adequately do justice to what the Church is meant to be. It ignores the unification of Christians all over the world into one body with Christ as our leader. It subtly says that division is okay.
Division is not okay. Disagreements are okay. Conversation is okay. An argument is even okay every now and then. A willingness to listen to various theological ideas and respectfully, intelligently, and lovingly discuss them is okay. This would have been ideal for Martin Luther and the Reformers; they had legitimate concerns over the practices of their beloved Church. Nonetheless it is not what happened; division resulted. And division has been perpetuated. As a result, people are influenced to react against the word catholic in an association against Roman Catholicism.
They were called protesters. And the protesters embraced it. It was not what they were for that defined them; rather, in claiming the identity of Protestant, it was what they were against that defined them. It was a motivation of division.
Love, specifically the love of Christ, conquers division. Isn’t it time that we allowed our love to overcome an argument from half a millennium ago? Perhaps, on our path to seeking holiness, we can embrace our fellow Christians from around the world, and even those brothers and sisters who might think just a little bit differently theologically, in a true unified fashion. Maybe we can quit our ‘protesting’; by hanging on to this word – protestant – that is, in essence, what we are doing. We are clinging to a separation, a label with motivations that come out of objections, complaints, dissent, strife, disapproval, and even hate. We are embracing the negative over the positive. We are clutching onto a fear of perceived threats instead of welcoming a healing love.
This is not a Christ-like, holy love that encompasses healthy disagreements, fellowship within the body, and grace and forgiveness. It is a reaction. It is a word that states most clearly exactly what it is – a backlash and a division in the holy body of Christ.
Thankfully, the tradition of Christianity that I belong to, the Church of the Nazarene, recognizes that we are a part of the worldwide body of believers. I am grateful for that. We do not need to deny our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac, Anglican, Lutheran, or, yes, even Calvinist, family in Christ. We do not need to push away Pope Francis or Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop Welby; they too are our Christian leaders.
Yet we still bind ourselves, slavishly, to that word, as if we are still in some sort of protest! Perhaps it is better to define ourselves first as Christian, then as Reformed, or Calvinist, or Wesleyan, or Arminian, or Baptist; that would be a step forward. Maybe we can finally embrace love for one another, and as a sign of that love, remove our protesting root as an identifier, this word that promotes the dangers of division and adds, as one of my seminary professors put it, “scar tissue” to the body of Christ. Division is not orthodox; it is not a characteristic of the kingdom of love that we are supposed to proclaim.
In true medieval fashion, and indicative of practices from the period of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, I may be burned at the stake for this article by some of my fellow protesters whom I still love. I will most likely be put on some sort of list as someone to be careful of. But these are chances I am willing to take. The healing of scar tissue is too important. The message of God’s love in a unified, worldwide, universal, catholic body of Christ is just too critical to be rendered ineffective by a heresy of division and protest.