Both the Anglican (Episcopal) Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denominations have faced some internal strife in the past several months concerning openly homosexual clergy. Certain governing bodies within each of the denominations have voted to allow openly gay members to serve as pastors or even as bishops within their respective denominations. Obviously, this has caused an uproar among the more traditionally minded members. Some of those concerned Christians have begun seeking other denominational bodies with which to associate. Whole parishes or even whole dioceses are seeking to realign themselves with other factions within their own Protestant tradition.
This is really nothing new, of course. There are already a plethora of churches and denominations within Protestantism which have broken ties with one group and then merged with another, only to sometimes undo that association and move on to yet another body of Christians. Within Protestantism the lines that separate one sect from another are not always distinct nor are they solidly fixed. There is a constant splintering and realignment within Protestantism that begs the question: What is “church”?
Most Protestants (and I use that term loosely to include most non-Catholic Christians who would associate themselves with the teachings of the Protestant Reformers) describe “church” in very vague terms. The most common response I get when I ask non-Catholics this question goes something like this: “The ‘church’ is the invisible body of believers here on earth. It is all those who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and died for our sins.” That’s a rather vague definition, but it does fit the rather vague delineations and constant shape-shifting that one sees among Protestants. I suppose it shows consistency.
I have also asked non-Catholics whether I might be included in that vague ‘church,’ since I as a Catholic believe in Jesus and in what He did for us. And the answers are mixed. Some say yes, because my belief in that simple formula of faith is enough. Others say no, because my other beliefs as a Catholic are superstitious and even idolatrous. Once again, ‘church’ is not clearly defined.
And again, I have asked Protestants why they find it necessary to associate with one another within denominations if all that is really required to be ‘church’ is a vague belief in Jesus. Why have a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod that is distinct from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and why are these Lutheran sects then separate from Anglicans, Baptists and so on, who also have their divisions. If all we need is a belief in Jesus and THERE is the Church, then why are there so many churches?
“Well, these are the various ‘traditions’ within Protestantism,” I am told. “Different men and women have read Scripture and discovered different ways to live out the Gospel Truth.” ….Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like the “traditions of men.” Catholics get that one pounded over our heads quite frequently. (But Catholics only accept ONE Tradition; anyone who wants to read the Bible and come up with their own tradition can go join the Protestant fold.)
And so the questions continue: What about these differing methods of governing the churches – councils, synods, congregationalism? What about bishops – why do some have them and others do not? What about the role of the laity – why do some play an active role in determining doctrine and others do not? What about the sacraments – how many are there, what significance do they have, what do they do for us?
So then, finally I must ask my Protestant friends: why is it that Jesus did not clearly define the Church? What guide do we have from Jesus to show us what teachings are correct?
“Well, the BIBLE, of course. The New Testament gives us a description of the Church and what it should look like.”
So I search the pages of Scripture to see what it is that Jesus literally said on this matter. Strangely, He never said to the Apostles, “I will command some among you to write a New Testament, and this will teach you how to form a Church. From this you will form various denominations and associate with fellow Christians within these differing traditions.” No. He did not leave it up to us to go thumbing through the Bible to find out how to do this thing called “church.” He did not intend for us to form thousands of separate churches that squabble over doctrinal and moral issues and perpetually realign themselves as doctrines change.
Rather than allow such confusion and vagueness when it comes to the question of “church,” Jesus established, once and for all, a single Church, when He said, “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
A Church with this authority to “bind and loose” could never be questioned on matters of faith and morals. Such a Church, established by Jesus Himself, could never be viewed as an optional ‘tradition of men’ added on after the fact. A Church that can withstand the “gates of Hell” could never be a wishy-washy, vague denomination or an invisible, undefined throng, who disagree on doctrine and meet in separate houses of worship. A house divided against itself cannot stand…how could the Protestant vision of ‘church’ stand up to the very gates of Hell?
The head of the Anglican Communion has suggested a solution to the problem of ordained homosexual clergy. He suggests that two distinct bodies of Anglicans could co-exist within one larger denomination. One group can maintain the traditional view, that open homosexuality is a sin and objectively disordered and thus precludes one from ordination. The other group could accept homosexuality as a valid expression of Christian sexuality and so allow gays into the priesthood and episcopal office. It seems to me that this only temporarily puts off an inevitable schism. How can one church believe two opposing things regarding such a serious sin and ordination? How can anyone endorse the idea of a house divided against itself, and call it the Christian “Church”?
But then again…Isn’t that the foundation of Protestantism – Christianity torn by schism, first from Catholicism and then from one another? Haven’t Protestants always, on the one hand, defended their diversity of belief, yet on the other, ripped apart their houses of worship and shattered their unity because of the diversity they so loudly proclaim?
Is this God’s plan for His Church?