I have imagined for some time now that the important leaders within the Roman Catholic Church peer out from the Vatican in the direction of America, and think to themselves, “Those Protestants. When will they ever learn their lesson? One cannot be unified and yet divided.” Joking aside, it is remarkable that the RCC has remained largely unified for such a long period of time, even so despite wars, political division, and theological waves crashing against the foundations of the church hierarchy. I do admire the resilience and unwavering devotion to doctrine and church teaching that characterize Catholics. From their perspective, Protestants must appear like wet noodles, lacking firm spiritual backbone as a collective group. With such diversity in doctrine and style, how can they (Protestants) ever expect to unite? Yet, I am a Protestant, and a highly opinionated one at that. I value the individual interpretation of Scripture, and the privilege to worship God without the necessity for a human intermediary. However, I still admire (and to some extent) desire, the rigidity and dogma present within the Catholic “system” — I struggle with the apparent lack of unity in the body of Christ, specifically related to Protestantism. The “line of demarcation” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is an archetypal, generic example of the rife division within the Protestant body. Yes, our belief in individual interpretation is noble, but where is the line drawn?
In his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verses 4-5, Paul writes,
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
In context, Paul is writing to Gentiles, who to varying degrees, were taught that in order for complete salvation, they must become Jews and undergo the rituals outlined in the Torah. Paul’s response to this idea is simple — Jesus died for all, and those who accept His gift become a part of a singular spiritual body, with no distinction based upon cultural or geographical setting. As Christians, within the body of Christ, there is no need for the label “Jew” or “Gentile.” We are all one, under one God. The repetition of the word “one” is significant, and within lies the point all followers of Christ must take to heart.
Those who take the label of “Christian” and apply it to themselves must unequivocally affirm belief in one God and the saving work of Jesus’ death and resurrection — shouldn’t this be enough? I speak primarily to Protestants with this question, and though I understand the innate differences in style that arise out of our humanity, there should not be such rigid division founded upon style alone. For the most part, with the exception of a few denominations, Protestants uphold the truths expressed in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and yet we tend to view adherents of another denomination as less spiritual than ourselves, or even misguided. Why? Our effectiveness as ministers of the Gospel to the world has an Achilles’ Heel, which is simply our emphasis on individual interpretation; a blessing and a curse, in a manner of speaking. Romans 14:1-9 provides the solution (emphasis mine):
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Yes, I am aware that Paul states emphatically, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” This verse alone, with no context, could certainly be used to justify some of the division founded upon individual interpretation. Yes, Jesus’ atoning work on the cross removed the barrier between humanity and God, and we are able to study the Word and receive individual revelation through the Holy Spirit. However, the Bible contains no contradictions, thus this passage must be taken in context with the passage in Ephesians. Individual interpretation is a private matter, to be expressed in personal time with God through whichever form necessary (i.e. worship, prayer, study of Scripture, etc). But, the overarching truth is that the individual interpretation of God’s Word is placed underneath our unity as believers in Jesus Christ. Our public manifestation of faith is to be one of unwavering solidarity with fellow believers, regardless of label or style.
My opinion is simply this: It does not affect my perception of you as a fellow believer if you choose to label yourself as Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Catholic, Episcopalian, or Non-Denominational. If you affirm the Bible as God’s inerrant, eternal Word, the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus being the Son of God and His atoning work on the Cross, then let’s work together to advance the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Christianity, and specifically Protestantism, cannot afford to remain sequestered within our respective stylistic strongholds — we must publicly stand together as one body, one Church, under one God, for the advancement of one truth (the Gospel).