Peter Beck Christian Blog and Commentary

The Catholicization of the Protestant Church

      Not long ago, I was in Geneva when the Protestant world celebrated the 500th anniversary of Calvin's death. While on that Reformation tour, I wondered if the Reformers would recognize the Protestant church that they struggled to birth. It occurred to me that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin might think most Protestant churches are really just inconsistent Catholic churches from their era. Five hundred years after these men and others risked their life to bring reform to the church and the Bible to the people, it seems that we have forgotten the lessons learned and surrendered the gains gotten.

      Consider just a few of the ways in which the modern Protestant church resembles the Catholic Church of the 16th century:

      Our pastors act like priests. Oh, it's not that they've usurped the priesthood of all believers. We've given it to them wholesale. If we have a biblical question, we don't struggle to find the answer. We twitter the pastor. He's the spiritual expert. If we need prayer, we don't call the deacons. We hold out for the pastor because we think there's some magic left in his words. Last, and certainly the worst, the public exposure of the raucous sexual sins of so many pastors would surely remind Luther of what he saw in Rome during his infamous visit to the so-called Holy City.

      Our people have given up the Bible. Sure, we all have plenty. Some of us have handfuls of Bibles at home in every translation imaginable. We have Luther and others of that generation to thank for that great blessing. Yet, most of us don't actually read our Bibles. Statistics suggest that only a woefully small segment of the evangelical world reads the Bible with any regularity at all. Instead, we let the experts tell us what it says (see above). And to think, Wycliffe and others were willing to die so we could ignore the Bible in our own language.

      Our churches are full of people who are not Christians. In the days of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was full of nominal Catholics, those who rarely darkened the church doors but who assumed their salvation was secure because of that loose association. Protestants today have confused church membership with salvation as well.

      Compare your church rolls with active attendance and see how many "members" never come to church. Now go share the Gospel with them and see how many say, "I'm okay. I'm a member of such and such church." Membership, not active faith, has become the basis of their assurance. That sounds an awful lot like what Luther confronted.

      A group of Catholic and evangelical scholars and leaders got together to seek common ground between the two movements in the 1990s. Surprisingly, they found what they believed were points of commonality and issued a lengthy statement detailing their finds. The document, referred to as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), was lambasted by evangelicals and Catholics alike. In the end, their desire for reconcilation and rapprochement was met with antipathy and suspicion.

      Ironically, ECT failed, I'm afraid, because they looked at the written theology of the church rather than its practiced theology. We say we believe one thing but all too often our actions belie another set of beliefs. If you look closely, you'll find that many of today's Protestants resemble 16th century Catholics far more than they're willing to admit.

Peter Beck serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology.