Protestant View #3: Good Enough Christianity?
The first view is directly contrary to Scripture, while the second one is directly contrary to history (and less obviously, contrary to Scripture as well). As cooler heads have prevailed after the Reformation, it seems that many Protestants are admitting the break with Rome occurred over some pretty unimportant stuff, or just because some Catholic clergy were corrupt jerks, a problem plaguing any Christian denomination of size. So the third view, then, is a collection of views, which posit that Catholicism is Christianity, but just imperfect Christianity. Protestantism added unique contributions which were worth separating from Rome over – “a more perfect disunion,” perhaps.
This is the view that most self-respecting Protestants take, and it is by far the strongest of the views. It is also the most dangerous of the views, though, for a simple reason. Rather than holding out a belief that there’s a True Christianity that either lived up in the mountains, or was lost and came back, Protestant View #3 necessarily says that there’s only truer Christianity, that there’s no single True Christianity which can be found anywhere on Earth. That’s why, like every other form of Protestantism, it creates theories that the only Real Church is the Invisible True Church. It has to think this, because its adherants believe that we had Good-Enough Christianity for a millenium and a half until Luther (or some other Reformer) discovered or invented Better Christianity. The obvious, glaring problem with this is that if Luther, et al, can discover/invent Better Christianity, why can’t Jim Jones or Bishop Spong create Better Yet Christianity? So it’s a system doomed to perpetual schism in a quixotic (but usually well-intentioned) quest for a purer Faith.
The Problem of Schism in the Third View
Unique amongst the three theories, this one runs flat into the question of schism. Because they acknowledge Catholicism to be authentically Christian, they have to account for resisting full union from Her. After all, from a strictly historical perspective, the Reformers are the divorcing party. They’re the ones who have to deal with the Biblical prohibition on divorce (or in this case, it’s analogue, schism). This is true particularly of those who leave Catholicism for one of the manifestations of Protestantism: I think that there will be many who grew up outside of the fullness of the Faith who loved God with all their heart, mind, and soul, and never gave two thoughts to why they weren’t Catholic, or who rejected a fun-house mirror distortion of the Catholic Faith.
But those who turn their backs on the Faith have to deal with passages like John 17:20-23, in which Christ prays for us to remain one (“completely one,” even). St. Paul pleads in Philippians 2:1-2 that if we “have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” In other words, not simply a unity of love, but a total unity, where we’re like-minded, pursuing the same goal. St. Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 3:8, where he commands us to “be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, being lovers of the brotherhood, merciful, modest, humble…” Finally, St. Paul gives us God’s view in 1 Corinthians 10:24-25, when he says that “God has so constructed the Body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the Body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.” Indeed, the KJV even reads “that there may be no schism in the body.” The first two camps had an excuse for their schism: they split from Rome because She wasn’t Christian. The third camp doesn’t have that excuse. They think Rome’s Christian, but mistaken on some issues. If that’s the standard, it’ll be hard to even find two or three to gather in His Name, since virtually no one (particularly when they’re interpreting the Bible individually) agrees 100% with one another. I think that schism is an under-mentioned danger for Christians, in this age of constant church-shopping. God takes it very seriously, modern denominations don’t. You choose.
It also runs into the same problems as the earlier theories, in that contrary to the passages mentioned from John’s Gospel (John 14:18 and John 14:26), this view holds that the Holy Spirit didn’t tell the successors to the Apostles quite everything that they needed to know, or protect them from all errors of Faith. But unlike the first two theories, this one doesn’t think that those errors are significant enough to threaten the Church’s status as Christian.
Of course, some errors aren’t enough to threaten one’s status as Christian. But who gets to decide which ones do, and which ones don’t? Regarding individual judgment, that’s a domain for which God alone is responsible: we should refrain from declaring that anyone is definitively damned, and the only way that the Church can proclaim Saints in Heaven is through confirmation from God Himself through miracles. But who determines which issues are so vital that they can cost someone their Earthly membership in the Church? Well, Church leadership. Matthew 18:15-18 makes that pretty clear.
It’s an important power to have on Earth. The first-century Didache cites three valid forms of Baptism. The 21st-century Baptists claim that one of those (Baptism by pouring) doesn’t count. This is one of those issues where few Christians can imagine God saying, “You chose wrong, go to Hell.” And thus, these are issues where only a minority of Christians can imagine creating schism over. On the other hand, there are divisive issues where there is only one legitimate Christian view, and everyone else is wrong – and at least potentially, damnably so. Because of the stakes – on the one hand, you don’t want constant schism; on the other, you don’t want to abide heresy, or allow people to damn themselves – it’s important that we, as humans, know the non-negotiables. And yet, while almost every Protestant seems to agree with that notion, they can’t agree as to what those non-negotiables even are!
Here’s an imaginary dialogue Mark Shea constructed that parallels enough real-life ones that I’ve had that I found it too good to pass up presenting in whole:
Evangelical: You must not worship Mary!
Catholic: Relax. I don’t worship Mary.
Evangelical: Oh, but you do!
Catholic: Actually, I think I’m the only one qualified to make that call, aren’t I?
Evangelical: But it looks to me like you worship her! You pray to her and ask her to intercede for you, don’t you?
Catholic: Yes, I do like to talk to my mother about things. But I don’t worship her and I don’t think she’s God. She’s a creature, a fellow Christian (albeit the great one). How would you feel if I said, “You worship your barber! I know you do, because you sometimes ask him to pray for you?”
Evangelical: That’s totally different!
Catholic: Actually, it’s exactly the same. Which is why Scripture says don’t judge by appearances. If you’d just ask me rather than telling me, I’d be happy to tell you what I worship. I worship Jesus Christ fully present in the Holy Eucharist-body, blood, soul, and divinity.
Evangelical: I don’t think the Eucharist is Jesus’ body and blood, but simply a symbol. But let’s not argue over such fine points of theology as “transubstantiation”. We both celebrate Communion in our own ways. And that’s the important thing.
Catholic: Did you hear me? I said I fall down in worship and adoration before something that looks just like a piece of bread and a cup of wine. I say “Hosanna” to it. I adore it as the very God of the Universe! The Eucharist is my Lord and my God, my salvation, my life, the very source of my being!
Evangelical: Yes. I think that’s a bit overboard, but let’s not argue about it. You have your version of Communion and I have mine. Now: about Mary worship–don’t you see how incredibly dangerous it is for you to commit the grave sin of idolizing Mary….
Like I said, some errors aren’t enough to threaten one’s status as Christian. But in the case of Catholics, we worship what is either the Body and Blood of Christ, or a chunk of bread. If it’s Christ, we’re right, and every Protestant denomination is wrong, on the most important issue — still Christians, but Christians who answer one question very much incorrectly. If we’re wrong, though, we’re idolaters. We can’t even be considered Christians, and are universally damned, according to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ephesians 5:5, Revelation 21:8, and Revelation 22:15. So if a person adopts this third view, and says, “Catholics are idolaters, but they can still go to Heaven anyways,” what views do bar one from going to Heaven?
So the third view seems to leave us with the following claims: (a) we have a Church which is probably better than before, but probably still not what God wants; (b) we won’t ever have the perfect Church here on Earth [that is, we’ll never get all of the question right]; (c) in the name of Christian charity, we should overlook the fact that we think some Christians are, in fact, idolaters (or at the least, the fact that 1500 years of Christianity was in fact, all idolatry, doesn’t mean it wasn’t also Christianity).
Right for You, Wrong for Me?
Obviously, Catholics are fondest of the people who fall into this third camp, but I can’t say we really understand them. Are we really going to expand the title Christian so broadly that it covers everyone who worships what they think is Jesus, whether it’s really Him, or a piece of bread/Bread, or “the God within”? Is it any surprise that we’ve seen growing in this well-meaning camp a growing sense of moral relativism: a “right for you, wrong for me” attitude towards everything? After all, this seems for all the world to be the standard view on the Eucharist and other issues — put another way, a sane Protestant would consider it rank heresy and idolatry to worship something they were convinced was neither God nor even living; but that same worship is okay (or at least not enough to disqualify one as Christian) if it’s from one’s Catholic neighbor?
This “right for you, wrong for me” attitude, combined with the notion that the Church can always be more right on things than it is (and that no visible church possesses the whole Truth infallibly), creates fertile soil for moral relativism. After all, many a Christian suffers from homosexual tendencies. Sure, that’d be wrong for me to act upon, but for him… well, who am I to say? Besides, the most obvious passage damning it (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) damns idolatry in the same breath. Budge on one, why not budge on the other?
And if Catholics can worship bread and still be Christian, why can’t Oneness Pentecostals worship a non-Triune God, and still be Christian? After all, they still proclaim the name of Christ, still love God and try and serve Him, etc. Why not Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and perhaps Muslims (who, like Mormons, hold Christ in rather high esteem, despite not thinking of Him as uniquely God).
Hopefully, it’s clear from the sketch I’m trying to draw that Protestantism, by nature of its belief structure, must either take a view of Church history which contradicts Scripture (the first view), contradicts Scripture and all known history (the second view), or a view which leaves itself wide open for moral relativism.
EDIT: This is a multipart series. This is part three. Feel free to jump to part one, part two, or my conclusions.