I was reading an article on the Pope’s recent visit to America when I ignored every sensible piece of internet advice and scrolled down to read the comments. Aside from an atheist troll peppering the thread with nonsensical, boorish, or otherwise tangential broadsides, there were some rather lengthy exchanges about the level of disunity in Protestantism. Several commentators cited the fact that Protestantism has 33,000 denominations as evidence it is not being led by the Holy Spirit, and therefore, we should not be Protestant or follow sola Scriptura. Evidently, the level of division within Protestantism is clearly a sign it is a failed expression of Christianity.
The claim is deceptively simple. I think it plays on vague, broadly Christian assumptions about what is good and bad in faith and practice, but when you try to tease out just what is being argued here it gets rather difficult to prove.
I gather the argument goes something like this:
- Division is ungodly.
- Protestants are divided into 33,000 denominations.
- Therefore, Protestant ecclesiology is “unworkable” and/or “false.”
Or maybe it might go like this (which obviously assumes premise #1 from the first argument):
- The Church was united before Protestants began practicing sola Scriptura.
- Ever since sola Scriptura was invented, Protestants have continuously divided, and now there are over 33,000 denominations.
- Therefore, sola Scriptura is “unworkable” and/or “false.”
Now, the second argument strikes me as a simple post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy given historical and sociological changes over the past several centuries (which I will discuss below). But let me treat some of the issues with the first.
The 33,000 Statistic
The source of this rather high number is Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia. As far as I can tell, the methodology in Barrett’s work is such that each “denomination” is counted along organizational lines, not doctrinal lines. In other words, two Baptist churches in the same town that are virtually united in doctrine–same creeds, same practice of church discipline, etc.–would be counted as separate denominations simply because they are hierarchically independent of each other.
So baked into this argument are certain assumptions about what counts as ungodly disunity. The objection seems to be that Protestants are not organizationally united. But why assume that should be our standard? Barrett’s work is both informative and thorough, but it is neither inspired nor authoritative. In fact, the New Testament doesn’t define godly unity along organizational lines, so why should we? Consider Jesus’ remark in Luke 9:49-50 to the disciples upon discovering a miracle worker who wasn’t part of their organizational structure: “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” On Barrett’s methodology, this man would have counted as his own “denomination,” yet there is no indication Jesus frowned upon this sort of “division.” Quite the opposite. And Paul pointed out that though the Corinthians came together under one roof–one Apostolic organization–they were still divided.
What about Doctrinal Division?
Now, let’s say an interlocutor wants to refine his objection. He acknowledges the difficulty with citing the unqualified number: he says the New Testament does seem to care more about unity of ideas than unity of organization. But surely there are some major doctrinal divisions present within Protestantism. Just look at all the differences over baptism, elders, and eschatology! Doesn’t this mean Protestantism is unworkable or false?
First I would want to know what is meant by Protestantism. Whole swarms of people claim to be Protestant, yet it is clear that not everyone who calls themselves a Protestant would even count as a Christian. Unitarians, Mormons, and Jehovah Witnesses seem to count as “Protestant,” but is there any reason to think they are Christian? They deny core tenants of the historic creeds.
The trouble is where to draw the line for the evaluation. For example, I would consider myself somewhere in the Evangelical spectrum of theology. Should I evaluate sola Scriptura by the doctrinal division among Evangelicals? Yet even this is subject to important qualifications. Evangelicals are divided on many issues, but the number of contentious issues becomes increasingly smaller as you move from merely self-identified Evangelicals to those who actually believe the tenants of traditional Evangelicalism. As the devastating Barna Survey demonstrated, some self-professed Evangelicals have not even “accepted Christ as their savior.” Surely Protestants cannot be held accountable for non-Christians who merely claim to be Evangelicals because of social or historical expectations.
Perhaps the idea is that we should compare one organizationally united denomination with another organizationally united denomination. Now, to be frank, those are terms I’ll accept simply to prove a point. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I am fairly confident my fairly small, culturally homogeneous denomination is united in matters of doctrine far more than the billion or so Catholics in the world.
Of course, this entire exercise assumes the presence of doctrinal division at any level–personal or structural–should automatically rule out an entire movement as deficient enough to abandon. Not only would that standard invalidate virtually every New Testament church that Paul wrote to, that is not the standard by which God judges a church to be true or false.
Many denominations are rather united in their belief systems, but since when was internal consistency the standard by which we judged something true or not? That would make cults, especially the kind where you are punished for violating “orthodoxy,” some of the most virtuous expressions of faith in the world.
Aside from the muddled thinking, there are sociological reasons to dismiss this line of argument.
Ascribing to Protestantism the Difficulties of Modernity
The assertion that sola Scriptura is to blame for Christian division (organizational or doctrinal) fails to account for the many causes of division in the modern world. These include forces that negatively affect Catholicism.
A great deal of the persistent, modern organizational disunity can be blamed on the invention of the automobile and the modernist conceit that we are free to determine meaning for ourselves. (My claims here are confined mostly to the West. I can’t speak to trends in African Protestant Christianity, for example, although I would note that organizational division in China is almost entirely due to ruthless state persecution. It has nothing to do with the Chinese church’s rule of faith.) Unlike the rural past, violating church discipline is no longer a choice that imposes enormous social (and sometimes physical) costs. In previous centuries, you could not just switch churches when the minister’s sermons bored you or otherwise haunted your conscience as you violated choice commandments throughout the week. You would be lucky to have more than one church in your community, and skipping town in a traditionalist culture where people were not apt to trust foreigners or strangers would risk your entire livelihood and sense of self-worth.
But today it is a simple matter for a Christian offended by long sermons and ineffectual community leaders to get in his car and drive away with hardly a material consequence. (He can then drive to the next area church and complain about how awful his previous church was.) All of these movements in and out of churches can cause all sorts of doctrinal confusion, and this is exacerbated in the age of internet communications and the exceptional decline in trust for authority figures and institutions.
Multiculturalism, Language, and American Christianity
There are other causes of organizational and doctrinal division. One of them is simply that Christianity has exploded into many different cultures. A lot of the Catholic apologetic on division draws from a somewhat mythological or anachronistic view of Christianity that was fairly unrepresentative of most Christians in the ancient and medieval eras. Our written Christian documents come from educated, mostly European elites who spoke Latin and lived in a world where the power of the state worked hand in hand with the power of the church. It shouldn’t be surprising that there was demographic and ideological unity among those who represented the church, especially given the extent of illiteracy before the modern era–most of the people with dissenting views simply had no way of recording or disseminating their doctrinal beliefs. With increasing language and cultural barriers, increasing geographical distances between Christians, and the explosion of the absolute number of Christians living in the world, it is only natural that we’ve seen a significant increase in organizational disunity among Protestants (and all Christians).
There is also a distinctly American aspect to organizational division, which Catholics feel too. As sociologist Stephen Warner explains:
Nonetheless, in American popular imagination, the congregational ideal retains great sway. Because direct governmental financial support of religious institutions is ruled out by the separation of church and state, churches had to raise their own funds and arrange for the maintenance of their properties and programs. The resulting profusion of religious volunteerism in American civil society easily suggested to those millions of volunteers–bricklayers, cooks, quilters, Sunday school teachers, ushers, deacons, and tithers–that the church they support belongs to them. Pastors in all American denominations often find themselves in the position of reminding their lay councils that the church belongs to God.
Thus a popular spirit of “de-facto congregationalism” pervades U.S. Protestant churches. A local congregation may choose a hymnal or Sunday school curriculum produced by an independent publishers over the one prescribed by their denomination. They may feel entitled to call clergy of their own liking, in defiance of, or skirting on the edge of, the rules set forth by the bishop, synod, or presbytery. They may divert their financial support away from the denomination toward a parachurch agency, toward a social movement organization, or toward some local need.
De-facto congregationalism has liberalizing and conservatizing effects. Over the past forty years, when liberal denominations decided it was time to ordain women, local congregations could take advantage of complicated call procedures to drag their feet on hiring women clergy. In the past twenty years, many liberal congregations tried, and some succeeded, in ordaining gays and lesbians to clergy or governing council status in defiance of denominational proscriptions. When some denominations changed those very proscriptions, other, more conservative congregations pulled out. Given the complex history of property deeds and the decentralization of America’s common law system, they may eventually succeed in taking their property with them. De-facto congregationalism appeals to both sides of current political divides.
Roman Catholics are not immune to these forces either:
Moreover, the spirit of de facto congregationalism is not confined to Protestant churches. It appeals to many American Catholics with respect to their parishes. Not that any parish as a body could easily leave the Church, but that the diocese’s plans to replace a beloved parish pastor, to merge parochial schools, or to close parishes often meet with stiff, sometimes successful, resistance from parishioners organized for the purpose. Moreover, the U.S. Catholic church is being partly reshaped by the appeal of the congregational notion that the local church is an assembly of like-minded believers rather than the faithful who live within diocesan-defined geographical boundaries. So “magnet parishes” that serve one or another constituency within the church–social justice, LGBT-friendly, family-friendly, high liturgical, ethnic–proliferate in U.S. metropolitan dioceses.
So far, this much should be clear. Although it has deep roots in the Puritan strain of American Protestantism, de facto congregationalism is neither confined to Protestant churches nor is it necessarily an expression of the normative ideals of all of them. It defies episcopal and presbyterian norms. Instead, de facto congregationalism is an expression of the religious side of American civic culture.
When Catholics blame 33,000 denominations on the Protestant idea of sola Scriptura, they paper over the rather incredible technological, sociological, and demographic shifts of the last several centuries. It is simply an exercise in historical ignorance to assume these forces are not to blame for much of the organizational and doctrinal disunity in modern, Western Christianity. Short of punishing heresy with death and becoming antidisestablishmentarian, how does a church avoid these effects in an era of religious freedom? If the expectation is that a truly faithful church will avoid splintering, since Jesus promised unity in his Church, then it is safe to say American Catholicism is not a truly faithful church either.
In fact, to see how absurd this argument is, let us just turn it around completely: we might as well say the millions of Christians leaving the Catholic denomination over the years is due to the failings of the Magisterium, and, therefore, we should no longer organize the Catholic Church under a council of bishops led by the Pope. In fact, people are leaving Roman Catholicism in droves because of its doctrinal stances, but that doesn’t tell us whether Roman Catholicism’s organizational structure or doctrinal beliefs are true or false.
I don’t find the 33,000 denominations argument very persuasive. Perhaps it can be salvaged, but it’s hard to see how it can overcome its methodological, exegetical, and sociological shortcomings. Maybe someone else is up to the task?