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Is This Really the End? A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, by Peter Leithart. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016, ix + 225 pages, $21.99.

In his new book on church unity, Peter Leithart adds to the burden of the local church. For starters, an average pastor has two sermons to prepare, meets with sick church members, comforts those grieving the death of loved ones, and counsels couples preparing for marriage. Your ordinary church member has a full-time job, family responsibilities, goes out to the weekly Bible study, and sometimes socializes with other church members. And now both church members and pastors will hear from Leithart in The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church that they are not doing enough. The church is divided, he complains, and Christians need to do more to overcome fragmentation.

What Leithart does not seem to notice is that local congregations are not necessarily united, nor are the denominations to which they belong. Not every church member shows up at the evening service. Some do not attend the Bible study. Others do not sign up to bring meals to families with new-born babies. And these believers attend churches that do not always support denominational activities, either by hosting missionaries on furlough, giving to denominational programs, or encouraging children away at college to attend a congregation of like faith and practice. In other words, Christians are divided not only between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, or between Protestants and Roman Catholics, or among the diversity of Protestant denominations and independent churches. Believers are divided in the ordinary parts of their lives. They do not live together. They do not dine together. Sometimes they do not even see another church member for an entire week. Is this situation fundamentally a betrayal of Christ’s plea for his followers to be united? Is it simply the way life is? Or should we think about church unity in a way that adjusts to these circumstances even if members of a local congregation sometimes appear to have less in common than the local chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars?

Leithart believes unity is important because the Bible teaches it. Oneness is a large theme in Christian theology, aside from Christ’s own call for his believers to be one. God is one even in the diversity of the Trinity. Salvation is about the creation of a single (one) humanity that follows the one true God. God’s plan in salvation, Leithart argues, is “to unify all tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples in Christ” (14). So too Paul calls Christians to unity of “mind, spirit, and confession” in Ephesians 4 (15). For Leithart this means that “invisible unity is not biblical unity.” “Visible division,” in fact, “is incompatible with the New Testament’s portrayal of the church” (21). At the same time, Leithart argues that ecclesiastical divisions have hurt the church’s proclamation of the gospel. “Nothing has so weakened our witness as tragic divisions,” he asserts. “Nothing has made the gospel so implausible, if not preposterous” (166). That sort of all-or-nothing phrasing punctuates the book and makes Leithart read like so many critics of a divided church—the well-meaning believers who love everybody against their critics who lack charity and harbor parochialism (or worse). This explains a lengthy part of the book about the liabilities of denominationalism and how these loyalties have prevented Western Christians from recognizing the vitality of the global church (indigenous churches in Asia, Africa, and South America).

What Leithart ignores is the actual division that existed in the New Testament, the substantial controversies between Judaizers and Paul, or among parties in the church at Corinth. Nor do we have a good conception in the New Testament of an organizational structure, such as Paul telling Timothy to send church planting reports to the elders at Ephesus. Leithart also fails to address the competition that occurred between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism after the Reformation and how this rivalry was partly responsible for the spread of Christian witness around the world. Sure, division has problems, but unity of the kind that Leithart idealizes remains abstract, almost impossible to conceive because it never existed.

To his credit, Leithart does conclude the book with some suggestions for pastors and church members at the local level. For instance, pastors should seek to observe the Lord’s Supper weekly as a way of embodying the unity of the church. He also recommends that pastors participate in (or start if need be) a local association of pastors. Overtime, Leithart wonders if such fellowship and cooperation could lead to a church of, say, Birmingham, Alabama, rather than having ten different congregations in that city with attachments to different denominations. But what about the unity of the church between Mobile, Alabama, and Birmingham? Leithart is silent about such regionalism. For church members Leithart recommends participating in local charity or political organizations with Christians from other churches, as well as cooperation on missions trips, not to mention prayers for unity. Again, most of these suggestions result (perhaps) in unity at the level of a city or town. What it means for a county, state, or nation is another question.

The problem of achieving unity at local, national, and international dimensions is precisely where this book fails. Leithart does not sufficiently attend to the way that denominations and ecumenical organizations facilitate church unity at levels that go beyond the resources of a local congregation or churches in a specific community. What if denominations are an effective way of marshaling unity at the national level? And what if the ecumenicity committees of denominations are fairly effective at establishing fraternity with churches in other parts of the world? What local congregation in North America has the resources and which officers have the time to travel to Uganda to establish ecumenical ties with congregations there?

That question, in fact, points to the largest problem in Leithart’s book—namely, to act as if existing social and political structures are simply background noise to biblical exegesis or theological argument on behalf of unity. In his own discussion of denominationalism and its inherent weaknesses, Leithart gives away his argument with the following admission, namely, that discussions of ecumenism or church polity “trade in abstractions” (57). Theologians, he complains, “treat the church as a self-standing entity, without any significant connection to the other institutions and social structures that surround it.” Without considering whether Leithart himself has done this, he goes on to concede:

Every church—Presbyterian, episcopal, or congregational—is part of an ecclesial meta-structure linked to a complex net of political, legal, economic, media, and other institutions. That network of nonchurch institutions affects the way that churches relate to one another and the way churches are internally organized. We cannot do justice to questions about denominationalism and Reformational Catholicism without paying attention to meta-governmental structures. (57)

The downside of this important and poignant observation is that denominationalism is precisely the sort of ecclesiology to emerge in modern liberal societies where ecclesiastical establishments no longer exist and liberal democratic governments protect freedom of religion. In the Roman Empire before Constantine, the dominant ecclesiology yielded important urban centers with bishops who gave coherence to church life. After Constantine, church and state became engaged in a delicate set of negotiations between the emperor’s official religion and the church’s spiritual mission. After the Reformation yet another form of ecclesiology emerged, one that scaled back Christendom from the general affirmations of Christian Europe to national expressions of Christian identity (what some historians call confessionalization). And after 1789 when modern governments began to disentangle church and state, another form of ecclesiology emerged. The point of noting these different iterations of ecclesiology is to recognize that believers and church officers have always heard and practiced Christ’s call for unity in the context of what Leithart calls meta-governmental structures. In which case, for Leithart’s call for unity to make sense, he doesn’t need vague advice about local congregations but a policy paper for political, business, and political structures that will make church unity plausible and possible. Without that, Leithart’s argument is as abstract as the ecclesiology he faults.

Without such a comprehensive proposal, we are left with the idea of church unity asserted in the Confession of Faith. The first paragraph of chapter twenty-five declares, “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof.” It may be too abstract an idea for Leithart since he wants unity to be not simply invisible but tangible. Yet, this ideal of unity has the advantage of uniting all believers, the living and the dead, from Abraham and Paul to J. Gresham Machen, my parents, and me. That seems like a fairly profound understanding of unity since it encompasses that great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us. Yes, it is abstract. That is the way of mysteries. But it is also amazing to ponder that we are united in Christ with believers who have finished the race and have passed into glory. Maybe it is just me, but that appears a much more profound conception of church unity than working with Methodist neighbors at the local Salvation Army to serve meals to the homeless.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, February 2017.

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