One of the most significant and distinctive Protestant beliefs concerns the nature of the church. As we saw earlier, the medieval church in western Europe offered a strongly institutionalized account of how salvation was effected. There was no salvation outside the institution of the church; it was by membership in the sacral community and observation of its rites that the individual secured salvation. Continuity with the apostles was safeguarded by historical institutional continuity, which was transmitted by the laying on of hands and passed down from one generation of the successors of the apostles to the next. This strongly institutionalized vision of the church was often defended by citing a maxim of the third-century martyr Cyprian of Carthage: "Outside the church, there is no salvation." Anyone who wanted to be saved had to belong to the Catholic church.
The detachment of the fledgling Protestant churches from this body was thus fraught with theological peril. Were these breakaway communities really Christian churches? Could they offer the same salvation and spiritual security as the Catholic church? These were no academic questions, but matters of ultimate significance. Salvation was a serious matter in the sixteenth century.
The Protestant response to these entirely proper questions was to offer a new vision of what it meant to be a "Christian church." As we shall see, the new theory removed any necessity for institutional continuity with the medieval church. It opened the way for the radical proliferation of "churches" in the modern period by laying the conceptual foundations for a way of thinking about the nature of the church that encouraged entrepreneurs to set up their own churches, breaking away from older communities if necessary. To understand Protestant theorizing about the church is to gain insights into the remarkable ecclesiasti cal diversification and fragmentation that subsequently took place throughout the West.
For the mainline reformers, there were two—and only two—essential elements of a Christian church: the preaching of the word of God and the proper administration of the sacraments. As Calvin put it:
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and listened to, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, it is in no way to be doubted that a church of God exists. For his promise cannot fail: "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20).14
Calvin's definition is significant as much for what it does not say as for what it does explicitly affirm. There is no reference to the necessity of any historical or institutional continuity with the apostles. For Calvin, it was more important to teach what the apostles taught than to be able to show an unbroken line of institutional continuity with them. (It should be remembered here that Calvin himself was never ordained; he was simply licensed as a pastor by the city council of Geneva.) After all, does institutional continuity guarantee intellectual fidelity? For Calvin, the Catholic church had suffered from institutional drift and lost its grounding in the fundamental ideas of the apostles—which were, of course, expressed in the Bible.
This radical new understanding of the church in effect envisaged the church as a community that gathers around the preaching of the word of God and celebrates and proclaims the gospel through the sacraments. Where the gospel is truly preached, there a church will gather. Protestant theologians, sensitive to the charge that this new approach represented a distortion of a proper theology of the church, pointed to a classic statement of the first-century Christian writer Ignatius of Antioch: "Wherever Christ is, there is also the church (ubi Christus ibi ecclesia)." Gathering together in the name of Christ ensures his pres-ence—and with that presence, a church comes into being.
Although this distinctive and characteristic Protestant doctrine of the church dates from the early 1500s, its full significance only became clear in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With no universally accepted authority structure within Protestantism, enterprising individuals, often fired up by a vision of a specific form of ministry, could start their own congregations, or even their own denominations. It is certainly true that many Protestant churches moved quickly to establish authority structures that embodied their specific visions of Protestantism, thus exercising control over their ministers and members. But the very nature of Protestantism is such that these can only hope to define specific forms of Protestantism, not Protestantism itself. Individuals might break away from parent churches or start new churches altogether.
Sometimes a movement's strength is also its weakness, and vice versa. This distinctive aspect of Protestant identity holds the key to understanding the proliferation of churches, the fragmentation of denominations, and the inflation of church networks that is so characteristic of modern Protestantism. Many would see this as a weakness. There might well be one universal church to which all Christians belong—but there are countless local churches, each embodying a distinctive idea of what it means to be a Christian.
The outcome of this doctrine was inevitable: a consumerist mentality developed as Protestants felt able to pick and choose the local church that suited their needs, beliefs, and aspirations. And if they didn't find one that was just right, they could establish their own. Catholic critics of Protestantism often point to its innate tendency toward schism, which they regard as showing a lack of concern for the fundamental unity of the church. While this congregational inflation is unquestionably problematic, it has two strengths, both of which are of decisive importance for the future of Protestantism.
First, it allows Protestantism to deal with rapid social and cultural change, which otherwise often leaves churches locked into the realities of a bygone age. Entrepreneurial pastors and preachers can easily recast a vision of the gospel, adapting it to the new situation—in much the same way as older visions were adapted to their situations—and thus preventing Protestantism from becoming trapped in a time warp. Willow Creek Community Church, located just outside of Chicago, is an excellent example of this kind of adaptation that was made possible and legitimate by the fluid Protestant understanding of the church. More particularly, this adaptability enables Protestants to respond to perceived needs for specialist ministries to specific groups through the formation of voluntary societies, which often come to exercise a para-church role.
Second, Protestant congregational variety enables Protestant churches to deal with situations in which the denominational leadership is seen to be radically out of touch with its membership—typically, by pursuing theological agendas or cultural trends that are not accepted by the majority of their congregations. It does not matter whether these agendas are right-wing or left-wing, conservative or liberal. Protestantism empowers the congregation, first, to protest against their leaders; second, to remove them; and third, to form another congregation elsewhere, while still remaining a Christian church. While some Protestant denominations attempt to shield themselves against such accountability to their membership, these fundamental rights remain, in principle, as part of the movement's core identity. One can leave one denomination and join another—while still remaining a Protestant.
It is not unfair to suggest that the Protestant vision of the church unleashes a Darwinian process of competition and survival in which maladapted churches are gradually eliminated and what survives is better suited to the needs and opportunities of the day. Using an essentially economic model, Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark argue that the European state churches have created a religious monopoly, leading to a radical restriction of religious options for its people. In marked contrast, the United States offers an open market of religious options, with none either sanctioned or restricted by the state.15 Commitment to organized religion is higher in countries such as the United States because religious pluralism encourages market responsiveness to the religious consumer. In Europe, they argue, the institutional churches have seen little purpose in identifying and meeting the needs of their parishioners.
If Iannaccone and Stark are right, Protestantism flourishes in the United States on account of open competition, which forces churches to take the needs and aspirations of their members seriously. In contrast, the privileged position of state churches in Europe has often led to the entrenchment of outdated approaches and attitudes, and above all a neglect of the religious consumer by leaders who are often wedded to the convenient certainties of the past. In America, competition encourages religious entrepreneurship and vitality. As Steve Bruce, professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, points out: "Freemarket capitalism explains why Americans are rich; free-market religion explains why Americans are church-going."16
Yet Protestants found themselves in disagreement about the church in the sixteenth century, and they remain in disagreement today. One particularly significant disagreement that pitted mainline reformers against their radical counterparts concerned whether the church was a "mixed body" or a "pure body." This controversy was also a replay of an earlier controversy involving Augustine of Hippo. In the fourth century, the Donatist movement began to raise fundamental questions about the identity of the church.17 Following a series of lapses on the part of Christian leaders in North Africa in response to Roman persecutions, questions began to be raised about the qualities required of Christian leaders and their congregations. The fourth-century Donatist movement—so named after Donatus, one of its early leaders—took a rigorist position, arguing that the church had every right to expect moral and doctrinal purity on the part of its members.18 The church was to be conceived as a "pure body."
Augustine took the view that human frailty was such that the church could not achieve such a goal in practice. He cited one of Jesus of Nazareth's parables to make his point. A farmer woke up one morning to find weeds growing in his field of wheat. Being unwilling to pull out the weeds, which would have damaged the wheat growing alongside them, he decided to wait until the harvest and then separate the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). For Augustine, that parable referred to the church: it was a "mixed body" of wheat and weeds, saints and sinners. Separation could wait until the final judgment.
The same controversy flared up during the early years of Protestantism. Luther and Calvin adopted Augustine's model of the church as a "mixed body." In his characteristically racy manner, Luther spiced up Augustine's imagery. Where Augustine spoke of "weeds among the wheat," Luther spoke of "mouse-droppings among the peppercorns." This intriguing image underlies an understanding of the church adapted to the realities of European politics of the sixteenth century, just as Augustine accounted for the Roman imperial situation of the late fourth century. The political realities of the western European situation in the sixteenth century called for state churches in some shape or form, especially as the phenomenon of confessionalization began to take root in the 1560s. A theory of the church that could not accommodate the requirement that a church engage positively yet critically with the state would have created serious difficulties for such a vision of Protestant Christendom.
Anabaptists and other radicals, however, held that this doctrine of the church represented a compromise with power and a loss of the defining vision of the gospel. Many Anabaptists saw the conversion of Constantine, who went on to become the first Christian Roman emperor, as a disaster. Christianity was disfigured and damaged by its collusion with power and status. When it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it lost its cutting edge and moral underpinnings.
Adopting something very similar to a Donatist understanding of the church, many Anabaptists insisted that the church should have no dealings with the corruption of political life. The swearing of oaths, the use of coercive force, the taking of life, and the authority of the magistrate were all sinful, worldly intrusions into the Christian life. The church should be separate from such pollution, untainted by the compromises of the world. The pacifism that was characteristic of Swiss humanism in the 1510s and 1520s came to be an integral element of Anabaptist thought, grounded in the New Testament's witness to Jesus of Nazareth. The clearest statement of the general Anabaptist attitude toward secular authority may be found in the "Schleitheim Confession" (1527), which taught that coercion has its place "outside the perfection of Christ"; inside the community of faith, physical force has no place. Christians should therefore not hold public office, since doing so would involve collusion with power and violence.
The Anabaptist concern for the doctrinal and moral purity of the church led to a corresponding emphasis on the importance of discipline within the church. Anabaptism maintained discipline in its communities through "the ban"—a means by which church members could be excluded from Anabaptist congregations. This means of discipline was regarded as essential to the identity of a true church. Part of the Anabaptist case for radical separation from the mainstream churches (a practice that continues to this day among Amish communities in the
United States) was the perceived failure of those churches to maintain proper discipline within their ranks.
These concerns were developed during the seventeenth century within Puritanism, in both England and North America. Richard Baxter laid considerable emphasis upon the importance of doctrinal and moral purity within the church and had no hesitation about devising disciplinary procedures to ensure that such purity was maintained.19
Underlying both the Anabaptist and Puritan vision of Protestantism was an idea that would come of age in a later era—the notion of the church primarily as a "fellowship of believers." Turning their backs on traditional hierarchical models of the church, both movements moved toward more participative, democratic models of church government in which individual congregations had the right to determine their own identity and future. Not only did this trend anticipate—some argue that it was an important factor in causing—the emergence of democracy at the political level, as in the American Revolution, but it bypassed the traditionally conservative ecclesiastical hierarchies, which were often locked into older ways of thinking and acting.
In the twentieth century, this approach began to accelerate, initially within North American Protestantism. The "congregationalization" of American Protestantism after the Second World War allowed entrepreneurial church leaders to develop new models of the church that were unimpeded by the restraining hand of an episcopacy or denominational hierarchy. As we shall see later, this proved to be a decisive factor in the reshaping of Protestantism at this time.
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