October 22, 2017

The “Happy Enough” Protestant

happy-baby.pngI would like to invite Internet Monk readers to write a brief response to this post. I am particularly interested in what makes you a “happy enough” Protestant. (Please read the post and get the idea first.) Your response should be expressed in the spirit of this post. If they are short, put them in the comment thread. If they are longer, well written and well edited, email them to me and I may post some of them as IM posts in this series.

Because I’ve been wrestling with Protestant/Catholic issues throughout this past year, I receive a lot of email from those who have moved outside of their lifelong evangelicalism and somewhere within sight of the catholic tradition, if not the Roman Catholic church.

Some of that mail takes me to blogs and the writing of people who are in a tortured state of mind and heart. Some are ministers strongly drawn to Roman Catholicism. They have read Hahn and Howard. They are listening to The Coming Home Network on EWTN. They are tired of evangelicalism’s circus atmosphere, its deficits and its many problems.

The unity, antiquity and beauty of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy stand in stark contrast to the divisions, innovations and shallowness of evangelicalism. I have no problem understanding this attraction. It seems that Luther made a terrible mistake, and every person who “goes home” can take satisfaction in healing that historically disastrous and unnecessary rift.

When you are reading those books and thinking about the many strong suits of Catholicism, it’s hard to feel good about being a Protestant. A recent “Coming Home to the Roman Catholic” church television ad recited so many wonderful things about Roman Catholicism- without a hint of the other side of the coin- that it was difficult to see why anyone would want to remain a Protestant.

But there is a different way to approach this situation than the back and forth of pleading apologetic arguments, collections of verses or authority claims. Without insult to any Roman Catholic or criticism of anyone who has converted or will convert in the future, I want to say some things to the rest of us.

The rest of us? Yes, those of us who are Protestant and will remain Protestant for the rest of our lives. Not because we are angry, but because we are “happy enough” to be Protestant.

We have varying feelings about Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the various divisions in Christianity, but we are not going to change our place as Protestants and evangelicals. We have deep respect and appreciation for the antiquity of these Christian traditions, and we have abandoned the idea that we are able to understand evangelicalism without them. But we are not changing churches because we believe we are part of the church.

We believe that the churches we have grown up in, the churches that we have served and that have served and nurtured us, are the churches God himself sovereignly brought us into. The debate about “what is the true church?” is not a compelling one for us, because we believe that all of us who belong to Christ are joined with him in his church.

Phrases about ecclesial bodies or less than fully communing churches are not heard by us in the same way they are heard by those who have a Roman Catholic view of the church. These are our churches and we love them. They have given Christ to us and many of us have given our lives in service and devotion to them. Unlike some of our brothers and sisters, we do not want to leave our Protestant churches behind, but we want to see the presence of Christ among his people in them more deeply manifested and demonstrated. We are “happy enough” to be embraced by imperfect Protestant churches and people as we make our pilgrim journey.

We love our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, and respect the godly spiritual leaders and Biblical voices within those traditions. We are embarrassed by much of the anti-Catholicism that exists in evangelicalism, though we understand it as we understand the anti-Protestantism that exists within some of the Roman Catholic community.

We are “Happy Enough” Protestants. A strange title, I know, but an important one. We are happy enough as Protestants to remain Protestants, and we are happy to be protestant. We seek to practice a kind of Protestantism that is not characterized by unrest, anxiety and anger in relations with Catholicism. Our goal, in simple terms, is to be happy to be Protestant because we are happy in Christ and the Gospel that we find in Protestantism, even with all its flaws.

We are not seeking to evangelize Roman Catholics or to sell our churches as superior. We regret the rhetoric that commodifies church and Christian experience to “mine is better than yours.” We seek, instead, to embody what Paul so often talked about in his letters: Joy in Christ in the midst of a historically imperfect church.

We regret that for many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, it has not been possible to be Protestant and be faithful to Christ or happy in the church. We may have found this difficult and discouraging at times, but we have not found it impossible. We believe our Protestant experience can be filled with Christ, the legacy of the whole church and the distinctives of both evangelicalism and catholicism.

We are “Happy Enough Protestants” because we believe that God, in his providence, called us to this part of his one, holy, catholic and apostolic body/church. We accept, even celebrate, his providence in allowing us to hear the Gospel clearly and simply in Protestantism, to be taught in its churches and schools, allowed to serve in its ministries, sit at the feel of its scholars and pastors, be inspired by its mission’s legacy, learn from its saints, be challenged by its openness to the Spirit and renewed by its ability to return, again and again, to the Bible for authority, nurture and truth.

We recognize the checkered, broken past of Protestantism, but we are happy in much of what we find in that past. We believe that though they were sinners, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, Whitefield, Cramner, the Puritans, Spurgeon, Asbury, Ryle, The Baptists, Edwards and many other Protestant lights were called and gifted of God for the building up of his church and the equipping of his saints. We believe that within the Protestant tradition, God continues to call, equip, build, empower and demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom through his people.

We are “happy enough” to not despise ourselves or torture ourselves over what is missing in our tradition. We will, in a joyous spirit, work for restoration and the strengthening of the church. We pray that the work of the Spirit will unite all churches with the riches of Christ, but we believe those riches are accessible to us all by grace through faith and in the humble reception of the word of God.

We are “happy enough” to rejoice in the many statements of gracious inclusion and respect that have been offered in the ecumenical spirit, most particularly by the Roman Catholic church in Vatican II. But we are also “happy enough” to say we view the reformation as those who have benefited from it, and feel the responsibility to treasure and protect what was good and continually necessary in it. We believe that a tragic necessity need not remove all joy and mutual affection, nor abrogate the presence of all that is of value. We are determined in generosity and charity, to not allow all that the Reformation recovered to vanish in debates about authority and antiquity. God has sovereignly and graciously been at work in Protestantism, as well as in all Christian traditions.

In a spirit of mutual respect, we intend to be “happy enough” to tell the truth. As we repent of much in our tradition and as we see what is valuable in other traditions, we are unapologetic that much in our tradition exists more robustly and helpfully in Protestantism than elsewhere. It serves no good purpose to ignore the participation of laity, the starting of new churches, the extent of theological education, the use of congregational music, the depth of rigorous scholarship, the faithfulness in persecution, the emphasis on reform, the use of innovation in ministry or the healthy focus on personal evangelism. We will be “happy enough” to say these Protestant legacies are not to be abandoned or minimized, but should be gifts to the whole church.

At the points of our greatest disagreements, over authority, sacraments and justification, it is our prayer that we will all be “happy” in our convictions, and that should we find ourselves speaking over the greatest points of our separation, we will now have no agenda beyond living in the fruit of a joyful, “happy” experience of the truth. That someone should disagree with us should not send us into a tailspin of uncertainty or an attack-mode of anxiety. We are determined to be “happy enough” to speak of our convictions positively, winsomely and certainly without embarrassment before other Christians

I believe there are likely thousands of us who are “happy enough” Protestants and will remain so throughout our lives. We are not preparing to go to Rome, nor are we asking Rome to become Protestant. Our conversations should not be dominated by such an agenda and we repent of those occasions when such has been the case. We seek the day we can recognize Christ in one another, stand in the church of Jesus on both sides of the Tiber (and elsewhere) and be grateful to God for what he has done and what we all appreciate in our varying and various traditions. May all of us grow in the grace and goodness of Jesus and the mission of his people.

Comments

  1. Thank you Martin Luther for showing me that I don’t need to have a pope or bishops ordained in historic succession to be a Christian. And thanks for showing me that my belief in Christ is enough to keep me out of Hell and or purgatory. Thanks for showing me that I don’t have to be perfect, that I can be overweight, that I can be a real sinner in every sense of the word, and still be a Christian.
    Thanks for dusting off the letters of Paul that put Christ and His work central and showed our works to be nothing but filthy rags when it comes to our justification before the Lord.
    Thanks very much for helping to make me “a happy Protestant”.

    – A real, live, and happy sinner (I’m not happy about my sin – just happy that I am a one…for isn’t that who He came for?)

  2. Perhaps this is the ‘historical accuracy’ we need to recall:

    “For nearly half a century, the church was split into two or three obediences that ex-communicated one another, so that every catholic lived under ex-communication by one pope or another and in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which one had right on his side. The church no longer offered certainty of salvation. She had become questionable in her whole objective form. The true church, the true pledge of salvation HAD TO BE SOUGHT OUTSIDE the institution.

    It is against this back-drop of a profoundly shaken ecclesial consciousness that we are to understand that Luther, in the conflict between in his search for salvation and the tradition of the church ultimately came to experience the church not as the guarantor but as the adversary of salvation”.

    Historical assessment of the reason for the reformation by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
    (now Pope Benedict XVI).

  3. Cynic Sage, the Luther movie ends shortly after the publication Augsburg Confession in 1530. The old, fat Luther is the Luther of roughly a decade later. On the Jews was published near the end of his life (and was a relgious rather than racial diatribe–Luther was an “anti-Semite” in exactly the same way that he was an “anti-Anabaptist”), and you won’t find any really titillating stuff in those years.

  4. Here’s some thoughts I had on why we oughtn’t become Catholic a couple of months ago (III is best):

    http://colinclout12.blogspot.com/search?q=remaining+protestant

  5. Roger du Barry says:

    The Reformation was a protest against the innovations of the Pope, not all things prior to it. It saw itself as a RETURN to the ancient traditions and teaching.

  6. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

    I love Catholicism. I love looking at the early church and seeing a primitive version of the Catholic Church, with liturgy, bishops, Eucharist, etc. I love doctrine rooted in history, Bishops whose successors can be traced back to Apostles, and a “Rock” with the keys whose successor is still with us today. But, I’m not Catholic.

    I don’t love Protestantism like I love Catholicism. But I’m happy with it. Well … happy enough. I know I can’t be a “Cafeteria Catholic.” (No offense to those that are). For me, if you reject Church authority, then you’re essentially a Protestant. Once you realize that you are a Protestant, then the real work begins. What doctrines am I going to keep? Reject as unbiblical? Why did so many really smart literate early Christians belief “X”, if “X” is clearly unbiblical? Am I a Calvinist? If so, 4 or 5 points?

    Even in the Protestant community, there is a tendency to cling to one’s beliefs like they are infallible. Likewise, it’s easy for Calvin, Luther, or your pastor become “pope like” and questioning them can be sacrilege. Which, if you ask me, kinda defeats the purpose of being a Protestant in the first place.

    I’m a “happy enough Protestant” because being Protestant is a realization that the church itself, its individual denominations, and even its doctrines, are fallible. It’s a realization that two intellectually honest people can disagree about what the Bible says, and God is not going to step in and give an absolute answer.

    Catholicism gives a system for salvation, and can point to the ECF’s and early Christian history to back it up. Protestantism tells me to be secure in my salvation, even though I can never be totally secure in its other doctrines (because the denominations disagree amongst themselves).

    So, I’m happy enough to be a Protestant. I’m happy to know I am saved. But not as happy as I would be if Protestantism was one big church, with the same liturgy, with beliefs that had been widely practiced for 2000 years, and with bishops that could be traced back to the first century.

  7. Wolf Paul says:

    I have held off commenting on this thread; for one thing I largely agreed with the description Michael gave in the initial post, for another, I didn’t want to “shoot from the hip” but think a bit longer about this, and finally, I am not on the verge of such a step anyway, so any comments would be a bit theoretical.

    However, I have just received my copy of “Towards Baptist Catholicity” by Steven Harmon, and there is something in his last chapter, “What keeps you from becoming Catholic” that resonates with me very much and bears spelling out here:

    Like Prof. Harmon, I don’t believe that Christians switching from one imperfect denomination to another, even if that other seems more in line with my present convictions, serves the cause of Christian unity. In the context of his book, recovering Baptist catholicity, as well as in the context of my own involvements in ministries of reconciliation between the various Christian traditions in my country, conversion or “reversion” to the R.C.C. would only serve to increase Evangelical suspicion of anyone who talks about a greater recognition of Tradition or a more sacramental understanding of the ordinances.

    Like Charley in an earlier comment, I also don’t believe in “Cafeteria Catholicism”, and since a “convert” or “revert” would have to explicitly declare their adherence to the complete package, I would have to go into this with a lot of reservations, and that would be a rather dishonest thing to do. (My reservations are not the proverbial ones about Mary, the saints, purgatory, the sacrificial character of the mass — all of these can be understood in ways I find acceptable — but rather a too formal and legalistic understanding of what God expects from us and deals with us as believers and as His church, i.e. viewing the succession of laying on of hands as more important than actually teaching the Apostel’s doctrine, viewing the large masses of baptized Catholics who have no idea what being a Christ-follower is as part of the Church while declaring that the Baptists, for example, are not a church in the proper sense, the “ex opere operato” view of teh sacraments which to me is not far removed from a magical understanding, etc.)

  8. Amen!!!!!

  9. “How is it that in a world where all that is real is a particular and individual thing, the human mind is able to distribute the manifold of reality into classes, in which particular things are contained?” Etienne Gilson, from The Unity of Philosophical Experience

    And how is it, after Babel and after Pentecost, we still are so intent about us making us a name for ourselves, much less us making taller-than-thou towers in the sky? That the world may know… what? That we are not One.

    Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist – it’s all confounded language. Every word of it, every qualifying adjective and adverb, every shibboleth one can think of, confound it. It’s the Great Confusion – Christian Babylon.

    Nevertheless and even so it’s still all in His Name and for His Glory. Which is as close to happy or content this bothered and bewildered pilgrim and self-confessed stranger hopes to get to in this weird world. Be that as it may, I still run to the little towers (any port in a storm), and every time and in each and every one I’ve found myself in excellent company. Which again is close. Maybe closest. I’ll always remember with fondness their names. But not so much their social categories. It just doesn’t matter.

    Sorry to be a wet blanket, but here I stand. I can’t in good faith make any other claim. For myself or anyone else, near as I can tell.

    Even so, come Holy Spirit. Lord have mercy on us all.

  10. Hearing the absolution of my sins gives me joy. Receiving the body and blood of my Lord at the communion rail with my congregation raising an Easter hymn to the rafters (and the heavens) gives me joy! But I, too, am “just” Happy Enough in my chosen strain of Protestant Christian faith. This has nothing to do with the “joy of my salvation.” An older blog or an archived article included a discussion about seeking the perfect church being the fastest way to discontent with your own church. Part of what I appreciate about this blog is the recognition from most writers that their chosen church is flawed but adequate. I appreciate the voices of many Protestant faith traditions on this blog and their willingness (mostly) to drop the hatchet and discuss issues without feeling the need to promote their denomination as the one and only “true Christian religion.”
    All this, of course with the exception of a few posts – this time it was Cynic Sage: What’s with the acerbic Luther bashing? There’s always been an acknowlegement from Michael that Luther and the other reformers were flawed human beings, but that doesn’t minimize the gifts God bequeathed the church through them. Thankfully, God still is able to use flawed people!
    And, lastly, it was nice, and not especially surprising, to see some Lutheran voices speaking up on this topic (did you see that one coming?). I sense Michael has little patience for petty denominationalism, and I have a laundry list of LC-MS issues, but I agree with a few earlier posts that confessional Lutherans have a bit of the best of both Protestant and Catholic worlds. I have to admit that before researching the evangelical movement I had no idea that there was such a rangle of beliefs within the protestant church(blame that on my parochialism.) Sometimes on this blog I don’t even recognize my church in the way the Protestant church is identified. My Protestant background was a world away from MichaelSpencer’s Protestant background. I sometimes feel it would be helpful (without creating too much division) to put the confessional, liturgical, (I’d add sacramental but that will probably get me into trouble!)Protestant churches in their own category. Anyway, it was good to read in the posts that some have found a happy enough Protestant place in the Lutheran clarity on the doctrines of justification and sanctification and in a church that values a liturgical framework for worship as the best way to clearly and consistently communicate God’s precious word (for now, and in most quarters – I’ll resist my rant on the rapid descent of much of the LC-MS into vapid theologies of church growth since this is, after all, about being happy enough!).

  11. Patricia says:

    Thank you for writing this post!!! I grew up Catholic, taught CCD for a number of years, and was part of a wonderful community (that is no longer).

    I now attend a evangelical church with my husband and kids but I still consider myself more Catholic than evangelical. I like I started attending because it’s easier on my family. I feel like I don’t really belong to either, just sort of in between both. There still times I think I still want to go back. Your blog is so encouraging to me. I can be a “happy enough” Protestant!

  12. I want to thank you for this post. I got an email last night with a link to this piece; and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time!
    After a divorce, I recently returned to my hometown and was trying to decide where to attend church. Both Catholicism and Lutheranism was looking more and more attractive from the Baptist side of the fence and I was debating making the jump. So the cogent thoughts presented here spoke to a lot of the indecision I’d been experiencing, and this morning I returned to the Baptist church I’d attended when living here before. I’m more than just happy enough.