A bold summons to unity
The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church
Author: Peter J. Leithart
Publisher: Brazos Press (www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/brazospress)
God’s Purpose & Vision was the title of a series of sermons preached at the non-denominational evangelical church I attended as a young Christian. It became a popular cassette tape package and book.
God’s purpose is for his people to glorify him through the accomplishment of a three-fold vision: being conformed into the image of Christ, evangelizing the world, and attaining to the unity of the faith. Much of the teaching that I have received over the years fits within this framework. Probably the most under-served category—perhaps because of the challenge of implementation—is teaching on the unity of the faith.
Since I first heard these concepts in the late 70s, the church is more divided than ever. Even then without necessarily saying it, many of us seemed to regard our church as superior to the ones around us. I wonder if at least subconsciously that is how many of us feel about the groups that we attend. That type of thinking does not foster unity.
Somewhere along the way I was taught that there is an invisible unity in the body of Christ, consisting of all true believers, regardless of their church affiliation. Leithart attacks that idea along with a host of related thoughts in The End of Protestantism. Right from the start, he boldly challenges the status quo: “Jesus wants his church to be one. But we are not” (3). Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17 is the foundation to all that he writes, and he never tries to make it mean anything less than a visible unity to a watching world.
This is an exhortation to move towards what the author terms a “Reformational Catholicism” (6). Catholic, of course, is used in the broadest sense: “the beliefs and practices of Christian churches that understand and describe themselves as being Catholic within the universal and apostolic church” (Wikipedia). This is Bonhoeffer’s “come and die” call to discipleship expressed in relation to the church. “We are called by our crucified Lord to die to what we are now so that we may become what will be” (7).
In sharing his vision the author orchestrates four movements. The first describes what the church of the future will look like. It dares to describe an entity that “expresses a biblical and Reformational” outlook. What Leithart sees is a “product of speculation and imagination, rooted … in Scripture and, to a lesser degree, in the church’s tradition” (26). He admits that he cannot know in detail what will be, nor how we will get there. “One thing we can know is that it will not be a mere continuation of any of today's churches” (26). It will be biblical but also sacramental and liturgical, and plenty more. Those in non-liturgical churches may find it hard to accept some of these elements. Just as others will be uncomfortable with what isn’t familiar to them, but this is where death to self is needed.
The second movement is a sweeping overview of denominational Christianity in the US. The case is made for and against its development. The verdict is obvious: “Whatever its accomplishments, denominationalism is an obstacle to the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer for unity” (89).
After viewing the fundamental flaws in denominationalism whose end must come, Leithart takes readers on a historical survey showing how God continually tears down what becomes deficient and replaces it with something better. Applying this to the topics at hand: “Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church. The names we now bear cannot be our final names” (114).
Even though I may be unsure about some of Leithart’s conclusions, I appreciate his thorough mastery of history and where we are today. This is an excellent resource on all things pertaining to unity. I don’t know of anything like it.
The third movement highlights how God is remaking the global church while the American denominational system is collapsing. He argues that this is an opening for implementing the vision that he lays out in the book.
Lastly, he offers guidelines to theologians, pastors, and lay Christians who want to move toward what will ultimately be a reunion. This is practical enough for anyone to benefit, if they are willing to take the steps. Even so, as we do what we can now, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers a helpful perspective:
It is important [to realize] that we cannot bring about unity in the church by diplomatic maneuvers. The result would only be a diplomatic structure base on human principles. Instead, we must open ourselves more and more to [Christ]. The unity he brings about is the only true unity. Anything else is a political construction, which is as transitory as all political constructions are. This is the more difficult way, for in political maneuvers people themselves are active and believe they can achieve something. We must wait on the Lord, that he will give us unity—and of course we must go to meet him by cleansing our hearts (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, 77).
This reminds me of another obstacle to unity that Leithart touches on, namely, equating the church with politics. He writes, “Reformational Catholicism implies that the most basic political base for the Christian is the church. The church, not America or its interests, is the international context for evaluating and responding to global political events” (190). He is against mingling patriotism with the church.
A friend has written of a bold Christianity that challenges traditional thought. That comes to mind when I think of how this book addresses unity. The standard has been too low. Here is a man taking God at His word. He happily demolishes strongholds in the hope of something better. He imparts the vision and gives ways to run with it.
His lodestar is unchanging: Christ prayed for unity. How can it be otherwise?