Protestantism trainwreck

Protestantism Trainwreck

There are probably more charitable ways to say this, but in my opinion, Protestantism is a slow trainwreck in progress. It was started by the heresies of Martin Luther 500 years ago and will not be complete until all the scattered pieces come to rest. As individual objects (denominations, synods, assemblies, churches) cartwheel across the landscape they continue to break apart into ever smaller pieces.

This is no reflection on Protestants. I know many, many who are outstanding examples of devotion to Christ. They are good people, go to church, study scripture and do their level best to live as the gospel teaches. I was one of them. Many people I dearly love still are.

As a general rule, Protestants are not protesting anything. Many, like me, were born and raised in a Protestant denomination. Like Catholics, they recall endless fond memories of religious milestones (baptisms, confirmations, marriages), religious education (Sunday school, vacation Bible school, confirmation classes), service (teachers, church council, ushers), fellowship (men/women groups, bake sales, charitable endeavors) and countless religious holidays reverently celebrated with family and friends. Their faith is an important part of their identity and they can not picture becoming Catholic any more than they could picture a gender change operation!

Yet, they are often unknowingly trapped by that same self-identity. They see their churches becoming increasingly fragmented. Many know something is wrong. Theoretically, they could spend a great deal of time studying history and writings of the early Church fathers with open hearts and minds. To do so however would invite a huge risk. IF they were to conclude they were not in Christ’s true Church, how would they tell their siblings, parents, relatives, and church friends? It is so much easier to not find out. Besides, even after such effort, one could assume (or at least hope) that they were just not understanding the evidence correctly.

From the moment Luther broke his solemn vows to God as an ordained Catholic priest, not only was the creation of Protestantism marked, but its slow self-destruction too. Like cells dividing generation after generation, so has the Protestant world. Substituting their personal views for the Church instituted by Jesus. Calvin, Wesley and a multitude of others followed Luther with their own adjustments to the faith creating new Protestant churches. Who were these men? Were they sent by God? Were they prophets? Which among them had the “new” truth? Are Lutherans right and Methodists wrong? Has Baptist truths somehow escaped Episcopalians? Can anyone explain the spectrum of beliefs in the Anglican Union? Is a least-common-denominator Unitarian approach the silver bullet?

Protestantism is often discussed as if it identifies a common theology. It does not. There are numerous Protestant denominations (some estimates say tens of thousands). The differences between even “mainstream” denominations mentioned above spans a huge range from the extremely progressive where freedom of individual belief is paramount to the very conservative. Those on the conservative side are much closer to Catholicism than they would probably admit than they are to many of their Protestant brethren.

The reason for so many denominations primarily boils down to a lack of true authority. Founded themselves in schism from the one true Church, new schisms form when opinions differ, as they inevitably do. There is no Magisterium – direct successors to the Apostles, forever protected by the Holy Spirit – to protect the faith. The splintering happens frequently along progressive / conservative lines within denominations. US Lutherans are typical and a good case study.

Lutheranism in the US is primarily represented by 3 synods: the ELCA, the LCMS and WELS. The ELCA is by far the largest having around twice as many members as the next largest (LCMS). It was formed through the merger of three smaller synods and has become more progressive over time. Matters of organization and faith are decided in national conventions of delegates drawn from member churches. As progressives steadily increased control, rules for who could be a delegate were established (60% must be lay people, 50% female, 10% minority, etc.) that diminished the voice of trained clergy.

For some time, the ELCA has had women pastors, privately active homosexual pastors, “open table” communion, pastor healthcare plans that fully fund abortion for any reason and official opposition to pro-marriage (1 man, 1 woman) laws. ELCA Lutherans put new proposals to a vote of delegates. There were contentious issues (as usual) in August 2009. Specifically to accept openly practicing homosexual pastors (if they are in a “long-term, loving, committed relationship”) and to bless homosexual unions (a precursor to full recognition of homosexual “marriages”). Conservatives pushed for a super-majority (two thirds) requirement for passage but were defeated so a simple democratic majority of mostly lay people would decide.

Central Lutheran Steeple

When debate began on the proposed sex statement affirming homosexual relationships, a rare and completely unpredicted tornado struck downtown Minneapolis where the convention was held. It ripped off part of the convention center roof, but even more amazing is what happened to Central Lutheran Church directly across the street. That church had earlier hosted the homosexual lobby’s worship services. The tornado actually knocked the cross over on their steeple. This did not deter the vote which passed the proposal reportedly by 66.6%. Many observers did not dismiss these signs as coincidences.

The progressives won and there is no turning back. Conservatives will slowly melt away, strengthening the hand of the progressives at all levels. At the time of the vote, Dr. Michael Root, a well respected Lutheran theologian and Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC (and dean thereof from 2003 through 2009) wrote in part:

There is much talk about unity in the ELCA. We need to be honest and also theologically sensitive to new possibilities of maintaining what unity we can. On the one hand, unity as it has existed in the ELCA is no longer possible (and perhaps has not existed for a while). The shared sense of law and gospel that communion requires is gone. I believe that must be said and said clearly.

Pushed from their Lutheran self-identity and with the scales fallen from their eyes to really see Catholicism, many will feel pulled by the Holy Spirit to the Church. That was my case. Others are intellectually led to the Catholic Church through study and research. It is surprisingly common for Protestant clergy to convert. In doing so they must make serious sacrifices. The Coming Home Network lay apostolate reaches out specifically to non-Catholic clergy.

To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant.

Cardinal John Henry Newman (convert)

In my earlier post on Married priests, I featured aspect a picture of Father Tom McMichael and his wife Karin, but not his story. From the Archdiocese of Seattle website:

Reflecting last week on that process, he stressed that his years as a Lutheran pastor were a positive experience. But he said he felt a “pull towards the Catholic Church” and a “push” out of the Lutheran Church.

It was not the same Lutheran Church he had grown up in and trained for, he said. He and other pastors were becoming dismayed with the direction the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – which formed in 1988 with the merger of three Lutheran church groups – was taking. Among other changes, there was less emphasis on the sacraments and on the liturgy, he said, two areas that he was passionate about.

In addition, the issues that separated the Lutheran and Catholic churches no longer seemed to be issues of importance in his mind. He was feeling enriched by the fullness of faith professed in the Catholic Church, and he was disappointed that the two churches no longer seemed on a track toward unity after encouraging signs that they were heading in that direction, most notably through their Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999 in which they agreed on a common understanding of their justification of God’s grace through faith in Christ.

“So I and many others found ourselves with some tough decisions to make,” he said. “Where do we fit into this new church? And can we work within it to bring about sort of a more Catholic understanding of liturgy and the sacraments and ecclesiology? Or can we not?”

It has now been 1 year since the latest progressive moves in the ELCA. Reflecting on the changes, has Lutheran theologian Dr. Root come to any conclusion? YES

On Monday I shared with the faculty the news that in the near future I will be received into the Catholic Church. I now wish to share that news with you. This action is not one that I take lightly. The Lutheran church has been my intellectual and spiritual home for forty years. But we are not masters of our convictions. A risk of ecumenical study is that one will come to find another tradition compelling in a way that leads to a deep change in mind and heart. Over the last year or so, it has become clear to me, not without struggle, that I have become a Catholic in my mind and heart in ways that no longer permit me to present myself as a Lutheran theologian with honesty and integrity.

This move is less a matter of decision than of discernment.

No single issue has been decisive for me, but at the center of my reflection has been the question of how God’s grace engages the justified person and the church in the divine mission of salvation. How are we redeemed as the free and responsible agents God created us to be? Catholic theology speaks of God elevating the justified person and the church to participation in the divine life and mission, so that God grants the Christian and the church participation in God’s actions in a different way than Lutheran theology affirms. Catholic teachings do not follow from that vision with deductive force, but they do hang together with that vision in ways that I have come to find deeply convincing.

Welcome home Michael!!!


  1. I posted a year ago about this when they had this decision(about homosexual unions) and I made a comment that the non-Catholic churches were like a rudderless ship without a magisterium.
    One of the lutheran theologians then intimated that Rome was going to become an option. I have to look back to see if he was indeed the one you have mnetioned is crossing the Tiber.
    Good post, God bless

  2. Russ, your excellent A Rudderless Church piece was published on September 7, 2009. You wrote about Dr. Robert Benne (a different ELCA theologian than in my piece).

    Dr. Benne is still a Lutheran fighting the good fight. He is mentioned again in Christianity Today's recent piece Facing Lutheranism's Crisis of Authority.

  3. George:

    I followed you over here from the link you left on Creative Minority Report. As always, it’s good to get the perspective from a convert, and you write on the issue with sensitivity and respect, especially when you write of the fear that strikes when you realize where a line of thought may take you. Thanks … and welcome home!

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