Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reflections on Protestantism

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on my former faith as a Protestant. I must say it has been fascinating to realize some things about Protestantism that I never considered when I was one. The more I think about Protestantism as a whole, the more intrigued I am by it. I think it is a religion (if that is the right word for it) that is unique in this world. Here are some reasons why [note: this should not be taken as a personal attack to all Protestants, but more as an honest evaluation of my own understanding of my former beliefs]:
  • It is a self-loathing religion. When I was a Protestant, I did not often think about the fact that I was a Protestant. To my mind, I was only a Christian. And just as many other Protestants say, my belief in the Bible came before any denominational affiliation. In other words, I was only trying to follow the Bible to the best of my ability. Whatever sect of Protestantism I chose to join was only a reflection of my understanding of the Bible at that time. I did not like that there were a lot of different denominations, but accepted it because I thought that's just how things are. Any glaring inconsistencies between how things were in the Bible and how things existed in Protestantism I carefully overlooked or blamed on incorrect teachings of other pastors or sects. I read the Bible as applying directly to me personally, and not to my church. I did not embrace Protestantism as a whole, but only those who believed similarly to myself. Additionally, I've observed that a favorite pastime of some Protestants is to accuse other Protestants of not being saved. All these things and others led me to believe Protestants are not proud of being Protestant, but actually dislike their heritage, which leads me to my next point:
  • It ignores its place in history. Despite the fact that, as I have stated, I did not particularly care for the sectarian nature of Protestantism, I nevertheless considered myself a part of the Christian Church. It think I had a rather idealized view of my system of belief when I wanted to. It is as if I completely overlooked the history of Christianity as a whole, and the place of Protestantism in that history. In my mind, even though I was a Protestant, I ignored that in order to place my roots directly in the New Testament Church. I did not really think about how my church actually branched off from a church I thought was corrupt (the Catholic Church), and how nothing can grow from dead roots.
  • It is a religion that leaves you alone. Unlike most religions out there, Protestantism basically allows you to believe whatever you want to believe, as long as you call yourself a Christian, which you are free to do without a lot of questioning, because there does not exist a universal standard to which every one must adhere before they can be called a Christian. You can belong to a church with a pastor that teaches something you strongly disagree with every Sunday over the pulpit. And, in fact, you will be hard pressed to find two people in one church that believe the same things about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember being embarrassed when I would overhear Christians trying to explain their basic beliefs to others, and I would hear something that I didn't agree with. I would think, "Oh, no, they're teaching them wrong," even though I had no more reason to be right in my opinions than they did in theirs.The motto of Protestantism is, to each his own.
  • It claims a book as its source of authority. As great as the Bible is, it can never be a substitute for God. But in my former faith, I believed the only way to access God's knowledge was from reading the Bible. Likewise, I believed that the only reason that Protestantism as a whole could exist was because we were trying our best to understand and apply the teachings of the Bible, yet without any commission or revelation from God Himself. Ecclesiastical leaders were not called by those with authority and set apart by the laying on of hands as was done in New Testament times, yet got their calling indirectly by trying to mimic what they saw in the Bible.
  • It actually argues against the ideal Church presented in its foundational text. Though I always knew that the New Testament Church was quite a bit different than my church, I always of necessity accepted the popular teachings that this was just because we live in a different age now and we therefore do not need the apostles/gifts/miracles/Holy Ghost/etc. that the early Church possessed. Never mind that the Bible shows us this ideal Church as an example of the kind of Church we should belong to, and says nowhere that this Church was only for the earliest believers. In that sense, I actually argued against the Bible, even though I claimed all my belief, knowledge, and authority from that book.
  • It rejects that Christ established a Church. This was one of the most striking things for me to realize while I was reflecting on my former beliefs. I realized that, for me at least, there did not seem to be any teaching that Christ actually established a Church. Yes, I realized that there was an organization present after the ascension of the Lord consisting of prophets, apostles, seventies, elders, teachers, etc., but I never heard it taught that this organization came from Christ Himself. I guess I just assumed it popped up after Christ's ascension in order to spread the teachings of Christ, who is considered more of a teacher than the founder of a kingdom as is described in the scriptures. This makes sense in light of the Protestant mindset: church is an entirely individual pursuit, based on one's understanding of the teachings of the Messiah. Christ came and taught the message; it was up to His followers to subsequently organize and spread that message. This allows the Protestant to put himself in the same camp as the apostolic church--"if the apostolic church was nothing but a group of believers organizing on their own to spread the message of Christ, then, well, that's what we still do today!" On the other hand, Catholics and Latter-day Saints know that only a Church established by the Savior could have the authority and power that the early Church did. In other words, we ask, "if the church was established by men, why did the apostles have the authority to speak for Christ?" I was talking with a Protestant co-worker (who is attending a Bible college in preparation for becoming a minister) about this subject recently, and his response was that it was because the apostles knew Jesus personally while He was on the earth. "Okay, what about Paul?" I asked. He responded by saying he thought that maybe Paul was able to personally know Jesus through daily visions like the one he experienced on the road to Damascus, only extended over a long enough period that would make him the equal of the other apostles in His knowledge of Jesus. "Hmm... Complicated," I thought. "And what about Luke? And Mark? How were they able to have the authority to write gospels that would later become a part of the Bible?" The thought process was far too complicated for me. I prefer the simple and biblical explanation that Christ established His church with the foundation of apostles, with Himself being the chief cornerstone, and that subsequent callings in the Church were done by the authority of Christ's priesthood, by the laying on of hands. No complicated theories required! It's all right there in the Bible. And I am grateful today that the original authority and organization has been restored--not by man's own skill or wisdom, but by the power of God.
But anyway, these are just a few of the thoughts I've been having. Protestantism is fascinating and unique indeed, and I enjoy thinking about my roots in that faith tradition.

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