Below is a video “conversation” between Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman concerning The Future of Protestantism. Protestantism, as it is said, is on the decline, and its very existence is in jeopardy, therefore each of these men propose solutions to aid in its preservation. It’s an intriguing discussion and topic, though the whole thing would be far better if Leithart’s sections could be played back at about 1.5x speed (once you get into the dialogue, you’ll see what I mean).
Despite its intrigue, Leithart, in particular, and his proposals / desires are at times fanciful and at others border-line absurd. While his desire for a unified Church is laudable, the meaning behind his “unified” Church is odd and oftentimes elusive. He explains that his desire is for Protestantism to become, what he calls, Reformational Catholicism, which seems to be a melding of Protestantism and Catholicism—a sort of bracing of Protestantism to the backbone of the Catholic Church, since it apparently isn’t going anywhere any time soon. So his “dream” is that Protestants would become less divisive and more Catholic (or, rather, more liturgical, which is no surprise since he seems to be borderline Catholic with his garb) and that Catholics would become more Protestant, thus bringing a unity of sorts.
Another way that he suggests to bring about this unity is by local organizations of churches of varying denominations. And not simply organizations formed for the sake of pursuing common goals, but organizations that confront one another about doctrinal differences and errors. In other words, churches should be concerned about the well-being of other churches (which I agree with) since we consider them fellow churches and fellow members of Christ, despite our differences.
While I share Leithart’s desire for Church unity, I can’t help but look at his proposals negatively. When it comes to Protestants and Catholics, I think his suggestions demonstrate a bit of naivety. The Reformation happened for a reason, and it’s because the Catholic Church was unwilling to “reform” itself. And despite the increased dialogue between the two in recent history, I sincerely doubt that the Catholic Church is any more willing today to become more “Protestant” than it was in the past.
Furthermore, while the panel seemed to be in agreement that the Catholic Church is a church (based on its affirmations of Nicaea, etc.), I’m not so sure that most Protestants (myself included) are willing to concede that the Catholic Church is indeed a church. While I am convinced that there are true Christians in Catholicism, the Catholic Church itself cannot just be presumed to be so. The sub-deification of Mary, etc. aside, the Catholic Church teaches a different gospel. Justification by faith is mingled with justification by works in their gospel, and, as Paul said regarding the Judaizers who did the same, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9). And just so there’s no confusion, I’m pretty sure “accursed” implies exclusion from the Church. A little leaven leavens the whole lump, and anything apart from a complete reformation of the Catholic Church and its gospel excludes it from the proper fellowship of the saints.
As for unity amongst other Protestant denominations, I’m more optimistic, however, denominations are usually denominations for a reason. While I can imagine fruit being born in a multi-denominational league of local churches (much more so than between Protestants and Catholics), I can’t imagine it drastically changing the present situation (apart from a grand work of the Spirit). Leithart, from his opening statement, seems to be content in unity if others would adopt his preferences for liturgy and the sacraments. How gracious of him! Of course he would! And that’s the very reason why we have denominations, because one group thinks that they’re right and that all others are wrong, and they all would be willing to unify with others if the others adopted what they think is right. This is not to say that different denominations cannot work together for common goals, however, the unity of which Leithart is speaking is something altogether different.
How Unity Will Come About
Leithart’s expressed fear is that Protestantism will wane once the inevitable persecution of the Church gets into full swing. He laments that the lack of structure will tear the Church asunder and will eventually lead to its demise. I, however, believe that the opposite is true. I believe that the persecution of the Church will be the greatest agent for its unification. Presently, it costs very little to be a Christian. Yes, we might be jeered at and ridiculed on occasion, but it’s nothing that is intolerable. We are still free enough to quibble about and divide over styles of music, whether or not one wears a Hawaiian shirt while preaching, the color of carpeting, and other ridiculous things. When the Church is truly persecuted and the cost of discipleship becomes high, most of the goats will denounce the faith, and tertiary issues will generally fall by the wayside. The faithful will remain, and they will be unified significantly more than they are now.
It may be true that one day Protestantism will be dying in the world’s eyes, but in reality only nominal Protestantism will be dying. The Lord will preserve every member of his Church, and not one of them will be lost.