The End of the Sidewalk: The Coming Demise of Ecclesiastical Tribalism.

I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to break bread with some fine young men.  One of these chaps, for whom I have great affection, knows of my previous sojourn in American Evangelicalism (including the Southern Baptist Convention) and my later – and longer – respite as a Presbyterian.  The latter filled about 30 years of my life.  Then, at the ripe old age of 50, I ceased protesting and came into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Yeah.  I’m that guy.

I am eternally thankful – at several different levels – for my separated brothers.  My parents were devoted Christians my whole life.   My baptistic early years drove home the importance of hiding God’s word in my heart.  I was a champion sword-driller several years running.  (If you know what those are, I’m winking at you.)  My Presbyterian season helped me to dig deeper, think more consistently, and reason more logically.  The irony that those things would lead me to Catholicism is evidence of lots of things, not the least of which is God’s sense of humor.

Recently, my friend sent me an article by Tom Ascol and commentary by Doug Wilson (Unleashing my Inner Tozier), wherein Wilson expresses his dismay at the state of affairs in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  As a double irony, I’ve been a Doug Wilson fan for years.  And, if that fact alone is not sufficient to tank his street cred in the Calvinist side street,  I love his humor, am interested in his perspective, and appreciative of his taking God seriously, but himself not so much.  He’s definitely an iron sharpening iron kind of guy.

In any event, my young friend asked me what I thought.

His bad.  Here’s my response:

Dear *******,

I read the article you sent my way. Thanks for thinking of me.  As you said, you know my solution to your “protestant problems.”  No one should be particularly surprised by the SBC’s bad behavior.  Actually, I’m surprised anyone’s surprised.  But I find Doug Wilson’s commentary on Ascol more interesting.

I have only two disagreements with Wilson’s conclusion (“burn the SBC and PCA to the ground”):

  1. It doesn’t go far enough, and;
  2. He presupposes ecclesiastical cataclysm. The reality is that the process is way less dramatic, but the result he seeks is inevitable.

I must add to the points of disagreement that neither Ascol nor Wilson ask the question: At what point can we say that the great protestant ecclesiastical experiment is a failure?

I have said for years, decades now (even while still a protester), that Protestantism has within itself the seeds of its own destruction.  If I had to prove that thesis in court, Ascol’s article is Exhibit A.  Doug Wilson’s commentary is Exhibit B.  Sorry Doug, probably should have given you top billing.

But I don’t think the demise is going to be some Noahic cataclysm.  I’d guess more of a yawning collapse.  What “started” in the reformation as a correction (Luther, Calvin et al. ‘fixing’ the abuses – real and perceived – of Rome) has devolved to its current expressions in a scant 500 years.  Many of those former bulwarks of the “Crown Rights of King Jesus” have become bastions of perversion.

Would Calvin even recognize the PCUS or the PCA?  Or Luther accept any of the synods bearing his name?  Could the Wesleys abide the current iteration of the United Methodists?  Or King Henry, the Anglicans?  O.K., forget that last one, but you get my point.

I can’t help but wonder if these protesting patriarchs are consigned to an eternity of asking themselves “What were we thinking?”

Since then we have accelerating, ever-fracturing denominationalism (especially that denomination  of non-denominational) with its “because I say so” claim to authority.  Luther loved that phrase, by the way.  But, hey, that’s just how vow-breakers roll.

Now we’re witnessing the last gasps of Protestantism: the devolution from denominationalism to Ecclesiastical Tribalism.

Wilson’s call is to “burn down” two big pillars of American evangelicalism – the SBC and the PCA.  Interestingly, Wilson calls out the conservative wing.  But that’s how it goes: the fracturing is fueled by the autocephalic pursuit of orthodoxy.  Instead of “holier than thou”, Protestantism’s decline is marked by a Pharisaical “more orthodox than thou.” Orthodoxy is obviously good; but, to quote Calvin, this elevation of consensus-driven orthodoxy of the  chieftain and his tribe is “like putting a sword in the hand of a lunatic.”

I assume, by extension Wilson would include just about every mega-church in America  (Andy Stanley, Joel Osteen and their ilk).  If they want to be thoroughgoing protestants about it, why not say “Burn them at the stake” – and mean it – instead of a figurative “burn the [entities] down”?

They long for the days of Tozer (1897-1963) from which we’re just a generation removed.  Yet, they regale him like he hearkens to us from antiquity (calling Tozer a Tishbite, a scriptural assignation exclusive to Elijah).  The descent into Tribalism is not being led by the ecclesiastical Bernie Sanders of our day,  but by men who all consider themselves “conservatives” (because getting rid of “booty-shaking in church” will fix everything).  Yet they completely forget what being a conservative means: conserving a history; a heritage.  You know, like real Church Fathers.  They want to turn the clock back; but only by a nanosecond.

John Henry Cardinal Newman’s words from his introduction to An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine ring truer now than ever:  “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

Regardless of our distance from the cliff,  Protestantism is heading for it.  And the ones standing on the gas pedal don’t even know it.  How can they not?  They are generally great guys who are way smarter and more well-read than I am.  Probably a lot holier too.  But a “sign” shouldn’t be necessary for the obvious (think coffee cup with a warning: hot).  They see neither the sign nor the obvious.

You know my solution to your “protestant problems,” which you – for now, at least – don’t accept.  Fine.  But know that your alternative is to embrace Ascol’s and Wilson’s call for more of the same:  “We’re headed for that cliff.  Floor it!”  Seems like they’re looking for a solution, any solution.  Except THE solution.

What we have here is a really bad case of Romophobia.  They’d rather dip seven times in the Jordan than do that!  (II Kings 5).  Or maybe just stick with the leprosy.  Hey, Naaman, what’s eating you?

They remove or reduce the Sacraments and try to fill the void with a version of America’s Got (Preaching) Talent.  Then they reject the visible Head of the Church on Earth, because every man and his Bible are infallible (except for that dude in Rome with the funny hat).   What’s left is a bunch of chieftains doing their own enlightened form of booty-shaking around the tribal campfire, holding on to their minuscule papacies.

To paraphrase Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) in The Patriot: “I’d rather have one [Pope] 3000 miles away than 3000 [popes] one mile away.”  And, trust me, the woods are lousy with popes.

And while Ascol, Wilson, et al. stare heavenward looking for something A.D. 70ish, it will be more like an old wooden shed that once stood on the back of my property.  It leaned.  A lot. (To the right, BTW.)  Then one day with a puff of wind, it was in pieces on the ground.  Burnt to the ground.  Only better.

So, it matters not whether the collapse of the SBC or the PCA (and all of Protestantism) is a good thing.  It’s that it’s an inevitable thing.

It’s as obvious as the end of the sidewalk.