Book Review: The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, by Peter J. Leithart

The End of ProtestantismUnity in the church is a passion of mine. So, when Brazos Press asked for participation in a book launch for The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, how could I resist such a title? I’d not heard of the author, Peter J. Leithart, but I looked forward to reading his thoughts on our common ground.

As is the foundation of many of our efforts toward unity in the church (both local and universal), Leithart’s first sentence references Jesus’ prayer in the garden before his crucifixion where he asks the Father that his disciples be united. Shortly thereafter: “Denominationalism is not union. It is the opposite. It is the institution of division. Our friendliness is part of the problem. It enables us to be complacent about defining ourselves not by union with our brothers but by our divisions” (4). Yes! But he continues: “My agenda will make Protestant churches more catholic … I call this ecclesiology and this agenda ‘Reformational Catholicism’” (6). And this is where I let out a sigh, not of relief, but of disappointment. To be clear, his first statement does not imply that churches ought to be more “Catholic” in the Roman sense; he means, rather, that they should be all-encompassing, the general definition of the term. However, his use and interchangeability of “catholic” and “Catholic” in the text do not aid in this clarification, especially since he has labeled his vision of the universal church as “Reformational Catholicism.”

The way Leithart envisions the universal church is fairly detailed. It will include a highly liturgical (meaning more of a “high church” liturgy) service (30) with “energetic” music “accompanied by strings, horns, and drums” (31) where everyone wears white robes (32) and “will use wine, not grape juice,” with the Lord’s Supper (196, n.8). Local churches will be labeled according to their location or a saint (26, with no reasoning for the “saint” part), include stained glass (32), and be lead by a single ruler (33). There’s enough in these few selected details to give the perception of another “made in my image” denomination and enough fodder for people to argue over for days. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but what we do with those dreams can be helpful or devastating.

Leithart rightly encourages throughout the text that we work through our disagreements in order to be more unified and that denominations encourage the opposite (e.g., 77–78). What I find to be a foundational disagreement I, and likely many others, have with Leithart is what we do with the following: “The true church, it is said, is an invisible reality that can coexist with visible conflict, division, estrangement, and mutual hatred. That certainly was not Paul’s perspective” (18). While concurring with his critique, I do not believe, as he argues, that the universal church must look and act the same in all places at all times. Conformity and unity may be brothers, but they are not equal. We can both agree that denominational justifications based on this distinction still fail to acknowledge the real division perpetuated therewith, but that does not mean there can be absolutely no difference in those who are unified. Leithart’s dream church does not, for example, take into account the likely inability of some churches to have buildings (not that they are even necessary) or the financial means to maintain stained glass, instruments, and white robe trappings. And what about those who face real persecution and the threat of violence and potentially death just for meeting? If one is to dream up what the universal church will look like before Jesus’ return, it must be practical and take into account a still broken world. Therefore, I maintain that unity can exist without universal conformity. There are some things on which we must necessarily conform (e.g., teaching that Jesus is Lord), but much of what we do and how we do it cannot be codified (e.g., how we love our neighbor) and those differences do not necessitate a new denomination. I hope we can agree that the Spirit may lead two people in two different directions in how they glorify God: one will stay and the other go, one will speak and the other stay silent, and one will die and the other run for his life. We see this in the book of Acts.

For a book that claims universal unity in the church and rightly pushes against American denominationalism, it is actually too American in its focus to be universally beneficial. This is one I want to like so much more than I do, and one I want to dislike more than I do. I’m torn. Perhaps the project we have would have been better approached as The End of American Denominationalism. So, this is where I’ve landed with The End of Protestantism: It is a great contribution to the conversation on unity in the church, one that is obviously in need of more dialogue even after reading this book.

 

Who is the book for? In my estimation: Church leaders, Christian educators and students.

 

For promotional material (video clips, images, etc.): www.theendofprotestantism.com.

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