Protestant Christianity celebrates 500 years of ministry on October 31. On this day in 1517 the German friar Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to Wittenberg’s cathedral door. Luther’s theses exposed theological fault lines placing him and his fellow reformers at odds with the Roman Catholic Church. Today Protestant evangelicals, likewise, are discovering new theological fault lines among themselves. Ironically, these differences emerge from the same reforms Luther initiated.
The political arena has become for the church the place to debate and wrestle over internal differences. The presidential campaign, election, and unfolding administration of Donald J. Trump deeply divides many evangelical churches, some outwardly and some beneath the surface. Illustrative of these divisions, James K.A. Smith, Calvin College professor of philosophy, writes about EINOs (evangelical in name only). Playing off the political acronym RINO (Republican In Name Only), Smith laments that EINOs were the largest voting block that helped elect Trump. Likewise, these supposed EINOs needle their not so insignificant 13 million compatriots who supported Clinton, exposing further division.
Protestants, both evangelicals and progressives, historically have shaped the American public square. Now this square has become a public colosseum of conflict for evangelicals. Smith concludes, “evangelical Protestantism stands in need of reform.”
Today’s divides partly originate in Luther’s theology. Luther’s first thesis concerned the disposition of the Christian: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matthew 4:17] he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” For Luther, an individual is born into sin, making it absolutely unavoidable . Therefore repentance is paramount. In practice, Protestant Christians tend to focus inwardly on the struggle with their sin rather than look outwardly to an institutional church.
The next question for Luther became how one was saved from this will to sin. He looked to the Apostle Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk in Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” Faith in Christ, Luther concluded, saved the struggling individual. Quickly, though, defining true faith became a point of debate. This resulted in innumerable doctrinal positions, confessional statements, and liturgical practices within Protestantism.
Over time Protestantism’s inwardly focused, individually oriented tradition became cripplingly disparate. From Paula White to Franklin Graham, Jim Wallis to the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, there is not a unitary Protestant institution to shape voting behavior alone. Various Protestant denominations abound, let alone parachurch ministries and Christian lobbying groups. Protestant denominations even have numerous nuanced expressions; I count twenty-nine Presbyterian denominations in America alone!
This Protestant diversity allowed room, then, for political parties in the name of Christ to co-opt the national attention in the last quarter of the 20th century. The Moral Majority (later Christian Coalition) mobilized an economically and ethnically hegemonic interest group to exert great political influence in the name of faith. Many argue the political agenda compromised the Church’s agenda, and even lead to a number of high profile cases of corruption. Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, writes, “None of us are exempt from this temptation.” In full disclosure, I was a card carrying member of the Christian Coalition and rejoiced when my political party held the three branches of government. Yet, I look back and realize the lacking results. I learned the hard way, and perhaps at the expense of my witness this: renewal comes from the bottom up; not from controlling the levers of power.
Yet, I have hope. Christ lives, and the gospel continues to transform. The Protestant Reformation, in addition to the impact noted above, had three positive features which could renew and invigorate evangelicals beyond the Trumpian age.
Historically, rigorous theological debate followed by confessional agreement marked Protestants uniquely. Could today a dozen prominent and diverse Protestant leaders come together to discuss, discern, and articulate a new vision and set of policies for the common good? Could Protestant Christians reclaim the whole Biblical narrative, a Reformation hallmark, to illustrate God’s greater purpose and work through people, cultures, and time? When one knows this, and the concomitant story of her life and family, she sees the responsibility she holds to serve the common good with dignity, mutuality, and consideration.
Finally, evangelical Protestants could be renewed by reclaiming Luther’s emphasis on humility. Rooting the will in sin Luther does not begin, as Descartes does, with the human as the center of the universe. This anthropocentric starting point leads to a radical hubris and self centeredness that pervades today’s culture. Luther, by burying the will beneath sinful brokenness, undermines the pride that corrupts so many. We need to return to a healthy dose of humble pie. Perhaps a humility earned through our discernment and debate over evangelically supported policies and candidates that benefit the common good could be part of the American narrative told in 2020 and beyond? One can hope.
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