Reformed Catholicism, Authority, and Unity


Peter Leithart continues to write about the need for unity in the church. His latest work, which I have not read, is titled The End of Protestantism.  There have been numerous blog posts with more on the way about this push for unity.  Douglas Wilson has written several posts. Derek Rishmawy has also written one trying to work out some of the practicalities of Leithart’s vision.  Eric Hutchinson asked a basic question: Is institutional unity necessary or desirable? And of course, the indefatigable Leithart continues to write posts as well. As a pastor in the CREC where Leithart makes his home and has tremendous influence, I have tried to keep up over the years on the debates and discussions.

I always learn from Leithart and find his way of writing, his learning, and his insight valuable. However, there are some problems with his ecumenical project. This post is in response to one portion  of Leithart’s “wish-list” for Protestant churches, which you can find it here.  I also read his older post, which contains some of his basic desires for the Protestant Church moving forward. I encourage you to read his list or open it in another tab as you follow along.

Typical of Leithart much of what he says is excellent, including the encouragement to sing Psalms, weekly communion, pray for other churches and denominations, reform church music, and include children in the sacraments and worship.  A couple other points need more explanation. For example, he wants churches to give up “treasured tribal slogans and symbols for the sake of unity.” I am not sure what he means here. What is a “treasured tribal slogan?”  His points about seminaries following Scripture, preachers teaching the whole Bible, and faith without works probably contain some truth. But my guess is that conservative seminaries and pastors believe they already do those things. He would need to explain those points more for them to challenge the status quo.  My focus in this post will be his points about church discipline and his final point about one body.  Here are those points in order.

Churches whose pastors have the courage to use the tools of discipline with all love, gentleness, kindness, and patience—but use them, rather than using love and gentleness as excuses for cowardice and lethargy.

Churches that honor the discipline of other churches, rather than receiving rebels from neighbor churches. For we are one body.

Cities where all the churches pray and worship and labor together, where the pastors serve the interests of the city, speaking with one voice to civic leaders…

Protestants who recognize that they are already members of a Church where some venerate icons, some believe in transubstantiation, some slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors, some believe in papal infallibility and Mary’s immaculate conception. For we are one body.

Church Discipline in a Big Tent
Leithart wants church discipline to be restored. This is one of the pressing needs of the day. The point is a good one. But how does church discipline work with Leithart’s view of one body?   It is hard to push for church discipline and at the same time push for a really big tent, especially when those within the big tent have differing ideas about who is and who isn’t in the tent, how big the tent is, what we should be doing in the tent, and who is the boss in the tent.

For example, imagine there is a group of “Reformational Catholic Churches” [Leithart’s own term].  A church from another denomination excommunicates a member for teaching his fellow members that venerating icons is okay. Should the local “Reformational Catholic Church” accept that excommunication and refuse to receive the rebel even though venerating icons is acceptable (according to Leithart) within the Church?   What criteria would a church use to determine if that excommunication was valid  or invalid? Or is the fact he was excommunicated enough no matter the reason? These questions get to the heart of the issue: authority and standards. Who/what has the authority to determine who is and who isn’t in the church and what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior within the church?

Curiously, in the last paragraph Leithart leaves out liberal Protestants.  Are they part of the “one body?” Does the one body include those who believe sodomy and female pastors are fine?  If a Christian can slaughter peaceful Muslims, what would prevent a Christian from being a lesbian? If we excommunicate practicing lesbians, would it be okay to excommunicate someone who believes that tradition is equal or even superior to the Bible?  What is the standard?

Beyond the individual members of the congregation, how much flexibility would there be among the ministers of Leithart’s “Reformational Catholic Churches (RCC)?” Would it be okay for a minister to believe in transubstantiation, bow down before the host, and teach his people to do the same? Would he pass the ordination exam? Would it be okay for a Pentecostal leaning RCC minister to tell his congregation that he gets “a word from God” or for a Baptist leaning RCC minister to refuse to baptize people until they turn 21 ? If ministers cannot believe and teach the things listed in Leithart’s last paragraph then don’t we just end up with denominations again? If a minister cannot teach “papal infallibility” then aren’t we saying, “To minister in a Reformational Catholic Church you must be Protestant?” Doesn’t that put us right back where we are?

Liturgy and Worship or Sexual Ethics?
Clearly Leithart does not believe all the baptized belong to the church or else he wouldn’t push for church discipline. But where he draws the line is problematic. It would appear that liturgical sins or differences are not obstacles to unity. For example, he wants cities where “all the churches pray and worship and labor together.”[Bold mine.] He is encouraging Protestants to not allow the Mass, images of Christ in worship, or prayers to dead saints to be an obstacle to worshiping with Roman Catholics. This quote gives some more insight into where he draws the lines:

That century [the 20th] was one of ecumenical awakening, something we’ve been participating in even if too often unaware of—or unable to admit to ourselves and our congregations—the consequences. In the U.S. we have seen a foxhole ecumenism develop during the culture wars. Evangelical Protestants—historically the most anti-Catholic sector of the American Church—meet vibrantly faithful Catholics on the pro-life picket line, while Catholics realize that their best allies for upholding the definition of marriage happen to be Evangelicals. Old boundaries become permeable as theological differences get swallowed up in co-belligerency. [Bold is mine.]

In other words, we can unite around our opposition to gay marriage and abortion and downplay or ignore veneration of icons and papal infallibility.  It would appear that key ethical issues, such as sexual immorality and abortion get you removed from the one body while doctrinal and liturgical differences do not.  Why else include Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the “one body” and exclude liberal Protestants? But why would bowing down before the bread be less of an offense than female pastors? It would seem that for Leithart differences in worship are acceptable, but ethical differences are not. What standard is being used to make this determination? What authority is being appealed to?

Different Standards, Different Authority, No Unity
There will always be doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical standards, written or unwritten, beyond baptism and belief in the Creed that form the boundary of the local church or group of churches.  These standards will include both beliefs and actions and give sins a hierarchy. They will answer questions like: Does the action or belief strike at the vitals of the faith? Can a member hold it, but not a minister? Is it wrong, but not grievous? Or is it just a matter of Christian wisdom?  The question is what is that standard for Leithart’s churches? If someone says, “That standard is the Bible.” I would reply, “The Bible is not the ultimate, infallible standard for Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. How can two groups be united when they have different standards and authorities?”

Protestants can and should have Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends, learn from their authors, and align with them on various social issues. But because Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox have different authorities and standards their range of acceptable actions and beliefs are quite different from each other.  We have differing definitions of right and wrong on numerous doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical issues that are not tertiary to the Christian faith, but at the center. This does not mean Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches do not have Christians. But it does mean many of their official teachings and practices are at odds with Protestants and outside of what Protestants consider orthodox and Biblical. This is why meaningful unity between Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants is not possible unless one group either in practice or officially minimizes or abandons all together key doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical differences. Perhaps this is Leithart’s aim. If Protestants became less Protestant unity could be had. I am not sure. But that is what must happen if his vision is to be fulfilled. We can’t just gather everyone as they are right now in one big tent. We cannot treat these differences, including the liturgical ones, as matters of polite discussion among brothers who are all headed the same direction. They are not. Transubstantiation, authority outside of Scripture, papal infallibility, venerating icons, Mary as co-mediatrix, and a host of other doctrines and practices are not issues we can agree to disagree on within the big tent of Reformed Catholicism. They are barriers that must be removed or capitulated to if there is to be unity.

I started this post two weeks ago. I now see that Doug Wilson has written a post addressing some similar themes.