Each of us who try to follow Christ will often associate ourselves with a particular church. Broadly speaking we have three big choices: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. For the Protestant the choices further multiply exponentially. But why do we make the choices we make? Why does one choose Protestant over Catholic, or Orthodox over Protestant? And, if Protestant, why choose Methodist over Presbyterian, or Baptist over Episcopalian? Or why not just choose not to care at all, as many do?
For those denominational apologists among us the reasons are clear, and each church, each camp, has its ardent (sometimes foaming at the mouth) defenders. But we live in a culture that, for the most part, believes it does not really matter which church one attends or which denomination one adheres to, as long as one goes to church somewhere and meets some vague, minimum requirements of “christiany” belief. Some take this further and say that any kind of organized Christianity is only likely to get in the way, that being a Christian is really and only about faith, which is really and only existential belief. I am inclined to view each of these positions as wrongheaded, though I have tended to be less “religious” and more in the “faith” camp.
Sometimes it seems that we, and I mean most Christians (at least in the U.S.), have lost somewhere in the recesses of history and memory what it means to be Christian. Naturally we will seek out other Christians in order to emotionally and psychologically bolster our desire to believe ourselves Christian, but does this cut it? Sadly, how one looks, what one wears, the lingo one speaks, the food one eats, and where one shops, probably has more to do with being accepted by other Christians these days than right doctrine. We gravitate to those like us, give them slack in their “Christianity” because they are like us, and seek churches filled with people like us. We look for a comfortable Christianity where we are welcome and where we feel good. From my observations, this tends to be true more in Protestant churches than Catholic or Orthodox, but I’m sure it is everywhere. Fortunately, genuine faith still exists even in the midst of our many follies. In fact, I think we tend to live with this tension all the time—our tendency for a comfortably social Christianity and the pull of the Holy Spirit towards authentic religion.
As I wonder about my next steps on the path of faith, I do not want to give into a vague, mushy sentimentality (though I have many times before, and will certainly do so again), for it smacks too much of a kind of consumerism where churches become something more like brands than representations of particular doctrines and practices. On the other hand, I do not want to fall into a kind of apologist swamp where being a Christian is all about manning the barricades and where winning arguments effectively function as a kind of perverted beatific vision. In short, I want to pursue what is best. I want to pursue Christ. This may mean clinging to a particular expression/version of Christianity while simultaneously holding it loosely. In other words, seeking Truth while obeying Love.
One should have good reasons for being who and what one is. If one is a Catholic one should know why. Same for the Protestant. It seems one should have reasons better than, “I was just born a Baptist and I guess I never questioned it.” or “A friend invited me to their church and I just liked it, made some friends, my family is ‘plugged in’, why change?”, or “I’m on the ministry team and it would be too big a deal to change.” or “I just don’t want to deal with all the questions if I do change.” or “My father and my grandfather before him were Presbyterian ministers and there’s just no way I could change.” or “Once baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic. So I can’t change.” But these are exactly the kinds of excuses by which we tend to live. And often we don’t even get to the excuses. We frequently put up barriers that prevent true challenges from ever penetrating our minds; the questions aren’t even allowed in the room.
And perhaps most of us do not consciously choose which “version” of Christian we are. Much of the time, so it seems, we just are what we are, and don’t think much about it. But then that puts us in the same camp as anyone in the world who uncritically accepts the religion of their culture or their family. In other words, one can be a Christian in one sense, and yet be no more a part of the Body of Christ than is any Muslim, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian. If we are not careful our Christianity may be nothing more than the Dutch church critiqued by Kierkegaard. He argued that if everyone’s a Christian then no one is a Christian, and I fear that holds true for many today.
If one does not consciously choose, freely and intellectually and existentially choose, then is one’s choice truly valid? Of course we can all too easily fall into the whirlpool of constant self-doubt, wondering if we are truly saved. Nor should we assume or presume too quickly upon our salvation. The solution, as always and from the beginning, is God’s grace, in which our hope resides.
It is important for a Protestant like me (someone whom God has made a questioner and self-analyzer) to truly and honestly ask why am I Protestant. I know one thing at least: Through the “accident” of birth, at that particular time and place, into the particular family I have, within that particular social world, I was raised a Baptist. I was taught basic Protestant theology from my youth. I was taught to love the Bible, and genuine faith, and gong to church, and piety. And I was trained to be anti-Catholic (and anti-nonBaptist really) from my youth. I later found a version of Reformed theology appealing and dove in, leaving some of that Baptist world behind, but not all. I know my presuppositions played a big part in why Reformed theology made sense to me. But at some point it is important to ask, “Why these presuppositions? Why this church, why these doctrines, why these practices?”
I know that God is sovereign and thus He is the author of my life, but I also know that some will call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and He will say, “I never knew you.” Thus I have freedom, and I must use it wisely. While I know it is God who wills and works, I must also work in fear and trembling; I must also seek God, imitate Christ, listen to His apostles, and be a member of the Body of Christ. And part of this is to ask, “Why am I Protestant?” If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I lack integrity. If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I might also lack faith.
Of course, I have asked myself that question. I have asked why I am Protestant. My conclusion is that, though I am still deeply committed to Christ, still passionately a Christian, I am no longer Protestant.