A lot of this is speculation, and may say more about me than anything else. Anyway…
I saw the above comic a while back on FB. As expected there were a few hundred comments arguing back and forth about apostolic succession. Some saying it’s true, some saying it’s not, and some just disagreeing with the particular take on apostolic succession presented in the comic. As we expect, some of the comments got rather heated and caustic (to put it mildly). Christians love forsaking Christ in the combox. Anyway, I find the comic rather funny, but more than that, I find it both true and pointing to something I’ve been thinking about for some time: namely that both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches represent The Church established by Christ, and Protestant and evangelical and non-denominational churches do not. (I’ll concede that, perhaps, not many Christians think of themselves as Protestant anymore. They’re probably not really “protesting” the Catholic Church, though they may still uncritically hold many anti-Catholic prejudices.)
First: Here’s the idea that’s been in my mind lately – Saying Protestant churches do not represent the Church established by Christ is not to say that individual Protestants are not Christians (or, for that matter, saying individual Catholics are), or that the gospel is not preached from their pulpits, or that the Holy Spirit is not active in their lives, but it is meant to point us to that critical scene when Jesus met Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and accused him of persecuting Him because Saul was persecuting the Church, that we should then ask if that Church is still visibly with us today. I say yes it is visible, but that visible Church is not the Protestant churches accepting (or embracing) the spirit of division and denying apostolic succession.
We might think as an analogy of the story in Acts when Priscilla and Aquila met Apollos, who only knew the baptism of John, and they taught him the whole gospel. If Apollos had rejected the whole gospel and stuck only with the baptism of John, he would be lost even though he still had some crucial piece of the truth – though God, of course, could choose to save him. In a similar way, Protestants who claim to know only Christ crucified, and then reject Christ’s visible Church, put themselves on thin ice. Further, Protestantism is as fragmented and dis-unified a group as could be. Remember, when Paul writes to the Corinthians that he knew “nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”, that he was arguing their disunity demonstrated they didn’t really know “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Paul was both pointing to Christ and defending the unity of the visible Church. They go together. Why not obey Christ fully within the Church?
The question one could pose is, what are you really protesting? What are you clinging to that is more important than following Christ and His apostles in their prayers and pleading for unity? Parsing theological nuances is interesting, wrangling over theories of atonement is somewhat important, but we must make sure we don’t fall into the trap that says: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is faith.” Faith alone leads inevitably to division. Love leads to unity. Faith is important, critical, required, but love trumps faith. Faith is not the greatest, love is the greatest. Unity is the result of love.
So back to the cartoon – and this is my real reason for writing this post – The Catholic Church views both Orthodox and Catholic together being the true, apostolic Church, though in schism and thus not without insignificant theological and practical differences that must be resolved. I may be selfish in this idea because I have friends who are Eastern Orthodox, and I was once at that doorstep contemplating giving my life to that confession, thus I want to see unity there. I know there is not unity as there should be, but perhaps hope, the other theological virtue, along with love, will have its day.
But it naturally follows then that the Protestant churches, being non-apostolic, yea even apostate, churches are in grave rebellion to the true Church established by Christ and maintained by the Holy Spirit. As implied above, this is not to say that individual Protestant Christians are not destined for the Kingdom of God, nor is it to say that all Orthodox and Catholic Christians are destined for the Kingdom of God. That is up to God alone. But if my intuition is right, why would one want to remain in an apostate Protestant church in outright rebellion against the historical, apostolic Church? Especially if one’s rebellion was really just handed down for generations and has lost much (or all) of its meaning? (Like either fervently or lazily maintaining a family feud for no reason other than that’s just what one is supposed to do.) Or especially if one is a non-denominational evangelical merely because in college one had a crisis of faith and found that the good vibes, warm handshakes, and upbeat music at a roommate’s church made one feel like something real was happening there (and there probably was).
I know many will answer with the predicted Protestant laundry list of arguments, but really, there are excellent, biblically grounded, Catholic answers to all of them – and if there are, even if the arguments end in a kind of tie, stop arguing and just join up. Bow the knee to Christ, who gave you the Church. One enters the Church not because of an argument, but because of Christ. Therefore one should not stay outside the church because of an argument. Come be with Christ, fellowship in His Church, partake of His body and blood in the Eucharist (Jesus Christ, and him crucified), embrace the communion of saints, do not harden your hearts.
When Christ first came to Saul of Tarsus He did not say, “Why are you persecuting My Church.” Rather, He said, “Why are you persecuting Me?” And yet, was not Saul persecuting Christians, was he not persecuting the Church? Had not Christ left the world? Paul was looking for real people, real Christians, looking for the places they worshiped, looking for the visible Church. He was not looking for Jesus. There is a direct connection between the visible, apostolic Church and Christ Himself. Therefore, if one rejects (not the same as criticizing or judging) the visible, apostolic Church one is rejecting Christ. Perhaps many who call themselves Christians are in greater jeopardy than they realize, like all those who say they love Jesus and hate religion. It may well be that those who make such declarations have unknowingly declared their love of an imaginary Jesus and have rejected the real Jesus. Of course I can’t know anyone’s heart or what God will ultimately will for anyone, but I figure it’s at least worth examining oneself and the reasons for one’s choices in this regard.
In summary, I say do not remain outside the Church Christ Himself established because of weak arguments, tradition, laziness, what someone else told you, mere prejudice, what others might think of you, fear of the unknown, fear of being uncomfortable, or worst of all, pride. Perhaps pride and ignorance are the two main reasons why many Protestants remain Protestants. That’s the way it was for me.
As I see it, Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians need to make a strenuous effort toward reconciliation, which I believe is already happening. And that Protestants need to repent of their rebellion and bow their knees to Christ’s authority (as do we all) which was and is promulgated through His apostles and their successors. I say this not to point fingers at individuals, but to speak in broad terms. We all need to bow the knee, but Protestantism, as an historical phenomenon, is a “tradition of men,” and is based on rejecting the Church established by Christ himself and maintained by the Holy Spirit, all in the name of self-determined Biblical interpretation. In other words, Protestantism arose not as a reformation, but as a rebellion; as a wrong response to very real problems. Protestants would have you believe the issues are theological, I know because I was one for more than 40 years, but in fact the issues are spiritual and of the heart. I would guess that most Protestants don’t know this, not consciously at least, and that there is something to “ignorance is bliss.” In fact, and this is the way I thought for most of my life, most Protestants couldn’t care less if a church is “apostolic”, not because they really don’t care, but because they don’t know they should care.
I have to come clean: I came into the Catholic Church in September of 2013. I’m a newbie Catholic, and naturally I have a tendency toward “Catholic good, Protestant bad” ways of thinking. I don’t want to be that way, but I did make a decision for Catholicism after years of careful study, prayer, and seeking the wisdom of others. Mostly, though, I made my decision in response to a call from the Holy Spirit.
The thing is, having been a Protestant for more than 40 years, and having wrestled with Protestant theology versus Catholic & Orthodox theology, I know the Protestant arguments rather well. I know the “laundry list” of Protestant reasons why they can’t be Catholic, and frankly, I know they don’t hold up. This is not to say I am much of a theologian, or Church historian, or even a good Christian, but I can say that the two biggest reasons Protestants remain Protestants are pride and ignorance. Ignorance of what Catholics really teach and, ironically, ignorance of what Scripture really says. Pride is that refusal to bow the knee to the authority of the apostles by insisting that oneself (or one’s pastor) be the final authority of truth. Sola Scriptura fails right at the point it is supposed to succeed because it finally comes down to interpretation – who is right, who wins, who has the authority to guard doctrine? Every man a pope as the saying goes. One of the fruits of Protestantism is rampant disunity, including a spirit of disunity that is worn as a badge of authentic faith.
The disunity between Orthodox and Catholic Christians is deeply troubling, and probably not unlike the grave disunity in the newly formed churches St. Paul addresses in his letters (I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Christ). And one could argue it’s due to ignorance and pride as well. What I see is that Catholics and Orthodox tend to be troubled by their disunity, though many may not yet see a solution. But the outright explosion of massive and inherent disunity among Protestants is deeply frightening. More than that, it speaks to something gravely wrong-headed and wrong-hearted at the center of Protestantism – a spirit of division based on personal interpretation of Holy Scripture (not unlike a consumerist “market economy” version of Christianity). In other words, the disunity between Orthodox and Catholic is a rending of a garment, a tear that is unnatural and needs to be repaired. The disunity at the heart of Protestantism is its reason for existence, not a result so much as the starting point, and that calls for repentance.
Commit oneself to unity, the kind of unity for which both Christ and the Apostles prayed. Repent each day. Remember that love is greater than faith. Pray continually. Embrace the Sacraments. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Commit to holiness. Be a saint.