How to agree

peter-leithart

The End of Protestantism, Peter Leithart, Brazos Press.

Recently, and characteristically, Pope Francis met with Swedish Lutherans, declaring that despite some glaring doctrinal differences, Catholics and Lutherans have more in common than not, and urged unity in working together and sharing the Lord’s Supper. There is a similar spirit in Peter Leithart’s book The End of Protestantism, though Leithart wants to move beyond dialogue to a complete dismantling of what many of us think is simply a fact of life – the church’s denominationalism. It is, he admits, a rather utopian hope, and in fact the history of the past five hundred years suggests that denominations aren’t going to disappear any time soon, any more than narcissistic American celebrities are about to disappear from our television screens.  And while his deep thinking on this issue is intriguing, bold and worthy, there is some fine print in his plans for unity.

Leithart says that Jesus’ call for unity in his disciples means the dismantling of denominations. It may not be as short a logical journey between these two points as he thinks, but let’s just go with him for the moment. He is writing out of the American context where the array of choice in denominations reflects American ideas of freedom and abundance, and where the Christian Church, particularly because it has no common voice, gets co-opted into simply rubber-stamping Americanism. A united church, says Leithart, will more easily be able to differentiate Christianity from America. The old Christian America, as a ‘moral compass’, is dead, he says, (some would argue it never existed) so the way forward is grass-roots cooperation, not the old allegiances. This is already happening, of course, to some extent, led by cooperation over largely social justice issues (though conservative Christians do unite also over issues such as abortion).

In his effort to describe what a unified church will look like, he says that we must all learn from each other, from the expression of ideas that might be different from our own. But then he falls back into what members of denominations often do, and what sects do in extreme – tell people what they must believe to be ‘in’. He has his own set of non-negotiables that define Christianity.

Apparently the meaning of the ‘presence’ in the Lord’s Supper is negotiable, but sexual ethics are not. Apparently the more liberal churches have been wasting their time on environmental concerns, and he thinks, alarmingly, we should all wear white robes in church. (Think of the dry cleaning bills!) The trouble is, as he states early in the book, it is hard for Christians to even agree on fundamentals, when doctrine and morality is a focus instead of simply Christ-like service to others. Sure, heresy occurs, but if you want to confront it, in a global church, who decides? And then if you kick some out, don’t they go and form their own denomination?

(Reviewed originally for Crosslight magazine)

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