Last week Peter Leithart and I sat down to discuss some of the implications of his recent book, The End of Protestantism. If you are interested, the audio from that discussion can be found here. The question we were pursuing was this one: “Does the gospel require us to pursue and promote unity among Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and others?” I, for the sake of discussion and simplicity, replied no. There were some qualifications, but my answer to the question was no.
As I have since been mulling on our discussion, I have come to the conclusion that this project is not so much promising the end of Protestantism as it is beckoning us to the end of a particular kind of ecumenical blind alley. There are many reasons for this, but I have been focusing on three basic angles to this, angles that flow out of the crucial matter of church discipline.
Here is the set up to the problem. When Peter is asked what the kind of unity he envisions actually looks like, part of his answer includes all the churches respecting and honoring one another’s administration of the sacraments, and a corollary of this is obviously honoring one another’s discipline. In the Q&A time of our session, Peter was asked if heresy and schism were “a thing,” and if they were fit objects of ecclesiastical discipline. He replied that they were in fact a thing, but that he didn’t see how they could practically be disciplined with the Church in its current state of disunity and disarray, the problem being one of authority.
The first problem is that Scripture teaches us to attack divisiveness with discipline. We don’t answer division with unity; we answer division with discipline. Divisiveness and heresy need to be addressed in local congregations every bit as much as adultery and embezzlement do. And when we separate from a schismatic, we are not being schismatic. We are not doing the same thing he is doing. “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10, ESV). The fact that the factionalist might say that such passages justify his behavior does not mean that the passages cannot be used rightly. The fact that they are in the Bible means that we are supposed to follow them, apply them, and obey them.
The great passage on present and future church unity is found in Ephesians 4. All who are genuinely converted have a present unity that we are to preserve through personal grace and humility (Eph. 4: 2-3). And there is another kind of future unity that we are supposed to grow up into (Eph. 4:13), when we finally arrive at the perfect man, in the unity of the faith. When we have arrived there, it will have been because we have rejected various winds of doctrine, the sleight of mind, and the cunning craftiness of false teachers (Eph. 4:14). In other words, in order to grow up into the truth, we have to reject the liars. And we do so while speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Identifying and rejecting the liars, the divisive, the sectarians, and the schismatics is therefore the path to catholicity. It is not part of the harvest—it is removing rocks from the fields during the plowing and planting.
So this brings us to a very real problem for Peter’s proposal. There is a genuine theological difficulty here. When we say that we can discipline for heresy and schism when we are more unified, we are missing the fact that when we are more unified, there is far less need to do so. If failure to discipline schism and heresy gets us to the point of greater unity, why don’t we continue to do nothing so that we can have even greater unity than that? But unity does not promote godly discipline. Godly discipline promotes unity.
And the second problem is this. Before we get to that unified church that can make the definitive determination about this Christological heresy, or that bumptious sectarianism, portions of the disunified church (the most biblical portions) will in fact be disciplining for such things. Now suppose some character in a small but faithful denomination is excommunicated for invoking the goddess Sophia during a baptism. He flees, naturally, to a more accepting and ecumenical denomination, the kind with ministers named Sophia, and they accept him. Peter wants us to respect the disciplinary actions of other bodies, but these two actions are inconsistent. To honor the discipline of the small but faithful group is to poke the larger faithless group with a stick. If you side with the smaller faithful group, you rip it with the big group, and there goes your ecumenical effort down the drain. But if you side with the big group, and accept their acceptance of the Sophia guy, then you are in effect rejecting (disciplining) the smaller group.
And if you side with the biblical group, you are perpetuating a sola Scriptura approach to discipline, and you don’t need to wait for a global ecumenical council to deal with him. If you wait for the global ecumenical council, then at some point you will have to discipline those smaller faithful groups who discipline heretics on their own in the meantime, because they are refusing to wait for the global ecumenical council.
And this reveals something about the nature of discipline. Whether you discipline or not, you are always disciplining. This is because discipline is inescapable. To discipline the wolves is to protect the sheep. To not discipline the wolves is to discipline the sheep. As we wait for a unified church, we will find ourselves disciplining someone in the meantime. It will therefore either be the heretics, or the churches that discipline heretics.
And the last point is one that came up during our discussion. If we tell ourselves that we cannot authoritatively identify heretics or schismatics apart from a unified church, we are saying that when John the Baptist comes roaring out of the woods, he is doing so without the requisite paperwork.
We must always remember that in Scripture, “by what authority do you do this thing?” is the devil’s question. Of course it would be child’s play to write a scenario in which a good and godly man was impelled to ask the question, but even with that cheerfully acknowledged, in Scripture it is the devil’s line:
“And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23).
This is because a certain kind of man always gravitates to the seats of power, and he always learns how to operate the levers under the desk, and one of the first things he learns is how to question the credentials of some disheveled and high-school drop-out of a prophet. The shot is that we need to have the “proper authority” to deal with such issues. The chaser is that we will ensure that the “wrong” kind of person never gets near the “proper authority.”
And all goes well until the Son of Savonarola shows up at the General Assembly and overturns a few tables in a meeting of the previously decorous credentials committee.