Peter Leithart’s “Church of the Future”

A fascinating event took place on Tuesday night at Biola University: “The Future of Protestantism.” The event was the culmination of a conversation sparked by an essay Peter Leithart wrote for First Things last November entitled “The End of Protestantism,” which then prompted a rebuttal from Biola’s Fred Sanders and then a rebuttal to the rebuttal by Leithart. All are well worth reading.

The “Future of Protestantism” event gathered Leithart, Sanders and Carl Trueman together on one stage to debate exactly what the event’s title ponders: what form should Protestantism take going forward? Is the “protest” of the Reformation still necessary or should unity as the one body of Christ be the goal as religion in general becomes marginalized in the secularizing west?

Leithart’s perspective is that Protestantism, insofar as it is defined in opposition to Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy), should end. It’s time for unity, he argues; unity is internal to the gospel itself.

“For either side, to persist in a provisional Protestant/Catholic self identification is a defection from the gospel,” says Leithart. “If the gospel is true, we are who we are by union with Jesus, in his Spirit, with his people. It then cannot be the case that we are who are are by differentiation from other believers.”

I’ll talk more in-depth about the challenging question of unity, as well as Sanders and Trueman’s responses to Leithart, in another blog post. But for now I want to consider the meat of Leithart’s proposal as articulated at Biola, which I think has merit and should be respectfully considered by even the most Bible-thumping and Sola-centric of Protestant evangelicals.

What does a unified, post-Protestant church look like? This was the substance of Leithart’s talk. He suggested we shouldn’t focus on the future of Protestantism as much as the church of the future, “a city yet to come.” His vision is for what he calls “Reformational Catholic” churches, and during his talk he offered a partial wish list of attributes he dreams of for this future model of church:

  1. Churches where “faith without works is dead” is heard as frequently as justification by faith
  2. Preachers who preach the whole Bible, in all its depth and beauty, and who draw on the whole tradition of Christian commentary as they prepare their sermons and teaching
  3. Pastors who form friendships with the local Orthodox and Catholic priests, knowing that they are one body
  4. Seminaries where theologians are encouraged to follow Scripture wherever it leads, even if we have to admit that our opponents were right all along
  5. Churches whose worship centers on the Eucharist, celebrated at least weekly
  6. Churches whose members know Psalms as well as any medieval monk, where hymns and prayers and praise are infused with the cadences of the Psalter
  7. Churches with enemies enough to make imprecatory psalms seem natural
  8. Churches whose musical culture is shaped by the tradition of church music
  9. Churches where infants are baptized and young children participate in the eucharistic assembly
  10. Churches whose pastors have the courage to use the tools of discipline with all love, gentleness, kindness and patience, but to use them, rather than using love and gentleness as excuses for cowardice and lethargy
  11. Churches that honor the discipline of other churches, knowing that they are one body
  12. Lutheran pastors who teach obedience, as Luther did
  13. Anglicans who exercise discipline
  14. Jolly Presbyterians with a reputation for levity
  15. Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition
  16. Baptists who love hierarchy
  17. Liturgical Bible churches
  18. Cities where all the churches pray and worship and labor together, where pastors serve the interests of the city, speaking with a single voice to civic leaders
  19. Churches that take the pedophilia scandal, the upheavals in the Anglican communion, the persecution of Orthodox believers as crises among our people, not problems for someone else over there, knowing that if one suffers, all the members suffer
  20. Churches that recognize that they are already members of a Church, where there are some who venerate icons, some who believe in transubstantiation, some who slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors, some who believe in papal infallibility and Mary’s immaculate conception, knowing that we are one body

This last point is particularly controversial, I suspect, as it is precisely on the basis of things like icon veneration and papal infallibility that so many Protestants are dubious of full communion with their Orthodox or Catholic brethren.

Leithart’s vision of “Reformational Catholic” churches, however, invites such differences and internalizes them as “in-the-family” issues that must be reckoned with and hashed out together, as one body, rather than tossed aside under the banner of irreconcilable schism.

“If Rome is simply outside of us, we can leave it to its errors,” said Leithart. “But if we are one body, Rome’s errors are errors in the church in which we too are members. Brothers correct brothers, and it works both ways.”

What do you think of Leithart’s proposal? Is his 20-point vision of “Reformational Catholic” #futurechurch compelling? Realistic? Naive? Within reach? Are there unreconcilable differences that make such a coming-back-together untenable?

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13 responses to “Peter Leithart’s “Church of the Future”

  1. Concerning Leithart’s point No. 20, you say that with respect to the things mentioned therein among the Romans and the Orthodox “… so many Protestants are dubious of full communion with their Orthodox or Catholic brethren.” I’d say that “dubious of full communion” puts the matter too tamely. Better to say “makes any communion impossible” for most Protestants I know among the Reformed and latter-day Anabaptist camps.

    Leaving aside entirely the soteriological issues of the Reformation, the later Marian and Papal doctrines of Vatican I raise virtually insuperable barriers between Protestants of any persuasion and Romans faithful to their own Magisterium. And please note that these latter barriers are raised entirely by the Romans against any and all non-Romans (including the Easterners!).

    I sympathize with Leithart’s concerns, and I agree with his idea that Protestantism construed as the non-Roman Christianity of the Western Church is something of little contemporary value, especially if that is the essential identity of Protestants. But, for Protestants to even speak of unity with respect to Rome or Constantinople apart from Protestants first reversing their own history and penchant for fissiparousness is simply whistling past the graveyard. When Protestantism has become something like the Reformational Catholicism Leithart speculates about in his opening remarks at the Biola event, then and only then might it be able to engage the tribalism of Rome or that very ancient split between the Eastern and Western Church.

  2. A good start would be for more churches to at least be able to say “Our doctrinal statement reflects our theological convictions but not our boundaries of fellowship”. Unity can’t even begin to occur if we can’t even eat a meal together.

  3. Amen to David Hoos’ comment! We gather around one table. Families have differences. We have drunk uncles and brainiac nieces, blue collar and white collar members. What is so hard about that?

  4. “some who slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors”. . . simply, no.

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  6. There is a good deal of merit I think to his proposal, as you say. But if Protestants can’t start by accepting each other then considerations of RCC and EO are simply wishful thinking.

    John Frame made that argument many years ago. An ecumenical church has to start within Protestantism before it can move beyond those borders.

    You can read his thoughts on Evangelical Reunion here:

    http://pastordaveonline.org/2011/06/06/an-interview-with-john-frame-on-evangelical-reunion/

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  8. Um, where is this mythical world where Christians “slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors” especially in obedience to biblical texts?

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  12. I was impressed by Leithart’s thoughts, It seems that to propose unity within Christianity as it sits today is also to propose a new sort of Christianity. A new way to allow the seed of Christianity to fully germinate among all who claim to be part of the kingdom.

    I think one of Leithart’s underlying points was that the mere intellectual act of recognizing the equivalence of a Catholic believer and Protestant believer from the divine perspective (i.e. part of one body) creates unpredictable actions and ideas that are good for the church. In matters like these (marriage is one example), the faith in the possibility of unity is required before any stable sort of unity can be attempted.

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