Protestants

For many centuries Christian and Catholic were synonymous.  The word Catholic simple means universal (Latin catholicus, Greek katholikos). Catholic simply designated the universal Christian Church.

 

Initially Christianity was ‘universal’ without being centralized. When Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire it took on the same administrative structure. The Western half of the Christian Empire was based in Rome where the principle language was Latin.  The Eastern half of the Christian Empire was based in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) where the principle language was Greek.  The western half of the Roman Empire was conquered by barbarians in 476 while the eastern half continued to rule for another 1000 years.

 

The two halves of the Catholic Empire broke apart in 1054 when the Western Pope and the Eastern Patriarch excommunicated one another.  Roman Catholics continued to consider themselves true Christians, as did the Eastern Orthodox. The two forms of Christianity share the same ancient roots. A Church historian noted, ‘And here, perhaps, is an irony as cruel as it is intriguing: when the Church, to which Augustine had devoted the last four and a half decades of his life, was to split in a manner that still shows no signs of reconciliation, both sides would appeal to Augustine as an authority on questions of doctrine.’

 

Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination, reporting more than 1 billion members. It is characterized by a hierarchical governance structure known as Episcopal (the Greek word for bishop is episcopos). Each bishop oversees churches within a regional diocese and the supreme Bishop is the Pope who resides at the Vatican in Roman. Greeks Orthodoxy retains a similar structure.

 

Eastern Orthodox Christians make up the second largest Christian denomination with 300 million adherents. They are not Protestant because they consider themselves to be orthodox Catholics. Eastern Orthodoxy is the dominant Christian denomination in the majority of Slavic countries (including Russia), as well as in Greece, Romania and Moldova.  

 

The term Protestant appears during the Reformation, which was a major protest against doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 arguments to the door of the Wittenburg church. The word Protestant was first used in 1529 to designate Christians who separated from the Roman Catholic Church.

So what are Protestants? How are they defined? The simplest definition of Protestant is ‘a Christian who is not Catholic’ but this definition is as unhelpful as saying that living organisms are organisms that are not non-living. The Protestant realm is almost as diverse and vast as the animal kingdom but it is possible to identify major groups. Each of these phyla can be subdivided into classes, orders, families and genera.

 

Protestant Episcopalian  The only Protestant church characterized by an Episcopalian governance structure is the Church of England, which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534.  The rupture was not a dispute over doctrine, but authority. Henry VIII wanted a divorce. The Pope refused to grant it.  Henry refused to accept the Pope’s authority and ordered parliament to pass a law that separated English Catholics from Roman Catholics and made the king of England head of the English Church. Henry got his divorce and England got a new Church that was so like the old Church that many Britons barely noticed the difference.  The governing structure is still based on Bishops. High Anglicans churches are still very like Roman Catholics in their doctrine and liturgy; the most notable difference being that Anglican priests can marry. The Church of England is affiliated with Anglican churches worldwide which number 80 million members.

 

The Old Catholic Church broke away from Roman Catholicism in the 1870s over doctrinal matters including the recent innovation of Papal infallibility.  The Old Catholic Church, as its name suggests, does not consider itself Protestant, although some Old Catholic churches share full communion with Anglicans.

 

Lutherans comprise a Protestant denomination whose common feature is the teachings of Martin Luther, and in particular his two catechisms. Some Lutheran churches are Episcopalian, and quite similar to Catholics, while others are governed by the local congregation. Lutheranism is a major denomination in Germany, Denmark and the Scandinavian countries. About 73 million Christians are members of Lutheran Churches.

 

Reformed Churches are characterized by Calvinist doctrines.  A 1999 survey found 746 Reformed denominations worldwide.  Reformed churches have two main forms of governance: presbyterian (governed by local church elders) or congregational (governed by the local congregation). Calvinists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and other members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches number 75 million members.

 

Unitarians can be traced back to Poland and Transylvania in the 1540s. They were the first group to break away from the Protestant Reformation because it was too conservative. Rejecting predestination, original sin and, in recent times, biblical inerrancy, Unitarians take their name from a belief that Christianity should be a monotheistic religion, unencumbered by the mystery of a triune God.  Unitarians are among the most liberal Protestants.

 

Baptists and Anabaptists (Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish) differ from Calvinists and Lutherans in not baptizing infants, only baptizing believing adults. Some Baptists do not baptize children because they believe in freewill and disagree with Augustinian/Calvinist doctrines about original sin; others do not baptize children because they agree with Augustinian/Calvinist doctrines about original sin and divine election.  Both sets of beliefs make infant baptism unnecessary.  Puritans and the English Separatist movement were Baptists. The American Southern Baptist Convention was formed by nine state conventions in 1845, founded in part on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery, and that it is acceptable for Christians to own slaves. Black Baptists of the South and West formed the Consolidated American Baptist Convention in 1866. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to adopt a resolution renouncing its racist roots and apologizing for its past defense of slavery. Currently American Baptist numerical strength is greatest in the former slaveholding states. The Baptist faith is also the predominant faith of African Americans. The Baptist World Alliance reports more than 41 million members in more than 150,000 congregations worldwide.  

 

Charismatics form a major family of Protestant churches that concentrate on moral purity and holiness rather than doctrine. The roots go back at least a century before the Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin, but there were always dissenting Christians who wanted to remove Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath and restore Christianity to its original purity. These dissenters were condemned as heretics for resurrecting the Pelagian heresy of perfectionism and many were martyred for their beliefs.

 

The influence of Jan Hus (1369-1415) can be traced in a direct line to the modern Charismatic movement.  Hus had been influenced by the British churchman John Wycliffe who challenged the authority of Bishops, and anticipated Luther and Calvin in their call for elimination of indulgences and purgatory.  Hus would also proclaim justification by grace through faith alone.  Hus was burned at the stake, which sparked the Hussite Wars between his pre-Protestant followers and Catholic armies of Crusaders. By the middle of the 16th century, 90% of Czech/Moravian lands were Protestant.  During the bloody Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Protestant noblemen were either executed or expelled from the country. War and plague decimated the Czech/Moravian lands, eliminating 75% of the population.

 

As Jan Hus’s legacy was being extinguished in Moravia, a new attempt to restore the purity of Early Christianity was rising among German Lutherans. Pietism promoted a moral reformation and holiness. The founder of Pietism, Jacob Spener, set out six proposals for restoring the life of the Church in  Pia desideria, the earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia ("little churches within the church"), the Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church, a knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement, instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers,a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them, a reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life, a different style of preaching, namely, in the place of pleasing rhetoric, the implanting of Christianity in the inner or new man, the soul of which is faith, and its effects the fruits of life.

 

The twin roots of Hus and Spener came together under the leadership of Count Nikolaus Ludvig von Zinzendorf who founded the Moravian Church, also known as the Bohemian Brethren, in 1722. As well as promoting personal holiness, the Moravians created the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement, evangelizing Asia, Africa and the colonial Americas.

 

A young British Anglican, fresh out of Oxford, set off as a missionary in 1735 to convert the Indians of the New World. John Wesley’s own efforts were a discouraging failure but Moravian missionaries converted the young Anglican to a passionate, personal form of Christianity that would lead to his expulsion from the Anglican Church. The young man’s unorthodox ways of preaching and practicing Christianity was ridiculed as a contrived ‘method’ and his followers were labeled ‘methodists’, much as students of Lee Strasberg’s acting technique – such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert de Niro –  were mocked as ‘method’ actors.

 

John Wesley’s Methodists were the major force of Protestant renewal in the 18th century.  Two defining features were their belief in freewill and personal holiness. American Methodists gave birth to the Holiness Movement and the Salvation Army, which were major forces of Protestant renewal in the 19th century. The Holiness movement gave birth to the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement, which was the major force of Protestant renewal in the 20th century.

 

The Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement began in Los Angeles in 1906. It was called the Pentecostal Revival because, as on the original day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit poured out on believers. In Los Angeles the phenomenon lasted for three years.  Believers flocked from around America, and then from around the world, to witness unbelievable manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  Unbelievers and journalists noted the hysteria: laughing, weeping, rolling on the floor and speaking in incomprehensible tongues. The Los Angeles Daily Times reported that ‘Whites and Blacks Mix in a Religious Frenzy’ while the Los Angeles Record howled ‘Holy Kickers Carry on Mad Orgies’. Pentecostal/Charismatics were ridiculed by conservatives who denounced the unseemly cacophony as demonic.

 

What was going on at Azusa Street?  One remarkable fact was that blacks, whites and Asians all worshipped together. This was only a generation after the end of slavery in the USA; the Southern Baptist Church was completely segregated. At Azusa Street all races and social classes worshipped together. This would soon change.  In his scholarly book The Pentecostals (1972) Walter Hollenweger notes that Pentecostals would soon segregate and the largest white Pentecostal organization in the USA became the Assemblies of God.

 

But in 1906, most of the Charismatics were black, poor and poorly educated which made it easy for university trained Calvinist, Reformed, Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers to denounce them. Harvey Cox in Fire From Heaven (1994) writes, ‘If the mainline churches disliked the Pentecostals, it is not an exaggeration to say that the fundamentalists loathed them.’  Fundamentalists were obsessed with bible knowledge and doctrinal purity. Pentecostals made a virtue of their lack of book learning. Their slogan became ‘a man with experience (of the Holy Spirit) is never at the mercy of a man with a doctrine.’

 

The San Francisco earthquake and the great fire of 1906 occurred at the same time that Los Angeles was shaken and on fire with the Holy Spirit. The revival took on biblical dimensions of Last Days, the destruction of Babylon and the onset of Armageddon.  A pessimistic pre-millennial expectation of End Times has been a hallmark of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement ever since.  

 

The 20th century has seen a steady decline in membership for the old Protestant denominations while Pentecostal/Charismatic churches have proliferated in homes, barns and storefronts. Pentecostals have also dominated Christian media in all its forms. Some of the greatest scandals of Christianity in the 20th century involved Pentecostal leaders, from Charles Parham and Aimee Semple McPherson to Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Paul Crouch and Paul Cain.  Pentecostalism has also given birth to the much derided Prosperity Movement (name it and claim it).

 

Pentecostalism is sometimes referred to as the "third force of Christianity", the first two being Catholicism and traditional Protestantism. In 2000, its adherents were estimated to number around 115 million worldwide.

 

Prophet-driven Protestant denominations include Mormons (Joseph Smith based his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on golden tablets given to him by angels in 1827), Millerites (failed end-of-the-world prophecies in the 1840s), which spawned several Adventist groups, most notably Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (Charles Taze Russell predicted several precise dates for the second Coming of Christ).  The extreme leap of faith demanded by prophet-driven churches creates an intense solidarity among believers and the shared gnosis of a secret society. Ridicule and scorn merely affirm the truth of the sacred message; persecution proves the unbelieving world is dominated by darkness.  Despite failed prophecies and unorthodox ideas, Prophet-driven churches were among the fastest growing Christian denominations in the 20th century, which confirms the sage advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5:33-40) concerning the persecution of self-proclaimed prophets and their followers.

 

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