A Protestant Problem so Intractable that a Solution Has Never Been Offered. (1st of 3)

The Problem: Hundreds of Protestant Schisms, Each Church Pitched in the Direction of Dividing. Ralph D. Winter Resisted the Idea that We are Doomed to Live Like This.

Our tendency to divide from other Christians with whom we disagree, and defending church splits as somehow necessary if unfortunate, has been a problem since the first days of the Reformation. In fact, dividing over differences of “peace, unity and purity” is not even thought a problem, since our Reformation fathers modeled this way of establishing their churches. They hurled abusive language at one another and even invented punishments for Christians who disagreed with the official policies. Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, found it necessary to drown Anabaptists (such as his one time friend Felix Manz) for getting rebaptized, a capital offense in Zwingli’s Zurich. Four years later, Zwingli was killed on the field of battle (he had tried to starve the Catholic population in the nearby canton, but they broke out of his siege). Upon hearing of Zwingli’s death, Martin Luther wrote that Zwingli was teaching error on the Lord’s supper, so his death was no loss. So from the beginning, we, the sons and daughters of the Reformation, have learned (if accusation and cruel words can be learned) that we are a people pitched toward divisiveness. We learned that unity is not one of the top five values of the Protestant movement. But before you say, “Oh well, not much we can do about this now,” and before you roll to turn out the light, listen to our Lord Jesus Christ: “I have prayed for you that you might be one. I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” So, dear readers, unity is not an impossible dream, and we do err in our considerable disobedience to Jesus our Lord if we feel no grief in this matter.

Ralph and Roberta Winter

God have mercy. We have congratulated ourselves that, although church unity has been often sacrificed, we have held true to the doctrines that matter most. Does it have to be so? For the love of God, we cannot go on like this. Ralph D. Winter wrote a paper, “The Other Protestant Schism,” on the tendency of Protestants to divide from one another. Breaking up is not hard to do. A church, in its happy days of starting, or starting again when a new pastor brings fresh vision, cannot imagine the day would ever come when even we might face a breakup. Ralph Winter suggests that the power of Protestant sodalities—voluntary associations—may sustain a congregation when it realizes that the happy feelings that once held the membership together may now be going away because nominal members seem to have joined the church. What do you do when nominal members make up a sizeable number in a church that, three generations ago, was flourishing like newlyweds? Winter writes, “It seems almost a rule that every Christian tradition, whether Protestant, Mennonite or Roman, insofar as it depends heavily upon a family inheritance—or, shall we say, a biological mechanism for its perpetuation over a period of time, will gradually lose the spiritual vitality with which it may have begun.” I am excited to approach, in the days ahead, a problem that is worth some effort to understand and offer a way forward. We will look at this problem of church unity and renewal and we will consider Ralph D. Winter’s teaching on this matter in the next several blog posts.