A Protestant Problem So Intractable that A Solution has Never Been Offered (2nd of 3)

A Proposal to Consider: “The Enviable Roman Catholic Synthesis”

Dear Reader, today we quote at length from Dr. Ralph D. Winter’s article, “The Other Protestant Schism,” which we introduced here. In today’s blog Ralph D. Winter writes positively about the two structures of the Roman Catholic Church, the diocese and the monastic community. Winter almost has to apologize to his Protestant readers because we Protestants have given little thought to examining this most admirable pattern in the Catholic version of Christianity. Ralph D. Winter writes:

On balance I am convinced that the inherent decentralization, mobility and eliteness of the Roman religious communities must urgently be recovered by the Protestants. To a considerable extent, in fact, I believe Protestants do now possess in various para-church structures functional analogues, if only church administrators could somehow see them in a new light and develop a new relationship to them that will be both supportive but also help them to be accountable.

Modality and Sodality. Dr. Winter writes: In order better to explain the parallel structural forms in Catholic, Protestant and secular traditions alike, the writer has found it helpful to employ a pair of neutral terms: “modality” and “sodality.” It would appear that every human society, whether secular or religious, needs both modalities (that is, overall, given, governmental structures) and also sodalities (that is, other structured, decentralized and especially voluntary initiatives). Even primitive tribes possess, in addition to a tribal governmental system, other structures long called sodalities by anthropologists, borrowing and modifying the Catholic term. These are sub-structures within the community. These sub-structures—whose membership numbers are few in comparison to the entire community—are voluntary and are therefore not biologically perpetuated. American life itself is, to a staggering degree, the result of the work of thousands of organized, voluntary initiatives—business, social and cultural—which are watched and regulated but not administered by the government. It is fair to say that most Americans are friendly to this type of “private enterprise” and often tend to fear creeping “big government.” On the other hand, many Protestants who avidly support voluntarism and pluralism on a secular level at the same time deplore the fact that within the Christian movement there are hundreds of voluntary organizations—sodalities—that are for the most part not directly administered by churches. Their misgivings are mostly rooted in the absence of a responsible relationship between churches and many para-church organizations.

Winter continues: I have coined the term modality to refer to the overall governmental structure of a human community (such as a congregation) that is biologically sustained, passed on from generation to generation, whether city, state, church, denomination, synagogue, etc.

The word sodality then refers to those structures more likely to be voluntary, contractual and purposive, Membership in a sodality is not as likely to be biologically sustained. This is because primarily whole families are not generally admitted. Examples of sodalities include what Catholics call orders and religious societies and Protestant historians have called voluntary societies.[1]

Why am I so concerned to recognize the legitimacy of both structures? Because I believe the Reformation tragically abandoned the second of these two structures and unwittingly produced another, less-noticed internal “schism,” creating monumental problems for Protestants to this day. I recognize and value both the synagogue (modality) and the Pharisaic hevrah missionary band (sodality) in the Jewish community before Christ. Both the New Testament “church” (modality) and the New Testament missionary bands (sodality) are reasonable and helpful borrowings of those two earlier Jewish structures.

This pair of structures is present in the Catholic Church, and gives the Catholics a Biblical advantage that we should examine. I call it “the enviable Catholic synthesis.” The diocese (modality), administrated by a bishop, and the monastery (sodality), governed by an abbot, are functional equivalents of the pair of structures present in New Testament Jewish and Christian communities. We can apply these two kinds of organizations in Protestantism to denomination or congregation (modality) and the para-church structure (sodality).

The Warp and the Woof. The use of the phrase para-church organization for the second structure, the sodality, may even be questioned, if neither structure is any more normative, any more church, than the other. (Why not call churches para-missions?). Thus, just as it is impossible to make cloth without threads going both crosswise and lengthwise, it is crucially important to regard these two structures working together as the warp and the woof (weft) of the fabric, the fabric being the Christian movement—the people of God, the ecclesia of the New Testament, the church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to make either of the two structures central and the other secondary, as the term para-church seems to do, is probably unwise. The two are indeed interdependent and the evidences of history do not allow us to understand either of them as complete without the other. In the Roman tradition, their relationship is at least potentially a beneficial symbiosis. The problem is that within Protestantism today the tension between the two is as great as or greater than ever before.

Renewal in Protestantism has been an irruptive thing. Again and again sects have started out from within Protestantism, often with a vital fellowship during the first or second generation, but have inevitably swung from vitality to nominalism once they have become dependent upon family perpetuation for survival. The vitality of the sects has always been made possible by their newness, and the opportunity this gave them to be selective in their early membership. All attempts to impose stricter standards on an unwilling (rather than a voluntary) group have backfired: thus Oliver Cromwell’s ill-fated attempt to clamp all of England in a Puritan vise, Calvin’s attempt to turn Geneva into a Protestant-style monastery and Jonathan Edwards’ failure to successfully resist the compromises of the “Half-way Covenant.” Yet Protestantism in general, has made no serious attempt to recover the voluntary tradition of the Catholic orders. By cutting off the orders, the Protestants gave up arms and legs and virtually put unity, renewal and mission out of reach.

Ralph Winter continues: This does not at all mean that the modality, biologically perpetuated, is inferior to the sodality, the contractual group. It means that the continuing life and work of the Christian movement ideally requires both of these:

1. A mainly non-voluntary, inherited structure.

2. A whole array of optional, voluntary structures for deeper community and effective service.

The two types of structures, the one with a benefit-of-the-doubt membership and the other with ideally a strict and voluntary one, are together the warp and the woof of the fabric. Thus, when the voluntary structure is not valued and employed effectively, as is the case within Protestantism, the very fabric of the Christian movement is accordingly weakened. END

Blincoe: Suppose several Christians form themselves into a new congregation, perhaps meeting in a school on Sunday morning until they can afford to call a pastor and buy their own property. There is excitement every week, because everyone senses true Christian faith in the congregation. Ralph Winter says that over a period of, say, three generations, every Christian tradition, even those congregations which practice adult baptism will gradually lose spiritual vitality because “they have become dependent on family perpetuation.” What does the reader think of this? What about Winter’s provocative question, “Why not call churches para-missions?”

[1] Ralph Winter writes: I realize the dictionary gives several little used and unrelated meanings to the word modality, and I realize that both the Catholic and anthropological uses of the word sodality are slightly narrower than mine. I am not myself particularly attached to these terms, but I am certainly very concerned to suggest that the two kinds of structures to which I refer are the very warp and the woof of the fabric of all healthy societies and as such are both to be considered legitimate elements in any human community-religious or secular. As a result, much of my own writing has dealt with the dangers resulting where either modality or sodality is missing or either is not fostered and respected. RDW