Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

The Ecclesiastical Structure of Protestantism

A ubiquitous criticism of Protestants, typically coming from supposed “high-church” thinkers, is that it cannot secure proper church unity. Of course, disputable and objectionable definitions are always smuggled in under cover of the always equivocated-upon terms “church” and “unity.” If such unity is measured by the standard of clerical and institutional hierarchy, then the verdict is correct. Protestantism does not have a singular polity. But of course, that’s the whole point of Protestantism. From the very beginning it has rejected the notion that political submission is the essence of the church!

In an old article, Mark Noll explains:

It was a challenge when asked to write the “Protestantism” volume for Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series to make sense out of a movement with very distinct origins in early modern Europe that now is predominately located where the preoccupations of that earlier time and place are not even a memory. How, in other words, to incorporate into one story both Martin Luther and David Yonggi Cho, the Pentecostal pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, which with its nearly one million members has for many years been the world’s largest Christian congregation?

An answer could not even be attempted without acknowledging the extraordinary diversity of world-wide Protestantism. That diversity is structural since it describes a broad religious tradition that began as church-establishments in Europe (challenging [Roman] Catholic doctrine but preserving the Christendom instincts of Catholicism); that then added a voluntary form exemplified best by the constitutional separation of church and state in American experience; and that over the last century and a half added yet another form as Christian groups throughout the world exploit American-style voluntarism in settings far from Europe or America. Moreover, a multitude of doctrinal differences, differing musical forms, different political attitudes and huge differences in wealth and social power overlays this structural diversity.

Yet for all of this, Dr. Noll, unlike so many today, does not see this as a damning critique of Protestantism. Instead he writes, “The result is that in form Protestantism more closely resembles Judaism or Islam than Catholicism.”

And so, can you imagine that? Protestantism has an ecclesiology that looks unlike Europe but very much like the late-antique Middle East.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.