Doug Wilson: Is the Protestant Church Fragmented

Ask Doug: You often hear members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches criticize Protestants with the claim that the Protestant church is fragmented into myriad denominations and lacks the unity of one universal church. How is this not a legitimate objection?

Doug Wilson responds:

I think it would be a legitimate objection, or at least a legitimate point to consider, if it were any way close to being accurate. The problem is that it is not accurate. It’s one of those things that everyone knows ‘it ain’t so’. And you might say, „I drive around, and I see Protestant churches, etc. … But, in the polemical exchanges between Roman Catholic apologists and Protestant apologists , the figure 20,000 denominations is a routine sort of claim. If you trace the genealogy of that, if someone asked, ‘Where did that number come from , by the way? You can trace it back to the World Christian Encyclopedia, which is an exhaustive, demographic , and it’s not a polemical book. It’s just recording data.

If you look at that book, and you look at ‘apples to apples’, you find out that you don’t have anything close to 20,000 denominations over here, and the one true church over there. You can count denominations different ways. So, for example: Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches with an independent polity- if you’re counting in terms of jurisdiction, you’re gonna have a grossly disproportionate number that ratchets up. Also the number 20,000 (it’s over 20,000) comes from also including some non protestant groups (not recognized to be protestant, anyways). And the Protestant grouping, according to this rough cut would be closer to 8,000. Some might say, „Well, that’s still bad.” It is bad.

But, if you go to the ‘apples with apples’, where you group things according to traditions- like common practices, common liturgies, common doctrinal assumptions and so forth, and you drill down into the data, you find that among the orthodox there are 19 different traditions. Among protestants there are 21. And among Roman Catholics there are 16.  Within Roman Catholic would be like- Old Latin Rites Catholics, there are Sedevacantist Roman Catholics- Sedevacantists believe the Papal seat is currently vacant, etc.. So you’ve got this Roman Catholic grouping, and then you count all the traditions and streams within them, and then you compare those traditions and streams to a comparable set within Protestants, where you group the Presbyterians together, that kind of thing.

Basically, I think it’s fair to say that Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are all inhabiting the same basic world. There’s not a radical distinction between them. Unless you pull out the trump card that all sectarians always pull out: „Well, our body is unified, and it’s all you guys who are fragmented.”  You know, the „I’m doing okay, the rest of the army’s out of step.” If you do that, then of course, a lonely sectarian Church of Christ can say, „We’re it. We’re it, and we’re unified, and all you guys are fragmented.” But, that’s to win the argument by definition. That’s the argument of the sectarian.

And, I would go a step further. When I said that there were 21 Protestant streams, or traditions, over and against 19 Orthodox ones, and 16 Roman Catholic ones, that is not taking into account what you might call evangelicalismSo, there, the Protestanism would include liberal denominations. If you group the evangelicals together and look at what you might call practical catholicity, where they’re holding conferences together, there’s a great deal of crossover among evangelicals. In other words, the Roman Catholic Church has almost as many sub divisions and traditions as Protestantism. Almost, and significantly more than evangelicalism does. And then, what divisions do exist among evangelicals- you find Baptists and Presbyterians, and Methodists, and people from all different streams  showing up at the same conferences and buying the same books, and listening to the same radio stations, and so forth. So there’s  a great deal of functional catholicity among evangelical protestants.

Having said all this, I’m happy to say, „Okay, and we want to grow up into the unity of the faith, as Paul says in Romans 4. We’ve got  a lot of work to do. I’m not trying to hang a bronze plaque on the wall and say that we’ve arrived at the final unity of the faith. We certainly haven’t. But, if you examine the numbers carefully, you’re not dealing with this global embarrassment of thousands and thousands harping, snarking Protestants and a unified (Catholic) church right here. That’s simply not true.

Ask Doug: Is the Protestant Church Fragmented? from Canon Wired on Vimeo.

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