rule in hell or obey in heaven?

A common Catholic criticism of Protestantism and its legacy is that ever since the reformers opened the flood gates of their “rebellion” there has been an unstoppable and uncontrollable multiplication of claims to the truth, followed by ever increasing splits and disunity. The Protestant counter-criticism says Catholics cannot think for themselves and merely follow the Roman Church and its Pope like dumb sheep. The late Richard John Neuhaus, in his book Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, says this about the reason to trust Christ and the Church he founded:

We obey because we trust the words of Christ to his apostles and to their successors who are the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome. We obey because the ministry of the Magisterium is the ministry of unity, and unity is part of the truth that Christ wills for his Church. The alternative to obedience is to turn the conversation into a cacophony of Christians making it up as they go along. Obedience does not come easily for there is in all of us the rebellious spirit of John Milton’s Satan, who would rather rule in hell than obey in heaven. If we will not have obedience, if we will not abide the self-discipline that is involved in sentire cum ecclesia,† then we would be well advised to make our acquaintance with the innumerable denominations and sects, or start one of our own.

Increasingly, I find Neuhaus’ argument compelling. What for so long seemed to me like the spirit of integrity appears now more and more like the spirit of rebellion. But it is so ingrained, so deeply loved, so much a part of the water we drink and air we breathe, that this rebellious spirit looks not only normative, but even honorable. I find that frightening, but not surprising. Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps I am merely projecting my own issues—I know some of that must be true—but I have been thinking about these things for more than twenty-seven years (since my days on the college group ministry team at a large Baptist church) that I don’t believe I am being reactionary.

I was trained to have a strong allergic reaction to words like “successors”, “bishops” and “Rome.” I was not trained to react against “Magisterium” because I’d never heard that word until recent years. Implied in all this, and what I now see more clearly, is the strong Protestant allergy to the word “obedience.” Protestantism is founded on disobedience (and so is the American spirit). Protestants will say, however, that they have merely changed their obedience from the church to the Bible, from man to God, from blindness to truth. I wish that were true, but I believe it is the popular myth animating Protestantism. I fear, and what perhaps seems clear to me now, is that Protestantism is the tangible, historical expression of “John Milton’s Satan, who would rather rule in hell than obey in heaven.” This is a very provocative thing to say, and of course any Protestant would disagree with that charge (I would have not long ago). But the disunity produced and maintained by Protestantism is a grave testimony of a turning away from Christ—at least in some significant and undeniable way. But Protestantism also provides a handy method of denial: just point your finger at everyone else, everyone not part of your denomination, or even your little local band of “believers,” and say it is they who have turned from Christ, not us.

In one way or another we all “think with the church,” or “a” church anyway, and none of us are as independent as we want to believe. We cannot help but think with a given set of ideas. I am not a Catholic, not yet anyway, but I have lived most of my life as a Protestant, and I know that Protestants are as bound and confined by traditions, presuppositions, confessions, hermeneutical methodologies, and mythologies, as anyone else. Can it be that the issue is not whether one “thinks with the church” but rather which church? If so, then which church?

Can it be that Protestantism, even in light of much that can be said to be good, and even in light of the many good Christians that populate its commonwealth, is essentially the wholesale embracing of the first century Corinthian church and its worldview—a worldview promoting factions and disunity? Remember, Paul is not calling the Corinthians apostate and declaring them non-Christian (though he comes close), rather Paul says, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul loves the Corinthians, and therefore he calls them back to unity. Is it time for Protestants to be called back to unity? to obey in heaven?

But I wonder, when Paul asked the Corinthians, “Has Christ been divided?” How many said, “It’s not my fault,” and blamed the others?

† to think with the Church

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