How to Be a (Better) Protestant in Five Easy Steps

Reformation Day doesn’t make me giddy, but it does afford me the opportunity to think again about this business of being Protestant. “I yam what I yam,” Popeye said. And so it is with me. By the grace of God.

Most non-Catholic, non-Orthodox Christians really don’t identify as Protestants. They’re Baptists and Presbyterians, Reformed and Anglican and Methodist and Vineyard and Pentecostal. And if they’re not any of those, they’re non-denominational. Or they’re nothing because they don’t bother with church. But technicalities aside, if you’re a Christian, and you’re neither Catholic nor Orthodox, you’re Protestant.

Perhaps we need a refresher course on what this means and how to be one. (Or, at least, a better one.)

1)   Know your history. To be a Protestant is to be in relationship with the Catholic Church. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s not. The very term “protestant” is an expression of dissent, and tacitly implies the object of dissent. We are Protestants only because there is a Catholic Church. For too many years the relationship has been adversarial, like siblings who won’t sit at the same Thanksgiving meal, but thankfully we’re now on speaking terms (at least most of us) and can acknowledge our common parentage. To be a (better) Protestant you need to be catholic.

2)   Embrace diversity. As Protestants, we’re all about doing faith our own way. There are approximately 40,000 different ways to be Protestant. Sometimes it’s not pretty, and we are all more than ready to lament the other 39,999 ways. But that’s the Protestant picture. Sometimes we try to manage this by closing the ranks around those who agree with our way; we make “our way” (our theologies, our practices, our traditions, our music, our doctrines) central, which only serves to edge the Jesus story out to the periphery. “Yes, of course we believe in the gospel, but we know you really belong with us if you immerse rather than sprinkle … if you believe that grace is irresistible … if you use a prayer book … if you teach the rapture …” To be a (better) Protestant you need to humbly accept the Christian crazies who like to do it differently.

3)   Recognize the tradition. We have memories that are two thousand years old, and yet we act like everything that has happened since Jesus (or at least before Billy Graham if you’re older than 50; before Brian McLaren if you’re under 50) is relatively irrelevant and usually screwed up. As though we’re getting it right. We, who have so much more biblical, historical, psychological, theological, linguistic, sociological, cultural, and technological knowledge, surely understand better how to interpret the scriptures, how to parse doctrine, how to run a church, how to disciple. Obviously. Look how much better we’re doing it all… Nooo, to be a (better) Protestant you need the ancient ways so that you don’t go off the skids.

4)   Pray for unity. Unity has always been a hope and a prayer, not a reality. (Go back to #1 and #2 to review.) To pray for it, as Jesus did, is to move in rhythm with his will and his plans. It looks quite impossible, but if we only pray for the possible, we have quite pathetic imaginations. We pray for unity, not needing to know the hows and whys or whens of it coming to pass, but in confidence that it is coming and welcoming signs of it and efforts toward it. This is not something we need to recover from our past, but something we can eagerly anticipate in our future. To be a (better) Protestant you need to yearn for all the flighty experiences of Christian faith to roost together, under the shelter of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

5)   Settle in with a family. The worst part about being a Protestant is that you don’t have to belong anywhere. Our Catholic brothers and sisters belong in whatever Catholic Church they walk into. We, on the other hand, can tend to be perpetual visitors, always lookie-loos. There’s some great grace in being stuck with people. A prickly grace, sometimes, but grace nonetheless. Our lust for perfection (as though we’d recognize it when we see it) drives us from one church to another … and ultimately, if we indulge it long enough, leaves us at home, where we can be perfect all by ourselves. To be a (better) Protestant, you need to give up your ecclesial wanderlust and reconcile yourself to a group of occasionally irritating, imperfect, and inefficient people, as they must do when you join them.

So, Happy Reformation Day!

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