The Protestant Reformation was a revival of biblical scholarship which led to the recovery of the Gospel. Nowadays things are not so clear.
There are many documented examples of Roman Catholic clerics being ignorant of the Bible at the time of the 16th-century European Reformation, and in such an environment it was relatively easy for the common people to judge for themselves that they were being shortchanged by these clerics. It is not so easy nowadays as there are multitudes of Roman Catholic academics doing their own research and Rome trains its priests at least as thoroughly as many protestant churches and more than many charismatic preachers.
In such an environment, Christians need to learn to DYOR, the abbreviated acronym in modern text messages for ‘do your own research’. Many people rely on the information provided by others, and most people still learn their religion from their religious teachers rather than reading for themselves.
It is correct to rely upon others and to benefit from collective wisdom, but not in a slavish manner. Scripture teaches us to check out teachers. The Holy Spirit commends the Bereans for checking out the teaching of the apostle Paul to see that it matched the Scripture: ‘These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so’ Act 17:11. If Paul’s public teaching was to be confirmed and checked against Scripture, how much more other teachers?
What about modern Protestantism? In recent decades there have been prominent former protestants returning to the Roman Catholic fold. Why is this?
1. one can no longer claim biblical ignorance among Roman Catholic scholarship. Whereas it was easy in the 16th century to find ignorant Roman Catholic priests and bishops, nowadays it is easy to find biblically ignorant so-called protestant ministers. Indeed in the 20th century, one Roman Catholic writer said that the counter-Reformation had ceased because there was no longer any Reformation to counter.
2. scholarship attracts thinking people. Leaders tend to be thinking people. So if one does wants to retain one’s leadership, one needs to ensure that one’s polemic is intellectually rigorous. This cannot be said of the average evangelical preacher. Evangelicals need to sharpen up.
3. a tick list of priorities is inevitable in determining where one worships God and to which denomination one will belong. This is associated with one’s Christian identity. Some people choose numbers over doctrine, others whether there are children of the same age as their own in the congregation, others choose locality, others put doctrine first, others want God-ordained worship instead of ‘will worship’ Col 2:23 and others look for authenticity, authority, historicity, unity or something else. Each has its proponents, and again the Christian has to DYOR and determine what Scripture has to say on the subject.
4. Roman Catholicism majors on the centrality of the pope in Rome. Protestantism majors on the centrality of the Word of God as the source of authority. Martin Luther appealed from the pope ill-informed to the pope better informed, and when this proved ineffective he appealed to a general council. When this also failed he realised that the only source of Christian authority is the Bible, which won his conscience in the absence of any argument to the contrary. The Bible acknowledges subordinate authority in the Christian church, but it is important to stress ‘subordinate’ to the Word of God.
5. those Roman Catholics who exalt organisational unity over biblical teaching have a different tick list of priorities. Scripture teaches that spiritual unity between the godly already exists and cannot be broken: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ Gal 3:28. The Holy Spirit made the unity and we are exhorted to maintain this unity ‘endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ Eph 4:3. This is to be accomplished by Christian forbearance v2, with the focus of their unity being the unity of the faith v13 maintained by the teaching office vv11-13.
6. by focusing on visible, organic unity and authority, former protestants turned Roman Catholic have been beguiled by wrong priorities. Their reasoning may be plausible but it is specious and convincing only to Roman Catholics who have already bought into these priorities. It is easy for them to categorise Protestant diversity as hopelessly disunited and unable ‘to deliver the goods’ of church unity. This begs the question of the difference between denominational unity and church unity. There are many people who enjoy and prefer the comfort of numbers and the security of authority. This is why people join trade unions. The comfort of ‘mother church’ suits some people better than the comfort of the Holy Spirit the Comforter (KJV) Jn 14:26.
7. Jesus tells us plainly that His church has many branches; ‘I am the Vine, you are the branches’ Jn 15:5. Some branches bring forth more fruit than others; ‘every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, He purges it in order that it may bring forth more fruit’ Jn 15:2. The unity of the church is not that it has one branch but that its many branches are united to the Vine Jesus Christ – not the pope in Rome, not the church’s confession, not the demi-pope of one’s denomination, or as John puts it: ‘Diotrephes who loves to have the pre-eminence … casts the brethren out of the church’ 3Jn 1:9-10.
8. it is a question of priorities and identities. We have many of each and they need to be prioritised. For some, the church comes before Christ, for others Christ before the church. For some unity over diversity, for others diversity over unity, for others the proper balance between the two – like a Vine with many branches.