I still remember it after more than six years. I was at a leadership conference where a statistician discussed the state of the church in Canada. He explained that he believes Roman Catholics and Protestants need to come together if we’re going to find any success in turning Canadians back toward Christ. After all, he said, the more discussions he had with Catholics, mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, the more he found we had in common (which, basically amounted to “all of them pray and take their faith seriously”).
At the time, I was distressed, even annoyed, this advice. Today, I’m not surprised, just disappointed. We’ve been offered this sort of advice for decades, long before the first half of the century, in fact. In 2017, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses. The event that set off the Protestant Reformation in earnest, after centuries of simmering. An event that some today wonder was a mistake.
So, how do we answer this question? We do it the same way J.I. Packer did in “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. Packer wrote:
Christian bodies of all sorts are constantly urged to come together, sink their differences and present a united front to the forces of secularism and Communism. It is taken for granted that the differences in question are small and trifling—unsightly little cracks on the surface of an otherwise solid wall. But this assumption is false. Not all the cracks are mere superficial disfigurements; some of them are the outward signs of lack of structural integration. The wall is cracked because it is not all built on the same foundation. The more one probes the differences between Roman and Protestant, Liberal and Evangelical, the deeper they prove to be; beneath the cracks on the surface lie fissures which run down to the very foundations, broadening as they go. Nothing is gained just by trying to cement up the cracks; that only encourages the collapse of the entire wall. Sham unity is not worth working for, and real unity, that fellowship of love in the truth which Christ prayed that His disciples might enjoy, will come only as those sections of the wall which rest on unsound foundations are dismantled and rebuilt. Till this happens, the question of [biblical] authority must remain central in discussion between the dissident groups; and the best service one can do to the divided Church of Christ is to keep it there. (45)
The Reformation was many things, but it was not a mistake. It was not something that Christians today should regret. Until the day that the question of biblical authority is answered—the question at the center of everything in the Reformation—there’s no unity worth pursuing.
But we can pray. We can hope. And we can long for the day when God’s people will be united at the throne of grace, as we worship Christ together.
An earlier version of this post was written in 2013.