Daniel Wallace’s Thoughts on Protestant Ecclesiology

New Testament professor Daniel Wallace has a new blog. Wallace is professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has been in the news lately when he revealed in a debate with Bart Ehrman that we now possess a portion of the Gospel of Mark from as early as the first century. If this is true this would be the earliest manuscript of the New Testament. You can see an article on this here from Forbes Magazine.

I also found it interesting that among Wallace’s first posts was one on The Problem of Protestant Ecclesiology. Here’s part of what he wrote:

I am unashamedly a Protestant. I believe in sola scriptura, sola fidei, solus Christus, and the rest. I am convinced that Luther was on to something when he articulated his view of justification succinctly: simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”).

But with the birth of Protestantism there necessarily came a rift within the western church. By ‘necessarily’ I mean that Protestants made it necessary by splitting from Rome. Jaroslav Pelikan had it right when he said that the Reformation was a tragic necessity. Protestants felt truth was to be prized over unity, but the follow-through was devastating. This same mindset began to infect all Protestant churches so that they continued to splinter off from each other. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of Protestant denominations. One doesn’t see this level of fracturing in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Not even close.

“But unity in falsehood is no unity at all,” some will protest. To a degree that is true. If the unity of the church meant that we would all deny the bodily resurrection of the theanthropic person, then that would be unity against an essential of the Christian faith. But there is no thinking Christian who agrees lock, stock, and barrel with what his pastor teaches. Yet, he is a part of that church. In this respect, he has prized unity over truth. We all have to do this. If we didn’t, each Christian would be his or her own church. The fellowship would be awfully predictable and quite boring!

Several evangelical scholars have noted that the problem with Protestant ecclesiology is that there is no Protestant ecclesiology. In many denominations—and especially in non-denominational churches—there is no hierarchy of churches responsible to a central head, no accountability beyond the local congregation, no fellowship beyond the local assembly, no missional emphasis that gains support from hundreds of congregations, and no superiors to whom a local pastor must submit for doctrinal or ethical fidelity.

Three events have especially caused me to reflect on my own ecclesiological situation and long for something different.

First, I have spent a lot of time with Greek Orthodox folks. It doesn’t matter what Orthodox church or monastery I visit, I get the same message, the same liturgy, the same sense of the ‘holy other’ in our fellowship with the Triune God. The liturgy is precisely what bothers so many Protestants since their churches often try very hard to mute the voices from the past. “It’s just me and my Bible” is the motto of millions of evangelicals. They often intentionally forget the past two millennia and the possibility that the Spirit of God was working in the church during that time. Church history for all too many evangelicals does not start until Luther pounded that impressive parchment on the Schlosskirche door.

In Protestantism, one really doesn’t know what he or she will experience from church to church. Even churches of the same denomination are widely divergent. Some have a rock-solid proclamation of the Word, while others play games and woo sinners to join their ranks without even the slightest suggestion that they should repent of anything. Too many Protestant churches look like social clubs where the offense of the gospel has been diluted to feel-good psycho-theology. And the problem is only getting worse with mega-churches with their mini-theology. This ought not to be.

Second, a man whom I mentored years ago became a pastor of a non-denominational church. Recently and tragically, he denied the full deity of Christ and proclaimed that the Church had gotten it wrong since Nicea. He got in with a group of heretics who were very persuasive. The elders of the church had no recourse to any governing authority over the local church; they were the governing authority and they were not equipped to handle his heterodox teaching. It smelled wrong to them and they consulted me and another evangelical teacher for help. It took some time before they could show the pastor the door, and they were bewildered and troubled during the process. The congregation wasn’t sure which way was up. Doubts about the cornerstone of orthodoxy—the deity of Christ—arose. This cancer could have been cut out more swiftly and cleanly if the church was subordinate to a hierarchy that maintained true doctrine in its churches. And the damage would have been less severe and less traumatic for the church.

Third . . .

You can read the entire post here. It is a fascinating read. Catholics and Orthodox will be pleased with much of what Wallace writes. It will make many Protestants squirm but his points should be taken seriously. I have added his blog to my blogroll. Wallace is not the only Protestant to recently express some dissatisfaction with Protestant ecclesiology. See this post by Ben Witherington. He begins his post with these words:

“One of the real problems which has plagued the Protestant movement from Day One is bad or weak ecclesiology. What I mean by this is that in various cases it is both unBiblical, and it is also often unworkable. It is unBiblical because there definitely is a hierarchy of leadership in the early church that extends beyond a particular local congregation, and furthermore, there is a concept of ‘church’ and its leadership structures which transcends a particular local expression of the church say in a house church or a particular local congregation.”

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Catholic, Church History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Daniel Wallace’s Thoughts on Protestant Ecclesiology

  1. Tough but necessary thoughts here and not a few toes stepped on no doubt.
    Though the unity Jesus prayed for seems so elusive (John 17:11, 23), somehow I suspect that his prayer will be answered…..someday.

    Like

  2. Greg says:

    It isn’t elusive – the Orthodox Church is a reality that is open to anyone: happily it offers unity of Faith in the “Faith once delivered to the Saints.”

    Like

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