Understanding Protestantism

The diversity within Protestantism is immense. This is can make it quite difficult to understand the where any particular Protestant is coming from. Simply knowing what denomination they belong to does not answer every question because within a denomination there can be a great deal of diversity. Even reading the statement of faith from their own church may not give you a full picture because each Protestant has their own gifts and spiritual emphasis in their own life.

Instead of explaining the differences between Protestants, Catholics and Mormons. I’m hoping to give you a window into the conversations Protestants have between themselves. It will be difficult for me to cover everything in a blog post, but hopefully this will give you a good overview.

Renovare has observed 6 traditions of practice in Christianity. A well rounded Christian life would include all of them. Most Protestant denominations emphasize 1 – 3 of these over the others. A great deal of debate among Protestants is over emphasis of one of these traditions over any other. Some denominations represent some of these better than others. But their presence might be seen in any church regardless of denomination.

Contemplative: The Prayer-filled life

By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading and will seek to practice the presence of God.

Holiness: The Virtuous Life

By God’s grace, I will strive mightily against sin and will do deeds of love and mercy.

Charismatic: The Spirit-Empowered Life

By God’s grace, I will welcome the Holy Spirit, exercising the gifts and nurturing the fruit while living in the joy and power of the Spirit.

Social Justice: The Compassionate Life

By God’s grace, I will endeavor to serve others everywhere I can and will work for justice in all human relationships and social structures.

Evangelical: The Word-Centered Life

By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and study the Scriptures regularly.

Incarnational: The Sacramental Life

By God’s grace, I will joyfully seek to show forth the presence of God in all that I say, in all that I do, in all that I am.

In addition to these practices, denominations and churches are separated by worship styles, church government and theology. Worship style and theology are often the reason Protestants choose one church over another. I’ve yet to meet anyone who wasn’t willing to adapt to whatever form of church government was present in any particular church.

In very overarching terms these are the major theological conflicts in Protestantism:

Calvinist vs Arminian

A debate over free-will and God’s sovereignty in discussing who is and who is not a believer. The debate over “once-saved-always-saved” falls into this category. The two sides are most generally represented by Presbyterians and Methodist.

Liberal vs. Conservative

This debate focuses a great deal on how the Bible should be read. What level of nuance or literalism is to be carried into the interpretation of scripture. When the liberal theological movement started at the end of the 19th Century within academia there was a backlash on the popular level that created the Fundamentalist movement. The “mainline” denominations such as Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian churches tended to adopt liberal theology while Southern Baptist and Non-Denominational churches stayed with a conservative reading. It should be noted that in some cases there are liberal and conservative versions of specific denominations (ie. Presbyterian Church of the USA and the Presbyterian Church of America). Liberal churches more often focus on social justice practices while conservative churches more often focus on the study of the Bible (but not necessarily to the exclusion of the other in either case).

To throw a new wrinkle into the mess is the rise of a new movement known as the Emergent Movement.  It’s strongly influenced by Post-modernism and can be difficult to define as a result.  There are two basic expressions of post-modernism in the church.  The first is sometimes called “the Emerging Church” and is an attempt to rework the worship styles and modes of the church to appeal to a post-modern world. Theologically it remains conservative but might encourage exploration into other practices that might have been neglected by traditionally conservative churches.  The other is most represent by “the Emergent Village” which embraces Post-modern notions of truth.  Everything in the church (not just worship style and spiritual practice) is up for re-evaluation in Emergent churches. It is often criticized for reintroducing liberal theology with a new method of epistemology. Both variations (emerging and emergent) are finding their own expressions across denominational lines.

If I had to tag the LDS church with the categories above, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to discover that Joseph Smith was attending a Methodist church before founding the LDS church. The Methodist church at the time was focused on Holiness and Evangelical practice and had not yet adopted any form of liberalism. Even the LDS worship style resembles 19th Century Methodism. As the Community of Christ has returned to orthodoxy it’s been no shock to see them embrace liberal Methodism.  It will be interesting to see where the LDS church goes as many of its academics begin to explore liberal Biblical theology but the leadership of the church remains firm on a conservative reading of its other scriptures.

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15 thoughts on “Understanding Protestantism

  1. Thanks for the brief overview, Tim.

    The last paragraph is very interesting. For all of the evolution of ideas, practices, and such within the LDS church, worship has indeed remained fairly consistent (excepting the move some 30 years ago or so to a three hour church block on Sunday rather than split sacrament and priesthood/relief society meetings and Sunday School classes).

    Mormon academics have been studying liberal Biblical theology for quite some time now, but it’s been kind of tough for them. In the 60’s some of them faced church discipline of one form or another, ostracization from the mainstream groups of, say, BYU religion professors, etc. I think the general attitude is a little bit more tolerant today.

    It is interesting, though, to see the dynamic of what is written by academics about possible alternative origins for the Book of Mormon, and the affirmations given in General Conference.

  2. where is verse 8 the 4 commandmentand who say that we are not under the law of god anymore. so why did revelation 22; 14 says blessed are they that keep his commandments that they may have right to the tree of life and may enter in through the gates into the city. verse 15 for without are dogs sorcerers and whoremongers and murders, and idolaters and who ever loveth and maketh a lie.

    anewzion@yahoo.com
    A vision given from god to a prophetess in 1901
    twin towers in new york city.
    On one occasion, when in New York City, I was in the night season called upon to behold buildings rising story after story toward heaven. These buildings were warranted to be fireproof, and they were erected to glorify the owners and builders. Higher and still higher these buildings rose, and in them the most costly material was used. Those to whom these buildings belonged were not asking themselves: “How can we best glorify God?” The Lord was not in their thoughts.

    I thought: “Oh, that those who are thus investing their means could see their course as God sees it! They are piling up magnificent buildings, but how foolish in the sight of the Ruler of the universe is their planning and devising. They are not studying with all the powers of heart and mind how they may glorify God. They have lost sight of this, the first duty of man.”

    As these lofty buildings went up, the owners rejoiced with ambitious pride that they had money to use in gratifying self and provoking the envy of their neighbors. Much of the money that they thus invested had been obtained through exaction, through grinding down the poor. They forgot that in heaven an account of every business transaction is kept; every unjust deal, every fraudulent act, is there recorded. The time is coming when in their fraud and insolence men will reach a point that the Lord will not permit them to pass, and they will learn that there is a limit to the forbearance of Jehovah.

    The scene that next passed before me was an alarm of fire. Men looked at the lofty and supposedly fire-proof buildings and said: “They are perfectly safe.” But these buildings were consumed as if made of pitch. The fire engines could do nothing to stay the destruction. The firemen were unable to operate the engines

  3. In the 60’s some of them faced church discipline of one form or another, ostracization from the mainstream groups of, say, BYU religion professors, etc. I think the general attitude is a little bit more tolerant today.

    I’d love to agree but evidence does not support this. David P. Wright advocated a more liberal reading of the Hebrew scriptures. He was summarily dismissed from BYU despite receiving high marks for scholarship and teaching. He was then excommunicated from the church in 1994.

    This guy is top notch. If we got to take back the remaining September 6 or David P. Wright (not both), I would take back Wright in a second over the September Six. Put simply he does top notch work. He is a contributor to the Oxford Annotated Bible, has several entries in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and is a leading expert in ancient purity rituals and law.

    The bottom line is that no one at BYU does any kind of Biblical Studies that is submitted to any peer review process, at least that they will fess up to. If you don’t believe me go to the BYU site for Religious Studies or whatever they call it these days and look for the published works. It’s nothing but a laundry list of the Mormon publishing ghetto.

    I wish Mormons could/would make substantial contributions to Biblical scholarship, but it’s still a hard thing to do.

  4. Mormon academics have been studying liberal Biblical theology for quite some time now, but it’s been kind of tough for them. In the 60’s some of them faced church discipline of one form or another, ostracization from the mainstream groups of, say, BYU religion professors, etc. I think the general attitude is a little bit more tolerant today.

    You’re timing is a bit off, for what it’s worth.

  5. Also, I enjoyed the article. I think it is important for us Mormons to realize that Mormons think 100% denominationally, while for the rest of the world denominations are important but not all encompassing. I found it fascinating to listen to Bart Ehrman recount his journey through Christendom. He bounced around various denominations looking for something that fit him before ultimately deciding he was an agnostic. That he left is not the point, that he felt comfortable moving between denominations in his search for Christ is fascinating to this Mormon. For Mormons it’s the Mormon way or the highway. While this attitude does foster loyalty I appreciate the flexibility other Christians have.

  6. I wish this had been a bit more clear about what people usually mean when they talk about “Mainline,” “Evangelical,” “Fundamentalist,” and “Charismatic” Protestants.

  7. Umm… guys?

    Wasn’t this post supposed to be mostly about Protestants?

    So why is it suddenly about Mormons and their problems?

  8. I believe that this post is good, for as far as it goes.

    Calvinists vs. Arminians: I thought the Baptists were the ultimate Arminians, but maybe I’m wrong. Is it true, Tim, that some Calvinists don’t believe Arminians are Christians at all? I’ve read some accounts that would suggest this is true, only I don’t know how prevalent this is.

    Liberal vs. Conservatism:
    Ok, as someone who has spent some time (not just visiting once or twice) in Southern Baptist, Evangelical Presbyterian, Charismatic Episcopal, Methodist, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches, it is my personal observation that, it seems very much to me that many Evangelical protestants have a very black and white view of mainline Christians. Either you’re born-again, spirit-filled, and Bible believing, as Evangelicals believe a Christian must be, or you’re a supporter of the Jesus seminar and totally unsaved. My husband is not really what you would call a theological liberal, although he belongs to the United Methodist denomination. I will be honest, and say that one very important reason why I am very, very, drawn to the LDS is because in my mind, they combine conservative views of scripture with social justice and a sense of community, something that I have failed to find in the Protestant world.
    As far as church government goes, I truly and firmly believe in the superiority of the laymen’s church over one with a paid, professional clergy. I’ve had so many bad experiences with Protestant clergy. (and I recognize that this is just ME, it doesn’t mean the Protestant clergy system isn’t a blessing to many others) It grieves me that the Community of Christ may one day abolish its lay clergy.
    This is not meant to be a criticism of the post, but the descriptions just seem so academic. These issues are real issues, and people on both sides are hurting deeply because of arguments about these topics.
    I have been participating on the blogosphere with the goal of trying to support Evangelical Christian author Debbie Maken in her fight with the Evangelical establishment over the modern interpretations of scripture which form the bedrock of the “Gift of Singleness” doctrine which has taken over large sections of the Evangelical church these last thirty years or so. Primarily, I have tried to provide support for Debbie Maken, Gortexgrrl, and Captain Sensible (two other prominent bloggers who are fighting the GOS.) I’ve also tried to provide encouragement for older single Christian women who are getting discouraged, and losing hope.
    I am happy to report that, as of last week, Gortexgrrl and her supporters were able to convince the editors of the “New Living Translation” of the Bible as well as another modern translation, “The Message” to remove the term “Gift of Singleness” from 1st Corinthians, where it has been for about the last three decades. Ist Corinthians 7:7 (NLT) now reads: “…Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another.” No more will conservative Evangelicals be able to claim biblical support for telling lonely single women and men, “If you’re single, that means God has given you the gift of singleness, and you should just learn to be content with it or you’re an idolator for not being content with Jesus alone.”
    I have been personally attacked by a Calvinist Seminarian, and told that I am an idolator whom God has handed over to my own evil lusts because I had the courage to marry a United Methodist. It’s funny, when the Evangelicals came to my college dorm room all those years ago, they said, “The Church is made up of believers of all denominations.” I loved the belief that salvation was by grace, through faith, in Jesus Christ alone, so I accepted Christ gladly.
    It’s funny though, when it comes to marriage, it seems like my mainline Methodist husband just doesn’t measure up as far as many Evangelicals are concerned. You see, he doesn’t believe the terms “infallible” and “inerrant” are applicable to the Bible, although he does believe that the teachings in the Bible are always true and can NEVER fail. He also accepts the Apostle’s creed as a statement of his faith. My personal observation, I could very well be wrong, is that Evangelicals place so much emphasis on their interpretations of scripture, particularly, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” To them, this is the unforgivable sin. And mainline Christians are mostly not considered “real” believers, for one reason or another. I used to think that Evangelicals were really cruel to Mormons, but now, I’m beginning to believe that Evangelicals are even more cruel to other Christians, even other Evangelicals, who happen to disagree with them. The arguments that Mrs. Maken and her supporters have had with other Christians over the “Gift of Singleness” seem to bear this out.
    I was born RLDS. I’ve never believed in the necessity of marriage for exhaltation, but no way was I ever going to buy into the Evangelical doctrine about the “Gift of singleness.” I totally do not understand the thinking–unless you really feel in your heart that God has called you to mission work in Africa or some such place where having a family is dangerous, OR you are like my Great Aunt, whose fiance was killed in WWI, and you call out to God for comfort, and he gives you the ability to be happy and not want to be married, I really don’t believe God wills people to be single–Ever. This one issue strikes so deep a chord within me, that I will probably always be a mainline Christian, and never return to Evangelicalism–although I am proud of and grateful to the translators of the NLT (who I assume are Evangelicals) for recognizing a mistake and being willing to change it, for the benefit of untold numbers of single Christians in the years to come.

  9. David,

    There are a few at BYU who are doing serious scholarship. Thomas Wayment, in particular, has published in a number of top tier journals. But I agree with your overall picture, much of what comes out of the Religious Ed department is more of the same old stuff.

    I wonder if David P. Wright, who I know a little about, would face the same thing today. I graduated from BYU a year ago, and heard such things as the Documentary Hypothesis given more than a passing mention in some classes.

  10. Tim said: “If I had to tag the LDS church with the categories above, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to discover that Joseph Smith was attending a Methodist church before founding the LDS church. The Methodist church at the time was focused on Holiness and Evangelical practice and had not yet adopted any form of liberalism. Even the LDS worship style resembles 19th Century Methodism.

    You’re absolutely right. In fact, Joseph Smith said at one time that he was “somewhat partial to the Methodist sect.”

    Many of my early years were spent in one of the evangelical offshoots of the 18th-century Methodist church. And it’s very true that there are some strong similarities with Mormonism. I remember attending regular testimony meetings (actually, very little different than LDS testimony meetings) and singing many of the same hymns as I do now. And I’ve also run across some LDS lesson manuals discussing sanctification that sound surprisingly Methodist in outlook.

    Lisa asked: “Is it true, Tim, that some Calvinists don’t believe Arminians are Christians at all? I’ve read some accounts that would suggest this is true, only I don’t know how prevalent this is.

    Part of the answer is that there are always some at the extremes who will say all sorts of things. From what I’ve seen, Calvinists in general aren’t saying that Arminians are non-Christian. But they would argue that some forms of Arminianism come dangerously close to overemphasizing the role of works in salvation and underemphasizing the role of grace.

  11. Eric’s right. You can find anybody saying anything.

    And for what’s it’s worth. I haven’t found the Gift of Singleness teaching to be as influential or widespread as you did. Not saying you didn’t encounter it, but I haven’t seen it to the extent you did.

  12. If I remember correctly, Tim, I think you attend a larger, non-denominational type of church, is that correct? If you have always attended this type of church, even before you married, that may be very well why you have not encountered it. Mrs. Maken is a Presbyterian, of the “Reformed” tradition. I attended an Evangelical Presbyterian church, and it is rampant in this denomination. Other very conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptists have it too. I have a question. Why do the Presbyterians call themselves “Reformed” most of the time instead of Presbyterian? Are the two terms synonymous or is there a difference.
    Well, Tim, GoS was enough of a problem that Debbie Maken and Candice Watters both wrote books about it, and the editors of two different translations of the Bible agreed that their wording of the scripture might be contributing to abuse, so they have made the needed alterations, for which I am deeply grateful.

  13. Presbyterians often call themselves “Reformed” because they are part of the larger group of denominations that are historically Calvinist.

    Also, keep in mind that the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination is one of many “Presbyterian” denominations in the US, and it is like a split-off of a split-off, a sub-sub-denomination. Well, there are a bunch of splits and mergers among little schismatic Presbyterian denominations, and it all gets pretty confusing.

    The largest Presbyterian Denomination–with over 10,000 congregations and over 2 million members–is the Presbyterian Church (USA), often abbreviated PCUSA. It tends toward a more liberal theology.

    Their main competitor (and more conservative rival), is the Presbyterian Church in America, with about 1300 churches and 300,000+ members.

    The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has about 175 congregations and 70,000 members. given that there are (by my quick estimate) about 4 million or so Presbyterians in the US, theEvangelical Presbyterian denomination does not reflect the majority view.

    At least, according to Wikipedia.

  14. I probably know more about denominations than all of you combined:
    I was born and christened Roman Catholic
    I attended a Congregational Church when I was very young
    I was raised in the Reformed Church in America
    I was born again at the age of 15 and gave my life to the Lord Jesus
    I attended a Charismatic Lutheran Church for 3 years that turned into a Pseudo-Jewish Cult led by a Pastor who said that Jesus has appeared to him and that we were to live as Jews ( know: crazy stuff!)
    Through the grace of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit I finally recognized the error of this cult
    In leaving that church I attended Nazerene, Baptist, Mormon, non-denominational, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches.
    I was (re)baptized by immersion in a Full Gospel Church
    The Spirit of God called me back to the Reformed Church where I am a leader to this day.
    The most important issue for the Church and for anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus is this:
    Do you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ?
    Do you believe he rose from the grave?
    If you do-according to the BIble-you will be saved.
    End of story! Why do we make everything more complicated then our Father in Heaven?
    When I vacation with my family and I am looking for a church to worship on Sunday-I have stopped asking for a particuliar denomination-all I want is a church that loves Jesus and loved people.
    That’s good enough for me.

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