In this part, we pause from the previous topic to discuss some Christian teachings. Here we find more commonality and unity than in the previous (and future) disagreements. We will discuss chastity, continuity, and tradition.
Wright’s 8th reason that convinced him of the truth of the Catholic claims is their teachings on human sexuality, in particular he notes…
…the paradox of claiming to be Christian while scorning Christ’s own clear words forbidding divorce and other unchaste practices.
Having dedicated a not insignificant amount of my own writings to this topic, I find myself very nearly in complete agreement.
It was just as striking to me that the Didache condemned contraception than that none of my Protestants friend with whom I spoke, and none of the Protestant writers whom I read, mentioned this writing, or seemed even aware it existed.
Wright is correct that the Didache condemns the use of medical interventions that attempt to stop a pregnancy or prevent it from taking place. The Protestants and Catholics who defend abortion are in error, although they don’t need the Didache to inform them of this fact: it is evident from scripture, the Word of God itself. What is less clear is whether the Didache condemns all forms of birth control, a point that Roman Catholics do not agree on (more on that later).
But when the fathers repudiate their grandfathers to follow the harlot of fashionable current opinion, as did the Anglicans in the 1930’s, more concerned with being Progressive than being Protestant, that denomination is not a church, but a prayer society, or a political society.
Since the 1930s, more and more Christians (including both Protestants and Catholics) have started to believe that wrong is right and right is wrong. This also includes the acceptance of divorce and non-marital sex. There is a problem with saying “…that denomination is not a church…”.
It strict terms of etymology, “church” comes from the Greek word “ekklēsia” and a congregation or assembly of people gathered together, originally an assembly of citizens in the city-state of Athens. Jesus used the same term in a similar way, including in a legal context. It would eventually take on the additional meaning of “house of worship”. The word was also transliterated to the Latin ecclēsia before eventually entering the English language. The English word retains the same meanings, except it has lost the original secular and magisterial senses.
The church—when not referring to the building—is properly the congregation of believers. It can refer to those assembled together for worship or the body of believers as a fraction or whole. It is not made up of unbelievers. Churches are not denominations. The RCC is a denomination, not a church. It is an imprecision to include Christian teachings, traditions, and practices under the term ‘church’. It is better to use the term ‘church’ to refer to the body of Christians and ‘denomination’ to refer to specific body of practices, teachings, and traditions, what Catholics call the ‘Deposit of Faith’. For maximum clarity, and to avoid equivocation fallacies, I try to follow this convention.
Officially, since non-compliant members with their non-conforming views don’t match the accepted teachings, those views are not attributable to the Roman Catholic ‘church’ as a denomination, even if the persons remain practicing members of the church (the congregation). This is just wordplay. Yes, the members do not comply with official teachings, but short of the rare excommunication, they are still the church. You can’t paper over the fact of non-compliance by pointing to the mere existence of official teaching.
If you are going to condemn individual Protestants, you must also condemn individual Catholics. The waywardness of the Protestants should weigh heavily on the Catholics and vice versa. I know it does for me. All are members of the same body, the same church.
The Sexual Revolution was impossible without contraception. That point had been blindingly clear to me even long before I lost my atheism. And So, as a matter of logic, any denomination which cooperated with the Sexual Revolution, or preached and taught that the use of contraception was acceptable, was in the same category as a group teaching that that sacrifice of infants to Moloch was acceptable. They were not teaching what Christianity had always taught. [..] Whatever other men might do, I knew that I could not affix my loyalty to any denomination preaching or practicing abortion, no-fault divorce, or the lawfulness of contraception. Such denominations are no longer part of a living Christian tradition. [..] [If] Christianity is merely a matter of private opinion, [then it] is the same as saying there is no Christianity at all.
Although Wright frequently errs by applying the term ‘church’ to Protestant denominations and failing to distinguish the Word of God from tradition, insomuch as a denomination abandons the living Word of God, then it is right and proper to reject them, as the Anabaptist Mennonites did in Lancaster:
On November 19, 2015, citing a “cultural and theological divide” over Mennonite Church USA’s increasing support for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ relationships, a proposal by the [Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s] Board of Bishops to leave MC USA was ratified by 82.3% of those voting. The withdrawal was effective immediately and to be finalized by congregations on or before the end of 2017, but allowed individual congregations an option of continued participation with MC USA, if so desired. At the time, the conference had 13,838 members in 163 congregations. Most congregations opted to exit the Mennonite Church USA, leaving only 1,091 members from Lancaster Mennonite Conference remaining with the MC USA.
In this, the differences in semantics do not matter. The RCC has remained faithful to the Word of God in this area as a denomination—its set of teachings and practices—but it remains problematic that so many of its members are not. The church is not faithful, but divided.
And so on the topic of doctrines of sexuality, I remain more-or-less in full agreement with Wright on this topic, and (for the time being) so do many Anabaptists.
Wright’s 7th reason that convinced him of the truth of the Catholic claims is its historical consistency or continuity, in particular with regards to human sexuality. Here is his claim:
I was shocked to learn that it is not merely the Catholics who forbid the use of contraceptives, but all Christian denominations throughout the world, until the 1930’s did also. All the other denominations changed their stance, changed their teachings, and changed their minds in the years between the Great War and the Cold War.
This statement is not an accurate description of Anabaptists.
Anabaptists have historically rejected abortion because of their belief that life begins at conception. This includes rejecting the use of abortifacient contraceptives (e.g. chemical birth control pills). It is worth noting, however, that this is not always the case, due to ignorance:
Most Anabaptist groups readily accept the use of various contraceptive methods. In 1961 a Mennonite statement on parenthood includes the assertion that “we do not regard as evil the reasonable spacing of children through methods approved by Christian physicians.”
It has not always been widely known that the birth control pill can be an abortifacient. This is very unfortunate, because Anabaptist groups rely on accurate medical information to inform their decisions. Many have, likely, unwillingly aborted their babies without realizing it. Indeed, the Mennonites noted that…
“…proper contraception should be used to prevent pregnancy. We believe that many abortions could be prevented if persons would take responsibility for sexual behavior.”
Ironically they did not realize that their own recommendation would cause abortions, due to the use of the pill.
Regardless, while the emphasis on families in many Anabaptist communities has led to cultural opposition to non-abortifacient contraception (e.g. condoms) and family planning (e.g. natural rhythm method), not all denominations condemn them as a matter of sin.
While I’m well aware of the differences, I find it hard to be dogmatic on the difference between (non-abortifacient) natural and non-natural contraception, considering the Pope John XXIII’s Pontifical Commission—which obviously knew of the Didache—recommended relaxing the restrictions, even though Pope Paul VI ultimately did not follow the council’s recommendations. Humanae Vitae remains the official position of the Catholic Church, but it is obviously not the same kind of doctrinal dispute as seeking to permit abortion via chemical contraception, which potentially ends a human life. Polls of American Catholics indicate that a healthy majority believe condoms are acceptable (and likely use them).
In any case, I find the general Anabaptist position to be historically—if not scientifically—consistent with the Didache and the Bible. With regards to social fads, Anabaptists—in particular the Amish—are highly resistant to corruption, arguably even more than Catholics. Since the late 1520s, Anabaptist doctrine has not dramatically altered. I’d argue that the more recent Catholic innovations in Mariology have altered Roman Catholicism more than Anabaptism, although various Anabaptists sects have been straining (and sometimes collapsing) under the assault and aftermath of the Sexual Revolution.
Simply put, I’m not impressed with any denomination’s claim to historical consistency and continuity, but I’m not especially disappointed with either Anabaptists or Roman Catholics.
Wright’s 10th reason that convinced him of the truth of the Catholic claims is its focus on tradition. He summarizes:
I had become convinced that any denomination with no continuity to the historical church could be a guard of the traditional Christian faith. This lack of history logically necessitates a lack of tradition, which implies also a lack of completeness, of universality, or of depth in art and ritual.
In a later part in the series, I plan to discuss Wright’s 8th reason, historicity, and how the various splits and historical heresies matter. For now, let’s set aside the concept of “a historical church” and focus merely on tradition (since the 1500s) itself. Wright continues:
During this period of my life, I went to services of one denomination or another weekly or biweekly. Hand in hand with my growing sense of discontent to be in the midst of Christians utterly isolated from their Christian fathers, I began to notice how frequently the preaching lingered on the words of the founder of the particular sect I was visiting, and how comparatively infrequently on the words of Christ and His Apostles, and how no disciple of any Apostle was mentioned even by name, much less quoted.
Growing up Anabaptist (and later attending a Baptist church), it is remarkable how unlike Wright’s experience mine was. I had no idea who the founder of my denomination was (Alexander Mack and Peter Becker), because nobody ever talked about it. The Church of the Brethren holds that the New Testament is its only creed. It wasn’t important who the founder was, it was important who Jesus was, what beliefs we held, and why. If we couldn’t talk about our beliefs from scripture, the words of Jesus, the Apostles, and their followers recorded there, it didn’t matter who our founder was.
It was not just one sect or two where I noticed this: while the founder of the denomination was never placed above Christ in honor, nonetheless the founder was the only other person mentioned, revered, or quoted.
My experience has followed me wherever I went. Churches I attend do not focus on the founder, they focus on the Words of God found in the Bible, and Jesus in particular. I suspect Wright mostly attended Mainline Protestants, whose membership has declined most heavily since they embraced apostasy. Evangelical Christians, for all their faults, are not generally guilty of focusing on their founder. Yet even the three United Methodist churches that I’ve attended rarely, if ever, mentioned John Wesley.
The Catholic doctrine of necessity has countless authors, all in agreement with Church teaching.
Once again ignoring the issue of the “historical church”, when Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz baptized each other upon their confession of faith and unofficially ‘began’ the Anabaptist faith, it was along with a group of other men. The Schleitheim Confession, though believed to be written by Michael Sattler, was the product of the group of Swiss Anabaptists. No one man (or even group of men) was responsible for Anabaptist doctrine. Indeed, Michael Sattler, along with several other men and women in their group, was murdered by the RCC. Others would pick up from where they left off, and so Anabaptism formed as a product of many different men, including different countries, all working together.
Suppose I wanted to read inspiring books either by or about the main figures of this denomination. Every scrap of paper ever written by or about, say, the Seventh Day Adventists or the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, would not fill up the same bookshelf as the collected works of the Antenicene Fathers, much less the writings, century after century, merely of authors canonized as saints by the Catholic Church. [..] Aside from God and Jesus and the founder (whoever he happened to be, depending on the sect) there was yet another great blank emptiness. The was no Virgin Mary mentioned as having any heavenly presence, no apostles, no saints, no martyrs, and the angels seems to have no hierarchy.
If you were an Anabaptist, you’d read the Martyr’s mirror, containing the story of more than 4,000 faithful Christians who endured persecution over 16 centuries for the name of Christ. At 1,512 pages, it was the largest book printed in America before the Revolutionary War.
As far as the claim the Martyr’s Mirror does not fill up libraries, I’m merely going to mention the relevance of the base rate fallacy and leave it at that.
This lack of history logically necessitates a lack of art.
The WrathOfGnon-style traditional catholic obsession with “traditional art, architecture, and ways-of-life were more elegant and beautiful” is in large part a romantic fabrication of revisionist history, but I have not enough time to document this. So I’ll just leave the assertion untested and give one final point: Amish furniture and quilts are renowned for their craftsmanship and they invented the Whoopie-Pie.
…we have Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and Milton’s PARADISE LOST. I can think of not one book of fiction or adventure taking place in the moral atmosphere of the Christian Scientists or the Quakers or Calvinists, and of anything redolent of Mormonism, I can think only of HOMEGOING by Orson Scott Card.
In 1688, the Mennonites were awaiting the arrival of William Rittenhouse (my wife’s 8x-great-grandfather), the first Mennonite minister in America. They and the Quakers had put aside their differences and worshiped together in unity, forming a unique group of Quaker-Mennonites. Four men of that community—three of which had longstanding Mennonite associations and one which was William Penn’s kin—met in the home of Thones Kunders, himself a former Mennonite, crafting and signing the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery.
Based on the golden rule, beloved by Anabaptists, the petition was the first document in America to publicly argue against slavery. Unfortunately Quakers as a whole failed to reject slavery, profiting strongly from it. The Quaker-Mennonite community would soon split as planned, with several of the original community going back to the Mennonites in part due to the Mennonite insistence that slavery was wrong.
If I had to choose between Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or the anti-slavery petition, I would choose the latter. I am proud that my family is descended from that community of Mennonites and that this heritage was passed along even through my own branch of Mennonites. Fortunately, I do not have to choose between them. And yet, hardly anyone knows about these (and many other) acts. The deeds of most Anabaptists will not fill up libraries. Few there are that tell of their tales. They didn’t do it to be seen by men.
They were absolutely laved in history [..] The universal Church portrayed an image of heaven as rich and varied as the court of a king, complete with…martyrs carrying palms
Does the RCC teach that heaven will include those Anabaptist martyrs that the RCC produced? The RCC has a lot of history that would better be forgotten. The Anabaptist tradition is full of hundreds of years of peace, more so than any other Christian denomination by far. I would willingly exchange all of the Catholic art every produced if it meant eliminating all of that hate, violence, and death.
In any case, it is not clear to me that the Roman Catholics have any advantage. They are different and so appeal to subjective preferences, but my own subjective preferences prefer the Anabaptists, so it is a stalemate. I simply do not find the differences in tradition between the Roman Catholic and Anabaptist (since their ‘founding’) to be of any major objective significance, one way or the other.