My departure from Protestantism was a change that occurred very slowly over the course of multiple years. However, before I begin talking about the problems I have found in my examination of Protestantism (which are largely my reasons for leaving), I want to preface this by saying that I am very grateful for my past experiences in every aspect of my journey. The experiences Protestantism has given me are invaluable, and they ultimately prepared and led me to where I am today. As you read through my testimonial critique (which goes through many of my thoughts and arguments), know that despite any sharpness in my words, my heart is not one of bitterness or slander, but rather one of an honest detailed analysis across a wide spectrum of Protestant traditions (These traditions include Pentecostal, Charismatic, Messianic, Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian, Fundamentalist, Mennonite, and various Non-denominational congregations).
Another note: this is not a critique about Protestant people, it’s about Protestantism as a framework and why I personally could no longer remain Protestant. Think of me less as some offended cynic ranting with furrowed brows, and more like an ecclesiastical auditor writing an honest evaluation about problems I’ve discovered. That said, let us talk about some of the reasons why I left Protestantism…
The Problem of Consumerism
“Do not be conformed to this world…” -Romans 12:2a
One of the reasons I left Protestantism was simply because I stopped having an individualistic consumer mentality. I stopped being conformed to an American paradigm. After living within it for so many years, deeply observing every little detail, I eventually had an epiphany…What I thought was my home revealed itself to be a hotel.
There are very few instances when the accuracy of a metaphor grips my heart, and this is one of those instances. From the boring walls to the dated carpet, many Protestant churches of America mirror hotels even on a literal level. Of course, it does not end there. It is much more than a visual reality, because it is also a spiritual reality. Hotels are for consumers wanting to be served. Whether they market their size, programs, technology, the Bible in every side-table, food, or coffee, hotels want you to have a good experience so you stay for a long time and pay lots of money for the services. My wife and I love going to hotels. However, trying to live in one would get old quickly.
This framework is nearly identical to how many Protestant churches function. Many people go to church to be served with good music, food, coffee, and motivational speeches from smiling faces, and even motivational speeches about why you should not go to church for any of these reasons. Others prefer verbal spankings from red faces. Either way, most people are entering churches not because God grips them, but because “church” is programmed to feed the existing passions and preferences of the individual (much like Amazon ads are programmed to show you what you already want). For example, if you’re a depressed and angry individual who struggles with gluttony, you will most likely end up under a preacher that emphasizes (1) the condemnation of sin (rather than practical steps on how to not sin), (2) God’s wrath (rather than God’s love), and (3) your own God-given liberty to enjoy meat during lent (rather than growing self-control through fasting).
Even though it is not the case that all Protestant churches are plagued with the same degree of consumerism, all Protestant churches are plagued with some degree of consumerism. Protestantism does not seem to have anything in place to prevent consumerism, because the Enlightenment ideals of individualism, capitalism, and ‘The American Dream’ were created by people living in a Protestant culture. Ever since the Reformation, individualism is woven into the fabric of Protestant DNA, and it is impossible for a worldview to not be individualistic and remain Protestant. Protestants rebelled against the spiritual authority of Rome (and later the political authority of Great Britain) in order to be self-ruled. Autonomy has always been the one doctrine upon which all Protestants agree. However, in light of so many contradictory denominations, I have failed to see the success of this ideology.
The biggest problem with the consumerism permeating the Protestant framework is the fact that it is contingent upon a cyclical “supply and demand” business strategy that progressively revolves around the current trend. When traditional services lose their demand, the price of fog machines increase. When contemporary services lose their demand, the price of pews increase. When some services overemphasize doctrine, others demand an emphasis on experience. It’s a pendulum that forever swings back and forth, revealing the unstable foundation of this framework.
The Problem of Authority
“Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” – 1 Co 1:10
A second reason I left is the problem of authority. The history (and spirit) of Protestantism is that of rebellion. Because of certain doctrines about ecclesiastical authority, Protestants have no interpretive authority outside of themselves. This reality is ironic, because if you spend only one year in any Evangelical church, you will inevitably hear sermons that emphasize the importance of submission. Because of its views on authority, Protestantism has a very odd relationship with the idea of submission. Evangelical churches know they are called to submit in an abstract sense, but at the same time, when it comes to Church authority and hermeneutics, they seem to acknowledge no one to be worthy enough to receive their submission. They are “fallible men,” after all. Instead, an Evangelical Protestant will merely submit to the idea of being called to submit (because it is biblical), rather than submit to an organized clergy system. This, alongside the strange reality of an “alter call” with no alter, shows that, like an incomplete puzzle, Protestantism has empty silhouettes of distant days.
Some may react to my saying Protestants have no authority outside of themselves, because if one were to ask any Protestant Christian about their spiritual authority, they would certainly not say they are their own authority, because such a statement is blatantly arrogant to all onlookers. Instead, Protestants will say their authority is in “Jesus,” or “the Bible,” or “the Word of God.” To them, these three phrases are synonymous with one another (I’ll get to that later). However, what they seem to miss is that they are presupposing their own interpretation to be nonexistent, and that everything they understand the Bible to be saying is what the Bible says. They never take into consideration that they could be misunderstanding the text.
Protestants have removed themselves from an authoritative church structure that has within it an interpretive tradition. Instead of finding the true tradition from which Rome departed (Orthodoxy, as I would argue), they unintentionally created their own traditions thinking they found the true tradition. The wholesale rejection of the Roman Catholic Church being their hermeneutic led to each individual reformer being his own interpreter of all things. It seems to me that the Reformers never actually rejected the office of “pope,” because they simply became their own popes by seeing their own interpretations as gospel. This reality is at the very heart of why John Calvin had Michael Servetus executed. It wasn’t simply because Servetus denied the Trinity, it was because of his denial of Calvin’s personal hermeneutic. Calvin defined the gospel through spectacles he created. If anyone were to contradict the spectacles, Calvin would then see such an act as heresy. This is also why Anabaptists like Felix Manz were murdered by both Lutherans and Zwinglians for using the Bible to deny infant baptism…not because the Lutherans and the Zwinglians agreed upon a common source of orthodoxy, but because they both, by chance, came to the same conclusion about baptism individually.
The problem of authority is clearly visible within denominationalism. For example, Baptists have no authority over Presbyterians. Oneness Pentecostals cannot be rebuked by Methodists. Nobody speaks as a conciliar head within Protestantism. When there is disagreement, people simply break off and start their own denomination. This fragmentation seems to happen daily, and yet many claim they are nonetheless united. If anyone claims Protestantism is united because they believe in some “Mere Christianity” (the Holy Trinity, for example), then they have not met a Oneness Pentecostal. Can an Anabaptist, in his vigorous denial of infant baptism, truly claim to be sacramentally united with a Presbyterian? How can the Snake-handlers (who think Christianity is about wiping the dance-sweat off your forehead with a handful of poisonous snakes), be the same Christianity as Baptists, who have traditionally had negative opinions of dancing, let alone dancing with snakes? How are Oneness Pentecostals, who deny the Trinity, even be classified in the same religion as other Pentecostals who accept the Trinity? How are we to determine which random assortment of dogmas is representative of true Christianity?
I could find just as much agreement with a Muslim as I could with an Evangelical. Agreement on a few topics is not the same thing as unity or communion. No matter what doctrine is put into the spotlight of agreement, there will be a denomination in the shadows of disagreement. ‘Unity’ in Protestantism seems to be contextualized to an individual’s friendship circle. One Protestant may have ‘union’ with a different Protestant because they both agree on an aspect of Jesus, but they have no real communion, which is the only important form of Christian unity. If we say we have unity simply because we agree over a few lines of the Nicene Creed, yet are without liturgical communion, we lie to ourselves.
The Problem of History
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” – 2 Th 2:15
A third reason I left Protestantism follows the second, which is the perpetual schism that occurs because of an ignorance of Christian history.
The problem is, in practice, Protestants have adopted sola scriptura at the expense of history and tradition. If one allows themselves to believe scripture (as interpreted by oneself) is all that matters, then it is no wonder why there is so much division. If you asked the average Protestant to start with Jesus and quickly name all the church leaders up to present day, they will say something like “Jesus, the apostles, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, my dad.” If they are of a more Arminian tradition, just replace Calvin and Spurgeon with Wesley and Finney. The point is, in two thousand years of history, the only patristic source people can name is Augustine, and that was eye-opening to me. It shows how most Protestant traditions are not educating people about basic history.
To describe my spiritual journey of time travelling through Protestantism, I’ll again use the hotel analogy:
I began at the top floor. The top floor is the most recently renovated, with more modern Protestant traditions that were established in the 20th century. As I progressed in my spiritual journey, I traveled back in time through history to earlier traditions (This represents descending the floors of the ‘Protestant hotel’). I needed to get to the lowest “Reformation” level to realize that my travels have been all too short-sighted. Why descend one level at a time when I could just take the elevator all the way down?
It was not until this point when I discovered that the only thing below the Reformation level was the Anglican lobby. When I entered the lobby, I realized my home was not established at the time of Christ. Rather, it was established much later. When I looked at the wall and saw the date of establishment, I realized I had been living in the wrong building the entire time. The writing on the wall said this hotel was built in the 16th century. So, after a few years sitting at one of the lobby computers, I began searching for directions to my true home (established in the 1st century). I thanked the hotel staff for their hospitality and said my goodbyes.
The Problem of “the Word”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – Jhn 1:1
I’ve read many Evangelical Protestant criticisms about Roman Catholicism (and/or any opposing Protestant denomination whatsoever), and I keep seeing the same false presuppositions within nearly all of them:
- The Bible is the “Word of God.”
- The Bible has intrinsic authority.
- The Bible is self-interpretative.
There are too many Christians today calling the Bible the “Word of God.” This is a problem, because it overshadows the traditional understanding of the “Logos” being Christ. The Word of God is the person of Christ, not an inanimate object. Christ did not depart His flesh in Gutenberg.
The “Word” mentioned in Hebrews 4:12 is not about the book of Hebrews itself, it is about the person mentioned in verse 8 and verse 14. The scriptures could only be called “word” insofar as they are connected to Christ Himself, who is the Word. Therefore, the Bible is only true because Christ is truth incarnate, and the Bible directs you to the person of Christ. The Bible’s authority is extrinsically dependent upon an outside source (Christ and His Church), not intrinsically self-authoritative. Thus, the Bible is not an end in of itself, but rather a means to an end.
The Problem of the Canon of Scripture
While most Protestants love the Bible, many do not know the origin of their own canon. Many think their Bible is an English version of what the Church has always used since the time of Christ. As I have discovered in my journey, this is simply not true.
First, one must understand that not every English Bible uses the same source material. The two main options are the Greek Septuagint (3rd century BCE) and the Hebrew Masoretic Text (8th-9th century). The major difference between the two texts is that the Septuagint contains Old Testament books (known as the “Deuterocanon” among Catholics, and the “Apocrypha” among Protestants) that the Masoretic does not. Even though the first century church (and Christ Himself) used the Septuagint, the vast majority of Bibles today follow the Masoretic Text, which came nearly a thousand years later. The reason can be traced back to the textual presuppositions of Martin Luther.
Luther argued the later Hebrew text was more authoritative than the Greek because he assumed he would be more accurate using a Hebrew text for his German translation. He also assumed the Hebrew text in his day was the same text the common Jews used in the time of Jesus. Luther was simply mistaken, and that mistake became the Protestant canon. If one is familiar with those Old Testament texts missing from the Masoretic text, it doesn’t take long to figure out that New Testament Jews knew them well. For example, in the gospel of Matthew, the Sadducees come to Jesus asking him about a woman who had seven husbands and all of them dying (Mat 22:25-28). This is an explicit reference to something that literally happened to Sarah in the book of Tobit (Tob 3:8). However, you would not know that without reading those books.
There is no official Protestant canon. Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from his German translation, calling it an “epistle of straw.” The only reason why many Protestants have the book of James in their Bible is because Philip Melanchthon talked Luther out of removing it. On what canonical authority did Luther base his presuppositions other than his own mind? If a Protestant suddenly declares the “Apocrypha” to be scripture, on what authority do other Protestants say he is wrong? A Protestant canon is only as exclusive as each individual Protestant declares it to be.
One might say, “We get our canon from the 39th festal letter of Athanasius!” To which I will reply, “Then you must have removed Esther and added Baruch!” The fact of the matter is, the Church Fathers did not even have a universal canon. The only official canon found in Church History was established by the Roman Catholic Church at the western Council of Trent (c. 1545-1563), and all Catholics officially use that canon. Aside from that, nobody else has an official canon, even though every other tradition has a widely agreed upon canon.
The reason why the canon is important is because those extra books contain things like prayers for the departed (Macc 12:44-45, which helps understand 2 Timothy 1:18). Protestants say that such things are “not biblical,” when in reality, they are…but only if you have the right canon.
The Problem of Private Interpretation
“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” – Eph 5:21
Another major problem Protestantism perpetuates is the blindness to the existence of an interpretation, thanks to doctrines like sola scriptura. Because Protestantism puts no real authority in something outside of itself (Ecumenical Councils, Fathers, etc.), Protestants seem to think that everything they understand the Bible to be saying, is what the Bible is saying. This makes their interpretation gospel. Paired together with the idea that the Bible is the “intrinsically authoritative Word of God” this is a disastrous combination, because it actually means that the reader’s interpretation is the Word of God. However, the readers themselves don’t perceive their own theological arrogance.
This plays out in multiple ways, but the Eucharist is one example. I read one argument that said Roman Catholicism is unbiblical and anti-gospel because they believe the Eucharist is something more than mere symbol. This rhetoric reveals how it presupposes the Bible is self-interpretative. It believes that every scripture is explicitly clear and self-evident, which makes the reader’s hermeneutic automatically valid, which then makes every opposing interpretation a misinterpretation, simply because it is foreign to the individual reader. To these readers, “the Bible says nothing mystical about the Eucharist” because their understanding of the Bible says nothing mystical about the Eucharist.
Another way this plays out is in the Protestant accusation of heresy. How can a Protestant call someone a heretic without borrowing a non-Protestant standard of authority?
- If one is a heretic because they do not agree with “the Bible” (aka: the reader’s interpretation of the Bible), then that is a subjective double-edged standard of heresy, for it is applicable in both directions. Interpretation is not intrinsically authoritative simply because it uses Bible verses, because even the devil does this much (Matt 4:6). There must be a historical, interpretive and authoritative lineage to determine what interpretation is or is not “orthodox.” I would argue this void in interpretive authority is to be filled by the whole Orthodox Church across the ages since the time of the Apostles, not any one individual who may be a respected or popular theologian. This would include even the great C.S. Lewis.
- If one is a heretic because they are in theological conflict with the early Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils, then it is an authority that is borrowed from the Orthodox Church, and one should be consistent and agree with all that they say. Picking and choosing what you want to believe further points to yourself being your own authority.
Therefore, I have discovered that interpretative tradition is important. Whether one acknowledges it or not, everyone has such a tradition. No Christian exists in a tradition vacuum. One’s understanding of “what the Bible says” comes from a lineage of prior generations saying those same things. It is either that, or you create your own interpretative tradition through individualistic arrogance (like Mormon founder Joseph Smith).
Honest Christians cannot ignore historical continuity, because that will validate or invalidate what one believes. The difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy is not ‘Bible’ and ‘not Bible.’ Rather, it is a battle of interpretations.
The Problem of Heresy
“[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” – 2 Pet 3:16b
It is an unfortunate observation of mine that the good things about Protestantism are not unique to Protestantism. The things Protestants have correct are simply the ways in which they are correctly aligned to the ancient Church. However, the bad things about Protestantism are unique to the individualistic spirit of Protestantism found even in the earliest heretics.
Heresy does not seem to thrive in any other environment. Because of the problem of individualism as expressed in private interpretations of scripture, heresy is a problem that will never go away. The Protestant framework is designed in such a way that not only becomes a heretic factory, but it also gives them a pulpit. “If the Bible is the only authority,” as some argue, “then we do not have any need for creeds and councils.” If you’re a Oneness Pentecostal, all you need is a Bible that says, “The Lord is one” (Deut 6:4, Mark 12:29) and you will have all the evidence you need to deny the Holy Trinity. The authority of the Church exists to prevent this type of dissent from happening. We have no need for private interpretations, because we have truth contained within the hermeneutic of the Liturgy, Hymns, Icons, Church Fathers, and Ecumenical Councils.
One could surely argue that rejecting councils and fathers is a misunderstanding of sola scriptura. They’ll say, “that’s not sola scriptura, that’s solo scriptura.” But let’s be honest, how many people need to get it wrong before we realize the definition has changed? We are not living in a world of 16th century definitions, we are living in a world where every Protestant denomination defines their own orthodoxy, and none of them having more authority than another. We need to move beyond telling solo scriptura fundamentalists that their definition does not line up with the 16th century, because they do not care. They will simply say the 16th century was wrong, and there is nothing a Lutheran or Presbyterian can do about it.
Every Protestant thinks they are orthodox. In other words, nobody self-identifies as a heretic. However, it would be nonsense to suggest that heresy does not exist, so one must grant that at least some Protestant denominations are heretical. The question is, who, and by what standard? One cannot simply say “the Bible,” because such an answer does not give credibility to any singular interpretation of the Bible. That answer is a rhetorical tactic that presupposes a particular interpretation to be self-evidently true without actually having to prove the claim. Therefore, it logically follows that an interpretive standard for the Bible must come from outside the Bible.
The Problem of the Public Square
Protestantism has been at the heart of American politics since the founding. From the “Protestant work ethic” that spawned the industrial revolution to the individualism of democratic pluralism, American politics are inherently Protestant. Perhaps because the Protestant demographic was in the cultural majority for hundreds of years, there seems to be very little experience with how to deal with contrary belief systems. This sense of cultural escapism and political isolationism became the counter-culture movement which simply makes Christian versions of everything. Though there was a long courtship beforehand, it was not until guys like Dr. James Dobson and Jerry Falwell came onto the scene that the Evangelical voting bloc of today officially married the GOP.
This most unhealthy marriage between a distinctly American Christianity and American politics has created some of the biggest problems in the country. Protestants isolated themselves from unbelievers in every way. Even evangelism is isolated from relationship, as many Protestants see evangelism as going around preaching the same memorized paragraph to different people in the hopes that one or two fall to the ground in repentance. This formulaic approach to relationships with strangers has proven time and time again to be unsuccessful and counterproductive. On top of the awkward robotic conversations with unbelievers, many Protestants also go around trying to convert other Protestants to Christianity. I know of one story where an uninformed Pentecostal who called himself “the preacher man” very aggressively interrogated an Evangelical woman about her salvation. I know another account of a Baptist pastor contentiously questioning the salvation of a Pentecostal man by seeing how much he knew about the Bible, and he called what he was doing “soul winning.” This behavior would be comical if it were not so ridiculous and sad. However, having the appearance of clueless sheep must be what happens when every man thinks he is his own shepherd.
The Hope of the Future
“That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” – Jhn 17:21
Even though there are many ways to critique the structure of Protestantism, I am hopeful for the future. The millennial generation is in a particular place in time, and that created a collective search for truth. With the rise of the internet, no prior generation has ever had a greater potential to be informed. This includes being informed about Church History, theology, and tradition.
Millennials are leaving Evangelical Protestantism. Some of that group represents people who are leaving religion altogether, because they have discovered these same problems with the Evangelical Protestantism that they’ve inherited, and have not searched for an alternative. However, there is a lesser known demographic of millennials who are leaving Evangelicalism in favor of more traditional forms of Christianity (whether that be Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Anglicanism). Millennials want authentic roots, but without baggage. Millennials are tired of the perpetual division within the fragmenting Protestant denominationalism, and long for true unity.
I see a generation of young Protestant pastors who are starting to dive into patristics to learn true Christian theology. I also see Protestant news outlets like Christianity Today posting more and more articles about the Church Fathers. I see an increasing desire for dialogue between Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox. Unity among Christians first begins with an informed public, and this is where Christian millennials are naturally gifted. Therefore, even though I am no longer Protestant, I am waiting in anticipation to see how the future of American Christianity unravels.
“He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” – Acts 18:26
As I walked away from the hotel of Protestantism, I began to reminisce about all the Ancient Faith Radio podcasts I discovered in the ‘Anglican lobby.’ In little over one year, I listened to the entirety of Faith and Philosophy, Search the Scriptures, Ancient Faith Today, The Illumined Heart, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, Arena, Patristic Nectar Publications, Orthodoxy Live, Transforming Our Lives in Christ, Speaking the Truth in Love, Frederica Here and Now, and Simply Orthodox (along with various episodes of other podcasts).
From the beginning, I knew I could not move toward Orthodoxy too quickly without my wife Katie, because the Lord revealed to me that moving in this direction is much like walking up a staircase. I cannot make my way up the stairs by myself, turn around with outstretched hand, and expect my wife to leap the entirety of the staircase in one step. Therefore, from the beginning, I showed my wife many of the same episodes I thought were interesting and that she should hear, and we would discuss it afterwards. This made the transition smoother when we started to attend Orthodox services when she was ready.
Somewhere amid the vast sea of podcasts, and after annoying Dr. Jeannie Constantinou with my incessant questioning via email (I was the Apollos, she was the Priscilla), I decided to invite a local Orthodox priest to chat over coffee. Thus, my friendship with Fr. Stephen Vernak (Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, Harrisburg, PA) began, which eventually led to meeting my parish priest, Fr. Timothy Hojnicki of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Mechanicsburg, PA.
As someone who always felt like a misplaced spiritual vagabond with an introverted monastic aura, it comforts me to know I have found my true Christian home.