In his book Protestants, church historian Alec Ryrie argues that two traits have characterized Protestants from the beginning: they have been both lovers and fighters. Martin Luther ably illustrates both. He passionately loved God. Tormented by guilt and fear of judgment, he found in the New Testament a God who was gracious, a God who loved and could be loved. But Luther was also a fighter. He fought with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, with kings, princes, and emperors. He also fought with his fellow reformers, with the Jews, and with the peasants. Luther’s belligerence became the DNA of Protestantism. The proliferation of denominations, mutual anathemas, and splintered congregations all bear witness to our tendency—indeed, our eagerness—to fight.
When the Pietists came along in the 1600s, they recognized the damage fighting had done to Protestantism. They wanted to emphasize the love of God and neighbor and diminish the fighting. If you shared the love of Jesus, if you were a disciple of the risen Lord, that was enough.
Then and now this has been scorned as naïve. All sorts of doctrinal affirmations and moral condemnations have been touted as necessary to be properly “orthodox.” Those who disagree must be removed beyond the pale: they are heretics, sinners. Pietism itself had a hard time hanging onto its original vision. At times it manifested a suffocating moralism that rendered its devotees rigid, joyless, and arrogant. But the original vision remains for me profoundly attractive and, these days, necessary.
Today’s Protestant world does not need another group of fighters. It needs lovers.
Society in the U.S. is balkanized. Studies have shown that people on either end of the political spectrum now regard each other with unprecedented levels of disdain. Republican parents would be very distressed if their daughter married a Democrat—and vice versa. Family members no longer speak to each other because of political posts on Facebook. Decades-long friendships have soured because of mutual antagonism over the results of the last U.S. election. Add to that conflicts over human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, and it may seem easier to cut people off.
That’s exactly what is happening. People are choosing to live in intellectual, spiritual, and theological bubbles with like-minded folks to avoid angry denunciations and irrational rants. Or they choose to keep their thoughts to themselves rather than risk the frothy outrage altogether. We evidently can no longer bear the conflicts and conflagrations of difference.
Believe me, I understand this. I am sick of the frequent cruelty of the self-appointed guardians of boundaries—the drawers of lines, the builders of walls, the promoters of outrage. I am not disgusted about all this because I fear discussing our theological or moral differences but because the lines drawn, walls built, and outrage promoted prevent such discussion. And so the sorting continues until we are all comfortable in our blinkered enclaves and there is no longer iron to strike against iron. When the church is a society of the comfortably complacent, whether on the left or the right, it has ceased in any meaningful way to be the church.
The Evangelical Covenant Church is an outgrowth of the Pietist movement. We have through much of our history wanted to be lovers, not fighters. This does not mean we have not had our fights. Even a passing knowledge of our history demonstrates we are capable of conflict. But we have aspired to be a community of Jesus lovers who willingly live with difference. We have been very circumspect about drawing lines and building walls. In our conflicted political and theological world, I would suggest this is all the more necessary. Today’s Protestant world does not need another group of fighters. It needs lovers. Can we still live for God’s glory and neighbor’s good?