A resurrection is the reunion of a soul with its body. It’s the undoing of death, which splits them in two. This is why death cannot be measured in strictly material terms. For secular man, death is the cessation of motion, the physical processes of the human body coming to a standstill. But when Christians confess, in the creed of Nicaea, “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” we draw lines between ourselves and our culture with respect to the definition of the human person. That a resurrection is possible means that the soul lives on after death, in some mysterious way, anticipating its reunion with its body, transformed and made whole, whether for the resurrection of life or the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29).
Evangelicalism is a soul awaiting its resurrection. It looks forward to reunion with its body, a new and restored body. Its former body, the body of the historic Protestant churches from which it has departed, is dying, and is entering the grave, as theological liberalism seeps through its quarters and membership numbers plummet. Mainline Protestant churches, the institutional bearers of the Reformation, are collapsing. This is what Bruce McCormack has called “the slow death of the Protestant churches.”Slow it may be—like the Christ on the cross rather than the Baptizer on the platter—but it is a death, nonetheless.
This requires us to admit a startling fact: Evangelicalism is not Protestantism. It is its child, to be sure, a distant descendant in whose face you can discern his father. But it is not the same. Protestantism was never merely a set of principles able to be flexibly bent amid institutional fluidity but an inherited tradition, with ecclesiastical structures and traditional liturgies. Evangelicals are a nomadic people. Few exist in these churches of the past. Most exist on the outskirts, churches that are largely isolated and only in recent days seeking to partner with one another. If trends continue, most Evangelicals will be pulled out of historic churches—whether Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.—and drawn into healthy and growing church plants that have been around for a decade or so. We have entered the post-denominational era. Evangelicalism is shedding its Protestant body. But what comes next?
At his resurrection, Christ sheds his mortal body and dons a body of immortality. Is it the same body? Yes and no. At first, his disciples do not recognize him—that’s discontinuity. But the grave is empty, Christ has not doubled his somatic existence—that’s continuity. The claim that is certainly off-limits is that Christ’s human soul remained comfortably united to his divinity while his body permanently lay lifeless in the grave. As St. Paul would say, may it not be! He was resurrected.
So too with the soul of Evangelicals. It will not do to remain scattered, hopping from church to church, individual congregations starting and stopping as if they were nothing but local businesses, expendable outerwear to the basically fleshless soul. There must be grace for this nomadic period. I do not believe one can invalidate these churches, their ministers, or their sacraments. But it cannot stay like this. This is, in a word, Ecclesiological Docetism. The Church named “docetists” those various groups of Christian heretics who denied the reality of Christ’s humanity. Christ only appeared to suffer, they claimed; he only appeared to be human. The divine Word was able to hover safely over the human experiences of Jesus of Nazareth.
Ecclesiological Docetism, then, is the insistence that the Church’s fundamental identity as the Body of Christ is spiritual, and that this spiritual entity need not fully touch the ground. The unity possessed by Christians is heavenly. Therefore, it is not necessary for us to pursue any sort of visible or institutional unity in history. The Church can appear or disappear in its various forms on earth. Congregations, radically disconnected from one another (except via voluntary association), can start and stop, vanish and materialize, with no concern for historical continuity, traditional ecclesiastical hierarchy, or ministerial and sacramental legitimacy. I have a feeling that St. Paul, who strove to unite various churches together in bonds of partnership under the authority of the apostles, would utter again, May it not be!
When we recite the Creed, just before we confess our faith in “the resurrection of the dead,” we also proclaim allegiance to “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” After all, there is only one shepherd, and therefore only one flock, as our Lord said (John 10:16). Now, to be sure, this unity is heavenly. As the church fathers note, the tunic worn by Christ’s Body was “woven from the top in one piece” (John 19:23). The Church’s unity comes from above. But far be it from us to appeal to unseen promises to validate our visible disobedience. St. Paul says that “we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).
Our unity is Eucharistic. Therefore, failure to share in the Lord’s Supper together is a failure to be unified; the spiritual unity that we truly possess in some sense is not being realized on earth as it is in heaven. And this applies not only to local churches in the same town, who ought to strive for Eucharistic unity with one another, but also for the catholic Church as whole. Church bodies ought to be in communion with one another, with their pastors and bishops in some form of visible, Eucharistic communion with pastors and bishops of other bodies in other regions. Evangelicals need to pursue formal unity with each other, recognizing that the Church is not merely visibly local and invisibly catholic, but that it visibly manifests its heavenly unity in local and catholic structures.
Such visible unity, however, is necessary but not necessarily sufficient for true unity. It is possible, as St. Paul encountered, for those in formal “communion” with one another to live as if they are not. Brothers and sisters within the same Church, whether local or denominational, often fail to be one in manifold ways. Nonetheless, Paul was able to call the Corinthians back to unity by appealing to their common fellowship in Communion. And he was able to write to “the church of God which is at Corinth” in order to provide correction, for they remained one Body (1 Cor 1:2). In this way, unity between church bodies is akin to the unity possessed in marriage. Despite the intrinsic goodness of marriage, the Church needs to be intentional in fostering good marriages, instructing husband and wives to strive for charity and unity with one another. But such instruction is a nonstarter if the couple does not even live in the same home, if they are already separated in their meals and their routines or if their marriage bed has been ignored or defiled.
My proposals might seem impractical. These Evangelical churches, after all, are thriving in a lot of ways, and we must acknowledge that as a fact of the Holy Spirit’s work. But I believe that what might seem to be overly theologized reasoning (if such a thing could be!) or unnecessary ratiocination on this matter will quickly become inescapably relevant. As whole swaths of ethical issues are dropped at the doorsteps of local, independent congregations—for starters: What about IVF and contraception? What about burial and cremation? What about AI or smartphone usage, or TikTok and social media?—the Church will recover its need for conciliarity. Must Gentiles be circumcised? That is too much weight for one local church to bear. Likewise for such questions as decided by ecumenical councils: is the Son homoousios with the Father, is he one hypostasis, and what of natures? There is safety in a multitude of counselors.
As Evangelicals await our bodily resurrection, I think we ought to hope for a heavy dose of discontinuity between our former and future bodies. Protestantism, for all its glory, never achieved its aim of catholic reform. Lutheran and Reformed brothers never reached agreement and could not share in Holy Communion together. Baptists and Methodists went their separate ways. Presbyterians and Anglicans had to situate themselves in different bodies. Other divisions followed. In the American context, black and white Christians formed separate churches. In short, Christ’s body was broken, to say nothing of the seemingly insurmountable division between Protestantism as a whole and our brothers and sisters in the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church.
This is a wound in the body. Wounds persist in a resurrected body but only as healed. St. Thomas touches the gashes in the body of his Lord, but Christ feels no pain. Scars testify not only to suffering once felt but remediation gained. We would not truly know bliss if we had never felt anguish. We would never know resurrection if we had not tasted death.
What does a righteous soul do when it awaits resurrection? It cries out, “How long, O Lord?” (Rev 6:10). It is expectant, knowing that the death of its body does not carry a finality. It does what it did while in the body, and which it will resume when returned to the body: it seeks union with God. But one thing it surely cannot do is rest content. It must yearn for its body.
Protestantism is dying and its Evangelical soul has left its body. With it, so die the formal divisions keeping brothers and sisters from sharing their Lord’s Body and Blood together. This is a time for weeping and a time for rejoicing. But it is also a time for waiting, waiting expectantly, in dialogue with our brothers of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, for a resurrection.
Bruce L. McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, no. 3 (2006): 243-251 at 251. See Brad East’s helpful comments at https://www.bradeast.org/blog/death-protestant-churches.