The Bad Evangelist Club: 33,000 Denominations

*Editor Note:  Starting this month we will be introducing a new series at Catholic Lane.  Known as The Bad Evangelist Club, we will be providing an examination of conscience so to speak for Catholic efforts at Evangelization and Apologetics.  We will do so by reflecting on the bad arguments being made (often by the writers themselves) in their past attempts in giving witness to the Catholic faith.  The series begins with Benjamin Baxter on the popular argument about Protestantism having 33,000 denominations  KMT*

Are there really 33,000 denominations?

File this one under Questions to which the answer is, ‘No.’

One Protestant friend of mine gets royally annoyed when he hears Catholics say there are 33,000 denominations in Protestantism. Paraphrased:

Really, I can think of maybe four or five major schools of Protestant theology, and maybe — maybe — 70 denominations in this country. And that’s being generous.

He once noted to me that the number of 33,000 — or 44,000, or whatever — relies on counting local communities independently, and breaking up international groups by country.  By that standard, there are as many Catholic churches as there are countries in the world which have Catholics. In fact, by the standard we’re holding Protestants to; our number of churches should be multiplied where the Eastern Rites are represented. This is, of course, a bogus standard, so it will turn off Protestants of any competence.

My friend went on to insist that what really matters is the theological unity, the unity in truths professed. To say “33,000” when there are really only about five or six or ten or seventy is a gesture of bad faith, and a sign we aren’t being serious.

“Within those schools of thought,” he said, “they don’t really disagree on anything important.”

Where’s the disconnect?

  1. We’re counting these churches as we care about them. That is, we’re counting local ‘independent’ churches independently when those selfsame independent communions as a whole don’t care about formal communion.
  2. Formal communion is “an outward sign” of believing the same things. Catholics say it is inseparable from believing all the same things, and Protestants don’t, but we agree until that point.
  3. Some Protestants will go farther, insisting that what lies behind even this theological communion is the spiritual communion of all believers. Catholics point to baptism in a measured agreement, but should immediately point further to the Eucharist.
  4. It is not enough to point out that even within schools of theology there is sometimes serious disagreement. Competent Protestants might even point out that within the Catholic Church there is serious disagreement between Thomists and Molinists but that they are both still unified with the Church. (This is possible because the Magisterium has not decided the matter; it has not decided the matter because it has not had to.)

What matters behind formal communion is, as the Protestant is right to say, the unity in proclaiming doctrine. Appropriately, they are largely unified in believing that formal communion doesn’t matter.   Mentioning 33,000 sounds scandalously dramatic among Catholics, but a Protestant who has spent any time at all arguing about these things would probably roll his eyes.

So what do we say?
There are at least two Protestant churches in the world. They contradict each other on important things, or disagree about which things are important. Isn’t this a problem? Keep in mind: This is not a case for Catholicism. This is a case against Protestantism.
This is where you follow up, building a case for Catholicism. When talking to a Protestant, begin with scripture, and point out the evidence for the Church in scripture. Don’t just say that scripture or history proves the Catholic Church. Competent Protestants will here want proof, so at this point refer to  scriptural passages which together and in context point to a visibly united community of believers, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It’ll still be a wild ride, so make sure you’ve studied the context yourself.
Eternal Consequences

Keep in mind the stakes. Protestants aren’t merely mistaken about this doctrine or that doctrine. They lack sacraments. Some Protestants — those who were not validly baptized — lack all of the sacraments. This has eternal consequences, whether it’s as simple as not bearing the mark of chrismation in heaven or abiding forever the unforgiving fires of hell.

When we speak of communion, we mean all forms of communion, right down to Holy Communion. Yet by making sweeping claims, you might just sweep someone out of earshot, even further from the Eucharist than they were before.  Allowing for God’s foreknowledge, that person you push away may come into the Church later anyway — but it may be much later, and if so you might get to answer to God for it.

In short, don’t say more than you have to. It rarely takes much to topple the internal contradictions of Protestantism. It certainly does not take 33,000 denominations.

Benjamin Baxter volunteers with and writes for St. Paul Street Evangelization, an international apostolate dedicated to equipping Catholics to evangelize in public. For more information on this vital work, or to start your own group, go to StreetEvangelization.com. Please consider donating to SPSE.