Catholicism takes the position that Protestants are schismatics because they rebel against the divinely constituted hierarchy of the one true church. No matter how corrupt the institutional church may become, it’s a sin to break with the church (so defined).
Of course, Protestants don’t regard the Roman priesthood and magisterium as a divine institution. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we grant the Catholic premise. Is it ever permissible to sever your ties with a divine institution?
Once again, I’m not conceding the Catholic claim. Rather, I’m arguing from the greater to the lesser. If there are situations in which it’s even permissible to cut ties with what is admittedly a divine institution, then it’s certainly permissible to cut ties with a merely human institution–its divine pretensions notwithstanding.
Consider the case of John the Baptist. As a prophet of God, his ministry was sanctioned by God. Yet John apparently burnt his bridges with the religious establishment in Jerusalem.
This, in spite of the fact that the Levitical priesthood was undoubtedly a divine institution. This, despite the further fact that John was, himself, a member of the priestly caste. As such, John would ordinarily be bound to follow in his father’s footsteps and discharge his priestly duties in the temple. Yet John, by his mission and message, turned his back on that.
1. He’s living in a state of self-imposed exile. He situated his ministry in the wilderness. That, of itself, is a repudiation of the corrupt religious establishment. A deliberate snub. In the same vein as the Essenes and the Qumran sectaries.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that John was raised by the Essenes in Qumran–although, by the time he embarked on his public ministry, he had his own distinct mission. Cf. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 2003), 526f.
2.This is underscored by the fact that the Gospel accounts specific set his wilderness ministry in explicit contrast to the religious authorities who come from Jerusalem to observe him. They clearly view him as erecting a rival power center. He poses a threat to the religious status quo.
3.This is also underscored by his “baptism of repentance.” That offers divine forgiveness apart from the temple rituals. The remission of sins was available by an alternate route.
4.Then, of course, there’s his very public denunciation of the religious establishment. And this is in the context of someone who has disassociated himself from the religious establishment through a conspicuous and symbolic act of geographical separation.
5.By the same token, it’s hard to imagine that the temple authorities would even allow him to function as a priest after his very public, slash-and-burn rhetoric about them. And John must have known how they’d react. He can’t have been naïve. He disowned them, and they returned the favor.
6.His mission and message also taps into the OT motif of the righteous remnant, set apart from the apostate mass.
7.This doesn’t mean it was impermissible to continue attending the temple. What it does mean, rather, is that it was permissible to stop attending the temple and undergo John’s baptism instead, living by all that represents.
8.This taps into an ancient prophetic motif which Jesus himself will endorse (Mt 9:13).
By Catholic standards, John was a schismatic. Yet he was also a prophet of God. His words and actions enjoy tacit divine approval.
The point is not that you can simply set aside a divine institution. The point, rather, is to consider the function of that institution. It’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. Ultimately, our obligation is to the end in view, and not the means–regardless of whether the means actually facilitate the end.
9.I’d also add that the Catholic claim is predicated on apostolic succession. But since that’s not a prerequisite for church office in the NT, you don’t leave the institutional church by opting out of apostolic succession–for that is not how God instituted his church in the first place. Ministry is portable.