02/28/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

With Election of New Pope, Is It Time for Protestants to Rejoin Rome?

With election of new pope is it time for Protestants to rejoin Rome?

I stepped up into the Pope's train from the Vatican train station, en route to Assisi. It was a crisp October (2011) morning in Rome. Joining some 300 others, I had been invited to join Pope Benedict XVI on a pilgrimage to Assisi, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the one first led by John Paul II.

Gathered in the Basilica of Assisi, mixing with leaders from Christian communions, imams, rabbis, priests, Buddhist monks and priests of many religions, it was obvious only the pope could pull off getting religious leaders of all faiths together.

Then and today, Christians ask me if now is the time for all Christians to reunite, and lay aside questions of the Reformation (16th century)?

Why not? Surely it would save costs, reduce confusion, simplify much of what Christians do and, more importantly, show the world that we are all one in Christ.

The stepping down of a pope is an extraordinary moment. While the election of a pope gets worldwide notice, it normally follows a pope dying. This one fooled us all. He announced his own leaving. Known for his remarkable scholarship, with a prodigious listing of scholarly works, his previous job was as the former pope's enforcer of rules and articles of faith. Now he gives up his role and prestige, leaving for the next pope, along with running a global institution, troubling unresolved files of sexual abuse, Vatican bank scandals and Vatileaks.

Even so, might this be a moment when all sides of the Christian church lay aside their differences? More specifically as Protestants, has the Reformation, which Martin Luther triggered by nailing pages of 95 ideas to a church door in Wittenberg Germany, passed its day?

After all, this pope has made some impressive marks as pontiff. His book "Jesus of Nazareth" is a strong witness in his strategy to trigger a revival in reading and understanding the Bible. He gave unqualified support to the great Christian creeds which we Protestants recite regularly. He, along with evangelicals, has been critical of the secular, radical individualism and narcissism of this contemporary society. He promoted and practiced a strong presence of Christian ideas within the pluralism of ideas and forces. He was unafraid, modeling Christian courage, boldly saying what was often impolitic and out of sync with popular assumptions and mores.

So what keeps Protestants from rejoining "Mother" Rome? In world affiliate numbers, Romans Catholics comprise 1.1 billion, mainline Protestants and Orthodox about 550 million and evangelical Protestants slightly more than 600 million. Combined it would create a world presence of significant magnitude.

The history is long, issues complex, mixed often with ethnic conflicts, such as Ireland. Real estate alone, on both sides, would set it down a bizarre road of twists and turns. Setting aside the how's of resolving immense organizational matters, core to the rupture of the church triggered by the words of Martin Luther -- still a fundamental issue -- is an understanding of how one receives God's forgiveness.

Martin Luther, a monk, priest and teacher, began his dispute with Rome over the selling of indulgences (a full or partial remission of punishment), a money raising scheme to help pay for the costs of building St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Luther protested and over time came to believe Rome's interpretation and doctrine of salvation was contrary to biblical teaching. For him salvation came by personal faith in Jesus Christ. He reasoned our only authority is the Bible (sola Scripture), not an ecclesiastical organization. Those who followed Luther's teachings were called "protesters," thus Protestants; however, he referred to them as the "evangelisch" church.

Politics fueled by religious passion led to this historic breaking from the Roman church, fed by scholars, evangelists and leaders such as John Calvin, John Wesley, Menno Simons and John Knox. As Europe pushed out from its northern borders, missions of the emerging Protestant churches sailed the oceans, building missions, medical and educational agencies, all the while enlarging this community of Christian faith, no longer protesting but advancing.

Luther's central proposition, that one receives salvation through faith, became the defining belief of the many streams which flowed from that 16th century divide. What keeps the sides from joining has been central to what Pope Benedict XVI has affirmed. Speaking for his church, he has made it clear that while ecumenism would mark his reign, as much as inter religious dialogue would fill his agenda and while collegial groupings and public and private meetings would seek peace and reconciliation, there would be no movement from transubstantiation: the bread and the wine used in the sacrament becomes the literal body and blood of Jesus, and through receiving this one receives forgiveness by the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth. Other churches which too celebrate the Lord's Supper aren't considered the same. For the Eucharist, which can only be celebrated by one ordained by Rome, is the means by which one receives forgiveness.

The Reformation broke this link of salvation (often called new birth, or "born again") from the established church, freeing one to exercise personal faith in Christ, as sufficient for personal and eternal salvation. It is to this heart felt and well defined belief, the two main streams of Christianity continue to flow within different banks.

Not in 500 years have the two sides been so close and friendly. Skirmishes from time to time break out, sometimes as turf wars and or over differing views of salvation. Even so, the Global Christian Forum made up of The Holy See (Rome), the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance work together globally and conducting national forums, realizing the many issues in which they need to stand together.

As much as we are working together, the continuing stand by the Holy See on this issue is so variant to Protestant faith that joining isn't up for discussion.

As we wait for the white smoke to puff its way up the chimney of the Vatican announcing the new pontiff, we will both continue to announce the good news of the Gospel while retaining a profound difference in how faith is exercised.