As of last week, the “throne of Peter” became vacant with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. In just a handful of days, the College of Cardinals will meet in a closed conclave to elect the next leader of the largest religious organization in the world. Most evangelicals, even those within denominations with some form of hierarchical ecclesiology, fail to grasp the power, importance, and the influence that the Bishop of Rome holds. The Roman Catholic Church grants much more deference to its leader than other denominations in large part to theological commitments that revere the pope as the rightful heir to the authority that Jesus Christ gave to the apostles, specifically to Peter, when He ascended into Heaven. For Catholics, the pope is the premier and supreme representative of Heaven among men and through his God-guided actions, the will of God is manifested in the Roman Catholic Church.
As an evangelical protestant, I believe that the apostolic office is closed. When John, the last surviving member of Jesus’ inner circle, died and went home to Heaven, I believe that the office ceased to exist. The primary mission of this group was to close the Canon of Scripture and launch the church, and since that time there has been no man or group of men authorized to speak or act for the Lord in the way that Catholics believe the pope is authorized. This does not mean, however, that I do not have a healthy respect for the two popes of my lifetime (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), nor does it mean that I do not care who the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be. In fact, I am very concerned about the decision that the College of Cardinals will make in the coming weeks.
Many in the evangelical world have taken the opportunity to launch a few salvos in the direction of Rome. Most notably, Dr. John MacArthur has penned a series of articles detailing the theological problems with the Roman Catholic Church. I have read these articles, and as far as the theological critique goes, let me be perfectly clear that I agree with Dr. MacArthur. At the core, the official teaching of the Roman Church is not an expression of the true Gospel. Dependence on the sacraments, prayers of and to saints, or the good will of Mary will never save someone. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the uncreated and merciful Lord, and a full reliance on HIS righteousness poured out to us on the cross and freely bestowed on us when we surrender our lives to Him is the only path to salvation. That being said, those who dismiss the election of a new pope are missing the magnitude of this event.
There are far too many evangelicals who are singularly concerned with the church, but fail to be concerned with the myriad other institutions that impact culture. As Christians, we are called to be in the world, and this means being good earthly citizens even if our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere. As such, we should enter into the cultural battles for life, for marriage, and on the side of righteousness with regard to many other social issues. When we go into that battle in a democracy, as a matter of practicality, we must form alliances. The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholics have been on the righteous side of most social issues long before evangelicals even demonstrated an awareness of those issues. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention, my denomination, filed a friend of the court brief in the early 1970s urging the United States Supreme Court to recognize a Constitutional right to abortion. While the Roman Catholic Church has many blemishes, and the recent series of sexual abuse scandals has demonstrated that quite clearly, it has never gone on record as supportive of an act as reprehensible and evil as abortion.
If the 266th Bishop of Rome is not a man like his two predecessors, who does not see the value in all human life no matter how small, how old, or how infirm, and who does not see that God’s intention for marriage is the life-long commitment between one man and one woman, then all of the resources of the Roman Catholic Church which have been used for the past generation to fight these battles will no longer be available. Worse, these resources could be redirected to fight against these causes. Christians everywhere should be praying earnestly for this papal election. Given the many disagreements that I have with the Roman Catholic Church, it would be difficult for me to characterize the election of any pope as a blessing in the strictest sense, but the election of a “social justice pope” who would bless same sex unions and abandon those among us who are still forming in their mothers’ wombs would undoubtedly be a curse. The next pope will assume office in a time of tremendous strategic importance in the battles for life and for marriage and a relatively young pope could do much good or much harm to the course of these battles.
I have dear friends who are Catholic. We disagree on a great many things theologically so we don’t do door-to-door evangelism together because we have a different “product” to offer, but in the battles for life and for marriage (which are conceptually intertwined, I might add), we can stand shoulder to shoulder in good conscience, neither of us abandoning the core of our personal faiths, and advocate on behalf of causes that are good and on the side of righteousness—issues about which God cares very deeply. So, I urge my fellow evangelicals to pray with me for our Catholic friends and their church. Pray that they will know and understand that in becoming man, Christ is the one mediator between God and man and that none of us need any church, the sacraments, the saints, or Mary to mediate between us and Christ. When you pray this, however, remember to ask the Lord’s favor as the Roman Catholic Church elects a new leader. The world can be blessed through the work of another John Paul or Benedict, but lesser men of lesser conviction will wreak havoc in this world and perpetuate sin and suffering.