It seems that the recent conversion of Ulf Ekman to Roman Catholicism has caused quite a stir in Western Christianity. News of the Swedish mega church pastor’s controversial decision comes hot off the evangelical press, not long after this startling video message from Pope Francis was delivered to Kenneth Copeland (a somewhat notorious word of faith Preacher from the USA).
One could be forgiven for thinking that ecumenism is gathering momentum, and that the reunification of the global church is within our grasp. As the video link confidently proclaims part way through the message: “Brothers & Sisters, Luther’s protest is over, is yours?”
It certainly makes for a powerful message, and anyone with a hint of spiritual sensitivity might be inclined (as I was) to sense the Lord moving through all of these unexpected events. Could the great ‘protest’ be coming to an end? Is the Reformation finally winding down to a successful resolution?
Not so fast. As compelling, winsome and inspiring as Pope Francis has been over this past year, I would say that Jesus’ high Priestly prayer in John 17 is a little way off being fully realised. Whilst the pontiff’s push for social justice, humility in declaring himself a sinner, eschewing of luxuries, washing the feet of the poor, reaching out to the outcast, and desire for church unity is laudable, none of these acts go far enough to genuinely put paid to the concerns of the Protestant reformation.
As a former Roman Catholic (I was raised Catholic for the first 11 years of my life) who now self-identifies as more of a Reformed, Evangelical Charismatic (with a seat belt), here are Ten things that would have to happen before I could seriously consider returning to the Roman Catholic Church (in no particular order):
1. The dissolution of the papacy: Any notion of the Pope being the ‘head of the global church’ would have to be repented of, and dispensed with. As would any suggestion that there is any other mediator between God & Humanity apart from Jesus Christ (Eph 5:23, Col 1:18, 2:19, 1 Tim 2:5).
2. The dissolution of Catholic dogma, thereby making Scripture alone the final authority in all matters of faith and practice within the church. A renunciation therefore of any notion that the church or papal office holds equal authority to Scripture. (No more indulgences, for instance).
3. A rejection of the veneration of the saints, and any notion of praying to them, or that the church can give out a sainthood. The New Testament refers to all believers who are in Christ as saints (Eph 1:1, 15, 2:19, 4:12, 1 Cor 14:33, 16:1, 2 Cor 8:4, 9:12, Phil 4:22, Col 1:4, 26, Acts 9:32, 41, Romans 15:26, 31, 16:15, Heb 13:24, Philemon 1:5, Jude 1:3).
4. A complete rejection of Mariology, for similar reasons to points 1 & 3 (amongst others).
5. The reformation of the practice of confession as being something done solely between priest & layperson. Instead, believers are to confess their sins to one another in the context of loving community. Coupled with this, there would need to be an utter renunciation of the notion of penance (1 John 1:19, Jas 5:16, Heb 3:1, 4:14).
6. An end to the notion of Holy relics. Although I’m sure they’d make fascinating additions to various museums.
7. The dissolution of the Vatican state, and the ongoing separation of church & state in general.
8. The decentralisation of authority from Rome to local church contexts.
9. Full inclusion for female leaders within the church, at all levels of governance, within the context of a more radical reformation of Catholic ecclesiology, to more closely match the biblical model (i. e. Eph 4 model). An effective dissolution of the divide between clergy & laity & the instigation of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5-9). This would be a serious shake up. Cardinals would become a memory from a bygone era.
10. An end to the insistence of celibacy for the priesthood, coupled with a healthier, biblical model of sexuality, and a willingness to be held accountable for the horrendous legacy of abuse that has so marred the church. Ensuring that any past or subsequent offenders are dealt with properly within a suitable legal framework. No more minimising the issue, and a very serious, public repentance backed up by sweeping reforms to protect against future cases taking place.
Doubtless, I could go on. It’s difficult to draw lines which obstruct unity, yet minimising the differences between Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism would not be an honest, helpful, or biblical approach to bridging the gap between these two astonishingly diverse movements. Although I would potentially accept anyone who confesses and loves the Lord Jesus as their saviour, as a brother or sister in the faith (and I hope that they would reciprocate such acceptance), I could not in good conscience come under the teaching and authority of the Roman Catholic Church as it stands today.
So whilst I am hopeful for change when I see the effect that Pope Francis is having on the public perception of Catholicism, I suspect that any call for global unity is a best, a little premature.