Catholics and Protestants – How big are the differences?
by Dennis Pollock
“The Roman Catholic Church is a counterfeit… of the worst and most diabolical kind… to be rejected and denounced.” – Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones
“I’m eradicating the word Protestant even out of my vocabulary .. I’m not protesting anything… It’s time for Catholics and non-Catholics to come together as one in the Spirit and one in the Lord.” – Paul Crouch on TBN
When twenty Evangelical and twenty Catholic leaders signed the document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, (or ECT for short), in the spring of 1994, it set off a firestorm of controversy which shows no indications of letting up. Signed by such Christian leaders as Bill Bright, Charles Colson and Pat Robertson, this document suggests that the time has come for Evangelicals and Catholics to walk together and recognize that they must unite in battle against the common foes of humanism and relativism, and agree to stop proselytizing one another.
Reactions to ECT
Several major figures in evangelical Christianity have strongly disagreed. Men such as John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, John Ankerberg, James Kennedy, and Dave Hunt have contended that ECT is a minimizing of the truth of justification by faith, gives the false impression that any doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants are small and of little importance, and mocks the Reformation as irrelevant and unnecessary.
The editors of Charisma magazine recently devoted their July issue to this controversy. In two major articles, “What Protestants Should Know About Catholics,” and “What Catholics Should Know About Protestants,” they attempted, by their own admission, to “help us find common ground.”
The first article was by Keith Fournier, an evangelical Catholic lawyer who serves as an apologist for the Catholics to the evangelical community. He attempts to convince Charisma’s mostly evangelical readers that the Catholic church really is legitimate and is not that far from the Evangelicals. His first main point is that “the Catholic Church is Christian.” He goes on to try to defuse some of the hot buttons to which most Protestants object, admitting that not all Catholics are converted, and insisting that Catholics believe the Bible, do not worship Mary, and believe in salvation by grace.
In the 1960’s and 70’s a phenomenon began happening in the Catholic Church that would have never been believed by some of the fiery reformers and revivalists of previous generations. Priests, nuns, and thousands of ordinary Catholics began to come into a new experience with Jesus and with the Holy Spirit.
Catholics began doing things that seemed decidedly un-Catholic as they met together in homes for prayer meetings, danced “in the Spirit,” spoke in tongues, laid hands on the sick, and openly witnessed to others about their faith in Jesus. Many Evangelicals (myself included) began to believe for the first time that it just might be possible for one to be a Catholic and be saved. They sang the same songs that we did, actually read their Bibles, and sometimes seemed to even outshine us in their zeal for Jesus.
Practically from the moment that this began happening, questions began to arise not too dissimilar to those that the believing Jews were debating in the early church as they wondered what to do with the Gentiles who had put their faith in the Messiah. This time we were wondering what to do with the Catholics. Should we encourage them to “flee Babylon” or should we preserve unity by urging them to stay in their churches and be a witness for Jesus to the others? While many offered opinions, the question never really did get resolved. Some left, some stayed, and gradually things began to get back to normal.
Today the question, although in a different form, has resurfaced. It is not one which can be lightly answered. I have been around long enough to know that there are most definitely Catholics who love the Lord Jesus. Certainly I have known Catholics that I could fellowship with at a far deeper level than any liberal Protestants, and even many Fundamentalists. But this is not really the issue. Nearly all Protestants will (or should) admit that there are Catholics who have been born again and who are legitimate brothers and sisters in Christ.
Some of the questions raised by the ECT document are as follows:
Is the Catholic Church as a whole a Christian Church?
Would an individual who strictly followed the official Catholic position on salvation be truly saved?
Are the differences between Protestants and Catholics merely minor and insignificant?
Would the Catholic Church be a healthy place to be for a new convert who knew almost nothing about Christian truth?
Differences of a Minor Kind
In attempting to answer these kinds of questions, it is important to “major on the majors and minor on the minors.” Before we can do this, however, we must first establish what the majors and minors are.
Certainly, even in the ranks of evangelical Christians, there are many differences in styles and practices of worship. Some churches offer communion once a month and others insist it must be offered every Sunday. Some churches sing ancient songs from hymnals and others project peppy praise choruses on a screen with an overhead projector. Certain churches emphasize teachings about God’s desire to bless His people in this present world, while others focus more upon heavenly blessings in the age to come.
While we may look critically at the way other churches do things, we still think of their members as brothers and sisters in the Lord, even though we may consider them to be misguided.
As we consider the Catholic Church, most Protestants don’t have to look long to find things that they are uncomfortable with. Confessing sins to a priest, using rosary beads, giving allegiance to the Pope, praying to the saints, and believing in the notion of purgatory are all alien to a Protestant’s Christian perspective.
But one of life’s really demanding challenges is knowing what’s worth making an issue about. For example, I think the idea of regularly confessing one’s sins to a priest is unbiblical and unnecessary. Yet, if Catholics want to do that, I am not going to go on an “anti-confessional” crusade. I feel no need to borrow my son’s baseball bat and rush into Catholic churches, Carrie Nation style, to smash up confessional booths.
There are a number of other practices that would fall into this category. The robes worn by the priests seem pretentious. Praying with beads smacks of superstition. Having their churches filled with statues of the saints makes me uncomfortable. Demanding that all adherents attend church once a week upon threat of mortal sin seems legalistic. Yet these things, while foreign to non-Catholics and having little or no biblical basis, should not, in themselves, be enough to keep Evangelicals and Catholics from working together as brothers and sisters in Christ or from recognizing the legitimacy of one another’s faith.
If God only accepted as His children those Christians who walk in perfect understanding and whose churches are the perfect expression of His mind and will, heaven would be a sparsely populated place indeed. When we look at the vast differences between the Methodists and the Pentecostals, the Baptists and the Churches of Christ, it becomes obvious that we must either allow for some pretty big differences of worship and practice, or else cling to that cultish arrogance which says that our little group is the only one God is interested in.
If the differences between Catholics and Protestants were simply a manner of form and style, there would be no reason for concern over the ECT document. Sadly, there are bigger issues involved, much bigger issues.
Consider the Catholics’ preoccupation with Mary. The Catholic apologists, such as Keith Fournier, would have us to believe that they do not worship, or even pray to Mary. Fournier writes: “Catholics venerate Mary… (they) only worship and pray to the Creator, not to creatures… poorly catechized Catholics have at times gone to extremes and appeared to elevate Mary over Jesus. But their mistaken piety does not reflect the teaching of the Catholic church.” Thus it is all a big misunderstanding. Catholics and Protestants alike respect Mary as a wonderful woman of God, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that “it just ain’t so!” The current Pope, John Paul II, has the Latin words totus tuus sum Maria (Mary, I’m yours) embroidered on the inside of his robes, and he has attributed his escape from death at the hands of an assassin to Mary, acknowledging, “For everything that happened to me on that day, I felt that extraordinary Motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than bullets.”
In his petition to Mary at the close of the Sunday Mass in Denver in August, 1993, the Pope prayed: “Mary of the New Advent, we implore your protection on the preparations that will now begin for the next meeting. Mary, full of grace, we entrust the next World Youth Day to you. Mary, assumed into heaven, we entrust the young people of the world… the whole world to you.” Is this the prayer of a poorly catechized, extremist Catholic? If the Pope prays to Mary and commits all the world’s youth to her, what should we expect from the rest of the church?
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen declared: “When I was ordained, I took a resolution to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist every Saturday to the Blessed Mother… All this makes me very certain that when I go before the Judgment Seat of Christ, He will say to me in His Mercy: ‘I heard My Mother speak of you.'”
Major Catholic leaders have consistently worshipped Mary and seen in her the key to their salvation. St. Bonaventure said, “the gates of heaven will open to all who confide in the protection of Mary.” St. Ephrem called devotion to the divine Mother “the unlocking of the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.” Blosius said, “We ought constantly to pray to her… ‘Open to us, O Mary, the gates of paradise, since thou hast its keys.'”
Friends, we are no longer talking about differences in styles of worship. These things get right to the heart of what is Christianity, and what it is that makes one a Christian. This unhealthy, idolatrous preoccupation with Mary is utterly without any basis in Scripture and is, no doubt, responsible for sending countless millions into hell, vainly trusting in the “Queen of Heaven” rather than the Prince of Peace.
The apostle Paul took the gospel seriously, so seriously that he even referred to it as “my gospel” (Romans 2:16). He declared that any who would try to pervert the gospel or come up with some false version of it should be totally disregarded, even if they came with the appearance of an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8).
The ultimate factor in deciding the legitimacy of the Catholic Church is its presentation of the gospel, its answer to the age-old question of “What must I do to be saved?” The Catholic apologists argue strongly that the Catholics, like the Protestants, believe in salvation by grace through faith. Keith Fournier declares, “As the Catholic Church teaches, we are converted to Christ by our faith, not because of our good works; and we do good works only because we have the divine grace to do so.” This sounds very evangelical; Billy Graham could not have said it better.
The trouble is that in order for us to find out the position of the Catholic Church we must look beyond the apologists. These are often born again believers themselves, who have indeed found Christ through personal faith, and are eager to have the world believe that Catholics and Evangelicals are but two flavors of the same church.
To anyone who bothers to do much reading on the Catholic position on salvation, the truth becomes readily apparent – the official position of the church is that salvation comes through grace, but the grace is distributed a little at a time through the official sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Trent proclaimed: “If anyone says that the sacraments… are not necessary for salvation but… that without them… men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification… let him be anathema.”
The Vatican II Apostolic Constitution declares: “Following in Christ’s steps, those who believe in Him have always… carried their crosses to make expiation for their own sins and the sins of others…” Anyone who is familiar with the writings of Paul will immediately realize what incredible blasphemies these quotes are! They mock the cross of Christ and show utter disregard for the very heart of New Testament theology.
This is no small issue. No matter how much help our Catholic friends may be in working with us in the great moral reforms of our day, we would be less than loving to disregard their blatant misconceptions and try to pretend that we are one in the Lord, and that, as Pat Robertson has suggested, “While there may be differences between the two faith communities, it is time that we focus on the similarities.” We are not talking about the differences between blue or red choir robes, we are talking about two diametrically opposed belief systems which cannot possibly both be true. Even Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft admits: “Over the past 25 years I have asked hundreds of Catholic college students the question: If you should die tonight and God asks you why He should let you into heaven, what would you answer? The vast majority of them simply do not know the right answer to this, the most important of all questions, the very essence of Christianity. They usually do not even mention Jesus!”
If someone I cared about had just been born again, and was now studying theology in the Catholic Church, I would be deeply concerned. If he were to believe the official Catholic teachings, he soon would no longer trust in Christ alone for his salvation, but would be putting his faith in Mary, communion, baptism, and a number of other sacraments and works, and according to Galatians, would be fallen from grace and alienated from Christ (Galatians 5:4). I would do anything I could to get him out of that church and into one which teaches that grand old biblical doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone.
Yes, there are certainly wonderful born again Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, and I praise God for them. May their numbers increase by millions more! But we must not approve nor should we endorse any system which makes our Savior’s death only a partial payment for the sins of mankind. When Jesus said, “It is done,” it was done!