Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Turning the Wheel

I am a Protestant through and through. This is why I love church history. To go back into church history is to become more and more Protestant. The Reformers were so helpful in their calling the Church to repent from her wanderings. But as an honest Protestant, I need to admit that there were some overcorrections that happened in the 16th century and we are still feeling their effects.

In a pre-Reformation church, the altar was the central focus and the “pulpit”, such as it was, was off to the side. Protestants flipped the architecture on its head. The pulpit became the magnet to which all eyes were drawn because of the centrality of the Scripture and that preached faithfully. There’s much to commend in rearranging the furniture in that way.

But I fear it may have simply caused an equal and opposite problem. This is why ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the Church must always be reformed). Not that we are constantly changing ourselves out of restlessness or chasing fads, but that we are constantly reforming ourselves to be more like Christ’s Bride.

The sermon is not the focus of a church service. The gospel is.

I say that as someone who, until quite recently, preached for the last six years as a minister of the gospel one to two times a week. I love preaching. I love creating sermons that are helpful and clear. It’s wonderful and humbling to see the Holy Spirit take a sermon and run with it. It’s like watching your little paper boat get blown across the lake at top speed.

But I would invite you to think of the liturgy as a wheel.

(Brief aside: liturgy means “work of the people.” Some traditions call it the order of service. It can be “high church” with incense and bells or “low church” with acoustic guitars and blue jeans. Even if your church service is simply announcements, a few songs, and a sermon, that is a liturgy. That’s how I’m using this word.)

So, think of the liturgy as a wheel. The hub at the center is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out from that central hub are the spokes. Each spoke is a means of grace: prayer, Scripture reading, singing, giving, the Lord’s Supper, the sermon, baptism, confession, etc. That all lead to and draw from the cross of Christ at the center. And the rim around the hub, the tire, is fellowship. It is the communion of saints. The means of grace spin the wheel of fellowship around the hub of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We move forward only when centered around the cross. Otherwise, the wheel doesn’t spin. Otherwise, we’re stuck in neutral, learning perhaps or praying mightily, but not really going anywhere as a church. The liturgy needs to be orbited around the good news of what Jesus has done for sinful people to bring them back to a holy God. And the sermon does that.

But so too does the Eucharist. That’s why I’m an advocate of weekly communion. Richard Barcellos has written a wonderful book from a Reformed Baptist perspective on how the Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace. I recommend it. It’s a conduit to strengthen our faith in the gospel which is of first importance. But regardless of how often it is celebrated, my point is that it matters as a strengthening exercise for our faith in what Christ has done for us.

Confession, also, brings us back to the gospel. As do responsive readings of Scripture. Reciting the Creed strengthens our faith in Christ alone. These are all spokes on the wheel that make fellowship go forward, but only if that’s a centering around the gospel.

This understanding does not devalue the sermon or the word of God. On the contrary, it properly utilized them as channels of sanctifying grace from the Father that push us deeper into the Scriptures to find the truth of his gospel there. Likewise, this does not unequally elevate Communion or prayer above the other means of grace. The spokes on the wheel are the same length and of the same importance in making the wheel turn. The Church needs all the gifts that her Lord has bestowed upon her.

However a church orders its liturgy, whatever percentage of time is allocated to whichever means of grace, my point is this: that the gospel is centralized and focused in everything that happens, that it all be done “in the name of the Lord.” That’s how we ought to live anyway, right? It seems prudent that we ought to worship that way as well.