The Cheerleader and the Pope
Q: I just came back from my Luther League meeting where our advisor brought in a few of your articles. I was wondering if you could answer some of my questions that have been poorly explained.
One Friday night before a football game, my fellow cheerleaders were discussing the differences in religion. (We were in a Catholic school and were curious.) Mid-discussion, their theology teacher peeked out of a nearby room and asked if she could contribute to our conversation. Our views ranged from near-atheism to Missouri Synod Lutheran, Evangelical Lutheran, Mormon, Catholic, and United Church Of Christ. We wondered why Catholics put so much emphasis on Popes when we are there to worship God ... and many other things....
A: I think it’s fantastic that teens are having serious religious discussions. Of course, when you’re part of such a diverse religious gathering, you have to be careful to avoid letting discussion become arguing and then name-calling — or worse. I hope that as such opportunities present themselves to you, you grow ever more confident in the Faith and comfortable “speaking the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)”
Your cheerleaders provide a good summary of the whole world. Everyone has feelings and opinions that they hold tightly. Anyone with any sort of religious belief (or disbelief) considers certain teachings to be absolute truths. Some will allow that “your truth is valid for you while my truth is valid for me,” even if these “truths” flatly contradict one another. Others believe that there is only one “Capital T” Truth — and are absolutely convinced that contrary beliefs are erroneous, harmful, and quite possibly damnable.
I don’t know how long your conversation lasted, but you ladies covered quite a bit of theological ground in your pre-game warmup. I won’t go into any great detail on any of your topics but will try to highlight a bit about each. We’ll take care of the pope and church governance (or polity) this time. Next time, we can address your other questions, all of which more directly pertain to Biblical issues.
The papacy grew because every organization needs ... organization! Somebody must keep order, ensure that necessary tasks are taken care of, and otherwise keep things running smoothly. The Christian Church hadn’t been around for very long when the believers realized that there had to be some sort of hierarchy or chain of command. Therefore, while all pastors were considered overseers of their individual congregations, certain pastors began to oversee other pastors in their region. In New Testament Greek, an overseer was called an episcopos. Pronunciation gradually changed as it moved to Latin (ebiscopus), Old English (bisceop), and finally to our later English word bishop.
Bishops of larger, more important communities gradually assumed more control and, in the minds of some, more importance. Since the center of government in Christianity’s early days was Rome, outlying congregations and their pastors and bishops looked more and more to the Bishop of Rome for guidance in spiritual matters. Over time, what started as a voluntary, bottom-up following became a top-down rule, instituted and enforced by religious leaders in Rome. After the empire became Christian, government joined the Bishop of Rome in enforcing Roman supremacy.
Of both religious and secular governments, very few have any degree of democratic process. There is, of itself, nothing wrong with having one person leading a large group of people — even in the Christian Church. However, if a leader strays from the truth of God’s Word, true Christians must first attempt to change the leader’s heart and mind and, if this fails, seek other leadership. In the mind of many Christians, there came a time when papal leadership was taking the Church in the wrong direction and reform became necessary.
As a Lutheran, you fully recognize the blessings of the Reformation and gratefully acknowledge the work of Martin Luther as part of this process. Remember, however, that Luther didn’t set out to leave Roman authority but to agitate for its reform and renewal. He never left Catholicism — they kicked him out because they disagreed with his conclusion: Luther ultimately believed that the papacy had ceased being a position of godly leadership and that the office had actually become Antichrist.
In the largest group of folks calling themselves Christian, where multi-millions of people around the world agree with most of what various popes say and do, it’s hard to find someone dedicated, strong, and courageous enough to pursue large-scale change. Therefore, the papacy will probably exist in some form until the end of time. Yet even while Lutherans believe that much of Catholic doctrine is wrong and that popes often mislead and wrongly teach the Roman Church, we don’t dare claim that all Catholics are ungodly, unchristian, Bible-ignoring sinners. For even if popes or other religious leaders in other church bodies get in its way at times, God’s Word still has the remarkable ability to create and sustain saving faith in its hearers.
And while we might rightly condemn popes for misapplying Scripture and misleading Christ’s Church, we must always remember that every other church body has also suffered false teachers and poor leadership. All too often, reform efforts graduated into extremism. Some Christian reformers led their followers into Gospel-denying, life-constricting legalism and established rules and regulations covering every aspect of living. Meanwhile, others went so far with the freedom of the Gospel that they began using it as an excuse to do anything their hearts desired — including all manner of sexual misbehavior.
Finally, as you get to know individual Catholics better, you’ll discover that they hold a wide range of opinions about the papacy in general and the current pope in particular. Some barely pay any attention to him while others cling to his every word, treating him as the embodiment of Jesus Christ on earth. You might find some who actually “worship” him as fervently as they do our Lord.
However, many Catholics, even those who greatly respect and unswervingly follow papal leadership, still believe that their own works won’t merit heaven. Certain that Jesus is their Savior, they believe that only faith in Him saves them and hold that He — along with the Father and the Holy Spirit — are the only proper objects of their worship.
Next time, we’ll tackle more of what you asked.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #571