Are there fundamental differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism? Do any such differences matter at all? Historical events demonstrate that Protestant belief was in fact birthed out of a major protest or rebellion against theological doctrines held by the Catholic Church that were considered heretical.
Heather Clark for ChristianNews.net recently narrated a summary of the historical chronology of events that led up to the current split. Clark recounted that the Protestant Reformation, which resulted in the Counter-Reformation by the Jesuits, was sparked by a monk and scholar named Martin Luther, who served the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
“I think I’ve found the truth at last,” the classic film “Martin Luther” depicts Luther as stating to a Church official. “By faith man lives and is righteous, not by what he does for himself, be it adoration of relics, singing of masses, pilgrimages to Rome, purchase of pardon for his sins, but by faith in what God has done for him already through His Son.”
Following the revelation, Luther began to challenge the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, compiling a list of ’95 theses’ where he asserted that Catholic doctrine contradicted the Scriptures. He was later summoned to appear before a meeting of the Church and was declared a heretic and excommunicated.
Yet today there is a drive to re-unite the two major but opposite theological camps in an ecumenical exercise that emphasizes unity irrespective of significant doctrinal difference and conflicting Biblical interpretations with regards to the Christian tenets of faith.
In one such example, Clark reported that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently voted overwhelmingly to approve a declaration of unity with the Roman Catholic Church in an endeavor to “enumerate the many points of agreement between Lutherans and Catholics”–a move that some state is contrary to Biblical Christianity.
Coincidentally, the ELCA and Roman Catholicism both teach ‘replacement theology’, i.e. that the church has replaced Israel and become the heir of all covenants made with her. This could explain the two anti-Israel resolutions passed at the recent ELCA assembly.
The “Declaration on the Way” was approved 931-9 in New Orleans. It “seeks to make more visible the unity we share by gathering together agreements reached on issues of church, Eucharist, and ministry.” However, it is called “on the way” because “dialogue has not yet resolved all the church-dividing differences on these topics.”
“Dear sisters and brothers, let us pause to honor this historic moment,” ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said in an address to the assembly. “Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity. After 500 years of division and 50 years of dialogue, this action must be understood in the context of other significant agreements we have reached, most notably the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ in 1999.”
While this month’s ELCA declaration calls out points of agreement between evangelical Lutherans and Roman Catholics, it also outlines several areas where differences remain between the two entities:
” Roman Catholics believe in transubstantiation, while Lutherans do not believe that communion is transformed “into the [actual] substance of the body and blood of Christ.”
” Lutherans question the global papacy, which Roman Catholics assert is of the succession of Peter.
Mike Gendron, a former Roman Catholic who now leads Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries, an organization dedicated to evangelizing Catholics, said that the ECLA is in error in seeking to find common ground with Roman Catholicism despite these doctrinal disparities.
“By seeking unity with the Catholic religion they are departing from the Biblical faith of the Reformers,” he told Christian News Network. “They need to know that there can never be Biblical unity between Roman Catholics and denominations which uphold the Gospel of God.”
He noted several other integral and fundamental differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics:
” The Bible teaches justification by faith; Catholicism condemns with anathema those who believe justification is by faith alone (Romans 4);
” The Bible teaches we are born again by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit; Catholicism teaches regeneration is by water baptism (John 3);
” The Bible teaches we are purified of sin by the blood of Jesus; Catholicism teaches purification is by the fires of purgatory (1 John 1:7);
” The Bible teaches that Jesus is the one Mediator between God and man; Catholicism offers many mediators including Mary and its priests (1 Timothy 2:5).
Gendron said that unity simply for the sake of religious unity is contrary to the Scriptures.
Yet another clear bone of contention is the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ who holds an elevated and revered position in Roman Catholicism. Clark in a separate report stated that Pope Francis recently prayed for Mary to intercede for the oppressed.
The Pope recently urged the thousands gathered to observe what is known as the Roman Catholic “Feast of the Assumption” that Mary had been “assumed into Heaven body and soul.”
“To the Queen of Peace, who we contemplate today in heavenly glory, I wish to entrust once again the anxieties and sufferings of the people who, in many parts of the world, are innocent victims of persistent conflict,” he said. The Pope also led those gathered in the Magnificat and a recitation of the Angelus Domini.
Gendron held this belief about Mary to be un-Biblical. “The dogma that celebrates the assumption of Mary’s body into Heaven is closely tied to another Catholic dogma, which is, the immaculate conception of Mary,” he explained. “In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared Mary was conceived free from original sin and she remained free of every personal sin throughout her entire life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 491, 493).”
“Two thousand years ago the Pharisees nullified the word of God with their ungodly traditions and were soundly rebuked and called hypocrites by the Lord Jesus (Mark 7:6-14). Catholic bishops have made the same fatal error by rejecting and opposing God’s word,” Gendron said.
He noted that the Bible clearly states that all have sinned–including Mary, who Catholics declare to have been conceive immaculately, i.e. without inherited sin, and therefore received into Heaven bodily.
“In Romans 3:10-12, 23, we read, ‘None is righteous, no, not one…All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’
Gotquestions.com explains that Mary herself understood this fact, as she declared in Luke 1:47, “. . . and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. . .” Mary recognized that she needed the Savior. The Bible never says that Mary was anyone but an ordinary human whom God chose to use in an extraordinary way.
Despite these stark differences on critical aspects of doctrine, the ecumenical movement continues to seek unity at any cost. Early June, Clark reported on an event featuring Hillsong United, Lecrae, Michael W. Smith, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, Francis Chan and other prominent evangelical and Catholic speakers and musicians that took place in Washington, D.C.
Worship leader, Matt Maher, who identifies as a Roman Catholic, has declared at other ecumenical events, that he believes it is his calling to work toward to the unification of Christians and Catholics.
“We’ve never seen a unified church before in the history of the church since the Reformation. We don’t even know what it looks like,” he said at OneThing 2015. “I think what the work of unity starts with [is]: It starts with us praying together. It starts with us fellowshipping together. It starts with us having a common respect for each other, a love for each other.”
“Together 2016” was convened with the unity agenda in mind. The ecumenical event was held on July 16 at the National Mall in Washington, and sought to unite those of various backgrounds to “stand together for Jesus.” Both Christians and Catholics alike were featured at the prayer and worship event.
“Together 2016 is about laying aside what divides us to lift up Jesus who unites us,” organizer Nick Hall of PULSE told Christian News Network. “We are coming together in historic unity to pray for a reset for our nation.”
Pope Francis also delivered a video message to those in attendance.
“We are humbled and honored by his involvement and are eager to share his message with the crowd that gathers at Together 2016,” Hall told the Christian Post. “That His Holiness would choose to speak into this historic day is a testament to the urgency and the need for followers of Jesus to unite in prayer for our nation and our world.”
Gendron begged to differ, saying that Jesus Himself came to divide with truth, and prayed that His Church would be sanctified by that truth.
“It was the Lord Jesus Christ who came to divide: He divides with His word and His gospel. He divides mother against daughter, father against son–and we must remain sanctified and not united with any who are not born again,” he explained. “More than ever, we must maintain the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. What hope does an unbelieving world have unless we maintain the purity of the Gospel?”
Gendron also stated that he is concerned about the message that it will send when Christians see evangelical leaders involved with an event that validates Roman Catholicism and therefore does not view those in that religion as a mission field.
“This is going to put the Gospel off-limits to many Roman Catholics who are there, so it will also confuse the evangelical Church,” he said.
According to gotquestions.com, confusion is already rampant in this regard. The site teaches that a key distinction between Catholics and Christians is the view of the Bible. Catholics view the Bible merely as having equal authority with the Church and tradition while Christians view the Bible as the supreme authority for faith and practice.
A second key difference between Catholics and Bible Christians is the understanding of how we can approach God. Catholics tend to approach God through intermediaries, such as Mary or the saints. Christians approach God directly, offering prayers to no one other than God Himself. The Bible proclaims that we ourselves, through Christ our High Priest, can approach God’s throne of grace with boldness. (Hebrews 4:16)
There is no need for mediators or intermediaries, as Christ is our one and only Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), and both Christ and the Holy Spirit are already interceding on our behalf (Romans 8:26-27; Hebrews 7:25).
Gotquestions.com adds that the most crucial difference between Catholics and Bible Christians is on the issue of salvation. Catholics view salvation almost entirely as a process, while Christians view salvation as both a completed status and a process.
Catholics see themselves as “being saved,” while Christians view themselves as “having been saved.”
The Bible presents salvation as a gift that is received the moment a person places faith in Jesus Christ as Savior (John 3:16) and that salvation is an accomplished work, purchased by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ (1 John 2:2). Hebrews 7:27 says, “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered Himself.”
The Catholic viewpoint is that salvation is received by faith, but then must be “maintained” by good works and participation in the Sacraments.
In the light of all these critical and undeniable differences, should Christians and Catholics still be uniting ecumenically without addressing these major issues, pretending that they don’t exist or are not of any consequence?
Should unity be had at the expense of Biblical truth? Should traditions take precedence over the revealed will of God? As Jesus aptly stated: “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
Yes, both groups should have a mutual love for each other. However, the scriptures still admonish Bible believers not to be “unequally yoked” with non-believers (2 Corinthians 6:14) but to rather “come out from among them” (2 Corinthians 6:14) and to avoid fellowship with those not in agreement with the infallibility and final authority of the Scriptures.