Friday, July 6, 2012

The Church and the Mark of the Gospel...

Rembrandt's Two old men disputing, 1628. Peter and Paul
What is the appeal that draws someone from a Protestant church to join the Roman Catholic Church?  That question has been a hot topic in the blogosphere these past couple of months.  Of course, in attempting to answer that question one may fall into the role of armchair psychoanalyst. Nonetheless, let me plunge ahead, where all too many have already gone.

At a web site that majors in Roman Catholic Church conversion stories, former Protestant "A," now Roman Catholic, explains his decision to convert in a comment to current Protestant "B" and makes an appeal for "B" to consider making the move.
I know something else, in this case, because it is my experience but it seems a rather common experience for those of us leaving Protestantism in its various forms to become Catholic...
In my case, I found that the Catholic Church was true.  It was true in the areas where my old denomination was true, and it was true in the areas where my old denomination was false.  It was true in the areas of my life where I was false.  That is an indictment.  I was wrong and needed to be straightened out and neither my old denomination or myself were capable of providing that straightening.  It was beyond either of us to do that.
"Pick up your cross and follow Me" is what Jesus said.  Peter, speaking to Jesus, said, "You have the words of eternal life."
In my case, had I failed to act, I would have been condemned.  I was required to walk with our Lord, and not He with me.  I was required to act on the gift [the RCC?] He had given me.  I could not shirk that gift.  I had to count the cost, which I did, and then cost not withstanding, I made the move.  I haven't looked back.  I found the company that I had desired from the first.  I found the Authority and Leadership I was searching for (and it was not me).  In accepting this cross, I found my burden lightened.
If Jesus is standing at the door of your heart knocking, what will you do?  [emphasis added]
Another commented regarding his need to have one definitive answer from the Church regarding any number of doctrines:
Huh!? Isn't the Church supposed to tell me what to believe? Is the issue essential or not? Turns out I was wrong, and the Catholic Church does not see Paedo-communion as a big issue. They have both Paedo-communion and 'age of reason' communion. But I feel so relieved to finally at least have an answer! Being wrong doesn't bother me, I will conform my mind to the mind of the Church, but not knowing does bother me. Because if they leave it up to me to decide things, I will mess it up every time! Thank God for giving us a living Church to guide us!

Vivat Papa!
A bit disconcerting, but the above mindset can creep into the calculation of any believer.  It's a tendency to conflate the person and work of Jesus Christ with the visible expression of His body, the church, which eventually leads to elevating the church above Christ.  And this pitfall is not exclusive to any one church tradition.  How does this happen?  It's hard to say, but in a nutshell, it happens when the church and its traditions increase as the central focus and the centrality of Jesus Christ as revealed in the gospel recedes into the background.  As fallen human beings, we all-too-naturally direct our faith and trust towards that which is tangible and visible.  And an outward association with polished credentials can offer the promise of that elusive yet hard-to-beat satisfaction of certainty and predictability that we long for; at that point, a church becomes the answer.  We may find ourselves trying to vindicate and validate of our Christianity in ways which allow us to exclaim, "This is It!  I've arrived!  This is Home."  Being dependent creatures we must depend on something and we're more comfortable leaning on a visible kingdom than an invisible King (1 Sam. 8: 5-7).

Shouldn't the Church guide and teach true doctrine?  Indeed it should.  But the question (it keeps popping up throughout church history) to be answered is:  what is to be the distinguishing mark of the Church's teaching and truth?  What is it that the Church lifts up and proclaims?  The apostle Paul confronted this question again and again in the churches he planted.  To the Corinthians he wrote:
Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling block, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:22-24)
To the Galatians:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. For before that certain came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. (Gal. 2: 11-13)
And in his Colossian letter:
As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ... (Col. 2:6-8)
These excerpts describe challenges common to Christians in all ages.  In Corinth there was a drift toward "needing" a sign (visible witness) to confirm God's Word and/or a wisdom that provided rationally appealing answers to philosopical questions raised. There's nothing inherently wrong with a sign or wisdom.   But many times Christians look to the visible church to be the sign ("see, here it is... here is the real deal!") of true Christianity; and as an institution to be, if not flawless, unified around one authoritative and wise teacher.  This led many of the Corinthians to gravitate to their best camp:  I am of Paul... I am of Cephas... I am of Apollos... and even, I am of Christ!  And very likely this factional attitude grew out their perceived need to identify with and be seen as belonging to the right outward expression of the church.

In Paul's confrontation with Peter, we see that same carnal pull to belong to the right group in the eyes of men.  Paul speaks of those being carried away with hypocrisy, to the extent that even Peter and Barnabas dissembled and segregated together with the Jews in order to be identified with James of Jerusalem (one could say - the lead bishop of the Christianity's Mother Church).  Likewise in Paul's letter to the Colossians, he warns against philosophies (religious duties, observances, etc.) and vain deceits that, being added to the gospel and thus changing it, would rise in importance and lead the believers away from Christ.

These warnings were and are needed, not just because there exist these accessories and alternatives to the gospel of Christ.  He warns because within believers, themselves, is the pull to possess something outward in order to find that security of certainty that only heaven can supply.  Too often we want Christ plus something visible and tangible to mediate Him and validate us!  And those additions to the gospel are what end up diminishing it and ultimately supplanting Christ.  In each of these three examples, that which was being adopted by believers, practically and philosophically, stood in opposition to the centrality and supremacy of the gospel of Christ in the Church.
For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5) 
But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel... (Galatians2: 14a).
As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (Col.2: 6-7).
Paul counters the factional divisions and the supplemental philosophies not with an appeal to his authority, or a sign of his apostleship, or to his church.  But rather he appeals and points to the gospel of Christ.
I marvel that ye are so quickly removing from him that called you in the grace of Christ unto a different gospel; which is not another gospel only there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema (Gal. 1: 6-8). 
So what is the Church's distinguishing mark?  A philosophy?  An apostolic office?  A polity?  A teaching?  All questions of doctrine settled?  Rather than elevating any of these in order to prove that "This is the true church," what should be held above all is that pure testimony of the Church which proclaims clearly and unambiguously the gospel of Christ consistent with  the words found in Luke 9: 35-36a -
Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “ This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.


  1. Thanks for this good word, Jack. As important as the fellowship of other Christians is, we must not place our confidence in any fallible visible assembly. No church died on the cross and rose again for the salvation of God's elect.

    Churches do not have to "let us down". But if put a church in Christ's place, then we shall (and should) become uncertain if we even belong to the right church.