What Does Pope Francis’ leadership of the Roman Catholic Church Mean for Evangelicals Who Crossed the Tiber?

Pope Francis has summoned bishops from all over the world to Rome to discuss issues concerning families – including hot-button issues like artificial contraception, the Eucharist and the divorced and gay civil unions. The meeting opened on Sunday and is seen as a test of Francis’ vision of a more merciful Church.

I will be very interested as an Evangelical Protestant to see what comes of this. Many Evangelicals have left Protestantism for the RC for its conservative sexual ethics and willingness to fence the table from the divorced (marriage is sacramental in the eyes of the RCC). These Evangelicals have been willing to let some Reformational doctrine go in order to gain some order in the church. Now they will possibly see that moral order eroded.

My guess is that these Evangelicals might leave the RCC over these forays into “mercy” and that the stream of Evangelicals leaving for Rome will dry up. Is Orthodoxy their next option? I must admit that Evangelicalism is willing to do almost anything to fill a pew. It is moral chaos in most Evangelical churches. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone has been turned into a mantra of moral license. Their doctrinal and moral reductionism can’t be reduced any more than it is. The only thing we Protestants are interested in is how many people go to your church. If that number is big enough, you are considered a success and given a place at the table. I don’t think this is an overstatement. Has Rome also caught this virus?

Online Theological Debates Add Value

I have been listening to online theological debates as a means to get point and counterpoint side by side and to get more immediately in touch with the strengths and weakness of each position. It is not easy to listen to nit picking and the absence of a simple sweet fellowship, but theology does matter. Theology does not just sit on the sidelines. It shapes the contours of what the church is and will be.

Professional theologians debating what is and is not good theology is taking place under the radar of church life whether we know it or not. And it will burst upon the scene in some way or another – whether it be the prosperity teaching, eschatology, the charismatic movement, the doctrine of justification, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, the inspiration of the Bible, etc. Some of the debaters I am running across are: James White, Michael Brown, William Craig Lane, Michael Horton, Dan Wallace, Jerry Walls, Paul Helm, Robert George, and more. I will post some other names along the way.

RC Sproul, John Piper and several other big theological guns do not debate. Their sole ministry is to teach. Debating does expose the debater beyond just what he or she knows. Their character bubbles to the surface. For those with large teaching ministries, debating is just not worth the risks.

Public debates have a significant pedigree in the church and an honorable history. In today’s climate, debates feel offensive to most Christians. I think they still serve a good purpose.

My Favorite JI Packer Book

My favorite book of JI Packer’s is one I do not hear a lot about, Keep in Step with the Spirit. It is a significant contribution to understanding sanctification and the many nutty ideas that get us sidetracked. He is generous with the “deeper life” movements ensconced in the Pentecostal and Keswick traditions, but he does take them to task for views that just do not stand up to the Bible’s teaching and human experience. I grew up with the Higher Life movement and always felt uncomfortable with Watchman Nee and the teachings on sanctification flowing out of Columbia Bible College (and the English Keswick movement) that flowed into our church. They seemed to be, and are, the search for altered states of consciousness, as in talking myself into something that will reduce the pain of spiritual combat and relieve me of the duty of choice. This may work short term but the mental gymnastics it requires cannot be kept up. Requires too much smoke and mirrors.

The Puritan model of sanctification is my own and the one in which Packer has confidence. Sanctification is not an act of God but a work of God that requires my cooperation in making moral choices of my own free will. Some Pentecostal and Wesleyan traditions make sanctification an act, a one step act of God bringing the Christian to the higher life through a faith step by the believer. In other words, as we were saved through faith in justification so we are saved through faith in sanctification. I don’t see it taught in the Bible nor validated in experience. What it does do is bring a mental and spiritual malaise upon Christians as they search for the one key that will unlock the door to victory. Packer deals with this powerfully and puts it to bed.