I had a conversation with my minister in at my local Anglican Church last night about the Christian status of Roman Catholics. Are Catholics in the Kingdom?
That is, could Roman Catholics be saved or born-again, despite the teaching of that Church about relics, icons, the Mass, tradition & the Bible, Mary & the saints, the Papacy, indulgences, Purgatory, justification, faith & good works and so on? The same question could be asked of Eastern Orthodox or the Coptic Orthodox in a slightly alternative form. Still, the essential concern is the same.
I think this issue can be particularly emotional and volatile. I myself have had friends leave Evangelical Christianity to join a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church. So I am often subject to the waves of the passions when thinking about the issue.
But in moments of honest reflection, I think there are a few fair things one could say from an Evangelical perspective that may allow one to give a qualified answer in the Affirmative in distinct, individual cases. What follows are a few thoughts in that regard.
1. God is not the God of any particular church denomination or tradition, but He is the God of Jesus Christ. Now this assertion, ironically, is almost certainly inconsistent with Roman Catholic belief. For Roman Catholicism teaches that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ, established by Him, and governed by the successor of St. Peter, the Pope of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ, so-claimed (currently Pope Francis, b.1936, Pope from March 2013). However, I, as an Evangelical, would reject that. God is never called the God of Rome. Yet neither is God called the God of the Anglicans, nor the God of the Baptists, nor the God of the Pentecostals and so on. God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever belongs to Christ belongs to Him, and whoever belongs to Christ belongs to Him by faith alone in Him (Rom. 8:9). But in that case, one could imagine a person going frequently into a building called a ‘Catholic Church’ and who, in the midst of the false rituals of that place, nevertheless has a simple faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. A person could be a member of the truly universal and elect Church of Jesus Christ — which knows no denomination or other such human dividing walls (e.g. Eph. 2:14) — and be a person who is born-again and saved despite the failings and weaknesses of the church that they go to on a Sunday.
2. God is faithful to us in our ignorance, our failings and mistakes. Say there is a person sitting in a Catholic Church who calls themselves Catholic but who also has a simple, personal faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, and who seeks to follow him. This person may believe and practice all kinds of falsehood. That would be sin, and people involved in that practice most certainly need to be sanctified of that sin (Rev. 22:15). But as I honestly reflect on this, I realise that in my religious life there may be all kinds of false ritual and idolatries still present in my heart. For example, pornography remains a massive problem in my life. I’ve gotten better with it over the years. But I still struggle with it. Is pornography any less sinful than asking a deceased saint’s help? God is patient with all who trust in him and is working slowly toward their sanctification. God may take many years to show someone something wrong in their life and their need to submit to Him in that area. God took forty years with Israel in the wilderness so they would learn their own heart (Deu. 8:2). Is the worship of the Mass any less sinful than pride? Is the doctrine of auricular confession any less harmful than the love of money? Is trusting in Mary or some other wrongly and exceedingly exalted saint to help with something any less sinful than trusting in oneself to do that very same thing? We all stumble in many ways. But God is patient with us all. Why, then, are we so quick to point the finger at others? “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9.)
3. We are not saved by believing true doctrines, but by faith. If we truly believe justification is by faith, then surely we are not saved by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith, but by the faith itself. I do not believe that we are saved by believing a doctrine per se, but by trusting in a divine-human Person — Jesus Christ. Obviously, it is not okay in God’s sight to deny biblical doctrines (1 Tim. 4:16). I think false teaching and heresy is destructive, and that it can indeed lead people away from the truth and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Believing the wrong thing and stubbornly going on believing it under correction is obviously not okay. But I think there can be a difference between being ignorant, on the one hand, and being truly defiant on the other hand. I believe that many Roman Catholics and others may be truly ignorant of the glorious freedom and assurance of the biblical teaching about divine justification by faith alone through grace and without good works, and yet their church leaders guide them wrongly away from this doctrine. This probably leads many if not most Roman Catholics to hold to a false gospel, which is really no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-10). But that doesn’t mean there cannot be some Roman Catholic who is simply misguided but who is nevertheless born-again in faith. A person might believe the wrong thing but still have a living faith in Jesus that shows itself in love and good works. Many early Christians did not even have the privilege of possessing a full Bible. Who knows how many misconceptions about God they must have had? Even today with full Bibles it is often hard to understand, or it can be misapplied. But our God is a loving Father who is patient with us and who disciplines us over time that we might be his children, built up and mature, like strong men, and not as infants (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 12:7-10).
4. Of all the false beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, we Protestant Evangelicals tend to tolerate doctrines among those we consider to be brothers our circles which are just as bad if not worse than Roman Catholic doctrines. Take the worship of the Mass or the veneration of icons and relics. Are not such practices heinous? I sincerely believe that they are offensive to God. Now consider what God said to Eliphaz the Temanite concerning what he and his two friends Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite were saying to God’s righteous servant Job about the nature of God and the explanation for Job’s suffering earlier in the dialogue of the Book of Job:
“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about Me…” (Job 42:7)
Now consider this: God immediately provided atonement and forgiveness for these three men (42:8-9). What I mean is this. There are people in Protestant churches today who actually hold doctrines that are probably just as heinous in God’s sight as certain distinctive Catholic doctrines. For example, classical Calvinists actually believe (contra 1 Tim. 2:4 and other clear texts) not that God is willing that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but rather that God has simply and unconditionally predestined where every human being will ultimately end up for eternity before they are born — and that based on nothing good or bad they have done. That’s right! They actually interpret the biblical doctrine of Predestination in such a way that precludes God’s saving love and desire for every human being. Or take early American Protestantism for example. Segregationist churches split Christian believers into separate black and white skinned racial congregations that either could or would not mingle. Or take Martin Luther. Luther was a rabid anti-Semite at the end of his life (Von den Juden und ihren Lügen). Racism has been rampant among churches and leaders within Christianity — not that such attitudes come from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. My point is, is that not all a blasphemy? Is it not all a mockery of the love of God to believe so? What I’m saying is that there are all kinds of beliefs and practices that we have or do that are not okay, but God our Father is unimaginably forbearing and long-suffering toward us, his people, who so often stuff up. Hence, I could imagine an individual Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist or perhaps even maybe — just maybe — even a Unitarian (someone who denies the Trinity) who yet has a simple faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour, who therefore belongs to Christ, yet who nevertheless perseveres in absurd doctrines that are harmful to their sanctification and others’. Hopefully, God would bring them out of their deception soon. But can one not be mistaken and yet belong to Christ?
5. If there is a Roman Catholic who is born-again, it is not by virtue of their Roman Catholicism that they are so. The Roman Catholic Church surely has a high view of itself: that it is the Mother of all churches, the Bride of Christ, who alone has supreme authority to interpret scripture, forgive sins, exercise teaching and disciplinary authority and to determine the meaning and implications of church tradition, and to minister through her priesthood the saving sacraments, and so on. As I hope is clear by this point, I think the lot of this to be a foolish myth, and surely the vast majority of people who gather in that church are nominal Catholics who are not born-again, and those who truly, truly trust in their own good works to save them before the Throne of Judgement on the Last Day. But of the 99% of Roman Catholics in the world who may be lost, is it not possible that perhaps 1% of the people who meet in a Catholic Church and do Catholic things may indeed have a mustard seed of true faith and dependence on Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the salvation of their souls, even in the midst of the false hustle and bustle of the Mass, the relics, the icons, the bishops, the Papacy and the priests?
Well, I think so. And I think the way one thinks about this will profoundly impact the way one approaches one’s Roman Catholic friends. Here’s few suggestions:
First, we mustn’t judge by mere appearances (Jn. 7:24). We can’t simply paint everyone with a broad brush because they give themselves the title “Catholic” or even “Anglican” or “Christian.” Anyone can claim a title. It’s the Spirit that counts: Is the person born-again? That’s the question. Do they have a living faith in Jesus Chris? Do they ultimately depend only and ever upon Him? What we should be interested in is where that particular individual’s heart is at with God and Jesus Christ, not what title they have or what building they go to.
Second, we need to be conscious of our own weaknesses (Matt. 7:1-2; Rom. 2:1-4, 21-22). Sure, your Roman Catholic friend might have a lot of problems, and in the course of their Christian life it may turn out that they need to leave that Church at the prompting of the Spirit who is in them. But in the meantime, why not be conscious of your own pride, your own anger, your own lust, your own possible false beliefs and traditions and have some charity towards another person who, for all intents and purposes, is seeking to know and serve God rightly?
Third, we need to be strong in our convictions, and tentative in our fellowship (2 Cor. 6:14). I have a mate who is a Roman Catholic but who to me seems to exhibit a genuine faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. Whenever I meet up for him for coffee and we start to talk about Christianity and the Bible, we seem to get along quite well on most things. I’ve even gone with him to visit the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sydney. In my heart of hearts, I hope that he is my brother in Christ, and not just because he’s a good friend, but because I’ve talked with and listened to him on many things. But I must confess that I have reservations about him because of my knowledge of what Roman Catholics believe and do. Essentially, I don’t know. So in my lack of knowledge, I couldn’t minister alongside him in Gospel work. But I can hope to God and pray for him. I can ask our friendship grows stronger, and that God would give me true discernment, based on the Spirit and in truth.
What do you think? Are Catholics in the Kingdom? As far as I have thought about it, I would say: Maybe. It depends on the individual person you’re talking about. May the God of grace grant us the grace to love each other and to judge and divide properly and impartially, not based on mere appearances.
St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sydney.