Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Tug of the Tiber

I was talking with a friend about an interesting issue: thinking evangelicals, tired of shallow churches and hollow worship, wind their way to Rome.  Now, I know that 'data' is not the plural of 'anecdote', but we (and our circle of friends and acquaintances) had been seeing this trend for a few years, at least.  It's a challenge to the Reformed churches, because maybe a decade ago it seemed like they were the leading destination for mainline evangelicals seeking depth and solidity (such as myself).

First, a few thoughts on Rome.  She is doubtless a Christian church, affirming the same Trinue God, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who died to redeem fallen sinners.  She is also (to me) a very wayward church, allowing (in the Lumen Gentium) quite a bit more than I am persuaded the Bible allows regarding sincerity being soteric, irrespective of a personal relationship with Jesus, and there are many other points of departure I could note, not least the council of Trent, the Mass, the canon, and the sacraments (the reasons for Protestants in the first place).  But boy oh boy has she got looks.

Celibate priests (except the ex-Anglicans, ahem), beautiful architecture, history, glory, incense, hushed prayers, art, charity, theology, and now an admirably humble pope who seems to want simply to do good in the world.  Above all, the claim to "true catholicity" by dint of her worldwide presence and (supposed) uninterrupted succession.

So when the music fades and all is stripped away, when the jokes from the plexi-pulpit have grated through the speakers, when the inch-deep self-esteem teaching is threadbare, where to go to worship God?

To the reformed churches?  Those quibbling denominational d-bags?  They are like bacteria, they just keep dividing.  Plus, they only care about head knowledge.

No, safety and substance are held out by Rome, along with the promise of absolution provided you trust the church to dispense it.

Hits the spot, no?

No less, the reformed arguments against Rome frequently have the ring of dismissiveness (pooh, Rome?  that old bag?), or else they argue historic issues on which Rome has sidestepped (Justification by faith alone! Luther got rehabilitated, OK?). 

What is needed in the reformed churches is a freshly reasoned, accurate, and above all charitable counterargument to the lure of Rome.  Your mom always knew that you would catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and especially when making a case to a potential Rome-ward bound person, attacks are not the answer.  Understand the criticisms and the draws, there are real problems in every church, including the reformed camp, and there are strengths in many places, too.

A specific concern: unity and historicity.  Rome's succession story is a-historical, to say the least.  Look up the investiture controversy and look at the early church.  Rome's touted unity is given the lie by competing factions within the church and by the existence of, among others, Copts, Eastern and Russian Orthordox, to say nothing of Protestantism (kicked out by Rome, but now accepted as "wayward brothers").

A general concern: the word of God.  Is God's word subject to the church, or vice-versa?  It troubles me that many of the American evangelicals who are migrating to Rome have probably not reckoned with their forfeiture of a very deeply held Protestant/American religious conviction: the right to interpret Scripture.  Clearly, the church (broadly speaking) has a history and system of interpretation that is useful, frequently correct, and not to be ignored, but on matters of dissension, may not a man prayerfully submit to the Word as he reads it?  Not in Rome.

A difficult charge: the reformed are not charitable.  Too often true, but that's not to say there's something wrong with reformed theology in general.  Properly understood theology works itself out in real life.  Really believe that only God knows who will be saved?  Then you will probably take every chance to share the gospel.  Who knows?  God may use you today.  Really think that true Christians are preserved and persevere to the end?  Then get persevering!  Really believe in the inerrancy of Scripture?  Then "why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I command?"  Here is a call to charity.  If you don't want people to think of your church as cold, then be warm yourself.  It's contagious.

To conclude, it is silly to dismiss Rome, especially with such an engaging pontiff as the man who currently claims the Holy See.  Let us rather work to make the Biblical arguments upon which reformed theology is built, and offer them in a spirit of charity, trusting that by God's grace, those who seek substance will find it in the Word of God, and let's be there, too.

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