by: Rev. Ed Schneider
It wasn’t that long ago when the recently retired Pope Benedict commented on where the “true church” lies. Basically, what Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pontiff of the See of Rome said, was that any and every church that was not a Roman Catholic Church is a distinctly lesser version of the original. By saying this he was therefore logically implying that all other forms or expressions of Christian thought, doctrine, and worship were not valid, in other words, they were by definition; not church at all! Even though I am paraphrasing, I assure you I am expressing the gist of what the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was trying to share with the world.
Certainly he had the privilege to express his opinion. After all, he was technically the “spiritual” leader of a billion people. However, I feel compelled to share with you that even though a significant percentage of contemporary Catholics do not find this view valid any longer, many do. Because of this reality, I have a great deal of difficulty with his commentary on several levels.
Obviously, I am approaching my avid disagreement with the Sancta Sedes of Rome from a protestant point of view. I am also stating that I have benefited numerous times from my professional, theological, social and what I thought was ecumenical relationships with my Catholic brothers and sisters. So, beloved, here are just a few of my concerns and disagreements.
Firstly, let’s just start by stating the obvious. Some of us may find the former Pope’s remarks outrageous, but he is actually just maintaining the stance he and millions of others have always had. The former Pope Benedict was expressing a heart-felt belief. God bless him for his honesty! He certainly had the responsibility to be truthful to his members concerning what he believes and where he wants to lead them. Truth be told, far too many of us “religious leaders” try to be everything to everybody. He certainly did not do that. Now that I have said this, what in God’s name was he thinking? The church calls people in, it doesn’t push them away. That is exactly what his comments did.
Where was the outrage from other church leaders from around the world?
The Bible clearly calls for unity of the Body of Believers. Well, I suppose that was what the former Pope was eluding to….from a Catholic perspective. Ouch! Yes, it is important to state what you believe. However, if what you believe goes directly against a tremendous amount of Biblical understanding – regardless of any church’s tradition, Catholic or otherwise – then it must be challenged and brought into the light of day.
Secondly, there are many denominations or types of churches that would be termed as “Christian,” such as Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and so on. It should be no surprise to anyone there are members on the role in each one of these denominational affiliations who genuinely have a relationship with God through Christ, and there are those who don’t. Having your name on the role of a church is no guarantee of a profoundly deep relationship – or, for that matter, any relationship at all – with God. So, the more significant issue isn’t what particular church a person belongs to, but rather whether a person has God’s gift of Jesus Christ living inside him or her. In other words, does each person who is claiming membership in the “body of Christ” have a personal, life-changing, life-sustaining and life empowering relationship with God because of Jesus? In the Gospel of John, we’re told,
“to all who received (Jesus), to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
Why are we called to become children of God? God’s love for us is never ending in its acceptance, and because of this, God’s love will always outweigh our nature of sinful separation from the Creator. Remember what the Bible says,
“God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Accepting Jesus means believing that Jesus is the Son of God, the perfect reflection of God, the light of the world, the propitiation for all of our sinful natures. Jesus is who He claimed to be, and as such, by humbly and openly inviting Him to guide and direct our lives, we gain a new and profoundly deeper level of Divine interaction. (John 3:1-8) Jesus said,
“I came that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John10:10)
The Bible places in Jesus’ mouth this remarkable invitation:
“I am standing at the door and knocking. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in.” (Revelation 3:20)
Thirdly, if you have read any of my previous writings at all, you know that I am not the kind of preacher that justifies everything I say or write just by quoting a few verses of Scripture. But LORD, one cannot go around ignoring the Bible’s theological expressions either. Every believer is baptized into the Body of Christ at the moment of salvation (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Body of Christ is called the “church” in Colossians 1:24. So every and all true believers are members of the Body of Christ – the universal church. The former Pope’s basic position, although an overt attempt to rally the troops, makes an important and foundational error that has consistently separated far too many Christians from each other for centuries. The Christ of the Bible is said to be “coming back” at some future point for His faithful bride. Whether we claim this understanding literally or metaphorically, the end result is the same; Jesus calls and collects those who have believed in Him. Christ’s divine evaluating component begins with those who have given their lives freely, who have grown in their faith while living their lives under the banner of His leadership. Either literally or metaphorically, Christ is not coming back for the membership roll of the Roman Catholic Church, but rather for those who have been sealed through their belief in the Son of God. Christ has one body, and one bride for which He is returning. We are sealed (set aside and guaranteed final and ultimate approval) by the Holy Spirit until the day that our very being is redeemed. Ephesians 4:30 says,
“And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.”
If a person has not awakened to, or been empowered by, the Holy Spirit, then that person is not under the transforming blessing of God’s loving salvation. Romans 8:9 says,
“but ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any person have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.”
What is the church? The church is not a building! Please, don’t let any of you pretend that a building or an institution makes you “holy” in God’s sight. The “church” is the people who have transformed, by the light of God’s loves through the life, mission and resurrected reality of Jesus, the Christ. Finally, former President Clinton once said, while responding to a question concerning election strategy, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Well, it isn’t brick and mortar, it’s not the denomination, it’s not one tradition over another, it’s not what color adorns the chancel area, it’s not whether you sprinkle, pour or plunge, it’s not whether you shout or cry, it’s not the style of music that ultimately defines Christ’s church. It’s the people who have given their lives over to God through Jesus that make up “the church.” That is the church that Jesus recognizes. People who believe, people who are Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran – yes, and even Catholic – can be part of the “universal” body of Christ. Let me leave you with two marvelous Scriptures to pray about. Acts 7:48:
“However, the Most High does not live in houses built by men…”
and Colossians 1:24:
“Now I (Paul) rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I will fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church.”