After the White Smoke Clears

Front Row May/June 2013

John Greening May 23, 2013




Like millions of viewers, I watched with interest the TV coverage of the selection and installation of the new pope of the Roman Catholic Church. I was quite surprised by the amount of sympathetic attention the news outlets gave to this story as it unfolded. It was certainly a spectacle. The processionals; the smoke billowing from the simple metal chimney extending above the tiled roof of the Sistine Chapel; the window announcement in Latin, “Habemus Papam,” accompanied by the scene of the cheering crowd; the bands playing; the Swiss Guard standing at attention; the clerical wardrobes; and the impressive architecture gave the event the kind of aura and drama that has few comparisons.

In the days surrounding this ritual, the papal event was the topic of many conversations. “Did you watch the papal election? What did you think?” As I observed the Vatican pontifical induction, I thought, “How very different this faith tradition is than what I practice as a Baptist.”

Though Baptists seldom use the term, both “faiths” employ the word catholic. Roman Catholics use the term as an official and exclusive designation of the church’s identity and membership. Regular Baptists use the term as a descriptor referring to the universal church, which includes all true believers from the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 to the Rapture—a vast host of Christ followers that is not exclusively Baptist.

The authoritative standard of the two groups is vastly different. Roman Catholics appeal to the Bible, but also to the traditions of the church, canon law, and at times the papacy. On the other hand, Baptists see the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice. More specifically, Baptists appeal to the New Testament Scriptures. It is obvious in viewing the papal ceremony that the New Testament is not the exclusive reference point for the Roman Catholic Church’s polity and practice.

The Roman Catholic Church is composed of individuals who are baptized into the church, either as infants under the direction of their parents or as adults. First communion and confirmation follow. Baptists hold that only those who have personally believed in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection may be members of the church. The gospel is at the heart of a Baptist framework of ministry.

Catholicism recognizes seven sacraments to be practiced as conveyors of grace. The sacraments are acts by which God’s saving presence is experienced. Baptists practice two ordinances as symbols of great redemption truths. The ordinances convey no merit of grace. It was remarkable to watch the Eucharistic communion administered in St. Peter’s Square to 200,000 spectators who believed they were partaking of the actual body and blood of Jesus and in so doing, were gaining favor from God.

In the Square, hundreds of priests of the Roman Catholic Church dispersed among the throngs of people as representatives of God through whom the people might access God. The priesthood is a vital pillar of Catholicism. Conversely, Baptists hold to the priesthood of the believer, granting each access to God directly through the only mediator, Jesus Christ.

As Pope Francis was seated on the “throne of Peter,” I could not help but think that he was part of a long line of 266 pontiffs, some of whom used threats of reprisals and death to force “Christianity” on others. In contrast, Baptists believe in individual soul liberty. Each believer is responsible for understanding God’s Word and obeying God’s instructions. No one can make that decision or assume that responsibility for another.

The College of Cardinals selected the new pope. Every Catholic was obliged to accept the decision of the church’s hierarchy. The polity of Roman Catholicism is a top down structure. Baptists hold to a congregational form of church government. Baptists also hold to only the two offices of pastor and deacon. Roman Catholicism has layers of ascending clerical authority leading to “the vicar of Christ,” Pope Francis.

Roman Catholicism manifests itself worldwide on the community level, but each of those churches is organizationally tied to Rome and ultimately to the pope. Dissimilarly, Baptists see each local church as autonomous. The only head of the church is Jesus Christ.

The history of Roman Catholicism often included the intermingling of church and state. The power and authority of the church were evident in the number of world state leaders who attended the papal installation. Baptists see a separation of church and state.

I’ll be honest and tell you that I was a bit envious of the ministry influence that was on display in the pontiff’s inauguration. What pastor would not want the opportunity on a world stage to address a listening public hanging on every word? Sadly, the true gospel of salvation was not communicated in that ceremony. The pomp and pageantry, the homilies and rituals, while well-executed, were not an accurate display of what Christ meant His church to be and do. As I watched, I wondered what the Heavenly Architect of the church, its singular head, Jesus Christ, must have thought as He watched the ceremony. I felt emptiness in the pit of my stomach.

One day I will stand before the Lord. First Corinthians 3 explains that the work I have done in building the church of Jesus Christ will one day be judged. The divine Architect will be the Judge. I would not want to learn that I followed an alternate design that He did not create. Roman Catholics need the gospel of the Lord’s saving grace. We must proclaim the Good News, not from a high Roman window but face-to-face in our communities through our local churches.

John Greening is national representative of the GARBC.