Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is the pope really head of the visible church?

In the Prime Ministerial Debates prior to the General Election, a question was asked that managed to unite Gordon Brow, Nick Clegg and David Cameron. It was this, given his stance on homosexual rights and abortion did the candidates welcome the Pope’s visit to the UK in September? All three politicians said that they welcomed the Pope’s visit. And all three agreed that he was wrong on gay rights and abortion. I think that they were unitedly wrong on both counts. It is not necessarily a good thing that the Pope is visiting the UK, although we agree with him on the issues raised by the questioner.

When he arrives in the UK for a four day official state visit, the Pope Benedict XVI will meet the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, address a gathering of both Houses and Parliament and beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman. What should we make of all this? Hopefully it goes without saying that anti-papal bigotry is out of place. And I’m not sure that noisily protesting and waving placards is the best way to get out point over when the Pope arrives in our country. But when popemania hits the UK we might be given an opportunity to explain why we are not so enthusiastic concerning the arrival on our shores of Benedict XVI. I mean, not all Catholics are exactly over the moon about having the hardline Cardinal Ratzinger as the leader of their Church. When the Cardinal succeeded Pope John Paul II one American Roman Catholic complained, it "is like electing Rumsfeld after George Bush".

Now I realise that Evangelicals have largely lost interest in the controversy with Rome. We have other battles to fight such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the defence of our religious liberties, let alone the challenge of reaching the UK with the gospel. But we can’t get away from it that easily. In the face of a hostile secular society, Evangelicals are being increasingly drawn to Rome. After all, we are agreed on a good number of essential truths such as the Trinity and the virgin birth, sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. In the States the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement has been actively trying to resolve outstanding differences between Rome and Evangelicals. Many question whether the divisions of Reformation were justified. Also in the States the Manhattan Declaration committed leading Evangelicals and Catholics to speak out on the issues of marriage, abortion and freedom of religion. Fair enough, but the Declaration also implied that both parties proclaim the same gospel. The UK’s counterpart, the Westminster Declaration included the obligatory Roman Catholic signatory.

But the Reformation isn’t quite over yet. Many of the great doctrinal differences between Rome and Evangelicals are unresolved and one of them is, “Who is the head of the Church?” So, what exactly does the Roman Catholic Church say on this matter? I quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

CRC 882: The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
This is a clear violation of biblical teaching. The blasphemous claim that the pope may exercise "unhindered power" over the Church is a direct challenge to the unique headship of Christ. The idea of the primacy of the Bishop Rome was unknown in the early centuries of Church history.

The New Testament knows nothing of hierarchical Church government with the pope lording it over cardinals, bishops, priests and people. Local Churches were led by their appointed elders. Elders served under the authority of the apostles. But all was in subjection to Christ, the one true head of the Church.

Our head, the Lord Jesus is Prophet, Priest and King.

His prophetic role is undermined by Roman Catholic teaching,

891: The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . .
As Prophet Christ continues to infallibly teach and guide the Church through the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. The Spirit enables the people of God to recognise the Bible as the Word of God and understand its contents. The ascended Christ has gifted the Church teachers with whose task it is to explain and apply the Bible to his people, Ephesians 4:11-12.

We need no other priest than Jesus, our great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. He atoned for our sins once for all on the cross. He ever lives to make intercession for us. Roman Catholic teaching denies this saying,

893: The bishop is "the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood," especially in the Eucharist which he offers personally or whose offering he assures through the priests, his co-workers.
Ministers are not priests who re-offer the sacrifice of Christ at the Mass. Christ's death atoned for sin once and for all, Hebrews 9:28. The only mediator between God and men is the Man Christ Jesus, 1 Timothy 2:5. In him all of God's people are constituted a royal priesthood, 1 Peter 2:9. We recognise no popes, bishops, clerical priests or any other supposed mediators between God and his people. Christ alone is sufficient for that task.

Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. The exalted Jesus is head over all things for the church, Ephesians 1:22-23. He, not the pope has "universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered", Matthew 28:18-20.

We therefore resist Roman Catholic claims concerning the pope's headship over the visible Church. The Bishop of Rome is a usurper and therefore cannot be a focus of unity for all Christian Churches. Christ alone is head of the Church. It would be an act of disloyalty to our Saviour to recognise any other Lord and head of the Church but him.

To be continued...


Ben said...

"Hopefully it goes without saying that anti-papal bigotry is out of place."

It didn't go without saying, though; I'm not sure we'll see none of ranting and braying. It won't discourage the Pope's followers, though I feel it may contribute to the willing amnesia of many Evangelicals towards the real need for continued conflict with Rome and its teachings, given that most will want to have nothing to do with placard waving.

It's possible, by the way, that Ratzinger plans to beautify the bones of Newman, but I think you mean beatify.

Gary Benfold said...

Good post.

Mervin Bunter said...

"The New Testament knows nothing of hierarchical Church government..."

I don't believe the above statement is accurate. In fact, the New Testament seems to show that the Church of the New Testament was much more hierarchical than we might wish. You wrote, "Local Churches were led by their appointed elders. Elders served under the authority of the apostles." If the laity in a local church are "led by" elders, and the elders are "under the authority of" the apostles, then isn't it hierarchical by definition?

Look at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. A bunch of former-Pharisee Christians examine their Scriptures and find things like this, "An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the LORD's Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised" (Exodus 12:48). So they determine, from Scripture, that "the Gentiles must be circumcised" (Acts 15:5). But the council (led by the apostles) decides differently. So, do we see here a Church that believes that "Christ continues to infallibly teach and guide the Church through the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures"? Or do we see a Church that is guided by a hierarchy of divinely-appointed men?

So it's not accurate to claim that the New Testament knows nothing of hierarchical Church government. The Catholics aren't putting the bishops in place of Christ; they're putting the bishops in the place of the apostles (i.e., divinely-appointed men who can authoritatively interpret Scripture for the Church on earth). We Evangelicals might argue that we don't need anyone to authoritatively define doctrine for us. We might argue that every Christian should be guided by the Holy Spirit to do what is right in his own eyes. Unfortunately, Acts 15 says differently.

Exiled Preacher said...


Apostles were not local church leaders in the sense that they were responsible for one single congregation. In the NT the only leaders for a single congregation were the elders/bishops. Since the passing of the apostles there is no office of men that stands over the local churches. That is why church government is not hierarchical.

But that does not mean "every Christian should be guided by the Holy Spirit to do what is right in his own eyes." The task of elders is to lead local church. They are responsible for the orthodoxy of the church's teaching, and the administration of discipline.

When necessary elders of local churches may meet together to resolve disputes as in Acts 15 or formulate confessions of faith (as with the Savoy Declaration or the Second London Baptist Confession). But, again, the occasional gathering of elders does not constitute an additional tier of government that stands over the local churches.