I am an evangelical Protestant, and I make no apologies for that. I feel that the full range of biblical truth is best found in evangelical Protestantism. Sure, no one church or denomination (or Christian for that matter) has all the truth. We all see through a glass darkly. We all are on a theological journey. We all have some things wrong.
But I find no reason thus far (having been a Christian now for 46 years) to consider leaving my theological tent. Yet I have many Catholic friends, and every once in a while they will ask me why I am not a Catholic. They seem puzzled that I am not, and think I am somehow really missing out.
As an example, just today I received a lengthy comment on this from a concerned Catholic. It began with these words: “Hi Bill, I follow you on facebook and appreciate much of what you write. What I can’t get my head around is why you are not yet Roman Catholic? What is it that is stopping you?”
I often get questions like this. While I was in the process of answering this person, my comment became longer and longer. So I figured I might as well turn it into a full-fledged article, something I can refer folks to when I am next asked the same question. Thus this article.
Let me begin by stating something I want everyone to understand – and hopefully respect. This is a crucial point, so if you don’t get this, then please do not even think about coming back here with a reply. My initial point on all this is found in the next three paragraphs. Perhaps I better put them in italics so people get it!
I have long made it my policy not to allow my site to become a place where Protestants can bash Catholics, or Catholics bash Protestants. My many Catholic friends should know this by now (and my Protestant friends too!). I always hope people will abide by my wishes (but sadly some just cannot or will not).
There are plenty of places (including numerous websites, books, articles, conferences, etc.) where each side can make their case and critique the other, and it is not my intent or calling to repeat all that here. So if you want to yet again get into these sectarian battles, feel free – but not on my website thanks!
This just happens to be what God has called me to do. So if you don’t like it, then complain to God, not me. While I of course think theology is very important indeed, it has not been my God-given role thus far to repeat the endless debates that have transpired over the past 500 years on these matters. If that upsets you, no one is forcing you to come to my page!
As I have said so often now, I have far too many major theological differences with Catholics to consider becoming one. These would include the very big question of religious authority, as well as the nature of salvation, the place and role of Mary (including hot topics such as her immaculate conception, her bodily assumption, her perpetual virginity, her place as co-redemptrix, and so on).
Also, the role and place of the saints, papal authority and infallibility (whether or not speaking ex cathedra), sacred tradition and the Magisterium, and various other debatable doctrines like purgatory, how we understand the Lord’s supper and other sacraments, and so on. These are without question key areas of difference. Perhaps in future articles I will expand on all these points in greater detail.
And let me say at the outset that I do know a bit about Catholicism thanks. Indeed, I often find myself discussing with Catholics what they sometimes seem to not know much about from their own church tradition on some key issues. See for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/05/killing-and-catholic-social-teaching/
I have taught theology often over the years, and have written extensively on the topic for decades now. Along with many thousands of tomes on theology, I have an entire shelf full of volumes on Catholicism (both pro and con). I have several of the key Catechisms of the Catholic Church. I have many close Catholic friends who on occasion I discuss these matters with. So please do not tell me I know nothing about Catholicism. I may well know more about it than many at least nominal Catholics do.
While I know something about this faith tradition, and have many disagreements with aspects of it, I have long been willing to work with Catholics. This in part is what is known as co-belligerency. It is about working together with others on some key issues, while broader differences remain.
And the reason I am willing to work together with most Catholics (at least to a certain extent, and on certain issues) is because Catholics, like the Orthodox, and Protestants, hold to most of the key Christian beliefs. They adhere to the ancient creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed which laid out the basics of orthodox Christian teaching.
So unlike the cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the main biblical doctrines, such as the Trinity and deity of Christ, are not denied by Catholics. A cult, in evangelical eyes, is a group like the JWs. They do indeed deny key biblical truths, and end up teaching heretical doctrines.
In this sense Luther of course was not a cultist – or a heretic – since he fully supported and affirmed the core biblical doctrines and truths. And of course it was never his intention – at least at first – to break away from the Catholic Church. He simply sought to reform it, as did so many other reformers.
It was the church which hurled anathemas at him and so many others seeking to bring about much-needed change. But again, it is not my intention to revisit all this here. It has been debated thousands of times before and will continue to be. I am not at this point called to join in those now quite tired – albeit important – debates.
Indeed, if the urge is welling up within you just now to shoot off a comment to debate me, I again refer to you the paragraphs in italics above. I will just delete comments from those who feel they must come here and attack me and revisit all these old debates. I will not say it again thanks.
Let me also say a word about theology and individual salvation. As to whether an individual Catholic is a Christian (that is, genuinely born again and headed to heaven), that is something no one can know with absolute assurance – only God knows fully the human heart and can make that judgment.
So whether a Pope or a priest or a pastor or an individual Catholic or an individual Protestant is a genuine Christian is ultimately something only God knows for sure. I happen to believe that many people in the Catholic Church are truly converted and have a personal relationship with Christ. In a similar sense, there are many people in the Protestant churches who are not saved and do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Of course Jesus said we will know those who are truly his by their fruit. And we have various doctrinal and behavioural tests found throughout the New Testament which can also help us in assessing where a person is at. On a very simple level, one who delights in known sin and refuses to repent of it, or one who insists that Jesus is not God and so on, is not a genuine Christian.
Let me make one last point here – not to start another fight, but to head off more possible objections from Catholics. The claim will often be made that Protestantism must be false because it is so divided, while Catholicism must be true since it is so united.
Sorry, but this is wrong on several counts. The impression that everything is sweetness and light in the Catholic world, and that it is somehow a monolithic unity, is of course simply incorrect. There may be just as much division, disunity and schism in the Catholic world as there is in the Protestant world.
Given that perhaps 80-90 per cent of Catholics worldwide do not even practice the teachings of, say, Humanae Vitae (the 1968 papal encyclical on contraception written by Pope Paul VI), let alone even know what is found in the document, it may be a bit rich for Catholics to attack Protestants about division, disunity, disagreements, and so on. And see the link below about how overblown are the claims concerning the number of Protestant denominations.
In sum, I hope that this helps explain just a bit where I am coming from. Obviously much more could be said. Indeed, entire libraries have already been filled on these issues. If you are keen to get into all that, there are plenty of places you can go to. But I have a somewhat different calling here, so I will stay true to what God wants me to do.
You may not agree with me, and you may be chomping at the bits to come here and attack me and debate me. And I realise it is not only some Catholics who will want to do this, seeing me as an estranged brother, if not a heretic, but some evangelicals as well who will claim I am not being tough enough on Catholicism.
Well, what can I say? I cannot please everybody and I have no intention of doing so. My only real calling is to please God and serve him as faithfully and consistently as I can. Those who are unhappy with my stance on this matter have a few options:
1) They can cut me some slack, show me some Christian grace and love, respect my wishes and go along with my request here.
2) They can rage against me, see me as the Anti-Christ, and have nothing further to do with me.
3) They can grin and bear it, not really like it, but grudgingly remain friends and allow me to do what I am called to do.
Your choice. God bless all of you regardless of how you respond.
For further reading
On the issue of what is a cult (at least from the standard evangelical point of view), see this article:
On the issue of what is heretical (and what is not), please see these pieces:
On the issue of working together with those from other religious traditions, and the issue of cobelligerency, please see these articles:
billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/30/8405/ (Francis Schaeffer and working with allies)
On the issue of one well-known convert from evangelicalism to Catholicism, and my disagreements with him, see this:
On the issue of whether there are really 33,000 Protestant denominations, see here: