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On Religious Sectarianism, Once Again

Jan 28, 2020

I need to keep saying why I believe what I believe:

While there are different forms of sectarianism out there, I am here focusing on that found in the Christian camp. One definition of sectarianism is this: “excessive attachment to a particular sect or party, especially in religion.” This certainly shows up between Catholics, Orthodox believers, and Protestants. I have written about these matters before, but they keep resurfacing so it seems I need to keep addressing them. Let me start by offering my overall take on things:

Some Catholics are convinced that Orthodox believers and Protestants will not be in heaven.
Some Orthodox believers are convinced that Catholics and Protestants will not be in heaven.
Some Protestants are convinced that Catholics and Orthodox believers will not be in heaven.

I believe that there will be Catholics in heaven – but certainly not all of them.
I believe that there will be Orthodox believers in heaven – but certainly not all of them.
I believe that there will be Protestants in heaven – but certainly not all of them.

In its simplest formulation, everyone is a Christian who does at least two things: believes in the fundamentals of the faith as found in things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and who has a living relationship with God through Christ, based on faith and forgiveness.

There are theological parameters to the Christian faith, and if you are unwilling to subscribe to the basics, such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity, then you put yourself outside of biblical Christianity. This is what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.”

But to be a Christian is not just to believe certain things. It is to be certain things as well. Satan believes, yet he is the devil still. We must have a life that is marked by a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. That entails turning from sin and self to Christ. By means of faith and repentance, and based on the finished work of Christ at Calvary, sinners can come to new life and be restored to a right relationship with God.

If this is basically correct (and yes, some folks will disagree even on these matters), then it is obvious that at least some Catholics, Orthodox believers, and Protestants are Christians. I write all this because I routinely find myself embroiled in sectarian battles.

I really do try to avoid them however. Among other things, there are plenty of places (websites and the like) where these fights take place. I do not wish to rehash all these matters on my own website or on my social media pages. Thus I keep asking folks to take it elsewhere, but too many people totally ignore my polite pleas, refuse to show me a modicum of Christian grace and respect, and keep arguing anyway.

Often there is not much I can do but let these folks go – if they have not already unfriended me first! I get rather tired of all this to be honest. The truth is, there are two main things I seek for: I do insist on the importance of sound theology. But I also try to insist on the importance of being a bit humble and gracious.

None of us have all the truth, all of us see through a glass darkly, and we all are on a theological journey to some extent. Some things I used to dogmatically cling to – admittedly, secondary doctrines – I no longer hold to. We all are hopefully growing in maturity in our understanding of biblical truth. I do not mean by this that we should be abandoning the basics, but having a somewhat more gracious view of things when and where possible.

I say all this because of yet more sectarian encounters I have been involved in. And they can come from all sides. Some Prots hate it when I cut any slack at all to Catholics. Some Caths hate it when I affirm my Protestant beliefs. As to why I am not a Catholic, see my earlier piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/17/defence-protestantism-response-catholic-friends/

One case of this occurred recently when I shared a video testimony of a friend on the social media. He was wondrously released from homosexuality by a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ. His is an amazing testimony of God’s grace. Yet because he referred to being a Catholic in the video, this got some of my Prot friends all rather upset. As I replied to some of them:

I know this guy, and his love and commitment to Christ is unquestioned. Of course we have some theological differences. But my point in sharing this is to let people know of the amazing transforming power of Jesus Christ. His is a great testimony of a homosexual being set free by Christ. That is something we all can and should appreciate and celebrate. As I have said so often here, those Caths who want to bash Prots can do it elsewhere. And those Prots who want to bash Caths can do it elsewhere. I trust people will respect my wishes in this thanks.

As usual, that plea fell on some deaf ears. Some folks wanted to keep arguing, and I ended up losing a few more friends as a result. I get despondent at such times, and usually just simply pray and cry out to God. But it cuts both ways of course.

I can also get Caths who are dead set certain about their own faith, who are happy to tell Prots that we do not measure up. That too happens quite often. A recent example involved one telling me why he was not interested in my latest list of recommended books.

Of course since I am an evangelical Protestant, most of the books I read and recommend are by Protestants – but certainly not all. I have plenty of books that I read and recommend by Catholics and Orthodox believers. I don’t expect all Caths to always relish my recommended reading – although many of them do enjoy my lists.

This fellow went on to say that ‘the Church is the bride of Christ, Jesus can have but one spouse, and his spouse is the Catholic Church.’ My response would be this: Yes, Jesus has one spouse. Yes, the church is the bride of Christ. No, that bride is not just the Roman Catholic Church. This is one area where we of course have some big differences.

And the implication is this: if there is only one true church, then the only true Christian is one who is part of that church. Presumably that leaves the rest of us non-Catholics heading to a lost eternity. That is certainly how I understood his remarks – although when another Prot mentioned this, he later said that this was not what he had in mind.

But of course for a long time the Roman Catholic Church did teach that there is no salvation outside of the church. Yes, at the Second Vatican Council they spoke of us as “separated brethren” (although that phrase had been used prior to 1962-1965). So while official church teaching may now be a bit more open, there would sadly be many Catholics who still believe someone like me is not really a Christian.

It is not my intention to get into more arguments about all this here. It is simply to point out that sectarian debates will always be with us. Yes, the matters are important, and the theological disputes are certainly significant. It is just that as I keep saying, I try not to spend all my time on such debates, as so many other places already exist that do this full time. So folks are encouraged to go there if they are keen to keep the warfare going.

As I have said a trillion times now, sound doctrine is vitally important. But so too is Christian love and grace. Trying to keep all these together in biblical balance is always a work in progress for most of us. My bottom line, as I already said, is this: I will be in heaven, but so too will some Catholics, some Orthodox believers, and some other Protestants.

How many of each only God knows, and time will tell. Another thing I can fully count on is this: when I do stand before my Lord, I will discover all the wrong doctrinal teachings I held to, all the faulty theological understandings I had, and all the incorrect biblical beliefs I had clung to.

I will then marvel all the more at God’s matchless grace. Despite all my misunderstandings and imperfect beliefs, he still was willing to take me into his holy heaven. Of course I credit that all to his incredible grace. Right belief and right practice are crucial. However, what will ultimately get me through the pearly gates is not me having it all together in creed or conduct, but the overwhelming grace of God.

Afterword

There will be some Catholics who will be quite upset with what I have said here. There will be some Protestants who will be quite upset with what I said here. Probably some Orthodox believers too! Indeed, some will claim I am being too Protestant here while others will claim I am being too Catholic.

Some will claim that I am being too weak on doctrine while others will claim I am being too strong on it. Some will claim I am being too ecumenical here while others will claim I am not being enough. The truth is, you can’t please everyone, and no matter what I say, some folks will get all out of joint!

But for all those folks who are feeling rather peeved right now, I suggest you take your angst and anger elsewhere thanks. I am not going to allow WWIII to break out here again!

[1634 words]

16 Responses to On Religious Sectarianism, Once Again

  • I used to read and follow a Catholic Pro-Life, anti-abortion site. They had a lot of good information about (then) current developments. However, I stopped reading because some of the stories and many of the comments came down to, ‘if you’re not a Catholic, you’re not a Christian’. Sad, really, because as a non-Catholic, I respect and support the Catholic Church’s stance on the tragedy of abortion.

    There are some churches I would not join because of their theology, but the question of whether or not someone is a Christian has little to do with denomination of the church they attend.

  • Thank you, Bill, for reassuring your readers that it’s okay to enjoy fellowship with, and learn from, Christian believers of different denominations.

    This is certainly the way my Christian life has unfolded.

    I am a Presbyterian, but am also deeply indebted to many, many Christian writers and thinkers of other faith traditions.

    My reading is nowhere near as extensive as yours, Bill; but here are just a few of my Christian heroes (both Protestant and non-Protestant) of the past and present:

    PROTESTANT: Bible translator and martyr William Tyndale; John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress); John C. Ryle (author of the 1877 classic Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots); Charles Spurgeon (known as the “Prince of Preachers”); author C.S. Lewis; German economist Wilhelm Röpke; Welsh preacher and medical doctor Martyn Lloyd-Jones; Scottish-born preacher Peter Marshall (who served as chaplain of the U.S. Senate after World War II); German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer; English-born theologian J.I. Packer; and American historian and family advocate Allan C. Carlson.

    CATHOLIC: John Newman (author of the 1852 classic The Idea of a University); French Dominican friar and philosopher Antonin Sertillanges (author of the 1946 classic The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods); English author and thinker G.K. Chesterton; Australian commentator and thinker B.A. Santamaria; and Australian scholar and author Rev. Fr Paul Stenhouse (who died only last year).

    EASTERN ORTHODOX: Russian thinker Alexander Solzhenitsyn (author of books exposing the evils of the forced labour camps under Lenin and Stalin, and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature); American bioethicist Wesley J. Smith; and conservative columnist Rod Dreher (author of The Benedict Option).

    I may be an evangelical Protestant, but I would be greatly impoverished, both intellectually and spiritually, if I did not have access to these and many other sound Christians thinkers across the denominations.

  • Many thanks John. I had not realised that Wesley J. Smith is Orthodox (I guess I never questioned what his religious views are).

  • “Some Catholics are convinced that Orthodox believers and Protestants will not be in heaven.”

    I have been a Catholic all my life… and that is a long time ..so have mixed with a lot of Catholics…and have NEVER heard this from another Catholic…to the contrary I have always been told the opposite …that non- Catholics have as much opportunity to reach heaven as Catholics . “I believe that there will be Catholics in heaven – but certainly not all of them.” Bill, God decides who goes the Heaven, not you ! None of us knows just when God’s (the God who paradoxically rejoices over the finding of ONE lost sheep than the herd of obedient sheep ! ) infinite mercy is exercised…and last minute embrace of God occurs in one’s life . That is God’s prerogative after all… even if we think it unfair ! Our responsibility is to pray ceaselessly for “those who do not believe , do not adore, have no faith and do not love You “

  • Thanks Denise. Well, I have heard things like that from Catholics over the years, so such people do exist!

    And where did I say that I decide who goes to heaven? But if you believe that every single person who calls himself or herself a Catholic is in heaven, regardless of what they do or say, then we differ, just as I know not everyone who calls themselves a Protestant will be there, As just one example that you hopefully will agree on: if a pro-death Catholic like Pelosi does not repent and change her ways, she clearly will not be in heaven! My point is simple – and fully biblical: not all who go to a church now and then, or say they are Catholic or a Protestant or whatever are right with God. But it does not matter what I say about this. Jesus was perfectly clear about it, as we find for example in Matthew 7:21-23:

    Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

  • Of course I am not talking about unrepentant Catholics Bill ! Can’t believe you would think that is what I meant… but none of us knows who repents…unless they do publicly ..or WHEN… maybe even at the point of death. Which is what I sincerely hope of Nancy Pelosi , Andrew Cuomo and many more like them who would have us believe they are Catholics… just as a member of the Hawthorn Football Club would have us believe they are true Hawthorn supporters when they are seen to be publicly barracking for Collingwood !!

  • Thanks again Denise. You may have missed my strenuous attempts at showing grace and an ecumenical spirit in my article! But since you continue to share your thoughts, allow me to do the same. A discussion such as this can be used to highlight some of the very real theological differences between Protestants and Catholics. Both sides believe that at the end of the day, only God knows the human heart, and those who are truly saved. As such, in human eyes, there may well be some surprises in heaven.

    But we differ in related matters. The Bible gives us numerous tests that we should make use of when we assess the legitimacy of a person’s profession of faith. It is not enough to just say – publicly or otherwise – that one is a Christian or one has repented. Biblical repentance entails a very real change of life. So we have tests such as judging a person’s fruit, their beliefs, their practices, and their life. If all or most of these things do not line up with Scriptural norms, then we have very good grounds for questioning a person’s salvation.

    Related to this is the notion of assurance. Many dozens of passages speak to the fact that the Christian can have genuine assurance of salvation – and in this life. We need not hope that we might make it to heaven one day, if we are good enough, or try hard enough, and so on. We can have assurance based on the finished work of Christ which we receive in faith and repentance. Sure, that does not mean we should be presumptuous, or blasé about our faith. But I deal with this in more detail here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/13/on-christian-assurance/

    And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/12/on-christian-assurance-2/

    But again, it is not my intent to necessarily belabour all this, since it is done so often elsewhere. But thanks for your thoughts.

  • Rome’s Council of Trent…SESSION THE SIXTH,Celebrated on the thirteenth day of the month of January, 1547.DECREE CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION – ratified at Vatican II [1962-65]

    —Canon XX. If any one shall say, that a man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, but only to believe; as if, forsooth, the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life,without the condition of observation of the commandments; let him be anathema.

    Canon XXX. If any one shall say, that, after the grace of justification received, unto every penitent sinner the guilt is so remitted, and the penalty of eternal punishment so blotted out, that there remains not any penalty of temporal punishment, to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be laid open; let him be anathema.

    —Canon VIII. If any one shall say, that Christ, presented in the Eucharist, is eaten spiritually only, and not also sacramentally and really; let him be anathema.

    Yes, a Roman Catholic could well be heaven-bound – but only in spite of Rome’s ‘gospel’ never because of it? Rome curses those who hold to a Biblical gospel.

  • Thanks Michael. It should be clear that I have many significant theological differences with Catholicism. Some of their beliefs, if avidly adhered to, would definitely make it much harder for a person to be truly saved. Thankfully there can be as many Catholics as Protestants who can be theologically inconsistent. Indeed, it is also true that many Protestants will be in heaven despite some of their strongly held beliefs. Some solid evangelicals have tried to argue that the divide between the two groups is shrinking. That is a moot point. But in this article I simply tried to lay out a few broad principles of how I seek to deal with some of these matters. It was not, as I said, yet another attempt to enter into even more major sectarian debates. But despite my best attempts, this seems to have failed rather miserably! But thanks for your comments.

  • Thank you Me Bill,
    Jesus is coming again. He is, coming and He shall reign. Why do We have all this division. The body of Christ is not divided. So let Us hold our hands and, let Us walk the talk and, talk the walk in thoughts, in words and in deeds, undisciplined is virally abnormally in ease with today’s society’s.
    Alas, help Us all in thoughts that we might serve you without reluctantly been devoid of your Word of Life”.
    Sunday,
    Joshua 1:5,9

  • The greatest recipient of these anathemas would be the apostle Paul. I believe his response would not have been unlike that which he wrote to the Galatian Judaizers. Imagine how critical some of today’s “Christians” would be of Paul. But he didn’t seek to please men. The gospel offends those who are against it. But we have an obligation as Christ’s ambassadors to lovingly speak the truth. Our goal should be to lead people out of ANY belief system that opposes the true gospel when it comes to salvation, which is very clear for those that have ears to hear. Our desire for unity should not replace this critical responsibility.

    Bill, I love the things you stand for. You’re not a man-pleaser for sure. And that’s what I respect about you’re writings. And I can’t imagine how you have the time to read as much as you obviously do.

    To be honest, I have this one minor concern. There are many people to quote. And, I for one would be careful not to quote people that, just because of their affiliation alone, might lead some of their readers to a false religious system, even if I believe they themselves are saved. I believe it to be too big of a risk and there’s too much at stake. You obviously have a different opinion on that and I don’t think less of you for it. You have shared you’re theological position in this regard and any serious reader should not be confused about where you stand.

    Keep up your good work. You motivate us all to press on.

  • Thanks Mike. Yes Paul certainly was very clear about challenging those who were preaching a false gospel. As to your minor concern about quoting people, a few quick replies if I may:

    I believe that all truth is God’s truth. Thus even Hitler got it right sometimes. If he said “2+2=4” he was speaking the truth. But concerning Christianity, there are plenty of non-evangelicals who have a tremendous amount of truth, even biblical truth, and I don’t mind sharing that. For the most part, I believe my readers are mature enough to receive such truth. And if a person is rather dodgy in some other areas, I often will say something like this as I quote from him: “Needless to say I do not necessarily agree with everything he has said.”

    Indeed, I even have to say that of fellow evangelical Protestants as well at times! As but one example, John Stott was utterly fantastic on almost all biblical truth, but sadly at the end he veered into annihilationism. So when I wrote an article praising the guy in my “Notable Christians” series, I did mention that theological shortcoming: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/07/28/notable-christians-john-stott/

    But I am not going to stop quoting Stott because of that one area. If I only quoted from those I fully agreed with, there would be hardly anyone left that I would quote from. And even if I pen an entire article quoting solely from a Catholic or an Orthodox believer or someone else, I fully expect my readers to understand that this piece must be read in the context of all of my articles, where it become clear what my main theological beliefs are.

    And as I say, I fully believe there will be some real theological shortcomings that I hold to which will be revealed when I stand before my Lord, so I need a bit of humility here, while at the same time trying to stand up for basic Christian truths.

    But this idea of quoting others that one may not fully agree with I have discussed in much more detail elsewhere, so please have a read of this piece for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/11/06/on-quoting-others/

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • Bill, thanks for your good article on this sometimes challenging subject.
    Your words as to who will be in heaven are indeed the “bottom line:…. “In its simplest formulation, everyone is a Christian who does at least two things: believes in the fundamentals of the faith as found in things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and who has a living relationship with God through Christ, based on faith and forgiveness.”
    Of course the component parts of that might be worded a bit differently by some, but the component parts are an entirely trustworthy description, true to Scripture, about who stands among those who have been saved by Jesus from their sins and given new life….eternal life.
    If any Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant groupings hold any other view than that clear one about being a Christian, then Christ is to be honored first and foremost even when, by doing so, one has to put the group-view to one side.
    Real Christians will not allow their conviction about the core matters as enumerated by you, Bill, to be overturned in their thinking by any church group if that group officially teaches contrary to the basic truth you have enunciated.
    At the end of the day, it is not our church group that will take us to heaven even though they may have had a great impact upon us for God’s good in our lives. It is Jesus who will take us there because we see him to be, and embrace him as, the True Shepherd who has given his life for his sheep (his people, saved through repentance and faith in the vast benefit of Jesus’ death to deal with sin’s guilt and to dethrone its power.

  • I love this article so much! I am a 46 year old cradle Catholic, born of two converted Catholics. For many reasons, over the last six months, I have been on a spiritual journey and after trying a few different churches, I have been faithfully attending an ELCA Lutheran Church. My less than spiritual husband has been attending with me as well and looks forward to going!! Through the years I have been the best of Catholic and the worst of Catholic, but always stayed true to the denomination. But the truth is that I don’t think I every truly understood Christianity until I found myself surrounded by non-denominational Christians in a work environment about 15 years ago. You could say that my journey really started then, and continues to evolve as time goes on. I truly love evolving in my Christian faith and am thankful for the Lutheran community that I am becoming a part of.
    When I told my parents of this journey, my “Latin-mass-loving” father gave me a book to read entitled “What Faith Really Means” published by TAN. Knowing his intentions, I started reading, because I am all about making educated, Christ-centered decisions. I haven’t finished it yet, but it essentially is saying that if you are not a Catholic, then you do not truly have faith. Not surprising that he would give me that book, but it does make me sad that he would think such a thing is true. By the way, my younger brother (obviously also a cradle Catholic) became a Lutheran pastor. We joke that in our dad’s eyes, we are going straight to hell.

  • NEWS FROM THE UK

    Franklin Graham has been banned from three UK venues – before his 2020 tour even begins, but it is not because of him sending Roman Catholics back to Roman Catholic churches, it is because of hysterical and false allegations of “hate” against gays and Muslims.

    The cancelled venues (thus far) are Liverpool, Sheffield and Glasgow – the latter being in Scotland the former land of John Knox! A Church of Scotland minister started a petition to have the Glasgow event banned. Meanwhile, 8,000 people have signed a petition in London to have his appearance cancelled there as well.

    It is interesting to see one comment above mentioning the Decrees of Trent, which still have not been repealed to this day.

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