The Lure of Rome

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey gives a great interview to Dr. R. Scott Clark over at Office Hours that focuses on the relatively recent departure of many prominent evangelicals to Roman Catholicism . I only had time to listen to the first five minutes or so of the interview, but it’s title (I stole it for this post…sorry!) and lead in stimulated my thinking on the attraction of Rome from a different perspective. Here in the hinterlands of South Dakota, people don’t really join up with Roman churches because they experience some sort of theological or ecclesiological awakening. The reasons here are far more mundane: boy falls in love with a nice Catholic girl (or vice versa), or boy/girl was simply born into the Roman church. The reason for these folks putting up with or staying connected to Rome has always fascinated me because of its coexistence with South Dakota’s wily cowboy culture. For both good and evil, folks in South Dakota are very sensitive to receiving the advice of experts. This includes theological ones whom they support with their weekly donations. Talk about not getting what you pay for (I have to keep telling myself that not everyone has relatives whose last name begins with “Van”)! But there seems to be something more important than that here in these parts (if you figure out what it is, please enlighten me). All I can tell you is that, when it comes to the Roman church, cowboy culture seems to press the pause button, and people whom you otherwise can’t tell anything to go and express their allegiance to the man who sits in what is reputed to be Peter’s Chair.

This was a total mystery to me until I had lunch one day with a member of my congregation who very much has the pulse on what goes on with most people in our small South Dakota community. He and his associate, a former Catholic, intimated to me that the draw of Rome is very simple: all the pomp, all the circumstance, all the ceremony, all the gravity and dignity–as we like to say in the business, “the bells and the smells”–gives Roman worship a very strong sense of legitimacy. It wasn’t so much that people really knew what Rome taught or believed. The truth is that they didn’t really care enough to go and find out. They liked Rome–and stayed there–because it felt holy, dignified, religious. How strange Protestantism must seem to the born and bred Roman Catholic! There’s no missal, just a bulletin that keeps changing every Sunday. There’s no scripted kneeling or standing or crossing of oneself. If you’re a Catholic and find yourself in the wrong Protestant building, there might even be rolling around in the aisles or people spitting out gibberish that they call “tongues” (whatever that means)! At a much more realistic level, however, the problems of Protestant church life are manifold, especially when it comes to the local church. When is the last time a Roman parish had a church split? Um…the Reformation…nearly 500 years ago!!! If you’re Protestant, when is the last time your home congregation had a church split? For me: only about 10 years ago.
The temptation to come to Protestantism’s and the Reformation’s defense at this point is nearly irresistable, but I’m going to do so as best as I can. The lesson to be learned here is not how to engage in pro-Protestant polemics. The lesson to be learned here is that, for many people, their Christianity is appropriated through their experience of congregational life. The lesson to be learned, for Protestants, is that if our version of Christianity, from its doctrine of justification to its doctrine and practice of the church, is really so much better than Rome’s version, then we had better start living it out.
Here are three things we can start doing today.
1. We can commit ourselves to stability.
I like visiting Roman parishes from time to time (especially in little towns) because, when I do, I inevitably come to learn that two people who are sworn enemies out in the world somehow manage to play nice before the priest in church. Those predisposed to cynicism will say that this is part of the hypocrisy of Romanism. Sorry, but that’s too easy. In my opinion, it exhibits a kind of civility that most Protestants know nothing of, even though, as far as their doctrine goes, they should. In Protestant doctrine and ethics, congregational life (especially outside of worship) is all about carving away your own selfishness and sin so that God can use us to bless others. Sadly, we Protestants find ways to fight with people whom we only see in a church context! Personality and preference trump the preaching and practice of the gospel. Shame on us. We need what Gerald Schlabach (oh no!…a Mennonite!) urges in his book Unlearning Protestantism: we need stability.
2. We can deeply desire doctrine.
If the Reformation was all about Rome’s adulteration of the doctrine of justification (indeed, the kernel of salvation), guess what the success of all subsequent Protestantism will be based on? The charisma of your church’s next pastor? An awesome music ministry? The purchase of an arcade-esque ministry center? Nope. It’s doctrine, dummy! We need pastors who are ready to shepherd their flocks with an accurate and faithful summary of the truths of the Bible. Perhaps more importantly, we need churches that are eager to eat spiritually from the ministerial work of such a shepherd. Our heritage as the Protestant church is not one of the pursuit of relevance or of being snazzy. It’s one of doctrine. If we stop wanting that, we’ll naturally stop wanting to be those opposed to the unfaithfulness of Rome. In fact, we might even start being mesmerized by its bells and smells.
3. We can worship God in reverence and awe.
This isn’t just a Roman thing. It’s also (or at least should be) a Protestant thing. After all, as my favorite Roman priest always quips, aren’t we the Bible people! Hebrews 12:28-29 clearly states, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.'” The truth about Protestant congregational life and doctrine is that they all begin and end with worship. You’ll never find Protestant doctrine and practice closer than when a congregation gathers for worship. There is where you will find out whether folks are gathered for entertainment or for the feeding of their souls, for the triune God and each other or merely for themselves. If we’re going to chase relevance (which is necessarily subjective and determined by those outside the church) and fun in our worship, the messiness of a meaningful Protestantism will always seem like a distant second to the predictable yet safe liturgirobics of Rome.
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