News broke in early March that well-known and highly influential Christian leader Ulf Ekman had converted to Roman Catholicism (hereafter RC). Ekman had served for many years as pastor of the charismatic church, Word of Life, in Uppsala, Sweden. My interest was stirred not only because of the impact Ekman’s “conversion” will have on others but also because he cites his son’s “conversion” to Catholicism as exerting an influence on his own thinking. Benjamin Ekman was a student of mine when I taught at Wheaton College, an exceptionally bright one at that.
But all of this raises yet again the question of why certain Protestants turn to Rome. Ekman himself cites his deep yearning for unity in the body of Christ as one of the principal factors. Some time ago I posted a blog article that addresses this issue, and I want to revisit it again today.
It’s important to understand why most Protestants remain suspicious of Roman Catholicism. The following are merely observations. I make no attempt to determine whether or not these evangelical fears are justified or misguided.
(1) Many Protestant evangelicals are energized by the Protestant martyrs of the reformation and post-reformation period: Hus, Cranmer, Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Ridley, etc. They fear that dialogue with the RCC is a disservice and dishonor to those who gave their lives for their convictions. They were tortured and died for their refusal to embrace the RC Mass or bow to papal authority. Attempts such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) represent for many evangelicals a tacit dismissal of such heroes of the faith: “Are we selling out those who sacrificed so much? Why are we willing to compromise so easily on matters that were to them a question of life and death?”
(2) Evangelicals also fear the loss of theological integrity. They believe that the only way to enter a dialogue with Rome is by compromising on several key theological issues. Most evangelicals believe that unity is theologically based. Cooperative efforts must be grounded in theological consensus. Is this biblical? Is it feasible?
(3) Many evangelicals are afraid of liturgy and ritual. They are put off by the external trappings of the RCC and believe them to be a threat to the simplicity, genuineness, freedom and spontaneity of faith in Jesus. Perhaps they grew up Catholic or know someone who is Catholic and are personally aware of the potential of relying on a religious ritual devoid of spiritual substance. A biblically based theology of symbol and sacrament would go a long way in diminishing such fears.
(4) Evangelicals often fear that RC theology and practice detract from a single-minded focus on Jesus. Devotion to Mary, praying the rosary, penance, confession, etc., strike them as distractions from and perhaps substitutions for the worship of the Son of God alone. Associated with this is their belief that Catholics are obsessed with the pope, a mere man (as evidenced by the deference shown him, the honorific titles given him, and the habit of bowing in his presence or the kissing of his hand, foot, ring, etc.).
(5) Evangelicals are concerned that the RC concept of justification, doing penance, and the Mass, etc., detract from, and perhaps even deny, the centrality and sufficiency of divine grace. This raises the question of whether or not Sola Fide (“by faith alone”) is itself the gospel.
(6) Evangelicals tend to be individualistic in their faith. Thus they do not like being told what to do and what not to do. They fear that papal authority and the magisterium of the church would rob them of their freedom as Christians. In other words, evangelicals are quite serious about the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer and the concept of “soul competency” (a favorite term among Baptists).
(7) The single most basic reason for evangelical reluctance to ECT and other forms of dialogue or ecumenical activity is their suspicion that Catholics are not saved. The question they ask themselves is: “How can someone be born again who denies Sola Scriptura, who puts their trust in the sacrifice of the mass, who grants such high privilege and power to both the Pope on earth and Mary in heaven, who believes that salvation is, at minimum, a cooperative effort of God and man?” This suspicion casts a long shadow over all efforts at dialogue between evangelical and Catholic. [But do Catholics, in fact, believe what evangelicals think they believe? It would appear that open and honest and prolonged dialogue is at this point absolutely essential.]
There are multiple reasons people cite to explain why they have “converted” to Roman Catholicism.
1) Aesthetic – Many appeal to the experience of being moved by the architecture of RC church structures, the incense, the beauty of liturgy, the mystery, the solemnity, the drama, the vestments of the clergy, the church calendar, the sense of transcendence, religious symbolism, etc.
2) Historical – Some appeal to the belief that the reformation was a rebellion and that Protestantism is a deviation from the historic stream of the true church. They also point to a desire for unity with the past and the appeal of tradition.
3) Theological – Some convert for strictly theological reasons. They insist that sola scriptura, sola fide, etc. are wrong. Many have become persuaded of a sacramental/sacerdotal approach to God’s mechanism for dispensing grace together with a belief that Protestantism is Gnostic and fails to embrace the incarnational principle of scripture.
4) Social – The growing secularization of society, together with the diminishing influence of the evangelical church, have led many to Rome. They often find in the RCC a stabilizing anchor and unified front to fight the battle against the paganizing of culture.
5) Personal – Many Protestants point to their bad experience in the church, often citing an oppressive and legalistic fundamentalism.
6) Authority – The appeal of papal infallibility, as over against the theological schisms in Protestantism, offers a stability in which their souls/minds might find rest in an uncertain and irrational age. Ekman himself cites the appeal of the magisterium, the official teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church. He, among others who likewise have converted, believe there is a great need for a single, authoritative voice that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in conformity with the tradition of the church can interpret and apply God’s Word uniformly.
7) Denominational – By this (and in keeping with the previous point) I have in mind the disdain many feel toward the divisions and denominations in Protestantism that they believe are the direct result of the disparate theological views so rampant in the non-Catholic world. They are offended by the obvious disunity that exists and what they perceive as the failure to take seriously the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that we all be one.
Perhaps a follow-up article needs to be written on why so many Catholics convert to Protestantism! Perhaps . . .