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Baptists ‘not threatened’ by pope’s U.S. visit

WASHINGTON (BP) — As Pope Francis visits the U.S., Southern Baptist leaders say they stand with his statements of biblical morality but urge Catholics to reject the Vatican’s official teaching on salvation in favor of a personal relationship with Christ by faith alone.

Russell Moore, president of Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, hopes Francis will speak to key moral concerns being debated in the public square during his Sept. 22-27 U.S. visit.

“I hope the pope speaks with clarity about the dignity of all human life, including that of the unborn; the stability of the family, including the necessity of mothers and fathers for children; and religious liberty for all,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “I also hope he speaks directly as he has before to our responsibility for the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the prisoner, the immigrant and the orphan.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees and wants Francis to clarify his “decidedly mixed signals” regarding multiple issues, including human sexuality.

“This pope’s method is to speak to the theological left and the theological right with two different sets of messages,” Mohler told BP. “As he’ll be speaking to a largely disillusioned Catholic population and a very skeptical secular population, I don’t expect him to be any clearer on the issues” during the U.S. visit.

Yet Francis’ trip could provide an opportunity for American archbishops and members of the press to request clarification regarding the tension between popular perceptions of Francis’ progressivism and his professed support of traditional Catholic doctrines, Mohler said. He cited unique tension between progressives’ hope that Francis will change Catholic teaching on homosexuality and the pope’s position that “all homosexual behavior and relationships” are “objectively disordered.”

Mohler called Francis’ Sept. 24 address to a joint session of Congress “problematic.”

“No Roman Catholic pope has ever been invited to address a joint session of Congress,” Mohler said. “And Baptists historically have been very opposed to the United States government recognizing any religion or religious leader in such a way.”

‘A light comes on’

Retention and recruitment of Catholic church members is expected to be another focus of the pope’s visit, with the Pew Forum reporting earlier this year that six U.S. Catholics leave the church for every one new Catholic convert.

But Baptist pastors who have seen numerous Catholics come to know Christ as their personal Lord and Savior say Francis poses no threat to Protestant evangelism. Chris Goeppner, pastor of Riverbank Church in White River Junction, Vt., has seen 150-200 Catholics profess faith in Christ since 2010.

Catholics “who haven’t been to church for a long time come to [our] church and hear a message that has some familiar verbiage,” Goeppner said. “… But now they’ve connected it to a relationship, and it’s been really cool to see when the light bulb goes on.”

Goeppner told BP about one Catholic woman who committed her life to Christ at Riverbank during the past month. The woman said, “I’ve been going to Catholic church my whole childhood and even during my early adult years, and I never heard this message that you shared today about Jesus.”

Because the Gospel is so “powerful” and “irresistible” for many Catholics, Goeppner said he feels no need to “lean into” Catholic doctrines and refute them from the pulpit.

Dennis Diaz, pastor of Mesilla Park Community Church in Las Cruces, N.M., agrees.

“We are not really ‘targeting’ Catholics any more than any other group in our city,” Diaz, a former Catholic, told BP in written comments. “That we have had many become part of our church family is largely due to the fact that we relate well to them and they can relate to us.”

Many basic Christian doctrines “can be found in the Roman Catholic Church,” Diaz said. But “the waters can get a bit muddy on how a person receives salvation.”

“I believe a simple way of understanding the difference is this: The Catholic Church believes that salvation is mediated to each of us by the Catholic Church,” he said. “As evangelicals, although we believe the church is vitally important, we believe Christ is the only mediator, and we received salvation by grace through faith in Him alone, not through the church.

“Because of this, many of those raised Catholic are confused about what it means to be saved, belong to Christ and have eternal life. Often when they hear the clear Gospel message, a light comes on, and it requires little persuasion to lead them in prayer to entrust their lives to Christ,” he said.

‘Extra-biblical innovations’

Though pastors like Goeppner and Diaz have found little need to critique Roman Catholic doctrine in sermons, Malcolm Yarnell, professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Catholic teaching and the Baptist Faith and Message “significantly diverge from one another at the very foundation of our respective theological statements.”

Among its errors, the Catholic Church teaches that tradition and Scripture are “inseparable means of revelation,” communicating God’s will with equal authority, Yarnell told BP in written comments. The Catholic Church also teaches that faith and good works each play some role in sinners’ gaining right standing before God, he said.

“Following the early Reformers, Southern Baptists have correctly opposed both of these foundational moves,” Yarnell said. “…This is not to say the Gospel is absent within Roman Catholicism — Martin Luther perceived that the Roman church had historically transmitted to us the Bible as well as the orthodox creeds. But this is to say that Roman Catholicism introduces extra-biblical innovations that confuse the presentation of the Gospel.

“This is why leaders from all the major Reformation traditions — including Luther, Zwingli, Cranmer and Hubmaier — were critical of the Roman church. To get to the Gospel in the Roman church, one must first strip away the accretions of human tradition and human works,” Yarnell said.

As Mohler explained, “the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church explicitly denies justification by faith alone, and thus I believe it teaches another gospel.” However, “there are undoubtedly Christians in the Roman Catholic Church who, inconsistently with official Catholic doctrine, nonetheless simply trust Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

‘I pray for Pope Francis’

Doug Dieterly, an Indiana pastor and former Baptist Collegiate Ministries director at the University of Notre Dame, told BP many Catholic students lack in-depth knowledge of the Bible and find the Gospel refreshing. Catholics tend to rely on church authority as the source of their theology rather than Scripture, he noted.

When nominally Catholic students “come to BCM Bible study and get introduced to in-depth Bible study, they tend to see very quickly how much gold there is to be mined from the Word of God, and as a result become very, very interested and very, very involved,” said Dieterly, associate pastor of Plymouth Baptist Church in Plymouth, Ind. “And if they have never made a personal decision to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord, they will typically do so.”

The greatest impediment to evangelism at Notre Dame, is “a mindset among some Catholics that the Catholic Church is the one true church and you don’t look outside of that,” said Dieterly, a former trustee chair for the North American Mission Board.

Diaz, of New Mexico, seemed to speak for all the ministers interviewed by BP when he called Francis’ U.S. visit “a non-issue” in terms of its impact on Protestant evangelism.

“We are not threatened by the pope and his agenda,” Diaz said. “He is not our adversary or competition. I pray for Pope Francis. I hope he can lead a revival within the Roman Catholic Church. I hope and pray he will embrace the Word of God as the sole authority of the church and encourage his denomination to do the same. I hope and pray He will point people to Christ alone as the way of salvation.

“Until then, we will continue to seek to reach everyone in our city that does not know Christ, no matter what their background.”