By Graham Glover -
We do. We really, really do. We Protestants need the papacy. We need it for our theology. We need it for our politics. We need it more than we want to admit.
And this is a good thing. (Yeah, I said it Rev. Hess, the papacy is a good thing!) For those Lutherans and other Protestants who think Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and Saints John Paul II and John XXIII are the antichrist, you should probably stop reading this post right now, because I am a Lutheran pastor who is utterly captivated by the papacy.
Let’s take Saint John Paul II. Part of me gives credit to one of our nation’s great presidents, Ronald Reagan, for the fall of the Soviet Empire. I also give credit to Lady Thatcher of Great Britain and to the inherent failure of the communist system to sustain itself. But any student of theology, history, and politics, must give enormous credit to John Paul II in bringing down this evil regime. John Paul’s role in Poland’s solidarity movement offers a textbook case in how the Church ought to involve herself with politics. It is the Gospel that changes people’s hearts. Only the freedom of the Risen Christ offers people true hope when confronted with the perils of this world. John Paul the Great preached this and his message was instrumental in freeing millions throughout the world.
This same approach to politics is what draws many to Pope Francis. His way of dealing with and speaking to people is certainly different than his most of his predecessors, but the message remains the same. Francis’ language reminds me a lot of my own church’s bishop, Rev. Matthew Harrison. They both speak a lot about mercy – Christ’s mercy – and how this mercy is the foundation of the Christian faith. And both of these shepherds engage people in every station of their life, regardless of their situation or past transgressions. To the best of their sinful ability, they both model the love of Christ to others – with believers and unbelievers alike increasingly drawn to their message.
Then there is my favorite pope, Benedict XVI.
A Bavarian who understands Lutheranism more than any of those who preceded him as Bishop of Rome, I am absolutely convinced that history will regard this man as one of the foremost intellectual giants of Christendom.
I would put him on par with Thomas Aquinas. He’s that good. Probably better. His writings cover a great deal and never disappoint. I think he is most solid on the Liturgy. But we Protestants should also love him for his insight into the greatest evil today’s world knows, “The Dictatorship of Relativism”. Benedict understands how deceptively threatening relativism is to our world and challenges us all to confront it head on, with the Law of God to be sure, but even more with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Saint John XXIII was a pope I did not know. But Protestants, this is your guy. Remember that reformation our ecclesial forefathers wrought? You know, the movement that called for the Mass to be said in one’s native tongue? Or the one that called for the Eucharist to be celebrated in both kinds? Or what about its renewed focus on the Holy Scriptures and plea for religious liberty? John XXIII did this remarkable thing in calling the Second Vatican Council. And it was there that Rome made many of the reforms the Protestant Reformation called on her to address. I know, Rome is not perfect. But neither are any of our denominations. Pope John XXIII though did more to advance the cause of Christian unity than anyone prior to his pontificate.
You may not want to admit that Protestantism needs the papacy, but it does. Try as we do, there is no other individual – no other institution – that represents Christianity like the pope. Our theological disagreements with Roman Catholicism are wide and varied, and should continually and heartily be addressed with our separated brethren. But this much remains, we need the pope. We need what his office offers the world. Our own ecclesial traditions are defined by him (largely in protest), but they are and ever will remain shaped by him. Disagree when you must. But acknowledge the goodness that the Bishop of Rome offers to us all.
Update: For a response to this article by our own Scott Keith, click here. (Ed.)