By Graham Glover –
Last year I tried to make the argument that “Protestants Need the Pope”. Among other things, I suggested that the papacy is critical to the theology of Protestant (and especially Lutheran) communions. I even said the papacy is key to our politics. My friend, and sometimes theological sparring partner, The Cantankerous Critic, replied with a very well-reasoned and impassioned article entitled “Lutherans Don’t Need a Pope!” The good Dr. reminded all of us who confess the Book of Concord to be true that Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith and our salvation – not the papacy. Christ is all we need, he reminded The Jagged Word readers, and any “aesthetically pleasing earthly hierarchical figurehead” like the pope should never be a priority.
I respect The Cantankerous Critic a lot. I often wish he and I had the opportunity to debate theology in person on a more regular basis. Indeed, he makes a very valid point on the cornerstone of Christ in his argument against the papacy, especially as it relates to the article of justification by grace through faith (I made a similar argument earlier this year). But I still think Protestants, especially Lutherans, should reconsider the papacy. Why? Because the office of the Bishop of Rome is, in my opinion, the ideal means for unity within Christendom (something the church will need more and more in the years to come) and the only authority that can ebb the ever dangerous tide against theological error increasingly evident among the countless Christian communions.
First, let’s be honest – the papacy is not the same institution the Lutheran reformers revolted against some 500 years ago. The institutional structures may be similar, but the manner in which the Bishop of Rome exercises his office most assuredly is not. This is especially true as it relates to the commingling of church and state, which I think was a root cause of the theological problems the reformers confronted. This is also true for some of Rome’s doctrinal positions. It’s not that Roman Catholics have capitulated to Lutherans, but they clearly have addressed many of the abuses the reformers railed against. And don’t ever forget that the reformer’s movement initially had nothing to do with the papacy itself, only the abuses of the church the pope led: a church to which they belonged.
Why, though, should Lutherans reconsider the papacy? Is this office not, as our Confessions clearly proclaim, the antichrist? In a word, no. Was it 500 years ago? Obviously the reformers thought so, and with the gross abuses occurring in the Western Church at the time, it’s no wonder they sought reform and wrote so passionately against the leader of those who disagreed with them. But on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I think our arguments against the papacy are dated and ripe for reconsideration.
Lutherans tend to get bent out of shape on whether or not the Pope is a divinely instituted office. One cannot deny the biblical basis for the office of the Holy Ministry, which includes the office of Bishop, the latter something American Lutherans abandoned when they swore allegiance to the United States. That the Bishop of Rome held a place of honor and even authority is equally evident during the first 1,500 years of church history. But because the pope in the 16th century refused to give in to a small group of dissenters from the German States about an issue (the abuse of a few bishops concerning the sale of indulgences), a revolution began that eventually became bigger than any reformer imagined and had ramifications far beyond anything they initially dreamed likely.
But what do we Lutherans gain by continuing to rebel against the papacy? Is our revolution against this office still achieving its goals? If so, what are they and why do we not proclaim them as loudly and publicly as we do others? In retaliation against the papacy, have our Confessions kept the Gospel pure? If so, explain to me why so many Lutherans resemble nothing of the church catholic with respect to worship and sacramental practice, the very place and means that offer the faithful God’s saving grace. Don’t quote me the Book of Concord, show me examples in the pews. Since Lutherans believe the pope to be the antichrist – our clergy, our congregations, and our parishioners must be the pillars that keep Christendom intact, right? We know this is not the case. Lutheranism too often resembles the rest of Protestantism, consisting of those who care little for things outside the walls of their local parish and shirk at any sense of accountability to something or someone beyond their Board of Elders or Church Council: a most unbiblical and unfaithful apprehension.
The papacy, with all of its warts, carries with it the best means to unite our Lord’s Church until He does so to perfection when He returns.
The Bishop of Rome, more than any other office, has the authority to speak the truths of the faith to a world that denies the saving grace of the Lord Jesus and among a fractured church that becomes even more divided and more confused about its theology as each generation passes. The reformers knew the inherent value of this office and initially sought reform through it. As we Lutherans continue our reformation, I wonder why we no longer realize this value and make our theological claims not against the papacy, but as a movement that exists in support of and alongside this Bishop.
I doubt my argument will be accepted by many, if any, Lutherans. I’m certain that Dr. Keith will turn my argument upside down, inside out, then spit it out again and again. This is how Lutherans have responded to pleas for the papacy for 500 years. But if Lutherans are seriously committed to ecumenism and to theological integrity, then it’s high time for them to seriously reconsider the papacy.