First, a disclaimer: This post is about something that happened three years ago, but I think the following articles are worth discussing. Not only are they relevant for my own spiritual journey and experience in an ecumenically-focused seminary, but they also point to deep-seated disagreements within the Christian church that rage on to this day and represent a blind spot in evangelical Christianity that needs attention.
On March 3, 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a profile on twin brothers who, despite growing up Baptist in North Carolina, are now in two denominations that have been anathematized to varying degrees by many leaders of the the Southern Baptist Convention: one is a Roman Catholic priest, and the other a bishop in the Anglican Province of America.
Besides a grievous misuse of the word “religion” (the twins are described as “changing faiths” and “leaving one religion for another”), it was a nice article. The boys were active members of the First Baptist Church of Elkin from their youth, but were exposed to Roman Catholic worship when a cousin of theirs who had recently converted invited them to a service at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. Here is how the Journal describes their experience:
The beauty of the building itself — the vaulted ceilings, marble steps, intricate woodwork, statues and stained glass — the smells of burning incense and the sounds of bells had a mystical quality that is hard to explain, says Father Brad. What struck Bishop Chad was watching the priest standing in front of the altar and elevating the Communion host...For them, the Catholic liturgy made the invisible God palpable and tangible to the senses.
Having experienced much the same thing myself (though in an Anglican context, rather than Roman Catholic), I connected deeply with this article. The journey from conservative evangelicalism to liturgical, sacramental Christianity is one I have recently made, and the parents’ unqualified support for their children reminded me of my own family. The Journal was clearly going for a pleasant story about a family remaining united despite theological differences, an article that might offer readers some respite from editorials slamming whatever Obama had done that day or exposing them to the beginning of the worst presidential election of all time. It seemed like they succeeded.
And then Al Mohler got ahold of it.
On his podcast, The Briefing, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary claimed that “this story appears as judgment and as challenge [sic] to every single one of us: as pastors, as parents, as youth leaders, as those who care about the perpetuation of the faith once delivered to the saints.”* Evangelical parents whose children have migrated to other streams within the Christian tradition have failed to “ground” their children “in Christian doctrine”—implying, of course, that these two boys, along with myself and countless other young people who have traveled the Canterbury Trail or swum the Tiber, have departed from true Christianity.
I am, to say the least, so very tired of this accusation.
These words from Mohler show not only a saddening lack of charity towards other Christians, but also a frustratingly persistent ignorance of Catholic and Anglican belief found among many evangelicals. We are all willing to say that late medieval Catholicism parted from orthodox Christianity in many ways. Even if Catholics do not formally admit this, their Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century shows significant development in their theology that came from serious engagement with, and partial appropriation of, Protestant articulations of foundational Christian doctrines.
The truth is, the Rome of today is not the Rome of 1517. There is more common ground to be found now between Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians than ever before. Though two of my fellow Contrarians may not agree with me on this (and we might even see an opposing article from one of them later this week), Roman Catholics are Christians. Do they emphasize different things, reorder certain doctrines, or do things we may not like? Absolutely. But they are Christians. I cannot understand, to save my life, why Baptists can admit that Presbyterians or Methodists are Christians but must categorically condemn Catholicism. The only answer, it seems to me, is a deep-seated historical "Rome-aphobia" that has no real grounding in Scripture.
Another quote from Mohler struck me, and I think it’s worth it to transcribe it at length here:
We are losing far too many evangelical young people as they reach older ages because they are simply not adequately grounded theologically in the Christian faith. They may go to vacation Bible school, and they may go to Sunday school, but the question is, are they really grounded in the Christian faith? Are they well-grounded in the beauty of Scripture? Are they well-grounded in a knowledge of the deep theological convictions that define us as Christians?
Mohler is correct on this point—but not in the way he thinks he is. The truth is, much of evangelical Christianity is not “adequately grounded theologically in the Christian faith.” There is a staggering amount of doctrine and practice that seems foreign both to the Scriptures and to two millennia of church tradition.
I'll use one example that Mohler points to in his podcast to illustrate this point. One of Mohler's main problems with Catholicism and Anglicanism seems to be their emphasis on sacraments. While evangelicalism is "Scripture-centered Christianity," the Roman Catholic system, and "at least much of Anglicanism," are centered in the sacraments.
This is, of course, a false dichotomy and somewhat of an inaccurate representation of Catholicism and Anglicanism. But the real problem here is Mohler's opposition to all sacramentalism.* How is a rejection of the sacraments in keeping with the Scriptures and the Christian church that compiled them? This is a serious departure, not only from the earliest Christian understandings of the Eucharist and baptism, but also from how the Scriptures themselves talk about these important Christian acts. Many in Mohler's own denomination disagree with him on this, as there is increasing appreciation for sacramental theology in Baptist circles. This issue, among others, leads to me to believe that for Mohler the Christian faith sprang into existence after the fourteenth century with the Anabaptists, Puritans, and English Presbyterians.
But notice what I haven’t said here. I haven’t said that Mohler and other Baptists like him are not really Christian. I haven’t described the Southern Baptist Convention as a different religion. I haven’t condemned them as heretics or placed them outside the saving power of Jesus Christ. As you can probably tell, I take serious issue with much of Mohler’s theology, but I am not willing to say he is unchristian. I wish he would extend the same courtesy to his Anglican and Catholic brothers and sisters.
We have to move past this intolerance of differing secondary beliefs if we are to make any progress in spreading God’s kingdom throughout this dying world. We have real enemies to do battle with: secularism, materialism, and individualism, to name a few. People are dying in abject poverty, suffering myriad kinds of abuse, and being murdered for their Christian faith. Evangelicalism’s preoccupation with Roman Catholicism is, it seems to me, one of the best weapons our Enemy has to keep us fighting amongst ourselves.
Though I don’t have much hope that Mohler will change his views on Roman Catholics, I do hope that my Southern Baptist friends and family will help begin to dismantle this inter-familial conflict. We have real work to do, real suffering to alleviate, and real enemies to stand firm against. Our constant mutual slander and bickering is only getting in the way. Embracing our Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist brothers and sisters is a large part of what it means to come together as the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And, as my wife is fond of saying: If we fail to do this, we’ll have a lot of apologizing to do in heaven.
*The quotes from the podcast come from “SBC leader: Baptists, don’t let your babies grow up to be Catholics” from Baptist News Global. This article covers the main story found in the Wall Street Journal article and pertinent comments from Mohler’s podcast.
*See Section 3 of the conclusion to a memorandum written by Mohler in 2009, "The Southern Baptist Convention and the Issue of Interdenominational Relationships."