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Papal Envy

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This is one of those articles I am going to post even though it goes against my better judgement. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, or maybe there is just something I really want to get off my chest. So let’s talk about Protestants and the pope. Uh oh.

It has been a few weeks now since the pope died and we are finally beginning to hear a little bit less about “John Paul the Great.” I’m not sure if “the Great” is going to become an official suffix, but I seem to see it a lot in the media.

In recent weeks, Protestants have been forced to reflect on the papacy and the Catholic Church in a way most have probably never done in their lifetimes. Many who are now Christians were not when the last pope died, and many were not even alive at that time. The pope’s death gripped the entire world and monopolized media headlines for weeks. It has caused everyone to think about John Paul and the system he represented.

The Internet has given unprecedented numbers of people the opportunity to express their thoughts about the pope in a public forum. Very many, for better or for worse, have taken full advantage. I have taken a special interest in those written by Protestants, as this situation has afforded an opportunity to measure Protestant feelings towards Catholicism. It has been like plunging a meat thermometer into the body to check the temperature of the church. And unfortunately I think it is still raw.

It seems every article I read about either John Paul II or the newly elected Benedit XVI begins the same way. The author lauds the pope for his promotion of the dignity of life and his desire for Christian unity. He generally also applauds the pope’s stand for the objectivity of truth. He may mention abortion, euthenasia and other contentious issues. And then, having praised him, he gets to the heart of the matter, stating that despite all of this we need to remember that Catholicism is still unbiblical at heart. When I read this, I can’t help but think of Jesus as He confronted the Pharisees, who had corrupted the simplicity of the Gospel. I do not recall Jesus first bringing out five points of agreement and affirmation before expressing His disgust for their errant doctrines which kept men bound in their guilt and made a mockery of the Scriptures. So why is it that in our day we feel the need to bring out several points of agreement with the pope before mentioning, “Oh, by the way, he dedicated his entire life to promoting the veneration of Mary and to teaching a Gospel that is completely at odds with the clear teaching of Scripture!”? Should that not be the first point we make – the fact that the Gospel he taught was a false Gospel? That it was anathema?

Only a couple of paragraphs in and I am already off-track. I apologize. Allow me to get back to the point of this article.

When I hear the reaction of many an average Protestant to the death of the pope and the installation of a new one, I am continually drawn to the Old Testament and to a clear parallel between the ancient nation of Israel and modern-day Evangelicalism.

I am sure you are familiar with the story of ancient Israel. Using Moses as His mouthpiece, God rescued His people from their bondage in Egypt. Time and again He revealed Himself in miraculous ways as He led His people towards the Promised Land. Eventually He led them into this land and handed it over to them with only a few conditions. Time and time again, the Israelites grew hard, doubting that God had their best interests in mind. They continually rejected the covenantal conditions. God offered them a nation led by the Lord – a theocracy with God Himself as the head of state, ruling through men He appointed to convey His will. But the people wanted more. “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

God gave the people a perfect form of government in which He was their Leader. But the people wanted more. Actually, the people wanted less. They wanted a man to rule over them just like the nations all around. They cried out to Samuel to “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” Samuel, heeding God’s instruction, warned the people of the dire consequences of turning away from God’s leadership and placing themselves under a king. This king would take the best of their men to serve him, he would take their daughters for his service and would take their land and money. God warned that the time would not be far off when men would cry out because of this king, but that God would turn His back, leaving them to the consequences of their actions. But they persisted. “The people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

Like an infant disregarding the wisdom of his parents, Israel thought they knew best. God told Samuel to listen to the people and he appointed Saul to be leader. We all know how that turned out. While Saul was a poor leader, many who followed him were far worse. Throughout the Old Testament we see the consequences of the people’s choice. Surely they reaped what they sowed.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that many Protestants are heading in this same direction. I am seeing more and more Protestants expressing that the pope is their head. They may not express it that plainly, yet they believe it none the less. It seems that many Protestants are suffering from papal envy. While they may not be demanding it yet, as the Israelites did of Samuel, it seems that many are looking to the pope as the head of the church rather than Christ. They are lamenting the fact that Christianity, as God has decreed it in His Word, does not provide us an earthly head.

God has given the church all it needs. He has graciously given us His Word and Spirit to direct us and His Son as our Head. We are rich beyond all measure. But it seems that some people want more. Or should I say less? Does this not bring as much dishonor to the church or our day as it did to Israel? Is the church rejecting God today just as Israel rejected Him thousands of years ago?

I truly hope it is not. The bondage that the kings of Israel brought to God’s people is light compared to the spiritual bondage of following a man rather than following the true Head of the church.

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