In our last post, I pointed-out that Christians have historically (and rightly) rejected men who define allegiance to their leadership as the mark of orthodoxy. To puff-up oneself against others not only exceeds what has been written in Scripture (1 Cor 4:6), it violates basic Christian unity (Eph 4:1-6). You may think you’re the new Moses – and even call yourself the new Peter – but truthfully you’re just another Diotrephes, loving first-place (3 John 3). Leaders who announce their own supremacy have effectively separated themselves from the Church.
That’s exactly what early Christians said when Stephen first claimed to be the supreme pontiff of Rome. Firmilian pretty much nailed it by writing: “…how great sin have you heaped up for yourself, when you cut yourself off from so many flocks! For it is yourself that you have cut off” (Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea, in Against the Letter of Stephen [A.D. 256]). Today, as the world watches the spectacle of Benedict’s final address, we are well-advised to remember Firmilian’s rebuke.
The papacy is little more than an act of self-excommunication from the Body of Christ, with a bit of flair. And therein lies the rub. I believe it is pastorally important to point out that the Pope has no clothes because when the pomp and circumstance of Rome comes out, so does the inferiority complex of many Christians.
Sheepishly Reversing the Reformation
When ornate and centuries-old traditions make CNN, Christians can begin to view their own churches and traditions with more of a jaundiced eye. While Pope Benedict is choosing what shoes to wear in retirement (he’s replacing the red loafers with some brown ones – whew!), the associate pastor at my church recently had his wife point out the number of holes in his. An entire monastery is being retrofitted for Benedict’s retirement, while that same associate pastor at my church calls a retrofitted utility closet his study – it is actually the second such closet of his ministry career.
Most of our congregations inhabit buildings with far less swank than St. Peter’s, they’re led by pastors (i.e., “bishops”) who have a whole lot less geo-political clout and who do not worry much about how they should be addressed – whether “His Holiness” or “Rev. Emeritus” – since others will typically make that decision for them. To top it off, our pastors likely have a hat collection that is quite inferior to that of the soon-to-be brown shoe clad “Pope Emeritus” of Italy.
Are Christians right to feel such inferiority before the centuries’ old “tradition” of Roman Catholicism? No… because we’re still in the Church, while the Pope and his flag-waving adherents, sadly, are not. Roman Catholicism is, in fact, an “-ism” and decidedly not a “Church.” That is what the Reformation was all about. The Roman Catholic system cuts people off from the Lord Jesus, His Gospel, the hope of salvation, and therefore, from the Church. It’s really nothing to admire.
Reminding Ourselves of the Reformation
Apparently, we still need to reiterate this point. The Gospel Coalition, for example, recently published a devotional guide for Lent. I was flabbergasted. While this may overstate the case, it initially struck me like The Koran Coalition releasing a guide to the virtues and enjoyment of ham sandwiches. Richard Barcellos’ reply in To Lent or reLent? was right on point:
…the following words are very troubling to me:
‘The practice of giving something up for Lent is a way of entering into the wilderness with Jesus. Don’t worry about whether your sacrifice is a good one. It’s not a contest. Just make your aim to know Christ more fully, and trust him to lead you.’
‘…entering into the wilderness with Jesus’? What does that mean and where has God revealed that it is His will for us to enter such? The fact is that Christ already entered the wilderness for us and won! This statement betrays a hermeneutic that is too horizontal, allegorizing, and misses the point of Christ’s wilderness experience. He was driven there to be tempted as our representative and win; unlike Adam in the garden and Israel in the wilderness, Jesus does not give-in to the devil.
TGC brothers, this post makes more work for local church pastors. It is destructive. It erodes confidence in those involved with TGC.
As pastor myself – one who already has to overcome ministry with holey soles and from a utility closet – I heartily agree. I cannot believe that we even have to make an argument against Lent observance in our churches. Have we not died to the world’s spirits and man-made precepts like “do not handle,” “do not taste,” and “do not touch”? Are not these mere appearances of wisdom really just self-made religion with no value in stopping sin (Col 2:20-23)?
Rejoicing in Our High Priest
Today, Benedict retires from an office that has existed for centuries and is laden with ancient tradition – smells, bells, striking hats, red (and brown) shoes, not to mention the foreboding buildings. And Christian, you are missing-out on nothing. These are not the artifacts of a great unifying tradition. They are evidences of division, schism, exceeding the written Word, and tearing apart the truth of Christ and His Church. By the pope’s arrogant claims, he and all who adhere to him have cut themselves off from Christ’s Church. The succession of yet another pope is just the folly of dividing Christianity and nullifying the Gospel with silly hats and empty titles, Emeritus or not. It’s sad.
The office of Priest over God’s House is not an open position, it’s been filled. We have a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb 2:17). One who has passed through the heavens, bringing us to the throne of grace with confidence (Heb 4:15-16). One without a successor, without beginning or end (Heb 7:3):
but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Heb 7:24-25)
Jesus Christ is our great and eternal High Priest. You do not need Lent. You are not helped by impressive leaders who boast in outward things (2 Cor 5:12). You need to believe His Gospel, to meet in a simple building to hear it preached by men who believe it – whatever the status of their footwear – to sing and show it by the ordinances in Scripture, and to encourage others not to neglect this great salvation (Heb 2:3; 10:24-25). If you have these things, be eternally grateful. You are actually in the Church.