Ecumenical IllusionsVol. 28 No. 1 | Nov-Dec 2017
Churches seeking ecumenical equality with the papacy will ultimately be disappointed.
By Hal Mayer
In 2007, Benedict XVI upset a number of Protestant groups participating in ecumenical dialogue when he stated that their churches weren’t really “churches in the proper sense” and were “defective” because they were not in Eucharistic communion with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). He then reasserted what the RCC has always taught—that the RCC is the only true visible church on earth and that Eucharistic communion with her is the only way to salvation. Benedict even added that any effectiveness other Christian groups have in leading people to Christ derives solely from the gifts entrusted to the Roman Catholic Church.1
No Christian church wants to be considered defective. Nor do they want to give credit to Roman Catholicism for the fruits of their labors. Had nearly 40 years of ecumenical dialogue been for nothing?
Benedict, who was famous for the art of papal criticism, also criticized Muslims, indigenous Brazilians, and Jews. Papal criticism is actually a strategic ecumenical tool. After the criticism, the pope reaches out to the offended parties and receives credit for being the initiator of peace. This gives him enormous political and psychological advantage and allows the papacy to direct ecumenical conversations. This is exactly what happened after 2007.
Following Benedict’s remarks, the surprised Protestants, instead of reasserting their strong heritage, principles, and beliefs, opened up to further ecumenical integration, which Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, has already initiated.
Pope Francis believes it is time to bring separated religious bodies into full, visible, sacramental union with the RCC—the ultimate destination of the ecumenical movement. He has appealed to evangelicals, including mega-church leaders like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, Pentecostal leaders like Kenneth Copeland and James Robison, and even the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Sadly, even the ancient Waldenses have succumbed recently to his rapprochement. After begging forgiveness for centuries of cruel persecution by his church’s vassal armies and inquisitors, Francis is now in ecumenical dialog with the Waldenses.
A brief look at history will help us understand why the Roman Catholic Church feels justified in its position of superiority and why churches seeking equality with the papacy around the table of 21st century Christian ecumenism will ultimately be disappointed.
ONE CATHOLIC FAITH?
Roman Catholics believe that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and that successive bishops of Rome have been the rightful head of all Christians throughout the ages. However sincerely held, these beliefs are not supported by the Bible. In fact, Scripture reveals that James was the first recorded church leader, and neither biblical nor historical evidence can be found that Peter ever lived in or even visited Rome.2 There is evidence in the Bible and in history that early church leaders were in contact with one another and met together for discussion and prayer on important decisions, but there was no supremacy.
What history does reveal is that the papacy’s claim to be the head of all Christians originates from political connection with the Roman Empire. In ad 306, Emperor Constantine inherited a divided empire that was governed out of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) in the East, and out of Rome in the West. The Roman emperors preferred to live in the East, and left the governing of the West to vassal emperors.
The Roman Catholic Church still maintains that Eucharistic Communion with her is the only way to salvation.
Constantine’s elevation of Christianity in ad 313 to official status was a shrewd move calculated to keep his sprawling empire together, because Christians in the East and the West were more united than his pagan subjects were and had demonstrated their willingness to die for their cause. But while the Eastern portion of the empire would survive well into the 15th century, the Western portion began a messy and tumultuous decline as successive invaders (barbarians) sought for the control of Italy and the old imperial city.
In ad 533, Justinian I decreed that the bishop of Rome was head of all Christians in the Roman Empire. Italy was then ruled by the Christian Visigoths, who did not follow the Roman Christianity developed under the Emperor Constantine, and who had captured and imprisoned Pope John I. Although it would be five years before a Roman bishop could be seated securely in Rome, Justinian followed his decree with an army to defeat the Visigoths and an edict to compel all to submit to Roman Christianity. Archibald Bower wrote of that sixth century “ecumenical movement”:
“By an edict which he issued to unite all men in one faith, whether Jews, Gentiles or Christians, such as did not, in the term of three months, embrace and profess the Catholic faith, were declared infamous, and, as such, excluded from all employments both civil and military, rendered incapable of leaving anything by will, and their estates confiscated…. Many, however, withstood [these persecutions]; and against such as did, the imperial edict was executed with the utmost rigor. Great numbers were driven from their habitations with their wives and children, stripped and naked. Others betook themselves to flight, carrying with them what they could conceal, for their support and maintenance; but they were plundered of the little they had, and many of them inhumanly massacred by the Catholic peasants or the soldiery who guarded the passes.”3
Many Bible-believing Christians were the unhappy recipients of this ecumenical fervor. They fled to remote places of the earth as the Bible prophesied the true church would do during the 1260-year period of papal supremacy.4 The Western Roman Empire eventually fragmented into ten regions, each with its own language and culture. But the papacy clung tenaciously to vestiges of Roman culture, including the Latin language and the mystical religious rites adopted from paganism. The papacy vigorously maintained that Petrine supremacy and apostolic succession gave it the right to be God’s supreme ecclesiastical authority on earth. Without this, the RCC had no legitimate claim to power. Through her claim to control the eternal destiny of souls, she kept the ten European tribes in an imperfect union as the Holy Roman Empire. Her own view of herself is described in Bible prophecy: “I sit a queen and am no widow and shall see no sorrow.” Revelation 18:7.
The claim that there is no salvation apart from the RCC actually fits the Bible’s definition of blasphemy. The Bible teaches that the only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not through any earthly structure of priests and bishops. The RCC counters this by insisting that her councils and the magisterium are above the Bible in judging faith and doctrine.
The Bible warns of such a power developing before Jesus returns. The Apostle Paul referred to this power as the “…man of sin, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4. In light of this, should the Catholic Church participate in the ecumenical movement when she openly considers herself as superior and other churches inferior? She clearly doesn’t want brotherhood; she wants rulership.
The Pope’s claim to be the head of all Christians originates from political connections with the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great, not from the Bible.
RETHINKING THE REFORMATION?
The fact that some Protestant groups are concerned about the RCC’s view of them as illegitimate churches keeps them at a great disadvantage; yet they continue to look for “common ground.” Why?
As Protestants have deepened their ecumenical ties, there has been a corresponding uncertainty about the difference between them and Rome. Those Protestants without a firm knowledge of the Bible and ignorant of their own blood-bought history largely accept the pope as the spokesperson for global Christianity and allow the RCC to control ecumenical discussions.
Today, Protestants working alongside Catholic Church leadership against society’s moral decline are reluctant to regard her as the enemy she has historically been. They think they have perhaps misinterpreted scripture, especially the texts in Revelation that identify the papacy as the beast and the pope as Antichrist. By a “journeying together” emphasis, the RCC reduces opposition to her politics and her faith. This is part of a much larger plan to overcome resistance, for the Scripture says that Rome “by peace shall destroy many.” Daniel 8:25.
The ecumenical movement has been one of Rome’s key tools to extend her power. She has made her intentions clear that the present ecumenical unity should evolve into “full, visible unity” with Roman Catholicism and that evangelization and ecumenism go hand in hand.5, 6 Pope Benedict XVI clearly stated this vision for ecumenism just before he left the papacy:
“It is good to journey together towards this objective, provided that the Churches and ecclesial communities do not stop along the way, accepting the various contradictions between them as normal or as the best they can hope to achieve. It is, rather, in the full communion of faith, Sacraments and ministry that the strength of God, present and working in the world, will find concrete expression.”7 Currently, Protestants are seeking a way to reconcile with Rome on doctrinal matters, even though doctrinal differences led to the rise of Protestantism in the first place. They assume the papal oppression and persecutions of the Dark Ages could not possibly rise again. However, Bible prophecy predicted that the deadly wound inflicted on the medieval papacy in 1798 would be healed and the world would again see her rise to global religious and political power. This prophecy has already been fulfilled and is evidenced in part by the very attitudes expressed by Protestants.
“As the Protestant churches have been seeking the favor of the world, false charity [brotherly love] has blinded their eyes…. Instead of standing in defense of the faith once delivered to the saints, they are now, as it were, apologizing to Rome for their uncharitable opinion of her, begging pardon for their bigotry.”
The papacy has returned from near demise in 1798 to global admiration, just as John prophesied in Revelation 13:3.
The ecumenical movement will lead the unwary to full Eucharistic union with Roman Catholicism. The Bible reveals that those who cannot cooperate with this agenda will be treated as enemies of the social order the world over. A revival of Catholic supremacy and intolerance has indeed been foretold in the Bible. See Revelation 13:15–17. Just like the fate of those who conscientiously could not support Justinian’s decrees of unity in the sixth century, the Bible reveals that those who will not cooperate with modern world religious unity will also be threatened with death. In today’s world this end-time scenario, once seemingly incredible, is all too believable.
- “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, www.vatican.va, June 29, 2007.
- “The Apostle Peter in Rome: Jesus’ Chief Disciple Re-examined,” Bible History Daily, www.biblicalarchaeology.org, March 31, 2017.
- Bower, Archibald, History of the Popes, Vol. 1, p. 334.
- Revelation 12:14–16. (See explanatory note below.)
- “Restoring Full and Visible Unity?” Vatican Files: Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Roman Catholicism, January 29, 2014.
- “The Aim of Ecumenism Is the Unity of Divided Christians,” The Catholic News, November 15, 2012.
- White, Ellen G., The Great Controversy, pp. 571, 572.
Note: Bible prophecy describes this time period three ways: 42 months, 1260 days, or “a time, times, and half a time” (3 ½ years). See also Revelation 12:6; 13:5. Using the “day equals a year” prophetic reckoning, and 360 prophetic days to a prophetic year, this yields 1260 literal years, extending from ad 538, when Pope Vigilius restored the Papacy in Rome after Belesarius defeated the Ostrogoths, until ad 1798 when Napoleon’s armies captured Pope Pius VI, who died an exile in France.
Hal Mayer is the speaker/director of Keep the Faith ministries, which offers regular analysis of current events in the light of Bible prophecy. For information, visit www.ktfministry.org.
Would the world have been better off without the sharp divisions that led to a split in Christianity and produced centuries of bloodshed and strife? By Richard Rosica and Betsy Mayer Christianity has changed dramatically in the past century. While there was once a...