The Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have been blessed to receive in our community many former and disaffected Catholics who might have otherwise simply washed their hands of Christ and his Church altogether.
Despite this and despite faithful national and foreign CC/CoC missionaries ministering in Catholic majority countries, from Mexico to the Philippines and beyond, the teaching in our fellowship on Catholicism is often undeveloped or too influenced by a casual ecumenism, on the one hand, or a casual anti-Catholicism, on the other.
Finding this terribly unfortunate, I am devoting a blog series to the question of Catholic distinctives in light of the New Testament as a corollary to my own contemporaneous study of the subject, which might be of interest to the CC/CoC and broader Evangelical Protestant community as we seek to better appreciate how we differ from Roman Catholics.
What will become apparent in this series is many of the distinctives judged unbiblical are not strictly distinctive to Catholicism but pop up in other Protestant traditions, as well, and in the CC/CoC.
Still, what makes these shared doctrinal errors important to know is that all of them (at least all those planned for discussion in this series) are covered under the Catholic mantle of infallibility, meaning the impact of exposing those errors in regards to discussing Scripture with our Catholic friends and neighbors is heightened dramatically.
No sacred cows should stand before the written Word of God.
Christian or Catholic, when we approach Scripture we ought to do so with an ear to hear and a heart ready to be changed by the very oracles of God speaking to our hearts, removing the clouds of error from our eyes by its truth.
Unfortunately, among the greatest barriers to seeing the truth of Scripture is man's pride, which relates directly to our first doctrinal distinctive: the use of clerical titles or special honorific titles for those engaged in Christian ministry.
The Catholic Church has a litany of such titles, and in an article republished on the Catholic Education Resource Center website, William Saunders, parish priest of a congregation in Potomac Falls, Virginia and dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College explains what titles go with which persons.
For example, we all know diocesan priests are referred to as "Father", not uncommonly in conjunction with a first or last name, but following Mr. Saunders, who himself has the title "Father", the Pope, also a priest, is referred to as "Your Holiness," "Most Holy Father," or "Holy Father."
Furthermore, a Cardinal (from the Latin “cardo” or "hinge") is greeted as "Your Eminence" or "Your Lordship".
In addition, either in written or in verbal communication, each of these offices carries with it the title "reverend".
(You can see any official Catholic Directory for official approbation of these titles).
Understanding this, how do we make biblical sense of these titles?
From a Scriptural perspective, such monikers are extremely troubling and are, in principle, antithetical to an idea of leadership and ministry informed by the New Testament.
For example, in the Gospel of Matthew 23:9, Jesus flatly condemns the use of "father" as an honorific religious title among his disciples.
Of the half a dozen or so articles I read by Catholics defending calling priests “father”, none are persuasive or convincing.
For example, Catholic Answers frames the issue in the context ofwhether we should call our earthly fathers "father", one article reading, "If a Catholic is wrong in calling his priest "father," then everyone who refers to his own natural father as "father" is also in the wrong. Both usages would be prohibited by a literal interpretation of Jesus' words".
Another article says, “it would rob the address "Father" of its meaning when applied to God, for there would no longer be any earthly counterpart for the analogy of divine Fatherhood. The concept of God’s role as Father would be meaningless if we obliterated the concept of earthly fatherhood.“
This rebuttal ignores the fact that Jesus was speaking of religious honorific titles, not early parentage and whether we can call our dads "father".
For example, sandwiched between Jesus' invocation to "call no man Father" he condemns the use of "rabbi" and "teacher", religious titles also deemed improper as forms of address in the disciple community.
While the term father in reference to one's own father is a description of a biological, legal, or contextual reality, the use of father for any man in a religious context is not a description of a spiritual reality because, in this sense, we "have one Father and he is in heaven."
In this way, the disciples would have clearly understood the difference between acknowledging their biological fathers or fathers in the faith (Luke 16:24, Romans 9:10) and calling certain among them "Father" as a title of religious distinction.
Some also claim that to be consistent, Protestants should eschew the titles "Doctor" or "Mister" which are forms of teacher and master, respectively, both titles condemned by Jesus in Matthew 23.
However, again, these are not religious honorifics used to set one disciple of Christ apart from another, but one is an academic honorific and the other is no more than a social formality, neither of which have anything to do with what Jesus is talking about.
If my pastor insisted I call him "Mr." or "Dr." as a term of special religious distinction or honor, Jesus' words here would surely apply and I would refuse.
The Catholic usage of "Father" as religious honorific for priests is not only without biblical support, but directly violates Jesus' express teaching.
What about the title "Holy Father" for the Pope?
This is another case of a title reserved for God being applied to a man, for Jesus says:
I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. -- John 17:11
One could be forgiven for judging this an open and shut case in which the title Holy Father is only ever used for God and could only be applied to man with presumption.
Yet, the use of this title for the Pope persists and the scarcity of Catholic apologetics as to the appropriatenesss of this appellation is telling.
Again from Catholic Answers:
"Catholics call the pope "Holy Father" not as an acknowledgement of his personal state of soul but as an expression of respect for his office as successor to Peter and head of the Church on earth. His is a holy office."
No mention is made of John 17:11, the singular use of Holy Father in reference to God, or any biblical connection between the office of the pope and this name for God.
Unsurprisingly, the only Holy Father the Bible knows of is the same one Jesus says is alone is worthy to be given the distinction of Father: God.
What about "your Lordship"?
For this we go to Matthew 20:25-28:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Furthermore, we read in 1 Peter 5:2-3:
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
New Testament leadership is not lordship, whether the legitimate lordship exercised by God-ordained rulers like those of Jesus' day or of domineerance, but servant leadership.
Thus, to call any minister of God "Your Lordship" is wholly inappropriate.
As the Scripture says, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5) and...
For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live (1 Cor. 8:5-6).
The only one who merits to be called Lord in the community of faith and is Jesus Christ (if not God the Father!).
Having arrived at the title "reverend", by now you get the pattern.
The scriptural use of this title is in the King James Version of the Bible (among a few others lesser known and used) in which Psalm 111:9 reads, "He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name."
Primitive church advocate Robert Sandeman put it best when he wrote the in 1757, “the [shabbiest] preacher, in the poorest dissenting congregation, still affects to be called The Reverend; from the same principle which leads the first clergyman in Europe to take the title of His Holiness. The bulk of the Christian leaders, from the highest to the lowest, have showed an inclination to share more or less of the worship due to Him whom we praise, saying, Holy and reverend is his name.”
What we have seen is that the honorific titles so common to Catholicism are unable to be sustained by Bible data and are contradicted by explicit Bible testimony.
However, the principle Jesus establishes in Matthew 23 is enough to do away with all clerical titles regardless of what they are and the denomination from which they originate. He says:
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. -- Matthew 23:8-11
In this chapter of Scripture, Jesus condemns the hypocritical religious leaders who made a show of their positions with fancy dress, titles, and seats of honor.
But hypocrisy is not the only problem; exalting oneself over others through these means is too condemned.
So when various religious titles are given or assumed by disciples of Christ, we wonder what is the biblical impetus, or otherwise, for setting one Christian over another or exalting one believer over another by such a title?
The Bible says there is none because the greatest among the disciples is a servant and all are servants.
Ironically, one of the terms for the pope is "servant of servants", but this is no better, despite its admirable attempt at humility.
When the Bible calls Jesus “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” this does not mean he is just one king among many or one lord among many, but that among the lords he is Lord of all and that among the kings he is King of all.
Can you imagine, then, the conceit implied in allowing yourself to be called the greatest servant among the servants (Cf. Gen 9:25)!
In commenting on Jesus words in Matthew 23, biblical scholar Craig Blomberg writes:
“But one wonders how often these titles are used without implying unbiblical ideas about a greater worth or value of the individuals to whom they are assigned. One similarly wonders for how long the recipients of such forms of address can resist an unbiblical pride from all the plaudits.
It is probably best to abolish most uses of such titles and look for equalizing terms that show that we are all related as family to one Heavenly Father (God) and one teacher (Christ)... In American Christian circles perhaps the best goal is to strive for the intimacy that simply makes addressing one another on a first-name basis natural” (The New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 [Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992] p.343).
The Catholic Church claims to be the church of the first century which Jesus founded, but the first century church leaders in and outside of the Bible avoided religious honorifics in favor of familial address like "brother" and "sister" which abound in the New Testament.
To recap some of the unbiblical titles assumed and given...
The Catholic Church calls its priests “Father”. Whereas the Bible says..."call no man father...you have one Father and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9)
The Catholic Church calls its pope “Holy Father”. Whereas the Bible says..."Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name..."(John 17:11)
The Catholic Church calls its Cardinals “Your Lordship”. Whereas the Bible says..."and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came..." (1 Cor. 8:6)
The Catholic Church calls its ministers “Reverend”. Whereas the Bible says..."He sent redemption unto his people ...holy and reverend is his name..." (Psalm 111:9)
Sadly, we see many a "Pastor Smith", Bishop Greg", and "Reverend Joe" among
evangelical Protestants today, with some Pentecostals going above and beyond by affixing apostle, evangelist, and even prophet before their names (I myself have fallen into the trap as using "pastor" as an honorific).
Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first pope, wrote in 2 Peter 3:15...
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
While honor should be given to whom honor is due, we would all do well to return to the apostolic practice of calling each other brother and sister and refusing to set ourselves apart by religious honorifics like the Lord Jesus commands us in Scripture.