How should we view Rome? Is it a Church?
This question vexes many and it is not so easy to answer. It's worth revisiting, consideration and elaboration. I would argue the same questions must be asked when considering American Evangelicalism. In the end, they are not as distant as many would think.
The Reformers argued the marks of a truly Biblical Church are the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments and the presence and exercise of Church Discipline. That's a good starting point.
Many were led to conclude that Rome no longer qualified as a Biblical Church.
And yet these definitions and criteria are murky and have been taken in many different directions. It's hard to know where to draw the lines and how broad or narrow we should be in interpretation.
For many good reasons, the Reformers accepted Roman baptism and it was common in the Magisterial Reformation to view Rome as 'a' valid Church in some sense.
Many of them tended to view Roman Catholicism as 'the' Church right up to the 16th century and then later a clear date was marked with Rome's formal rejection of Justification by Faith Alone at the Council of Trent in 1563. Protestants then claimed to take up the mantle of the 'True' Church and argued that Rome had departed and abandoned its 'true' status... in rejecting their Reforms.
It's a somewhat absurd narrative and easily dismantled.
There is Biblical precedent for viewing Rome as within the orbit of the Covenant (Church) and yet also rejecting it as apostate. This helps in reckoning with Church history and the place and prominence of the Roman organisation, while at the same time firmly rejecting its claims and/or validity.
Like the cult of Jeroboam, Rome has sought to establish its own authority, altar (worship and means of reconciliation) and oracle (authority).
Jeroboam's cult professed to be Jehovah worship and yet was rejected as false by the true Prophets. It was considered a form of apostasy that true believers should have nothing to do with. It represented syncretism, an acculturated religion wed to the power and objectives of the covenantally unfaithful Northern Kingdom, the same kingdom that attempted to establish a counterfeit man-made and man-defined pseudo-Covenant Kingdom of God.
Roman Catholicism cannot be utterly dismissed. For centuries it was the primary visible manifestation of the Church, and yet it was a 'Church' in an ever growing state of apostasy. There were certainly dissident groups that opposed it and worked against it and were persecuted as a result. Many of these groups rejected the Sacralist-Constantinian model that Rome held and under slight modification was retained by the Magisterial Reformers. For this reason Magisterial-Confessional Protestantism's interest in the Medieval Underground has been minimal and often critical.
There were and perhaps even are some Christians within the Roman fold but far fewer (I would argue) than many would like to believe. I would say it was easier in times past to believe there were Christians within its ranks, especially before the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century. The centuries prior to this were a time in which there was a great deal of latitude and lack of uniformity in the doctrine and practice of the Roman hierarchy. During this period (400-1000) there were many dissidents who could still operate within the larger Roman framework and even the hierarchy... and avoid being burned at the stake. Despite her claims to Catholic authority, Rome's sway was less than universal during this period.
Rome at its core represents syncretism, peace with the world and its desires, a theological system of blending culture, tradition, philosophy and basic worldliness within a Christian framework. In truth at times it is little more than rank paganism blended with a necessarily watered down form of Christianity.
Rome continues to redefine and change with the times and we expect it will continue to do so. It has retained the forms and traditions born of the European Middle Ages, the fusion of Greco-Roman and Teutonic cultures and yet these forms are constantly being adjusted in terms of their substance.
The same spirit lives within the confines of Protestantism, particularly its American variety where the Church in the form of Evangelicalism has possessed great power and cultural influence. Rome produced the Magisterium, monasticism, crusades, a distinctive progression of architecture and forms of political power and social ethics.
Evangelicalism represents the same spirit of syncretism and worldliness. It's the same cancer in a different cultural environment. Its context is the modern and techno-industrial. Post-Enlightenment individualist and Capitalist Protestantism isn't going to manifest the syncretism in the same forms. The disease is the same but the cultural milieu is totally different. This modern form produces a different form of philosophical justification for its authority. The forms are different, but not all that different. It's the same creature with different clothes.
Instead of medieval crusades, the political forms of modern warfare and chivalry take on a different character. The nature of warfare is different and the symbols of state power and war are celebrated in a different and yet no less sacral way.
Instead of monasticism and other forms of Catholic devotion, Evangelicalism worships work, money and certainly psychology and therapy. These tasks, functions and concepts have been turned into devotional exercises and incorporated into liturgy.
Late Antiquity and Medievalism produced the Catholic Mass. The Post-Enlightenment culture of Evangelicalism produces praise teams, and liturgical dance.
Instead of Gregorian Chant, Evangelicalism has given us Christian Contemporary Music.
Instead of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Evangelicalism embraces the modern, the theatre, cinema, the video screen, the performance stage etc...
At this point many conservatives will draw these same comparisons extolling the old and condemning the new. Both old and new traditions are born of the same rotten seed. Both need to be condemned.
Evangelicalism is our culture's version of Roman Catholicism. It's a sort of American Catholicism, a universal church-expression for the Modern West. It has invaded Catholicism in the form of Pentecostalism and is becoming the dominant form for the Church in this Age.
It's more or less apostate, having been compromised with the world, syncretised with power and all forms of worldliness. Its gospel is often just as false. Many Protestants caricature and misrepresent Rome's understanding of the Gospel. There are seeds of truth within it, and yet it is buried by not just works, but the wrong type of works... works dreamed up by men, deeds that are rooted in a false sacerdotal system and vain tradition, not the fruits of the Spirit.
Despite many valid criticisms of Rome, most Protestants have embraced Cheap Grace, a faith that is little more than intellectual assent, sometimes wed to emotionalism. Others have reduced the Gospel to a series of prescribed statements, almost coded knowledge concerning forms of rationalistic methodology and laws of logic. This concept of saving faith is just as barren and formulaic as the Roman system and in many cases is in danger of obscuring the true Gospel. Like adherents of Roman Catholicism, many Evangelicals possess a faith that is little more than ritual, a series of factional shibboleths and in many cases, superstition.
Once again, are there Christians within the Roman fold? Very few and I cannot imagine them staying there if they are truly driven to the Oracular Word and submit to its authority. But what of Evangelicalism?
The Scriptures are clear that though the number of believers is on the one hand like the stars or even the sands of the sea... on the other hand, few are saved. It's a vast but relative number. We might also at this point bring in the theology of the Remnant which some have erred in relegating exclusively to the Old Testament. But that's a longer topic and for another time.
Nevertheless these are things to keep in mind as we address these questions. What's the great threat in the New Testament? Paganism? Not at all. Unbelievers can only destroy the body and most of the time, they won't even do that. The constant threat is against false teaching, wolfish false prophets, and in fact this age is characterised by those that have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.
If Evangelicalism is apostate as I have argued, are there any true believers within its borders?
Certainly, but probably far fewer than many imagine and that number (I think) is actually dwindling. Most converts I encounter, and this has been the case for some time now, have been 'saved' to worldview teaching, money and politics... and have yet to grasp the Cross or the Kingdom. Time will tell if they persevere. I already know of many that have not or have strayed into forms of the faith that are fraught with even greater error. Thankfully for all of us, God is not yet done with His work (of which we are a part) and His longsuffering knows no bounds.
Evangelicalism has its own philosophers and prophets, men who elevate Western Modernity, its Enlightenment confidence in science and the 'scientification' of economics, ethics, politics and many other realms of cultural existence. Many will roll their eyes at the Medieval Scholastics and their methodology but many Evangelical academics and scholars are in the same place. Once again, the difference is only the form.
The Northern Kingdom worshipped Jehovah, but a false Jehovah. Its worship was apostate even though no doubt there were many simple folk caught up in the politics and culture of the time, that meant well, but were led astray by false teachers and a desire to live at peace with the cultural norm.
Of course it was the Northern Kingdom that readily embraced Baal worship and both Rome and now Evangelicalism fall further into the course of overt idolatry... the sensuous world-affirming, blood-cult of Baal. Most Evangelicals draw analogies with abortion and there's no doubt many of the unborn have been sacrificed due to the cult of the self. It is obscene and tragic.
But equally as heinous is the Evangelical worship and approbation of war and militarism. Its death toll is also impressive. What their false doctrine has done to souls, only God knows that count. Even if God's Sovereignty is appealed to at this point, in no way is the culpability of false teaching diminished or eliminated. In crucifying Christ, the Jews (using the Romans) were fulfilling Scripture but their hands were wicked and they were under curse for doing it.
Evangelical leaders speak of the culture of life and of death. If that dubious paradigm is to be accepted then clearly they too belong within the confines of the culture of death with their celebration of war, militarism, empire and their fruits of theft, murder and covetousness. We could also include their equation of rapacious avarice with godliness and stewardship. Am I exaggerating? Am I guilty of sweeping generalisation?
Maybe. But if so, not by much.
There's a sense in which both Rome and Evangelicalism can be spoken of as within the orbit of 'The Church', and yet their words must be rejected, their assemblies avoided, their worship shunned. We can be neighbours to them but we must understand that true fellowship is probably not going to be possible. It must be based on the goal of trying to liberate them from its confines, to pull them away from the spiritual prisons, the bondage of High Place worship, the doctrines and commandments of men.
During the Exilic period and into the New Testament this same error is manifested in the Samaritans. Jesus showed mercy to the Samaritans but never for a moment granted them validity. They were wrong. Salvation was of the Jews. At that point the Samaritans had more or less 'replaced' the Ten Tribes. They were imports, and yet were instructed by a Jeroboamic priest of Bethel. That is the font of the Samaritan religion. They were pseudo-Jews, a perfect picture of false Christianity in the New Covenant.
Interestingly to the Jews, as covenant apostates the Samaritans were viewed as somewhat worse than just mere Gentiles. That's certainly not the mentality of modern Evangelicalism when it comes to Rome.
While I am surely denounced as a mean-spirited curmudgeon if not a crank, I would ask readers to understand where I'm coming from and consider the Scriptures apart from tradition and man-made theological frameworks, assumptions and philosophical commitments. If what I'm suggesting about Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism is true, then the leaders of the movements are actually much worse than secular opponents of Christianity. They literally are the wolves.
And I can assure you, they will happily find common cause with secularists, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, even members of the Unification Church (the Moonies).... that should tell you something about what Evangelicalism is really about... but they are absolutely hostile to advocates of Two Kingdom Theology who condemn them on Biblical terms. We are to them the worst of all heretics and for good reason. In truth we represent antithetical understandings of Christian doctrine. We could both be wrong but if one of us right, the other side has succumbed to the forces of darkness and is essentially working for the other side.
The stakes are that high. This is the war of the ages. Most professing Christians are largely devoted to fighting the pseudo-battle, a sham conflict generated by our Adversary.
Here are some links to a couple of related articles: