Let’s Hear It For The Little Guy

Among all the things that Pope Benedict XVI has stated recently, it’s important to remember one thing that he did not say: that those believers outside the Roman Catholic Church are not true Christians.

And I don’t believe that he would say that, because that’s not the official teaching of the Catholic Church (although there are many Catholics still today who might say that). What he did say is that those “ecclesial communities” formed by those other Christians are not churches in the “proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession and are therefore “defective.” That has always been the view of the Catholic Church and the Pope is, for whatever reasons, basically stating what has always been official teaching.

There is nothing new here. It’s just that after all the ecumenical rapprochement of the late John Paul II, Benedict’s statement, along with his recent loosening of the reigns on the Latin Mass, strike many as a hard right turn toward pre-Vatican II days.

Many, of course, have claimed that their church is the only true church, including a certain denomination with which I am intimately familiar. The difference is, that in the case of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, there is considerable weight behind their historical arguments.

I recognized very early in my personal study of church history, that the church became “Catholic” in both name and practice very, very early. In fact, the New Testament Canon and the Christology that we Protestants take for granted were the result of “Catholic” Christians doing the difficult and sometimes dirty work of discernment which was necessary in those wild and wooly days of the early church when “the message” was still up for grabs between many competing groups of believers. I have often said that, if nothing else, the church had to be “Catholic” before it could be anything else.

Like them or not, Protestants, if they are honest and historically astute (and legions are not), should at least look in the general direction of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and offer up a nod of thanks. We stand on the shoulders of others.

At the same time, there has always been paradox, the tension between the visible, organized, institutional church and, for lack of a better term, “the little guy.”

To wit, Mark 9:38-41:

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.

It’s important to note here what Jesus did not say. He did not tell the man to come join their “ecclesial community.” The sense here is that the man was allowed to go on his way, imperfectly taught, perhaps, but doing the thing that apparently trumped both knowledge and card-carrying membership, indeed, the thing that counted the most–passing out cups of cold water.

In the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the late Pope John Paul II was asked why the Holy Spirit would have permitted such division and enmity among those who claim to be disciples of Christ. Here was his answer:

In general, the causes and historical development of these divisions are well known. It is legitimate, however, to wonder if there is perhaps a metahistorical reason as well.

There are two possible answers to this question. The more negative one would see in these divisions the bitter fruit of sins committed by Christians. The more positive answer is inspired by trust in the One who is capable of bringing forth good even from evil, from human weakness. Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ’s Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise…

More generally, we can affirm that for human knowledge and human action a certain dialectic is present. Didn’t the Holy Spirit, in His divine “condescendence,” take this into consideration? It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one Church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting, of cultures and civilizations. Wouldn’t such a way of looking at things be, in a certain sense, more consonant with the wisdom of God, with his goodness and providence?

(BTW, the italics are his, not mine)

He went on to call for Christians to be united in love and to point out that “mutual respect is a prerequisite for authentic ecumenism.” I’m wondering if Pope Benedict and his men in The Vatican might do well to go back and reread those words before tossing around the word “defect” all over the place. Might there be another way to phrase what they’re trying to say? Just a thought.

And by the way, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” is no feeble phrase. It forces Christians everywhere to look for ways to reconcile everything from Popes with all their pomp and circumstance to the blue collar theology of Jesus Camp, a tall task if there ever was one.

So let’s hear it for the “little guy.” And the big guys. And all the guys in between. May we all do more good than harm as we travel more or less in the same general direction along the pilgrim path.

  1. JAW


    Great post; I really appreciate it. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but about two years ago I had a shocking revelation:

    Do we protestantish Christians believe in the canon of Holy Scripture (esp. the New Testament)? If so, we need to realize that the NT canon was formulated in the 300’s by people who had become quite comfortable with Popes and other “Catholic” structures/doctrines. That leaves us with one of two options:

    1. Realize that the NT canon was formulated by apostates at worst, at best just everyday men like you and me. If that’s the case, can we even trust it? Should we? How can we? Or why don’t we throw the whole NT out?


    2. Believe that the Holy Spirit had some workings in formulating the NT canon. But wait – don’t we believe that the HS quit speaking directly to men after the first century apostles? If we believe, then, that the HS was at work in formulating the NT canon, then….and this is very important…haven’t we more or less endorsed the idea of some sort of Apostolic Succession?

    Not to mention, then, the idea that if Roman Catholics aren’t Christians, for almost 1400 years there were no Christians anywhere in the world…which would look to me like the gates of Hell had prevailed against the Church, directly violating Christ’s teaching to Peter.

  2. Mike the Eyeguy

    You’re welcome, glad it struck a chord. Careful though, that thinking for yourself thing can lead you into some sticky places. 🙂

    Yes, there are many quandaries which arise when one reads history with eyes wide open rather than accepting a simplified, self-serving flannel board version.

    I believe it was Cardinal John Henry Newman who said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

  3. mmlace

    I read where someone else, regarding the document released by the Pope, commented on his blog, “Maybe the Pope has a little Church of Christ in him…”

    I have to admit I believe that’s a little unfair to the Pope! Unfortunately, those in that denomination (with which I am also intimately familiar) that still subscribe to the belief that members of the church of Christ are the only Christians—they tend to believe that everyone else is completely lost…no hope at all.

    At least the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church are able to look at those with which they have differences and realize that “these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation.”

    Excellent post, Mike. Thanks. Much love in Him!

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Yes, you nailed the irony! So many Protestants are reacting negatively to Benedict’s comments, but taken as a whole, he is actually more generous toward “the others” than many Protestants.

  5. Charlie

    OK. Now for some Catholic perspective. When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005, moderate to liberal members of the church like myself worried about his hard line reputation undoing many of the progressive accomplishments of JP2. Despite a few noteworthy incidents of poorly chosen words (this one and the earlier speech on Islam come to mind), Pope Benedict has been generally a pleasant surprise. Clearly he does not have the savvy of his predecessor but he is an intelligent and holy man who seems to have moderated some of his previous positions. In this case, the use of the word “defect” is unfortunate. I wonder in which language his statement was issued. Could it have been a translation issue or was that English word actually used? Thanks for the thought provoking post and your open mindedness to the Catholic church.

  6. Mike the Eyeguy

    Charlie, I appreciate your “moderate to liberal” Catholic perspective. I am blessed to have many Catholic friends who I can go to to get clarification on such things. In fact, I had lunch with four of them yesterday. Such friendships only increase the respect that I have for that venerable and ancient church.

    Good point about the translation. Also, with a generally unsympathetic media always trained to highlight every potential stray word, clear communication is difficult at best. This was, in my mind, a trumped-up headline for a generally slow news week. I’ve been impressed with most of Pope Benedict’s words and deeds. He seems to be a good, decent man.

  7. bpb

    from my studies, the church we read of in the Bible (the True Church) has evolved into what we now call the orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, depending on language spoken). The Catholic church broke off from The Church because they wanted instruments in their worship services. There are many similarities between the Orthodox and Catholic churches so this seems to be correct.

  8. Mike the Eyeguy

    I hear tell that people have different versions, depending on their perspective. I really don’t have a horse in the RC v. Orthodox race to be first and foremost. Keep reading–and widely.

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