Friday, January 03, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Speaking Out of Turn

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

If the quotes in this Breitbart article are even close to accurate, the head of the Roman Catholic church has just thrown one of the most important principles of first century Christian faith under the bus:

“The last thing I should do is to try to convince an unbeliever. Never,” he said. “The last thing I should do is speak.”

Tom: So now the most revered figure in one of the world’s biggest branches of Christianity insists all testimony to Christ must be non-verbal. What do you think of that, IC?

What’s in a Name?

Immanuel Can: Before we get into any further discussion about the head of the Roman Catholic church, I should probably point out that talking about him using anything other than pronouns presents us with one of two difficulties. On the one hand, we have no desire to insult Catholics by refusing to use the man’s approved title. On the other, we cannot in good conscience capitulate to any system of religious honorifics when we both sincerely believe the scriptures simply will not permit us.

Tom: And it’s not even a Catholic thing. I cannot in good conscience use the words “pastor” or “reverend” as titles either, and lots of Protestants have taken those. As far as I’m concerned, “pastor” makes a fine verb, but that’s it.

IC: Right. So, for the sake of clarity, we have elected to split the difference and use the name the man has chosen for himself (“Francis”) when necessary, rather than either his original name (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) or any official title of what we believe to be biblically-unjustifiable reverence. Our intent is not to seem unkind, but also not to be dishonest. After all, this post is about how important it is to be truthful rather than merely accommodating. So we rely on our readers’ understanding and patience here.

Never Convince an Unbeliever

With that out of the way then, back to our subject. Francis says true disciples of Jesus do not proselytize — unlike Jesus Christ himself, who proselytized.

Tom: That’s an inconvenient fact, and little hard to get around, I admit, especially in view of the Great Commission. Perhaps if you were being really creative, you might try to finesse a statement like “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” into something more like “answering any questions that may arise about why you live the way you do.”

But what do you do with the apostle Paul and his stand on Judaism? He obviously believed it was an error, and that his fellow Jews needed to change their opinions about Jesus. On three consecutive Sabbath days, he “reasoned with them [Jews] from the scriptures.” For Paul, being a moral, loving guy and waiting for a spate of conveniently-leading questions was not going to get the job done. Or what do you do with Apollos, who “began to speak boldly in the synagogue”? If Jesus was really telling his followers to hold their tongues, these guys evidently didn’t get the message.

Rescinding the Great Commission

IC: Well, and what exactly does Francis do with the Great Commission? The Lord himself said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit ... and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” But Francis says don’t do that, because it will upset the nations, who are already unknowingly “God’s children” anyway, because we all are. That means there are no “lost” that the Lord came “to seek and to save”. In his view, they’re all saved anyway.

But there’s something else the Lord said that doesn’t favor his position. Jesus Christ declared, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” If that’s the basis of the command to reach the nations, how can any earthly religious figure claim to correct him? What’s left over? Where would their authority to speak to the contrary come from?

Tom: Yes, it would seem impossible for him to claim that he can legitimately countermand a direct order from the Head of the Church. And let’s be fair, I don’t think he’d argue that is what he’s doing. More likely, he’s claiming that what the Lord said doesn’t mean what we all think it means, and what Christians have been taking it to mean for two thousand years. He’s saying we’re wrong, not the Lord. He’s relying on his own position and authority to convince us that we have misunderstood what Jesus meant when he said these things, and that probably the apostles did too. What Jesus really meant to say is that the Jews are fine the way they are. And Muslims too.

Playing Politics with Souls

IC: Well, we can’t play politics with souls. As Christians, we ought to have a great concern with the lost. I’m surprised Francis doesn’t seem to think that matters. It’s like nobody’s really “lost” anyway — everybody’s just a sort of accidental or generic Catholic, whether they know it or not.

What about his hard division between verbal and lifestyle proselytization? What would you say about that, Tom?

Tom: Well, like I mentioned previously, it’s not just the three sets of commands to preach the gospel which have been recorded for us from the Lord (Matthew, Luke and Acts), though those would be definitive even if we had nothing else. “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name” settles the matter for me.

But we have more. We also have the whole book of Acts showing and telling us how the first century Christians obeyed the commands of Christ. And it is not just “lifestyle evangelism” that Paul and others were engaged in. Bible history simply doesn’t read that way.

Living Out the Faith

IC: Well, I mean, what about if someone asked, “How can you take exception with his idea that we should live out our faith, and let that be the source of opportunities to speak?” Is that what he’s aiming for, Tom? And if it is, isn’t it pretty much conventional lifestyle witnessing?

I guess I see a significant difference between saying we have a duty to live consistently what we profess, or that we should evangelize by means of a consistent practice of kindness, hospitality and self-sacrifice, on the one hand, and what Francis is pulling for on the other. I wanted to see if you detect the same.

Tom: I have no objection at all to living out the faith, and I have no objection to taking advantage of every opportunity that results from living out the faith. That should be automatic for Christians. But to claim that our ONLY authority to bear witness to Christ comes from living godly lives, and that we should deliberately remain silent in the absence of such opportunities ... well, that simply is not the teaching of the New Testament. Truth is truth no matter who tells it, and lies are lies even when they are taught by angels. And testifying to Christ is not optional, it’s obligatory: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

The Functional Limit of Christian Duty

IC: I think we do see the same problem, Tom. Francis seems not merely to be saying, “Live your faith,” nor even to be saying, “Live your faith before you say anything.” He seems to be saying that any verbal advocating for the faith is actually evil, and that living nicely is the functional limit of one’s Christian duty. And that concerns me, because it’s directly opposite to what Christ told us, and argues against all evangelism. So if I’m understanding him correctly, Francis is challenging the authority of Christ and his apostles directly. Now, how a man can do that and call himself “the vicar (meaning, representative, in place of) of Christ” is beyond me.

Tom: I know many Catholics, and I read the writings of even more. Many devout Catholics simply do not think this way. Even Francis himself took the opposite position as recently as 2018: “A baptized person who does not feel the need to proclaim the Gospel, to announce Jesus, is not a good Christian.” So either his view has completely changed in a year, or else he’s got no coherent opinion on the subject and can be expected to say absolutely anything if asked off the cuff by an audience he deems to be amenable to one position or the other.

But I’m not sure this is a position he’s going to want to stick with. Rejecting the preaching of the gospel is a direct assault on 2,000 years of Christian tradition and understanding of received truth, and it’s way easier to get a new “vicar” than a new Bible. Catholics will just look for their next opportunity to replace him. Alternatively, he needs to clarify his position and come into line with the unambiguous teaching of the New Testament.

IC: Well, we’ll see, I guess. Maybe this is a chance for Catholics to consider whether it’s more important to please men or please God.


  1. Hmm, can't find anything on this in the news which is preoccupied with the Pope slapping a woman's hand.

    I have read that he, coming from South America, has socialist ideas. What you mention could therefore be in line with what the political left is using as talking points, namely the previous oppression and indoctrination of countries and populations by colonial powers. This would therefore include refraining from expressing and promoting old "colonial" view points even if they are simply an expression of your faith. If that's his concern he is obviously the wrong man for the job (never mind all the additional shortcomings like financial, staffing, governing, etc.).

    1. The thing I find really odd is the flip-flopping. In front of one audience in 2018, he says witnessing for Christ verbally is vital to one's faith. In 2019, to a different audience, he says never to do it. Maybe he's been misquoted, but if not, I'd love to see how he reconciles two diametrically opposite positions.