[Written in March, 2014] The fact that my pastor since almost 30 years, Ulf Ekman, has decided to convert to the Roman Catholic Church has unleashed a shockwave through great parts of Protestant Christianity, not the least within Word of Life’s own network with close to 250 000 members. Without evaluating Ulf’s and Birgitta’s personal way – which I cannot do, just as others couldn’t evaluate ours as we once broke up from the Church of Sweden – it is important to explain why I myself time after time have been faced with this choice and chosen not to convert. It is my conviction that the way to unity is not conversion but convergence – that we all are bowing inwards, submitting to one another in obedience to Jesus Christ. And unity is necessary, in order fro the world to believe (John 17:21)!
My growing up within Swedish ´High Church´ circles involved that some acquaintances, often despairing over the apostasy of the Church of Sweden, chose to convert. I and my wife said: Either we will become Catholics or Pentecostals. I am happy that the Baptism in the Spirit intervened, bringing us into the Charismatic movement and later into the Faith movement. I am also very happy that the Swedish Faith movement under Ulf Ekman’s formidable leadership has opened its eyes to the riches of the historical churches, not least rediscovering Holy Communion and giving it a central place in the worship. I am now happily part of the Uppsala Livets Ord church, now led by Ulf Ekman’s successor Joakim Lundqvist.
However, my beloved brothers Lars and Staffan chose the Roman Catholic Church and we soon thereafter chose Word of Life. To our family, the fact that we went in separate directions was a hard blow, maybe most of all that I and Else-Marie were baptized as believers. Happily enough, we had a very warm and loving home that after a while recovered from the shock, and since many years the relationships are warm again. My last memory of my father, the Lutheran priest who gave me the love toward and faith in the Word of God and its absolute authority, is of him standing in a friendly conversation with Ulf Ekman at my 40 years celebration, 20 years ago; my father was kindness impersonated and surely wanted to seize the opportunity of getting to understand this controversial preacher.
So why have I never chosen the road of conversion, when both my brothers and many other close friends have done so?
Throughout my adult life, I have basically held the same view on these things, even if in recent years I more than ever before have seen the importance of unity in the Body of Christ, since Jesus prayed his last prayer about this, and since I really have seen genuine faith and love both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as in other Protestant churches. Not the least, the encounter with many Catholic Charismatics is wonderful; like few others many of them are seeking God and are thirsty for the life of the Spirit.
My faith is that anyone who confesses and believes in Jesus Christ as Lord is a child of God, has the same father as I have, and is therefore my brother, regardless of church identity. That person is born of the Spirit. Nobody is perfect, but we all can be imperfect in our faith. Pretty well all of us can at the same time be born of the Spirit and be theologically confused. However, there is a faith which once for all has been imparted to the holy ones (Jude 3). It was imparted then—the Greek verb form for ’imparted’ shows that the impartation of it has been finished—and we are standing on it now.
Let me also say that I do not love pointing out where I and my Christian brothers differ; however, this is sometimes necessary when others are equally clearly moving their position. Such as now. And then, we must also be clear.
The Hierarchy of Faith
When comparing different Christian movements, a helpful tool is to use the priority order of faith, or the hierarchy of faith. When making a priority list over what is most central in Christian faith, it is evident that we agree with most Christians about the most important things, while the things which are not important to salvation are low down on the list.
At the same time as we acknowledge that there are differences, we must not throw out the baby along with the bathtub water, forgetting all things we have in common with most believers. We commonly believe in:
- A Triune God
- Jesus as Lord and Savior
- The Word of God as the source of faith
- The Holy Spirit and his work
- A life in holiness
- That man is created in the image of God with an immeasurable value
- That Jesus will return to judge heaven and earth
- Many ethical questions with the ancient churches of the East and West: the beginning and end of life, marriage, and related issues.
The list could be made much longer before we arrive at the questions where we differ.
The common faith is summarized in the belief in the whole Word of God and the ancient Christian creeds, which clarify the Christian faith over against the heretics. These things we share with most Christians and are happy about it.
While I have started out by stressing the unifying aspects in our faith, I must however clarify that there are differences over against the Roman Catholic faith. I will now summarize some of these in a few main points under four headings: The view on the Bible, the view on the Church, the view on Mary, and the view on the Pope.
The View on the Bible
For all theology, the sources for the faith are absolutely critical. My conviction is that the apostolic writings which we have in the Old and New Testaments—the Old Testament is self-evidently the Word of God for the apostles—is the only measuring rod, the canon, of the Christian church. The Spirit has led the Body of Christ to see and discover things in the divine Scriptural Revelation, but each such discovery must be tested on the basis of Scripture, and be in line with the Word. The Spirit has watched over the establishment of these Holy Scriptures, so that the Word of God has been preserved in them.
Particularly in the view on the Bible most problems arise, with departures of both Roman Catholic and other churches from the apostolic teaching. Even though the theology of the Roman Catholic Church really states that the Bible is the measuring rod, there are many doctrines which rest on a weak or non-existent biblical foundation. Sometimes theology is also built on the Apocrypha, a collection of scriptures which most probably Jesus, the apostles and contemporary Judaism did not acknowledge or use as Holy Scripture. Among these doctrines are the teaching about Purgatory, which has weak biblical foundation, and a number of doctrines about Mary; see below.
A common misconception is that some particular church determined what should be included in the canon of the Bible. This is not the case. It was formed with the beginning in apostolic times, and it is an expression for what “everyone, at all times, and everywhere” recognizes as the Word of God. This happened through different branches of the world-wide church, yes, of the entire Body of Christ.
To the Roman Catholic Church, the Tradition means much, and its role is to pass on the teaching of the apostles. As true as it is that the Body of Christ always must pass on faith, it is equally crucial to clearly see the distinction between Scripture and everything else in the Body of Christ, so that the Bible, which is the distinct and clear testimony of the apostles, remains the foundation. Here, I believe the borderline is too indistinct, both in Roman Catholic and in Orthodox Christianity. The Catholic Catechism contains a number of authoritative claims which are not self-evidently founded in the Bible. The view on the Roman Catholic teaching office or magisterium has great significance: “‘The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.’ This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” (Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, 85). Even if it is explicitly said that this teaching office does not stand over the Word of God, there are in practice many dogmatic statements which cannot be defended out of a clear and sound exposition of the Bible.
Our Catholic charismatic friends are themselves crying out for more Bible teaching, for the very reason that this is a weak point in much of Catholic life. A thorough Bible revival would in the long run be able to change much in the Roman Catholic Church, jus as we need revival in other respects!
The View on the Church
The view on the church is decisive, and when the Roman Catholic Church means that they are “the sole Church of Christ” and that “[I]t is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 816)
This very claim to exclusivity is of course one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches, including the Orthodox ones.
Is the Roman Catholic Church the original church? From a historical point of view, this is a very simplified standpoint. From Jerusalem, the gospel went out to the ends of the earth and a multiplicity of church traditions were created, among which the Latin, Western one which has dominated the Roman Catholic Church is the largest single one. However, before this happened, the church had grown in many nations and it was first in Jerusalem, then in the Byzantine church and empire, that the world-wide church first was gathered to councils. Early on, the two large western and eastern branches emerged and so did some smaller ones. The claim that the Roman Catholic Church would have a greater continuity with the origin than any other church will always be contested, not least among our Orthodox brothers.
What is the church, then? It is the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:23), but it is not limited to any particular denomination, at the same time as it certainly is a body, that is, it is manifested in an historical form. There are not many bodies; there is only one. Into this body, every human being who believes and is baptized is incorporated. I believe that Jesus is praying that they all will come closer to one another and for a real, visible unity, but nothing in Scripture indicates that this fullness is more evident in the Roman Catholic Church than anywhere else.
Thus, one can believe in the church as the supernatural Body of Christ, as the fullness of him who fills all in all, without accepting the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to be the only church which has the fullness. The fullness is in the body because Christ is the head of the body and because the Holy Spirit fills it. Therefore, a person can partake of the fullness both in a little Baptist church in Borneo, a Lutheran church in Finland and in a Catholic church in the Philippines – or an Iranian person who has never met any Christians before Christ reveals himself to him! This is God’s brilliant distribution plan, going beyond every border to rescue the souls.
At the same time, it is important to know that the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges that there are Christians outside of her. The Church is “joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian” and with those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized” (Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, 838).
Is it true that the Roman Catholic Church has roots in the original church which nobody else has? No, one cannot say this. The original Christian movement was spread early to several different continents, and one cannot claim that the Roman Catholic Church has more of this continuity than any other. For example, the Syrian church would be closer. Having said this, of course the historical churches have treasures, which are of enormous important, and we can and must learn from them. Everything belongs to us, and we should not despise what the Holy Spirit as done throughout the ages! My only concern is the claim to exclusivity.
What roots do we as Christians then have to the church, which Jesus founded?
- The gospel, which is carried by, but also independent of, churches and denominations, and, sometimes in spite of them, goes through time and space and creates faith.
- The Bible, the canonical Scriptures, which are not owned by any church.
- The life of the Spirit, which is not controlled by any outward organization, even though transmitted through the Body of Christ wherever it is present.
- The apostolic faith, which the first Christians held on to.
- The Eucharist, where Jesus is coming to us.
- The fellowship of the Spirit, which only the Spirit of God can create, and does, beyond all denominational borders.
We, all Christians, have these roots and no one can deny that; in fact, the roots are deeper, down into Israel and the Jews, to whom all of Christianity is indebted. And the sap is been transmitted up through the tree of the church, which has many branches. Therefore all of us who partake in the Body of Christ partake in this life! However, the revelation and the life in Christ is not dependent on one specific church which has the whole fullness. The fullness will come when all believers in Christ are joined into one, through the contribution of each ligament (Eph 4:16, cf. 3:16–18).
The division in the Body of Christ is deeply tragic, and Jesus’ prayer for unity must be on the hearts of us all. It is correct that the Roman Catholic Church has been able to unite many new movements, while Protestantism has been multiplied through division, and that is one of its strengths. But real unity can only come when all of us bow our knees, submitting to the apostolic faith, which is in the Bible and to which the creeds of the ancient church are witnessing. And that all are willing to lay down their specific doctrines which have developed beyond the Bible, and in isolation from the Body as a whole. This goes for the Roman Catholic Church, which has over a thousand years behind it, but eminently for us Pentecostal-Charismatics, where everyone can be his own pope.
Thus, there is no specific church which can make claims to having the full truth. The fullness is in the Body of Christ which encompasses all children of God, and it will be realized first in a united Body of Christ. And this will be the miracle of all times, possible only because the Holy Spirit is the architect of unity.
The View on Mary
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in the study of a German Catholic professor of exegesis, and we were discussing our common research interests in theology and Anti-Semitism. Suddenly, and without knowing anything about who I was theologically or what kind of church I attended, he said: “It is so strange to think about the Catholic Church, which has room for a lot of dogmas about Mary that have no support whatsoever in the New Testament”. I could only quietly agree, but this illustrates that many Catholic theologians are wrestling with a ballast of dogmas, which they know are lacking support in Scripture.
For one of the biggest conflict areas is the view on Mary, as we all know. Before I am going into what is not clearly biblical in the view on her, I would like to say that Protestantism often has not enough appreciated her role. As a young girl, she really accepted a possible martyrdom through stoning for adultery, in order to obey God and carry his Son into this world. In her response, she is a model to every believer. We all need to say as she said: Behold, I am the servantess/servant of the Lord, let it be with me as God has said!
Nevertheless, Mariology (the doctrine of Mary) has always been one of my biggest problems, as it is often lacking a foundation in Scripture. That she as a true virgin is the mother of Jesus, even that she is “mother of God”, belongs to the Christian faith, since the alternative would be that Jesus is not regarded as true God and true man; it thus has less to do with what she was, than who Jesus was: God! However, based on the Bible that she gave birth to Jesus Christ does not signify any special position for Mary of the kind that the Roman Catholic Church is teaching in its Catechism. The more advanced doctrines do not come up to the mark of a sound biblical interpretation, when practicing what I use to call “the full-stop principle”: that we shouldn’t draw conclusions from Scripture beyond what is clearly there, but put the full stop where the Bible does. Based on Scripture, one cannot say that Mary is our mother only because she is the mother of Jesus (Catechism 963); or that she would be free from hereditary sin, a dogma which was established 1854; that Mary was assumed into heaven, which has old roots but was established 1950; or that she is cooperating in our salvation or has a saving office (Catechism, 969–970), even if the Catechism does mean that this ministry of Mary is an outflow of the only salvific work of Christ. These established dogmas, and a great variety of others in popular piety about Mary, actually lack a sound anchoring in the Bible. On the contrary, many passages in the New Testament show the opposite: Jesus actually marks a distance to his mother a number of times, e.g., when she wants to take command at the wedding in Cana: “What do you have to do with me”, he says with a quite rough Greek expression.
Could one then ask for Mary’s prayers? There is no support in the Bible for such a view. But couldn’t we ask those who have gone before us into glory for prayers, just as well as those who are here on earth? There is no clear biblical support for this either. Concerning prayer, we have a wonderful and sufficient way to the throne, through Jesus Christ and through prayer in the name of Jesus! This was what Jesus spoke so clearly about and promised us in his ´testament´ in John 15–16, nothing else. There we have the promises about prayer and about answers to prayer. These are clear, and we are far from having exhausted their possibilities.
The View on the Pope
I had another conversation a few months ago with a pious Catholic professor colleague. I asked: How do you view the primacy of the Pope? He answered: I am very skeptical of the historical foundation for the Petrine office as based in Rome.
This is a disputed question, not only in all of Christianity, which regards it as one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the ecumenical dialogue, but also partly among Roman Catholic theologians.
There are several problems with the view on the Pope’s office. First and foremost, it is indeed clear that Peter received the keys (Matt 16:19), but there is a long way from this to claiming that Peter was in Rome and established an office which is valid for all times. The main Christian churches can even accept the bishop of Rome as being a kind of chairman for all bishops in the world, but are turning against the later, especially 19th century, development in the view on his office. There are many misconceptions concerning this. For example, what the pope says is not regarded to be binding for all Christians. Even so, there is something called papal infallibility, but this authority has only at a few instances been exercised by a pope. Catholic theologians are also divided concerning exactly what this authority means. It is also believed that the Pope is the only one who can summon a new council for the whole church of Christ.
As to the councils, a common Protestant view is that no new doctrines are needed, but that what is in Scripture is sufficient. Many Christians can conceive that in order for a teaching office to really work, a so-called ecumenical council with a united church from all ends of the earth and all denominations would be needed. However, many think that it is sufficient to have the Word of God and the doctrinal foundation, which was laid in the early church during the controversies concerning the Trinity and Christology, and which were established up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This is my own view.
I could write much more, even though this text became long.
- I keep praying for unity in the whole Body of Christ, and believe that all who confess Christ as Lord are my brothers and sisters
- Most Christians have the most important things in common, and this is also true of the Roman Catholic Church, and in many questions it has the role of preserving classical Christian views
- However, there are things that divide us, and one must be able be clear about this as well .
I am praying for everyone who is now feeling confused and unsure of the way which is ahead of us. However, I believe that this way is clear: Preaching the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, building living churches where God is present with the fruit and gifts of the Spirit, not in conflict with other Christians, but with a clear identity in who we are ourselves. Such clear identity is a presupposition of relationship with other believers, and that is why I wrote this blog. For the prayer for unity is the last prayer of Jesus, “in order that the world will believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
 I consistently use the expression Roman Catholic Church, since the word ‘catholic’ also is used by other church traditions, and really means universal; what all Christians have believed everywhere and at all times.
 In the debate at the Council of Ephesus in 431, Nestorius proposed to call Mary Christ-bearer instead, which was understood as something diminishing the divinity of Christ.
 The theologically grounded specific leadership position of the bishop of Rome.
Established by the First Vatican Council (1870–1871).
 Thanks to Susanne Östling who kindly translated the text from Swedish. The final responsibility is my own, since I made a few changes.