April 21, 2008
ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- As Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention's 16 million members and North America's 75 million Catholics agree on some doctrinal matters but not all.
Catholics and Southern Baptists believe in the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth and that Jesus was sinless, died on the cross for man's sins, rose again and ascended to heaven.
"When you're talking to Catholics, you don't have to convince them to believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Bible," said Tal Davis, interfaith coordinator in the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board's evangelization group. "Most Catholics do. But there are still significant differences."
Davis added that Catholics have moderated their views of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals over the last 30-40 years, and for the better.
"We're never going to completely change each other’s minds, but we do agree on a host of public policy issues," said Davis, citing "life issues" such as abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia. Both groups are close on other moral issues such as the promotion of family life values and the war against drugs.
Davis said Catholics generally tend to be more liberal on other national issues, such as war and the death penalty, issues on which the Vatican has taken particularly strong stances.
At one time, the Roman Catholic Church considered Protestants and evangelicals to be apostates – defectors from the faith. In the last few decades, there has been ecumenical dialogue among the Vatican and a number of other denominations that did not include the SBC. However, last year, the Vatican released a statement re-asserting that non-Catholic churches were defective or not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the "means of salvation."
The definition of "church" is one major contrast between the two.
Southern Baptists understand the church both as a local body of baptized believers and as the universal body of Christ which includes the redeemed of all the ages.
According to Davis, Catholics believe the true church is the Roman Catholic Church, God's "church on earth" – a highly structured and regimented institution across the globe, including some 1 billion members, 16 percent of the world's population.
"Second to Christianity itself, the Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, the oldest-organized, longest-lasting institution on earth, dating back to the sixth century. The Catholic Church is headed by a Pope who Catholics deem as having infallible authority, the successor to Peter," Davis said.
Southern Baptists reject the notion of an earthly hierarchy and instead believe in the New Testament model of spiritual authority being vested in the local church. They also believe in the New Testament teaching about the individual's accountability for salvation.
Another NAMB expert on Catholicism is Bill Gordon, resourcing consultant for the board’s personal and mass evangelism team.
Gordon said that compared to some groups, Catholics are easier to discuss the Gospel with because they and evangelicals share common doctrine and beliefs.
"With faiths such as the New Age movement, there is nothing in common with evangelicals. New Agers believe they are God. Evangelicals have little in common with Mormons who don't believe in the Trinity or with Muslims who don't believe Jesus died on the cross."
Gordon and Davis both agree two sticking points between evangelicals and Catholics are their respective views on salvation and sin.
"Catholics and Southern Baptists agree Jesus died on the cross and rose again to atone for our sins. But Catholics see salvation as a lengthy process requiring the seven sacraments," Davis said. These sacraments include baptism at birth, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders, anointing of the sick, matrimony and penance.
"To get access to the grace of God, Catholics have to go through the Catholic Church and the sacraments. We Southern Baptists think that's unnecessary and, in fact, is a hindrance to God. We go straight to Jesus Christ for salvation by faith alone. No works are involved. You can't save yourself and you can't add anything to God's plan of salvation," Davis said.
Gordon said another major difference between the Catholic Church and evangelicals is each group's definition of sin.
Catholics differentiate between two types of sin – mortal sins and venial sins, Gordon said. Mortal sins are more serious than venial sins.
"They recognize they are sinners but think their sins are only venial or minor, and that they can take care of venial sins themselves through good works and purgatory, a temporary place after death.
"Most Catholics don't see the need for salvation because they don't consider their sins as mortal, the major sins that can send a soul to hell if not confessed to a priest." Gordon added that according to statistics, only about 26 percent of Catholics go to confession once a year or more.
Gordon said evangelicals, on the other hand, believe any sin is enough to send a person to hell. They also believe sin should be confessed immediately and directly to God.
"And this major difference in the definition of sin is a barrier. We think we've communicated with them but then get frustrated because they still don't see the need for salvation because they think their sins are only minor," Gordon said.
Southern Baptists are not disrespecting Catholics when they share the Gospel – as they believe it – with their Catholic friends, Davis said.
"We're not disrespecting them and while we obviously disagree with them, we're just being true to our own beliefs and faith," Davis said.
Davis offers these tips for evangelicals sharing their faith with Catholics:
- be clear on your own Christian faith and what you believe.
- become more informed on what Catholics believe.
- develop a friendly relationship and get to know the person.
- let them see Christ in you.
- don't get sidetracked by the thorny issues and don't even make Catholicism the issue. Don't debate. Start with God, Jesus and the things Baptists and Catholics hold in common.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. For additional NAMB information on the Roman Catholic Church, access www.4truth.net and click on "denomination."
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