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I am a convictional Protestant. I affirm all 5 of the Reformation Solas. If it wouldn’t offend my mother, I would have the face of Charles Spurgeon tattooed on my chest.

I’m in. All in. But that isn’t to say I’m on board with everything I see in contemporary evangelicalism.

Things are getting squirrely out there and the neighbours are starting to notice. Thankfully, the leaders within evangelicalism are starting to notice as well. John MacArthur went on the record over a year ago declaring that the word “evangelical” was no longer useful as a general descriptive term for our movement. It means so much that it means basically nothing. More recently, Russell Moore has questioned whether the term is worth keeping given how broad and untethered the evangelical armada has now become. This isn’t your grandfather’s evangelicalism. This is not “Big Tent Billy Graham” evangelicalism. This is a rolling tire fire. Our movement has become a mob, and it’s time to take that seriously.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with former evangelicals who have left our tribe and joined up with the Roman Catholics. What each of those people have in common is a critical concern with the amount of unfettered theological and ethical diversity on display within the evangelical movement.

That’s a fair criticism, and while I accept their diagnosis, I reject their prescription. I’m not ready to get back on the Big Catholic Bus. I am however ready to repent and to call for another reformation.

Along with my spiritual grandparents, I still believe that back is the way forward. Yes we are a mess now, but just a few generations ago we were enjoying the favour of God. Let’s go back! Let’s not abandon the project – let’s just admit that we’ve made a few bad turns.

Let’s return to the Rock from which we were hewn and the Quarry from which we were dug. In specific, I’m calling on my people – my tribe – to do the following:

Let’s Recommit to Whole Bible Reading, Studying and Preaching

The principle of Sola Scriptura only works if you actually read the Bible! Our Catholic friends are right! Evangelicalism is not a movement without a Pope, it is a movement overrun with Popes! Every person seems to be pulling new doctrines straight out of the air! Long gone are the days when we were humble and contrite and trembling before the Word of God.

Now we have pastors who mock other pastors for preaching from the Bible!

Now we have 10 sermons on whatever I’m interested in today!

Now we have “Jesus Calling” and the Kansas City Prophets, but where are the people of the book?!

What happened to “when the Bible speaks, God speaks”?

How did we get from there to here?

I don’t know that, but I do know this: I know the way back! Back is easy! All we have to do is read, study and preach the Word of God! Let’s do that again and let the chips fall where they may.

Let’s take the Bible at face value. Let’s assume that God knows how to get his message out. Let’s assume that human frailty can be overcome by Divine Inspiration. Let’s assume that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful. Of course we are going to ask questions about the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, and of course we are going to study the original context and learn the original languages – of course! Of course! Of course! But at the end of the day if the text says yes, then let it be yes! And if the text says no then let it be no, regardless the reaction of the crowd.

Let’s go back there.

Let’s commit again to whole Bible reading, studying and preaching.

Listen, friend – if you won’t read your Bible, if you won’t study your Bible, if you won’t sit for the preaching of the Bible then PLEASE get back on the Catholic bus. Better to sit on a wayward bus than to drive your scooter into the crowd.

Let’s Recommit to the Study of History and Tradition

Sola Scriptura means “by Scripture alone”, it does not mean “Scripture alone”. That may not seem like a big difference but it is. The early Protestants valued the tradition of the church. Luther and Calvin were experts on the Church Fathers and they were steeped in the early Christian Creeds. What they meant when they said “Sola Scriptura” was that the Christian faith must be formed, normed and reformed ‘by Scripture alone’. Of course we can be ‘informed’ by many other sources; we can and should read science. We can and should read philosophy. We can and should read literature and we can and should read history; particularly our own.

The Letter to the Hebrews says:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings (Hebrews 13:7–9 ESV)

The Apostle commended the study of the founders as a guard against doctrinal novelty. So should we. It should concern us if we are seeing something or saying something that our forefathers neither saw nor said. Tradition should function as a stall and a caution. It should function as a ballast and a brake against the winds and tides of culture.

Very practically, it should concern the evangelical church that we have pastors and people saying and teaching things about gender and sexuality that no one had ever said or taught in our midst until 50 years ago.

That should terrify us.

That should caution us.

That should drive us back into the text.

Tradition can serve the study of Scripture. It did in the early days of our movement, and it needs to do so again today.

Let’s Recommit to Non-Defensive Listening

Evangelicalism has become a giant echo chamber; we all have our favourite websites and internet gurus, and we almost never expose ourselves to contrary views.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree at York University, I had a professor who was also very involved with the Greek Orthodox Church. He was the first legitimate believer I had ever met from a non-evangelical context. He was the real deal. Born into a Jewish family, he made a huge sacrifice when he converted; his conversion was not an accident of culture or birth. He chose to identify with Jesus Christ – albeit in a context and tradition that was very foreign to me. Listening to him did not make me abandon my evangelical convictions, but it did make me see them from the perspective of an outsider. He saw weaknesses in my movement that I was not positioned to see. That was a gift that keeps on giving.

The current mass migration of Christians out of the Middle East may well be the greatest human tragedy of the 21st century. It may also be a gift of God to the Evangelical church. We need to dialogue with believers from different cultures and different contexts. We need to understand how we are perceived from the outside; we need to listen and receive that feedback in a non-defensive way.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend.

Let’s Recommit to Robust Congregational Polity

Sola Scriptura only works if people read the Bible and churches practice discipline. My Catholic friends ask a good question: “What is to keep an individual Protestant from starting their own movement every time they disagree with the teaching or doctrine of their church?” The answer of course is church discipline! If churches were more robust in their practice of church discipline, the sort of unfettered nonsense that we are seeing today would be greatly curtailed.

When was the last time your church investigated your beliefs? When was the last time you were asked to explain a Facebook post, a Sunday School lesson or a moral decision of any kind? Is anybody watching? Does anybody care? Is there any confusion as to why we have evangelicals believing and behaving badly in the public square?

Sola Scriptura does not need to lead to theological and ethical anarchy. Evangelicals used to believe that Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose to the church. We never agreed with the Catholic on the specifics, but we did agree on the principle. Evangelicals used to believe in “telling it to the church”. We used to believe that if the church declared a person in the wrong and that person refused to repent, then that person should be treated like a Gentile and a tax collector.

We used to believe that because it’s in the Bible. Jesus said: “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:17–18 ESV).

We used to believe that – more importantly, we used to practice that. We used to require our people to believe and behave in accordance with the Scriptures. If they didn’t, then we treated them like outsiders. That isn’t to say that we were mean to them – far from it! It meant that we reached out to them with the saving and changing Gospel of Jesus Christ! That’s what evangelicals used to do when faced with unbelievers.

We need to do it again.

We need to do a bunch of really hard things that we haven’t done in a really long time.

Or we need to admit that we have become a lazy, rebellious and ridiculous people, and we need to turn in our scooters and get back on the Big Catholic Bus.

That’s the choice because what we’re doing now is neither safe, faithful or fair. People are getting hurt, and the name of Christ is being blasphemed among the nations because of us. Our Catholic friends have been kind enough to point that out. I think we should listen.

They have a fair point.

We have an awful mess.

We need another Reformation.

And may God alone be glorified!

SDG

Paul Carter

N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here


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Comments:


8 thoughts on “Fair Criticism from Our Catholic Friends”

  1. Ron E says:

    A hearty amen from second paragraph to the end… No Spurgeon tattoo for me;)

  2. Scott Campbell says:

    The criticism of Protestantism is certainly valid – there is a great deal of “theological and ethical diversity”. However, I will take that every day over the alternative – a centralized religious authority who dictates all doctrine and practice. The methodology of the Roman church certainly eliminates such diversity. However, at what cost? The church needs constant “reforming” and this can only happen in an environment of freedom.

    1. Paul Carter says:

      Agreed. Still not ready to get back on the bus. But not very happy with where we are at the moment. We need a new reformation!

  3. Mark Hartman says:

    I always still have trouble with the principle of sola scriptura, because of two facts: First, the Church was a going concern before the New Testament was available, and taught nothing different after the NT was canonized than before; and, second, sola scriptura isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. Taking “all Scripture is useful for teaching” as a declaration that ONLY Scripture is useful for teaching is like saying that since a bicycle is useful for transportation, we must use no other transportation than bicycles.

    Care to enlighten us?

    1. Scott Bullock says:

      Mark Hartman,
      I would suggest that both points you raise relate to the issue of “distortion”. The church before the full canonization of the N.T. was in close proximity to the origin of the truth. Ie Christ. There were still people who could say – this is what Christ said or did. Scripture captures the first hand truth of what Christ said. The post- canonized church had the same truth captured and preserved for them. Because we have the NT scripture we can experience what the the apostles and early church experience first hand- thus the truth is preserved. However, without God’s Word preserved for us, there would have been a distortion of the truth over the years as generation after generation became further removed for an intimate first hand experience of that truth.
      To your second point- God’s Word has to be held in its proper esteem. It needs to be seen as the source of our ultimate truth. When men depart from it, add to it, etc. then the result is a distortion of the truth. When followers of Christ have taken truth from God’s Word and written books designed to help others , this is not departing from sola scriptura, as long as the truth they are expressing alignes with the ultimate, first positional truth- God’s Word.

      1. Mark Hartman says:

        The problem with your position is that Scripture does not agree with it. You say that God’s Word in Scripture “needs to be seen as the source of our ultimate truth,” but Scripture itself testifies differently; ultimately, your defense of “sola scriptura” avoids defending the “sola” and simply makes a case for Scripture, in which case you must grant that the Church – yes, the one founded by Christ on Peter and the Apostles, which subsists today in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches – is “the pillar and ground of the truth,” and not “sola scriptura” – Scripture alone.

  4. I had a pastor once who was constantly teaching the notion of “reformed always reforming.” I like to think that we, as a North American Church must lead the way in reforming our faith, as we have over the last two centuries been falling away from doctrinal orthodoxy. However, we must not look myopically at ourselves and discount what God is doing around the world. During times of reformation and true revival there has always been some indicative instance of tribulation that seems to run in conjunction with the pouring out of the Spirit. I never know how to pray because it almost seems that to pray for revival or reformation I am praying for tribulation. I still pray for God to remember mercy in his wrath.

  5. Mike says:

    Paul, in the main, I agree with you. I very much wanted to send this to a RCC friend I’ve been in dialogue with, but in the end I cannot. Your refrain of “get back on the Big Catholic Bus” is not helpful even if it is not intended as a sincere admonishment, but functions more as a rhetorical device. I urge you to reconsider, and eliminate that refrain. Why not simply say let’s go back to Sola Scriptura and leave it at that. Don’t make it an either or, make it an only. It is our only option.

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Paul Carter


Paul Carter attended Moody Bible Institute and is a graduate of York University (B.A.) and McMaster Divinity College (MDiv). He has been in pastoral ministry since 1994, serving in both Fellowship and Canadian Baptist churches in Oakville, Mississauga and Orillia, Ontario Canada. He presently serves as the Lead Pastor of First Baptist Church, Orillia, a large multi-staff church with a passion for biblical preaching and local mission.

Along with his friend Marc Bertrand he is the co-founder of the Covenant Life Renewal Association (CLRA) seeking Biblical and Spiritual revival within Canadian Baptist Churches. He also serves on the TGC Canada board.

Paul has written two books and is a frequent blogger on issues of Christian faith and living. You can find his devotional podcast at www.intotheword.ca

Paul is the happy husband of Shauna Lee and the proud papa of 5 beautiful children, Madison, Max, Mikayla, Peyton and Noa.

You can find him at:

www.intotheword.ca
www.adfontes.ca
www.firstbaptistorillia.org

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