Earlier this week, a catholic priest of over two decades decided to quit his post. The reason was not scandal-ridden as many would have come to expect. Instead, it was a matter of theology and its constraints pastorally. It seems that the priest had baptized infants into the Catholic church using the term, “we” instead of “I,” a reference to the clergy and subsequently the Roman Catholic Church as being the vicar of Christ. The Vatican has apparently weighed in on this issue and stated that this term-swapping of “I” for “we,” had theological implications which create a different ceremony than the baptism being performed. In other words, saying anything other than the correct words invalidated the ceremony.
For Roman Catholics, this has grave implications. It essentially means that those who lived their lives as part of the church and took its sacraments, with this priest, were never really receiving the priestly blessing. All of those members of the church that came through him are now, no longer members. For some this means a minor inconvenience, for some this means their salvation is in question.
As a Pastor, I have grave concerns about Roman Catholic theology and the boundaries that it establishes between the direct connection between men and God, as secured by Jesus Christ. This particular situation demonstrates my point. Biblical theology holds that God’s message can be given in many ways. In point of fact, nowhere in scripture do we see an edict to write down the official gospel. This, largely, happened as a natural response to the original witnesses dying off. Therefore the early church didn’t use a cohesive biblical account to attest to the gospel. Instead, the Holy Spirit moved in two basic ways to get the message spread effectively.
First in scope is the inspiration of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors who recorded the accounts of the Early Church and the Gospel. However, it should be noted that this inspiration was not monolithic. The Spirit inspired and sought to preserve four accounts to contain the single truth. These witnesses have enough differences in their accounts that it is not believable that they are colluding while at the same time having distinct observational cohesion. In other words, when read together, they contain the truth, even if they don’t all have the same details. This gift of multiple-attestation is not a hidden reality of gospel transmission, it is a feature of it. This brings me to the Spirit’s second method of quick-spreading the gospel: Pentecost.
At Pentecost, the gospel message was given by different people of varying degrees of schooling, from fishermen to tax collectors. Here people were called to salvation, in their own languages, and then sent back to their communities to call others to salvation. These new converts were not sent back with guide books or seminary degrees. They were sent back with an explanation of how the life of Jesus, proved that he was the much anticipated Messiah of the Jewish people. This was told in common languages to common people. Though the use of the manifestative gift of Tongues was supernatural, the rapid spread of the gospel was not. There wasn’t the use of special language or special training to bring people into the body of Christ. Peter’s command on that day was simple:
37Now when they heard this, they were [ao]pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “[ap]Brothers, what are we to do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on urging them, saying, “[aq]Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand [ar]souls. 42They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to [as]prayer.”Acts 2:37-42 NASB
“Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Notice the lack of qualifier beyond, in whose name the Baptism is to occur. It should also be noted that this process was to be repeated and extended to all who would listen. From history, we know that this is exactly what happened. The Bible records in an immediate gain of 3,000 (ish) souls into God’s kingdom. These people went back to their lands of origin (they were sojourner’s who were gathered because of Passover… they didn’t live there.) and they spread the gospel. And the method they used was what they had been taught; confession, repentance, and baptism in the name of Christ.
They did this in their own unique way, using their own voices and choices of words. They didn’t use magical phrasing or mystical rules of prayer or other to enter God’s kingdom. Instead, they simply followed the teachings of the Apostles in their own way, but with an intent to glorify God.
According to the Church of Rome, this priest didn’t say the right words to bring people into the Kingdom of God. I assure you, neither did the Apostle’s at Pentecost, nor the 3,000 new believers who called for confession, repentance, and baptism sans the oversight of the church of Rome. I feel for this priest who has locked himself into non-biblical constraints in a sincere service to those in his care. Though I disagree with a large portion of his theology, his resignation, despite it being viewed as a “mistake,” by Rome, shows that he only wanted to help those he loved enter God’s blessings. But he was wrong.
For Christians, it is our responsibility to know God enough to know that he is not a genie and his sacraments are not magic. When we forget who he is and how he works, we risk undoing our salvation on a technicality. That is not how love works. And God loves us. The original church came to God through this love. It was bloody and messy and even uneducated at times, but it was sincere. At the end of the day, this is what God honors. God doesn’t care about, supposed magic words, and neither should you.
This article is a response to this story.