Evangelicals will always have a mixed reaction to anything papal. After all, we do not accept the Catholic claims regarding the Petrine office as adequately and properly rooted in biblical authority. But we can respect the man, even love him as many of us did the last two popes, and still not believe that the office itself is rooted in either Scripture or the earliest history of the Christian church. Yet evangelicals are gospel driven people. (The very word “evangelical” is a reference to the evangel, or the good news of Christ.) We deeply desire to see people come to know and love Christ regardless of how they understand the priesthood, the papacy or the precise nature of the church. In this sense I suppose evangelicals are Christ-centered pragmatists. (I do not say this negatively in the least.) This doesn’t mean that we are not interested in ecclesiology, though at times it  seems that way. We are just not convinced of Catholic claims about a successor to Peter and the way this successor is chosen by the church of Rome.

I was recently asked by several friends, both Catholic and Protestant, why I was not a Catholic. They see my deep love for Catholics, for Catholic spirituality and for many Catholic views about important truths that lend themselves to deeper and richer Christian experience and growth. I said that I could answer their question with one word, a word that summarizes a whole series of things that lay behind it. That word is authority. To embrace so much of what the Catholic Church believes about itself, and its uniqueness, you must first believe its claims about priesthood, apostolic succession and the nature of the church. But to believe these things you must embrace the Catholic (Western) view of authority. If you go so far but still reject the papacy then you will likely look toward the Orthodox Church on any journey away from evangelical Protestantism. (I have more than a few friends, some of whom were evangelical ministers, but who are now communicant members of either the Catholic or Orthodox Church. These brothers remain some of my best friends.)

When a fellow evangelical critiqued my friend Doug Birdsall’s aforementioned email (in last week’s blogs on Pope Francis) Doug responded by writing:

The main point of my note was to encourage people to pray for this new pope who has been suddenly catapulted into a position of global influence. This is urgent in light of the great challenges that he will face and in light of the growing hostility that the church and the gospel face, particularly in the West. My life’s work is not oriented around the defense of the Pope. It is oriented around the advance of the Kingdom and the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, I think it is incumbent upon us to pray for God’s blessing upon this man, and to pray for fresh and renewing winds of the Spirit of God to blow within the Catholic Church under the leadership of Francis I (italics are mine).

Seemingly, you have chosen to believe the worst about him [Pope Francis] as one who is reportedly “complicit in murder and human rights violations,” based upon an article in the Guardian–a paper with a decidedly anti-Christian and anti-Church bias.  That notwithstanding, the article referenced concludes with a correction to [these] false allegations about Archbishop Bergoglio which were published in a previous article in the Guardian. This seems to undermine the points made.

Doug concludes, in words that express my sentiments perfectly:

I have chosen to believe the best about him based upon his own expressions of dependency on Christ and the gospel, based upon my limited personal interaction with him, and based upon the judgment of brothers in Christ in Buenos Aires like Norberto Saracco and Juan Pablo Bongarra who have a long-time association with Frances, and who have deep affection and respect for him as a fellow Christian. I would not want to cast aspersions upon Christians in Argentina who have come to trust this leader over the course of many decades, nor would I want to inject the innuendo of “complicit with murder” into the atmosphere of joy across Latin America as a continent celebrates the historic nature of this election.

More importantly, you live in a part of the world where those who hold the levers of power in the media and in the academic institutions are working towards the goal that the Christian faith will be discredited and marginalized in societies around the world as it is becoming there in Switzerland. I read an article just this week published in BBC News that projects that Christianity will become extinct in Switzerland and five other European countries, as well as in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  (It so happens I do not subscribe to that view based upon my own interaction with Christian leaders in Switzerland who persevere with faith, hope and vision despite the challenges.)

The reason for my calling for prayer for the new pope, who I believe to be a godly man and who I believe to be a man committed to Bible reading, prayer, service to the poor and to the faithful proclamation of the gospel to all the world, is precisely because of the fact that it is the Christ, the Christian faith and the tenets of the gospel that are being attacked with an effort that is increasingly hostile and well orchestrated.  It is not just the pope and the Catholic Church who are under attack in the West.

It is to the strategic advantage of those who oppose the Christian faith to discredit its most visible leader and spokesman.  Discredit the messenger and you discredit the message.  Then, we all suffer.

Doug does not speak for anyone officially. He is no longer even the executive director of Lausanne. But he does represent the transition that has taken place over the last few years within the global Lausanne Movement. He represents the kind of missional-ecumenism that marks my own life and vision. His perspective is, I believe, representative of a new day, a day of great opportunity for the gospel around the world. While Western nations struggle to cope with encroaching and suffocating secularism the gospel is impacting whole segments of the world in a powerful new way; e.g. Africa, Latin America and Asia. The popular center of Christianity is clearly shifting away from the West. Doug understand this reality, as does the leaders of Lausanne. So these statements represent, from what I can tell, a wide variety of evangelical voices from around the world regarding Pope Francis.

Wednesday: A Pentecostal Leader Reflects on the New Pope and What His Leadership Might Bring to the Global Church