Tony Blair is not alone in making the journey into the Roman Catholic Church. The path has been well trodden by various charismatic groups. On the surface, these groups would profess some allegiance to evangelical convictions. In practice, their actions show they are working to a different set of criteria.
As we know, the various currents working in the Roman Catholic Church are not leading it towards a Bible-believing position. The blasphemous Mass still occupies centre-stage. The extra-biblical dogmas have not been rescinded such as the Immaculate Conception, the assumption of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, the role of indulgences, prayers for the dead and purgatory. Justification by faith alone as a doctrine has attracted no support and remains anathematised by the church. With ‘inter-faithism’ and mysticism as integral features of its contemporary make-up, there is little on the surface to draw the admiring gazes of professing evangelicals. But not so! In fact there are some quite surprising people who are coming out as amongst her admirers.
Pioneer is very much associated with Gerald Coates, one of the early champions of restorationism. Himself a product of Brethrenism, he left its ranks so as to be free to practice spiritual gifts and share with others in establishing the church on more, to their mind, biblical foundations with contemporary apostles and prophets playing key roles. In their view, there was little good to be said about the denominations and many in the early days of restorationism in the 1970’s were expecting the historic churches to crumble before the challenge and radicalism of the house-churches. Gerald Coates was one of the most vociferous in expressing negative opinions of the historic denominations.
Imagine then the scale of the sea-change it represents when their house-magazine, Library of Lives carried a bright report about Pioneer’s involvement in Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘World Youth Day’ in Cologne, Germany. We are told,
Leaders, friends and associates of Pioneer played key roles in the Catholic Church’s much-publicised World Youth Day at Cologne recently. Pioneer team leader Gerald Coates was a special guest. And taking part in the programme were chart band Delirious, veteran rocker Sir Cliff Richard, Irish singer-songwriter Maya Brennan and German worship leader Claas Jambor. 1
Now that is some change! Pioneer playing second-fiddle to the Catholic Church? That would not have seemed a likely direction for Gerald Coates to take in the 1960’s or 1970’s. Back then there was admittedly some truth in the critique mounted by the restorationists against the failings of the historic evangelical denominations. Many had lost their way or fossilised into cold and uncaring communities. They were ripe for overhaul. The stridency of their critique has mellowed with the passage of time. The participation of people like Coates in the Evangelical Alliance has been indicative of this less antagonistic stance towards the denominations. But for Pioneer to be happily associating with the Roman Catholic Church is another step again. Here is more from the brief report.
Well over one million young people had gathered to hear Pope Benedict XVI talk about the need to commit themselves afresh to Christ. He reminded his listeners that whenever Europe strayed from the Christian message, catastrophe followed.2
For ‘Christ’, read ‘Rome’s version of Christ’. For ‘Christian message’, read ‘the Roman Catholic Church’. The report has a few photos of energetic, keen-looking young people. In one photo, they are holding up a placard to the camera telling us they will see us in Sydney. Why Sydney? Because in 2008, that is where the next of these ‘World Youth Days’ is to be held. Described as ‘…a pilgrimage of young people and a festival of encounter and solidarity’3, it looks like Pioneer will be there as well.
All those young people! Surely, it cannot be bad if the young, with all their talent and enthusiasm, are there, can it? One of the pictures from Cologne has ‘…a girl with flags in her hair at the concluding mass.’4 Why worry that the mass replaces the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and serves as ‘another gospel’, when it is attractive for the kind of girl who puts flags in her hair? Why let dry doctrine get in the way if the Pope and the mass are proven vote-winners amongst the young? This appears to be the underlying mentality. The technical term for it is apostasy. We might wryly observe that it has been a mighty strange ‘move of the Holy Spirit’ that has succeeded in placing this network of churches under the Lord’s anathema. Likewise, it says little for today’s ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’ that they have aligned their churches with those who deny the gospel.
Alpha Romeo Foxtrot
On a slightly different tack, Alpha’s main man, Nicky Gumbel, has shown himself to have winning ways with the cardinals and Roman Catholic arch-bishops. Here the choreography has been more subtle but the result has been the same. Alpha has never come short in self-belief and its publicity is not shy in heralding its success in reviving dying churches. Its potential has not been lost on the Roman Catholic Church in the UK. Back in 1997, Ambrose Griffiths, Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, was commending Alpha as ‘…the most powerful evangelistic tool, which reaches out precisely to those whom we need.’5 He described the woes of the Catholic Church in this fashion,
We all, as Catholics, certainly, face a great problem. We do not seem to be attracting young people or young families and meanwhile our congregations get older and fewer. This is our common experience. 6
The Pope’s success in gathering young people in Cologne showed that perhaps he did not need the help of Alpha but, by and large, the Roman Catholic Church has been only too glad of Alpha’s help. And Alpha has only been too pleased to give that help. The Alpha News frequently carries stories of the spread of the course among the Roman Catholic Churches. In February 2004, Nicky Gumbel was introduced to the then Pope, John-Paul II, taking along with him for this special audience his wife plus the UK representative of Catholic Alpha. On his return from meeting the former Pope, Gumbel was lavish in his praise.
It was a great honour to be presented to Pope John-Paul II, who has done so much to promote evangelisation around the world. We have been enormously enriched by our interaction with Catholics in many countries. 7
He went on to say,
It is a great privilege to meet inspiring leaders from different parts of the church – Catholic, Baptist, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, and so many more – and discover that what unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us. 8
With these words, we can see salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone have been relegated to the most secondary of secondary issues. They obviously belong among the ‘infinitely lesser’ things that divide us. Agreeing with Father Ranier Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household and avid supporter of Alpha, that the place of Jesus as universal Saviour is the issue of the hour, Nicky Gumbel summed up his impressions thus.
Thus, on the crucial issue of our day, we can be united and proclaim this Jesus to a desperately needy world. 9
It seems to have slipped the mind of Gumbel that the Jesus of the Roman Catholic Church is not believed to have offered a sacrifice sufficient for sin. Neither does he appear to realise that many Catholics assent to Jesus being a universal Saviour but who would also assert that He is present in other religions with saving power. The ‘Jesus’ preached by the Roman Catholic Church would still leave the world in a desperately needy state as their ‘Jesus’ does not have power to save. By Rome’s reckoning, only obedience to the teaching of the church has that power.
Again, the word for what Gumbel is doing is apostasy. Not that this troubles him. For he is part of a project infinitely grander than to get snagged on petty doctrinal differences. Curiously, the Roman Catholic Church and Alpha seem to need each other. Alpha has some unmet need that only the approval of the Roman Catholic Church can give. It has the same attitude of deference to Rome which it shares with many other nominally evangelical churches, a phenomenon that is utterly incomprehensible to any true Bible-believing Protestant.
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church needs the technique for ‘getting people in’ that Alpha models so abundantly well. By and large the Roman Catholics are not unduly perturbed by the evangelical components in the course. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, these more evangelical ingredients are so mild as to offer no real challenge to the church’s authority. What is more, Alpha’s section on the church makes it evident that it is quite indifferent about which kind of church people should go to – Pentecostal, Catholic – they are all the same. So there is not a huge amount of remedial work needed for someone to unlearn their superficial evangelicalism and replace it with full-blown Romanism. There is a Catholic Alpha office which stands ready to sort out any problems and make the transition seamless.
Initial reticence about Alpha on the part of Roman Catholics appears well on the way to being cured. A conference in London during November last year, designed for people staging the course in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, reported there were ‘…large numbers of Roman Catholic representatives from a wide variety of countries.’ 10 The section on France in the relevant Alpha News ran as follows,
Alpha in France is growing quickly. We now have nine permanent staff. Those who were here five years ago will remember our difficulty in breaking through the French culture and Catholic culture. That is not a problem any more. For the first time the Archbishop of Paris opened the Alpha conference in January and publicly thanked Alpha for giving such a precious gift to the Catholic church. 11
In South Africa, they reported, ‘We have 100 people on Alpha courses in Catholic churches and have had Alpha on our national Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas.’12 Alpha thrives on the momentum its growth creates. The enthusiastic take-up by Catholic churches is a welcome tonic helping to offset the saturation effect beginning to be experienced in the evangelical constituency. So apostasy is the price tag for success, and Alpha’s supporters do not hesitate to pay it in full.
Making little of the Lord Jesus Christ
The writer of Hebrews, writing by inspiration, could not have been clearer about the importance of understanding rightly the sacrifice the Lord Jesus made. There is no room left for the mass.
Not yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; for then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:25-26)
To accept that a continuing sacrifice is necessary is to accept that sin is not put away. If that is so, no-one can be assured of their sins forgiven them and the excellence of what Christ did on the cross is further eclipsed. We end up needing the priest (and Mary and the saints) more than we need Christ. As Paul remarked,
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is died in vain. (Galatians 2:21)
Putting it bluntly, it is little wonder that neither Pioneer nor Alpha put much of a high value upon Christ’s death on the cross. Both have at their heart an erroneous spirit mistaken for the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus said of the Spirit, ‘He will glorify me’ (John 16:14). A false spirit does not glorify Christ however much talk about ‘Jesus’ there might be. Pioneer and Alpha both show us that, led by their ‘spirit’, the route from nominal evangelicalism to outright apostasy is a remarkably easy one to walk.
1. Library of Lives Volume 1, 2006, p5.
2. Ibid p5.
3. Ibid p5.
4. Ibid p5.
5. Alpha News July 1997, p1.
6. Ibid p12.
7. Alpha News No 33 2004 p7.
8. Ibid p7.
9. Ibid p7.
10. Alpha News No 41 May 2007 p16.
11. Ibid p16.
12. Ibid p16.