Recently I was skimming through the local newspaper’s religion section in a desultory fashion (it’s not overloaded with articles of interest to a Reformed person) when one article caught my attention. It was titled, “Why the next pope should come from the Global South.” Thinking that it was likely written by a Roman Catholic, I read farther, only to discover that it was authored by a Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America (RCA). The general secretary oversees the general operations of the church, and is therefore a person of influence and authority, a representative of the church. Now my interest was really piqued: Why was the recent leader of a large Reformed denomination giving advice to Rome, and what does he have to say?
The occasion for the secretary’s commentary is obviously the election of a new pope to replace the one who just resigned (by the time this article appears in Beacon Lights this will already have happened). His premise is that the Roman Catholic Church should not elect as pope a cardinal from Europe or North America, as has been its practice since 741 AD. His reason is the demographic shift in the global population of Christians, of which about half are Roman Catholics, away from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, South America, and Latin America, and he gives statistics to back up his thesis. His conclusion is that the new pope should reflect this change.
Granberg-Michaelson’s advice is gratuitous and presumptuous. Did Rome ask him who he thinks should be the next pope? What makes him think that Rome will take his unsolicited advice? Who does he think he is? I am reminded of the reply of Christ when someone asked him to speak to his brother about dividing an inheritance: “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (Luke 14:12). Perhaps the secretary is ignorant of these words. But one thing is sure: Rome does not need his advice and will not take it. Instead, it will engage in internal politics and a power struggle, as it has done for centuries.
But this is not the worst of the matter. It is more than statistics and politics, according to Granberg-Michaelson. He goes on to say, “Selecting a non-European would be a prophetic spiritual gift to the whole Christian community and beyond. Normal church ‘politics’ wouldn’t produce such a result. It would take a work of the Holy Spirit.” A spiritual gift? Of what? Certainly not the spiritual gift of which Paul speaks in Romans 1:11. Whatever it is, I don’t want it. A gift to the whole Christian community? Not the one to which I belong. He asks: “Should we assume that no one among the 40 cardinals in that conclave from Latin America, Africa and Asia has those qualities and could be called by God? And couldn’t such spiritual affirmative action be inspired by the Holy Spirit?” A cardinal called by God to be the next pope? You have got to be kidding! A work of the Holy Spirit? In the sense that he means it the Holy Spirit has not worked in the Romish church for about twenty centuries. He has certainly worked in the Roman Catholic Church—as he always does in all the wicked (see Rom. 2:15)—to convict of sin. But an inspiration of the Spirit? There is definitely a spirit at work in the Romish church, but it is the spirit of Satan, not the spirit of Christ. Affirmative action inspired and worked by the Spirit? The Holy Spirit indeed works affirmative action, but not the kind the secretary means. The affirmative action of the Spirit is the work of regeneration and sanctification, the application of all the benefits of Christ to the believer.
In addition, Granberg-Michaelson says, “I’m a Protestant, so my observations are those of an outsider, as a sincere ecumenical friend.” He may be an outsider, but based on his comments, he is not very far outside. Sincere he may be, but sincerely wrong. And a friend of Rome? He has this exactly backwards. He ought to be a bitter enemy.
How is such writing to be explained? It is admittedly difficult, especially if we remember that Granberg-Michaelson is a leader in the Reformed Church of America. Notice that I did not say, “A Reformed leader.” Such a leader would stand in the tradition of the Reformation. With the Reformed fathers he would then reject the Roman church and all its corruptions from top to bottom and from front to back. Instead, he espouses a viewpoint that is 180 degrees opposite that of the Reformation. He wants to make friends with Rome. No, Reformed he is not.
Rightly it has been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In this instance the past includes the Council of Trent, an aspect of Rome’s counter-Reformation following the Protestant Reformation. In the decrees of this council the false teachings of Rome were reaffirmed, enhanced, and strengthened in opposition to the true Reformation. To this day those decrees stand unchanged. Rome has never compromised or retracted even one of them. This is the church with which we should be ecumenical friends? This is the church of spiritual affirmative action inspired by the Holy Spirit?
Add to this the history of Rome’s savage persecution of the true church of Christ in the world. Throughout its history, and especially following the Reformation, the church sought out, tortured, and killed by the thousands anyone who was perceived as deviating even slightly from Rome’s authority. Has Granberg-Michaelson ever heard of something called the Inquisition? To this day the Roman church has never apologized for this terrible chapter in its history. The corruption continues today in the scandal of the molestation of children by its priests. Apparently the secretary cannot remember the past, for he is repeating it. For that he must be condemned.
Granberg-Michaelson, as a leader in a (supposedly) Reformed church should be aware that our Reformed fathers repeatedly referred to the various popes as “antichrist.” By this they meant that the popes themselves were antichristian in their teachings and actions, and were therefore manifestations of the ultimate man of sin at the end of time, and were those who were bringing about and working toward that final antichrist. They were correct. Nothing has changed. Whether or not the Roman Catholic Church takes Granberg-Michaelson’s advice is immaterial. There will be a new pope. But all the Roman church is doing is trading one antichrist for another.
How is such an incredibly erroneous viewpoint to be explained? The answer, at least in part, is to be found in the history of the RCA. When the Dutch immigrated to North America and formed the RCA, they were confronted with the question of their relation to the people in the new land. What sort of relationship to the world ought they to have? As is always true, they had two choices: that of accommodation and amalgamation, or that of antithesis. These choices were all-encompassing. They concerned what language they should use—Dutch or English? Should they by using Dutch maintain their identity as Reformed, or should they adopt the language of the new country? The question of lodge and secret society membership arose. The issue of their own Christian schools versus the state’s public schools came up. And their relation to the culture in general needed to be decided. While not every issue concerned right and wrong, many did. And consistently the members of the RCA chose accommodation over antithesis. The result is the present state of affairs. The truth of the antithesis has worked out in the history of the RCA, so that today it is only a nominally Reformed denomination. How has the gold become dim!
Young people, there are lessons here for you.
Learn your church history, because it matters. Do not forget your church history, because it matters. Remember, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. If this happens, then your Reformed heritage is doomed.
Learn the doctrine (teaching) of the antithesis, as well as its practical application to life. It matters. Never compromise. Remember that the Roman Catholic Church cannot be called the church unless that term is preceded by the adjective “false.” Do not believe anyone who wants to teach you accommodation, negotiation, and concession. Do not attempt to find a middle ground with the false church through a false ecumenism. Stand sharply and distinctively for the truth of Scripture, and follow the guidance of the Spirit in the history of the church. Do not let history condemn you because you do not know it or cannot remember it.
Remember: If you try to bargain with the devil, you will lose.