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The Dividing Line
Chapter 11: Roman Catholicism

Catholicism and Biblical Separation

The biblical response to Roman Catholicism is the same as it is for any form of false teaching: Christians are to resist it, expose its teachings, and refuse to have fellowship with it. Catholic error is in some ways more subtle than that of other systems we have looked at. Liberalism, for example, subtracts from the Scriptures’ teachings by discarding doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible and the deity and resurrection of Christ. Roman Catholicism, however, adds to the Scriptures' teaching—the authority of Scripture and tradition, salvation by faith and works. This sort of error is more difficult to detect.

J. Gresham Machen once argued that with all of its serious flaws, Roman Catholicism is not as bad as liberalism: "The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all."18 This is probably true, although it is unlikely that Machen saw this fact as a basis for unity between Protestants and Catholics. We do not associate with a movement on the basis that it is not as far from the truth as some other movement. Rather we associate with those persons and movements that actively hold to the truth. Edward Panosian notes, "There is enough gospel in Romanism to save a soul who trusts Jesus Christ alone. However, there is also enough of the poison of false presumption leading to damnation for the soul who accepts the promise that none are lost who die in communion with the institutional church."19

The controversy with Catholicism reveals that there is more to the fundamentals of the Faith than the lists of fundamentals that emerged from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. As R. C. Sproul contends in replying to ECT, justification by faith alone is also an essential of the gospel. We should hold to it along with the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the other teachings that Fundamentalists defended.20 We might add that the Fundamentalist's stress on the inerrancy and authority of Scripture should also be stated as the inerrancy and authority of Scripture alone. Otherwise, human tradition can open the church to unscriptural teachings such as purgatory and the veneration of Mary.

If the Catholic system comes under the biblical definition of false teaching, what about genuine Christians who belong to the Catholic Church? Alister McGrath tries to reassure Evangelicals who resist cooperation with Roman Catholics because of Catholic teachings such as prayers for the dead and the veneration of Mary. He contends, "This reaction . . . rests on the assumption that individual Roman Catholics accept the authority of all the official teachings of their church. The empirical evidence available suggests that large numbers of them simply do not." He cites widespread Catholic disobedience to the church's pronouncements on contraceptives as an example of how Catholics select what they will believe and what they will reject.21 He maintains that there is sufficient basis for cooperation between truly converted Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

Christians, however, are bound not only by the Scriptures' teaching concerning false teaching but also its teaching concerning disobedient brethren. If indeed Roman Catholicism is a system of false teaching, then genuine Christians who are members of that system must obey the Bible's commands concerning separation from false teaching. Panosian observes "that the often-suggested exception of 'a good Christian in the Roman Catholic Church' is a misnomer. Such a person is either ignorant or disobedient—ignorant of what Rome teaches or of what the Bible teaches, or disobedient to what Rome teaches or to what the Bible teaches. None of these conditions fits either a 'good Roman Catholic' or a 'good Christian.'"22 Christians who refuse to abide by commands to separate from false teaching are themselves walking in disobedience.

But as we have noted elsewhere, we do not treat disobedient brethren the same way we treat false teachers. Our goal in maintaining religious separation from Catholic Christians is to "gain" them, to "provoke" them "unto love and good works." Perhaps we have here another application of Jude 23. Catholic believers we are to "save with fear, pulling them out of the fire," all the while "hating even the garment spotted by the flesh," the false teaching of Catholicism. It may be that such Christians will not understand or appreciate our position. But as we have repeatedly stressed, our duty is to obey God and leave the consequences to Him.

The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation. By Mark Sidwell. ©1998. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address:

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