What are evangelicals to make of the Pope Francis phenomenon? That’s a question I tackled recently with two thought leaders.
As was on full display during his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis presents a paradox for many evangelicals, and in more ways than one. On one hand, we warm to the way the 78-year old Pontiff from Argentina models the compassion of Christ and speaks out for the dignity of human life.
And on the other, we scratch our heads at some of his comments, such as his critiques of capitalism, an economic system that has lifted the prospects of millions of the poor and disenfranchised, whom Francis so evidently loves.
And of course Protestants deeply disagree with the pope about much theology, even as we are touched by his Christ-like compassion and simplicity. Who is this paradoxical pope who some say combines the economic views of Bernie Sanders with the social outlook of Mike Huckabee?
On “BreakPoint This Week” I examine the Francis phenomenon with my new co-host, Ed Stetzer. And we also brought in another leading evangelical voice—Dr. Timothy George, who over twenty years ago helped start a movement called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” along with Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus.
During the program we looked at Francis’s appeal, first with Catholics, and also the news media, and even with evangelicals. As Ed wryly observed, the Pope’s secret might just be “Well, if you don’t act like a jerk, people are more likely to listen to you.” Then he added more seriously, “That’s a good lesson for a lot of religious leaders who get on radio and television and sound like Darth Vader rather than a kind, winsome individual.”
Then we talked about the great distance evangelicals have traveled with regard to Roman Catholicism. Decades ago, prominent evangelicals commonly referred to the pope—any pope—as “Antichrist.” Now, Ed says polling by his organization, Lifeway Research, shows that over sixty percent of Protestant leaders in America see Pope Francis as a “brother in Christ.”
Timothy George quoted the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen from a century ago, who said, “Evangelicals probably have more in common with Catholics today than they do with Mainline Protestants.” Machen saw that Catholics and Protestants had a common foe in theological liberalism. And that’s still true today, Timothy said. Timothy says, “One of the reasons so many evangelicals are resonating with Pope Francis is, in addition to the humility and leadership … is that he is indeed going to be a co-belligerent, a fellow battler in the midst of some of the cultural challenges.”
Even so, clear theological differences between Catholics and evangelicals remain, and Dr. George was quick to reassure evangelicals who are wary about losing the gospel amid all this talk of cooperation. “We’re not always going to agree. In fact, if you were to ask me," Timothy said, "what’s the central dividing issue between evangelicals, Catholics, and Protestants, I would say authority. It’s the authority of the Church, the understanding of who the pope is…. We’re not together on those issues…So we need to be really clear about where our non-negotiables are, and to stand together on those issues where we clearly are one in the Lord and one in the Spirit.”
Timothy then mentioned the three issues of co-belligerency that were near and dear to Chuck Colson’s heart—the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, and religious liberty. These are all areas in which Catholics and Protestants can and must stand shoulder to shoulder. As Ed reminded us during the program, Catholics raised the alarm when few other Christians were taking a stand on the issue of abortion.
Nonetheless, as Ed said on air, evangelicals believe in things, "like the Solas: salvation is by faith alone, and grace alone ... Scripture alone" and so on. And the Pope’s visit is a great opportunity to re-examine what the Solas are and what they mean.
It was a great conversation. You can listen in as Ed Stetzer, Timothy George and I discuss the Pope by coming to BreakPoint.org and clicking on the link for “BreakPoint This Week.”
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.