This last week we have seen the world pay tribute to a man whose life of service has brought universal admiration. Even the Western liberal media expressed their esteem of him, while criticising his stand on abortion, homosexuality, birth control, celibate priests, and the male only priesthood.
What we have publicly seen and heard of the last Pope has commended him to the world as a man of integrity and courage. He stood firmly and graciously against the forces of evil, while extending a hand of friendship and peace to people of other religions and viewpoints. His part in the downfall of Communism and his role in championing his own Polish people have given him a particular place in world history.
It has surprised some commentators that Protestants have been so positive in their tributes to this man. Yet there is a difference between a man and his office. It is right for us to mourn the death of any man, especially a man who in this troubled world tried to work for peace. It is right for us to approve the courageous nature of a man’s stand against the evils of both communism and modern western liberalism.
The Protestant objection is not personal but structural. There have been good popes and there have been bad ones. For all the evidence available to us Pope John Paul II has been a remarkably good one. Yet that does not affect in the slightest the Protestant objection to Papacy.
For example, there are several terms used of the Pope that Protestants find objectionable, for they elevate the office bearer into the place of God.
The name “Pope” comes from the word father. Whereas following the teachings of Jesus we would call no man “Father” for we have one Father, who is in heaven.
The term “Pontiff” comes from the idea of a bridge. A Sydney Morning Herald editorial this week took this title to mean the bridge between humans and God. Where we know that there is only one bridge between humans and God and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.
The word “Vicar” means substitute, somebody acting in the place of another. So, when the Pope is called “the Vicar of Christ”, there is a failure to understand the place and role of the Holy Spirit, who is the one sent to this world as Christ’s vicar.
Each of these terms in their derivation is objectionable to Biblical sensitivities. That many people use these terms today without their original meanings does not alter the objection for there are many who do see the office bearer as being God’s voice on earth
Thankfully, we live in relatively peaceful times between Protestants and Roman Catholics. We share many concerns about the forces of evil in the world today. Yet we must not be confused by the quality of one man’s life into thinking that he represented Biblical Christianity. The very office he held is objectionable to Biblical faith.
We share with everybody the feeling of sad loss of a great human being. And we sympathise with our Roman Catholic friends over their loss. But those who understand Justification by Faith Alone will never accept the Papacy. For we know God as our Father, through the one and only mediator between God and humanity – the Lord Jesus Christ – whose message has been made known to us by his one true representative on earth the Holy Spirit.