|On the bus with a future Pope.|
HM: Well, yes. Anyone who calls people to Christ, to repentance, to faith, is fulfilling the mission of the Adventist church, if only in part. This is especially true in a world where millions have lost sight of God. The message of the first angel is “Fear God, and worship him.” Even if this message includes a call to Sabbath worship, it more fundamentally calls people, generally, to worship, to an awe of God. This is a mission in which any Christian can participate, even if they have not (yet?) come to ‘the fullness of truth.”
Jesus addresses this issue in Mark 9:38-40, when the disciples tell him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” Jesus responded, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.” Other Christians are “for us” when they call people to faith, to repentance, to salvation, to love. Their words, their deeds, their faith, can mean something in the divine plan. We often hear evangelists say “there are millions of true Christians in Babylon, whom God is calling out,” but what does that mean for an Adventist? Does it mean that these individuals have no significance until they have come out of Babylon? Think of Esther and Mordecai accomplished in Persia. Think of what Ezekiel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accomplished in Babylon. God works in ways and places beyond our imagination.
ML: Sure, but even the spiritual fraternity we share is diluted by our differing views on salvation. I think this makes it hard to wholly celebrate with Catholics as they fulfill the Great Commission. If Adventists baptized 20 people, we’d say “people are coming out of Babylon!” If Catholics baptized 20, we’d say, “They all wonder after the beast.” On some level, we might prefer conversions to Catholicism over, say, Islam, but it is messy to maintain our theology of Babylon when it seems to preclude our accepting any parallel metaphors for the Catholic Church, such as “sister.” Do you think Adventists can logically accept that Catholics can ever be Babylon AND _____, or must that title supersede all others?
HM: That’s a fascinating question. On the one hand, I’d say the problem is resolved when we remember that Adventists take issue with institutions, not individuals. If there are millions of Christians in other churches, they are still “our brothers and sisters,” even if those churches are not “sister churches,” per se. And if they are “true, sincere Christians,” the converts they make can also be “true, sincere Christians.” Their conversion is still a cause for celebration.
But let’s explore this question of the Catholic Church as “Babylon AND _____.” Historically, I think it’s fair to say that Adventists have confined their description of other Christian churches to a single metaphor: there exists a “harlot Babylon” (the Catholic Church), who is the “mother of all [other] harlots” (Protestant churches). At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a very flexible metaphor. But notice: the “harlot” metaphor embraces both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Now I find it generally true that Adventists are quick to distrust, vilify, and frankly fear the Catholic Church, but treat the Salvation Army, Willow Creek, the United Methodist Church, the Lutheran World Federation with relative indifference. In some of these cases, Adventists even extend a warm, if limited, hand of dialogue, cooperation, and fraternity. Why is the metaphor the same, but the reaction so different? In Adventist theology, all these churches are “harlots,” none are redeemable or reformable, and all will actively persecute the remnant (GC 616). The call is, universally, “come out.” Why the different reaction?
Certainly, some consistency would be helpful. And I sincerely doubt Adventists want to segregate themselves, and vilify and fear all other churches. Perhaps there is more flexibility in the “harlot” metaphor than we imagine. Perhaps even “the harlot Babylon” is capable of some limited respect, fraternity in practice.
ML: Responsible Adventist evangelists are definitely quick to point out that they’re applying Babylon to the institution (without really defining that) and not the people, but I think this brings us back around: who is the pope if not a part of that institution? I think it’s hard for Adventists to separate Francis the sinful human from Francis the CEO of Babylon. The pope is someone both wandering in Babylon while also the face of Babylon. This is what makes it difficult for Adventists to fully get behind an individual pope, to pray for him, to rejoice in his Christian success, etc. You say that Adventists could afford some “limited respect, fraternity in practice” to the Catholic Church, but how does one have respect and especially have fraternity with an entity we loudly proclaim to be Antichrist? How do we separate “Pope” from “Francis” and see the pontiff as a soul Jesus wants us to intercede for?
HM: From a Christian perspective, that’s exactly the question we need to be asking! In 1 Timothy 2:1ff., we are called to “offer entreaties and prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings on behalf of all men” since “this is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wishes all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Are we in a position to exclude the bishop of Rome from these prayers? Are we in a position to say that in his capacity as “CEO of Babylon,” as you put it, that he is beyond the reach of salvation? And if he is not, why can’t he have wrestlings of spirit? Why can’t our prayers be fruitful?
As for the institution, even if the Catholic Church is “the mother of all harlots,” Jesus took the time to sit and eat with harlots and prostitutes. He accepted his future betrayer among his closest twelve friends, leaving him to his choices and wrestlings. Jesus never called his disciples to isolationism or a bunker mentality. He called them to boldly move among humanity, treat others with respect and love, and share the gospel with courage. And if they are betrayed or martyred at last, all the better. That’s the faith of the apostles.