The Word and Tradition

Unavoidable

In the local news over the last year, there have been a steady flow of articles written about the scandal of sexual child abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. A number of articles have focused on a list released by the archdiocese of Minneapolis/St. Paul that named priests who have been credibly linked to sexual child abuse. There were over 30 priests on the list, many of whom had been shuffled around to different parishes throughout Minnesota. Credibly accused priests have been at nearly half of the parishes in the state.[1]  What has become public to this point may just be the beginning, as there are many more pedophile related documents that haven’t yet been released by the archdiocese, and there are more lists to come from other dioceses in different regions of the state.[2]

Of course, it’s not a phenomenon unique to the state of Minnesota. It is a problem that plagues the Catholic Church throughout the world. Just based on the information that is slowly being released from the Catholic Church in Minnesota, it would be hard to fathom how many cases of priest-pedophilia there have been throughout the US and the world. It’s also saddening to see how the Catholic Church has often protected these priests, no doubt wanting to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church, and likely not sure how to handle the problem. It seems that the pattern has been to move the priests to different parishes or quietly dismiss them. But it appears that in recent years, what has been done in darkness is being “shouted on the rooftops”.

Unsettling Silence

As grievous as the child molestation is, it is also sad how Christians have responded (or not responded). Here in Minnesota, attorneys are pursuing justice on behalf of families of the children who have been violated. But I don’t hear of many Catholics or Protestants, rallying to see this great sin purged from the Church or even talking about it much. While it’s commendable that many Catholics and Protestants are active in speaking out for the unborn, where are the voices speaking out for the souls that are born and then are sexually violated by those that the Catholic Church has appointed as priests?

Another aspect that is quite tragic is that this problem is so widespread as to become commonplace and we have been desensitized as to its seriousness. I’m afraid that we no longer even “flinch” when we hear of a priest being accused of child molestation. We’ve almost grown accustomed to jokes about priests and altar boys. But, consider what we are really talking about here — this is no joke. It’s important that we pause and think clearly. To begin, we need to recognize that we are talking about “priests”. Priests are placed as leaders of Catholic parishes. They are given authority to administer the sacraments of the Church; they are appointed by the Church to be the “mediator” for those seeking to have a relationship with the Almighty. They are not merely members in the Church, but are the spiritual leaders in the Catholic Church. Catholics look to them for moral guidance. Priests should rightly be held, not to perfection, but to a high standard of morality. It is these shepherds of the flock who are committing a form of sin that, to even speak of, should make us cringe. We are talking about leaders in the church that have homosexual inclinations toward young, innocent boys[3]. These are spiritual leaders that use the power and trust that their role offers to sexually violate young boys (and girls) who are supposed to look to them for guidance. Do you sense the weight of this?

Speaking The Truth

As Christians, we are to shine light into a dark world, which is to speak truth to a world that has been blinded by the “father of lies”, the devil. I believe our role with regard to such a serious situation is primarily to speak the truth in love. We must not be silent — especially with regard to such a sin in a “Christian” institution. Our silence can speak very loudly. Our silence can unintentionally condone. With regard to this plague within the Catholic priesthood, we must speak out.

At the same time, we must not be naïve enough to think that the problem can be resolved by simply removing (or more appropriately, imprisoning) the offending priests. The problem must be deeper. Clearly, at the very least there must be something wrong in the Church that is contributing to this situation. Though we can’t expect any leader in the Church to be without sin, this is beyond the normal struggle of a Christian struggling to fight the remaining sin in his heart. The average Christian man (or non-Christian man for that matter) does not struggle with homosexual temptations toward young boys. The fact that this plagues the leaders of Catholic parishes must point to more than just the individual priests themselves. So, we can’t just focus on the offending priests to solve the problem.

Getting To the Root

If the Catholic Church wanted to start seriously dealing with the problem, it would have to do more than just weed out the pedophile priests. The root of the problem must be dealt with or we are only putting band-aids on a mortal wound. When you start to consider what may be the root of the problem, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to think that the Catholic doctrine of celibacy has contributed to this problem. It is unnatural and unbiblical to require that spiritual leaders abstain from God’s wonderful gift of sex within marriage. God has never forbidden marriage for the leaders of the church. Though singleness is not to be looked down on and has its advantages in serving Christ, celibacy is never given as a command[4].

Celibacy?

Far from forbidding marriage, Scripture teaches us that marriage is meant to be a display of God’s glory as it demonstrates the relationship of Christ and the church.[5] Marriage is a wonderful gift and spiritual leaders, above all, should be examples of godly marriages that display the glory of God. To deny a priest to marry is, in a way, to limit the glory of God that is intended to be shown through marriage. If God calls a priest to live a single life and grants him the self-control to be pure, of course that is commendable. But, God does not forbid marriage but encourages it, especially for those that lack sexual self-control.[6] The apostle Paul makes it clear that to impose man-made laws does not produce true righteousness and that is very clearly demonstrated with the man-made tradition of celibacy. In truth, though this tradition may come from noble intentions, adding rules to what God has given in His Word does not produce true righteousness[7], and often has very negative results. Is it really surprising that rejecting God’s good gift of sex in marriage results in sexual perversion? And so, we can’t simply focus on the priests themselves with regard to this problem. They are, in real a way, being “set up” for sexual temptation and perversion by the doctrine of celibacy.

Going Deeper

However, if we really want to address this problem of pedophilia, we need to go deeper than the doctrine of celibacy. We need to consider the system that would develop, maintain, and defend a doctrine like celibacy when it is not taught in Scripture. Why would the Church have a teaching that is so obviously contrary to God’s Word? If the Church is God’s kingdom on earth, wouldn’t it function based upon God’s revealed will as given to the church through the Holy Bible?

The Authority of the Word

This leads to what I think is really at the heart of the problem regarding this tragedy in the Catholic priesthood. I believe that the heart of the problem is in this — the authority of the Word of God as related to the authority of the Church. God has revealed His will for us through His Word, and the Catholic Church has in many ways nullified His Word by setting the institution of the Church above His Word. The Bible claims to be God’s very Word and therefore must be our ultimate authority. For the church to be submitted to God, it must be in submission to His Word. If the Church was truly submitted to God, it would abandon teachings and traditions that are shown to be contrary to God’s Word, especially when there are such tragic consequences.

Equal In Authority?

In Catholicism however, the Word is shown to be under the authority of the Church. This is seen clearly in that when there is a contradiction between the Word and a doctrine/tradition of the Church, the Church takes precedence. The requirement for priests to be celibate directly contradicts God’s Word. To continue to teach the doctrine of celibacy when Scripture does not is to functionally reject God’s will. And when we see the serious and tragic consequences of this man-made tradition, to continue to embrace it is only to “dig in our heels” against God. One must wonder what it would take to see our error and submit to the Word as our ultimate authority. How many cases of child molestation would it take? Again, this points to the foundational problem that the Church has set herself up as a greater authority than God’s Word. If the Church views itself as the ultimate authority (and even infallible), how is it that the Church could ever repent of this false teaching? For the Church to repent and change her ways, she must first recognize that she is not infallible and then submit to God’s Word as the greater authority. Though the Catholic Church may claim that the Church and the Word are equal in authority, that claim is quite irrational, for one must be a greater authority than the other. It is clear that for the Catholic Church, the Church itself is a greater authority than God’s Word.

Tradition Versus The Word

In the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 15, we see a conflict between the “traditions” (man-made doctrines) of the Pharisees and the Word of God. The Pharisees were holding strictly to their traditions, but their traditions were causing them to compromise God’s Word. Also, these man-made traditions had produced an external self-righteousness.[8] Jesus rebuked them severely for it. The details of the man-made rules were different but the issue that Jesus was addressing is startlingly similar to the problem in the Catholic Church. They provide a clear example that it is not possible to hold man-made “tradition” and Scripture as equal in authority. Anytime that we add a man-made rule, there will inevitably be a conflict with God’s Word. If only the leaders of the Catholic Church would heed Jesus’ word to the Pharisees –

So, for the sake of your traditions you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Matthew 15:6b-9 (emphasis mine, also see Mark 7:5-13)

Until the Word of God (or you could say “until God Himself”) is the ultimate authority in the Church, there is not much hope for this problem of pedophilic immorality in the Catholic priesthood. Celibacy is not the only Catholic doctrine that is directly contrary to God’s Word and these “commandments of men” reveal that the Catholic Church has set itself up above the Word. Tradition has superseded the Word of God, and this is precisely what led to the Pharisees being firmly rebuked by Jesus.

Submission to the Word

For this tragic problem in the Catholic Church to begin to be solved, the Church must submit itself to the Word of God. Of course, this would have incredible implications to other Catholic doctrine regarding the priesthood, the veneration of Mary, prayers to the saints, the papacy, purgatory, and most importantly to the gospel itself[9]. Admittedly, it is hard to have much hope that the Catholic Church would reform itself in such a way. It seems even less hopeful when we consider the lives that were sacrificed while seeking to reform the Church in the 16th century, attempting to bring it under the authority of God’s Word. A clarifying moment of the reformation was when Martin Luther was on trial and told to recant his teachings that contradicted the official Church doctrines. As he wrestled with what to do (knowing from the experience of others around him that if he did not recant it could cost him his life), he said that, if they could show him from Scripture that his teachings were in error, he would recant. But, for the leaders of the Catholic Church, it was not a matter of adhering to the Word of God, but of submission to the official Catholic Church as the ultimate and infallible authority. Unfortunately, the nearly five hundred years since then would seem to only testify that the Catholic Church will not reform itself by submitting to the Word of God.

Serious and Sober

I would encourage you to, soberly and seriously, consider the reality that there is a world-wide epidemic in the Catholic Church with regard to pedophile priests. And yet, there appears to be no real solution provided by the Catholic leadership. I believe the reason for the seeming lack of action is due to the reality that the only true remedy for this problem would undermine the very authority of the Church. It would require that the official Church would admit that it has held an errant and unbiblical doctrine. It would require that the Catholic Church (i.e. the leadership at the Vatican) confess that it has wrongly placed its own man-made teachings above the Word of God. It would require a humble repentance on the part of the official Church leadership. But, if they acknowledge that something as significant as the doctrine of celibacy is unbiblical, what would that do to their claim that the Church is infallible? What other traditions would come under Scriptural scrutiny?

Every Church Is Flawed

Every church has flaws, but as long as that church is truly submitted to the authority of God’s Word and does not put their traditions equal to the Word, I believe there is hope for that church. As soon as we put traditions on par with God’s Word, we are in a very dangerous place. The Word of God is meant to sanctify the Church[10], and we should give our lives to understand it and submit to it. Though there are details of Scripture that could honestly be debated among Christians as to their meaning, the major teachings of the Scriptures are very clear. No one can honestly derive the doctrine of celibacy from God’s Word. So then, why would those that claim to be speaking for God teach something that is clearly contrary to His written Word? The Catholic doctrine of celibacy is tragic not simply because it’s man-made but because it demonstrates that the Catholic Church is not submitted to God’s Word.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, what are the implications for us here? What shall we do? Like I stated above, first and foremost, we must speak the truth in love — we must speak out. We need to, not only speak out concerning the problem of pedophile priests, but we also need to speak clearly about the deeper problem in the Catholic Church. Namely, that the Church has set itself up above God’s Word, and that its unbiblical traditions have in many ways “made void the Word of God”.

Now, it’s one thing for evangelical Christians to speak out, but what if you are a Catholic? What is God calling you to do? I realize this is an incredible dilemma for which there is not an easy answer. If you are a Catholic, I would urge you to really consider the state of the Catholic Church. Consider the depth of the problem that is evident in the leadership and teachings of the Catholic Church. Would God call you to submit to a church that is not submitted to Him, but instead has set itself up above His Word? These are not easy questions, but they are honest questions that can’t simply be ignored. Though difficult, I don’t write this without feeling as there are many Catholics that I know and care deeply for (who have a genuine desire to please God). I am not against Catholics, but I am opposed to a system that has set itself up above God’s Word.

A Final Plea

Whether you are protestant or Catholic, or just curious about Christianity, I would exhort you to earnestly seek God through His written Word. Consider that we have the very words of God readily available to us. What a tragedy it is if we neglect to even read His Word. We should read it diligently and ask that God would reveal Himself through it. In Christ, every believer is declared to be a priest to God.[11] This is an amazing reality that shows that God intends to have a direct relationship with everyone that puts their faith in Jesus Christ. To have a relationship, there must be communication. We communicate to God through prayer and God communicates to us through His Word. Are you eager to listen? Are you regularly and prayerfully in His Word? If not, I would exhort you to seek God through His word as you would seek for treasure.[12] This is not at all to minimize the hugely important role of the local church, but it is of first importance that each church is truly under the authority of God’s Word.

 

[1] Click here for an article from MPR and here for an article from Fox Twin Cities.

[2]Click here for an article from the Star Tribune and here for an article from KSTP.

[3] Boys are not exclusively targeted and I do not mean to minimize the seriousness of a priest molesting a young girl, for that is just as heinous. The article is simply focusing on the predominant pattern of the molestation of boys.

[4] 1 Timothy 4:1-4

[5] Ephesians 5:22-32

[6] 1 Corinthians 7:2,9

[7] Colossians 2:20-23

[8] Matthew 23:25-28

[9] Romans 5:1; John 3:16; Romans 3:20-30; Romans 4:5; Romans 4:16; Romans 10:4; Romans 10:9-10; Romans 11:6; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 2:21; Galatians 3:22; Galatians 3:24; Ephesians 1:13; Ephesians 2:8; Pilippians 3:9

[10] John 17:17

[11] 1 Peter 2:5, 9

[12] Proverbs 2:1-5

2 thoughts on “The Word and Tradition

  1. Hi Jordan. Nice job, well written, good thought pattern.
    By way of (hopefully) helpful criticism, I wonder if you should have spent some time looking at the verses that I assume the Catholic church used as a spring board for the error of requiring celibacy. Namely the last half of I Cor 7 where Paul says it may be better because of the “present distress” (vs 26), and because of “devotion to the Lord” (vs35) that for some it is “better to refrain from marriage” (vs 35).

    It is very clear from a thorough reading of the text that Paul felt that the marriage or singleness decision falls within the category of Christian Liberty. He even goes so far as to say he doesn’t have a “command from the Lord” on the issue (vs 25) which further bolsters your correct view that for a church to jump on a celibacy requirement if a big jump into heresy. And, BTW, I would say for a church to require it’s pastor to be married would also be an error. (admitting that their are requirements in Timothy and Titus that an elder be married to one wife, which may mean if he is married, he should be married to just one).

    BTW, I understand that this a blog which by definition requires that the treatise be somewhat short and so you don’t have the space to fully develop every aspect of every point. And please don’t read my suggestion as anything but further discussion points. As I said, it is a very well written blog.

    thanks, brother, blessings!
    Wayne

  2. Thank you Wayne, good thoughts. I appreciate the feedback, it really helps me think things through more fully (as iron sharpens iron). I agree, it’s good to consider more the positive side of singleness that Paul expressed later in chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians. In some ways, the unmarried man does have advantages in serving the Lord as he can be more single-minded in the things of God. And it’s good to point out that to require that all leaders be married would be wrong as well. So yes, at the end of the day, it is the man-made rule that one should/should not marry that is the real problem.

    So thankful for God’s Word and for the body of Christ to grow in understanding it more fully!

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