Sunday, June 12, 2016

An Open Letter to Mike Lee

Hi Mike,

May I call you Mike? We've met, but don't know each other, and although you don't strike me as the kind of guy who stands on ceremony, I could be wrong. I'm not in your church. Moreover, I wouldn't know a "Free Will Baptist" if I tripped over one, and I've never set foot on the campus of Bob Jones University. That said, I'm a pretty good listener. When I go to one of the services you lead, it's because I want to hear what you're telling my children, and what bothers me is that lately you seem to have descended into a functional anti-Catholicism, perhaps even without meaning to.

I get that many of the people in your congregation think of themselves as ex-Catholics. The "Meet the Gospel" series that you are currently preaching hasn't done Catholicism any favors. I would not have expected it to, but have you considered the irony involved when you talk about Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans without first acknowledging that the only reason you have talking points tied to the canon of Scripture is that the Catholic Church preserved that canon for you and every other Christian?

Last week you poked gentle fun at the Catholic criteria for declaring people saints. When I asked after the service about that, you said your sole aim was to highlight Saint Paul's well-known greeting "to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy." I get that; I really do. It's often paraphrased as the "priesthood of all believers," as you well know. But guess what? The Catholic Church gets that, too. Except you don't seem to care: You played my church -- the Church -- for laughs, mentioning the Vatican's "Congregation for the Causes of Saints" just to snark about how "they sound like a fun bunch to hang out with." I'm certain you are under the impression that Catholicism has complicated Jesus's message unnecessarily. As an heir of the Protestant Reformation, how could you think otherwise?

What you did not mention, but should have, is that Catholic criteria for sainthood does not contradict or ignore Saint Paul's insight; it merely allows that insight to scale up and out past local devotion so that models of heroic virtue can be admired by people worldwide. True, "saint" means "holy," and we're all called to holiness. But had you done a little more reading, you would have found that canonized saints have lots of company (Remember all the people in the Book of Revelation whose robes were "washed white in the Blood of the Lamb"?).

In other words, as much as you'd like to slam clerical bureaucracies, the Church has never claimed to know who all the saints are. You and I could -- and should -- become saints even if we're never blessed to have two verifiable miracles attributed to our intercession, Yet it's unlikely that Christians in faraway places will know of our example after we die unless that example was stellar enough for the worldwide Church to take notice of it. You want to pretend that's "unscriptural"? Ha! It's "extra-scriptural," but in perfect harmony with Scripture.

Side note, assuming that the line "Oh Lord, I want to be in that number" rings a few bells: If you associate the gospel tune "When the Saints Go Marching In" with a particular style of American music, it's New Orleans Jazz, and guess who the original settlers of New Orleans were? French Catholics. Perhaps their theology was a little more squared away than you give it credit for being.

I'd hoped that last week's failure to do enough homework for your message was a one-off, but today you went after infant baptism in similarly snarky fashion, saying that there isn't a single instance of infant baptism in Scripture. I'm beginning to wonder how many targets are in your doctrinal shooting gallery, and where you get the authority to draw a bead on them.

With respect to infant baptism not being in Scripture, my question for you is, "Are you sure?" Seriously. Here's why I ask: We know that John baptized with water "for repentance," and prophesied that Jesus would bring a greater baptism.We know that Jesus was Himself baptized by John, so that the two of them could together "fulfill all righteousness." The other baptism accounts in the New Testament are in the Acts of the Apostles, right? That book is about the early Church. If you're starting a church, as the apostles were, you don't start it with babies -- you start by converting your adult friends and neighbors. That's what they did. But the apostles also knew that Jesus had said "Let the little children come to me." Do you think Jesus was kidding? Do you think He added a caveat about how kids couldn't come to Him unless they were old enough to profess faith in His name?

And how about -- in the Acts of the Apostles -- when a Roman centurion accepts the new faith, and is baptized, "and all his household with him." Do you know for certain that there were no youngsters in that household? I don't think so. While I'm in a betting mood, let me note that you never told us where you got the idea that infant baptism started "300 years after the apostles." Did you mean to blame the Emperor Constantine for that "innovation," or did it just sound like that? If the "300 years" figure that you tossed out was not just for effect, then may I ask whether you take a similarly dim view of the statements of faith in the Nicene Creed, which actually does date from that time?

I know you love Saint Paul. We both do. Even without getting to the other inspired writers, Catholics can't help but notice how chapter 2 of Paul's letter to the Colossians says some very cool things about the power of baptism as more than a sign, and about how baptism is the New Covenant analog to what circumcision was in the Old Covenant. You pointed out that Jews traditionally circumcise male infants when they are 8 days old. What, then, is the justification for denying baptism at the same age? It either is an analog to circumcision or it isn't -- only you didn't mention that analogy. I wish you would.

I'll  end with a plea: You're welcome to argue with Roman Catholic theology, but it's a disservice to your congregation and the Catholics you don't know who love you and your congregation when you use your position as a pastor to knock down straw man arguments rather than grappling honestly with what Catholics believe and why. A two-minute trip to the Vatican web site and another round of highlighting mistakes made by John Calvin or Martin Luther won't cut it. Neither will passive-aggressive class titles like "From Pope to Hope." You can do better than that. Please do.


  1. Very calm and well reasoned set of points.

    I wasn't there, but I think snark is always a bad substitute for calmer, more substantial study, and certainly not a good substitute for a more hardy Christian charity. And apart from a few easily moved people, I think more than a few there must have felt a sort of disappointment in their speaking pastor. Cutting remarks, shallow study, and finger jabs displease God

  2. This is, by far, the greatest commentary on The Church I have ever read. This is fantastic. Thank you for so eloquently addressing serious Catholic doctrine, commonly used to beat us with. Your open letter is something we can ALL get behind.
    Your like minded friend,
    Jenn Dennen

  3. I'm glad you took the time to write this letter. I'm glad I took the time to read it.