Pope Francis has repeatedly talked about the need for Christian unity, but Baptists have offered divergent responses.
Elected a year ago, Pope Francis often frames his message of Christian unity with the biblical metaphor of the Body of Christ and as a practical need to more effectively evangelize the world.
He noted last June the problem of divisions in the Body of Christ. Although he focused his remarks on unity within the Catholic Church, he expanded that vision to include the broader Christian community.
“So much damage to the Church comes from division among Christians, from biases, from narrow interests,” he argued. “Division among us, but also division among communities: Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, why are we divided? We must try to bring about unity.”
In a seven-minute video, the pope said that Catholics and Protestants remain separated.
“Separated because it’s sin that has separated us, all our sins,” he explained. “The misunderstandings throughout history. It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame. We have all sinned. There is only one blameless, the Lord.”
“Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has begun,” he stated. “He will complete this miracle of unity.”
Some Baptists have offered praise for Francis, his teachings and lifestyle despite key theological differences between Baptists and Catholics.
Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics, quickly praised the election of Francis and wished the new pope well as Parham offered his hope that Catholics and Baptists could work together more for the common good.
“As a deep-water Baptist, I think we, Baptists, too, have a pope – a Christian leader who can represent the best of Christianity,” Parham wrote. “Baptists would do well to applaud the election of Pope Francis.”
“Pope Francis appears to favor humanity over ideology,” Parham wrote in one column. “Getting to know the other for the sake of knowing the other, rather than for the purpose of persuading the other.”
Other Baptist leaders also joined in praising Francis, including Daniel Carro, David Kerrigan and Tomas Mackey. With these remarks, Baptists responded to Francis’ calls for unity by modeling attitudes of constructive dialogue.
Carro, a member of the board of directors for EthicsDaily.com, is originally from Argentina like Francis. He noted his excitement at the election of Francis, which made him the first pontiff from South America.
“From an Argentine point of view, among the uncertainties of the day, one thing was true,” Carro wrote. “When Argentineans Wednesday repeated the famous ‘habemus papam’ – ‘we’ have a Pope, the accent was strongly on the ‘we.'”
The first vice president of the Baptist World Alliance, Carro noted that prior to becoming pope, Francis (then-known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) had “shown himself very conciliatory and ecumenical, open to evangelicals.”
Mackey, also an Argentinean Baptist, said last summer that “the relationship of Pope Francis and Baptists has been very good, and the relationship with all evangelicals has been very good.”
“He’s very open to ecumenical relationships in Argentina, and I think that he will be the same in the rest of the world,” added Mackey, professor at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires, who met the pope twice when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio.
Despite these Baptist voices urging greater dialogue and cooperation, other Baptists have dismissed Francis and his calls for Christian unity.
The day of Francis’s election, the Baptist Press reran earlier comments by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, calling the papacy “an unbiblical office that inevitably compromised the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.”
Later stories from the news arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) followed the tone of the initial shot at Francis’ election, with criticism coming from various Baptists like Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, criticized Francis for comments about conscience.
The Vatican later disputed some of the quotations in that article, and the interviewer admitted he took no notes or recording and may have falsely quoted the pontiff.
“It’s a theological wreck,” Moore wrote about the pope’s comments in the interview now deemed unreliable.
Moore offered some kind words about Francis but then suggested Francis offered dangerous, liberal theology.
The day after Francis’ election, Mohler claimed in an interview with conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt that Francis was “likely to be less ecumenical” than other recent popes.
Noting that Francis was the first Jesuit to become pope, Mohler criticized the Jesuit order for supporting liberation theology that is popular in Latin America.