THE SUBTLE ROAD TO ROME by J. Parnell McCarter

Protestants are being enticed to leave their historic Biblical position of the church for a position that really is Romish, but it is not being packaged that way.  There is a significant difference between the Westminster Confession’s definition of the visible church (which summarizes the Protestant view) versus that of the so called emerging church using Jesuit Avery Dulles’ “mystical communion model of the church”.  This latter Jesuitical model is in its essence the Romish model of the church, but disguised to appeal to and deceive Protestants.   

The Biblical Protestant Model of the Church

Here is the Westminster Confession’s definition of the visible church:

“The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children…”

Unlike the Romish view, there is an important distinction between the visible church and the invisible church.  Here is how the Westminster Confession defines the invisible church:

“The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.”

It should be noted that the invisible church, which is a subset within the visible church, consists of the elect only, having been regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit in free sovereign grace.  Protestantism makes no claims that all of the visible church members are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and indeed does not believe they are.  For Protestants, the line of demarcation between the visible church and that which is outside it is an objective adherence to Biblical doctrines.  Those within the visible church are exhorted that they must be born again by the Spirit, since it is recognized there are many of its members who are not.

The Romish Model of the Church

By way of contrast, Romanism does not distinguish the visible and invisible church.  So it characteristically seeks to define the visible church in spiritual terms and not doctrinal terms.  Hence, when Rome subtly entices Protestants, it does so with churches which in their essence correspond with the Romish model, even if they are not explicitly labeled as such.  An example is the “emerging church subtly promoted by Rome as described at :

International research suggests that some Emerging Churches are utilizing a Trinitarian basis to being church through what Avery Dulles calls 'The Mystical Communion Model of Church'.[66]

  • Not an institution but a fraternity (or sorority).
  • Church as interpersonal community.
  • Church as a fellowship of persons – a fellowship of people with God and with one another in Christ.
  • Connects strongly with the mystical 'body of Christ' as a communion of the spiritual life of faith, hope and charity.
  • Resonates with Aquinas' notion of the Church as the principle of unity that dwells in Christ and in us, binding us together and in him.
  • All the external means of grace, (sacraments, scripture, laws etc.) are secondary and subordinate; their role is simply to dispose people for an interior union with God effected by grace.[67]

Dulles sees the strength in this approach being acceptable to both Protestant and Catholic:

In stressing the continual mercy of God and the continual need of the Church for repentance, the model picks up Protestant theology... [and] in Roman Catholicism... when it speaks of the church as both holy and sinful, as needing repentance and reform...[68]

The biblical notion of Koinonia, ... that God has fashioned for himself a people by freely communicating his Spirit and his gifts ... this is congenial to most Protestants and Orthodox ... [and] has an excellent foundation in the Catholic tradition.”

Protestants are enticed to such churches, even though in reality such churches follow the essence of the Romish model.

Comparison of the Two Models

The first model (that described in the Westminster Confession and reflecting what the Bible teaches) seeks visible church unity primarily via doctrinal agreement  to true Biblical standards (i.e., full doctrinal subscription to reformed confessional standards), which can then be faithfully applied. (Notice: This is why Protestants spent so much time and effort during the Reformation hammering out Biblically accurate confessional statements like the Westminster Standards and the Canons of Dort.) The second Romish model seeks unity via “communion of the spiritual life”.  The first is the historic Protestant position.  The second is thoroughly Romish.  The first says we are “justified by grace alone through faith alone”.  The second implies we are justified by what we have and experience.  The first indicates the external means of our sanctification are the word of God, read and preached, the sacraments, and prayer.  The second especially de-emphasizes the means of the word of God.  The first involves the Spirit working with the word of God to sanctify the believer.  The second is more emotion-based and does not involve as much the use of the word of God to shape the thinking of the person. The first insists upon full subscriptionism to reformed confessional standards as an ecclesiastical feature.  The second does not insist upon such, but instead de-emphasizes doctrinal confessional standards (especially reformed confessional standards) and understanding them and their basis in scripture.

There are a number of ways in which churches with the Protestant label in fact become closer to the Romish ecclesiastical model.  When denominations with contrary confessional standards have fraternal relations, or when denominations lack full subscription to any reformed confessional standards, they are effectively tending towards an ecclesiastical situation of “communion of the spiritual life”.  Also, when seminaries do not require full subscription to reformed confessional standards like the Westminster Standards, they are effectively tending in the Rome-ward direction.  Such seek ecclesiastical union and communion not in professed agreement to the same reformed doctrines, but rather seek ecclesiastical union and communion in shared spiritual experience.  

A special category of the emerging church approach is to use the tool of white racial guilt to pry white reformed Christians into an essentially emerging church philosophy.  It subtly, or in some cases overtly, accuses them of sinful racism (but quite often on fallacious grounds), and then it urges them to remedy this by becoming what is essentially an emerging church (even if it is not declared as such), bridging various racial/ethnic peoples of varying cultures together into a congregational communion of the spiritual life.  Doctrinal agreement with the Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity (and then faithfully applying the principles) as a pre-condition to such a congregational community is de-emphasized, if it is even mentioned at all.

This is the devil’s subtle tool to bring professing Protestants to Rome.