Back in the Jerusalem of 40 A.D., if one of the officers of the Roman military occupation force was asked to differentiate between the Jews who followed the “officially sanctioned” Pharisees and rabbis, and the Jews who had accepted Christ as Messiah and Savior, he probably would not have been aware or even cared. To him, they would have all been just Jews, although, from our vantage point, we know the theological differences between the two groups were vitally important.
Similarly, we in the West tend to categorize all the followers of various Eastern religions with the same broad brush although there are many sects of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, with distinctive beliefs that are very important to their devotees.
Yesterday, I listened to a sermon in which the pastor described the current persecution of Christians around the world and especially in the Middle East. It’s understandable that the forces of Al-Qaeda and ISIS would not bother to distinguish between Roman Catholics, followers of Eastern Orthodoxy, and Bible Christians. To them, a Christian is a Christian is a Christian, but genuine followers of Christ cannot be so undiscerning.
Persecution is a tragedy for any group. Masses of people throughout history have suffered due to allegiance to their particular religion. But just because people have suffered terror, pain, and death, does not mean we should embrace error as truth. Jehovah’s Witnesses have endured persecution for one-hundred years in many countries. But, in addition to their heretical Christology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach a false gospel of baptismal regeneration and works and I cannot embrace them as Christians. The Mormons have also faced persecution in many countries. I am sorry they have suffered but that does not mean I should disregard our differences. Their heretical Christology and false gospel of baptismal regeneration and works prevents me from embracing them as fellow Christians.
In the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, groups that claim to be Christian are being targeted by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, including Roman Catholics and adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s a tragedy that any religious group is targeted for violence. My heart goes out to the children, women, and men who have suffered persecution, torture, and death. But Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach a false gospel of sacramental grace and merit. They do not teach the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. According to God’s Word, faithful followers of these churches’ teachings are not Christians, just as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians.
Some say that in the face of persecution, it’s uncharitable to check denominational dog tags. That was the underlying message of the sermon I heard yesterday and that is the regular message of The Voice of the Martyrs para-church organization. Pope Francis has cited Islamic terrorism as a catalyst for (c)hristian unification:
“Let us see this (communion of [c]hristian martyrs) as a call to persevere on our ecumenical journey toward full and visible communion, growing more and more in love and mutual understanding,” the pope challenged an audience back in 2015 (see here).
I’m sorry so many people have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. I’m heartbroken that fellow believers have suffered and died for their faith in Christ. But I know those believers would not want their suffering and death to be used as a means to water down the Gospel of grace. Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox need to accept Christ as Savior as much as the bloodthirsty Muslim terrorists.
Postscript: Both Catholics and Protestants have been guilty of religious persecution in centuries gone by, although it could be successfully argued that the Catholic persecution of Protestants was of a MUCH greater magnitude. State-sanctioned persecution of Protestants continued in Catholic-controlled countries in Europe and Latin America well into the 20th-century (e.g., Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Mussolini’s Italy, inter-war Poland, Vichy France, Pavelic’s Croatia, Dollfuss’ Austria, and Rexist Belgium. Vatican concordats with Latin American countries ensured Protestants in the region were persecuted to some degree).