What is the difference between Protestants and Catholics? I have met many faithful people from both camps who trust in Jesus rather than religious rituals or good deeds for salvation. However, Hector, about 45, wasn't one of them.
In a street outreach conversation Hector told me that he had grown up Catholic in Mexico but is no longer religious. He's given up on the rat-race of religious good works and just figures he is good enough for heaven if there is one. As we talked and I challenged him with a few key questions he could see how he is still trusting in his own goodness. He just does it with his own lower standard rather than that of the church.
We happened to be outside one of the locations of my church - Protestant - which he passes by every day on his way home from work. He asked me how my church was different from a Catholic church. I am asked this question often. I try to avoid criticizing churches, so I tried to just explain the basic difference between Protestants and Catholics. Whole books are written on the subject, but in a streetcorner conversation like this one with Hector I just try to stick to the nutshell version.
I began to explain. "We all believe in the Bible, but the longer a church has been organized the more they tend to veer away from the Bible and toward their own church traditions. The Catholic church had been in existence for centuries and a lot of their traditions and practices had become corrupt. About the same time as the invention of the printing press, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther realized that all these corrupt church practices weren't according to the Bible, so he protested by nailing his complaints to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, which eventually led to the name 'Protestant'. He translated the Bible into the common language and taught that people should read it for themselves."
This was clearly new and interesting to Hector, so I went on. "In general, the difference between Catholics and Protestants is based on the source of their authority. Should it be the teachings and traditions of the church, or on the Bible itself? If the two conflict, which has authority over the other? Some church traditions are good and helpful, and some are a harmful distraction, but the only way we can judge them is to compare them to what the Bible teaches. Protestants would say that the Bible is our authority while Catholics often say the Pope or church teachings are their authority."
This made a lot of sense to Hector. So often people focus on the differences in religious practice, and fail to understand the main reason behind those differences. For many people like Hector, this all gets very confusing. Focusing on the minor differences often makes it feel like one's cultural heritage is being attacked. It had seemed so much easier for Hector to just throw his hands in the air and let the chips fall where they may.
Hector's willingness to ignore matters of church altogether is rooted in his basic confidence in his own belief that despite it all he is basically a good person in God's sight. Many churches, anxious to keep people in attendance, might let him believe that myth.
Not so a Bible-based church, especially those that teach through larger sections of the Bible straight through rather than topically. The Bible has a way of giving us truth we can't ignore. Unfortunately, ignoring the truths of scripture is something that years of tradition has often taught many churches to do.