For growing numbers of Baptists, Pope Francis is drawing admiration
Atlanta Pastor Barrett Owen said months of continuous news about Pope Francis I and his concern for “the least of these” inspired him to go public with his growing admiration for the Roman Catholic leader. He’s not the only evangelical who values the new pontiff’s approach.
By Jeff Brumley
A Baptist preacher in Georgia said months of exposure to television and online news reports about Pope Francis I just finally got to him.
And that’s a good thing, said Barrett Owen, pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“It seemed like he had a critical mass of news stories that just resonated with me,” Owen said. “He consistently overwhelms me how determined he is to give such a positive face to Christianity.”
Contributing to that media mass were articles and blogs published by agencies like Religion News Service and Christianity Today, often extolling the humility and least-of-these approach to ministry of the world’s most visible Christian leader.
So what did Owen do? He added to the deluge of evangelicals-who-love-the-pope commentary by penning a Feb. 7 blog on the topic for ABPnews/Herald.
Titled “#popecrush” after the trending Twitter hashtag for social media users infatuated with Pope Francis, the blog starts right off with a list of 10 things Barrett said he admires about the pontiff.
They include Francis choosing to ride in compact cars instead of limos, sneaking out of the Vatican to secretly visit homeless people and refusing to condemn homosexuals.
“The 10 items I listed in just seconds,” he said in a telephone interview. “They just came off the top of my head.”
Articles and blogs galore
And there’s a lot of that going around. Simply Google “evangelicals who love the pope” and numerous articles and blogs appear.
One is a November RNS commentary titled “10 reasons why evangelicals should read the pope.” It references his scholarly and biblical prowess and his promotion of issues like family values and personal evangelism.
In “Why do Protestants love Pope Francis?” RNS blogger Jonathan Merritt says the Roman Catholic leader is “prying open” the arms of Protestants “and sneaking into their hearts” with acts like washing the feet of incarcerated women and embracing a disfigured man.
In a previous blog titled “Is Francis the first Protestant Pope?” Merritt begins with Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli to set the stage for Francis’ appeal to 21st century non-Catholic Christians.
A November article published by Christianity Today presented “Five Things Evangelicals Will Cheer in Pope Francis’ Plan to Change the Catholic Church.”
They included identifying consumerism as a threat to faith, putting the preaching of the gospel first and finding new ways to evangelize.
‘A theological wreck’
But not every Protestant — and certainly not every Baptist — is onboard with the pope mania sweeping American Christianity.
In October, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s moral concerns agency gave a nod to some of Francis’ actions, but also referred to some of his views as a “theological wreck.”
“I don’t dislike Pope Francis,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote on the ERLC website Oct. 1. “I think he is quite right about the primacy of the gospel over culture wars.”
But Francis also fails to speak authoritatively to those in sin, and downplays the significance of sin, Russell said.
Other Baptists who may initially have struggled with what seemed like a mass embrace of Catholicism with Francis’ ascension have come to terms with the idea.
One was Alex Gallimore, pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.
In an ABPnews/Herald opinion piece published in April 2013, Gallimore said “the whole world seemed to be Catholic” the day when the pope was selected in Rome.
He said it even seemed “we Baptists” had a new pope.
Gallimore wrote that he eventually went along with this sentiment because the Catholic Church is the largest segment of Christianity, and that the faith will not experience a cultural resurgence without Catholic participation.
Another reason: Francis’ “Christ-like actions have impressed me,” including his refusal to reside in an elaborate papal apartment and chose a much simpler Vatican guest house instead.
‘Making us look good’
Back in Atlanta, Owen said all of those actions — foot washing and embracing the poor and simple living — are making all Christians, including Baptists, look good in a largely secular culture.
“He’s getting in Time magazine and Rolling Stone and Huffington Post,” he said.
Plus, Owen said he’s seeing many friends on Facebook and Twitter sharing opinions and articles about Francis.
That means Boomer and Millennials and Gen-Xers are being exposed to Francis and the gospel he keeps talking about.
In the process, he’s transcending politics and denominational boundaries to present what living a Christ-like life can look like, he said.
“What amazes me about his intrepid faith is that he manages to make Christianity look attractive, hopeful, loving, empathetic and meanginful,” Owen wrote in his blog. “His serve-first mentality resonates with Boomers, Xers and Millennials.”
It’s also resonating with him. Owen said Francis’ ministry has inspired his own, and the pontiff’s actions are getting mentions in the Baptist’s sermons.
“It makes me want to recognize the holy in others,” he said. “It’s contagious.”
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