Recently I had an opportunity to visit Rome, Italy, where I rendezvoused with our Sanctuary Choir and Orchestra on their International Choir Tour, an event that is planned every four years. This year our choir visited Munich, Venice, Florence, and Rome, singing in Mass at a variety of cathedrals, and sharing concerts in local churches and piazzas.
Other than one Anglican church and two Baptist churches, our choir primarily sang in Catholic settings. I was privileged to join our group as they sang during Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and then later shared a full concert in The Artist’s Church, a local cathedral that customarily hosts a variety of musical guests.
One of our ladies commented on how much she enjoyed Mass and yet missed the kind of worship services we enjoy at home. “I know they are more formal, but I believe they are definitely worshipping God. What are the major differences between us and them?”
“It really comes down to who you believe holds the keys,” I responded. Although we share a common story about Christ, there really are a lot of differences between Baptists and Catholics, and perhaps at my age, I am more appreciative of our distinctness and theirs.
As a child growing up on the rural south, I didn’t know a Catholic until junior high school. In my rural Baptist heritage, folks were generally suspect of the Methodists, because they didn’t have church on Sunday night and they used an insufficient amount of water for baptism. But on more than one occasion I heard that Catholics were not really Christian since they had not “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.”
Through the years I have come to appreciate the faith perspectives of Catholic friends and colleagues, though we do not always fully agree. In each of the communities where I have served, I have developed friendships with the local priests who taught me a few of the basics about Catholic theology, even as they exemplified the presence of Christ.
When I became pastor at the First Baptist Church in Corbin, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, in the mid-1990’s, the congregation hosted a reception on Sunday afternoon after my first worship service. I was moved to discover that, in addition to the beautiful altar flowers which had been provided by my previous church at First Baptist Church of Williams near Jacksonville, Alabama, a huge peace lily had been sent by Corbin’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church to welcome me to the area. Also, near the front of the receiving line at the reception I met Father Roger Arnsparger, priest at Sacred Heart, accompanied by two of the nuns from the St. Camillus Academy, the local Catholic School.
During our ensuing friendship and ecumenical service to the community, Father Arnsparger gave me a whole new appreciation for catechism, confirmation, genuflection, and iconography. However, as a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister, we each held a different perspective about the keys to the kingdom.
In Matthew 16:18, just after Simon Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” Jesus says to Peter rather emphatically, 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be] loosed in heaven.”
The way I responded to the question about our differences is a bit over simplistic. Catholics emphasize a process of confirmation and Baptists emphasize the need for conversion. Catholics say their prayers through intercessors while Baptists pray directly to God. But perhaps the most distinctive difference regards the stewardship of the keys to the kingdom. Catholic tradition contends that, according to Matthew 16:19, Jesus was conveying to Simon Peter specific and unique authority to “hold the keys to the kingdom” and to establish and oversee the church. Simon Peter became the first bishop of Rome and was later believed to have been the first pope, shepherding and governing the church, until being put to death by Nero.
Our Baptist ancestors have understood that Jesus gave to Simon Peter and all of his disciples a priestly commission, indicating that their ministries were the very keys to the kingdom that would open the door to invite others in. One of our foundational Baptist distinctives is that we contend for the priesthood of every believer, believing that we as individual believers have both priestly access and priestly responsibilities. Priestly access reminds us that we approach God directly to confess our sins and say our prayers. Priestly responsibility calls us to be priests to one another by encouraging each other, praying for one another, and participating in acts of service for the good of the community.
I love my priest friends and I enjoy the order and liturgy of Mass on occasion, but I am Baptist in heart and in conviction. Baptist is more than a denominational label you write on a church sign. It is a way of holding the keys to the kingdom. And the kingdom is not just a reference to the “sweet by and by” but in invitation to live life God’s way in the “real here and now.”
While I am enjoying a few days of visiting some of the largest and most beautiful basilicas and cathedrals in the world, I am reminded of the significance of Simon Peter’s bold faith and courageous ministry.
And yes, I believe that Jesus did give to Simon Peter the keys to the kingdom. But he also gave them to James and John. And Jesus also gave the keys to you and to me.
(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)