The story of the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants starts as early as the formation of the new testament church. The story of the early church is documented in the Book of Acts. From its origins, the church is portrayed as a body that was following the teachings of Jesus – to exercise the love of God which Christ termed as the most important commandment. The church demonstrated this by taking care of the destitute and leading a common life where none was in need.
But as fate would have it, trouble broke out in paradise when they started abandoning these ideals. In Acts 6:1, we find an account of some disquiet that arose in the church when the Hellenists complained that Hebrew widows were being taken care of better than theirs. As trivial as that might sound, it shows that even the early church had to deal with differences. And it is therefore not surprising that the Protestants differed from the Catholics.
The rise of the Protestant wing of the church started with the Reformation movement which was not only contentious but also resulted in a bloody three decades in Europe. Scholars have continued to study these two segments to try and understand the impact they have on Christianity. For instance, Pew Research did a survey to try and establish if the controversies of the Reformation still define the Protestant church in Europe and America today. It emerged that that was no longer the case. That said, there are still some important differences between the two groups.
Roman Catholic vs Protestant Christian Comparison
There are many differences between the Roman Catholic church and the Protestants but the most important differences have to do with sacraments, papacy, penance, intercession, and purgatory. Protestants and Catholics hold different views on these dogmas as well as many other doctrines. The table summarizes these differences:
|One true church||The Catholic church believes they are the only valid church tracing its origins to the church in the book of Acts||Protestants believe in one church but they also recognize the presence of multiple denominations that differ in doctrine but work towards attaining unity of faith.|
|Papacy||Peter was appointed by Jesus to be the first pope||The church was founded on the foundation of apostles and prophets as opposed to one individual|
|Salvation||Good deeds are necessary for salvation||Salvation is by grace through faith.|
|Sacraments||Grace comes through 7 sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, matrimony)||The two sacraments (baptism and communion) are practiced not as a cause but as a symbol of grace|
|Transubstantiation||The bread/wine becomes the physical body of Christ. Christ has sacrificed again and we can worship the elements of the communion||Bread and wine do not become the physical body of Christ – just a symbol|
|Penance||Ongoing confession to the priest is required for salvation||Complete forgiveness of sin is granted at justification and confession is only done to God|
|Intercession||Christians can pray through Mary and other saints||Christians should pray directly to God. Mary or other departed saints cannot intercede for them|
|Purgatory||Catholics believe in Purgatory, a temporary state of purification after death, where souls are cleansed before entering Heaven.||Protestants reject the concept of Purgatory, emphasizing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone.|
Let’s take a closer look at each of these differences in dogma between Protestants and Catholics.
One true church
The Catholics believe they are the original church and Protestants are a breakaway body. Protests also believe in the concept of a universal church but they also appreciate that this church is comprised of many denominations. The Protestants allow for diversity in doctrine as long as unity of faith is achieved.
The issue of the papacy is perhaps the most controversial difference. Even though both Catholics and Protestants recognize the place of an overall leader of the church, the Protestants do not subscribe to the teaching that Peter was the first pope. The scripture used by the Catholics (Mathew 16) where Jesus said he would build his church “upon this rock” is cited by Catholics to mean that Jesus was endorsing Peter as the first pope. However, most Protestants believe that Jesus was referring to the revelation that Peter had when he said that Jesus was the son of God.
The Catholics also believe in papal authority and infallibility. Every pope is viewed as a successor of Peter who received the mandate from Christ. The pope is therefore viewed as Christ’s vicar on earth. Protestants hold a different view on church leadership as they believe no leader is supreme. The Bible is considered the supreme authority and the only source of church doctrine.
Salvation is another huge bone of contention. Catholics believe that one can claim a reward of salvation based on his good works. However, Protestants believe that salvation is a gift that cannot be earned through good works. In the words of scripture, it can only be received by faith. This also explains the difference in teaching on life after death. Protestants believe that once one dies, only God can pass judgment on them based on whether or not they accepted Christ on earth. Catholics, however, believe that one’s soul can be redeemed from hell if those left behind pray for the departed one.
The 7 sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, matrimony) that Catholics view as a necessary part of attaining grace is another illustration of the different views on salvation. These sacraments are administered to Catholics as a way of helping them to attain salvation which goes against the teaching of the Protestants who view salvation as a gift that cannot be worked for or earned. In Catholic dogma, the 7 sacraments are considered important tenents of salvation that Catholics aim to achieve as it helps them attain salvation.
The Catholics take the teaching of Jesus on communion quite literally. They believe that the bread and wine of communion are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This makes them hold the elements of communion in very high regard – even to the point of worshiping them. They believe that the body of Christ is manifested in the elements each time they partake of communion. Every time communion is served, Catholics believe that Jesus has been taken to the cross gain. The Protestants on the other hand view the communion as a symbol to represent the body and blood of Christ. They believe Jesus only died once on the cross and no other death is needed for our remission.
Penance is arguably one of the most important teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The Catholics believe that the faithful should regularly confess their sins to the priest to attain salvation. Protestants on the other hand believe that confession of sin is only done to God and there is no need to go through a priest. Additionally, Protestants believe that confession of sins for purposes of salvation only happens once at the point of receiving Christ.
Intercession is another big difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Roman Catholics teach that Christians can pray through the Virgin Mary as well as through some other saints. It is believed that these saints are held in high regard by God and can therefore help us get our prayers answered. However, the Protestants believe that Christians should only pray to God without going through any intermediary. The Holy Spirit is the only helper that is needed who was sent to help us in all infirmities.
Catholics believe that one can still get salvation after death through the concept of purgatory. When one dies in a state of grace but is still wanting in some areas, they are taken to purgatory where they are given a chance to get into heaven. The teaching of purgatory is based on the notion that some Catholics may have attained salvation but were still attached to sin. As such, they need further cleansing and purification in purgatory before they proceed to heaven. The Catholics offer prayers and conduct mass for the departed souls in purgatory and they believe that their prayers will help the departed. Protestants reject the concept of purgatory and emphasize that salvation only comes through grace. Salvation is viewed as a personal commitment to Christ and one cannot pray for the departed souls to be saved.
How the Reformation Shaped the Protestant doctrine
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli, among other leaders, championed a reformation of the church in the 16th century. These calls for reformation are what led to the introduction of the Protestant movement which tried to improve on some of the areas that the Catholics were believed to be in error on. The Reformation not only focused on the liturgy but also the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church.
The five solas were identified as the main bones of contention which are believed to be the foundation of the Protestant church. Sola is a Latin word that loosely translates to alone. Here are the five solas in no particular order:
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
The doctrine of faith alone emphasizes justification by faith. Unlike what was taught in the Catholic church, the Reformation movement championed going back to the teaching of salvation by grace through faith. Faith alone seeks to discount the notion of getting saved through works and teaches that no one can attain salvation by being good or by doing good works. Even though good works are expected of Christians, they should be as a result of salvation and not the cause of salvation.
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone):
The sola scriptura doctrine emphasizes the scripture as the final authority. The Bible is viewed as superior to man and every doctrine and teaching in the church should be based on scripture. Consequently, no tradition, doctrine, or church constitution should be exalted above the scripture because the Bible is God’s word and therefore our final authority in the church. This doctrine was a rejection of the supremacy of the pope and the traditions of the Roman Catholic church that were contrary to the teaching of the bible.
- Sola gratia (grace alone)
This doctrine emphasizes that salvation is entirely a result of God’s grace which is an undeserved favor, and initiative. It asserts that human beings are incapable of earning or meriting their salvation, and it is solely by God’s grace that salvation is made available to humanity. The sola gratia principle sought to contend with the prevailing teaching in the Roman Catholic church that one could attain salvation through good works.
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
This principle emphasizes the fact that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between man and God. As such, salvation can only be found in having faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and accepting God’s plan of salvation through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This principle was an onslaught on sacerdotalism which created a priestly class in the church that was viewed as closer to God. The Protestant church now emphasizes that all born-again Christians are “kings and priests” as per what John the Revelator said in his writings.
- Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)
The Soli Deo Gloria principle teaches that all praise and glory belong to God and that no man should try to take God’s glory. The doctrine emphasizes God as our supreme authority and that all aspects of the Christian faith should be for the sole purpose of glorifying God. This principle was meant to correct the error of venerating saints and the god-like status accorded to the pope.
While it is true that the Catholics and Protestants have so many differences in doctrine, there are still some important similarities between the two. For instance, both believe in the trinity as well as the deity, death, and resurrection of Christ. Additionally, both believe in the importance of personal devotion and worship. In the book of Ephesians 4, the Bible calls for unity of faith and that is not the same as unity of doctrine. As such, we should focus on the foundations of faith that unite us rather than the differences in doctrine that divide us.