The times,” wrote Bob Dylan, “they are a-changin’.” And around the time that he penned those words about society half a century ago, the times also began “a-changin’ ” in the religious world, especially in respect to adversaries—the Reformation Protestants and Roman Catholics. Once foes, even to the point of violence, both sides of the Reformation have been seeking unity over the last 50 years in ways that would have made their forefathers weep and despair.
On the one hand, considering that Jesus wants Christians to be unified (John 17:20–23), this sounds like good idea; on the other hand, the moves are also a striking fulfillment of Bible prophecy concerning events in the religious world in the days just prior to Jesus’ return.
Over the past half century, and accelerating during the reign of Pope John Paul II, Catholics and Protestants have been moving closer together—various churches uniting, and Catholics and Protestants signing documents proclaiming theological harmony in once contentious areas.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church has made it easier for Anglicans, including Anglican priests, to join the Roman Church. What is interesting is that Rome will allow married Anglican priests to join their ranks, a move that’s left some wondering if Rome is about to cede its position regarding married priests.
On the other side of the religious divide is another example, highlighted by this year’s diamond jubilee of Elizabeth II. England is home to the Church of England, the head of which is the British monarch. After some 300 years, it is now possible for the monarch to marry a Roman Catholic— previously banned—a powerful symbol of the radical changes in attitudes between Protestants and Catholics.
As recently as 25 years ago, something like this would never even have been open for debate. Today, such bans are seen as holdovers belonging to a bygone era.
“Over the centuries,” said an article in the New York Times about England, “legal discrimination against Catholics has been dismantled one brick at a time. Laws that forbade Catholics to serve in the army, own or inherit land, vote, hold public office, or join one of the ‘learned professions’ have been scrapped, leaving the provision forbidding the monarch to marry a Catholic exposed, as most Catholics have seen it, as a relic of the past.”
From today’s perspective, this marriage thing hardly sounds like a big deal. Marrying a Roman Catholic? So what? However, given the bitter and violent history behind the ban, this represents a radical change.
If you remember your history, King Henry VIII, in a vicious dispute with Rome, broke away from the Roman Church and started another faith safe on his island kingdom—the Church of England. What followed were centuries of violence between Rome and the Anglicans. Kings and queens, some Anglican, some Catholic, fought for control of the crown and hence of the country itself throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These religious and political squabbles left thousands dead and the nation bitterly divided.
In the end, the Church of England won out. And though the violence has long stopped (although vestigal in Northern Ireland, perhaps), Catholics endured marginalization in Britain, at least until recently. Even now, residual dislike of Rome remains.
Thought in the scheme of things, this proposed change seems small, it nevertheless is representative of a trend to bring a practical unity between Protestants and Catholics, despite their vast theological differences.
Protestantism arose as a literal protest against not just the abuses of Rome, but eventually as a protest against the church itself. The Protestants, though also involved in internecine fighting themselves, were nevertheless united in their opposition to Rome, which had persecuted all dissidents for hundreds of years. Many died at the stake, and thousands more perished in wars of oppression, as history so unflatteringly attests. Though their history is much shorter, for two or three centuries, Protestants also persecuted those who dissented from their teachings. Today, all of this has been largely forgotten.
Then there’s the persecution of Christians in various Muslim countries of the world that is occurring in our own day. Christian churches are destroyed; Christians themselves are attacked; and many have been killed for their faith.
Christians are even being persecuted by Hindus in some parts of India. Some have been killed and many have had to flee for their lives and hide in the jungles, where they have had to live under the most primitive conditions for months.
The book of Revelation talks about various religiopolitical entities (symbolized by beast powers) which, toward the end of time, will unite to persecute God’s people. In Revelation, the apostle John said that one of these beast powers will “make war against the saints and . . . conquer them” (13:7) and another beast power will kill all those who do not worship in the politically acceptable manner (verse 15).
Though much still isn’t understood, Revelation’s description portends a unity between various massive religiopolitical powers that will persecute God’s faithful people in the time just before Jesus returns. It’s impossible to know exactly how or when all of this will develop, but events in today’s world tell us that Bible prophecy is being fulfilled.
Jesus Himself predicted that His people “will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” However, He added that “he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9, 12).