What is the meaning of life? This is the question that many seek to answer and that the internationally known Alpha Course allows people to explore. Having attracted 18.5 million guests since 1993, the Alpha Course is advertised as a non-confrontational means of sharing the truths of the Christian faith. The website of Alpha USA states:
Alpha gives everyone the opportunity to explore the meaning of life in a relaxed, friendly setting.
Alpha is for anyone and people attend from all backgrounds, religions, and viewpoints. They come to investigate questions about the existence of God, the purpose of life, the afterlife, the claims of Jesus and more. Some people want to get beyond religion and find a relationship with God that really changes life. Others come for the close, long-lasting friendships that are built during the Alpha course.
The Alpha Course and its origins have not been without critique in the past. In fact, with a little research, it should not take long for the discerning Christian to find several issues of concern with the course and its current director, Nicky Gumbel, who also is the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. This article, however, will focus on only one of these issues, that of the ecumenical nature of the Alpha Course.
In an interview appearing earlier this year on the website of Willow Creek Community Church, Gumbel states,
Alpha runs in every arm of the Church. It’s growing the fastest in the Catholic church. There are a billion Catholics in the world—many in Latin America, and in France where 99% are Catholic. But the course runs exactly the same no matter the denomination. In Alpha, we stick to the foundational pieces of the Christian faith we all agree upon: Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, the Bible, prayer. What unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us. We focus on what unites us. We present a united front to the world. In every different part of the body of Christ—Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, non-denominational, Catholic, Pentecostals, Bulgarian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox—Alpha crosses all divides. No matter the church, Alpha sticks to the same key ingredients: food, a presentation of the gospel, and talking. The gospel is unchanging. It’s the power of God. The key part of Alpha’s success is the work of the Holy Spirit. We’re still not sure why Alpha works. But it does. Source
Gumbel declares that the Alpha Course “runs exactly the same no matter the denomination,” including, apparently, the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, this is only partially true because, rather than using the exact same Alpha Course that is presented in Protestant or evangelical circles, a specially developed Alpha for Catholics was created back in 1996.
Alpha first ran in a Catholic context after Cardinal Basil Hume invited Alpha pioneers Nicky Gumbel and Sandy Millar to a lead an Alpha conference in 1996 at Westminster Cathedral. In the years following this conference, Alpha was launched in Catholic parishes across the world. Alpha is now running in the Catholic Church in over 65 countries. Source
While the format of the courses may be similar, the content necessarily varies. The website of Alpha for Catholics describes it thusly:
Alpha for Catholics is a practical introduction to creedal Christianity over a 10 week course. Unique in its adult learning approach, Alpha meets participants where they are, starting with their questions.
Designed for those on the fringes of their faith and those outside the Church, Alpha creates a non-threatening environment of hospitality allowing people to explore the claims of Christ against the backdrop of our culture. Alpha provides an opportunity to encounter the love of God in a personal relationship through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Alpha focuses on the kerygma and the basic tenants of Christianity.
Alpha also serves as a refresher course for practicing Catholics and a point of re-entry for lapsed Catholics.
It appears, then, that the Alpha Course for Catholics may include teachings specific to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Yet, when one examines some of the core doctrines of the RCC, one realizes that it actually teaches much that is contrary to biblical Christianity. In the quote above, Nicky Gumbel noted that, “In Alpha, we stick to the foundational pieces of the Christian faith we all agree upon: Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, the Bible, prayer. What unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Gumbel has made a grievous and erroneous statement here, for what divides the Roman Catholic Church and orthodox Christianity is the very Gospel itself.
At the Council of Trent, which was held from 1545–1563, the Roman Catholic Church gathered to counter the effects of the Protestant Reformation. At this meeting, Rome ultimately anathematized, or condemned, the biblical doctrine of justification. (For further insight into this, the reader is encouraged to visit CRN’s Roman Catholicism research page.) As merely one example of the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of justification by faith alone, let us look at Canon 9 as decreed by the Council of Trent:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. Source
Contrarily, Scripture teaches that man’s deeds are as filthy rags before the Lord (Isa. 64:6), and that men are saved not by works of their own hands, but by the grace of God (Eph. 2:8–9). This is just one of numerous contradictions that exist between biblical, orthodox Christianity and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, yet it is a fatal one. Its reality means that Rome stands in opposition to God’s Word, and thus to God Himself.
Turning attention once again to the Alpha Course, Gumbel’s claim that it unites the various denominations based upon the “foundational pieces of the Christian faith we all agree upon” crumbles under the fact that the Roman Catholic faith denies the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in Scripture. If the Alpha Course truly desires to see souls saved from God’s wrath and condemnation, then why have they chosen to cater to an aberrant and false gospel through their creation and promotion of Alpha for Catholics?
Nicky Gumbel declares that Alpha is quite popular within the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, again, if the true Gospel of Christ is being taught at each Alpha Course (the same Gospel that was anathematized at Trent), then it seems difficult to believe that it would be receiving such glowing praise and endorsement from Roman Catholic leaders. Alpha for Catholics even is featured on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a document entitled, “A Review of the Best Evangelization Methods and Resources Available for Parish Outreach Efforts.”
Alpha USA now has taken this ecumenical compromise one step further, as it has now announced that, for the first time in its history, a Catholic bishop has been appointed to its Board of Directors. The press release reads:
Bishop Michael Byrnes, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is the first Catholic ever to be appointed to the board of Alpha. More than 18 million people in 169 countries have attended an Alpha course, which the U.S. Conference of Bishops recently recognized as “one of the best methods of evangelization and resources for parish outreach.”
Bishop Byrnes’ historic appointment to Alpha’s board comes on the eve the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will draw Catholic leaders from all over the world to Rome October 7-28 to discuss the theme of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” The gathering coincides with the launch of The Year of Faith, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI.
His appointment also comes at a particularly significant moment for the Catholic Church, at the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the inauguration of The Year of Faith.
It seems fair to note that Alpha USA is quite excited about this addition to their leadership. The press release goes on to note,
“The appointment of a Catholic bishop to the Alpha USA board is of major importance,” says the Rev. Steve Mitchell, a Catholic deacon and national director of Alpha for Catholics. “Bishop Byrnes’ appointment offers further proof of the ability of Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals to work together to further the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Source
Here again we see the egregious error of ecumenical compromise. As has already been demonstrated, the Roman Catholic Church stands in opposition to the true, saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, it cannot “work together” with Protestants and Evangelicals “to further the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Such partnering cannot occur because Rome long ago trampled on that Good News.
This compromise by Alpha is not a new one, as it was noted that Alpha for Catholics has been in existence for some time. Yet the subject warrants discussion and warning nevertheless. To join hands with the Roman Catholic Church in an endeavor such as this is to disregard the efforts—and the blood—of the Reformation. The larger evangelical community engaged in such a discussion in 1994 with the creation and signing of the document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In response to this document, Pastor John MacArthur wrote:
Should evangelicals wish to see the Protestant Reformation undone? Certainly not. The Reformation was not a tragedy but a glorious victory. The result of the Reformation was not a breach in the true body of Christ but the recovery of the gospel of grace from the near obscurity it had fallen into under Catholic abuses. Protestants who doubt that ought to study church history.
Now is the time when evangelicals must carefully reexamine how dearly they hold their doctrinal convictions. We ought to pause and ask ourselves if we really are willing to consider all who recite the Apostles’ Creed as true members of the body of Christ. Either the Protestant Reformation was all a big mistake, or we must be willing to stand with the Reformers. Are we ready to concede that the thousands of martyrs who gave their lives to oppose the tyranny and false doctrine of Rome all died for an unworthy cause?
These are not minor issues. Nor will they go away if evangelical leaders merely keep silent. Other treaties and more doctrinal compromise will follow “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Those who hold biblical convictions will find themselves forced either to make peace with enemies of the gospel or to take a clear and vigorous stand against Rome’s “different gospel” and against ecumenical homogeneity.
Indeed, MacArthur’s declaration that additional doctrinal compromise would come has proven true time and again, and it appears to be true of the Alpha Course. While some may argue that “God can use anything to save”—and He certainly can—such a fact nevertheless does not mean that Christians knowingly and willingly walk alongside those who are enemies of the Gospel in supposed gospel efforts. Oil and water do not mix, and neither do Rome and the historic, orthodox Christian faith. Christ cannot have fellowship with Belial (2 Cor. 6:14–15).