In the secular world Mary, the young virgin who bore Jesus, is not recognized as a great person, just a minor player in a yearly religious feast. Within Roman Catholicism, however, her prominence is great and much of the confusion and misunderstanding about her come from here.
When I was in junior high, as a Catholic boy in a Catholic school, one of our biggest after school clubs was called "The Legion of Mary" (like the Foreign Legion). We were like "the soldiers of Christ" but for Mary. We had meetings and were involved in benevolent works and youth camps under this banner, and Mary was the spiritual sponsor and mentor for our club.
It seemed like a harmless enough activity, but within Catholicism there exists many ideas and teachings about Mary that have absolutely no basis in the Bible. And so, in reviewing the character and contribution of this important historical figure it is necessary to understand the difference between the Mary of Roman Catholicism and the Mary of the New Testament.
When we study the teachings about Mary in the textbooks of the Catholic Church and compare these with what the Bible teaches about her, we quickly see that two very different people emerge. As an example of this I'd like to describe five main teachings about Mary by the Catholic Church, and compare these to what the New Testament tells us about her in that context.
1. Mary: The Mother of God
Catholics worship Mary and do so enthusiastically and openly (Mariology). They have special prayers directed towards her. For example, The Hail Mary:
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus..."
My aunt had 7 children and every night at 6 pm after supper they would all kneel and recite the rosary beads - repeating the Hail Mary, Our Father, and various other prayers directed towards God, Jesus, and Mary. They believed that Mary was a legitimate object for worship and adoration and called her the "Mother of God" in their prayer. The Bible calls Mary the mother of Jesus, never the mother of God.
She was blessed because she was chosen to conceive and bear the human form of God's Son (Luke 1:27-42). What was special about her was that a miracle was performed through her. For example, she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and not through the normal way of sexual relations with a man.
God performed many miracles through people: Moses, Peter, Paul, etc. - but we don't worship them. He even made a donkey talk to a man (Numbers 22:28) - should we now begin a cult to honor donkeys?
The one born of Mary was God's Son, the creator of all things (Colossians 1:16). So to worship Mary is to worship the created thing instead of the creator, and the Bible forbids this (Romans 1:25). Only God is to be worshiped and adored (that's the first commandment in Exodus 20), and the only worship He accepts is that which is offered through His Son, Jesus Christ.
"I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me."
- John 14:6
2. Mary: Co-Redemptrix with Christ
In the last several years the Pope has received over millions of requests from over a hundred different countries asking him to proclaim a new dogma of the Roman Catholic faith: that Mary is Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces, and Advocate of the people.
In many a Catholic's mind a person goes to Mary in prayer and she makes a request to Jesus and He goes to God. One Catholic Pope (Pius IX) explained it this way: "God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things … that we (may) obtain everything through Mary."
Pope John Paul ll even suggested that by virtue of the fact that Mary was, for a time, at the foot of the cross with John the Apostle before Jesus died, she thus shares in the redemption work of Jesus on the cross. In other words, Jesus and Mary offered up a sacrifice for the sins of men. The Bible, however, is very clear about who is and who is not the redemptor and mediator between God and man:
For God rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
- Colossians 1:13-14
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
- Acts 4:12
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
- I Timothy 2:5
To suggest that Mary shared the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross or that she in some way is a mediator between ourselves and God is to contradict the inspired writing of both Apostles Peter and Paul, and dishonor Mary who, if she were alive, would reject any such privilege. It is, in the Apostle Paul's estimate, a first class heresy and those responsible for it will be cursed:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
- Galatians 1:6-8
3. Mary: Born and Lived Without Sin
In order to exalt Mary to such a lofty spiritual position and have it fit the rest of Christian theology, a new doctrine had to be invented. It is difficult to encourage people to venerate and hold up a person who is, after all, a sinner like the rest of us.
In 1854, the Catholic Church gave official approval to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This doctrine proposed that Mary was born without sin and thus never sinned in her life. She was sinless. Catholics believe that everyone is born with "original sin" (the guilt of sin is inherited from generation to generation by procreation).
They reasoned that since Mary was born without original sin, then she was never subject to sin for the rest of her life. Of course this is just one mistaken idea trying to cover an older mistaken idea. First of all, the idea of original sin was developed by a monk named Augustine in the 4th century. It is clearly a human idea not based on the New Testament teachings of Christ.
What the Bible teaches about our sinfulness is quite clear.
A. Sinfulness is not inherited from our parents (Ezekiel 18:20).
B. We are born without sin of any kind. Children are not accountable to God for sin.
...unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 18:3
Jesus wants us to be like children, because of their innocence when it comes to sin.
C. We sin when we break God's laws and commands. For example, in Genesis 1:17 God warned Adam not to disobey His word because this would be sinning.
D. All are sinners (Romans 3:23). The Bible says everyone, with the exception of Jesus Himself, has sinned. The doctrine that Mary was a sinless person was invented by human teachers (sinful men) not the Bible.
4. Mary: The Perpetual Virgin
In a doctrine that was confirmed by the Catholic Church (Council of Trent 1545-63), it was proposed that Mary conceived as a virgin and remained a virgin all her life. This notion was born at a time when it was taught that sex was somehow dirty and that the celibate life was more noble and pleasing to God (monasteries, etc.).
It was only natural that in this religious climate a doctrine that would "protect" the image of Mary as a perpetual virgin would be born. Monks, priests, and nuns would have a much easier time venerating a person who was, like they had chosen to be, celibate for life. And so they created a doctrine to suit their purposes: perpetual virginity.
There are only two problems with this particular teaching about Mary.
A. The Bible teaches that sex within marriage is a good and holy thing (Hebrews 13:4).
The Bible teaches that married couples should rejoice and enjoy their love-making because it is a blessing from God.
Rejoice with the wife of your youth…let her breast satisfy you at all times.
- Proverbs 5:18-20
B. After Jesus was born, Mary had normal relations with her husband and bore several other children (Matthew 1:18; 25; Luke 2:7; Matthew 13:54-56).
Neither celibacy nor marriage is more honorable than the other. It depends on your calling and ability in life. What pleases God is if you are faithful to Christ, not if you make vows of marriage or celibacy.
5. Mary: Raised From the Dead
This doctrine is called the "Assumption." It states that Mary was raised in the same way Jesus was, so that her body did not see decay in the grave. This was not a required dogma for many years but on November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared this as an official Catholic doctrine. He said in part, "...when the course of her earthly life was finished, (she) was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven."
This doctrine, he claimed, was revealed to him by God. Once again we find no basis in Scripture to support this idea in any way. As a matter of fact, the Bible is very specific in giving only to Jesus the position of one who is resurrected from the dead and assumed into heaven in a glorious way.
- Philippians 2:9 - "...highly exalted Him."
- Acts 1:9 - "...He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight."
There are other such teachings about Mary involving visions and powers, miracles and signs supposed to have been done in her name. I've kept to these main doctrines because these are official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. We've reviewed these for several reasons:
A. Mary was an important person
I don't mean to denigrate Mary as a servant of the Lord. If you study her life in the Bible, you'll see that she was knowledgeable of the Scriptures. She was humble and pious. She had courage. She had faith. She was all these things and more, but nowhere in any references to her in the Holy Scriptures was she ever referred to as the Mother of God, Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix with Jesus, without sin, a perpetual virgin, or taken up to heaven in bodily form.
All these things are ideas invented long after she died, and invented by theologians, monks, and priests! Mary was important because she was chosen to carry the baby Jesus into the world. This was a great honor. After she accomplished this, God did not give her or require of her any special role or position. She too had to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior like everyone else.
And we know she did this because the last place we see her is with her children, the Apostles, and other disciples of Jesus just before the day of Pentecost.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
- Acts 1:12-14
The thing that made Mary special to God was the same thing that makes all of us special to God: she believed that Jesus was the Son of God and she followed Him.
B. What will you believe?
The challenge faced by people in various denominations like Catholicism or Protestantism or other Evangelical groups is this, "What are you going to believe?" Are you simply going to believe what the Bible says, and only the Bible, or are you going to stay with the teachings and traditions of human beings?
Religion, no matter how sincere, how zealous, how ritualistically beautiful, how old, how big, or how popular is of no use if it isn't based on God's Word. And every person will be judged by God according to His Word...
He who rejects Me (Jesus) and does not receive my sayings has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.
- John 12:48
...not the word of parents, ministers, the Popes, or teachers; the Word of the Lord will judge on the last day. That is why we judge everything now by that Word:
- If the Word supports it, we support it.
- If the Word rejects it, we reject it.
- If the Word says do it, we do it.
- If the Word is silent, we are silent with care and prudence, and use our best judgment.