Leading lights in the Free Presbyterian Church and its larger parent denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, have clashed over a visit by Pope Francis.
The Catholic leader is due to visit the Republic of Ireland in 2018 and there is strong speculation he also will visit Northern Ireland during the trip.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has confirmed she will meet him and the idea of a visit has been welcomed by other political parties and larger Protestant denominations.
However, Rev Ian Brown, clerk of the Free Presbyterian Church and minister at Rev Ian Paisley’s former Belfast base, the Martyr’s Memorial, criticised former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Rev John Dunlop, for embracing the pope’s theology and visit.
He noted that Rev Dunlop said the pontiff should come to Northern Ireland, that the Protestant churches “should welcome a visit” from him, and that the pontiff has written “a marvellous little book” called ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ which Rev Dunlop commends to all his friends.
But Rev Brown strongly criticised the book, saying it contained “a social gospel” in which people find salvation by “helping the poor and getting along with each other”.
He added: “This carries over into his economic theory, which is purely Marxist. And, to crown his errors, far from exalting the person and work of the only saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, the pope directs his highest praise to Mary. So, a treatise on Marxism and Mariolatry it is – but it has absolutely nothing to do with ‘The Joy of the Gospel’.”
Rev Brown added: “In calling on people to read this document – and in supporting a visit of the pope to our shores – John Dunlop is acting as a false light, a ‘foolish (fatal) fire’ that glows over the destructive marshland that is occupied by the pope.”
But Rev Dunlop responded that the visit is an opportunity to build bridges of friendship and understanding across long-standing divisions.
“It is useful to read what the pope has written, and while not agreeing with everything in his short book, nevertheless to welcome much within it with which one can agree,” he said.
He strongly affirmed a passage from the book, which he quoted: ‘The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness ... The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift.”