What is the difference between Catholics and Protestants?

The differences between Catholic teaching an Protestant doctrine goes far beyond mere preferences in style, dress or worship.  While there are no longer literal battlefields full of dead foot soldiers or holy wars, the two groups have fundamental different and unreconciled points of view in regard to important teachings.

The Bible

There is a basic disagreement in how one views the Bible.  For Protestant teachers, the Bible is the only and sufficient source of teaching regarding God, salvation, sin, man, the practice of the church and the future.  The Bible is the complete manual for how to live the Christian life.  During the Protestant Reformation the cry “Sola Scriptura” was often sited meaning “Only Scripture”.  

2 Timothy 3:16 teaches this idea of the “Sola Scriptura”

2 Timothy 3:16-17  (16)  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  (17)  that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Catholic teachers rest on sources of authority apart from the Bible.  While they believe that the Bible is God’s Word, it alone is not sufficient to know the entire mind of God.  Roman Catholic tradition and the utterances of the Pope are also considered to be equally important and valid.  In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has affirmed that since the Pope is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for him to speak error when speaking about official matters of doctrine in the church.

It is not surprising to find beliefs in the Catholic Church that have no basis in Scripture.  Purgatory, indulgences, sainthood, sacraments, confession to priests, and the office of the Pope himself are all based on church tradition rather than the Bible.  This difference of belief about the Bible lies at the root of the differences between Catholics and Protestants.

The Pope

The Catholic Church relies on the Pope to be the representative of Christ on earth.  This “Vicar of Christ” or “Vicarious Christ” means that he takes the place of Christ.  Protestants love to apply this Vicar title to the term “Anti-Christ” since “anti” is the term to mean “takes the place of”.  In the sense of the meaning of the word, the Pope takes the place of Christ or becomes the “Antichrist”.  This virulent language appeared in Protestant literature since the Protestant Reformation and appeared for centuries in the notes of the popular Geneva Bible published by Protestants in Geneva, Switzerland.

Being the Vicar of Christ, the Pope claims to speak “ex cathedra” or “from the chair” in regards to matters of belief or doctrine.  Speaking this way, he claims to be infallible, without error.

Protestants find this teaching to be in grave error.  No man is infallible.  The apostles words were inspired, but since their passing, Scripture is complete.  The extent that the Pope agrees with the Scriptures is the only extent that he speaks the truth.  Catholics therefore believe, for example, that Mary ascended to heaven at the end of her life because November 1, 1950, the Pope declared this to be so.

Interpretation of the Bible

The Catholic Church affirms that only the Church has the ability and authority to interpret the Bible.  This reduces the likelihood that Catholic parishioners need to study the Bible nor even take one to church services.  Many Protestants, on the other hand, emphasize scripture memorization and Bible stories from earliest ages.

2 Timothy 3:14-15  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it  (15)  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  


Another of the “Sola” cries in the Reformation was “Sola Fide” or “Only Faith”.  This refers to the fact that faith in Christ alone can save.  

Ephesians 2:8-9  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  (9)  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Catholic teaching claims that faith plus works is necessary for salvation.  Seven steps of the Sacraments are deemed essential in reaching heaven.  These steps are: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, anointing of the sick, Holy Orders, and matrimony.

Protestants believe there is only one step to salvation...

Acts 16:30-31  "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"  (31)  And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."

The Catholic Church teaches that there is a place called Purgatory - a place to purge oneself - where those who “are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions” will be punished.  This quasi-hell has no basis Bible teaching, but rather comes from official Church teachings and traditions.  Indulgences, or payments for sins, were one of the contributing factors to the Reformation in the middle ages.  The Church enriched itself by collecting payments to hasten the exit of loved ones that had passed on before into Pergetory.

Protestants believe that a Christian goes to be in Heaven at the moment of death.  If a person has not received forgiveness for sins through trusting in Christ, he will be in Hell forever.  The work of Christ on the cross is sufficient to forgive all sins.  Anything added to His sacrifice is imperfect and unnecessary.  (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:171 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10).

Catholic and Protestants disagree on the most fundamental matters of faith:
  • The inspiration and completeness of Scripture
  • The role of leadership in the church.
  • The future destiny of mankind in eternity.
  • The way of salvation.
Shad Sluiter