Should Catholics Go to Non-Denominational Bible Studies?

Every day, Catholics are invited by coworkers, neighbors, and even family members to “ecumenical” Bible studies. Should they go? Certainly all of us would benefit from more study of Scripture, but as someone who has been a part of a number of Protestant Bible studies—I’ve even taught them—I discourage Catholics from attending them because of the foundational premises and principles in operation at these studies.

Protestants are delighted to have Catholics attend their Bible studies, but it is often not because they want to hear and discuss the Catholic perspective on Scritpure. Instead, they see it as an opportunity to bring them to the “true Gospel”—to evangelize them, to get them saved. In many cases, though certainly not all, the non-denominational Bible study is the Trojan Horse that infiltrates the Catholic’s mind and succeeds in drawing him away from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church—to join a Protestant group. Most of us have a family member or friend who has been affected in this way.

An unwary Catholic who steps into the Protestant Bible study usually does so with no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. They just want to study the Bible. The Catholic usually has a hard time finding a good and welcoming Bible study in Catholic circles—but this is changing.

First, while the Bible study may call itself “non-denominational,” Catholics and Orthodox are not usually included under this umbrella. While they may be invited, you’ll rarely find them in leadership.

Protestants think of themselves as people of the Book, not hampered by human tradition. They think of Catholics as, at best, followers of traditions for whom the Bible is secondary. That is a huge misconception: Protestants are also people of tradition. No one reads the Bible objectively. People who claim to “just read the Bible” really read it through the eyes of a tradition they’ve already accepted, whether that be Fundamentalist, Calvinist, Pentecostal, Baptist or one of many others. Everyone depends upon tradition, but not everyone recognizes it.

“Bible Christians,” based on their tradition, study the Bible with these premises:

  • There is no binding authority but the Bible alone.
  • There is no official binding interpretation or interpreter.
  • The Bible is perspicuous (i.e., easy to understand) and can be interpreted and understood by anyone.
  • An individual can and should read the Bible and interpret it for himself.

Catholics, based on their Tradition, study the Bible with different premises:

  • The authority of the apostles and the Church preceded the Bible, and the Tradition of the Church is an equally infallible authority (2 Thess. 2:15; CCC 80–83). The Bible is part of the apostolic Tradition.
  • The authoritative interpretation of the Bible is the prerogative of the Catholic Church (1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 18:17; CCC 85-88).
  • The Bible is not always easy to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16) and needs to be understood within its historical and contextual framework and interpreted within the community to which it belongs.
  • Individuals can and should read the Bible and interpret it for themselves—but within the framework of the Church’s authoritative teaching and not based on their own private interpretation (2 Pet 1:20-21).

These basic differences place the Catholic and Protestant worlds apart even though they are opening the pages of the same book and accepting it as an authoritative revelation from God. The Catholic position is biblical and has been espoused from the first days of the Church. The Protestant position is unbiblical and is of recent origin. The Catholic is in full continuity with historical Christianity; Protestants are in discontinuity.

Catholics attending a non-denominational Bible study need to be aware of these differences and be ready not only to filter out false conclusions but also to guard themselves against the false underlying assumptions (e.g., that everything has to be found and proven explicitly in the Bible).

Catholics who are unaware often begin to adopt a Protestant mentality without knowing they are doing so, gradually learning to suspect the Catholic Church and trying to prove everything from the Bible.

Let’s Take Just One Example: Baptism

But what difference do these premises make? Let’s take the example of 1 Peter 3:18-21:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Notice the words in italics. What does it say? To Catholics it makes perfect sense because Christians have always taught (until the Reformation) that baptism is essential for salvation. As Catholics, we can draw from a wealth of other biblical and patristic passages that consistently and continuously teach a seamless garment of doctrine—the constant teaching of the Church, of all Christians.

A few examples:

Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5)

This has always been understood to mean water baptism, until descendants of the Reformation denied it and came up with new interpretations, such as that the water refers to the water in the womb, the word of God, or even a synonym for the Spirit (as in “water, even the Spirit”). There is no consensus among Protestants.

Other examples are Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16. The first says, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

The second one says, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

These verses agree with the words of Jesus, Titus 3:5, and the rest of the New Testament about the necessity and importance of baptism. But many Evangelicals will offer in reply a list of verses that say salvation is by faith (e.g., John 3:16) and argue that since he can find twenty-five verses that say salvation is by faith, it can’t be by baptism.

Can we cut two verses out of the Bible because we find ten others that seem to contradict? Heavens, no! We have to find a way to explain and accept both and harmonize them into a cogent theology. That is what Catholics have been doing well for two millenia.

One of the great reliefs for me as a Catholic was to read the Bible without having to set aside verses that didn’t agree with my preconceived assumptions. Catholics do not have this problem.

A Figure of a Figure? Go Figure.

Now, back to 1 Peter 3:18-21. Protestant commentaries on Scripture admit it is one of the most difficult passages of the Bible to interpret. Here is a quote from my book Crossing the Tiber:

In his recent anti-Catholic book The Gospel according to Rome, James McCarthy says that "when Peter says that ‘baptism now saves you,’ he is speaking of the typological, or symbolic, significance of baptism. . . . It [the word figure] tells us that what follows, ‘baptism now saves you,’ is a figurative illustration that complements the symbolism of a preceding figure" (331-332). It seems he is saying that baptism is a figure of a figure instead of the fulfillment of a figure. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature offers a different and more straightforward interpretation: "Baptism, which is a fulfillment (of the type), now saves you, i.e., the saving of Noah from the flood is a . . . ‘foreshadowing’ and baptism corresponds to it [fulfills it]" (75). McCarthy does go on to say: "This verse is part of one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to interpret. Nevertheless, this much is clear: it does not support the Roman Catholic doctrine" (331-332). (Crossing the Tiber, p. 130, note 56)

The Catholic interpretation explains the passage quite comfortably without twisting the text from its clear meaning, accepting the literal meaning of the text, and complementing the rest of New Testament teaching. It is difficult for McCarthy to interpret because he comes to the passage with a handicap: his Fundamentalist preconceptions.

Catholics: Seen but Not Heard

Baptism is just one example, and we have only scratched the surface. Other examples of passages that are difficult for Evangelicals—and where unwary Catholics attending a non-denominational Bible study can be misled—are John 20:23, Colossians 1:24, James 2:24, Matthew 16:18-19, and John 5:28-29.

Catholics often find non-denominational Bible studies appealing because of the warm, serious, loving, and family-like environment. Being used to reverence and quiet devotion, Catholics find the welcoming and chatty nature of these gatherings refreshing and new. But there is such a thing as an ecumenical Bible study that doesn’t allow knowledgeable Catholics to participate in leadership or where the Catholic perspective is not equally presented and discussed with respect. In a truly ecumenical Bible study, the Catholic interpretation and teaching is not treated as substandard or heretical.

Also, the Catholic Church is not a “denomination” (which means “to take a new name”); it is the Church. Those who are in schism, who break away or subsist apart from it are denominations or sects. The Church is not. It is the Church.

There’s still a long way to go to get Catholics to the point of scriptural study that Protestants have achieved. But it is happening, and you can help. For more information, see my article “Starting a Parish Bible Study” at

Steve Ray



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    I have advice for a Catholic wanting to attend these bible studies – take along an agnostic or atheist who knows the bible. Then things will really get interesting!
    Seriously, you don’t need a study group to read the bible, but I think this is why many people do it. It provides a disciplined way to go through it since you have to prepare for every meeting by doing the reading – though I imagine most people are reading (skimming) in class as they go!
    I suggest that it’s better if you read it by yourself, the first time. Just read it cover to cover – a chapter or two at lunch every day, and have “google” handy to look up things as you go. It’s OK to skim the pages of “begats” but otherwise, take a year and read a little every day. I have to warn you, though – reading the bible has a high incidence of readers turning to atheism or agnosticism… but some it makes even more devout.
    Go into it with a goal. What do you want to know? If you’re thinking about reading the bible, it’s because you’ve got questions. Write them down. Is there really a Hell? (how many are there?). Is God good or evil? Do we have free will or not (Pharaoh?) Is “God” actually a UFO? Are there contradictions (people wiped out here, popping up there)? Is it supported by evidence (i.e. creation, Exodus)? Whatever gives you a motivation to look for something as you go through it, will keep you going and keep you involved and interested. It’s not all talking snakes, fig leafs, murder and sex and adultery and rape and slavery and fire and brimstone, and incest and donkey emissions – there’s a lot of that and it’s entertaining, but there’s other stuff in there too. Some of it’s actually pretty good. But decide for yourself. Read it by yourself. Then read it again in a group if you’re so inclined. You’ll surely have a different motivation for the second reading if you choose to do so.
    If you get serious about it, then read the NT again – in chronological order. The books in the NT are not in the order in which they were written. You get the story of Jesus followed by Paul spreading the word, and the Revelation wraps it up at the end. However Paul wrote first – 20 years or more after Jesus died in the 50 CEs, and the first story from the author of Mark came about 70 CE, long afterwards. The Revelation was probably written before Luke/Acts which was a couple decades after Mark, who was followed by Matthew. You get a different “picture” when you read the NT in chronological order. You see the theology develop. You see how Jesus’ divinity evolves. You see Timothy and Peter, which according to many scholars were written long after their supposed authors died, (what we would call “forgers” today), prettying up the theology, closing the loopholes, settling issues such as women’s rights, or lack thereof, in the new religion, etc.
    I was neither encouraged nor discouraged from reading the bible as a Catholic kid. It just wasn’t something anyone did. The priest would tell us all we needed to know and that was it. When I read the book cover to cover many decades later, I discovered that the priests did not tell me everything I needed to know, and that much of what they told me wasn’t even in there. Perhaps things have changed, but probably not. Read the bible cover to cover. If you really believe that there’s a God and that your entire salvation rests on this being, and what his holy book says (even if you agree that only the RCC can properly interpret it – but why does it need to be interpreted if it’s a holy book?), then it seems reasonable to spend at least a little time finding out for yourself. If you really believe in this god, that is…. I don’t think most people really do. I think most people are just lazy and want someone else to do their thinking for them, and lord knows, the Catholic Church is ready, willing and able to step up and do your thinking for you. Wake up. Do your own thinking. Start by reading the entire bible on your own. It changed my life.

    1. Bill Kifer Reply

      As a Catholic currently participating a Protestant bible study, I would say you have to know why you are there, and it shouldn’t be simply to learn more about the Bible. I have heard some very insightful comments from Protestants on scripture that I probably wouldn’t have heard in a Catholic Bible study. I have also heard some absolutely untrue statements that, if you don’t know your faith, will certainly challenge it. If you do attend, you have an excellent chance of compromising your beliefs. That said, if you are are on solid ground and know your faith, it’s an excellent opportunity to share nuggets about scripture. Most recently, we discussed the Transfiguration. Since one has ever found Moses’ grave, his appearance at the Transfiguration suggests he was taken bodily into heaven because he’s paired with Elijah, who scripture describes as going bodily into Heaven. I didn’t go as far as to say that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven because 1) it’s a bible study not a debate, and 2) I wanted plant prepare them for a more appropriate time when the conversation directly references Mary. In a discussion on the Wedding at Cana, I had the opportunity to share that in Jesus referring to his mother as “Woman”, He establishes her as the spiritual mother of all Christians. Based on their amazed response, no one in the room had heard that before, but everyone liked it. I also share relevant quotes from the early fathers. Because I don’t brand anything I say as Catholic, everyone is very willing to listen.

  2. Timothy Walter Reply

    I disagree with you. I am not as knowledgeable clearly as you may be considering I am only 18, but I encourage everyone to join my Protestant youth group. I also go to a non-denominational youth group. The reason I go is because A) I don’t have any youth activities in my local Catholic Churches and B) I get so spiritually filled at these youth groups. Kids from all religious denominations go here and we are never pressured to think one way over another. I think you really stereotype all bible studies to fit one way by saying they are always trying to evangelize you to see their views on the gospel. God comes to us through very different ways, and I find him very clearly at these worship nights, sometimes even more so than sitting through a long and boring homily. This doesn’t mean I drop my Catholic faith. As long as you stay faithful to the Church’s teachings, I recommend you go anywhere you feel truly filled with the Holy Spirit.

  3. Bloom Reply

    I am participating in one. There’s one protestant in our group but I don’t believe what she says. Sometimes I am prepared to rebut whatever “protestant-ish” interpretation she may have. What worries me though, is most of the people in our circle, though Catholics, believe that it doesn’t matter whether they are Catholics, just as long as they believe in God! What do you think should I do? Quit? Or stay?

  4. Richard Reply

    All “non-denominational” or “inter-denominational” leaders are essentially educated according to an Evangelical strain. People can’t console themselves they are attending a “non-denominational” Bible study as if they aren’t going to be start getting fed ideas that are distinctly Protestant. Unless it is a bunch of guys from different churches getting together to read and talk about the Bible, if their is some leader there assuring everyone that everything is nice and “non-denominational”, be aware that what you are likely getting is “Evangelicalism lite”. Here’s an idea…get the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, be it a single book from the Bible or the whole New Testament, and work with your pastor to start a Bible study at your parish!

  5. Jason Glasco Reply

    It is forbidden for Catholics to attend or participate in any type of protestant “worship” or study or prayer. They are heretics and schismatics.

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      Watching the comments here, I once again ask myself, how it is that anyone could think the bible was actually “inspired” by God; unless the purpose of the inspiration was and is to drive wedges between people. Calling others who don’t believe what you do heretics – too bad you can’t burn them at the stake, like in the good old days, right? Ah, Christian love….
      The idea that the bible is the inspired word of God comes to us from the unknown guy pretending to be Paul who wrote Tim’s epistles. (Most scholars agree Paul had been long dead when the Tims were written). Anyway that author, who said that “scripture” was inspired (actually “god-breathed”); was only referring to the OT because the NT had not yet been assembled or fully written. It seems that the NT is not inspired, and the inspiration of the OT leaves a great deal to be desired!
      Just get off your lazy butt and read the bible. You don’t need a study group. Write in the margins, highlight things you have questions about, use google judiciously, and take questions to your own faith leaders if necessary. The benefit of a study group is to get you off your lazy butt to actually read the book. If you have any self will, just read a chapter or two every day at lunch and in a year you’ll be done; and in a much better position to ask questions.

    2. Stephen Reply

      Protestants aren’t heretics or schismatics. We are people who have rediscovered the Biblical truth of justification through faith in Christ alone, and not also having to load it with the heresies of the Roman Catholic (apostate) church in order to be acceptable to God.

      For centuries the truth and simplicity of the Gospel was hidden by the man-made teachings that are characteristic of the papal system that keeps people in ignorance of the Jesus of the New Testament, and gives them a pale imitation who lives in the shadow of Mary.
      Jesus is the ONLY mediator between God and man, not Mary, saints, or angels!

      The hands of many of the the popes have been red with the blood of Christian martyrs who would not bow to the papal antichrist!

      You need Jesus to pray for you not Mary; do obeisance to Jesus and not a man called the Pope; Base your faith on Scripture alone, and not the devilish doctrines promoted via an apostate “church”.

      1. Patrick Gannon Reply

        Yes, but you got your bible from the Catholics who picked and chose what would be included, and who were responsible for editing and for translation errors, such as translating Sheol, Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus all to the pagan word “Hell.” You’re arguing about interpretations of the bible that the Catholics compiled in the first place. Be careful when you hack away at your own roots (though I enjoy the entertainment!).
        I searched high and low for clear references in the bible to such things as the trinity, purgatory, mortal sins, and had no luck, but then I found no support for having “a personal relationship with Jesus” or the rapture, either.
        How can we rely on a book that can’t even make itself clear? How is it that Yahweh inspired it, but couldn’t manage to save any original manuscripts, and how can it be inspired if the manuscripts we have now have countless errors in them? The NT isn’t a reliable document for anything but theology, which of course, is always open to interpretation. I’ve studied this a bit, and if Jesus existed, he was a nobody. He wasn’t known outside his following; else historians of the time might have taken notice of the most important man to ever walk on the earth, according to believers. They didn’t.

  6. Prabhat Reply

    they are all finghting in the name of jesus and still they call themselves christians how funny.

  7. Arogya Reddy Reply

    The best weapon for Satan is bible it read bible thoroughly but Satan cannot hold the body of Christ the blood of Christ it can’t offer the sacrifice of Christ by using the bible it divided 48 thousand denominations it always says it is written like this you have to fallow this way and makes a new denomination only to stop Christ sacrifice on the earth the holy Eucharist is only weapon to defeat Satan so protestants don’t believe Eucharist John the Baptist point Jesus Christ saying this the lamb of of God who takes the sins of this world but he did not said this is the word of god who takes sins of this world lamb or word

  8. Arogya Reddy Reply

    The best weapon for Satan is bible it read bible thoroughly but Satan cannot hold the body of Christ the blood of Christ it can’t offer the sacrifice of Christ by using the bible it divided 48 thousand denominations it always says it is written like this you have to fallow this way and makes a new denomination only to stop Christ sacrifice on the earth the holy Eucharist is only weapon to defeat Satan so protestants don’t believe Eucharist John the Baptist point Jesus Christ saying this the lamb of of God who takes the sins of this world but he did not said this is the word of god who takes sins of this world lamb or word

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