By Dr. Herbert Samworth
Nearly ten years have passed since a joint committee of Romans Catholics and Evangelicals issued a statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: the Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT). During this time three additional documents have been promulgated dealing with the themes of justification, the Scriptures and the communion of saints. The following begins with the history of the committee. Subsequent articles will review the documents as a whole, and then give some strictures and reflections on their content. It is our desire that every Evangelical Christian be familiar with their contents and equipped to discuss them in an intelligible manner.
THE HISTORY OF THE COMMITTEE
The contributors to the papers are members of both Evangelical and Roman Catholic churches. They stress clearly that their productions should not be considered as official documents of their communities but that they speak from their communities and to their communities.
The reason for this disclaimer is not hard to decipher because Roman Catholics as individuals are not permitted to speak authoritatively for the Church. Official pronouncements or teachings must come from the Papal Chair or the Magisterium, the official teaching office of the Church. On the other hand, any Evangelical or Protestant is permitted to state what he or she believes is the truth of God’s Word. Thus, many people believe that Evangelicals and Catholics Together is an official document of the Evangelical community. When one considers the influence of the Evangelicals who have signed these documents, this impression is strengthened.
Although the initial impetus for these meetings is somewhat obscure, it appears there were two and possibly three, reasons, for their formation. The meetings may have originated with Father Richard Neuhaus who converted to Roman Catholicism from the Lutheran church. Father Neuhaus is presently the editor of First Things, a periodical that has received critical acclaim for its quality of writing and subject matter. To convince Evangelicals that the differences between the Evangelical and Catholic churches are not insurmountable and incapable of resolution, Father Neuhaus may have initiated the discussions. Without doubt, he has been a major player in the proceedings, affixing his name to each of the four statements.
On the Protestant side, we find the name of Charles Colson, former aide to President Richard Nixon. Following his conviction for obstruction of justice, Colson spent time in prison. After his release, he established Prison Fellowship, a noted ministry to prisoners. Colson is also a prolific speaker and author who has written numerous books combining teaching and practical application on such topics as the church and ethics. While a brilliant author, Colson has not pursued formal theological training.
Another impetus to the formation of the committee was the co-operation on a practical level between Catholics and Evangelicals. The last decades of the twentieth century were marked by joint actions of Evangelicals and Catholics to combat abortion and, to a lesser extent, other societal injustices. Taking their opposition to the streets, Evangelicals and Catholics worked together to educate people on abortion, conducted boycotts of abortion clinics, and other activities. Such joint endeavors have been called the ecumenism of the trenches.
Another contributing factor to the Evangelical and Catholic dialogue has been the tension and, at times, violence between Evangelicals and Catholics in Latin America. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed a near monopoly in that area of the world. However, during the latter decades of the twentieth century, Evangelicals have made unprecedented gains among the Spanish and Portuguese speaking people of the region. Frequently this conflict took on the nature of class warfare as the landowners fought to maintain their control over their workers. Whether or not the basic conflict was one of class struggle or religious freedom, it rose to the level where there was the necessity of a truce between the combatants. For that reason the first paper issued from the committee had the subtitle of The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium and sought to clarify the mission of the Church.
These facts, taken together, caused the principal individuals to reflect on the possibility that a doctrinal, as well as a practical, unity could be achieved between Catholics and Evangelicals. This quest for unity between Evangelicals and Catholics is part of the larger attempt to achieve unity among all Christians. The Second Vatican Council, under the direction of Pope John XXIII and known as Vatican II, took the position that those who remained outside the communion of Rome were separated brethren rather than active opponents. As a result, non-Roman Catholics were not considered as unbelievers but members of incomplete churches because they failed to acknowledge the Petrine origin of the church and the role of the Bishop of Rome as the head of all Christendom. The Roman Catholic Church has been eager to seek reconciliation with these separated brethren and has held formal talks with Lutherans and Anglicans to explore the possibility of a reunion with Rome.
As a result, the dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics began from a practical basis of cooperation against abortion and effort to halt the violence in Latin America and not from a shared doctrinal basis. In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church found a shared basis of fellowship with the Charismatic movement. The evidence of this fellowship was the common experience of speaking in tongues. This method to achieve unity, that begins from the practical or experiential and works toward the doctrinal, is the one being employed by Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
It is at this point that we must pause to reflect on this method of approach. There is no question that the Word of God speaks about the unity of Christians. Genuine believers in the Lord Jesus are to demonstrate the unity prayed for by the Lord in John 17.
However, in His prayer the Lord also prayed for the sanctification or growth in holiness of His people. This sanctification is the fruit resulting from the teaching of God’s Word. Therefore, the unity for which the Lord prayed in John 17 must be unity that is based on the truth.
This teaching is reinforced in Ephesians 4, where Paul speaks of a two-fold unity: the unity that already exists among Christians and a unity toward which we are to strive. The first is the unity of the Holy Spirit, e.g. the unity that results from the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration in the individual’s heart and can only be accomplished by the supernatural work of the Spirit of God Himself.
This unity of the Holy Spirit is based on the unity of the Godhead in the work of redemption and the unity of the salvation possessed by all true Christians. This must be the place from which we start to achieve the unity of maturity among those who are true Christians. The goal or standard toward which we are to strive is the likeness to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Paul also demonstrates the means by which this unity is to be achieved. God has gifted His church with individuals who equip the saints toward maturity. This unity of maturity does not come about automatically; it comes as a result of the person’s growth and learning in the understanding and knowledge of Christ Himself.
It is here, at the beginning of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together, that we must express our concern. The major premise of the two parties assumes that, because we are like-minded on social issues, a unity of spiritual fellowship must be a present reality between Evangelicals and Catholics.
In our next article we will seek to determine whether or not Evangelicals and Catholics do indeed share a common spiritual fellowship. If such indeed is the case, then a strong argument can be made that there is really no major differences between the two expressions of the Christian faith. However, if there are differences that call into question whether or not Evangelicals and Catholics share the common faith, then the entire basis of the agreements between the parties can be called into question.
It is the opinion of the writer that this is one of the most pressing issues in the Christian community today. What is at stake is not just a polemical argument where one side seeks to triumph. This is a matter that deals with the spiritual state of professing Christians. There can be no joy or elation in determining that another’s teaching comes short of what God has declared in His Word. That same Word demands that all teachings be tried by the same infallible standard to determine what God has stated.