A Catholic looks at evangelical Protestants

THOMAS F. STRANSKY

'True dialogue begins only when I try to understand evangelicals as they understand themselves', writes Thomas Stransky, a Paulist for many years involved in dialogue with evangelicals and now Rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Israel. Here he sketches the recent history of Catholic-evangelical relations and offers a vision which, if shared, can present a common witness to the world.

Evangelical and ecumenical are shifting their meanings, because Christian constituencies which embrace these terms are also changing. Such shifts are the continuing plight for any biblically-derived label. Some Christians wish to protect its use exclusively for themselves, while others judge the same term also includes them. For some Anglicans and Protestants, even 'Catholic' is of their identity, for example, 'I am a Catholic Lutheran'. Christian labels become porous.

I describe myself as an evangelical, ecumenical Roman Catholic. I do so not to be hailed as a nice guy in any Christian company, or tolerated as a confused contradiction. I continue, humbly I pray, to develop a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of all, and to place that faith and its disciplined practice under the binding authority of the Word of God. I try to live as a faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church which I believe bears within itself historical continuity with the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church. But the Church of Christ is wounded by the scandalous divisions between Christians and the existing churches, including the Roman Catholic. So I search for and minister with all fellow Christians who share the overarching ecumenical evangelical commitment: 'the whole gospel of the whole Church to the whole world'.

A church group may perceive its unity strongly threatened for theological, moral, organisational or even political reasons. Often in order to achieve cohesiveness, the group stresses whom and what it is against, and this clouds the image of what it stands for. Then the We seldom resists the temptation to caricature the them, often violating the commandment not to bear false witness against one's neighbour. This is the temptation of the sectarian. Its non-resistance seems to mark those past, also present estrangements between Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, and among evangelicals and others in their midst.

Until this century Protestantism-as-a-whole in North America and Europe was predominantly evangelical in conviction and ethos. Most committed, practising Protestants believed in scripture as their completely reliable final authority, in the necessity of personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, in the gospel demand for direct evangelism among the lost, and in a strict discipline of personal and communal life.

Many of these Christians clustered around fellowships or alliances. Already in 1846 they formed a loose affiliation called the World Evangelical Alliance (since 1951, Fellowship) - in fact, though limited to Protestants, the first transnational organisation for the expression of Christian unity among individuals of different churches.

Loyalty oaths
During the earlier decades of the 1900s, educated Catholics were engaged in the crisis over proposed reinterpretations of Catholic fundamentals in terms of contemporary historical, scientific, psychological and philosophical positions, and new biblical findings. The umbrella word was pejorative: modernism. Pius X called it 'the synthesis of all heresies' (1907), and drew up the list. He then required all ecclesiastics and Catholic teachers of philosophy, theology, and scripture to affirm non-debatable stands in the Oath against Modernism (which I was required to take in 1956, before I could receive priestly ordination).

But Catholics were almost totally unaware of the debates over modernism among Protestants. Between 1910 and 1915 were published a widely circulated, best-seller series of booklets: The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Faith. Pivotal here-we-stands, 'fundamentals of biblical faith and of evangelical Christianity', pressed the question, 'Do you believe these or not?' The answer defines the schism between more liberal Protestants and conservative evangelicals.

In trying jealously to guard the truth of the Bible, devoted evangelicals continued openly to quarrel among themselves about interpretations of the texts. The ensuing 'battle for the Bible' became power-struggles in denominational judicatories, seminaries, Bible colleges, periodicals, publishing houses, Sunday schools, and mission boards. The evangelicals gradually subdivided, many into groups which called themselves fundamentalist.

Unlike the North Americans, British evangelicals, on the whole, never were doctrinally anti-liberal militants. To maintain doctrinal purity and a degree of separateness, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (1928) intended to gather university student groups separate from the more liberal Student Christian Movement. Similarly, in 1922 a split in the Church of England's already evangelical Church Missionary Society resulted in the new Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society.

That continuing modernist debate and its schismatic resolutions still influence the dynamic between evangelicals and other Protestants, and between the majority of evangelicals and their still very militant, separatistic, fundamentalist brethren.

Ecumenical history
As recently as the 1960s, evangelicals were low-profiled. They were publicly overshadowed by the national councils of churches/World Council of Churches, and by Vatican Council II.

When Vatican II Catholics were gingerly or enthusiasticly stepping into the ecumenical arena, they found their partners to be confined to open Eastern Orthodox and those Anglicans and Protestants who were 'progressive' and already 'ecumenical'. Evangelicals seemed to be implicit proponents of the status quo. Even evangelical members of these ecumenical Anglican and Protestant churches were silent, or they had weak, muffled voices. Most evangelicals were judged to be anti-ecumenical.

Catholic leaders welcomed this clear distinction. They preferred initial dialogue, cooperation and common witness with mainline Anglicans and Protestants. The evangelicals were apparent anti-Romans and aggressive proselytisers among vulnerable Catholic flocks, especially in Latin America and the Philippines, Portugal, Spain and Italy, and the Middle East.

Then in the 1970s Catholics were suddenly caught off guard. Evangelicals were coming out of the closet. These folk did not appear to be a negligible minority gasping their last breath or just 'catching up to where the rest of us Christians are - or were'. They were some of the fastest growing churches, no longer on the sidelines. In the post-Vatican II turmoil, to the puzzlement of their parents and pastors, many Catholic young adults were joining evangelical churches or parachurch groups. Most of all, evangelicals were exercising political clout. They were moving from personal piety to social critique and political activism, and could muster influential votes. Catholics had to ask themselves: 'Who are these evangelicals?'

Broad spectrum
Observant Catholics are discovering that evangelical covers a broad spectrum. What a wide variety of traditions! They come from within the mainline churches (Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian); those Reformation churches with strict interpretations of their confessions (Lutherans-Missouri Synod, Christian Reformed); the 'anabaptist' churches (Brethren, Mennonite, Baptist); the 'holiness' tradition (Wesleyan Methodist); the Pentecostals (the largest, the Assemblies of God); almost all Western black churches; independent indigenous churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America; fundamentalist groups; and parachurch groups (the majority of foreign mission organisations, such as Africa-Inland Mission, Wycliffe Bible Translators; and Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, the Navigators).

No wonder it is difficult to reach an overall correct description in which all of the above would recognise themselves. Indeed, they continue to be fast-moving targets as they debate their own typologies and the shifting distinctions, in that whirlpool of modern Christian religiosity whose waters refuse to lie still for careful analysis. Some of us would prefer lazily to nod to evangelical Ralph Winter's whimsical 'to describe evangelicals is to eat soup with a fork'.

At the same time, open evangelicals are asking, 'Who are these Catholics, in their conflicting varieties? Are our understandings of what Catholics officially are called to believe and practise accurate or caricatured? What does the post-Vatican II Catholic Church really teach in the fundamentals of faith and of morals, even though some Catholics question or deny specific official teachings?'

True dialogue
Can face-to-face dialogue of 'speaking the truth in love' (Eph 4:15) replace monological diatribe at comfortable distances?

True dialogue begins only when I try to understand evangelicals as they understand themselves, so that in my descriptions they recognise themselves. Only then do I have the right to evaluate their convictions with criteria from my own Catholic tradition. I should honestly compare ideals with ideals, practices with practices. I cannot compare the self-acknowledged undesirable and condemnable practices of some evangelicals, such as the manipulative hardsells of several TV evangelists, with Catholic ideals, especially those highest ones we Catholics strive for but seldom reach in practice, for example, evangelisation without self-interest.

Even worse is reducing others to propositional statements about themselves. We tend to evaluate each other too much as abstractions, even as theological systems. For example, the history of Catholic prohibitions and persecutions of Latin American evangelicals and the socio-psychology of their being minorities influence their stances and practices towards Catholics, in ways far different from the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which dominates the American Bible-belt.

For those of us Catholics who are engaged in such formal or informal living dialogue at various levels (local, national, international) - and who read both popular and more scholarly literature - evangelical as a noun needs a clarifying adjective to gain a voice, for example, radical or liberal, charismatic or orthodox, ecumenical or separatist, even younger or older. Yet at least five general characteristics which shape beliefs, ethos, pieties and zeal, seem to fit evangelicals, even though they may debate specific meanings and practices:
1.The complete reliability and final authority of the Bible;
2.The saving gospel of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, Lord and Saviour, the only Mediator of God's freely offered grace to all peoples, everywhere;
3.The priesthood of true believers;
4.Personal conversion and piety of a disciplined personal and communal life;
5.Evangelism, or 'a zeal to proclaim, at home and abroad, the biblically revealed gospel of salvation from sin through the atoning work of Christ in the Spirit'.

In fact, this last characteristic - the urgency of the direct proclamation of the gospel and the call of persons to a living faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord - is the test or proof of how seriously a Christian or church really owns the first four. If you are lovingly committed to Christ and his biblical demands, his commission to make disciples of all nations only reinforces your eagerness to share Good News with others. Not to be a missionary is not to be a believing disciple of The Missionary. Or, 'not to share the faith is to lose it'.

Evangelism unites the evangelicals and directs their energies. The first highly visible international expression of post-World War Two evangelical unity was the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism (Berlin), convoked by Billy Graham, with the unifying motto: 'One Race, One Gospel, One Task'. Its follow-up, in 1974 (Lausanne, Switzerland), brought together for ten days 2,500 evangelicals from over 140 nations. They intentionally focused on 'the unfinished task of world evangelisation'. Participants signed a 15-article covenant of missionary faith convictions, and supported a new loose international structure, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation. So many evangelicals still use the 1974 Lausanne Covenant as their rallying point.

New configurations and alignments are on the horizons, not only among evangelicals, but between many of them and many Roman Catholics. Is ecumenical applicable?

Barriers to ecumenism
For a cluster of reasons or perceptions most evangelicals are suspicious of the present ecumenical movement and its structured expressions. They, especially the Pentecostals, fear that the very aim of church unity could result in one Church so monolithic and organised that the free, unsolicited prompting of the Holy Spirit and the exercise of the Spirit's diverse gifts throughout the grassroots would be stifled. And thus stifled would be the missionary tasks of each member in the priesthood of all true believers.

Evangelicals perceive that national councils of churches (and the WCC) highlight cooperative social action and church unity and downplay those biblical fundamentals which still do and should separate the wide variety of its members' beliefs, in particular 'theological liberals'.

Or, comfortable interfaith dialogue with non-Christians and potential compromising religious syncretism overshadow demanding direct evangelism among non-believers with a distinct total message of the true biblical faith.

Or, too much talent, time, energy and money are designated for church unity work, and betray the primary focus - mission. If there be unity, it is co-operation, for example, in reaching the unreached, in learning a foreign language, or in biblical translation, printing and distribution of the scriptures.

Thus, because of biblical faith and mission priorities, so many evangelicals support alliances or conferences on local, national and world levels, which in fact are juxtaposed to the 'ecumenical' ones, for example, the evangelical alliances in Africa, and the All Africa Conference of Churches; the Evangelical Alliance in Great Britain, and the British Council of Churches.

As a result of these suspicions and absences, fellowships of churches and their members, including the World Council of Churches, include only a sampling of actual Christian diversity, and in fact have unintentionally reached a practical ceiling far short of their professed intent and vision. Their tents are too small. So are, it appears, the evangelical tents. Is ecumenical still sectarian?

Moral unity
Some very gutsy ethical issues are rising high like flags, and transdenominational coalitions, including evangelicals, are forming to wave a particular flag. Churches may be somewhat successful in dealing with religious pluralism, but moral pluralism is more difficult to handle. Abortion and euthanasia; active homosexuality and premarital sex, the death penalty, new biomedical issues; just economic policies and prudential decisions based on them - these form a short list. No longer can one give knee-jerk, yes-or-no responses. And the troubling question, also for evangelicals, which embraces all our ethical issues: what is Christian ethics, and what are its applications in a pluralistic society, with its civic and legal traditions? Is not this a missionary challenge?

On the international level, some evangelicals are secure enough to approach the Roman Catholic Church and in dialogue, to clarify where truly are the real differences and convergences. The focus of even the traditional dividing issues - scripture/ tradition, grace/justification, Kingdom of God/church - is the mission of the Sent-God Jesus Christ and of his sent-community of disciples.

Some Lausanne Committee leaders, convened by the Anglican John Stott, met three times with Catholic theologians and missiologists named by the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. The honest 1986 Report still remains ground-breaking: The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-84 [ERCDOM].

Also mission dominated another Catholic-evangelical dialogue, co-sponsored by the pontifical council for Christian Unity and the World Evangelical Fellowship [WEF] now grouping national alliances in over sixty countries. Last October at Tantur, the theme of the second round of conversations was the Mission of the Church.

The evangelicals identify, in general, with papal encyclicals: Paul VI's on evangelisation in the modern world (Evangelii nuntiandi, 1975), and John Paul II's on the permanent validity of the missionary mandate (Redemptoris missio, 1990). Mission introduces the ecumenical: mission in unity, unity in mission. The ERCDOM statement sums up the ecumenical commitment of many evangelicals: ' fidelity to Jesus today requires that we take his will for his followers with new seriousness. Christ prayed for the truth, holiness, mission and unity of his people. We believe that these dimensions of the Church's renewal belong together'.

Through participation in these ERCDOM and RCC/WEF dialogues and in other less formal conversations, I am increasingly edified by the evangelicals' personal commitment to Jesus Christ and all that it implies. Our differences centre around both the signs of that experienced commitment and the implications, in particular for a faithful evangelical ecumenical life.

Mission to whom?
The pieties of others are usually the most difficult to receive our empathy. We are impatient listening to pieties of heart and the fumbling words to describe what is deeper than the head. What some evangelicals would call a lively revival, the Catholic might call a successful parish or school mission or weekend retreat. A born-again experience a Catholic would call going back to the sacraments of confession and Mass. More common, the steady Christ-centred personal or communal prayer life of a Catholic lay person, bishop and priest, religious sister and brother, is very personal. The Catholic is bewildered that an outsider would consider such experiences as mere sacramentalism or routine, not the personal, conversional experience of a forgiving, nourishing Christ.

Who is a 'nominal', or 'non-practising' or 'non-believing' Catholic? (read also: Christian)? Who is primarily responsible for their 're-evangelisation' (John Paul II)? What is Christian witness as distinct from its corruptions - proselytism?

Evangelicals differ. Well-intentioned (and often well-financed) evangelistic activities may often ignore the Christian reality of other churches and their pastoral practices, or be insensitive towards their more vulnerable members (for example, new immigrants or refugees from different religious cultures). Or mission strategies may aim to convert 'non-practising' members of other churches, but there are different interpretations and criteria of who is un-churched, nominal, or not a true believer.

So the questions on the plate of dialogue: What kinds of Catholics do evangelicals regard as objects of Christian mission? What kinds as partners in mission? For some evangelicals, objects of mission are all Catholics, especially practising Catholics, for they live by 'another gospel' (cf. Gal 1:6-9). Or if some Catholics are truly 'Bible-believing who are in the Roman body but not of it', the missionary command is 'Come out of it, my people' (Rev 18:4).

Catholics and evangelicals profess faith in the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the Church. But we experience the present fact of divisions among Christians and their communities. Are these divisions to be accepted as no different in degree than at Paul's Corinth? Or are the divisions not an open contradiction of the will of Christ, and a scandal which damages the proclamation of the gospel?

Mission means sending. Surely we Catholics, evangelicals and other Christians who are baptised into the one Body and are of the same reconciling Spirit have been sent neither to be enemies nor strangers to one another, but to be brothers and sisters in Christ on behalf of all people. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is ever called to be renewed, so that the whole Church can proclaim, by word and act, the whole gospel of salvation in and to the whole world, as servant both to that gospel and to that world.

If evangelicals and Catholics can be more possessed by that vision and more deeply committed to its fulfilment, then one can hope that many estrangements will fade and more common witness will emerge.

Back to Priests & People page. Back to Tablet home page