A burden for Christian unity

Giotto di Bondone. The Lamentations Over Our Lord Christ. Cappella Scrovegni a Padova.1305

I am really deeply troubled.

I can’t entirely put my finger on why, but this is the same burden that has been dogging me all weekend.

It seems very wrong, very contrary to the will of God, that even in the decadence of modern secular society — a decadence that threatens even the Church — the Church of Christ remains deeply divided against itself. We are fighting among ourselves when we should be fighting for Christ.

This was the sentiment behind the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document drafted by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus in 1994. A number of prominent leaders in both evangelical churches and the Catholic Church agreed to it and signed it. More troubling, though, is the not insignificant number of leaders on both sides who attacked the document and refused to have anything to do with it.

500 years after the Reformation, there are still a large number of evangelicals who will offer no quarter to a Catholic, who will not even sit down at the table with one lest there be any appearance of compromise. They would separate themselves from all fellowship with Catholics, even deny them a place in the kingdom of God. These are not just fringe elements; these include major leaders and theologians such as R. C. Sproul. People like James White write whole books attacking Catholicism and denying that Catholics are Christian. I have run into quite a few of these people in just my short time in the blogosphere. Even my own best friends would rather fight me when it comes to discussing doctrine than seek common ground. And every time it happens I feel a burden of rejection and frustration and despair.

And I don’t understand it. There is a wide diversity of doctrine in Protestantism — yet not the same kind of unfathomable chasm. Calvinists and Arminians disagree sharply, but are willing to have conversations with each other. Baptists and Methodists can agree to disagree about infant baptism versus believer’s baptism. These are issues that go just as deeply into soteriology, the theology of salvation, as the divide between Catholics and Protestants, and yet many Protestants wouldn’t even consider a similar truce with a Catholic.

James White argues that Catholics and Protestants disagree fundamentally about what the Gospel even is. Having been both a Protestant and a Catholic, that argument is incomprehensible to me. Of course it’s the same Gospel. How can anyone deny that? I follow the same Christ I’ve followed all my life. I hope in the same salvation, the same forgiveness of sins, the same resurrection. My Protestant Baptism was acceptable to the Catholic Church; why can’t my Catholic justification be valid in the eyes of a Protestant?

Catholics and Protestants have deep disagreements about doctrine. I don’t deny that, and I don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. If we believe what we teach, then it necessarily means believing that the other side of the argument is wrong. But look at it this way: Regardless of which side is right, the other is not excluded from salvation. If it is true, as Catholics believe, that we are justified by the outpouring of God’s grace through faith, and sanctified over the course of our lives as we walk in that grace, then certainly many Protestants, who faithfully believe in Christ and from that faith follow Him and walk with Him, will be saved. Or if it is true, as Protestants believe, that we are justified by faith alone in Christ through His grace, then certainly many Catholics who have a genuine faith in Christ will be saved. The only way to exclude Catholics from salvation, as some Protestants are wont to do, is to believe that salvation is by faith in the five solas alone — that by confessing the Reformation we are saved.

I have no interest in attacking the Protestant faith. I will defend the Catholic faith, but it is deeply unpleasant to me to be forced to return polemic for polemic, as I’ve had to do in White’s case. I am glad to help any pilgrim who wishes to cross the Tiber, but even more deeply than that, I want to build a bridge, on which both sides might meet and resolve some of these rancorous disputes. I long for Christendom to be at peace.

15 thoughts on “A burden for Christian unity

  1. There are still sharp disagreements among Protestants and Evangelicals as well. The Mainline churches have reached a high degree of understanding and acceptance, but there are plenty of churches who still condemn us all. And in our own traditions we fight as well. The Lutheran World Federation, a body of 145 Lutheran church bodies in 79 countries, is supposed to have full communion among all of its members, but there are some long-standing emnity between some members. And it is, as you say, because of the prevalence of dualistic thinking–if I believe I am right, then everyone else is wrong.

    I try not to think like that. I try to approach everything from the viewpoint that I have the best understanding for me, but that doesn’t mean my understanding is the objective truth. Others can be just as right, since we are all likely not 100% right.

    Don’t burden yourself with the entirety of Christian unity. For as long as the church has been divided, the modern ecumenical movement is still in its infancy. Reunification of all the Western Churches, let alone the West and the East, will not happen during our lifetimes. All we can do is to help prepare the way for our descendants who will come after us.

    • Well, the Catholic Church teaches that its guidance by the Holy Spirit is infallible, so I try to live like I believe that. But that doesn’t include being an asshole to other believers. As the pope and the Church have stressed (to the chagrin of Traditionalists), the Protestant branches of the Church do contain elements of the truth and are used by God for salvation and sanctification. I’ve always said that God is way too big to fit into anybody’s box. We teach what we believe is true, the way we believe will get souls to Heaven. But we’re never in the habit of judging who won’t get to Heaven.

      I am hopeful sometimes for reunification. I see things happening. I believe things could happen rapidly with a great move of the Holy Spirit, and especially if the Church were deeply and widely threatened by society. But I know that’s beyond me. All I can do is pray and be the Christian I’m supposed to be. Thanks for the kind and encouraging words.

  2. Jesus said His followers would be known by their love, one for another. Where that is lacking, is He really present? I am with Holly, as an Anglican Catholic, I feel simply sadness at the division, which none of us caused, but which some wish to perpetuate. You do a good work Joseph, and it saddens me that some do not read what you write before they decide to disagree. You explain the Catholic position very well – which may, of course, be what makes some folk angry 🙂

  3. As some theologians have said before: We can only say where the Church is; we cannot say where the Church is NOT.

    Many Christians prefer to point out where they think the Church isn’t because then that makes them feel more secure in saying that the Church is where they say it is. It’s sort of a classic groupthink practice. But the funny thing is that if you’ve ever read the Bible or paid attention to Church history, God has an interesting tendency to work outside of where we like to draw a lot of the lines.

    • Indeed. Even as a Catholic, I believe the Protestant Reformation served God’s purpose. The Catholic Church needed to be reformed. I don’t think the schism should have been as permanent and divisive and irrevocable, but it did wake us up. I do tend to think that reform would have happened anyway — there were already voices before Luther urging it — but I don’t it would have happened as quickly or as thoroughgoingly.

      Thank you for the encouraging words.

  4. Christ’s Church is and ever was the worldwide body of people who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

    While there are many doctrines of conventional western Protestantism (specifically, monergism and Calvinism) that actively deny that specific, prophesied aspects of the Christ apply to Jesus (Isaiah 9:4 proclaiming a synergistic salvation, Isaiah 53:3 proclaiming that the Christ could and would be rejected, Hosea 6:2 proclaiming that our eternal union with Christ comes through the resurrection, not penal substitution, and many others), I don’t deny that there are probably many who adopt artificial, man-made labels such as “Lutheran,” “Presbyterian,” “Baptist,” etc. who do believe that Jesus is the Christ and either reject some of those doctrines or merely don’t understand them.

    James 3:1 stands as a warning to their teachers, however.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, I believe too that all believers still have some form of mystical, invisible unity — even those who would say I’m not part of it. But Paul urged in 1 Corinthians 1 that there not be any division among us, and we have failed in that. John said that the world would know we are Christians by our love, and if parts of Christ’s own Body can’t even love each other, then something is very wrong. You’re right that I’ve found more acceptance and tolerance among followers of synergistic doctrines. Calvinism tends to be rigid, exclusionary, and uncompromising.

  5. Thank you for the excellent post, very well said indeed. I completely agree that while there are certainly strong differences between Catholics and Protestants, we must find common ground.

    While it is completely legitimate to discuss, debate, and disagree on various approaches to Scripture, as long as we agree on the fundamentals of salvation then the rest becomes secondary.

    What many Protestants do not understand is that there is a great deal of diversity within Catholic churches, just as there is among Protestants. As a Protestant pastor I have many issues with the history, and practices of the Catholic Church itself, yet have known, and still have many wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ who are Catholic, and love the Lord with all their hearts.

    Unfortunately, far too many Protestants seem to hold to the idea that anyone who dares to disagree with them on even the slightest issue should be labeled a heretic, and shunned. We need to be having open and honest discussions about our disagreements rather than closing the door in one another’s faces.

    The hour is coming when we are going to need everyone, and anyone who is a Christian, and we may be surprised at the diversity of those who are indeed true disciples of Jesus Christ.

    • Thank you for the comment, Tim. I definitely agree. I fear I see society setting itself up for a major confrontation between the faithful and the secular — and I hope these people who are unwilling to join hands with believers of different stripes (not all Protestants; there are intolerant Catholics, too) can move past their prejudices when we really need each other. I truly believe that even though Catholics and Protestants have very different ideas about the mechanics of salvation, we all agree on the author of salvation, and we all agree it’s only by His grace that we are saved.

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