One of the most faithful regular readers of this blog is Nick Morgan, a firefighter in St. Louis. Those who read the comments on this blog for very long have seen Nick’s name appear in the “Comments” section now and then. With permission I want to tell you a bit about Nick and our friendship. I also want to share some items from a letter that he sent to me just before 2009 began. I do this not to “puff” this blog, or the work of ACT 3 (especially me) but rather to demonstrate just how a friendship between a devout Protestant, and an equally devout Roman Catholic, can actually work itself out in the real world where we do not agree on some very important Christian doctrinal truths.

First, let me tell you that Nick initially met me by attending one of our large conference events in Wheaton back in the days when I was viewed as a role model teacher by some conservative Reformed Christians. Nick, himself a cradle Catholic, had gone through a deep conversion experience and had become an evangelical, leaving his birth church. In time, through much thought and prayer, he would re-new his commitment to the Roman Catholic Church made in his baptism. (We spoke about these subjects while he was making this journey back to Rome. I prayed for him and offered counsel, not criticism or opposition.)

Some of the brothers who preached with me in the 1990s (all brothers, not sisters come to think of it) now think a whole lot less of me because I openly support a person like Nick in his journey back to his birth church. Some have told me this is tantamount to encouraging apostasy while others simply tell others about my deep fall from grace. Their words get back to me in various ways. Some, who also disagree, say nothing in public. I am grateful for this measured response and respect these friends very deeply for holding their peace and for expressing their personal concerns to me in private. I wish I could change all of these past events, and the controversies that are related to them, but I cannot. My past is there for all to see if they wish. People can, and do, comment on this in both public and private ways. I have come to see that I must be faithful to my calling and these men must do the same with regard to their calling. It is terribly easy to write about love. It is quite another thing to love those who do love you as they once did. (By the way, as sad as this can be it is not persecution since this is nothing more than a genuine disagreement among real Christians. I have no doubt that those who question me are my brothers. I think most of them feel the same for me, or at least I hope they do.)

I am quick to add that there are quite a few brothers who disagree with me now and who also remain my good friends. (One internationally well-known minister continues to share deep affection with me and encourages me in every possible way. We have agreed that our calling is different and agreed to leave it there for God to sort out. We know we are both following Christ as he had led both of us. That seems so sensible as to be right.) I no longer share the same platform with some that I preached beside in the 1990s but this has not ended all relationship. I believe my heavenly Father loves it when his own children dwell in unity, especially when this unity is in the midst of real diversity (John 17:23). I celebrate every relationship where this is taking place in love.

I would hasten to add that for every person who has stopped asking me to speak, or who has stopped calling me as a personal act of kindness and friendship, there have been many, many more new friends made along the way. And there are many old friends, some involving decades of relationship, who will be my friends to our final days. I have learned a lot about friendship through this journey. But I am sincerely puzzled by the way some brothers draw a line over a particular doctrinal point, one in most cases that separates them from the vast majority of real Christians if the truth is told, and then they reject a friend because they differ over some theological difference that can never separate us from the love of God in Christ.

I now believe that there are several reasons why some of those who once worked alongside of me no longer do so. One is my desire to conduct a civil dialogue about justification that respects the contributions of genuine scholars like N. T. Wright. Another can be seen in my love for brothers like Nick Morgan in St. Louis. If you walk in open fellowship/friendship with Roman Catholics then this is seen by these brothers as living proof that you have compromised the grace of God in the gospel. I do not think this way. I am now sure that I never did think this way even though I sat with men who did and chose to make a great deal out of it.

Tomorrow: More on friendship and controversy.

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  1. jls October 26, 2009 at 7:19 am

    How Christians deal with disagreement is so critical to the health and future of the church. What makes it so complex is that we are so compromised by sin that, in everything we do, each of us is always wrong in one way or another. The fact that as Christians we can–even must–continue our relationships with one another despite our differences should be one of the pillars of our ecclesiology,
    Recently I studied Romans chapter 16. I was moved by the long list of names of people in Rome to whom Paul sent personal greetings. Surely there were many in this list with whom Paul disagreed, perhaps sharply, at one time or another. Yet he called all of them his fellow workers, relatives and friends “in Christ Jesus” and “in the Lord.” To me, this reinforced the following point. The first-century church was not an organization of people who signed on to a doctrinal statement. It was a worldwide network of personal relationships mediated by Jesus Christ. These people didn’t yet have their theology worked out. But they knew the Lord. They recognized the character of Jesus Christ and the mark of the Holy Spirit in one another. We cannot go back to that day in any organizational sense. But I hope that we can recover the beautiful spirit of unity that existed in Paul’s day, even midst the problems and controversies that were raging at that time.

  2. Chris Criminger October 26, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Wow John,
    What a beautiful and powerful post that shows that if Christ can cut down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, he can even do it between Protestants and Catholics.
    I am always foolish enough to speak what I believe even to people I do not know. I mentioned a wonderful new book I am reading by Ed Dobson where he tried to live like Jesus lived for a year (inspired by the book “The Year of Living Biblically”) in which he put into practice things he learned from Jews, Orthodox, and Catholics, which was difficult for him being an Evangelical Baptist. The young Christian man looked at me incredulously and simply said, “I used to be Catholic” as if that said it all. Can anything good come out of Rome?
    I continue to ask why can not we look at our past experiences in a former ecclesial tradition as a benchmark for our spiritual journey rather than as something bad or worse, evil?
    In the end, it seems God has placed wonderful Evangelical Catholics, charismatic Catholics, and ‘born-again” Catholics in my life. So my experiences have been deepening and wonderful (despite a few carnal and nominal Catholics I have met along the way).
    I also suspect that others overall experiences have been quite a bit more negative than mine which also has shaped their perspectives and theology as well.
    And lastly, there are many who have little experiences with others (keep oneself separate from spiritual rift raft) and make lofty theological judgements from a safe distance.
    For Christ, he comes to bring reconciliation and peace and to break down dividing walls of hostility (see Eph.2:14-18).
    So John, this is my prayer for you in your biblical quest for Christ’s reconciling mission of unity:
    “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.
    I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be continously enlightned in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious in heritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.
    Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Eph.1:17-20, 24).

  3. Anthony Cota October 26, 2009 at 11:25 am

    One of the things that deeply hurts my heart, is when I lose a friend for any reason….but usually it is piddly.
    When we were created, God didn’t use a cookie cutter! If he had, we would all believe the same exact thing about everything. Just think how boring that would be!
    One of the most liberating of phrases is “agree to …disagree” That recognizes our diversity….and also shows respect for a difference of opinion.
    Agree to disagree….but remain friends……that is God honoring….

  4. Nick Morgan October 26, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    All I can say is that I’m touched beyond words by your post here. When I first met you in 1999, I never would have expected to be reading a post like this. It just goes to show that God loves to constantly surprise His children when we stop thinking we have it all figured out. May God bless you and pour out His grace on you always, my dear friend and brother in Christ!

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