I have a deep personal commitment to being catholic before I am Protestant. I also have a deep commitment to being Protestant before I am evangelical. These commitments are very easily misunderstood. The common and popular tendency is to conflate these three terms, or at least the last two, and then to insist that agreement on every matter of faith is essential to any collaborative work for Christian unity.
Furthermore, some evangelicals do not want to be called catholic in any sense of the term. This is especially true of those who are deeply conservative in their evangelical or fundamentalist expressions of the Christian faith. The reverse is true for some of my deeply conservative Catholic friends. They often oppose the word evangelical because it is not their word thus it “feels”to them to be very non-Catholic. A wonderful exception to this can be seen in how the devout Catholic writer George Weigel who has chosen to use the term evangelical as a very positive word in his recent book: Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (New York: Basic Books, 2013). I believe it is worth noting that George Weigel has been deeply involved in collaborating with evangelical Protestants for some years now. When it comes to such a positive use of the word “evangelical” then this is a helpful way of saying that Catholics are also committed to proclaiming the gospel and to making disciples who have explicit faith in Jesus not simply in the life of the church sacramentally. I have found that Christians who think too narrowly about these three terms, on either side of the aisle, will not listen to anything genuinely ecumenical until they adopt a process of thinking and believing that is very different from their present stance.
While it is easy to misunderstand how labels can be abused and misused they can be helpful if they are carefully used. For this reason understanding how one uses these three terms/labels – catholic, protestant and evangelical – and what we mean by them, can genuinely help us clarify the ecumenical process. It can also explain how and why some truths are of a higher order than other truths. There are many ways to do this but a particular one that has helped me recently was an expression made by a friend who is a fine evangelical pastor. In his faith and ministry statement, submitted to his ordination council some years ago, he addressed this issue quite clearly. My friend stated that one of his core commitments is a “posture” that he has adopted toward truth and ministry. I like the way he wrote this statement about his posture. His clarity and brevity are both valuable. I share only one paragraph from his ordination statement as a way to better explain how my missional-eacumenism works and how I approach truth claims in their proper historical and theological context.
In my articulation of Christian teaching, I seek to be, first, catholic, then, Protestant, and, finally, evangelical. This posture both reflects and informs how I prioritize the importance of certain doctrines. So, for example, I would prioritize the church’s teaching on the Trinity or deity of Christ (catholic) over justification by faith (Protestant). And I would prioritize the church’s teaching on the authority of Scripture (Protestant) over, say, inerrancy, a particular way of conceiving of the nature of Scripture (evangelical). This is not to deny the importance of inerrancy, much less justification by faith. What it does suggest is that I view, for example, inerrancy as less vital to orthodoxy than justification by faith, which is itself less vital to orthodoxy than is the Trinity or deity of Christ. For one can certainly be an orthodox Christian yet not affirm either inerrancy or justification by faith; however, one ceases to be Christian if one denies either the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Therefore, what I take to be most important theologically is what has been most universally affirmed by the church, both globally and historically. Or, to put it differently, I want to avoid the temptation to prioritize truth in terms of evangelical identity rather than historic catholicity, and hence do not simply equate the question, “Is it biblical?” or “Is it Christian?” with the question, “Is it evangelical?”