It is no secret that I am an evangelical Protestant. (I do not think the word “evangelical” makes for a good noun thus I use it here intentionally as an adjective.) I was originally ordained in an evangelical Protestant context (Southern Baptist, a fellowship of churches that actually resisted the name “evangelical” until more recently), received three degrees from evangelical schools and then pastored in an evangelical Baptist denomination for twenty years (The Baptist General Conference). I entered the Reformed Church in America, about ten years ago, out of growing conviction that I could find a “broader way” of expressing my Reformed faith in both catholicity and ecumenism. I wanted a church home that had a meaningful catholic history and some ecclesial stability without all the stops and strictures of the rigidly conservative Reformed Church expressions that I see in the U.S. (More of my friends are still within such groups than within the RCA where I am hardly known at all. It might surprise some to know how many of these friends, who remain in these denominations, are very open to the thought process that led me to my place of ministerial standing. It is not easy to shift directions when you serve a church and that church is inside of a group that you struggle with on a number of fronts. Only idealists keep moving on every time they meet a new problem.)
What I did not know when I began to follow the Spirit’s leading to what I call missional-ecumenism back in the 1990s was how this would take me into Roman Catholic contexts since around 2000. I was completely unprepared to go where I went but God gently took me step-by-step and I believe led me by the Spirit in this matter.
Now I find myself loving my Catholic friends deeply. But I also love the Catholic Church. Indeed I think I love her more than the majority of Catholics I know. Some think I am on “the road to Rome” and a few friendly wagers have been made, at least from what I hear second-hand. My answer is always the same – “I will go where I believe God leads me, when he leads me. I reserve the right to admit that I am wrong and then to go wherever he leads.” In my heart, and in several specific dreams, the old Baptist invitation hymn continues to play again-and-again: “Wherever he leads I’ll go. I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so, wherever he leads I’ll go.” I’ve tried to do this – always with the care and counsel of friends and spiritual directors who are Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – and will try to do it all of my days. I do not think I will become a Catholic by communion because I believe I am a “reforming catholic” and thus I still believe the Spirit is putting a great deal back together in his own time. I believe the way He does this will surprise us in 10, 20 and 30 years. I will not likely see this happen (since I am 65 years old) but I believe God will do it in time. I am a pilgrim and will just keep following. You can accept this story for what it is or make up stories about my story and motives but I’m sticking to my own story as honestly as I understand it.
During the last decade-plus I’ve been allowed many new friendships through my work in ecumenism. One such friendship, which began last year, is with a Catholic lay leader in ecumenism who works in the archdiocese of St. Augustine in Florida. This new friend wrote a letter of appeal to area evangelicals. I found this letter is so moving that I want to share it with you, my reading and praying friends.
The writer is Dr. Chau T. Phan.
Dear Evangelical Pastors:
My name is Chau T. Phan of the Christian Unity ministry at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Community in Flagler Beach. My aspiration is to bring about greater tolerance and friendship among Christian denominations in Flagler County, in particular between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, in particular members of the Southern Baptist Convention. I would like to open a dialogue with any and all of you.
I am not out to “convert” anybody, but instead I am interested in “conversation” and “convergence”. I am eager to learn from each one of you and to pray with your congregation. Convergence means that if we all are focused on Jesus and walk toward Jesus, we will certainly meet together in Christ.
In service to the Lord of Unity!
Chau T. Phan
Chair, Christian Unity ministry
Santa Maria del Mar Catholic Church
Flagler Beach and Associate Diocesan Ecumenical Officer Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine
Can Evangelicals and Catholics be Friends?
By Fr Dwight Longenecker
The evangelical faith is incomplete without the Catholic Church, but we
Evangelicals tend to be excellent communicators and preachers. We could do with those skills in the Catholic Church.
The Evangelicals love the Bible and study it with passion. Our people could do with a better grasp of Scripture.
Evangelical churches are strong on fellowship. They really make people feel they belong to a loving community. Some of our parishes could improve in this area.
The evangelicals have a strong tradition of sharing the gospel in creative and attractive ways. Sometimes Catholics forget that we are all called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.
Pope Francis calls us afresh to take part in the New Evangelization and we can learn some lessons from the Evangelicals on how to do this. However, the learning process is not all one way. The new generation of Evangelicals like Tony Palmer are more tolerant and open-minded towards Catholicism.
They are less frightened of other forms of worship and are happy to experiment and be open to beliefs and worship practices which would have horrified their parents and grandparents. These “convergent church” Christians are being freed from their old prejudice to explore Benedictine retreats, Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching. Evangelical magazines publish explorations of Catholic styles of worship. I’ve heard of Baptist churches where they have started using candles, celebrate communion every week instead of four times a year and observe the liturgical year.
These promising signs, and many more, have been brought about because Evangelicals and Catholics are finally realising that there is more that unites them than divides. At the heart of the matter both Evangelicals and Catholics believe in a revealed religion, not a relative religion.
For the full text, click on link below:
This blog by Fr. Dwight Longenecker is one of the finest appeals that I’ve read by a Catholic who understands evangelical Protestants from the inside and retains true love and respect without a triumphalism regarding his own conversion to the Catholic Church. I would to God that we would take the same approach toward Catholics and ask, “What are the strengths of the Catholic Church and how can we learn from them and then meet our brothers and sisters in deep, growing oneness in Christ?” This is not the last word on deep ecumenism but it must always be the first word because relationships come before ideas, even doctrinal ones.
The question I have today is thus simple: “Will evangelicals be open to this movement of the Holy Spirit?”
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I literally have one foot in the Catholic church, and the other foot in an Evangelical church. My world has been turned upside down, again. I started off consulting in Catholic schools, alone. Two years ago my whole world was Catholic. I now work with schools that cling to their guns and Bob Jones. Sometimes I feel like I am the Catholic gal that is keeping fundamentalism alive! My world is not so Catholic anymore! It’s barely Catholic, in reality. Over the weekend, after getting rejection letters from Catholic schools, I get a request from a school with ties to Pensacola Christian College. (Yikes!) What I have found to tear down these walls are: 1.) People with open hearts and minds, and can have civil discussion. 2.) The internet helps especially in schools. I have a school that I work with quite a few anti-Catholics, that is looking to participate in an online project with a Catholic high school. (Wow!) The internet with social media is helping tear down the walls, as people discuss information. 3.) Leadership of churches that are willing to state “Catholics/Evangelicals are our brothers/sisters. 4.) The moral issues of our day, ex. pro-life movement.
Great post, John. As a cradle evangelical who now worships in a Catholic church, I’m keenly aware of the many challenges. Lots of creative ways to get involved, one of them is history. I’m personally involved in a project which draws from writers & scholarship across the whole Christian spectrum, now introducing the project into both Protestant and Catholic schools, (see thechristians.com)
Great comments from Ken Fast and Jodi Dean both. These are missional-ecumenical stories at their best. Good job!
Ken, you may have great success with your project in Classical Christian schools.
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[…] “Missional ecumenicist” John Armstrong has two parallel passions: church unity and church missions. Pastor Armstrong’s Protestant catholicism (small c) is characterized by his gracious, warm-hearted relationships, openness, and appreciation for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. He is relatively new to the Reformed tradition having come from a broad Evangelical background. He wrote: […]
Actually, I am not new to the Reformed tradition having embraced it in my mid-twenties, more than forty years ago. Thanks for your most kind words.
John, I heard you today while listening to EWTN and was intrigued enough to pop over to your site and look around. I
I have a question for you. I recently landed on an extreme anti-Catholic web site and have been engaging the author in discussions. Some of the claims he makes regarding Catholicism are quite outlandish. I’ve tried rebutting a few of these claims but I’m wondering if there’s a better approach. Do you haved any suggestions? I don’t feel any purpose is served by trying to beat him down, but I feel obligated to counter his claims. Thanks in sdvance for any insights you can provide.
Your friend in Jesus Christ,
Thanks for listening to the Al Kresta interview on EWTN. I am truly grateful you found it edifying and helpful.
In short, I do not attempt to engage in foolish and outlandish diatribes against any church, especially those who are inherently anti-Catholic. This could be so because I once used some of these arguments myself and now see how foolish I was in doing so. What helped me? A loving heart and an open mind. Period. Once I studied Catholic theology carefully I knew what was said, what it meant and how I misunderstood it. Now I remain a Protestant but a catholic one who loves the whole church. When I tell such Protestants that I love the Catholic Church (Roman) they are either open and intrigued or defiant and condemn me. Some Catholics think I am insincere since I have not joined the RCC. Others see the Spirit leading me to build bridges of love and friendship and pray with others in deep and true joy. I believe we still have several major differences and we should not settle for “papering over” these differences. We should keep working at them to gain better insights and deeper knowledge in Jesus our One Lord. By love we gain far more than we do by attacks or rear-guard actions against people who do not know what they say and are often filled with either hatred or false zeal for the gospel. There is a time and a season under heaven to explain and defend but love does this best – first, last and always.
Dear John, I am also a Protestant minister who has a love and respect for the Catholic Church. I am blessed to work for a Catholic Ministry that is very focused on inter-faith relations. It is so nice to hear from someone like yourself who has a gift of writing and teaching to help others understand the beauty of the two faith groups coming together in respect and friendship. It is truly an example for our times. I will be in attendance at your talk this Tuesday here in Lafayette IN. with Bishop Doherty, and look forward to hearing your teaching.
Sincerely, Nancy Eberhard.