Last evening ACT 3 hosted one of our regular ACT 3 Forums. This time we were invited to have this event in a Roman Catholic Church. For those who have read my work for sometime this should not come as a surprise at all. For others it will provide one more Stain_glass
means for attacking my position about the Church. I am not concerned about the attacks (I once was and they troubled me but God has granted me grace to move on). I am concerned about the pursuit of the one Christ to whom we all will bow and give an account about our love for his people. His Church is one, not two. This truth obliges me to be an active part of that reality, not just a disinterested thinker.

This morning I pondered again the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism, at least orthodox Protestantism. (I have to still agree with J. Gresham Machen when he said real liberalism was notWcc_logo
real Christianity at all
. By this he meant the kind of liberalism that denies the affirmations of the Creed regarding Christ and his resurrection, etc.) So I pondered this subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the light of a very excellent address given last evening by Mr. Gil Bailie, a Catholic layman. Gil spoke for our forum on humanity and how our hope lies in Christ alone. He emphasized how the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ provide the only hope for humanity and civilization. He argued that Christianity is not one of the world’s religions, but the only hope for mankind. (This address will be put on our Web site. If you are interested sign up for our ACT 3 weekly sermons and lectures as podcasts or check our archives for a growing list of both audios and videos.)

Catholicism and Protestantism have deeply differed with one another, as we all know so well. But both lay stress on the same central truths of the historic Christian religion. Cloister
These truths, as seen by both Catholics and Protestants, are unalterable. This is what C. S. Lewis referred to as "mere Christianity." It is the basis of what I, and a number of my friends, call "the new ecumenism." (As opposed to the old ecumenism that ended up denying large elements of the faith.)

I believe Catholicism has laid its primary stress on the structure of the Church and how that retains its oneness. Protestantism has laid primary stress upon how the message of Christ gives the Church oneness. As a result of these different approaches we tend to reject one another with deep suspicion. The late missional theologian Lesslie Newbigin, writing in 1954, said, "Both have known, at their best, that in so doing they were seeking to honor and safeguard the uniqueness, sufficiency, and finality of God’s saving acts in Christ." Amen!

Within the new ecumenism there are people on both sides that are increasingly recognizing the truth of Newbigin’s statement and thus we are experiencing the truth that the faith and practice of both streams of the Christian tradition seek the same goal, but by different means. But we are still not united. This moved me, as I read and prayed this morning, to weep at my desk. Many would scoff at my tears but they represent a deep and growing personal pain regarding the divisions that plague the modern Christian Church.

These two great streams in the West are now being drawn together, at least informally. (Some formal dialog has yielded fruit as we have not seen since the 16th century but it is the informal that interests me even more.) And when you add a third stream, one that is only recently being drawn into the more formal discussion about unity, you have a dynamic at work that is fresh and quite exciting. This stream is charismatic but it must not be limited to any one movement that goes by that name. Newbigin
The central element in this third stream is, as Newbigin saw so clearly, "the conviction that the Christian life is a matter of the experienced power and presence of the Holy Spirit today." By this stream we are learning that neither orthodoxy of doctrine (as emphasized by lively Protestants) or the impeccability of apostolic succession (as emphasized by Catholics in the very nature of their church) result in a living, missional Church. Newbigin asks, "Where is the Church?" He answers, "Where is the Holy Spirit recognizably with power?" He uses Acts 15 as a model for this approach, a passage I spent time in this morning and think he is surely right about.

The danger here is that charismatics will assume far too much and non-charismatics will simply not listen at all. This third stream lines up with the other two at some significant points and yet it judges them both at points. Call this stream Pentecostal but please do not equate it with a separate Protestant denomination or a Catholic renewal movement and you will best get the biblical argument, which is the one that matters really.

Here is what I have found. There are Catholics and Protestants who refuse to allow for serious attempts to be made toward unity. These Catholics insist that the only unity that we will ever enjoy is when wayward non-Catholics return to Rome. Bible_and_lamp
And then there are Protestants who insist that every doctrinal article in their system be agreed upon or you are not welcome to their fellowship. Both streams have deep sectarian tendencies, though this is frankly much more true of Protestants than Catholics. You can track either side of this tension by reading comments on this blog site over the past three years.

My hope, and I believe it is rooted in the sovereignty and mercy of God, is that the Holy Spirit will blow across the entire Church with power and grace renewing us all and pushing us to a new unity that transcends anything we can presently imagine. Is this a "pipe dream" as some tell me? Not if God shows mercy to whom he shows mercy and not if the Holy Spirit is still working powerfully in and through the people of God.

"Come Spirit of God and bless your people with the unity of your grace."

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  1. Chris Criminger May 5, 2008 at 11:47 am

    I love your words and heart in all this. I was talking to a Catholic church historian who teaches at Notre Dame, Brian Daley last year and I embarrased myself and broke down weeping in front of him over our divisions.
    The New Ecumenism is based upon ‘truth in unity’ and not the old ecumenism that minimalizes truth for the sake of unity. Detractors often still don’t ‘get’ or see the difference.
    As far as the Catholic emphasis on structure and Protestant emphasis on message, do these two really need to be polarized or separated? It seems at least more liturgical structured churches could come into agreement on some of these issues?
    I also strongly resonate with your comments on charismatic and pentecostal Christianity. You can answer this privately if you want but I wonder if you have experienced firsthand some of the realities of charismatic or pentecostal Christianity in your own spirituality (I know I certainly have!). I also know there is a growing number of charismatic Reformed churches and wonder if you are a sympathetic outsider or participating insider?
    Lastly, I am with you on your “pipe dream.” It is nothing less than to enter into Jesus prayer for Christian unity in John chapter 17 and visibly see a transformation of the church that the watching world witnesses and “sees” as well.

  2. P. Andrew Sandlin May 5, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    John, you read this issue as I do. God bless you for devoting your life to this sort of ecumenism!

  3. Susanne B. May 5, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Amen and amen!
    I just finished posting some quotes from other blogs regarding this issue, and I find it here, too. I’ll add yours to my blog as well.
    I appreciate your distinction between “old ecumenism” that watered down the tenets of faith and the “new ecumenism” that focuses on the glass as half-full, on our commonalities, our our points of agreement, and then fosters a spirit of working together, of being on the same side. That’s definitely what the Spirit has placed on my heart.
    I’m a little nobody, a homeschooling mom of four with no platform but a blog with fewer than 20 visits per day, but I will keep on discussing and promoting the unity of the shattered Bride. And I refuse to acknowledge unity of the Church, formally or informally (the informal strikes me as more interesting, too) as a “pipe dream” either; I pray that we will indeed see the beauty of unity as Christ’s prayers in John 17, along with ours, come to fruition.
    Keep on writing, blogging, speaking, holding conferences, and doing all that you do, John, to help us Christians to love and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter their tradition.
    Soli Deo Gloria,
    Susanne 🙂

  4. Nick Morgan May 5, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    What else can I say that I haven’t already said in similar posts than this: A BIG AMEN MY BROTHER!!!! As you well know, I’m one of those “evangelical Roman Catholics” that stands with you and other like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ be they be Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. Without getting too deep, one of the early church fathers did say, “wherever the Holy Spirit is, there you will find the catholic Church.” Since there weren’t Protestants and Orthodox then as separate Christian Traditions, obviously they were distinguishing between true churches who taught orthodox doctrine, and so-called churches that taught gnostic heresies. Today, our divisions are real, and yet the Holy Spirit can and does transcend the divide. So we can say today, without getting too bogged down in other important issues regarding our divisions, that “wherever the Holy Spirit is, there is the catholic (universal) church.” If seeking to cooperate with God to make Jesus’ prayer in John 17 a reality is a “pipe-dream”, well count me in! It seems to me that in the Roman Catholic Church we emphasize the role and efficacy of the Sacraments in our Church life, especially the Eucharist because of our belief in the substantive change of the bread and wine into the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our faith and I hold it to be true. However, no honest Christian can deny the love and devotion to the Scriptures as God’s Holy and Inspired Word that is common among Evangelical, Reformed, and many Lutheran Protestant Traditions. This is now starting to catch on in the Catholic circles, (better late than never!) 🙂 We are taking the Scriptures and sound Catechesis much more seriously. The Sacraments are not magic, and the Church has always taught that they have NO SAVING VALUE apart from genuine personal faith in Jesus Christ among the faithful. So, apart from our different understanding and beliefs about the nature, number, and efficacy of the Sacraments; I know that we all realize here that the question is not “Word OR Sacrament”, but “Word AND Sacrament” for growing in faith and knowlege of God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. I personally believe this is our starting point. I believe it was St Jerome who said, “ignorance of the scripture is ignorance of Christ.” As a Catholic, I love our Sacraments and our Liturgies; but ultimately it is because I am growing in love with Christ! So any person who truly knows and loves Christ IS my brother or sister IN Christ! I do long for the day when we can all commune together at the same “Table”; but only because our Lord desires this infinitely more.
    Keep up the good work John! Keep praying and writing and holding forums, dialogues, etc. I truly believe God has you in a very unique ministry for this period in Church history. Only in eternity with God will we truly know all of the fruit that this kind of ministry will produce! God bless you always!
    I do grow weary of many Evangelical preachers so emphasizing a dichotomy of “works vs. faith alone” in salvation; becuase I know it is usually a subtle form of “anti-Catholicism” based on a very erroneous understanding of what the RC actually does teach about the role of faith and works in a person’s salvation. Instead, no matter how hard these well-meaning Pastors try to get out of the corner when it comes to the imperatives about obedience to Christ in true biblical faith, many of them still end up preaching a faith that doesn’t “work”. And that is contrary to what the Reformers were actually trying to say. Sadly, many Catholic apologists misrepresent Protestant meanings of Salvation and “eternal security”, just as many Evangelicals misrepresent true Catholic teaching about the role of grace, faith, and works in Salvation. As you have rightly stated John, overcoming these barriers will only occur when we genuinely listen to each other; and pray both WITH AND FOR each other. Amen.

  5. Dozie May 6, 2008 at 4:59 am

    “As opposed to the old ecumenism that ended up denying large elements of the faith.”
    This assumes that the “old ecumenism”, because it did away with party distinctives, achieved some identifiable unity. Where is the evidence of this and with whom was this unity achieved? Is this assertion not a misreading, for example, of the intent of the Catholic Church in its pursuit of ecumenism?
    I continue to assert that Catholicism and Protestantism are two different religions because the “Gods” they worship have different and opposing characteristics. Without the Mass and therefore, the Eucharist, the Catholic Church would not exist and if it did, it would not call itself a Church, period. Catholics insist that the sacrifice of the Mass is pleasing to God; Protestants vehemently deny this and classify it as idolatry. Would any rational person then say that if these two different religions are inspired by “God”, that they are inspired by the same God?
    To therefore talk of ecumenism between two different religions that have different standards of truth, who worship “Gods” that have different tastes and different characteristics (having characteristics means having likes and dislikes, it means having the possibility of being described) on the basis of some wishy-washy and feel good pop culture does not seem to make sense to me. Protestants describe their “God” in a different manner and Catholics describe their God in another way. To be Christian, that is, to live the Christian life, means something different in Catholicism than it does in Protestantism and to brush aside this crucial element in the two religions is to revive what has been described as the “old ecumenism”.
    For a Catholic, it is a sin to not go to Mass on a Sunday. How anyone can wave this ‘obligation” for the Protestant in the name of ecumenism is beyond me. Can anyone say to Protestants: “you are fine where you are”? Is this possible to be done without doing injustice to Catholics and without admitting that Catholics have been lied to all along? C
    Ecumenism of return: until this becomes the mission of the people who may be genuinely interested in the unity of “Christians”, the ecumenical efforts would make no real sense and would end up having Catholicism and Protestantism implode on themselves.

  6. John H. Armstrong May 6, 2008 at 10:32 am

    You have insisted from the first post you made on this site what you make plain in this sentence:
    “I continue to assert that Catholicism and Protestantism are two different religions because the ‘Gods’ they worship have different and opposing characteristics.”
    You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but you could not be more wrong and your own Catholic Church profoundly disagrees with your position. Have you read Benedict’s work on ecumenism? Do you know what Vatican II taught about this subject? Are you even aware of the Catholic-Lutheran accord of a few years ago? These are all “official” Roman Catholic statements, not me promoting my cause.
    We are separated by Eucharistic practice but Rome does not see this as putting us outside the communion of Jesus Christ. This certainly refutes your very sectarian notion that we worship different “Gods.”
    The Roman Catholic Church that hosted ACT 3 on Sunday evening is a very solid conservative parish and perhaps the largest in the entire diocese. It has a greater participation in confession and normative Catholic life and practice than any church in our area. It even offers a Latin Rite Mass. The priest who worked with me welcomed us and prayed for the event openly. We had members from many churches present. We all understand that this was “unofficial” conversation, not Table communion.
    No one is saying “You are fine where you are.” You completely misunderstand the nature of this process by such a statement. We would all come at this believing that we share much in common but still retain serious differences. We come because of John 17 and the “scandals” of our differences. You believe the only solution is for everyone to come to the one true religion; e.g., Catholicism. Again, you are entitled to this view and it is consistent on a certain level with Vatican teaching. But what you leave out is the “whole story” and that is why your continual attacks are outside the pale of the real Catholic Church in the real world of 2008.
    I respect the differences and long for the Spirit to work among us all. In this way I stand with Benedict XVI much more than with you.
    The irony here is that very liberal Catholics destroy the faith of the faithful. But then very conservative Catholics, who embrace sectarian fundamentalism as Catholics, also go way beyond what the Catholic Church is actually saying about itself and “separated brothers and sisters” in our time.
    Question: How do you explain Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, openly communing the late Brother Roger of Taize at the funeral Mass for John Paul II? This is a fact and there is not one shred of evidence that Brother Roger ever entered the Catholic Church. In fact, it appears both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, urged him to remain a Reformed Protestant because of the great good this did for all believers. These are facts, facts that make your position look profoundly out of step with your own Church.
    As an aside, I was invited by some godly monks in a wonderful younger order to an audience with Benedict XVI several years ago, as their friend. Sadly, I could not go. I would have gladly gone with my brothers if I could have changed a commitment I had previously made but I felt my word had to be kept first. All of this cries out against your arguments.
    For the love of Christ place your focus on Jesus Christ above all else. He is Lord, not the Church. When this is done you can then enter into a serious and charitable response to your brothers and sisters who are not Roman Catholics.
    I will be honest with you. Your regular comments that we worship a “different” God are both wrong and deeply hurtful. The world has changed, thankfully. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants have ceased. The Spirit of God is blowing like fresh wind over all Christians. I invite you to come, as a devout Catholic and a brother, and see what God is doing and will yet do among all his dear people. Neither you nor I control the Spirit, who works as he will and where he wills. This is nothing but Christian truth, universal Christian truth.

  7. Dozie May 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    “without getting too bogged down in other important issues regarding our divisions, that “wherever the Holy Spirit is, there is the catholic (universal) church.””
    Nick, this is a false assurance. To say that anything is universal, one must show that the thing so claimed is one and the same everywhere. Catholicism is not the same as Protestantism. Does this need to be explained further? The Catholic Church herself forbids a Catholic from attending a Protestant service as fulfillment of his/her Sunday obligation. How does this play into your concept of universality of the Church/Spirit, etc?

  8. Dozie May 6, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Question: How do you explain Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, openly communing the late Brother Roger of Taize at the funeral Mass for John Paul II?
    Answer: I do not know what the pope knew about the individual in question. A Protestant can receive Communion in a Catholic Church if he/she asks to be communed.
    “The world has changed, thankfully.”
    But we must fight daily against the “tyranny of relativism” that has changed the face of the Church. We seek clarity and the dividing line between truth and falsehood.

  9. Nick Morgan May 7, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    I know that attending a Protestant worship service doesn’t fulfill my Sunday obligation. I faithfully attend Mass every weekend, and more often whenever possible, not only because of the “obligation”, but also because I love the Mass and feel so privileged to receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. However, that being said, my wife remains a committed member of an Evangelical Free Church, and I attend with her also on any Sundays that I’m not working. I generally enjoy the services and benefit spiritually from the Biblical teaching and preaching. Sometimes I become frustrated at the subtle “anti-catholic” statements that are made from the pulpit; though I believe they are made unintentionally and based on misunderstanding as I stated above. But I’m firmly convinced that the Holy Spirit is operative there as well and that there are many sincere and true brothers and sisters in Christ there, even if they are “separated brethren”.
    I must say to you Dozie, that though you are my brother in Christ, and specifically Roman Catholic; I wish that you would take to heart the comments that Dr. Armstrong wrote to you above. While I appreciate your zeal for the RCC, I too believe that you seem to be “out of step” with the attitudes of the former and current popes regarding ecumenism; and your statements about Catholicism and Protestantism being separate religions doesn’t square at all with the documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. We must be careful about trying to be “more Catholic than the Pope”. Even though Dr. Armstrong is a reformed protestant by conviction; I sense a much closer spiritual kinship with him than I do with you because of his obvious love for Jesus Christ and the whole of His Bride or Body, the Church; in spite of all of our greivous and scandalous divisions. Please try to really hear what he is saying and you will be amazed at how the Holy Spirit can enable you to see some wonderful things occuring among like-minded Catholic-Orthodox-Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ. God be gracious to you my brother!

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