I wrote yesterday about a recent experience of sharing my vision of unity with a large group of conservative Protestant leaders in Chicago. Some were very positive. A few reacted not so positively. The flash point became whether or not Roman Catholics are included in the work of ecumenism. (I am not making this up! Some of you on other sides of this subject may find this amusing but it is how some conservative evangelicals really do think and respond to this discussion about ecumenism.)

031032114X The context was an address that I gave on John 17:20-23. I suggested, as I always do, that relational unity was what Jesus prayed for in the context of this prayer. Just as he and the Father were in a perfect relationship so we should pursue relationship with one another in Christ in order for the world to see that the Father had sent the Son. I have explained these points elsewhere, especially in my book, Your Church Is Too Small.

After I spoke a pastor addressed the group on one of the microphones set up for response and suggested that it was one thing to have visible and shared unity with other evangelicals but that Catholics and evangelicals could not share in unity since we did not preach the same gospel. He cited the Council of Trent, Vatican II and other Catholic reference points along the way. (He actually didn’t get right what he was trying to say from these sources but this didn’t deter his many words or central point! He appealed to the “anathemas” of Trent as applying to us so our gospel was condemned still.)

After the meeting was over the man who spoke came to speak to me in private. He was gracious, kind and resolute. He treated me with gentleness and wanted to have a dialogue about what he had said. After some back and forth about points and counterpoints I decided to ask a simple question. “Do you believe that any person who believes that Jesus really was the Christ who came into the world to save sinners, who died for our sins on the cross, and was raised on the third day for our justification (salvation) is to be regarded as a true Christian?” I added, “This person is personally devoted to Jesus and loves him as their Savior?” I then asked: “Will this person, in your view, be welcomed by God into the eternal kingdom at the Last Day?” He said, “Yes.” I then said that millions of Catholics believe precisely this and thus will be saved accordingly. He protested and said that if they received the Mass as the “real” body and blood of Jesus they could not be saved!

I am not making this up. At this point I realized the conversation would go nowhere. I tried to graciously move on and offered my sincere expressions of love and my continued profound disagreement on the matter.

Remember Me What was this brother doing? He was saying that faith in Jesus, real faith which is rooted in love and devotion to Christ no less, is not real if a person has the wrong view of the Eucharist. Now I know Catholics who believe the same about non-Catholics. (The Catholic Church does not teach this but some Catholics still believe it, or at least act as if they did.) If this argument is true then believing correctly about “what happens to the bread and wine” in the Eucharist is a barrier to, or an open door to, heaven. Really?

If this is true then I am saved by Christ plus right views of _________________(fill in the blank).

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe John 6 is saying a lot more about the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine than most evangelicals but my understanding of John 6 does not make me a Christian or a non-Christian. I held one view of this text at one point in my life and hold a different understanding now. I am no more and no less a child of God as a result. I believe my faith is stronger and my worship is greatly altered for the better by this Spirit-given insight but I am not “in” or “out” of the kingdom based on this doctrinal understanding.

It seems to me that this is the problem here. We know our view well. We also think we know the view of the other person just as well. We think we know their view so well that we then have the right, indeed the God-given burden, to condemn them and thus assume that their understanding will keep them away from saving faith in Jesus.

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  1. Chris Criminger June 14, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Hi John,
    It seems like some conservative Evangelicals are taught by other Evangelicals that The Roman Catholic Church is a couterfeit church and you should have nothing to do with them.
    As long as Evangelicals keep reading polemcial books against Catholics without reading firsthand sources from Catholics they will continue in the dark. As long as Evangelicals keep thinking they know what Catholics believe or how they think from its detractors without ever really getting to know Catholic face to face, first hand, we will continue to be like two ships passing in the night as the Devil laughs at our confusion and divisions!

  2. Darren Gruett June 14, 2011 at 11:41 am

    This was a great article, because it speaks to the issue of what it means to be a Christian (which I know you address in your book), and, in many ways, the issue of core doctrine. This subject has fascinated me for a long time, and I have read a number of things on it.
    Although I do not agree with all Catholic doctrine, I also do not agree with all the doctrine in a lot of Protestant churches either. I could always find something about which I disagree, but that does not mean that those churches are not the body of Christ, or that their members are not Christians.
    And ironically, no matter how good the intentions are, whenever a person tries to add anything to the gospel, they inevitably end up moving justification from faith toward works.

  3. John Armstrong June 14, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    You both “get it.” The issue comes down to “adding” to the NT teaching that faith in Christ alone is enough! By defining faith, which has a place since not all faith is saving faith, we then apply definitions to OTHERS and assume they cannot be Christ’s sheep. This is the fundamental mistake I believe.

  4. Nick Morgan June 15, 2011 at 12:41 am

    John, the thing that amazes me when evangelicals make silly statements such as the one you cited above regarding our faith about the Eucharist, is that Protestants have not agreed about the nature of Christ’s presence, or lack thereof, in the Eucharist from early in the reformation. Luther, who believed in the “real presence of Christ”, though not in the full RC view, made the statement that he had no fellowship with Zwingli, who held a view very similar to most evangelicals today. And Calvin, as you well know, held what I would term a moderating position between that of Luther and Zwingli, by believing in basically the real “spiritual” presence of Christ. So if this brother follows his own argument, then he has to figure out which of the original reformers and their descenedants are the “truly saved”. These kinds of statements about this and other theological “hot-buttons” are what caused me to begin questioning many of my evangelical assumptions and led me on the road back to Rome. I’m not saying that is the journey everyone has to take, for that is up to the Holy Spirit, but the hard-headed refusal to listen and learn by evangelical leaders just sickens me at times.
    God bless!

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