At first glance the very mention of ecumenism, in the same sentence with the word evangelical, seems oxymoronic. Modern evangelicals have a well-deserved reputation for being less than excited about serious, modern ecumenical dialogue. I know this because I have lived my entire Christian life inside evangelical Protestantism, expressed in several different varieties or outward forms.
I have come to see that I am the adult child of a dysfunctional ecclesial culture. My evangelical subculture historically prided itself on being truly faithful to the gospel of Christ, thus entirely separated from those Christians and churches who compromised the gospel that we preached and defended.
I lived, and even preached, among people who loved to quote Galatians 1:6-9 as a kind of war cry:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (NRSV).
This text was quoted to draw a clear line of demarcation between what we believed and what everybody else believed who was not one of “us.” Sometimes we said this and sometimes we didn’t but in almost every case we believed that we alone preached the true, pure, biblical gospel. We used a quote attributed to Luther that says: justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae—”justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.” Though Luther did not precisely say this it is quite close to what he did say. We tie this kind of thinking to the Galatian heresy and then we can say, “We stand on the gospel. They [the others] do not! We cannot have fellowship with the false teachers of an unbiblical gospel.” Game, set, match!
This kind of appeal did several things for us insiders:
- It made us feel really good about our team and our views, which were of course always right.
- It stopped us from thinking about whether or not there were any other ways to sort out these considerably complex theological assumptions that we made without having to be seriously challenged.
- It gave us a sense of group security since we knew we were insiders and we were quite sure who the outsiders were.
- We could connect ourselves to the Reformers, respond aggressively to the Council of Trent (being quite sure that we understood the Council of Trent correctly), and then defend the Reformation as if was a new “birthday” of the Christian Church. Popularly many of the laity who followed this thinking never stopped to ask, “Where was the church and gospel for the previous 1,500 years?”
- At its worse we could tell people who was a true believer and who was not. More than one such Reformation Christian told me that I was not a Christian. Sadly, I know this form of “true believer” messaging firsthand.
Some years ago an esteemed theologian said to me, “A person who does not understand sola fide, or who has never confessed it knowingly, could be a real Christian in site of their ignorance of this central truth. However, anyone who understood it and then rejected it is NOT a Christian.” I found that statement shocking and appalling, both then and now. This same person believed in the security of the (true) believer but if the believer rethought sola fide (not denying it in principle but understudying it differently) he/she was lost! This thinking also allowed this person to respond to me in an angry and unsettling way that showed me anything but the love of Jesus.
When some evangelicals see that I am speaking at a place like the National Workshop on Christian Unity (see yesterday’s blog), and speaking no less as an “evangelical” Protestant, they believe this is the final straw. I have proven once and for all that I have left the gospel. I have embraced works over faith, merit over grace.
What do I say to this response?
- I urge you to study Galatians 1 for yourself. Do not read modern debates back into this text. Do not assume that the Catholic view of justification, grace, faith and spiritual transformation equals the Galatian heresy. (I do not agree with the Catholic view of justification but I believe it is easily misunderstood by evangelicals. Many think they understand the Catholic dogma without even working in the field of serious theology.) Read good commentaries, from across a very wide spectrum, including Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars. You can then get a good feel for what is really going on in Galatians 1 if you do this. Then stop searching for your favorite polemical tool to use against your brothers and sisters. If nothing else a serious study of the text will likely help you to see that you have misunderstood Paul. You may also see, as I did when I engaged in this issue without my strong confirmation bias, that the Catholic Church is not teaching salvation by human works.
- Spend time personally and actively loving other people who are not like you. Learn to listen to people you do not agree with and then ask if you can pray with them. Stop letting your fears guide about who you can love and how you respond to people. Get to know people for who they are and let them tell you what they really believe. Only when you can state their views well enough that they agree that you have understood them correctly have you truly heard them. This is true in all good communication but especially in ecclesial debate.
- Avoid polemical arguments like the plague, at least in most cases. Rarely are such polemics necessary and the words they engender almost always burn those who engage in them. There is a time and place under heaven for everything, including polemics. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Lamentations 3:1). Polemics may prove necessary in rare cases but most of the time “speaking the truth in love” (without the fire of polemical words) is far better. Those who feed on polemics enjoy a fight and those enjoy a fight will not become peacemakers. This is not a matter of “peace at any price” but rather of Godly prudence and practical holiness. Both Catholic and Protestant history is littered by the polemical fallout of the sort that has destroyed many for whom Jesus died.
- Stop reading church history looking for the parts that support your own views and beliefs. Read for the “big picture” and get a sweeping overview of what God has been doing for two thousand years. See how he used people of many different persuasions to do great good and to build up his flock. Read writers from long before the Protestant Reformation and then remind yourself that these men and women were great Christians before your Protestant heirs were even born. Read solid modern Protestant historians like Mark Noll, George Marsden, Harry Stout, Nathan Hatch, Martin Marty, etc.