Here we stand?

J. I. Packer, Os Guinness and Charles Colson have all signed it. John MacArthur labels it “destructive”. R. C. Sproul puts it down to “doctrinal apathy”.

Some high profile religious leaders have published a document calling for evangelicals and Roman Catholics to put aside their “petty differences” and work together for a better world. Other high profile religious leaders fear the worst. In the Year of Tolerance, would Martin Luther have cried “Here we stand, brothers”?

Early in 1994, a document called Evangelicals and Catholics Together began circulating America. It professes the shared hopes, affirmations and contentions of a number of leading American evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The statement carries the signatures of evangelical household names such as J. I. Packer, Os Guinness, Charles Colson and Bill Bright.

Those familiar with Monty Python will understand that the reaction of some evangelicals to reading the document has been first fear, then surprise (stopping short of fanatical devotion to the Pope). Many have spoken out against it, calling it a marriage of political convenience, a compromise of such essential doctrines as salvation by grace alone, and an uncritical acceptance of all Catholics as saved people.

What was the purpose of the document, and why would such trusted evangelical leaders sign it? Is the anxiety warranted?

The document is the outcome of 18 months of consultation between Protestant and Catholic leaders, stimulated by Charles Colson, the Prison Fellowship president and popular Christian author, and Catholic priest and public intellectual, Richard John Neuhaus. Colson described the motivation behind the statement (hereafter called ECT) in military terms: “Concentrate your forces”.

Furthering the military imagery, Colson again declared, “When the barbarians are scaling the walls, there is no time for petty quarrelling in the camp”.1 Evangelicals may well ask when Roman Catholics moved “into the camp”. They have been comrades, it seems, since modernity took a stranglehold on society, threatening to marginalize, if not completely alienate, the Christian churches. Certain church leaders, such as Colson and Neuhaus, and a parade of others with them, began to notice that, in the context of modern society, Catholics and evangelicals seemed to have more in common than they had differences. In the face of contemporary social issues such as abortion, religious freedom and the definition of the family, the two groups seemed to be fighting in the same trenches. Christians began seeking alliances where once there was enmity, in order to face the bigger foe, modernity. It was a case of realizing that your enemy’s enemy is your friend.

What does the statement say?

The ECT statement2 is subtitled “The Christian mission in the third millennium”. It calls evangelicals and Catholics to cooperate in “Christian mission” as we approach the year 2000, with the conviction that “As Christ is one, so the Christian mission is one”. “That one mission,” the statement claims, “can be and should be advanced in diverse ways … The one Christ and one mission includes many other Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as evangelical. All Christians are encompassed in the prayer, ‘May they all be one’”.

It then outlines some common aspects of doctrine (“We Affirm Together”), notably Christ’s lordship, the infallibility of Scripture and the role of the Holy Spirit. This leads to an expression of our joint hope that “all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” and that evangelicals and Catholics will be unified in the love of Christ.

The differences between the two groups are dealt with in a section called “We Search Together”, where it is admitted that some disagreements are deep and divisive, whilst others are superficial. Among the divisive ones are listed the doctrines of the church, sola scriptura, the nature of ministry,the nature of the sacraments, and the role of Mary and the saints. The list highlights our profound disagreements and hides some even greater ones, such as justification by faith alone.

The largest section of the eight-page document outlines, under the heading “We Contend Together”, the issues upon which evangelicals and Catholics would stand side by side. They cover the realms of politics, morality, law and culture, as well as such concepts as a “free society” and a “renewed appreciation of Western culture”.

Finally, the statement looks at how “We Witness Together”. It admits to some problems with this aim, especially in terms of defining the gospel to which we bear witness. Whilst it is clearly expressed that our joint aim must be to see personal conversions, most of the discussion in this section is an appeal for Catholics and evangelicals not to evangelize each other.

1. Why get together?

Problems with an agenda for social reform

It is clear that the alliance formalized in the ECT statement has mainly social and political purposes. There are social and moral issues upon which Catholics and evangelicals agree. In our support for protecting unborn life, preserving religious freedom and parental choice in education, we stand on broadly the same platform. The ECT statement makes much of this common agenda. However, the statement says nothing of the issues upon which evangelicals and Catholics may greatly differ, such as birth control or legalized gambling. In that sense, it is somewhat an ad hoc collection of social contentions. Once we are standing on the same platform, our important differences are easily overlooked. People will assume that we think more alike than we do.

Some obvious social and political tensions operate within the statement itself. On one hand, the signatories “strongly affirm the separation of church and state”. On the other, they urge that in public education, students be given moral instruction which derives from America’s Judaeo-Christian heritage. Certainly, there is an uneasy balance between these two intentions. Likewise, the statement calls for “a redefinition of public attitudes and policies” towards acceptance and understanding across religious, racial, sexual and class boundaries. It does so on the basis of our common creation in the image of God. It would seem awkward to make such a claim while maintaining the separation of church and state.

These are social concerns. However, the ECT proposals move beyond this arena into theological ones. It could be argued that the statement’s social agenda is based on a theological agenda that is super-biblical, that is, it goes beyond the claims of Scripture. Does Scripture say, as ECT asserts, that “Christians individually and the church corporately also have a responsibility for the right ordering of civil society”? Or is this taking too far our obligation to respect the rulers set over us (Rom 13:1; 1 Tim 2:1-2; Tit 3:1), to care for the disadvantaged (2 Cor 8:13-15); 1 Tim 5:3) and to instruct our children in the faith (Eph 6:4)? (We considered these issues in Briefings #135 and #137).

The statement can seem quirky to non-Americans, with its Christianizing of a “vibrant market economy”, its leading emphasis on fighting abortion and its pro-America sentiments. It seems to take its lead from the American experiment of the Founding Fathers, attempting to bring America back to its constitutional goal of ordered liberty and civil virtue. But in the Bible, this express aim is not in view.

Although the priority of the mission of the gospel is clear in the statement, its civil orientation threatens to take over. This becomes more evident late in the statement, where it is urged that evangelicals and Catholics not “proselytize” one another.

It is neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of resources for one Christian community to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community.

The statement introduces a subtle distinction between “evangelizing” and “proselytizing”, where the latter is merely “stealing sheep” from another denomination to boost numbers in your own. This section of the statement is wordy and beguiling, but it amounts to an instruction that evangelicals must assume that Catholics are converted, in order to avoid the conflict of moving people from one denomination to another. We ought, it claims, busy ourselves addressing the modern world, together.

This is unacceptable for two reasons. Firstly, it signals a capitulation to the social program—it makes the modern world the ultimate enemy and its reform the ultimate battle. Secondly, it demonstrates that the statement is at odds with evangelical belief. In Colson’s words, the statement “calls all orthodox believers to unite on the great truths of the faith against both secular modernism and theological liberalism”.3 Richard John Neuhaus is even more conciliatory: “By far, the document’s most important single statement … is the affirmation that evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. Everything else flows from that”.4

The social program explained in the statement is made possible because those who signed it claim that evangelicals and Catholics are brothers. It is not saying, “We aren’t really brothers, but we can afford to cooperate for mutual advantage”. It is explicitly claiming that evangelicals and Catholics are both in the one (true) camp, that we should stop bickering and “sheep-stealing” and get on with fighting the common enemy. This is why ECT speaks out against proselytism. Not only is it a waste of resources, but according to the signatories, it is unnecessary. Both evangelicals and Catholics are already Christians.

We evangelicals simply don’t agree. Everyone must be evangelized, Christians and non-Christians alike, because through the ‘evangel’ we know God and continue in him. Coercing Catholics to join the ‘evangelical movement’ merely for the sake of swelling our numbers is preposterous, but urging them to abandon false beliefs which in effect keep them outside of the grace of Christ is our duty and our joy.

2. Are we closer together theologically these days?

Has Roman Catholic doctrine changed such that the title ‘Protestant’ is no longer required? Or have evangelicals modified their beliefs to the point where there are less significant differences within the Roman Church?

The answers are, respectively, no and, unfortunately, yes.

Since Vatican II, the official position of the Catholic Church has undergone some changes. However, most of the changes amount to unbiblical modernizations. Rome still believes that our good works contribute to our justification; still believes that the Pope is infallible; still believes in Mary and the mass. What changes there have been in Roman Catholic theology have often taken anything but an evangelical direction, rendering null many of the points of the historic creeds upon which we agree. Modern Catholic theology has much in common with liberal Protestant theology; for Bultmann and Tillich, they have Karl Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin. Robert Strimple points this out in his essay in the recent and valuable book Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants analyze what divides and unites us (Moody Press, Chicago, 1994):

Because modern Roman Catholic theology has imbibed the ethos and spirit of modernity in this century, it is imperative that evangelicals recognize the influence of this spirit and respond more accurately and faithfully to the present situation as it really is. The most significant historic theological affirmations, even those we once agreed on, are no longer a basis for agreement. (p. 113)

One of the reasons for the ECT statement of unity appears to be a common opposition to just this sort of liberalism within the church. Both evangelicals and Roman Catholics want to take a stand against those who would deny the authority of the Scriptures, and all which results from such a denial. But we must ask, has Rome ever stood firmly on the authority of the Scriptures? Has it ever submitted to God in his Word, while Tradition has been exalted, mysticism prevailed and Church pronouncement been beyond critique? Like liberalism, Catholicism has always left the Bible in the background.

Certainly, ECT signatories wish to oppose modern heresies and reinstate an orthodox set of beliefs. They wish not to gloss over the differences between Catholics and evangelicals. However, by affirming their points of similarity in an already liberal, relativistic doctrinal environment, the differences are submerged. The possibility that some of the differences may radically undermine the points of agreement is not considered.

After criticisms of the original document were voiced, J. I. Packer and Michael Horten drafted a second document, called Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue. In it, they express clearly at what doctrinal points (and there are many) evangelical faith opposes Roman Catholic beliefs. This document may end up being the more useful of the two, since it plainly draws lines around the perimeter of interfaith dialogue, and stands firmly for orthodoxy. A Roman Catholic could not read this second document without being challenged in his or her beliefs. Let us hope that many such people will be thus challenged and, through the liberating word of the gospel, Christ will be honoured in their lives.

But evangelical heads cannot be held high. As its numbers have grown, evangelicalism has started to see itself as a denomination, a movement, rather than a theology. Doctrine has been de-emphasized in evangelical churches (hence the efforts in Briefings #150 and #151 to continue defining evangelicalism theologically). R. C. Sproul has pointed out that doctrinal clarity tends to fade over time:

If one generation has a theological dispute, the clarity of lines of division begins to fade in the next generation. After several generations pass, people begin to say, “What were we fighting about?”5

The ECT statement seems to be on this slippery slope. By its very existence, ECT threatens to blur the profound differences between evangelical and Catholic doctrines. In spite of its efforts to be careful and to preserve these differences, its focus upon unity means that doctrinal disputes must be considered secondary and not discussed.

The ECT statement fails to admit that no significant progress has been made on the basic doctrinal issues which keep Catholics and evangelicals apart. Instead, it moves the goalposts to make social transformation and political presence the priority. The section in which doctrinal differences are outlined is insufficient: it doesn’t clearly affirm that Christ died as the full and final sacrifice for our sins; it doesn’t say that the Pope might make mistakes. By its very title—“We Search Together”—it makes revelation open-ended, an unfinished task, something very attractive to Catholics, but not evangelicals. The things not said are telling, for without a clear understanding of the means of justification or the nature of apostolic succession or the depravity of all humanity, including Mary and the Pope, evangelicals and Catholics cannot be considered brothers.

If we are sidelining spiritually profound differences for the sake of avoiding conflict and making inroads in secondary areas, we are not doing Catholics a favour. We are obscuring Christ. John MacArthur, author of many strongly conservative evangelical books, claims that we ought to be very careful about making politically expedient alliances:

Those who think political clout can accomplish spiritual goals find it tempting to join forces with Catholicism, Mormonism, or even Hinduism. Thus in order to promote the pro-life movement and other common moral aims, evangelicals often accept precisely the kind of yoke with unbelievers that is prohibited in 2 Corinthians 6:14.6

An anecdote told by Harold O. J. Brown in Roman Catholicism is suggestive of the kinds of practical problems that arise when Catholics and evangelicals work together. Two such people shared a motel room after a frustrating and tiring day’s work during a pro-life picketing campaign. “Well, at least we are saving our souls”, the Catholic consoled.

3. Why is Rome so attractive?

There is nothing new in Protestants leaning towards Rome. It started with John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, but has continued to be a periodic indication of dissatisfaction among Protestants. Recently, two ex-Protestant ministers, Gerry Matatics and Scott Hahn, have become apologists for the Roman Church. Various English royals and prominent church figures have crossed the border. Their reasons for defecting differ—Matatics and Hahn saw deficiencies in evangelical theology; disillusioned royals seek solid moral ground; others find Rome’s ceremony more fulfilling.

In one way, this defection seems bizarre, since the Roman Church is more regimented and enforces greater strictures upon its adherents. It runs contrary to the freedoms of modern Western life. However, Catholic theology is a form of ‘natural religion’, and natural religion appeals to the natural man. It is a theology that, at almost every point, elevates humanity and creation about the place where Scripture puts them. It allows humans to participate in their own redemption by working their way into God’s favour. It makes the human church equal to the kingdom of God, with its infallible human head as the arbiter of Scriptural truth. In the end, Catholicism, like all religion, centres upon man not God. Little wonder it is attractive.

On another level, this attraction is readily explained by the age in which we live. Rome, at least in popular imagery, stands firm against the rise of the secular world. It claims to hold on to the truths of old, a fortress against assaulting armies, a safe haven when all around us is in flux.

In an age such as ours, it is no surprise that Christians are seeking to strengthen their resistance by broadening their fellowship. As the mainstream of culture becomes staunchly and proudly pagan, steeped in New Age syncretism and empty hedonism, evangelicals are casting around for anyone who might help them to stand firm against such philosophies. Historically, the Roman Catholic church has always been a ‘rock’, a shore of certainty against the raging seas of historical change. Paul Johnson indicates this in A History of Christianity, when discussing the Catholic church of the 19th century.

The image of Rome as a repository of medieval certitudes, of social homogeneity, of unitary view of life, exercised a marked appeal to a certain type of intellectual, and not only in England. In France, the current was, initially at least, much stronger, and it was linked to social and political forces which made 19th century French Catholicism the driving force behind populist triumphalism … For the first time since the 12th century, various vocal interests saw the papacy, potentially at least, as a popular force, as a protection against unwelcome secular claims, and as a far more acceptable defender of civilized tradition than the old royal houses … Catholicism, as conservative intellectuals recognized, was the chief beneficiary of the Christian reinvigoration because it made the fewest concessions to the modern egalitarian world, and because it radiated its unshaken faith in hierarchy and authority. (p. 384)

How readily this quote, highlighting Catholicism’s social strength, seems to apply to the current day. Michael Horton, a leading American evangelical, echoes those thoughts:

Fundamentalists and evangelicals, I think, find Rome attractive when the pressures of modernity weigh heavily on their shoulders. The search for certainty, ballast, and hope in the midst of relativism, weightlessness, and cynicism is more than “antimodern”`  sentiment; it is the very real experience of millions of conservative Protestants and Catholics. (Roman Catholicism, p. 245)

It has to be asked just how much the image of Rome as a fortress is a pleasant fantasy. The Roman church certainly has survived thanks to the dogma of Tradition, but in many areas it has capitulated to modernity, especially among its philosophers and theologians. However, on moral issues and some doctrines the Roman Church has remained constant.

As an ally against modernity, the Roman Church could be a powerful one. But at what cost are we attracted to this coalition? How can we resolve whether it is a worthwhile and Christ-honouring cooperation?

The basic question is this: Is modernity, and the resulting anti-Christian culture, a more fundamental threat to Christianity than the erosion of the truth of the gospel?

Those who have signed the statement have answered “yes”, but they have done so on the basis of a faulty view of God and culture. We would say that modernity is a threat only in so far as it makes evangelism and Christian living difficult. But, if we ourselves do not capitulate to the forces of the modern world, it can be no threat to true belief. Whilst a modern world is not a godly world, it can still be a world in which God is acting through his Spirit to call people to himself as the day of the Lord approaches. As Jesus said, the world is always a threat, because it hates us. Being ‘modern’ has nothing to do with it.

However, the doctrines of Roman Catholicism are contrary to saving faith, to biblical authority and, ultimately, to a proper understanding of the character of God. They leave people outside of salvation, outside of grace, outside of the love of Christ. That is a greater threat to Christian truth than the secularism of the late 20th century.

4. How should we respond to the statement?

Having explored some of the problems inherent in this call for unity, what should we do about it? Do we need to speak out against ECT, or can we quietly let it continue to change our perception of Christian unity? Here are five recommendations.

Firstly, we want to applaud endeavours to unite Christians around the world and across denominations. Where there are no significant doctrinal obstacles, we want to stand alongside fellow believers, call each other brother and sister and cooperate in the work of the gospel. We want to achieve gospel unity rather than denominational unity, since a denomination is nothing if it is not built upon the gospel. There are signs of this motivation operating within the ECT statement and we can at least be pleased about that.

Secondly, we need to be clear on what basis we fight for justice and social change. We need a proper understanding of the purposes of God, who is winding up this world and ushering his people into the next. We need a biblical vision of society as those who are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). We ought to be led by the love of Christ, who cares for the whole person, seeking to bring him to know God and loving him as a brother by providing for his needs. Our social struggles take place in this theological context.

Ask yourself this curly question: if the world was run by abortionists, but at the same time there was plentiful evangelism taking place, would you be happy? In your answer you should sense the priority of evangelism, as well as your discontent with the sin that is rampant in this world, and a longing for the next.

Thirdly, we need to recognize the problem of using capital E ‘Evangelical’ as a denominational tag rather than as a synonym for ‘Christian’. Someone who attends a Roman Catholic church is an evangelical, if they believe the gospel as recorded in the Scriptures. Such a person usually won’t remain in that church for long if this is true. Someone who has served on the parish board of the East Boggabilla Evangelical Church for 50 years and believes Mary is co-redeemer with Jesus is not an evangelical, because he or she doesn’t believe the gospel as recorded in the Scriptures.

We can’t define an evangelical culturally, denominationally, morally or traditionally. It has to be defined theologically. In this area, the ECT statement is weak.

Fourthly, we cannot accept any restriction placed upon evangelism. The statement is against proselytism (‘sheep stealing’), not evangelism, but it considers movement between the evangelical and Catholic churches merely as proselytism. Evangelicals, however, believe that Roman Catholics need evangelizing because, on the whole, they are not saved. In a scathing attack on the statement, Dave Hunt reports on a survey carried out in Spain of 2000 homes. Two respondents knew the gospel—they were Protestants. 1998 respondents thought good works got them to heaven—they were all Roman Catholics.7 We must honestly face the implications of such reports. Catholics need the good news.

Fifthly, we should recognize that while making such a formal statement can have positive political effects, it has mainly negative spiritual effects. Making a joint statement is obviously a diplomatic move, a flexing of political muscle, but it can confuse people as to what the gospel is. It can betray those who have been converted out of Catholicism, often at great personal cost. It makes it more difficult to distinguish doctrinal truths from social truths. We find our consciences captive not to the Word of God, as Luther so bravely confessed, but to the demands of political expediency.


1 Keith A. Fournier, ‘Forward’, Evangelical Catholics, Nelson, Nashville, 1990, pp. v-vi.

2 The printed statement can be found in the journal First Things, May 1994, pp. 15-22, edited by Richard John Neuhaus.

3 Christianity Today, 14 November 1994, p. 136.

4 Christianity Today, 16 May 1994.

5 R. C. Sproul, quoted in ‘Across the Divide’, Moody Monthly, November, 1993.

6 John MacArthur, quoted in “Across the Divide”, Moody Monthly, November, 1993.

7 Dave Hunt, Good News for Catholics newsletter, Autumn 1994/Winter 1995.

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