Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
Recently (SB, January 1, 1995) I wrote a critique of a statement drafted by some prominent Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholic leaders affirming the need of promoting cooperation between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The name of this document is Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). The stated purpose of promoting such cooperation is to present a unified front to the world by these two camps in Christendom to face the great challenges of world evangelism and the challenge of opposing the great moral, social, and political evils of the modem world. The document envisions that we face a particularly great challenge, as we begin the third millennium of world history. According to ECT cooperation is possible even while acknowledging continuing serious doctrinal differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. ECT seeks to distance itself from past ecumenical efforts which sought ecclesiastical and organizational unity by ignoring and compromising truth. According to Alister McGrath in a recent article in Christianity Today: “Ecumenism is yesterday’s idea and is widely seen as a spent force.” ECT professes to strive for unity, but not unity at the expense of truth.
ECT proposes collaboration between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals at the “street level.” ECT does not look so much for formal ecclesiastical cooperation between denominations on an official level but more for cooperation in an unofficial way by doing evangelism together and opposing ungodly worldly philosophy with a united front without condemning each other, duplicating each other’s efforts, or needless striving against one another. J.I. Packer speaks of cooperation on a “grass roots level.”2 It is hoped at least to change longstanding attitudes of animosity and fear between two camps, both of which are true Christians. Only by such united action would Roman Catholics and Evangelicals be acting in harmony with the great prayer of the Lord that the church be one as He is one with the Father.
Since the publication of ECT there has been a flurry of discussion about possible cooperation between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Some are hailing ECT as a landmark for biblically imperative cooperation. Time will tell what impact this document will make on efforts to forge cooperation between the two major camps of Christendom divided by the Reformation. In the midst of the discussion there is little said about what is meant by the term “Evangelicals.” Another article in Christianity Todaydefines an Evangelical as “anyone who describes themselves as such.” 3
We want to consider in this article three of the more significant and interesting recent responses to ECT. Dr. J.I. Packer defends his endorsement of ECT in an article in Christianity Today entitled: “Why I Signed It.” Packer has received a lot of criticism for signing ECT. J.I. Packer is recognized as one of the more “conservative” and “Reformed” leaders of Evangelicalism. His books are read by many Christians professing the Reformed faith and he is often asked to speak at conferences which promote Reformed teaching. Some of the organizers of these conferences have purposely dropped Packer from their speaker’s rostrum because he added his name to ECT.
Packer begins his article by condemning the isolationism, misrepresentation, misunderstanding, suspicion, and fear that he has long been convinced are responsible for the evil attitude between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Packer insists that he has not gone soft on his serious disagreements with Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. He lists some of the major differences he continues to have with Roman Catholicism to prove this. Nevertheless Packer strongly maintains that Evangelicals should consider Roman Catholics to be brothers and sisters in Christ. The basis for this insistence is that Roman Catholics, together with Evangelicals, profess Jesus as Lord and ascribe to the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Roman Catholics join true Protestants in believing in justification by grace through faith, and in a life of personal conversion to Jesus and obedience to the divinely-inspired Scriptures. This, Packer states emphatically, is an obvious and fundamental fact that makes cooperation with Roman Catholics an imperative for all Evangelicals. Packer makes his position even more serious when he speaks of collaboration between “good Evangelicals” and “good Roman Catholics.” The designation “good” he defines as meaning those who follow their respective church’s stated ideal of spiritual life. He recognizes Roman Catholics together with good Protestants as “Bible believing, Christ honoring, and Spirit empowered Christisns” who ought to work together in resisting liberalism and the moral evils of our day.
Packer points out that in present-day Western Christendom there is a greater divide between liberal and conservative Protestants than there is between conservative Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. In a certain sense this may be true. According to Packer this makes collaboration of the sort proposed by ECT even more urgent. Theological conservatives from both camps of Christendom must unite to combat the moral evils and increasing ungodliness of Western society. North American culture is casting away all Christian values it once held and is becoming increasingly secular and hedonistic. Conservative Evangelicals and Roman Catholics must join together to rebuild the ruins of Western society and re-Christianize the North American milieu. They will succeed in doing this by propagating the basic faith with not too much emphasis on right doctrine and through the strength ofunited social and political action of conservative Christians.
Packer goes on in his article to point to the mission ventures that are already engaged in combined actions of Roman Catholics and Protestants, naming as examples Billy Graham crusades and the efforts of the Charismatics. Especially in the Charismatic get-togethers distinction between Protestants and Catholics vanish in a “Christ-centered unity of experience.” These ought to be models for continued effort of partnership between Evangelicals and Catholics.
Packer does little to convince us of the worthiness of his endorsement of ECT. In spite of his insistence to the contrary he minimizes the seriousness of doctrinal differences between true Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. These differences strike at the very heart of the gospel. The Reformers rightly judged the Roman Church and its doctrines as false and apostate. This was the reason why they labored so hard-and were ready to give their very lives for the restoration of the true gospel to the church and for the reformation of the church. Rome has not over five hundred years changed its corruption of the gospel. Neither ECT nor Packer makes any mention of this. The Roman Catholic Church preaches another gospel which is not the gospel of the Scriptures. It is not a gospel that honors and glorifies God and His Son Jesus Christ. True Protestants differ with Roman Catholics in the very essentials of the gospel. For true Protestants to cooperate with Roman Catholics in missions would mean that they would cooperate in the propagation of a gospel which is no gospel and which the apostle Paul in Galatians pronounces a curse upon. The power of God unto salvation is the true gospel of sovereign grace. Any other gospel, which is no gospel, does not truly advance the cause of missions. Packer does not at all deal with the biblical mandate that the church and her members have to separate themselves form those who do not receive the truth. This mandate is repeatedly given in the Scriptures.
Collaboration with Roman Catholics in facing social issues and moral evils in our society is wrong as well. The major doctrinal differences between true Protestants and Roman Catholics will inevitably mean that they have very different answers to the moral problems of our day, even when they might at first glance seem to be similar. Furthermore, it is only the power of the true gospel of salvation that will bring about genuine change in the heart of man, and only then will man change his behavior. Social action alone, whether by few or by the supposed strength of numbers through unified action of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, will not rebuild our society according to the principles of the kingdom of God or “re-Christianize the North American milieu.”
We maintain that the greatest genuine impact on the life of men will be by the church that preaches the full-orbed truth of the gospel and by Christians who live genuinely according to the teachings of Gods Word in holiness and good works. Genuine Christian living flows forth from belief and confession of the sound doctrine of the Word of God. The epistles of the inspired apostle Paul, which almost invariably begin with a lengthy statement of sound doctrine and follow that with practical exhortations to Christian living, clearly demonstrate the relationship between sound doctrine and genuine change in man’s life and society. The simplistic and undefined “gospel,” promoted by ECT and Packer’s defense of it, will never be the power for genuine change to morality and godliness that he envisions, not even when this is promoted by the supposed strength of united action of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
ECT and Packer’s endorsement of it will lead inevitably to the idea that the church’s calling to face moral and social evils in our modern world is more important than maintaining the true doctrines of the Word of God, confessing these doctrines, and living by them. The church’s great calling is to preach the gospel faithfully according to the great commission of the Lord, not to press for social and political action. The true gospel is the power of the kingdom of Christ. It is not the calling of the church to rebuild or “re-Christianize” American society. According to biblical prophecy, society will never be re-Christianized. It is the calling of the church to preach the gospel of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ that will finally be realized after the destruction of the kingdoms of this world. True Protestants must continue to call any of Gods people still left in the Roman Catholic Church to come out of her. This they must do not merely for denominational or institutional aggrandizement but for the salvation of their own souls and the glory, of the name of God and His truth.
True Protestants must call out of the apostate Roman Church not only those who are lifeless and nominal adherents but all those who are truly children of God and are being deceived by Roman Catholic heresy. We may not in the name of religious freedom allow each convert on the mission field to choose the communion he desires to associate with, because the Roman Catholic Church is not the true manifestation of the church of Jesus Christ, and anyone who joins her communion will at the very least do great harm to his-own spiritual well-being and future.
The second interesting statement recently made about ECT was one made by Charles Colson. Charles Colson was actually one of the chief architects of ECT. The title of Colson’s article is: “Why Catholics Are Our Allies.” Colson begins by affirming the urgency of united action by Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, suggesting that such united action is the only hope for the survival of Christianity in the next millennium. He quotes from a certain Ivon Clausewitz what he calls the classic principle: “concentrate your forces.” Union must be on the basis of what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” Any division among denominations should never be discussed in public. By the strength of united action the cause of missions and confronting the non-Christian world must be advanced. This, he states, is the driving motivation of ECT. One wonders if Colson has forgotten the mighty biblical principle: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). In fact, much of the ideology of ECT reflects the forgetting of this principle and its basic truth of the sovereignty of God.
Of particular interest to our Protestant Reformed readers is the extensive use of “common grace” by Colson as the ground for cooperation between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. Colson quotes from Abraham Kuyper and his attempted justification for alliances between Catholics and Protestants to bring about political and social change in the Netherlands during his days of prime minister.
Colson does the same thing as Packer does. He implies that Catholics can be called “orthodox believers,” who are equally filled with the Spirit of God, and with whom we can unite in the work of evangelism and in opposing secular modernism and theological liberalism.
The third interesting statement in connection with ECT’s publication is an alternative statement drawn up by Michael Horton, president of CURE (Christians United for Reformation), an organization based in Southern California. J.I. Packer is a co-signer also of this document, apparently in order to temper some of the criticism he received about ECT. This document bears the title: “Resolutions For Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue.”4 It is composed of seven articles. It at least goes in the right direction by suggesting that there must be dialogue, doctrinal agreement between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, before there can be much new cooperation. It affirms (though I believe not nearly strongly enough) that major differences exist between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals on the essential doctrines of the gospel. It lists as an example of an area of radical disagreement the doctrine of justification, which is the article upon which the church stands or falls. It recalls the fact that the Council of Trent anathematizes the Protestant doctrine of justification. This anathema has never been withdrawn by the Roman Catholic Church.
The third statement of this document openly teaches the unbiblical and un-Reformed idea of the offer of the gospel, while at the same time condemning Rome’s doctrine of good works.
The fourth statement cautions against any idea of ecclesiastical cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals in fulfilling the great commission of the church, even though there may be some common cause on moral and social issues. It also warns against making social issues the main agenda of the church at the expense of fulfilling the great commission of preaching the gospel. This statement is also rather mild. Further, a comparison between Packer’s statement in the above-mentioned article and his supposed endorsement of this statement would, at best, reveal some contradictions.
Article 5 of the document repudiates a number of the erroneous doctrines of the Roman Church and denies that there can be any visible unity of the church where any essential elements of the gospel are lacking.
Article 6 states that individual Roman Catholics who in spite of remaining in the Roman Catholic Church do not assent to the church’s teachings, and have an evangelical understanding of justification, of the sole mediatorial work of Christ, and of faith and the new birth are brothers and sisters in Christ. It may be true that there are still children of God in the Roman Church. It ought to be emphasized that unless there is genuine doctrinal change in the Roman Church, every true child of God ought to come out from among her and not be partaker with her of her evil doctrines and practices.
Article 7 is confusing at best. It states that every Christian must be joined with a church where the Word is rightly preached and taught and where the sacraments are rightly administered. Then it ends with the confusing statement that “Roman Catholic no less than Protestant, needs regular exposure to accurate, Christ-centered preaching and exposition of the Bible.” But in what Roman Catholic church is this to be found?
The CURE organization responsible for the above-mentioned statement also has plans for a public Protestant and Roman Catholic debate on the theme: What Still Divides Us?” This debate is to be held in the large Congregational Church in Pasadena. It is evident therefore that the polemic raised by ECT will continue.
1 Christianity Today, published by Christianity Today, Inc., 465 Gundersen Drive, Carol Stream, IL 60188. December 12, 1994. “Do We Still Need the Reformation?” by Alister McGrath, page 28.
2 Ibid. “Why I Signed It.” By J. I. Packer, page 34.
3 Christianity Today, May 16, 1994. “Evangelical, Catholics Pursue New Cooperation” by Randy Frame, page 53.
4 Published by Christian Renewal, The Abraham Kuyper Christian Citizen Foundation, Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada. November 17, 1994 issue, page 12.