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The Dividing Line
Chapter 11: Roman Catholicism

Evangelicals and Catholicism

In addition to Catholic endeavors such as Vatican II, other factors have promoted closer ties between Catholics and Evangelical Christians. The Charismatic movement was one such element. As we mentioned in the previous chapter, the "Charismatic renewal" won a large number of followers among Catholics. Undoubtedly, some of these Catholics were genuinely converted. But one effect of the growth of Charismatic Catholicism was to make Catholics and their church seem more acceptable to Protestants. Since Catholics were apparently receiving the same spiritual gifts as Protestants, then Charismatic Protestants saw less reason for distancing themselves from Catholics.

Another factor was what has been called "Evangelical cobelligerence." Alister McGrath says that this idea originated with Francis Schaeffer and was expounded by J. I. Packer. McGrath writes, "Its basic principle can be stated as follows. There is no inconsistency in evangelicals' forming alliances or coalitions with others to address issues on which they can agree. Such a coalition would be temporary in nature and limited in its objectives. It would not commit evangelicals to collaboration on any other issue, nor to any acknowledgement or admission of the correctness or incorrectness of the outlooks of such other groups."10 The idea is that orthodox Christians may form all sorts of temporary alliances with diverse groups as long as they have some common objective. Such alliances with Catholics are also supported by Vatican II's "Catholic Principles on Ecumenism," which encourages Catholics to work with non-Catholics on behalf of social causes (sec. 12).

There is some validity to this position, but only in a limited way. For example, Catholics, Protestants, and many other diverse groups may belong to organizations such as the Republican or Democratic Party. They may then work together for the nomination or election of certain candidates. But such cooperation is not in a religious organization dedicated to religious goals. When religious issues become the basis of an organization, then the biblical teaching concerning religious fellowship must guide its activities. Religious unity that is not based on the essential truths of Scripture will lead only to the compromise of those truths.

An example of the dangers of Evangelical cobelligerence is the organization known as Promise Keepers. College football coach Bill McCartney, a former Catholic and a member of the Charismatic Vineyard movement, founded Promise Keepers in 1991. This "Christian men's movement" sought to inspire men to be better husbands and fathers. Because they sought to affect all "Christian" men, the Promise Keepers welcomed every person of nominal Christian faith, including Catholics.11 One report said that a tenth of the men who attended Promise Keepers rallies in 1996 were Catholic. Furthermore, it reported that the organization's board took on its first Catholic member and that it began featuring a Roman Catholic evangelist in its rallies. In 1997 Promise Keepers even revised its doctrinal statement on salvation by altering the phrase "through faith alone" to make it less objectionable to Catholics.12

One of the most troubling examples of Protestant accommodation to Catholicism is a document known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," or "ECT" for short. This document was drawn up and signed by a number of Catholics and Evangelicals, led by Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran turned Catholic priest, and Charles Colson, a former member of President Richard Nixon's staff who was converted after his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Several leading Evangelicals endorsed the document, including Charismatic leader Pat Robertson; Bill Bright, leader of Campus Crusade; Mark Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College; and J. I. Packer, theologian and professor at Regent College in Canada. Reaction to ECT was not all positive. A number of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and even Roman Catholics criticized the document.13

The document presents Evangelicalism and Catholicism as equally valid expressions of the Christian faith. It condemns "proselytizing," attempts to convert Catholics to Evangelical Protestantism or vice versa.14 The trouble with ECT is that it underestimates the importance of the significant differences between Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity. Although it lists "points of difference" between the two, such as the nature of the church and the authority of Scripture15, the document does not consider these points important enough to prevent cooperation between Catholicism and evangelicalism.

Significantly, ECT does not include salvation or justification in its list of differences. Rather it tries to unite the two sides by stating, "We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ."16 Such a statement, however, covers over deep differences in doctrine. As we have already seen, Roman Catholics believe that Christ's atonement provides the basis for salvation. Furthermore, they believe that God's grace and faith are necessary for salvation. But they do not believe that Christians are justified by faith alone apart from all human merit.17 Unfortunately, the acceptance of Catholicism represented by ECT is the general tendency of Evangelicalism today. But it is a trend that those who uphold biblical teaching must resist.

The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation. By Mark Sidwell. ©1998. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address: www.bju.edu/store.)

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