Evangelism The Church in Scotland Theology

Why Evangelical and Catholic Differences Matter

This is another roundtable discussion that I had at the European Leadership Conference in Poland last year. With Glenn Sunshine and Greg Pritchard.


  1. I was at the SETS (Scottish Evangelical Theological Society) conference this week. One comment mad there was that apart from statements made by Pope Francis about Mary that what he was stating was almost entirely in line with the purposes of evangelicals.

    There seemed to be a consensus that the time now is becoming where labels are going to have to become less important and dialogue with the Catholic church as to where there is common ground become more important. This of course represents challenges to traditional positions held both within evangelicalism and within the Catholic church.

    In some cases, part of the church will have to die out and in others it will have to be broken in order to be built up in Christ – likeness in order to fulfill the purposes of the gospel and not be a hindrance to it.

    Differences where they occur within the boundaries of what it means to be in Christ ought never to be cause for division and it is a tragedy when such occurs. It is of course obvious that where there are differences where there is apostasy that there is a need for arguments to be destroyed. However, it cannot be overlooked that there is a need to not be engaged in stupid arguments that do nothing for unity in the body of Christ and are a hindrance to the gospel of the good news of Jesus.

    History teaches that Martin Lloyd Jones ceased to be listened to after the 1966 Evangelical Alliance when he appealed to evangelicals to leave their denominations. This is not different to the flavour of contemporary arguments made by some fundamental evangelicals. Barclay states “One major loss in these changes was that the stronger emphasis on doctrine that had been such a feature of the previous twenty years was weakened in the Church of England when Lloyd – Jones and other Free Church leaders … were no longer listened to by Anglicans.” Barclay, O, 1997, Evangelicalism in Britain, IVP : Leicester pg 86

    The Anglican evangelicals’ Nottingham Congress Statement of 1977 contained the statement “Seeing ourselves and Roman Catholics as fellow Christians, we repent of attitudes that have seemed to deny it … We shall work towards full communion between our two churches.” Murray, IH, 2000, Evangelicalism Divided, Banner of Truth : Edinburgh p216

    Particular issues at particular times will not be the same, granted. However where there are common themes we must learn form the past lest we make the same or similar mistakes. David, you called for repentance last year from what you called “stupid games” with “church politics” and to the God of the bible and that been necessary for all including professing evangelicals.

    The world is watching.

    1. Adam, you wrote:

      “Differences where they occur within the boundaries of what it means to be in Christ ought never to be cause for division and it is a tragedy when such occurs.”

      I agree. But, here’s the rub: what the discussion never addressed (although it got close enough to do so) was the issue of justification by faith alone. If Catholicism and Protestantism were identical in every respect but differed only in this one place, then there is sufficient cause for division. After all, Catholicism doesn’t anathematize the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it anathematizes those *people* who declare it (which includes yours truly). Although Trent II nuanced the position somewhat, the fundamental stance hasn’t changed. On the other side, Luther stated “nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls” because it describes how we can be declared righteousness before a perfectly righteous God. Somewhat important.

      So, the key question is: does the Catholic understanding of justification describe truly how someone can be “in Christ” or does it give false hope of such an end? The answer to that question has massive consequences, which would look something like the Reformation.

      Anyway, I’m a little puzzled why the discussion never got onto this topic of sola fide. It would be somewhere at the top of my list of differences, alongside sola scriptura.

      1. OK, hear your points about the doctrine of justification by faith alone and where Catholicism stands on that in response to what I have mentioned about tragedy where there is division within the boundaries of being “in Christ”. And here is where I am getting at with being “fellow Christians” as in the Anglican evangelicals statement and Lloyd-Jones ceasing to be listened to.

        If we allow our doctrines to take precedent over Christ then we have strayed off the narrow path. Conversely if we allow our works to be our justification we have strayed off the narrow path.

        Something in common with both the statement by Anglican evangelicals in 1977 and by David last year was a recognition that something other than God had taken priority and of a need to return to God. What you mention about being “declared righteous” before God quoting Luther is indeed important and is not dissimilar to the practical working out of keeping God central, not church politics that result in tribalism and insensitivity to difference.

        I see things differently to what you talk of with the “key question”. The key question for evangelicals is to what extent has there been repentance within evangelicalism and a return to the “God of the bible”.

        There is a paradox in that having self-control, one has more influence with others. It seems to me tat it would be better to focus on this, or at least be as willing to address this as much as consider what Catholicism does than what the “other” is doing and failing to examine what is going on in evangelicalism lest the mistakes of history are repeated.

        If churches and individuals are not willing to wrestle with this, act humbly and keep God central but prefer stupid arguments instead, then Christ has no choice but to go out into the world independently of the church. Given that he was rejected by many religious figures while he was here, is it any surprise if the same happens now?

      2. If we allow our view of Christ not to include the doctrines of Christ then we have strayed off the narrow path. As for what it means for Christ to go out ‘into the world independently of the church’ I have no idea. It is of course impossible – because Christ came for the church, died for the church, created the church, established her as his bride and the pillar and ground of the truth, promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against her, and told her to go into all the world. Anyone who argues that Christ goes into the world without his church either has no idea of who Christ is, or what the church is.

      3. “Doctrines of Christ” written according to human tradition by the empirical reality of being human are without perfection. Even among fellow evangelicals there are are differing opinions on say for example the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. There is however richness in doctrine whilst at the same time being a danger of not learning from history where even a great person like Dr Martin Lloyd Jones along with other Free Church leader ceased to be listened to by Anglicans according to Barclay as quoted with a weakening of emphasis on doctrine in the Church of England as a result. Circumstances are not the same, granted, but there is one thing that hasn’t changed which is human nature and a failing to learn from history is being doomed to repeat mistakes.

        I’m sorry to read that you “have no idea” about what I meant by Christ having no choice to go out into the world independently of the church if churches and individuals prefer stupid arguments instead of keeping God central. I would have though that it was fairly clear given that God resists the proud (the church not being immune to this) but gives grace to the humble and that Jesus in his home could do little being amazed as he was by the little faith there was there in comparison to the faith of the centurion or the Canaanite woman. However, perhaps the way I communicated that was not clear. In the statement I was making about that I was affirming what you had said last year about the need to return to the God of the bible and likening that to the Anglican evangelical statement of 1977 working towards “full communion” with Roman catholics as “fellow Christians”.

        Wow, that’s quite a thing to imply that I as a fellow Christian could have either “no idea of who Christ is, or what the church is” by talking of Christ going out into the world independently of the church. I see things differently. Christ’s choice is to work through the church, granted. However, if the church is so caught up with politics and what you have called “stupid games” so as not to be keeping Christ central and to be ineffectual for the gospel, then how else is Christ to be active in the world?

      4. Christ has a choice. And he has chosen to extend his kingdom through building his Church. I don’t take my doctrines from human tradition, but from the word of God. The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. We are to speak true doctrines about Christ. To deny they exist is really to deny Christ and to set oneself and one’s own heart over and above the Word of Christ.

      5. I’d agree with most of what you write but there are some subtle nuances that I would see differently. No-one on their right mind is going to deny that doctrines exist but it it is quite a leap to go from that to making a clam about setting oneself over the word of Christ.

        Human tradition as mentioned is where doctrines come from. Again, for example even among fellow evangelicals there is disagreement over the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This can and does lead to sectarian division where otherwise fellow Christians could be united in Christ.

        Among Christians there is also disagreement on what constituted the “Word of God” at times. One prominent evangelical leader for example points to the to word being with God and the word was God and then the word becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us. So therefore the “word of God” being Jesus. Others regard the word of God as scripture as is often punctuated after a bible reading “this is the word of God”. At best any use of the “word of God” is going to be a human interpretation of what that entails.

        Stupid arguments break out when one party regards it as one thing and another something else often with the word “clearly” entering into the conversation to make it appear the other party is “wrong”. Sometimes of course it is that case that wrong interpretation has occurred. Often differing interpretations have been made within the boundaries of God’s counsel and needless arguments have occurred where unity in Christ could have been experienced.

        It is a bold claim to make that “The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth”. Ideally that would be true in all occasions but we do not live in an ideal world with ideal people. If we did there would have not been a need last year for you to be calling for repentance from “stupid games” and “church politics” and a “return to the God of the bible”.

        Again, how else is Christ to be active in the world if the church is so caught up with politics and stupid arguments as to be ineffectual for the gospel unless he does so independently of the church?

      6. I don’t regard ‘what is the Word of God?’ as a stupid argument. The claim that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth is one that the Bible actually makes. Jesus calls scripture the word of God. I really have no problem with following the Jesus of the Bible or listening to the Bible as his Word. You seem to have much more faith in your own abilities than you do in the bible as the Word of God. You surround your lengthy posts with spiritual waffle but it is nonetheless dangerous.

  2. Can I suggest there is a danger in what Adam is proposing? I spend a bit of time working with evangelicals in Africa (presbyterians as it happens) and they have strong alliances with catholics and muslims. Why? Well it’s not ecumenism. Its what is sometimes described as “co-belligerence”. The evangelicals are working with catholics and Muslims on issues where they share the same moral position. Mainly around human sexuality, where the commonly held position by most Christians would be considered extremist by anyone calling themselves Christian in Scotland.

    The difficulty is that evangelical Christianity is about people choosing to follow Jesus rather than being born into a religious tradition which is simply cultural. By equating true Christianity (in all its forms) with cultural religion they are misrepresenting Christianity and presenting a hardened front to the public which does not really reflect a great love for people.

    1. Thank you for your challenge Gordon.

      Of course different contexts face different specific challenges and the African environment between catholics and evangelicals is something you will have greater experience of and therefore ability to comment on with insight.

      I don’t however see where you are perceiving danger in what I am suggesting. Perhaps I am not picking you up on what you are intending to convey. I did mention that “it is of course obvious that where there are differences where there is apostasy that there is a need for arguments to be destroyed” which does seem to cover the concern you have raised about “cultural religion … misrepresenting Christianity”.

      I hope you can accept that there is a culture of evangelicalism where the same argument can be made such that one becomes an evangelical in the natural rather than “in Christ” and therefore is every bit as dangerous as what you are suggesting my comment is.

      I’m not sure if you have taken on my point about the recognition for the need of repentance expressed both by the Anglican conference and by David including evangelicals, and the danger of failing to do so resulting in not being listened to as a result history has taught us with even a great man such as Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones with a weakening of doctrine within deniminations as a result.

  3. I’ve dipped in and out of this video. I liked your occasional “apologetics for catholocism” David and it was enlightening to learn some more about Catholicism.

    I also appreciated Adam’s comments in response.

    A question that comes to the surface of my mind is that in the highlighting the (supposed) heresy of other beliefs (Catholicism, liberal protestantism etc) do the Conservative Evangelicals believe that their own theology is entirely heresy-free?

    It is a genuine question and I would appreciate people’s views on this.

    I also found it a bit strange to find Catholicism opposed to Evangelicalism, rather than Protestantism. Is Catholicism really a narrow enough denomination to be compared to Evangelicalism?

  4. If I may ask another question, could someone help me understand the actual definition of a heresy? Is it merely a difference of theological opinion, or is there something more complex involved? For example, would a Calvinist consider an Arminian to be a heretic and vice versa? Do Catholics consider Protestants to be heretics? Are there situations where a difference of theological opinion would not be considered a heresy but merely a different view or teaching? I find this area somewhat confusing…

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