Seven Principles for Gospel-Centered Conversations among Catholic Friends

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With Christmas on the horizon and with it the prospect of discussion with loved ones about the gospel, here are seven helpful principles for evangelicals to keep in mind.

1. Define yourself by Jesus and not your Protestant church tradition

Tradition is great. But when it begins to eclipse the Lord Jesus himself, we’ve missed the point. Tradition should clarify our vision of Christ, not detract from it. Further, we Protestants can’t compete with Catholics in the area of church tradition. With a 1,500 year head start, they’ve got us beat. Thankfully, however, that’s not our objective. Nor is it a concern of former Catholics. Most of them convert not because they are drawn to a certain Protestant denomination, but because they find Jesus in our churches. Of all things, we are called to embody and proclaim the message of God’s redemptive grace in Jesus.

2. Speak of the Catholic Church with courtesy, even at points of disagreement

Anti-Catholicism has a deep, abiding history in the United States. Even among good-natured Protestants, it is common to hear sharp invectives launched against the Catholic Church. Such an approach is wrong for two reasons: theologically, it fails to convey the redemptive character of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Second, this sort of petulance undermines relationships with our Catholic friends and loved ones. Over and against this approach, a biblically informed and spiritually robust mindset requires that we see our Catholic friend as made in the image of God and therefore worthy of genuine love.

3. Explain biblical concepts and terminology in a way that is clear and accessible

It’s easy for us evangelicals, particularly pastors, to speak the language of Zion, forgetting that many folks in today’s post-Christian world haven’t a clue what we’re saying. It’s fine to speak of “Adam Christology” or “the eschatological substructure of the parousia”; however, be sure to define such terms and offer a reasonable explanation of their meaning.

4. Convey genuine remorse over the divided state of the Church

In his book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, Jaroslav Pelikan famously described the Reformation as a “tragic necessity,” recognizing that the 16th Century Church needed reform; yet, the subsequent division struck a massive blow to the church’s integrity, particularly in the eyes of the world. This tragedy is something that pastors should recognize, faithfully looking forward to the day when Jesus will return to unify his Body.

5. Be serious about cultural engagement and uphold an ethic of life

The idea of “incarnation” is a core value of Catholic theology and is also of importance on the local parish level. Therefore, Catholics are taught to put a high premium on practical forms of service, application of moral imperatives, and advocacy of the vulnerable in society such as the unborn and elderly. To the extent that Catholics are indeed faithful to the tradition, they will pursue these ends. Our Protestant churches must do the same.

6. Demonstrate by your actions that you believe what you believe

Hypocrisy is a problem in every religious context. In some ways it’s a function of following a perfect God/man. Yet, some forms of hypocrisy are egregious. Protestants look at moral failure in the priesthood and Catholics point to the shameful behavior of some of our televangelists. In the face of this perception we must consciously break the cycle of duplicity by embodying genuine love and faithfulness. When we fall short, we must acknowledge our wrongdoing and repent. In demonstrating by our actions what we believe, we make it easier for others to do the same.

7. Express reverence and authenticity when you pray

Prayer is serious business. We all know this, and yet sometimes we evangelicals appear to saunter into God’s presence, express a few platitudes of praise, throw down some personal requests, and conclude in Christ’s name. Yes, Jesus called his disciples “friends” three times in John 15, emphasizing the personal nature of their faith. At the same time, John the Apostle, when confronted by the risen and glorified Christ, fell down as a dead man (Rev 1:17). Our prayers should reflect both of these realities.

11 Comments

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  • What a refreshing article! It reminds me of where we all need to be, that is in Christ as well with each other regardless of our denominational preferences. With this in mind, our ministry is not just simply to be recociled unto God (2 Cor. 5:20), but also to be reconciled with each other (Eph. 2:14-17).

  • One question on the “genuine remorse” of the divided church. . . There’s an example even in the New Testament of Paul dividing with Barnabas and his disagreements with Peter, etc. . .I know this doesn’t give an apologetic for denominations or the like, but it seems to me that the NT is actually condoning some diversity of practice at least, and diversity of organization under the broad authoritative texts in Timothy and Titus. It seems there’s alot of room for freedom there.

    I guess what I’m getting at is I almost find that Catholics and confessional Reformed types “over do” the unity of the church thing and genuinely think it is a matter of constant mourning and seeking to re-unite, etc. . . Are there denominations that should come together, and have differences that should be resolved? Yes, of course. Are there other denominations that should remain separate and show the broad diversity of God’s church in mission and practice? I think so.

    I just think there’s a legitimate search for unity from John 17, and then there’s a search for reunification/restoration that is beyond what the bible requires for us. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks Aaron. I think you are right: it is pressing John 17 too far to expect the church to have complete organizational unity this side of glory. Because we see through a dim glass, with the noetic effects of sin, we will continue to have different understandings, observed and expressed in our respective traditions or denominations. The “remorse” part is properly aimed at the damage this fragmentation exacts upon our corporate witness in the world when Christians fight with one another instead of modeling the character of Christ in the face of disagreement. Good point, brother.

  • Hey Chris,

    We met a few days back at Starbucks and I have subsequently had some more opportunity to interact with some of your blog posts and articles, good stuff, very thought provoking.

    I celebrated Thanksgiving this year with some of my Roman Catholic relatives, and I was lucky to have watched the video you made with Lon Allison a few years back just beforehand. I succeeded in not putting my foot in my mouth the entire afternoon. Hopefully it will go a long way towards healing some of the hard feelings between us–I’m going to work on building bridges for a while instead of burning them (enough people have been burned already!).

    I hope you’ll forgive me for my ‘zeal’ when we spoke in Starbucks, I guess I’m still in the more anti-Catholic phase where I’m not able to be winsome.

  • This post was so refreshing for me!! As an evangelical Roman Catholic woman I often wonder why any denomination, and non-denominations as well, seems to believe that the Body of Christ is not only “physically” split up but spiritually, too. I think the Truth is ONE and is to be found in Christ alone and UNITY is something the Holy Spirit creates by Himself. God’s love alone can bridge the gap between any confessional differences.
    God bless

  • First, great post Chris. Very edifying.

    Regarding the ‘genuine remorse’ thoughts brought up by commenter Aaron.

    One, just because there was division in the NT doesn’t seal-the-deal for me that division is condoned in the NT. Lets not let narrative become normative in our hermeneutic.

    Two, is it fair to say that divisions arise over sin? Is not one side correct (or more or less pure) than the other side? If so, we should genuinely have remorse for our divisions because they stem from sin.

    I fear there is too much ‘agree to disagree’ sentiment amongst the broad evangelical types. We must use love and charity to bring the truth to others, even our other brothers and sisters in Christ.

    In other words, yes, organizational unity may not be what happens in this life, but can we not recognize that it ought to be the way? And thus, can we not mourn for the lack of that?

    Posted in love.

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