Marriage Across the Protestant/Catholic Divide


A reader of my recent post wrote the following question:

“I just read your recent blog post on the TGC website entitled ‘Dating across the Protestant/Catholic Divide.’ I just wanted to follow up with a quick question: how do you counsel people in your congregation who have already married across that same divide? Do you have any helpful resources for them, or for me (their pastor)? These folks have young children, which complicates matters as well. They are now experiencing those same ‘complexities’ and the ‘inevitable confusion’ that you referenced. Can you point me to any assistance?”

Thanks for this question. The article begged it; unfortunately, I had already exceeded my word limit when I thought of it. Here is my thinking on the matter.

The challenge of husbands and wives relating across the Catholic/Protestant divide was my initial reason for writing Holy Ground. As a pastor at College Church, I found myself counseling a few couples, all of whom consisted of a Catholic and Protestant. In two instances, the marriages were suffering on account of their religious differences, questions like: which church would they attend? Do the children join youth group or their parish’s equivalent? How about fulfilling sacraments like Holy Communion? Is it okay to approve of their children’s observance of Catholic customs with which they disagree? Do such concessions communicate loving support or a negligent compromise?

At the end of the day, the question of how to shepherd these couples is a discipleship issue. Pastors should approach the conversation, first and foremost, as an opportunity to elucidate and apply the gospel, explaining that the conversation between husband and wife happens in the context of what Paul describes in Philippians 2:12-13: “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God is always in the process of weaving his grace into the fabric of marriage—in the Catholic and Protestant alike. We shouldn’t let the conversation be limited to the question of “who is right.” Of course, we are always concerned with doctrinal integrity. But this pursuit of right doctrine happens in a context in which husbands and wives are working out their faith together, the conscious application of redemptive truth and redemptive grace (John 1:14).

The people whom we serve often lean toward one of these extremes: grace or truth. Some of us naturally resemble lambs; others are more like pit bulls. That’s life in a world full of uniquely created people. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised when we disagree on how to handle specific issues; but such disagreement can’t undermine the enterprise of trying to thoughtfully navigate through our differences. As always, Jesus is our example, particularly as he embodied and expressed the delicate balance of “grace and truth.” As Christians, we the Church are called to do the same. Not everyone will slice the onion exactly the same way, but slice we must. If we toss out the entire onion or consume it whole, we’ve failed to do the hard work of upholding both virtues.

One of the reasons why Christians fail to engage the process of balancing grace and truth among Catholics is overconfidence coupled with a lack of respect for the other person. In his book titled Humble Apologetics, author John Stackhouse clarifies this notion:

To put it more sharply, we should sound like we really do respect the intelligence and spiritual interest and moral integrity of our neighbors. We should act as if we do see the very image of God in them. . . It is a voice that speaks authentically out of Christian convictions about our own very real limitations and our neighbor’s very real dignity, not cynical expediency. We are rhetorically humble because we are not prophets infallibly inspired by God, let alone the One who could speak “with authority” in a way no one else can speak. We are mere messengers of that One: messengers who earnestly mean well, but who forget this bit of the message or never really understood that bit; messengers who never entirely live up to their own good news; messengers who recognize the ambiguities in the world that make the message harder to believe; and therefore messengers who can sympathize with neighbors who aren’t ready just yet to believe everything we’re telling them.[1]

Being humble doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that one is devoid of strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). It’s only when we have an informed conviction, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, that we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7). This is the Christian way.

Shepherding couples who live at the Catholic/Protestant intersection is among the biggest challenges that a pastor will face, precisely because it demands such nuanced attention to the grace/truth balance. When this value and vision are at the leading edge of our approach, we still won’t have ready-made solutions to each problem, but we will at least have the general perspective necessary to facilitate the conversation. I’ll close with one recent example of how this approach has served my ministry.

I was in California delivering a lecture on Catholicism. At the conclusion, after everyone had left, there was a man who remained. He was a big fellow who looked like he could have been a professional wrestler. Immediately, tears filled his eyes as he described his situation—his dear wife was Catholic and not only did she refuse to join him at his evangelical church, she also wouldn’t allow their children to do so. Every time the topic of faith arose in their home, it became a heated argument and at this point he was in despair.

I suggested that this fellow needed an advocate and perhaps there was no one better to help than a Catholic priest. Understanding that among some Catholics there is ignorance and defensiveness toward Protestantism, the priest of his wife could help to mediate the discussion and in some way validate the intentions of this husband. I told him. “Find one of your wife’s priests whom you regard as Charismatic, that is, who values the Bible and is amenable to Protestantism. Tell him your situation explaining that your desire is to shepherd your wife and kids from the Bible, that you’re not anti-Catholic, but that you want to lead your home as a man of God. Invite the priest to sit down with you and your wife and discuss your common commitments in this regard. The priests whom I know would be all over such an opportunity, providing you with encouragement and support, and any priest worth his collar should recognize this as a gospel opportunity.”

At once the demeanor of my newfound giant friend changed from despair to hope. Did he have a long road ahead of him? Sure. But he at least had perspective and a plan. That’s the gift that we have pastors can offer the Catholic and Protestant couples whom we serve—grace and truth centered on the person of Jesus Christ.

[1] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 229.

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