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.