What Can Evangelicals Learn from Catholics?

Pieta' by WTL photos.A few lessons come to mind—the need for a robust moral theology, relationship of faith and reason, historical rootedness, emphasis on catechesis and spiritual formation. Among these, here’s the primary one that I describe in Holy Ground (drawn from pp. 129-130).

Many Evangelicals seem to have a theological sickness. It’s not a condition that you can easily identify like lice or athlete’s foot. It’s much more subtle, like a parasitic tapeworm that hides in your digestive tract for months before you discover it. Philosophers call it a “platonic dualism.” In short, it’s an outlook that regards spiritual things to be inherently superior to the physical world—spirit is good, matter is evil.

When Catholics identify our illness they often do so with the following phrase: “You’re so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good!” These words describe the tendency of Evangelicals to be overly spiritual on one hand and on the other oblivious to the practical needs of society. As one Evangelical preacher was fond of saying, “Don’t carry a loaf of bread in one hand and the Bible in the other, lest in your efforts to feed the poor you forget that you’re carrying the word of God.”

Very often we don’t realize that we have the theological tapeworm until our Catholic friends help us see it by their positive example. What I’m referring to is the Catholic practice of engaging culture, what is often called “social action.” Following from their emphasis on the principle of incarnation, Catholic ministry is concerned with how the life of Christ addresses the tangible dimensions of our world. Whether it’s education, politics, economics, sexual issues, prison reform, poverty, race issues, or sanctity of life, Catholics operate with a robust moral theology that is generally foreign to Evangelicalism.

In my role as Pastor of Community Outreach, I am keenly aware of how much we struggle with understanding how gospel ministry relates to the enterprise of cultural engagement. In our church we have a pretty good grasp on what needs to happen in the name of “evangelism;” but our handle on social outreach is clumsy at best.

Thankfully, there seems to be a growing awareness among Evangelicals today of the need to repent of our unbiblical dualisms. These often younger Evangelical leaders have somehow removed their tapeworms and therefore have an appetite to enrich culture as constructive agents of Christ’s kingdom. I’ll close this section with a quote from one of these agents who extricated his tapeworm long ago, if he ever had one, the British Pastor John Stott:

“It is exceedingly strange that any followers of Jesus Christ should ever have needed to ask whether social involvement was their concern, and that controversy should have blown up over the relationship between Evangelicalism and social responsibility. For it is evident that in his public ministry Jesus both ‘went about…teaching…and preaching’ (Matt 4.23; 9.35 RSV) and ‘went about doing good and healing’ (Acts 10.38 RSV). In consequence, evangelism and social concern have been intimately related to one another throughout the history of the Church” (John Stott. Issues Facing Christians Today: A Major Appraisal of Contemporary Social and Moral Questions. [Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984], 2).

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