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Evangelicals and Catholics Together

John F. MacArthur

March 29, 1994, saw a development that some have touted as the most significant event in Protestant-Catholic relations since the dawn of the Reformation. A document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” was published with a list of more than thirty signatories–including well-known evangelicals Pat Robertson, J.I. Packer, Os Guinness, and Bill Bright. They were joined by leading Catholics such as John Cardinal O’Connor, Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla, and Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft.

The twenty-five page document was drafted by a team of fifteen participants led by Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson. Neuhaus is a former Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism in 1990, and has since been ordained to the priesthood. Like Colson, he is an influential author and speaker.

Colson explained that “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” resulted from a series of meetings sponsored by Neuhaus a few years ago in New York. The original purpose of the meetings was to discuss tensions in Latin America between Protestant missionaries and Catholic officials. “In some countries the Catholic Church was using political power to suppress Protestant evangelistic efforts; Protestant missionaries were being persecuted for their faith,” Colson said. “On the other side, some evangelicals were promoting the gospel by calling the Catholic Church the `whore of Babylon,’ the Pope, the `antichrist,’ and the like.” 1

Colson says he and others at the meetings “were moved by the words of our Lord, calling us to be one with one another as He is one with us and with the Father, in order that the world might know, as Jesus prayed, that Thou didst send me.’” Colson added, “We were agreed that scripture makes the unity of true Christians an essential–a prerequisite for Christian evangelism.” 2

The lengthy statement of accord that resulted has been praised in both the secular and Christian press as a landmark ecumenical agreement. Especially notable is the fact that the Catholics who signed are not from the liberal wing of Catholicism. Signatories on both sides are conservatives, many of whom are active in the pro-life movement and other conservative political causes. Historically, evangelicals and conservative Catholics have opposed ecumenical efforts.

One of the signatories, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, wrote in Christianity Today, “For too long, ecumenism has been left to Left-leaning Catholics and mainline Protestants. For that reason alone, evangelicals should applaud this effort and rejoice in the progress it represents.” 3

But does this new accord really represent progress, or are the essentials of the Gospel being relegated to secondary status? Asked another way, is the spirit of the Reformation quite dead? Should we now rejoice to see conservative evangelicals pursuing ecumenical union with Roman Catholicism?

The list of Protestant signatories to the document is certainly impressive. Some of these are men who have given their lives to proclaiming and defending Reformation theology. J.I. Packer’s work is well-known through his many valuable books. His book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, in print for several decades, has introduced multiplied thousands to the Reformed emphasis on divine sovereignty. He has capably defended the key Reformation doctrine of justification by faith in several of his books. His book Fundamentalism and the Word of God is an able defense of the authority of Scripture. Few in our generation have been more effective advocates of Reformation theology than Dr. Packer.

Timothy George is a Harvard-educated Southern Baptist theologian who has been influential among Calvinist Baptists. Perhaps no individual has done more than he to reintroduce Southern Baptists to their Reformed doctrinal roots and to help steer the Southern Baptist Convention onto a more solid theological footing. His book Theology of the Reformers is a brilliant historical analysis of theology in the Reformation era. Like Packer, George is thoroughly Reformed and an articulate defender of sound doctrine.

Both of these men surely understand the gulf that divides Roman Catholicism from the evangelical faith. It is not a philosophical or political difference, but a theological one. And it is not a matter of trivia. The key difference between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism is a difference over the Gospel. The issues that separated the Reformers from the Roman Catholic Church go to the heart of what we believe about salvation.

Many people assume that with signatures from men of this stature on it, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” must be a trust-worthy document, not a compromise of Reformation distinctives. But is that a safe assumption to make?

“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is an object lesson on the importance of biblical discernment. But it is much, much more than that. Surely it is also a harbinger of things to come. As the pressure mounts for evangelicals to succeed in the political realm and fight for cultural morality, they often capitulate to the new ecumenism. This may become one of the most hotly contested issues of the decade. The future of evangelicalism may hang in the balance.


“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is a lengthy document. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reproduce the entire text here. But here are some of the highlights:

A Declaration of Unity

The document begins with this: “We are Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who have been led through prayer, study, and discussion to common convictions about Christian faith and mission. This statement cannot speak officially for our communities. It does intend to speak responsibly from our communities and to our communities” 3

Later in the Introduction, the document states, “As Christ is one, so the Christian mission is one. That one mission can and should be advanced in diverse ways. Legitimate diversity, however, should not be confused with existing divisions between Christians that obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission” (2).

“Visible unity” is the stated goal (2) of the document, which quotes John 17:21, where the Lord Jesus prayed “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” Then this follows: “We together, Evangelicals and Catholics, confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples” (2).

At this point the document’s drafters are very explicit about who they believe is included in Christ’s prayer for unity: “The one Christ and one mission includes many other Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as Evangelical. All Christians are encompassed in the prayer, `May they all be one’” (2).

The section that follows has the heading “We Affirm Together.” It includes this:

All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ.. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and he has chosen us to be his together (John 15). However imperfect our communion with one another, we recognize that there is but one church of Christ. There is one church because there is one Christ and the Church is his body. However difficult the way, we recognize that we are called by God to a fuller realization of our unity in the body of Christ (5).

Similar declarations of unity–and appeals for more visible manifestations of unity–are included in every section of the document.

A Statement of Common Faith

The document highlights areas of common faith between Catholics and evangelicals. It affirms the lordship of Christ as “the first and final affirmation that Christians make about all of reality” (5). It identifies Christ as “the One sent by God to be Lord and Savior of all” (5). It declares that the Scriptures are divinely inspired and infallible (6). And it affirms the Apostles’ Creed “as an accurate statement of Scriptural truth” (6). The Apostles’ Creed is reproduced in its entirety as part of the document.

The pact also includes this statement about salvation:

We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of Christ, for we together say with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2) (5).

Although that statement has been celebrated as a remarkable concession on the Catholic participants’ part, as we shall see, it actually says nothing that has not been affirmed by the Catholic Church since the time of the Reformation. The real issue under debate between Roman Catholicism and historic evangelicalism–justification by faith alone–is carefully avoided throughout “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

A Statement of Doctrinal Difference

Those who drafted the accord did acknowledge other important areas of doctrinal difference between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism. And they correctly observed that real unity cannot be achieved merely by glossing over Catholic-evangelical differences. In fact, near the end of the Introduction, they state, “we reject any appearance of harmony that is purchased at the price of truth” (4).

In a section titled “We Search Together,” they said, “we do not presume to suggest that we can resolve the deep and long-standing differences between Evangelicals and Catholics. Indeed these differences may never be resolved short of the Kingdom Come” (9).

How are these differences to be addressed? They “must be tested in disciplined and sustained conversation. In this connection we warmly commend and encourage the formal theological dialogues of recent years between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals” (9).

The document continues,

We note some of the differences and disagreements that must be addressed more fully and candidly in order to strengthen between us a relationship of trust in obedience to truth. Among points of difference in doctrine, worship, practice, and piety that are frequently thought to divide us are these:
  • The church as an integral part of the Gospel, or the church as a communal consequences of the Gospel.

  • The church as visible communion or invisible fellowship of true believers.

  • The sole authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church.

  • The “soul freedom” of the individual Christian or the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the community.

  • The church as local congregation or universal communion.

  • Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers.

  • The Lord’s Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal.

  • Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints.

  • Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration.

  • This account of differences is by no means complete (9-10).

The document even acknowledges the solemn importance of many Catholic-evangelical differences. The signers expressly confess that some of the differences are so profound that they impinge on the Gospel itself:

On these questions, and other questions implied by them, Evangelicals hold that the Catholic church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of God’s saving grce in Christ. Catholics, in turn, hold that such teachings and practices re grounded in Scripture and beyond the fullness of God’s revelation. Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality (10-11).

A Mandate for Common Mission

But the theme that runs like a thread through “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is identified by the document’s subtitle: “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” The primary motivation behind the accord is the desire to eradicate differences that supposedly “obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission” (2). How can this be done without resolving doctrinal matters that affect the Gospel is not explained.

But the Gospel is clearly not the driving concern of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The “one mission” envisioned by the accord places temporal goals alongside–and in effect, ahead of–eternal ones. Much of the document focuses on “the right ordering of society