Friday, July 27, 2007

Different Ways of Handling the Situation

A few weeks or so ago, there was a bit of controversy raised by the words of Pope Benedict XVI, when he made statements designed to clarify the primacy (in his view) of the Roman Catholic Church. Although it's worth reminding everyone that there really isn't anything new about this statement and what it claims in regard to Protestant churches, many Protestants were understandably upset that the Pope denied the fullness of their own salvation, and suggested that their churches were not "churches" in his view. I myself consider the Pope's statements... unfortunate, and wish I could understand what productive (as opposed to divisive) purpose he had in making them.

But there are productive and non-productive ways of responding to such a situation. For an example of the latter, see the following comments on the blog of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler:
The Roman Catholic Church is willing to go so far as to assert that any church that denies the papacy is no true church. Evangelicals should be equally candid in asserting that any church defined by the claims of the papacy is no true church. This is not a theological game for children, it is the honest recognition of the importance of the question.
To some degree, this should not be surprising. Like Benedict, Mohler sees the "true church" in terms of adherence to a certain set of non-negotiable boundaries (I may not disagree here, but I expect we differ on what those boundaries are), and (more importantly) he sees the claims of Catholics and Protestants as mutually exclusive to those boundaries. Although Mohler intends to remain civil (and, indeed, is largely successful), his statement ultimately comes off as sounding like "Well, we don't care that you don't think that we're the true church, because we don't think you're the true church! So there!"

But there is another way. Here is a quote from a recent blog entry by Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw (via the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" forum).
Ecumenical relations will not flourish apart from an honest statement of what each church body believes. Pope Benedict has now reminded us that there is no easy path to unity. The most helpful response that we non-Catholics can offer is to make it clear where we in turn disagree with his declaration. So let me state my basic contention. While I love my Catholic friends and have learned much from them, I firmly believe that Catholicism holds to specific teachings--about churchly authority, about Mary, about the sacraments--that are seriously mistaken. From my Protestant evangelical perspective, the Pope has his work cut out for him if he is to bring his church up to speed as a full--to say nothing of "the fullest"--expression of what Christ desires for his church. But my saying that would not surprise Pope Benedict. This means that we are still at the point where we have been for a long time: much in common, but also much to argue about.
Like Mohler, Mouw argues against hostility. Like Mohler, Mouw argues that the Pope's comments represent an opportunity to be honest about the differing claims of each tradition. And like Mohler, Mouw honestly believes that the Pope is mistaken about important theological issues. But unlike Mohler, nowhere in Mouw's response is the suggestion that the Catholic Church is somehow not part of the "true church." At worst, he says that "the Pope has his work cut out for him if he is to bring his church up to speed as a full... expression of what Christ desires for his church." This is admittedly a subtle distinction, but a very important one. Certainly, I would have appreciated another line stating (and I think Mouw would agree with this) that all of us have work to do in our churches if we want them to be "full expressions" of what Christ desires. But the fact that we are all fallen and imperfect doesn't mean that we're not part of the "true church."

Let's be honest about our differences, yes. They are important differences. But we cannot hope to have productive dialogue about such difficult issues if we accuse each other of being "outside" the "true church" before we've even begun to talk!


  1. Frankly, what is the goal? Have all Christian churches "accept" each other? And, by extension, every variation of Christianity — down to each individual person's preferences and beliefs — be validated? Where's the divine authority in "we agree to disagree"?
    If you truly believe that your way is the right way, isn't it almost your obligation to convince others that their way is wrong?

  2. There's "wrong" and there's "wrong." I'm not actually suggesting we "agree to disagree" here. But I strongly believe that people are more persuasive with tactics that highlight similarities than differences. Or to put it another way, I'm more likely to help someone see my way of thinking, and perhaps eventually even to adopt it, if I start by saying "but look at how much we have in common" than I am if I say "I think you're wrong, and here's why." This is even more important in the case of discussion between different stripes of Christianity, such as I've described in this post.

  3. Incidentally (should have said this in the first response), you're right in suggesting that I don't see some "united Christianity" as the goal. There will always be differences, if for no other reason than that we as fallen humans can never see the truth with 100% accuracy. But that just means that we must continue to learn from each other, and that can only happen with some semblance of humility.



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