NEWS: Evangelicals Clarify Accord with Catholics

By Joe Maxwell

Some present called the meeting "historic." Others say it was at least highly significant. Whatever the case, a January 19 gathering of top evangelical leaders has averted what Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson worried might become a "serious rift" over the controversial statement "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium" (ECT).

The 25-page document, originated by Colson and Catholic social critic Richard John Neuhaus, was signed last year by 40 noted evangelical and Catholic leaders (CT, May 16, 1994, p. 53). It called for Catholic and evangelical cooperation on social and cultural issues where both traditions share common goals, one example being the fight against abortion. The accord also stressed mutual allegiance to the Apostles' Creed, world evangelism, justification "by grace through faith because of Christ," and encouraged "civil" discourse over doctrinal differences.

But ECT's evangelical critics claimed that the statement blurs doctrinal lines on key issues, including salvation by faith alone. Pastor and writer John MacArthur told CT his greatest concern was the apparent disregard for "evangelical doctrinal distinctives." That issue, he said, remains "unaddressed" in the ECT document.

The January 19 gathering included Colson, Campus Crusade for Christ's founder Bill Bright, and theologian J. I. Packer (all ECT signers), along with ECT critics MacArthur, Ligonier Ministries' R. C. Sproul, apologist John Ankerberg, author Michael Horton, and pastor D. James Ken nedy, who hosted the meeting at his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Moody Bible Institute president Joseph Stowell moderated, with assistance from church historian John Woodbridge.

Although the morning sessions of the group were marked by sharp exchanges, the leaders eventually agreed on a five-point statement, designed to "elucidate" the stance of evangelical ECT signers. Since then, Colson has written each evangelical ECT backer, urging support for the second statement. He says the second statement "fully clarifies the Protestant distinctives without in any way detracting from what [evangelical signatories] affirmed in ECT."

Colson, in a letter to original ECT supporters, said that critics at Fort Lauderdale "expressed their support for this clarification. It was a beautiful example of how Christians should deal with their differences."

The new statement says cooperation between evangelicals and "evangelically committed Roman Catholics" on common concerns is no endorsement of the Roman Catholic "church system" or "doctrinal distinctives." It affirms the Protestant understanding of salvation and legitimate evangelism efforts.

Bright told CHRISTIANITY TODAY the Fort Lauderdale meeting provided clarity of emphasis about ECT. "It could have been the most devastating meeting in modern history," Bright says. Instead, "men of God met together to determine the will of God in the Spirit of God."

Catholic ECT signatories are commending the Fort Lauderdale discourse as representing the sort of healthy ongoing discussion they hoped ECT would stimulate. Neuhaus, of the New York-based Religion and Public Life organization, says it "is in accord with ECT's clear declaration that there are many questions that need to be more fully explored." Catholic ECT signer Keith Fournier, author of "Evangelical Catholics and A House United: Evangelicals and Catholics Together," lauded the Fort Lauderdale outcome, saying it represents the "true spirit of ecumenism" that honestly considers both commonalities and differences.

Nonetheless, the meeting underscores deep differences among American evangelical leaders. ECT critics at Fort Lauderdale showed no sign of seeing any benefit from ECT itself, says Packer, although by their recognizing "that there was nothing evangelically improper in [Packer, Bright, and Colson] supporting the statement, they did, in fact, concede that parachurch cooperation is appropriate. They conceded it implicitly."

MacArthur, pastor of the independent Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, says, "I'm very glad for the second document. I'm glad [Colson, Packer, and Bright] had the opportunity to clarify what is clarified there. It still doesn't go as far as I would have hoped." He remains steadfast in his belief that evangelical ECT signers ultimately should "recant." The bottom line, he says, is that Roman Catholicism is "another religion."

Excerpts of the Fort Lauderdale agreement follow:

Copyright (C) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./CHRISTIANITY TODAY Magazine