How Evangelicals Do Ecumenism

During last year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many asked: Is it finally over? The loudest “no” came from some of the Protestants closest to Rome.

In December, national evangelical alliances in Italy, Spain, and Malta charged the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) with “moving away from its historic position” of holding the line against Catholic and liberal Protestant theology. They worried about a purported statement of “greater oneness” between the WEA, the Vatican, and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

“These are serious charges, but they bear no resemblance to what [we are] actually doing,” replied the WEA, which represents 600 million evangelicals across 129 national alliances and 150 member organizations. It explained that the dissident groups “conflated two reports from two different meetings.”

But it recognized their concerns. “Beneath this specific misunderstanding lies a deep-seated, ongoing concern about the WEA’s intra-faith relations,” the WEA stated. The southern European alliances “fear that too close a rapprochement and collaboration with the Catholic Church could undermine our ability to articulate the historic evangelical faith in an uncompromised way.”

That’s not an unusual fear for people who watch their leaders engage in such talks, said Brett Salkeld, ecumenical officer for a Catholic archdiocese in Canada and a participant various Catholic–evangelical dialogues. “We imagine the people having discussions are papering over our differences and selling the farm.”

This gets tricky when ecumenism is done at a global level. Evangelicals in Spain, Italy, and Malta have faced years of Catholic persecution and are acutely aware of the differences between the two traditions. In turn, Catholics in Latin America—where evangelicalism is growing rapidly—worry about compromise with the “sheep stealers.”

Ecumenism is often seen as “the least common denominator, watered down, compromised kind of practice,” Salkeld said. “People don’t realize ecumenists are strongly committed to their own traditions.” Ecumenism done right is a precise expression of views, followed by careful challenge, that allows Catholics and Protestants “to get even better at articulating their positions,” he said. The point is understanding rather than compromise, and the result is a revelation of areas—marriage and family, social justice, abortion—where the sides can work together on common goals.

“We are not in the business of compromise,” said Salkeld. “We are in the business of discerning the truth.”

Bishop Efraim Tendero, secretary general of the WEA, said almost exactly the same thing: “We want collaboration without compromise.”

He’s worked with the Vatican on issues of climate change, human trafficking, and the spiritual engagement of young people. His top two priorities right now: religious freedom and Bible literacy and engagement.

Tendero himself is from the Philippines, a majority-Catholic country where Protestant-Catholic relations have been tense for decades. “People are afraid that when we relate to the Catholic Church, we become subservient to them . . . or that we give up our evangelical distinctives in order to cooperate,” he said. “But when we first know who we are—our identity and our distinctives—then we have no problem interacting . . . because we know where we stand.”

The trouble, then, is communicating to those who aren’t in the closed-door meetings. “We need to strengthen our own internal communications,” Tendero said. “Lack of understanding and clarity on what’s happening [can] cause confusion and apprehension.”

Even that might not be enough. Unlike Catholics, evangelicals don’t have an organized hierarchy or a single spokesperson. Tendero doesn’t come to the table with the same authority as Pope Francis. Rome can issue definitive statements from the top down; Protestants must work from the bottom up.

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Source: Christianity Today