Displacing stereotypes and tackling issues

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

What on earth was a Roman Catholic Bishop doing in the midst of over 10,000 Evangelical Christians? It was a question I asked myself a number of times last week. And yet, there I was among the gathering at Amsterdam 2000, over 10,000 Evangelical Christians representing 209 nations. As the Chair of the National Conference of Catholic Bishop's Committee on Evangelization, I had been invited with a number of other representatives from the Roman Catholic Church. There was also a delegation representing the Orthodox Church. We all had received personal invitations by Dr. Billy Graham to be ``official observers.'' He hoped that by our presence among the gathering and through our discussions with Evangelical leaders, tensions that too often surface between Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians might dissipate. In order to facilitate our dialogue, several meetings had been scheduled during our stay. These meetings included representatives from the Billy Graham Organization and our contingents from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The meetings provided time and opportunity candidly to share our impressions of the evangelicals as well as note concerns we might have about the evangelical movement.

I must say, Amsterdam 2000 provided time and opportunity for those of us who were observers to gain insight and understanding. As for me personally, I discovered that the term evangelical is much more of a mind set and a world view than it is a denomination. I even encountered a number of evangelical Catholics.

The zeal of the participants was quite genuine and their spiritual energy was particularly contagious. It was so obvious that these individuals had surrendered their lives in faith to Jesus as the Christ who was foretold in the Scriptures. He was their reason for being. He was their life and salvation. As I told one evangelical during the week, ``I wish I could get more Catholics to have such enthusiasm for their faith in Christ.''

When we had our meetings, it was agreed that we shared the same deeply held conviction: that Jesus of Nazareth truly was the Christ foretold in the Scriptures, who had been crucified for our sins and had risen from the dead to restore life to all who embrace him. At the same time, both Catholic and Orthodox representatives present expressed a number of concerns.

First, it was noted that some evangelicals practice proselytism rather than evangelism. Proselytism is marked by pressure to commit and borders on coercion. Evangelism respects an individual's freedom and expects that he or she would respond to the invitation of the Gospel of Christ freely and without undue pressure.

Secondly, it was noted that many evangelicals have a very limited sense of the Church in history. Some individuals, it would seem, think the Church began some 2,000 years ago, had a lapse of 1,900 years, and only then resumed Its practice in the 20th century. In reality, there has been a consistent and vibrant presence of the Church in every century up to the present as embodied in Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Thirdly, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox delegations spoke of a void we were feeling because of the lack of sacramental celebration at Amsterdam 2000. This is generally true with evangelicals throughout the world. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are sacramental Churches. While we affirm the essential need to be immersed in the Bible and fed by the Word, we also profess the need of sacraments as being just as essential, especially celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. (A sacrament is a sacred action by which the faithful encounter the invisible Christ through a sacred symbol).

Finally, a concern was expressed about the too close connection between evangelical faith and politics. While people of faith are never apolitical (Jesus after all was very political), this is not the same thing as identifying with a specific political organization. In other words, a good Christian, for instance, could be a Democrat as well as a Republican, an Independent as well as a Green or Reform. The positions of the Christian Coalition, for instance, are not dogmas of Christian faith.

On the evening prior to my return to Juneau, an evangelical minister asked me if I thought being in attendance was worth the trip. I assured him that it was. For one, I formed a number of new friendships. Secondly, a number of myths and stereotypes I had held about evangelicals were displaced. Thirdly, I discovered that we could speak to each other candidly and respectfully about difficult issues and remain friends. Fourthly, I came to appreciate, more than ever, just how much we share in our faith in Christ.

While in the grand scale of the Church in history, this meeting was but a baby step toward unity. It was, nonetheless, a step in the right direction. And that, after all, is the intent of Jesus' invitation ... that all might be one.

Michael W. Warfel is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Juneau.

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