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 in 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.

Article continues below

“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 were tense for decades but greatly improved after Vatican II. “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.

“I believe in ecumenical discussion, but am increasingly unsure whether we can do it at a macro level,” said Chris Castaldo, author of The Unfinished Reformation and a host of Catholic-evangelical consultations for the WEA, Lausanne, and US Catholic bishops.

“The problem is statements that begin, ‘We affirm,’ ” as ecumenical documents often do, he said. Evangelicals “can’t say that because there is no ‘we.’ ”

Better language might be: “In dialogue, this team made up of evangelicals has recognized . . .” or “We realize the way this is appropriate and applied by various churches will differ depending on context,” he said.

“Saying much more than that is difficult, given this fundamental difficulty of who we are as evangelicals,” said Castaldo, himself a Catholic convert to evangelicalism who wrote a guide, Talking with Catholics About the Gospel. Catholic unity is based on institutions—specifically, a papal office passed down since Peter; evangelicals are united around Peter’s confession—that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Article continues below

“That’s the disconnect,” he said. “Evangelical identity is rooted in a certain message that is aimed at the way in which sinful people are saved. The Catholic church is a very complex ecclesial institution that speaks with legal authority in this world according to canon law.”

It’s the same problem evangelicals have in the public square: Who are the people labeled evangelicals?

“It’s really hard to speak with one voice,” Castaldo said. He would like a new model of ecumenical engagement, with fewer statements that begin “we affirm,” more observations, and more ideas of how they could play out locally.

“We affirm” is “very much the Catholic understanding of continuous incarnation and hierarchy. There’s a real authority vested in those at the top,” he said. “Current documents reflect the Catholic theology—those assumptions.”

But if the parties approach each other from a more evangelical posture—that of servant leadership—then documents could look more like helpful advice on how to cultivate a relationship with a nearby priest or how to start a food pantry with a local parish.

Tendero is well aware of the differences of position. “Evangelicals don’t have the hierarchical structure,” he said. “But that doesn’t reflect weakness on our part because we have the consistent biblical position of the Reformers.”

He sees immense value in dialogue, starting in his country. “Several decades ago, evangelicals were being persecuted by the Catholic Church,” he said. “But after the Second Vatican Council, we have seen a kind of openness.” Today, the Bible Society in the Philippines is one-third Catholic, one-third evangelical, and one-third mainline.

His guide is James 1:19, being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”

“Many times we attack and comment and represent our perspectives without taking time to listen,” he said, “and that is also true in intra- as well as inter-confessional relationships.

“We need to listen to one another more before we speak. Many times we speak as if we have two mouths and listen as if we have only one ear.”

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is a contributor to Christianity Today.

Have something to say about this topic? Let us know here.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.