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Three European Alliances Warn Evangelical-Catholic Unity Is Going Too Far

World Evangelical Alliance explains why Italy, Spain, and Malta leaders shouldn’t fear that global group has fallen for the ‘Francis effect.’
Three European Alliances Warn Evangelical-Catholic Unity Is Going Too Far
Image: Franco Origlia / Getty Images

During last year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many groups examined or asked: Is it over?

The loudest “no” has come from the conservative Protestants closest to Rome.

Last month, the national evangelical alliances of Italy, Spain, and Malta—all members of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)—wrote an 8-page open letter charging their parent organization with “moving away from its historic position” of holding the line against Catholic and liberal Protestant theology.

“In recent years we have sensed that the leadership of WEA has moved away from the outlined historic position of the Alliance on unity by endorsing a more ‘ecumenical’ attitude,” the three alliances stated in December. “Unity has become a blurred term to refer to any relationship even beyond the principles that have always characterized evangelicals. Leaders have become less cautious in talking about unity with the Catholic Church as such and have tended to bypass the historic boundaries.”

The alliances stated the result has been “undiscerning, wrong-headed, and emotionally-driven statements on Popes and ecumenical activities” that have “caused embarrassment in our constituencies.”

In fact, the national evangelical alliances of Italy, Spain, France, and Poland threw up a red flag to the WEA as early as October 2013, several months after Pope Francis’ election excited many evangelicals worldwide.

“We are concerned with some totally uncritical assessments that we are reading and that are coming from some provinces of the evangelical world,” the three alliances stated (excerpted in the December 2017 open letter). Francis uses language like “personal relationship” with Christ, “conversion,” and “mission,” but “there is no hint that he wants to change any dogma that is contrary to Scripture.”

The next year, after WEA leaders met with Pope Francis, the Italian Evangelical Alliance stated that there were “insurmountable” doctrinal obstacles with the Catholic church, and asked the WEA for a “clarification on the inside line to take against Roman Catholicism.”

WEA global ambassador Brian Stiller explained at the time: “In places where evangelicals are marginalized, having this official connection allows us to raise issues and ask for responses we would never otherwise get.”

But Italian evangelicals remained wary, and warned American evangelicals to do the same. Church leaders representing a “near totality of evangelicals who have a conservative Protestant theology and a strong evangelistic commitment” signed a statement in July 2014 pointing out doctrinal differences between evangelicals and Catholics.

Evangelical leaders in Spain have also been apprehensive. Last fall, the Spanish Evangelical Alliance distanced itself from a joint document between the WEA and the Vatican meant “for promoting Christian unity.”

Though the alliances can work with the Catholic Church on social matters like abortion or persecution, and though the two share some common theological ground, the Spanish alliance stated it “cannot ignore the fact that the Roman Catholic Church continues to maintain fundamental doctrines that are not found in Scriptures.”

The growing closeness of the WEA and the Catholic Church—emphasized by a joint Reformation commemoration in 2016 that Thomas Shirrmacher, chairman of the European Evangelical Alliance’s theological commission, called a sort of “peace treaty” between Catholics and Lutherans—has caused “growing concern,” the Spanish alliance stated.

Last May, the top leaders of the WEA, the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Pentecostal World Fellowship, and the Vatican met for two days to “meet and build up each other” in “Christian unity.” Four months later, the four groups met again to work on a “common statement” against proselytizing each other’s members.

“It seems, therefore, that WEA is about to sign a statement with the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church on unity, even on ‘great oneness’!” the December letter from the three European alliances stated. “We are puzzled by what is happening. We see a radical shift taking place.”

“We therefore plead with you to stop the process,” the alliances wrote [emphasis theirs]. “Doing so will cause immense damage in the evangelical constituency worldwide.”

The WEA responded to these concerns over its alleged “ecumenical agenda” with its own open letter this month.

“These are serious charges, but they bear no resemblance to what the WEA is actually doing,” the WEA stated. The alliances “apparently conflated the two reports from two different meetings and drew the conclusion that the WEA was planning to sign a common statement on unity with the WCC and the Vatican” [emphasis theirs].

But the WEA got the point.

“We recognize that beneath this specific misunderstanding lies a deep-seated, ongoing concern about the WEA’s intra-faith relations and particularly its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church,” the WEA stated. “The EAs (Evangelical Alliances) responsible for the open letter 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.”

The WEA clarified that it is not looking for “ecclesial or sacramental unity” with the Catholic Church. Its letter continued:

“We recognize that evangelical-Catholic relations are a highly sensitive issue for evangelicals in many parts of the world, especially those with majority Catholic populations. We know that our evangelical brothers and sisters in Italy, Spain, Malta, and elsewhere have had difficult and at times painful experiences in their interactions with the [Catholic Church]. These realities are not overlooked in our ongoing discussions with the Vatican.”

Meanwhile, Schirrmacher—the WEA’s Associate Secretary General for Theological Concerns—explained on his blog that the WEA is pursuing “collaboration without compromise,” stating that “the disagreements highlight three crucial issues about public Christian witness and collaboration in a pluralistic world that deserve, we believe, careful attention:

  • “It is possible—indeed necessary—to interact in respectful fashion and to collaborate where appropriate with Roman Catholics and people of other faiths without changing or softening our theological convictions.”
  • “We have different perceptions of both the Roman Catholic Church and the needs of the global evangelical mission movement from those of some of our critics.”
  • “Many top Roman Catholic leaders are our allies on many theological topics (including justification by faith) and most social and ethical problems, even while many Roman Catholics are moving farther from our understanding of biblical truth on other theological topics.”

“Our theology has not changed as a result of talking with Catholic, Orthodox, or Coptic leaders,” stated Schirrmacher alongside cowriter Thomas Johnson. “If anything has changed, it is that we have intensified our commitment to a principle that both of us learned from Francis Schaeffer, which Schaeffer learned from John 13:35. The unbelieving world may legitimately demand that we display visible love for other Christians as a proof of our discipleship.”

“From our point of view,” they later wrote, “the greatest threats to New Testament teaching on justification and salvation by grace and faith within the evangelical movement are not coming from the Catholic Church but result from intra-Protestant or intra-evangelical problems.”

Overall, the WEA promised to do a better job of “communicating with our constituency about our activities” and to “provide more extensive detail on the scope and substance of our work with the Vatican and in intra-faith and inter-faith relations generally.” Secretary general Efraim Tendero met with the Italian and Spanish alliances in December and, after “extensive followup correspondence,” the WEA noted that “although we have not resolved our disagreements, we have achieved greater understanding through this interaction.”

CT previously reported how Pope Francis apologized to the “first evangelicals” for past Catholic persecution, though a prior apology for persecution of Pentecostals still left Italian evangelicals wary. But in the United States, LifeWay Research found the “Francis effect” has improved opinions of Catholics among Protestant pastors, while the American Bible Society found that Catholics were reading their Bibles more like evangelicals.

CT explored why evangelicals love Pope Francis in a 2014 cover story, Chris Castaldo examined how piety was trumping doctrine, and Timothy George explained why evangelicals can “enthusiastically join arms” with the Catholic leader.

Evangelist Luis Palau explained to CT why it matters that Pope Francis drank mate with evangelicals before his election, while other Argentine evangelicals told CT the new pope was an answer to prayer.

CT also compiled its Top 10 articles on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

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