Trusting the Other Christians, for the Love of Christ

John 17:20-23

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

This prayer drives me. It motivates me, because I have been given so much by my Lord. And I have so little to give him in return. Yet it seems to me that the thing someone prays about when faced with death are the things they care about most. That is why in those silent moments alone when the realization of my own mortality crashes in on me I start praying for my kids.

And Jesus? When faced with the cross he prayed for us and our unity, a church bound together in Him. So, without being presumptuous, let’s seek to partner in being the answer to his prayer. We Evangelicals need to learn to trust Christians of other backgrounds (Catholic and Orthodox especially) and lay aside our ungenerous assumptions about just who is representative of and who is the exception to what it means to be Evangelical, or Catholic, or Orthodox Christians.

What assumptions? Let me give three examples:

When talking with a Pentecostal pastor friend about a mutual friend (and his former associate) who had become Eastern Orthodox, he asked me–since I had touted my affinity for Bishop Kallistos Ware’s Orthodox Way–what the appeal of the Orthodox Church was. I responded with a litany of beautiful treasures our Eastern brethren had retained that we had forgotten. I spoke of ties to a rich history, a willingness to enter into Christ’s suffering, the centrality of Eucharistic celebration, and a sacramental understanding of the world. His only response added up to, well that is nice but why do you need those things when you have “the whole truth.”

Then there was the conversation in which my best friend, a Pentecostal pastor, basically told me he was done with Catholics. He was quite convinced they were not really Christians–not as a general rule. Evidently he has the misfortune of being most familiar with a few modernist Catholics–the type of cultural Catholics who drive my Jesus loving Catholic friends as crazy as Brian McLaren does me. For the record a modernist Catholic is simply one who doesn’t really believe in God, not a God of any consequence at least, just like a modernist progressive emerging post-evangelical doesn’t really believe in God. (Read more about these types here and here.)

Sadly, my friend has no connection to the countless young Catholics and slightly older Catholics who were profoundly impacted by Popes John Paul and Benedict…those effectively catechized Catholics who love Jesus and understand grace.  His assumption is that there are the few educated philosophical type of Catholics who are OK, but most are clueless about what a Christian really is. He doesn’t know the homeschooling Catholic mom who’s plain declaration, “I just love Jesus so much” was so deeply felt and unguarded as to stop this theologically/philosophically oriented evangelical (me) mid-sentence.

Finally there was the recent conversation with a friend that led to a sort of unintentionally backhanded compliment.  He attended worship one Sunday at our Anglican church. He was impressed and shocked that while we were liturgical we were not given over to a religious spirit (meaning a Pharisaical attitude). His stated assumption was that most liturgically oriented believers are Pharisees. But I wonder how many such churches he has visited or how many Catholics or Orthodox he has known well.

At the same time, I wonder if he hasn’t taken into consideration the number of fundamentalist/evangelical/free church/”non-liturgical” congregations there are that simply ooze Pharisaism.

I address this not to pick on my three friends but to note a predominant attitude among many of us as Evangelicals towards those of a more structured “liturgical” worship format. When we meet a solid and genuine Catholic or Orthodox (or even Anglican) believer, do we assume that person is the exception to the typically dead religion of other co-religionists? Do we assume that this is that rare and thoughtful (and possibly tragic) true believer in the Catholic church? Or can we imagine that maybe, just maybe there are just as many true Jesus loving Catholics (and Orthodox) as there are Evangelicals?

Typically, as my friends illustrate, we cannot fathom that possibility. Why is that? Why do we assume that the really good evangelical is the norm and the Jesus loving Catholic is the exception?

I’d like to challenge that all too typical perception with a little perspective of Evangelicals that might shake your confidence just a bit.

Jesus changed the world starting with a little leaven that worked through the whole lump of the world–that small group was about 500 followers who he appeared to after the resurrection. According to Pew research, we Evangelicals make up about 25% of the US population. That is the largest single grouping of religious affiliation in the country. And yet our nation seems to move closer to hell on a daily basis. If genuine Christianity is the rule for us (as opposed to the exception that it is in our Catholic and Orthodox friends), why exactly are we headed the direction we are headed?

Sure, you have met the less than impressive Catholic priest, the cultural Orthodox, the twice a year liturgical churchgoer who thinks not murdering someone is sufficient credentials to make it to heaven. I am not claiming that our ‘liturgical’ family members are generally more seriously committed than we are…only that we are less so as a rule than we think.

I have spent years in full time ministry and can introduce you to more than my share of unimpressive preachers and house church leaders, backbiters and grudge keepers. I have argued with the young pastor who thought gay bashing was both just and funny. I have listened in on the evangelical college students discussing their sexual conquests while waiting for the Wild at Heart “Bible study” to begin. Would we accept a view of Evangelical Christianity based upon these examples?

Simply put, no.

Accordingly, it is unjust to judge other churches based on their least devout unless we judge ourselves by the same standard. After all, when it comes to other people’s impressions of evangelicals, as of yesterday (Jan. 26, 2016) most of the 15% ‘no affiliation’ in the Pew pole mentioned above (and many other people for that matter) think you and I are bigots voting for the blustering buffoon of a pagan, Donald Trump thanks to Jerry Fallwell, Jr. After all, he is an Evangelical leader.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the church, and I don’t assume these sad examples represent the whole of our evangelical churches in the least. But the reality is that every segment of the church is mingled grain and weeds–no exception. When we judge our Catholic or Orthodox family harshly because we happened to meet their weeds, or sometimes because we simply don’t bother to befriend or listen to them or pray with them, or we are too judgmental  to recognize immaturity and assume infidelity, then we judge with unjust and unrighteous judgment. This simply is wrong–lacking honest perspective, and we need to repent of it and learn to trust other believers, for the love of Christ.

 

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