|World Youth Day, Rome 2000 AD|
Back when I was an Evangelical, I heard about it quite a bit. It seems that for decades now, many churches in America have been seeking a revival of Christianity. Now when I say revival, I'm not talking about the annual tent meetings in the park, held by some local Baptist and Pentecostal churches, with music and preaching. I suppose that could be a small part of it, but that's not the sense of the word "revival" I'm using here. Rather, I'm talking about a resurgence of Christianity in the mainstream of America's population. For three decades now, Christians of all types have been talking about this, hoping for it and praying for it. Yet to date, it has not materialised.
Rather it would appear the opposite has happened. During that same period of time, many young people have fallen away from Christianity, and surveys show that in addition to an increasing secularisation of America's youth, those who have remained in church are showing increasing levels of acceptance of feminism and homosexuality, two ideologies that have historically proved toxic to Christianity.
Back in the 1990s, when I was an Evangelical Christian, I prayed for revival as well, until one day my pastor said something that caused me to think. He told us that if we wanted to pray for revival, this is how we should do it. We should mark out a circle around us, using books, pillows, or whatever is nearby. Then pray that God would start a revival in America, and that he would begin within that circle. In other words, our pastor was telling us that revival must begin with ourselves first. It was a good lesson, and one I took to heart.
In the years that followed, our Lord repeatedly brought me back to this passage of Scripture...
"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me."
-- John 17:20-23 RSV-CE
This is a passage often glossed over. What does it actually mean? Jesus is praying something big here. This is one of his last requests he makes of his Father, before going to the cross. He prayed that we (his disciples) who would believe the word of the apostles, would be united as one. He didn't ask that we would give a general, uncommitted and vague nod toward Christian unity, but rather he prayed for real visible unity. He did something more than this though. He taught us something very big. He said that with real visible Christian unity, "the world may believe." In other words, Jesus tied the effectiveness of our evangelism to the degree of our unity. If we were not in unity with our Christian brethren, then our evangelistic efforts would be ineffective. I knew as an Evangelical that revival without evangelism is impossible, and now after understanding this passage, I knew the evangelism without real Christian unity is ineffective.
This might help explain why the revival we have all been praying for is not happening. In order to have revival, we must have evangelism, and in order for our evangelism to be effective, we must have real visible unity with our fellow Christians. Without unity there is no effective evangelism, and without effective evangelism, there can be no revival in America, or anywhere else for that matter.
I didn't say that, Jesus Christ did (see above). If you have a problem with that, take it up with him.
So in obedience to Christ, and in an attempt to allow that revival to happen within my own circle, I began looking for ways to find unity with as many Christian brothers and sisters as possible. The word "ecumenism," from the Greek word "oikoumene," means "the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world's Christian churches." Now as an Evangelical, this was somewhat of a scary word to me, because I had seen what the 20th century Ecumenical Movement had produced with the World Council of Church. It was an extremely liberal body of Christians who had sacrificed most of what the Christian faith teaches, for a general feeling of unity, without any real substance to it. I knew this wasn't for me, and so I dismissed what many referred to as "ecumenical discussions." Rather, I new that what I needed was something more personal. The revival needed to begin with me, within my circle, and I couldn't wait for others to do it for me. So I began looking for ways I could personally be united with as many Christians as possible. Saying "I'm in unity with others" is simply not enough. It doesn't mean anything. We have to define exactly what that unity means.
As an Evangelical I knew that I had some unity with other Christians, but not necessarily with others. As to why, however, that remained a little vague. The common excuse was that some other Christians don't follow the Bible, therefore we didn't recognise them. What does that mean? Does it really mean that other Christians don't follow the Bible, or does it mean that other Christians have a different interpretation of the Bible? More importantly, who's interpretation is right? And how much does that matter? So I began looking at the biggest group I could find that had a different interpretation of the Bible. That of course was the Catholic Church.
Of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world, about half (1.2 billion) are Catholic. Another 300 million are Eastern Orthodox, which is basically Catholic too, as far as Evangelical Christians are concerned. So that means that of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world, about 2/3 (or 1.5 billion) are either Catholic, or Orthodox (which is essentially Catholic), while only the remaining 700 million are Protestant. Of those 700 million, only a fraction of those are Evangelical. Meanwhile, here in the United States, the nation's largest denomination is the Roman Catholic Church, with nearly 60 million members. Baptists make up a distant 2nd place, with 34 million members divided between various Baptist denominations. Methodist trail in third with 14 million members. I considered myself an Evangelical. Which was a broad term that include many different denominations and affiliations, including the Baptists and the Methodists. When we use such a broad term, with no denominational boundaries, we could say that Evangelicals make up about 94 million Americans. Like I said, however, you have to erase the denominational lines to do this. This is what most Evangelicals consider to be "Christian" and that is a very narrow view.
Immediately upon learning this, I understood why revival is not coming to American Christianity. By in large, American Evangelicals (those who have been praying for revival so earnestly), remain divided with the largest Christian Church. Catholics are considered a questionable group. Some Evangelicals consider Catholics to be Christian, some Evangelicals do not, but nearly all Evangelicals do not consider Catholics as being "in unity" with the rest of Christianity in the United States. Therein lies the biggest problem.
It was at this time I realised that I personally needed to find a way to be in full unity with Catholic Christians, because in doing so, I would be in full unity with the maximum number of Christians. What I found out however, is that there is no Protestant church that recognises the Catholic Church as fully Christian. They all find some kind of questionable problem with it. Some Protestant churches don't even recognise Catholics as Christians at all. So then I asked, how do Catholics look at ecumenism? It was at this point I was a little surprised.
The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one single Church founded by Jesus Christ. So to be a member of the Catholic Church, is to be a member of the largest Christian body in the world, consisting of 1.2 billion people, which is half of all Christians worldwide. However, in addition to this, the Catholic Church recognises all the sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox churches as well. So even while there is still yet a political divide between Catholics and Orthodox, the Catholic Church still maintains a high degree of sacramental unity with the Orthodox churches. So simply by being Catholic, one is in full communion with 1.2 billion Christians within the Catholic Church, and near communion with another 300 million Christians in the Orthodox churches. Finally, the Catholic Church recognises the Trinitarian baptisms of all Protestant churches as well, acknowledging at least a partial communion with all 700 million Protestants worldwide.
So as a Catholic, I would be in...
- full-unity with 1.2 billion Catholic Christians,
- near-unity with 300 million Orthodox Christians, and
- partial-unity with 700 million Protestants.
There is no need to wait on any ecumenical agreements. Some form of unity is obtained, automatically and visibly, with every Christian in the world, at the very instant one becomes Catholic. Even better, this unity is official. It is officially stated in Church teaching. It's not some vague general statement either. It is quantified precisely, and explained fully, in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
So in other words, this whole "unity and oneness" thing, that Jesus spoke of, has already been well thought out by the Catholic Church. I have never seen such a position so clearly spelled out by any Protestant church. Most of the time, Protestant positions go either one of two ways...
- The Evangelical position is one of unity without definition. Evangelical Christians often just say they are "one" with other Christians, but cannot in any way define what that means, or who specifically they are talking about.
- The Protestant position is one of real visible unity marked by ecumenical agreements and organisations, which are often vague and sacrifice doctrinal clarity for the sake of claiming unity on paper.
You see, when perspective new Christians ask a Catholic if he thinks Protestants are Christians too, it helps to be able to say: "Yes, they are Christians, and they have part of the truth, now let me tell you the rest." However, if this same perspective new Christian asks a Protestant if he thinks Catholics are Christians too, the answer may be something like: "Well, maybe, provided they're not too deep into that Mary stuff, it's possible anyway." Of course that's the best possible scenario. In some places the answer may be something like: "No, they are impostors and members of a false-Christian cult." If I were a non-Christian, considering Christianity, the Catholic answer to that question would seem the most reasonable.
Which answer sounds like a more effective evangelistic tool? I say the Catholic answer is. Catholics acknowledge all Trinitarian-baptised persons as fellow Christians. That is real quantified unity. This of course also provides a very effective response to anti-Catholics within Evangelicalism. In that it is something I frequently tell them, much to their shock and bewilderment. I tell them: "The Catechism of the Catholic Church requires me to acknowledge you as a brother Christian if you've received a Trinitarian baptism, even if you will not acknowledge me as one." This moral high ground often deflates even the most obnoxious Protestant anti-Catholics, and even if they never see the light, I promise you that everyone else in the room, who hears you say it, will.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.
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