Evangelicals versus Fundamentalists

Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren Greets Pope Francis

In a previous essay, I thanked God for Evangelicals. This outburst of gratitude was in response to one of Pope Francis' close Vatican advisers, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, who co-authored a scandalous article with Presbyterian Pastor Marcelo Figueroa, which with great ignorance and prejudice linked traditional Catholics with fundamental Protestants (the article equated them with Evangelicals) in an "ecumenism of hate" that elected Donald Trump to the presidency. The fact that the article was vetted by the Vatican Secretary of State only added to the scandal. Not only was the article categorically wrong, but it displayed such incredible naivety of American religious culture that it would have been laughable, were it not so mean-spirited. I took great personal offence to this article, and the Vatican for approving it, not because I am a traditional Catholic, but because almost my entire extended family (including my father, mother, sisters and in-laws) are all Evangelicals. I was offended for their sake. This was extremely hurtful, and I hope eventually the Vatican will see the wisdom in making an apology to all of us.

In this essay, I want to switch gears a little bit, and talk about the difference between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, because yes, there is a difference. It's a relatively new thing, that seems to have developed over the last 20 years. You see, back when I was an Evangelical, over 20 years ago, there really was an overlap between Evangelical and Fundamental Protestants. In fact, the overlap was so profound that it was quite common to see Evangelicals and Fundamentalists sitting in the same pews in the same churches. However, all of that began to change about 20 to 25 years ago, and I witnessed the trend toward the end of my Evangelical days. It was at that time, during the 1990s, that many of the larger Evangelical churches (Baptist, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, etc.) made a conscious choice to focus more on the basics of the gospel message (evangelium) and concentrate their preaching toward bringing more people in. This meant they had to focus on the basics of the gospel more, and allow for more charity on disagreement over what was considered "peripheral doctrines." Thus they started to take a more charitable view of other Christians they were previously suspicious of, and this would include Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans. In other words, they started to acknowledge that it is possible for people in these churches to be Christians and to be saved. Adopting this disposition gave them a more "open-minded" impression to the public, while at the same time hanging on to traditional Christian morality and virtue on social issues like abortion, homosexuality and same-sex "marriage," etc. This change brought about the desired effect. Their churches exploded in size, moving from large-churches into mega-churches, and now into multi-franchised-mega-churches.

As a result, many Catholics and Evangelicals have begun working together in recent decades, particularly in America's Bible Belt where Evangelicals are most numerous. The early signs of it came down way back in 1994 with a joint document, signed by both Evangelical and Catholic leaders, entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. It's a document every Catholic and Evangelical should read. This is about as formal as anything gets in the Evangelical world, and it's really quite a milestone in Evangelical-Catholic relations. It is historic, and yes, people will still be talking about it 100 years from now.

Ever since this document was signed, and ever since the divergence between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism began around the same time, Catholics in the Bible Belt of America have begun working in ever closer relationship with Evangelicals. In places like the Bible Belt, where Catholic resources are scarce, Catholics have been forced to rely on Evangelical ministries simply out of necessity from time to time. The same could be said of Evangelicals in largely Catholic locations, not only in North America, but in Catholic countries as well. This is not a matter of speculation or wishful thinking. It is, rather, a reflection of reality. It has been the situation on the ground in the Bible Belt for decades now. Thus, in various places throughout the Bible Belt, Catholics and Evangelicals have developed very close and personal relationships.

Conversely, many smaller evangelical/fundamentalist churches went the opposite direction in the middle to late 1990s. The smaller ones decided to focus more on the "fundamentals" of their Protestant faith, but expanded those fundamentals to more than just the basic gospel message (evangelium). Some of them remained small in size. While a few of them grew, those that grew large came under increased public scrutiny. Thus many Fundamentalist churches made a conscious effort to remain relatively small, focusing on developing more "doctrinally pure" congregations rather than large ones. As a result, Protestant Fundamentalism still exists, but it is largely separate now from the mainstream of Evangelicalism. It has, in many ways, become it's own smaller movement, and remains staunchly anti-Catholic.

So now here we are, in 2017, and we have reached a point of clear separation between Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. Granted, there may still be a small trace of Fundamentalists in Evangelical churches, and vice versa, but for the most part, these two movements have gone their separate ways. For Catholics, the easiest way to tell them apart is to gauge their attitude toward Christians in other churches, particularly those in the Catholic Church. Most of your Evangelical Protestants (Evangelicals) today, especially those in America, will say that Catholics are Christians and they can be saved too. Meanwhile, Fundamental Protestants (Fundamentalists) will tell you that Catholics are not Christians and cannot be saved unless they leave the Catholic Church. So I think it's important that we Catholics begin adjusting our vocabulary to reflect this. We should no longer speak of Evangelicals as Fundamentalists, nor should we speak of Fundamentalists as Evangelicals. We should rather speak of them as separate entities. They are no longer the same thing. They are now different, and we should make note of this in the way we speak of them. None of this should surprise us really. Protestantism is always changing, dividing, and remaking itself. This latest development is just another example of that.

So between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, it is obviously the Evangelicals that Catholics can work most closely with, and even be friends with, because we have less to worry about with them, in terms of attacking our Catholic teachings and practices. Fundamentalists are the problem now, almost exclusively. As for Evangelicals -- well -- not so much.

So with that understanding, what can Catholics reasonably hope to accomplish, in terms of casual ecumenical relations with Evangelicals. I say "casual" here because nothing about Evangelicalism is formal. Even their pastors sometimes show up for Sunday service in jeans and t-shirts.

So with Evangelicals, we Catholics can reasonably expect to...
  • Have social and political alliance on moral issues like abortion, homosexuality, same-sex "marriage," etc.
  • Have cooperation on charitable outreach to the poor, needy and desperate. 
  • Partner in homeschooling.
  • Have joint cooperation between Catholic and Evangelical schools.
  • Have joint youth activities on occasion.
  • Pray together.
  • Sing together.
  • Fellowship together.
  • Acknowledging one another as Christian brethren.

Of course, on the flip side, we have to be reasonable about this too. We cannot pretend that no division exists at all. It does, and these are on very serious matters. Evangelicals possess only two of the seven sacraments -- Baptism and Matrimony. That's it. They do not possess the Sacraments of Confirmation, Reconciliation, Healing or Holy Orders. Most of all, they don't possess the Eucharist either, and that is a very big thing. It should be noted, that they're usually very open and honest about this. They'll be the first to tell you that their pastors do not possess Apostolic Succession and in fact, they probably don't even believe in Apostolic Succession. They probably have no idea what Confirmation is, and would likely not see its necessity. As for Healing and Reconciliation, they would probably say you don't need a sacrament for those things, misunderstanding what is meant by the word "sacrament" to begin with. Finally, as for the Eucharist, they'll be the first to tell you that theirs is not the body and blood of Christ, and they would be right. Because they have no Holy Orders it is true that nothing happens when their pastor says the prayers of consecration over the elements. So when they say their communion services are nothing more than symbolic, they are 100% right, and they're being very honest with us. Their communion services really are nothing more than symbolic. Their straight-forward honesty on this issue should be refreshing to us as Catholics, as well as a witnessing opportunity of course. So with that being said, what can we not do with Evangelicals. 

We cannot...
  • Receive their communion elements. (We must abstain from that. For it sends terribly confusing messages and is a violation of canon law.)
  • Allow them to receive our Eucharist (for the same reason as above).
  • Substitute their Sunday services for our Sunday mass obligation.
  • Allow their worship and music styles to influence our Sunday mass.
  • Accept their teachings when they contradict Catholic teaching.
  • Allow our Catholic identity to be confused with Evangelicalism.
  • Marry them without permission from our bishop (and even then it's asking for trouble).
  • Entrust the religious education of our children to them. (In other words, we cannot allow Evangelicals to teach our kids about the Catholic faith. That is our job as Catholic parents.)

Here's another thing to consider. If your children are attending Evangelical Bible studies with their friends, we (as parents) had better make sure they not only understand their Catholic faith, but know how to defend it too. If your child is weak in this area, it's wise not to let them go to Evangelical Bible studies. But you should be warned; our Catholic kids are exposed to Evangelical kids all the time; at schools, in our neighbourhoods, amongst community events. So it's better to be safe than sorry. Get your kids inoculated against common Evangelical questions, misconceptions, mantras and buzz phrases. That is the best defence.

For example; when your Catholic children are asked by their Evangelical friends if they've been "saved," tell them the proper answer is "yes." If they're asked: "Have you received Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour?" Inform your children that the proper answer is "Yes, I have." If they're asked: "Do you have a relationship with God?" The proper answer is "Yes, I most certainly do." Believe it or not, just answering "yes" to these simple Evangelical questions will deflect over 90% of problems. Simply answering "yes" to these questions, without going into a long explanation, will cause about 90% of Evangelicals to trust that you are indeed a Christian, and they can now embrace you as brethren. It really is that simple. In turn, you should teach your children to make a similar (but Catholic) inquiry in return. Tell them to ask their Evangelical friends if they've been baptised yet; "in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?" If they're Evangelical friends haven't been baptised yet, your Catholic kids should encourage them to get baptised as soon as possible. Your Catholic kids should also encourage their Evangelical friends to make sure it's a Trinitarian baptism, done in the name of the "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Not only does this form of inquiry help to deflect further questioning, but it puts the Evangelical into the defensive posture, gently forcing him/her to justify his/her own faith, putting him/her on equal footing with Catholics. Furthermore, it's a good witnessing tool which helps Evangelicals take one step (albeit a small step but a firm one) closer to the Catholic Church. Trinitarian baptism is, after all, a Catholic sacrament and is fully recognised by the Catholic Church, regardless of what denomination or organisation it was administered in. So Evangelicals, who receive Trinitarian baptism, effectively have "one foot" in the Catholic Church whether they realise it or not, regardless of who administered the baptism or where it was administered. As the Catechism teaches us, all people who have received Trinitarian baptism, can rightly be considered our "Christian brethren" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1271).

Now if you're worried about your Catholic kid responding to an Evangelical altar call, and making a public statement of some sort, only to be counselled by Evangelical youth pastors, simply instruct your children that no public display ever need be made. They are already "saved" because Jesus is saving them. They already "receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour" at every mass, especially when they receive the Eucharist. And they are in a "personal relationship with God" through his Church and the sacraments. Besides that, they already pray to him, and rely on his grace in their lives. Therefore no public display, such as responding to an altar call, will ever be necessary for them, since they are already full-fledged Christians, and have in fact received far more Divine Grace in their lives than many of the people at these Evangelical churches. Thus, Catholic children should be discouraged from responding to Evangelical altar calls, as they are unnecessary for them, and may send a confusing message.

Beyond that, every parent needs to thoroughly teach their children the Catholic faith, and make sure they understand it. I must emphasise this. YOU CANNOT LEAVE THIS UP TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. You cannot just drop your kids off for first-communion and/or confirmation classes, and then expect everything to be "okay." Sending them to a Catholic school is not good enough. Showing up to Sunday mass is not good enough. Teaching your kid to be an altar server is not good enough either. It doesn't work that way. The Catholic Church is there to assist you as parents, not do your job for you! Parents, not the Church, are the primary religious educators of children! If you don't feel equipped to teach your children, then get help from your local parish by asking them to teach you first, so that you may then turn around and properly teach your children. If you like, I can start you off in the right direction by recommending you get the following materials...

The flash cards will prove to be extremely effective at countering the questions of both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. As parents, if you want to take it a step further to prepare yourselves, get a copy of my book: Catholicism for Protestants, which is a simple guide for helping Catholics understand and respond to Evangelical Protestant questions.

Like I said, however, Evangelicals are much more likely to accept Catholics as Christian brethren, and will be much more likely to accept Catholic explanations when offered in an intelligent and friendly manner.

Fundamentalists, on the other hand, usually won't, and that's what makes the Fundamentalists. They're attitude toward Catholicism is reflective of their attitude toward many Christian faiths that are not identical to theirs. These are much more likely to think of Catholics as non-Christians, and subscribe to the old Protestant defamation of the Catholic Church as the "Whore of Babylon" and the pope as the "Antichrist." Fundamentalists are far more likely to consider Catholicism a "cult" and Catholics as "Mary worshipping idolaters." What defines a Fundamentalist is his/her desire to cling to the fundamentals of Protestantism more than the essentials of the gospel (evangelium). So they look to the Protestant Reformation as a sort of "rebirth" of Christianity, and tend to (practically speaking) put Martin Luther and John Calvin on the same level as the Apostles. They see the Protestant Reformation as synonymous with the birth of Christianity and make little to no distinction between them. When we say they are Fundamentalists, we don't mean they cling to the fundamentals of Christianity, even though they might think that of themselves. Rather, we say they are Fundamentalists because they cling to the fundamentals of Protestantism, which includes (of course) a very latent hostility toward the Catholic Church.

In contrast, Evangelicals have (in recent decades) moved away from the fundamentals of Protestantism. They still hold to some basic Protestant tenets, such as Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone), and they use abbreviated Protestant bibles that are missing key Old Testament books, but their identification with Protestantism ends about there. They've made a conscious choice and decision to move on, beyond the constrains and prejudices of the old Protestant ethos, into a more comprehensive approach to the gospel (evangelium). They've made a conscious effort to define themselves by the gospel alone, namely their love for Jesus Christ alone, and are much more willing to accept non-Evangelicals (including Catholics) as Christians too. For this, credit should be given where credit is due, and it would be an injustice on the part of we Catholics to fail to do that.


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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