When I was in seminary, one of my teachers was asked “What kind of evangelical are you?” and he said, “I am a C.S. Lewis kind of evangelical?” To which he was asked yet another, “What kind is that?” and he said, “A catholic evangelical.” Not as in Roman Catholic, for that body is much like many others — affirming that is right and everyone else is a little or a lot off base.
Since the day my professor said that, I have worked with that vision. I, too, believe that we all ought to be catholic Christians in that we accept everyone who is a Christian. I like the idea of a C.S. Lewis sense of the holy catholic Church.
The first fact is that we don’t know who is Christian and the second fact is that God won’t ask us to make the decision. Christians are those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, and anyone who embraces that gospel is a Christian.
Christians don’t deny central truths of the gospel and they affirm the orthodox beliefs about that gospel. But genuine faith is a matter of one’s embrace, of one’s vulnerability, and of one’s trust in God — whom we confess is Father, Son, and Spirit.
We know that Christians differ across the globe, across the centuries, and across the doctrines. But we also know that Christians should agree on the basics, and our orthodoxy encourages us to focus on the basics. The gospel basics, which is the central theme of a book of mine coming out in September, Embracing Grace, is that God is at work to restore us (cracked Eikons) in Christ so we can be in union with God and communion with others for the good of others and the world.
At no place is our commitment to generosity more important than here: while we embrace the gospel itself as our core, we are generous on the matters that are not at the core. The saying goes back to Augustine, I believe:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
We know the difference between the Second Coming and its time; we know the difference between the forgiveness of sins and one’s theory of the atonement; we know the difference between the Body of Christ and local denominational differences.
But, in this knowledge we have to work to be more than tolerant: we need to appreciate the differences. Anyone can look around and find the central features of major church bodies and find something good and valuable and many times find things that we cannot appropriate in our local church so we will need to appreciate it from afar: I love the Eastern Orthodox theology of icons, the Roman Catholic system of monastery life, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Methodist heritage in John Wesley, the Anabaptist commitment to simple life, the Evangelical commitment to personal Bible study, and I could go on … but you get my point. You can’t usually have all these things, so we say, “Appreciate them from afar, and confess that we need these other expressions, too.” “Why,” we ask, “should one church have all the good things?” It can’t, so we need one another.
If this is the case with you, and you share my thoughts here, we have some repenting to do of our sectarianism. Sectarianism believes and teaches that one church, my church, got it all right and therefore every body else got something wrong. It therefore condemns and condescends. From this we need to repent. We may be justifiably proud of our local church, but it is part and parcel of one catholic Body across the world and centuries and doctrines, and we are but a part.
God, I’m sure both laughs and weeps at our silly belief that finally, in our day, we’ve finally got it right. Forget it, God is the one who is Right, and we simply need to embrace the redemptive work of God, and when we see it as God’s work and not ours, we can become as we were meant to be: a holy, loving, catholic Church that is designed to bring glory to God and redemption to others.