7. The Possibilities of Common Witness
We turn in our last chapter from theological exploration
to practical action. We have indicated where we agree and disagree.
We now consider what we can do and cannot do together. Since our
discussion on this topic was incomplete, what follows awaits further
Our Unity and Disunity
We have tried to face with honesty and candor
the issues which divide us as Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.
We have neither ignored, nor discounted, nor even minimized them.
For they are real, and in some cases serious.
At the same time, we know and have experienced
that the walls of our separation do not reach to heaven. There
is much that unites us, and much in each other's different manifestations
of Christian faith and life which we have come to appreciate.
Our concern throughout our dialogue has not been with the structural
unity of churches, but rather with the possibilities of common
witness. So when we write of "unity," it is this that
we have in mind.
To begin with, we acknowledge in ourselves
and in each other a firm belief in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This faith is for us more than a conviction; it is a commitment.
We have come to the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit
We also recognize that the gospel is God's
good news about his Son Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1-3), about his godhead
and manhood, his life and teaching, his acts and promises, his
death and resurrection, and about the salvation he has once accomplished
and now offers. Moreover, Jesus Christ is our Savior and our Lord,
for he is the object of our personal trust, devotion and expectation.
Indeed, faith, hope and love are his gifts to us, bestowed on
us freely without any merit of our own.
In addition, God's Word and Spirit nourish
this new life within us. We see in one another "the fruit
of the Spirit," which is "love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control"
(Gal 5:22, 23). No wonder Paul continues in this text with an
exhortation that there be among us "no self-conceit, no provoking
of one another, no envy of one another" (v. 26).
There is therefore between us an initial
if incomplete unity. Nevertheless, divisions continue, even in
some doctrines of importance, as we have made clear in earlier
chapters of our report. Our faith has developed in us strong convictions
(as it should), some uniting us, others dividing us. The very
strength of our convictions has not only drawn us together in
mutual respect, but has also been a source of painful tension.
This has been the price of our encounter; attempts to conceal
or dilute our differences would not have been authentic dialogue,
but a travesty of it. So would have been any attempt to magnify
or distort our difference. We confess that in the past members
of both our constituencies have been guilty of misrepresenting
each other, on account of either laziness in study, unwillingness
to listen, superficial judgments or pure prejudice. Whenever we
have done this, we have borne false witness against our neighbor.
This, then, is the situation. Deep truths
already unite us in Christ. Yet real and important convictions
still divide us. In the light of this, we ask: what can we do
"Witness" in the New Testament
normally denotes the unique testimony of the apostolic eyewitnesses
who could speak of Jesus from what they had seen and heard. It
is also used more generally of all Christians who commend Christ
to others out of their personal experience of him, and in response
to his commission. We are using the word here, however, in the
even wider sense of any Christian activity which points to Christ,
a usage made familiar by the two documents, jointly produced by
the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, which
are entitled Common Witness and Proselytism (1970) and Common
Common Witness in Bible Translation and Publishing
It is extremely important that Roman Catholics
and Protestants should have an agreed, common text in each vernacular.
Divergent texts breed mutual suspicion; a mutually acceptable
text develops confidence and facilitates joint Bible study. The
United Bible Societies have rendered valuable service in this
area, and the Common Bible (RSV) published in English in 1973,
marked a step forward in Roman Catholic-Protestant relationships.
The inclusion of the Old Testament Apocrypha
(books written in Greek during the last two centuries before Christ),
which the Roman Catholic Church includes as part of the Bible,
has proved a problem, and in some countries Evangelicals have
for this reason not felt free to use this version. The United
Bible societies and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity
have published some guidelines in this matter,35
which recommend that the Apocrypha be printed "as a separate
section before the New Testament" and described as "deutero-canonical."
Many Evangelicals feel able to use a Common Bible in these circumstances,
although most would prefer the Apocrypha to be omitted altogether.
Common Witness in the Use of Media
Although we have put down the availability
of a Common Bible as a priority need, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics
are united in recognizing the importance of Christian literature
in general, and of Christian audiovisual aids. In particular,
it is of great value when the Common Bible is supplemented by
Common Bible reading aids. In some parts of the world Bible atlases
and handbooks, Bible dictionaries and commentaries, and explanatory
notes for daily Bible reading, are available in a form which betrays
no denominational or ecclesiastical bias. The same is true of
some Christian films and filmstrips. So Evangelicals and Roman
Catholics may profitably familiarize themselves with each other's
materials, with a view to using them whenever possible.
In addition, the opportunity is given to
the churches in some countries to use the national radio and television
service for Christian programs. We suggest, especially in countries
where Christians form a small minority of the total population,
that the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches and specialist
organizations cooperate rather than compete with one another in
the development of suitable programs.
Common Witness in Community Service
The availability of welfare varies greatly
form country to country. Some governments provide generous social
services, although often the spiritual dimension is missing, and
then Christians can bring faith, loving compassion and hope to
an otherwise secular service. In other countries the government's
provision is inadequate or unevenly distributed. In such a situation
the churches have a particular responsibility to discover' the
biggest gaps and seek to fill them. In many cases the government
welcomes the Church's contribution.
In the name of Christ, Roman Catholics and
Evangelicals can serve human need together, providing emergency
relief for the victims of flood, famine and earthquake, and shelter
for refugees; promoting urban and rural development; feeding the
hungry and healing the sick; caring for the elderly and the dying;
providing a marriage guidance, enrichment and reconciliation service,
a pregnancy advisory service and support for single parent families;
arranging educational opportunities for the illiterate and job
creation schemes for the unemployed; and rescuing young people
from drug addiction and young women from prostitution. There seems
to be no justification for organizing separate Roman Catholic
and Evangelical projects of a purely humanitarian nature, and
every reason for undertaking them together. Although faith may
still in part divide us, love for neighbor should unite us.
Common Witness in Social Thought and Action.
There is a pressing need for fresh Christian
thinking about the urgent social issues which confront the contemporary
world. The Roman Catholic Church has done noteworthy work in this
area, not least through the social encyclicals of recent Popes.
Evangelicals are only now beginning to catch up after some decades
of neglect. It should be to our mutual advantage to engage in
Christian social debate together. A clear and united Christian
witness is needed in face of such challenges as the nuclear arms
race, North-South economic inequality, the environmental crisis,
and the revolution in sexual mores.
Whether a common mind will lead us to common
action will depend largely on how far the government of our countries
is democratic or autocratic, influenced by Christian values or
imbued with an ideology unfriendly to the gospel. Where a regime
is oppressive, and a Christian prophetic voice needs to be heard,
it should be a single voice which speaks for both Roman Catholics
and Protestants. Such a united witness could also provide some
stimulus to the quest for peace, justice and disarmament; testify
to the sanctity of sex, marriage and family life; agitate for
the reform of permissive abortion legislation; defend human rights
and religious freedom, denounce the use of torture, and campaign
for prisoners of conscience; promote Christian moral values in
public life and in the education of children; seek to eliminate
racial and sexual discrimination; contribute to the renewal of
decayed inner cities; and oppose dishonesty and corruption. There
are many such areas in which Roman Catholics and Evangelicals
can both think together and take action together. Our witness
will be stronger if it is a common witness.
Common Witness in Dialogue
The word "dialogue" means different
things to different people. Some Christians regard it as inherently
compromising, since they believe it expresses an unwillingness
to affirm revealed truth, let alone to proclaim it. But to us
"dialogue" means a frank and serious conversation between
individuals or groups, in which each is prepared to listen respectfully
to the other, with a view to increased understanding on the part
of both. We see no element of compromise in this. On the contrary,
we believe it is essentially Christian to meet one another face
to face, rather than preserving our isolation from one another
and even indifference to one another, and to listen to one another's
own statements of position, rather than relying on second-hand
reports. In authentic dialogue we struggle to listen carefully
not only to what the other person is saying, but to the strongly
cherished concerns which lie behind his or her words. In this
process our caricatures of one another become corrected.
We believe that the most fruitful kind of
Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue arises out of joint Bible
Study. For, as this report makes clear, both sides regard the
Bible as God's Word, and acknowledge the need to read, study,
believe and obey it. It is surely through the Word of God that,
illumined by the Spirit of God, we shall progress towards greater
We also think that there is need for Evangelical-Roman
Catholic dialogue on the great theological and ethical issues
which are being debated in all the churches, and that an exchange
of visiting scholars in seminaries could be particularly productive.
Honest and charitable dialogue is beneficial
to those who take part in it; it enriches our faith, deepens our
understanding, and fortifies and clarifies our convictions. It
is also a witness in itself, inasmuch as it testifies to the desire
for reconciliation and meanwhile expresses a love which encompasses
even those who disagree.
Further, theological dialogue can sometimes
lead to common affirmation, especially in relation to the unbelieving
world and to new theological trends which owe more to contemporary
culture than to revelation or Christian tradition. Considered
and united declarations by Roman Catholics and Evangelicals could
make a powerful contribution to current theological discussion.
Common Witness in Worship
The word "worship" is used in a
wide range of senses from the spontaneous prayers of the "two
or three" met in Christ's name in a home to formal liturgical
services in church.
We do not think that either Evangelicals
or Roman Catholics should hesitate to join in corn- mon prayer
when they meet in each other's homes. Indeed, if they have gathered
for a Bible study group, it would be most appropriate for them
to pray together for illumination before the study and after it
for grace to obey. Larger informal meetings should give no difficulty
either. Indeed, in many parts of the world Evangelicals and Roman
Catholics are already meeting for common praise and prayer, both
in charismatic celebrations and in gatherings which would not
describe themselves thus. Through such experiences they have been
drawn into a deeper experience of God and so into a closer fellowship
with one another. Occasional participation in each other's services
in church is also natural, especially for the sake of family solidarity
It is when the possibility of common participation
in the Holy Communion or Eucharist is raised, that major problems
of conscience arise. Both sides of our dialogue would strongly
discourage indiscriminate approaches to common sacramental worship.
The Mass lies at the heart of Roman Catholic
doctrine and practice, and it has been emphasized even more in
Catholic spirituality since the Second Vatican Council. Anyone
is free to attend Mass. Other Christians may not receive Communion
at it, however, except when they request it in certain limited
cases of "spiritual necessity" specified by current
Roman Catholic legislation. Roman Catholics may on occasion attend
a Protestant Communion Service as an act of worship. But there
is no ruling of the Roman Catholic Church which would permit its
members to receive Communion in a Protestant Church service, even
on ecumenical occasions. Nor would Roman Catholics feel in conscience
feel to do so.
Many Evangelical churches practice an "open"
Communion policy, in that they announce a welcome to everybody
who "is trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation and is in
love and charity with all people," whatever their church
affiliation. They do not exclude Roman Catholic believers. Most
Evangelicals would feel conscientiously unable to present themselves
at a Roman Catholic Mass, however, even assuming they were invited.
This is because the doctrine of the Mass was one of the chief
points at issue during the 16th century Reformation, and Evangelicals
are not satisfied with the Roman Catholic explanation of the relation
between the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the sacrifice
of the Mass. But this question was not discussed at our meetings.
Since both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals
believe that the Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus as a means
and agree that he commanded his disciples to "do this in
remembrance" of him, it is a grief to us that we are so deeply
divided in an area in which we should be united, and that we are
therefore unable to obey Christ's command together. Before this
becomes possible, some profound and sustained theological study
of this topic will be needed; we did not even begin it at ERCDOM.
Common Witness in Evangelism
Although there are some differences in our
definitions of evangelism, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals are
agreed that evangelism involves proclaiming the gospel, and that
therefore any common evangelism necessarily presupposes a common
commitment to the same gospel. In earlier chapters of this report
we have drawn attention to certain doctrines in which our understanding
is identical or very similar. We desire to affirm these truths
together. In other important areas, however, substantial agreement
continues to elude us, and therefore common, witness in evangelism
would seem to be premature, although we are aware of situations
in some parts of the world in which Evangelicals and Roman Catholics
have felt able to make a common proclamation.
Evangelicals are particularly sensitive in
this matter, which is perhaps not surprising, since their very
appellation "evangelical" includes in itself the word
"evangel" (gospel). Evangelicals claim to be "gospel"
people, and are usually ready, if asked, to give a summary of
their understanding of the gospel. This would have at its heart
what they often call "the finished work of Christ,"
namely that by bearing our sins on the cross Jesus Christ did
everything necessary for our salvation, and that we have only
to put our trust in him in order to be saved. Although many Evangelicals
will admit that their presentation of the gospel is often one-sided
or defective, yet they could not contemplate any evangelism in
which the good news of God's justification of sinners by his grace
in Christ through faith alone is not proclaimed.
Roman Catholics also have their problems
of conscience. They would not necessarily want to deny the validity
of the message which Evangelicals preach, but would say that important
aspects of the gospel are missing from it. In particular, they
emphasize the need both to live out the gospel in the sacramental
life of the church and to respect the teaching authority of the
Church. Indeed, they see evangelism as essentially a Church activity
done by the Church in relation to the Church.
So long as each side regards the other's
view of the gospel as defective, there exists a formidable obstacle
to be overcome. This causes us particular sorrow in our dialogue
on mission, in which we have come to appreciate one another and
to discover unexpected agreements. Yet we must respect one another's
integrity. We commit ourselves to further prayer, study and discussion
in the hope that a way forward may be found.
We feel the need to allude to the practice
of seeking to evangelize people who are already church members,
since this causes misunderstanding and even resentment, especially
when Evangelicals are seeking to "convert" Roman Catholics.
It arises from the phenomenon which Evangelicals call "nominal
Christianity," and which depends on the rather sharp distinction
they draw between the visible Church (of professing or "nominal"
Christians) and the invisible Church (of committed or genuine
Christians), that is, between those who are Christian only in
name and those who are Christian in reality. Evangelicals see
nominal Christians as needing to be won for Christ. Roman Catholics
also speak of "evangelizing" such people, although they
refer to them as "lapsed" or "inactive" rather
than as "nominal," because they do not make a separation
between the visible and invisible Church. They are understandably
offended whenever Evangelicals appear to regard all Roman Catholics
as ipso facto unbelievers, and when they base their evangelism
on a distorted view of Roman Catholic teaching and practice. On
the other hand, since Evangelicals seek to evangelize the nominal
members of their own churches, as well as of others, they see
this activity as an authentic concern for the gospel, and not
as a reprehensible kind of "sheep-stealing." Roman Catholics
do not accept this reasoning.
We recognize that conscientious conviction
leads some people to change from Catholic to Evangelical or Evangelical
to Catholic allegiance, and leads others to seek to persuade people
to do so. If this happens in conscience and without coercion,
we would not call it proselytism.
There are other forms of witness, however,
which we would all describe as "unworthy," and therefore
as being "proselytism" rather than "evangelism."
We agree, in general, with the analysis of this given in the study
document entitled Common Witness and Proselytism (1970), and in
particular we emphasize three aspects of it.
First, proselytism takes place when our motive
is unworthy, for example when our real concern in witness is not
the glory of God through the salvation of human beings but rather
the prestige of our own Christian community, or indeed our personal
Secondly, we are guilty of proselytism whenever
our methods are unworthy, especially when we resort to any kind
of "physical coercion, moral constraint or psychological
pressure," when we seek to induce conversion by the offer
of material or political benefits, or when we exploit other people's
need, weakness or lack of education. These practices are an affront
both to the freedom and dignity of human beings and to the Holy
Spirit whose witness is gentle and not coercive.
Thirdly, we are guilty of proselytism whenever
our message includes "unjust or uncharitable reference to
the beliefs or practices of other religious communities in the
hope of winning adherents." If we find it necessary to make
comparisons, we should compare the strengths and weaknesses of
one church with those of the other, and not set what is beat in
the one against what is worst in the other. To descend to deliberate
is representation is incompatible with truth and love.
Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating
the Bible (1968).