Over the coming days, First Things will present a set of reflections on Evangelicals and Catholics Together originally commissioned for publication on Reformation21. Read an introduction to the series by Reformation21 editor Mark McDowell here. –Ed.

In 1534, Abbot Paul Bachmann published a virulent anti-Protestant booklet entitled “A Punch in the Mouth for the Lutheran Lying Wide-Gaping Throats.” Not to be outdone, the Protestant court chaplain, Jerome Rauscher, responded with a treatise of his own, titled “One Hundred Select, Great, Shameless, Fat, Well-Swilled, Stinking, Papistical Lies.” Such was the tenor of theological discourse among many of the formative shapers of classical Protestantism and resurgent Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century. Such rhetoric was brought from the Old World to the New. Fueled by local prejudice and nativist traditions, it continued to deepen the divide between the heirs of the Reformation debates.

Imagine the surprise, then—in some circles the shock—when on March 29, 1994 the statement “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” was released in New York. Here, the old hostility between Catholics and Evangelicals was replaced by a new awareness of their common Christian identity—a shared life in Jesus Christ. The core affirmation of the first ECT statement, and of the entire project, was this declaration: “All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and He has chosen us to be his together.”

On the following day, the story of the new Evangelical and Catholic initiative was carried on the front page of The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers across the country. The reaction was immediate and explosive. While some saw this new effort as a hopeful sign, others, especially some conservative evangelicals on the right, were disturbed and distraught. Best-selling author Dave Hunt wrote of the ECT statement: “I believe the document represents the most devastating blow against the gospel in at least one thousand years.” For their part, many left-leaning progressives, both Catholics and Protestants, dismissed the statement as a publicity stunt tied to conservative politics.

It seemed to me that both of these narratives had badly misjudged the situation. When I was asked to write a lead editorial on ECT for Christianity Today, I described the new project in this way:

Here is an ecumenism of the trenches born out of a common moral struggle to proclaim and embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a culture of disarray. This is not merely a case of politics making strange bedfellows. It is more like Abraham bargaining with God for the minimal number of righteous witnesses required to spare the sinful city of Sodom. For too long, ecumenism has been left to Left-leaning Catholics and mainline Protestants. For that reason alone, evangelicals should applaud this effort and rejoice in the progress it represents.

Of course, ECT did not come out of the blue. Ever since his 1957 crusade in New York City, Billy Graham had warmly welcomed Catholic participants in his evangelistic efforts. John Stott, an Anglican pastor with worldwide influence, had long engaged with Catholics in serious theological discussions on issues of mission and world evangelization. Carl F. H. Henry followed the events of Vatican II with interest and has written about them with critical appreciation. Further, an “ecumenism of the trenches” was already at work among many evangelicals and Catholics in local communities who found themselves standing side by side in opposing abortion on demand and advocating for the traditional values of chastity, family, and community—all derived from deeply held religious convictions.

The 1994 ECT statement, however, did represent something different. First, it was not an official, church-endorsed ecumenical dialogue but rather an ad hoc group of Catholic and evangelical theologians brought together by Richard John Neuhaus and Charles W. Colson Jr. The ECT participants were clear that they spoke from and to but not for their respective churches and denominations. While ECT might have raised some ecumenical eyebrows, its independent status made it more flexible and more responsive than traditional patterns of discourse. From the beginning, the Vatican was aware and encouraging of the project. On one occasion, Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, then the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addressed the ECT group. At the same time, some evangelical members of ECT continued to participate in official bilateral dialogues between the Catholic Church and Baptists, Pentecostals, and the World Evangelical Alliance.

Second, ECT represented a move beyond co-belligerency. While sharing many common moral concerns in what were then called the “culture wars,” the framers of ECT determined to address these issues precisely as believers in Jesus Christ. They took seriously the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21—“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” (ESV).

Third, the framers of ECT were well aware that Jesus’s desire for his disciples to be one also encompassed his prayer for them to be “sanctified in the truth.” As Jesus said, “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19, ESV). Both Catholic and evangelical participants recognized that the only unity worth having was unity in the truth. They determined to practice an ecumenism of conviction not an ecumenism of accommodation. In this regard, they were encouraged by the words of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “Our quarreling ancestors were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.” Thus from the beginning, ECT addressed both theological matters still dividing Catholics and evangelicals as well as issues of public policy and the common good.

John Woodbridge and I joined ECT in 1995. We worked alongside leading evangelical scholars and theologians including Thomas C. Oden, Harold O. J. Brown, Cheryl Bridges Johns, and Kevin Vanhoozer, among others. Neuhaus and Colson chaired our meetings which always included prayer, study of the Scriptures, theological discussions, and fellowship over a meal.

The two senior theologians in the ECT group were Avery (later Cardinal) Dulles and J. I. Packer. Their wisdom and expertise would guide the ECT process as it moved forward to take up such controverted issues as justification by faith, Scripture and Tradition, the communion of saints, and the role of Mary in the life of the church, among others. Dulles’s renowned work on ecclesiology informed the ECT dialogue and stressed the importance of seeking full visible unity within the body of Christ while emphasizing spiritual ecumenism and intermediate steps that Catholic and evangelicals could—and should—take together in the meantime.

Packer was a major target of the initial evangelical protests against ECT. In an essay published in 1994, titled “Why I Signed It,” he defended the statement and his continuing involvement in the project. “I am a Protestant who thanks God for the wisdom, backbone, maturity of mind and conscience, and above all, love for my Lord Jesus Christ that I often see among Catholics, and who sometimes has the joy of hearing Catholics say they see comparable fruits in Protestants.”

Packer recognized that the deep division that had separated Protestants and Catholics since the time of the Reformation had changed in a significant way. The most important faultline today, he argued, was between “conservationists,” who honor the Christ of the Bible and of the historic creeds and confessions on the one hand, and the theological liberals and radicals who do not on the other. In this new situation, Packer argued that ECT has a vital role to play.

ECT must be viewed as fuel for a fire that is already alight. The grassroots coalition at which the document aims is already growing. It can be argued that, so far from running away from God, as some fear, ECT is playing catchup to the Holy Spirit.

Now, twenty years after its launch, ECT continues to move forward. We have recently completed our ninth public statement, this one on marriage. All nine statements with introductions, and prefaces written by J. I. Packer and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, will soon be brought together in one volume published by Brazos Press, Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty. Since the launch of ECT two decades ago, authentic Christian witness has become more—not less—difficult in a world marked by secularism, terrorism, and the dehumanizing forces in our contemporary cultures of death. Now, as never before, Christians are called to dedicate themselves to that unity for which Jesus prayed to the heavenly Father.

John Stott once defined evangelicals as Gospel people and Bible people. The imperative for Christian unity, to which ECT bears witness, is directly related to the task of world evangelization. We are called not only to proclaim the biblical Gospel to all people but to do so in a way that visibly reflects the unity and love between the Father and the Son: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). Jesus also said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35). The founders of ECT knew that when our witness is fractured, our message is unpersuasive. Thus they committed themselves to a movement for unity-in-truth. They did not expect a quick resolution to deep, century-long divisions in the Body of Christ. Despite setbacks and unresolved theological differences, evangelicals and Catholics are still called to steadfastness in their witness to Christian unity. We know that such unity is not an end in itself, but is always in the service of the good news of God’s overcoming grace.

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is tfgeorge@samford.edu. Listen to Beth Kreitzer discuss her new RCS volume on Luke here.

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