To what degree can we cooperate with members of the Catholic church and other churches?

I’m throwing this out here in large part because I’d like to get feedback from people on this issue, to help me in some of the organizational decisions I am making. Everyone who is in leadership has to make decisions about who they can work together with, and on what activities. Who we work with can send a message to the world about what is “normal Christianity”.

Let me start by rejecting an especially American teaching known as the doctrine of “holy separation.” This doctrine basically defines modern “fundamentalism”. It says that if there is some person A who I view as a basically orthodox believer, but that person A makes a wrong decision about cooperating with person B, then I need to cut off all cooperation not only with person B but also with person A. The argument is that person A must be in unrepentant sin in their wrong decision of cooperation, and we should not eat (cooperate) with those who are in unrepentant sin. This doctrine then leads to chains of non-cooperation, because person A may be making the error to not cut off cooperation with person B because person B, while also a basically orthodox believer, is making a wrong decision about person C.  Thus, for example, when I lived in the Bible belt in the midwest some years ago, I went to hear a speaker and there were people outside handing out flyers telling us to boycott that person, because he was known to be in fellowship with Billy Graham. Say what? Well, Billy Graham had to be boycotted because he was known to be in fellowship with sinful world leaders. Therefore anyone who did not separate from Billy Graham had to be separated from, and anyone who did not separate from those who did not separate from Billy Graham also had to be separated from, etc. The circle gets ever smaller with this doctrine of holy separation. It is not too different from the Donatists of the fourth century. They argued, first, that some pastors had sinned in giving up their Bibles during the times of persecution. I would they were correct. But many such pastors did not repent, saying that it was better to save a life than a book. The Donatists argued that those churches who accepted those pastors were then not churches, and their sacraments invalid.

The flaw in this type of reasoning, whether fundamentalist or Donatist, is that decisions about who to cooperate with are tricky, and a wrong decision is not necessarily a sinful one. Thus, for example, I do not think it is wise for Intervarsity Christian fellowship to cooperate with the Catholic church in evangelistic ministry. But I do not cut myself off from Intervarsity. I see Intervarsity as a flawed but still basically Christian organization. There is a biblical basis for distinguishing between unrepentant sin and foolish or unwise behavior. I might strongly warn a foolish brother, without viewing him as in sin.

By contrast, the fundamentalist doctrine of holy separation would say not only don’t cooperate with the Roman Catholic church, but also don’t cooperate with Intervarsity, and don’t cooperate with those who cooperate with Intervarsity, etc. I have seen this type of thinking in Reformed circles as well as fundamentalist Baptist ones.

Having said all this, I then want to get to the question of what is a proper framework for making these decisions of cooperation. The main question, in my mind, is whether we view the world as having two categories of religious groups, or three. The twofold division would say there are Christian churches, and there is everybody else, all called false religion. In this view, the Catholic church is no different from the Buddhist or Jewish religion, and we cooperate with none of them.

The threefold view which I think is legitimate is to have not only churches and false religions, but a third category which I would call “churches with radically different views of authority, and consequently radically different concepts of God’s salvation.” I would put all of the following in this third category:

1) Roman Catholic church. View of authority: the Bible is supplemented or even overruled by various high-level decisions of the church and other ancient documents. View of salvation: grace through faith is not sufficient; we must supplement the work of God with our own works.

2) Eastern Orthodox church: View of authority: the Bible is read fairly mystically and looking to it for concrete information is misguided. View of salvation: salvation is a mystical evolution toward becoming godlike, not primarily a status of covenantal relationship with God.

3) Liberal church. View of authority: untethered to the Bible;  the church should advocate whatever is viewed as good by its surrounding elite culture. View of salvation: essentially a purely works religion with either no concept of final judgment, or a final judgment based on a fairly genial reading of our record of works by God. The evolution of society in this world is more important than any particulars about people’s salvation.

4) Charismatic church. View of authority: the Bible is supplemented or even overruled by various words of God given directly to me and others in my church. View of salvation: salvation is primarily a mystical presence of God in me; concrete teaching on our covenantal relationship with God is misguided.

5) Christian cults: View of authority: the Bible is supplemented or even overruled by my local leader, who may also bind my own conscience to deny what I think is sensible and right. View of salvation: failing to do various works designated by the church, e.g., leaving the church, leads to automatic condemnation by God.

Some may disagree with my short summaries, but I think all would agree they have radically different views from the Reformed and Protestant “Scripture alone” and “by grace alone through faith alone”. But I would say that we can find foolish Christians, who are nevertheless real Christians, in each of these. (I can think of examples of Christians I have personally known in each of these types of churches). They might not return the favor of saying the same thing about me, but my Reformed view says that people elected by God may have sadly deficient views of what their own salvation is, and how God speaks to us, and yet still be born again. Some of them may indeed form a subgroup within their church which teaches something that sounds a bit like Reformational Christianity.

It should be clear that I would not view it as wise to cooperate with any of these groups in an evangelistic or discipleship ministry. But can we cooperate with any member of them in anything at all?

Probably few would disagree that even with a two-category view, there are some things on which we can cooperate even with complete non-Christian groups, such as feeding the poor, picking up litter, or voting pro-life along with Muslims. But is there a somewhat wider circle of types of cooperation which we can engage in with the third category, more than we would do with total non-Christians?

I am thinking that it could be in order to cooperate on things such as study centers, websites, discussion forums, etc., that focus on various ground-level elements of the overall historical Christian world view. We share with all of the above types of groups many centuries of development of Christian ethics, law, science and art, sense of history, etc. Even where we disagree, we often agree on the importance of what we are disagreeing on.  What scholar in the Reformed churches has not profited from reading a history book by a Catholic or Orthodox historian, or appreciated an article on a  website like National Review which presents a detailed legal argument?

There is a danger even in this type of cultural endeavor of sending a message to the world that certain groups are just part of the norm. For that reason, I would not want to have any official cooperation with, say, the Catholic church or PCUSA, even in a cultural project. But I can support the idea of a board of trustees of a non-profit which includes individuals who, in my view, have made unwise decisions to join such churches, but who themselves are scholars, mature at the personal level, confess Christ as Lord, and show the fruits of repentance toward God. I would want the freedom and level of friendship to be able to continue to try to persuade them of the failings of their churches. But I think in some contexts that a cultural endeavor which presents the “historical, Western world view” could have great value even without a consensus on such important concepts as authority in the church and the concept of salvation.

One place where this comes up, obviously, is my own involvement with the ID (intelligent design) movement, which includes many Catholics such as Michael Behe. Another is a study center with a focus on history and scholarship which I am discussing starting with others in Pittsburgh. I am working through the issues, and would welcome feedback on pitfalls that may be faced.  I know this site is dedicated to drawing the lines of difference, but I believe we also need to develop a theology of types of cooperation.

4 replies on “To what degree can we cooperate with members of the Catholic church and other churches?”

  1. “I believe we also need to develop a theology of types of cooperation.”

    I echo this belief. FWIW, I signed the Manhattan Declaration, along with a good number of solid Reform and Evangelical Christians, and received some amount of concerned grief about partnering with Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxers in contending for unborn life, biblical marriage, and religious liberty.

    Thanks again for this article in terms of establishing the need for developing a theology of types of cooperation. For example, a man who I highly respect, Rhology, is involved with Abolishing Human Abortion and he has received a good amount of criticism from Roman Catholics for espousing the Gospel. I support Rho, and believe that it’s worthwhile to preach the Gospel while contending for unborn life, even if it offends unbelievers, offends Roman Catholics, offends Eastern Orthodox members, and even if it offends other pro-life Protestants.


  2. Hey Truth, thanks for your thoughts here.

    Dave, this has come up a few times, recently in conjunction with “the Manhattan Declaration”. A writer named “Turretinfan” at that time put up a much simplified “declaration” which he called “The Bronx Declaration”. I didn’t sign the Manhattan Declaration; I did sign the Bronx Declaration.

    Also, my co-blogger Rhology and his Abolitionist Society of Oklahoma posted this “Open Letter to Pro-Life Roman Catholics”. They are doing some awesome work – managing to keep their distance, as it were, while still working together with all types of pro-life groups.


  3. FWIW, I was pointed to this post-and-thread by a commenter over at the Triablogue referent to this article by John Bugay:

    12 Dangers of Evangelical Co-Belligerence

    I completely forgot about this post and was pleasantly surprised to see that I had commented on this thread. Here’s my first comment:

    12 dangers of Evangelical Cobelligerence

    I’ve always enjoyed this exchange from a post called “Witch-burners for Christ.”

    Phil Johnson: “You seem to deduce from your theonomic beliefs an implicit imperative for political activism and aggressive, formal co-belligerence (where evangelicals join cartels and forge yokes with anti-Christian religions to campaign for moral causes).”

    Steve Hays: “There are two separate issues here. Let’s deal with one at a time:

    First of all, as regards political activism there are three possible options:

    1.A Christian is duty-bound to participate in the democratic process.

    2.A Christian is duty-bound not to participate in the democratic process.

    3.Political activism falls under category of the adiaphora.

    Now, there are arguments for and against (1). And it isn’t essential to my position to argue for (1). At least, not here and now.

    However, some of the critics of ECB talk as though they espouse (2). They regard political activism as a false priority. For them, preaching the gospel should be our priority, and since political activism necessarily diverts time and resources away from that endeavor, it is wrong for Christians to invest any time in political activism.

    As to (3), this can be taken in more than one way. As I’ve said before, I think the proper way to establish Scriptural warrant operates not on a one-to-one correspondence between a specific injunction and a specific practice, but on a one-to-many correspondence between a general injunction and a variety of special cases which adapt and apply that general injunction to our particular circumstances.

    Now how, exactly, we apply the general norm is, in some measure, a matter of Christian liberty. There may be more than one way we can do it. But whether we do it at all is not a matter of Christian liberty.

    So, for example, look at what Paul has to say about the civil or political use of the law in 1 Tim 1:9-10. How, exactly, we implement that standing obligation varies with our opportunities and circumstances. There is more than one way of enacting and enforcing this moral norm. But we are certainly not at liberty to disregard it if we are in a position to honor and uphold it.

    Secondly, there is the question of what associations are licit and what are illicit. Are we talking about first-degree separatism, second-degree separatism, or what?

    For example, critics of ECB are critical of alliances between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. This would be a prescription for first-degree separatism: don’t associate with non-Evangelicals or unbelievers.

    But they are equally critical of those who, while Evangelical in their own profession, associate with non-Evangelicals. Dobson and Colson are favorite whipping boys in this regard.

    That would be a prescription for second-degree separatism: don’t associate with those who associate with non-Evangelicals or unbelievers.

    And although critics of ECB are fond of quoting 2 Cor 6, they don’t explain how their apparent endorsement of second-degree separatism is consonant with 1 Cor 5:9-11.

    Thirdly, critics of ECB are not only critical of cobelligerence, but they are equally critical of political activism per se, on the grounds that it diverts time and attention away from the only real solution to crime and moral decline, which is the gospel.

    But if that is the case, then the objection to ECB is secondary. For even if such political alliances were limited to fellow Evangelicals, whether in the form of first- or second-degree separatism, critics of ECB would still disapprove on the primary grounds that we should not lobby for legislation anyway; since legislation treats the symptom rather than the cause.”


  4. Hey John first I would like to say goo article. I have one question when you say that catholics must supplement Christ’s works with our works are you talking about penance or justification?


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