The Tendencies of Evangelicalism 

The Vitality of Evangelicalism

WorshipThe phenomenon of modern Evangelical Christianity is a fascinating one. In a world that has become increasingly secular and with attendance in "traditional" churches plummeting, non-denominational Evangelical churches continue to experience remarkable and sustained growth throughout the globe.  From the mega "full gospel" churches in the U.S. suburbs, to massive open-air revival meetings in Africa and India, to the spread like wild fire of the underground church in China, Evangelicalism is a living proof that Christianity is as relevant and attractive as ever to man in search of meaning.

What makes Evangelicalism so attractive?  What is the recipe for its success that the traditional churches have by and large failed to grasp? The "secret" of Evangelicalism is, simply said, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  God so loved us that He became man, dwelt with us, and died for us to show us the way back to Him.  It is by rediscovering this eternal reality that man will be set free to find life in fullness and abundance.  Forgiveness, healing, peace, joy, and love, the ultimate longings of every human heart, are ours in Christ Jesus.  It is by capitalizing on the simple, central message of the Gospel that Evangelicalism finds its wide appeal. 

The pillar and foundation of Evangelicalism is the Bible, the timeless Word of God through which He reveals himself to mankind and shows us who we really are.  Through the Holy Scriptures, God speaks to every believer in a personal way, providing light and guidance, comfort and encouragement for any time and situation.  By constantly returning to the Word of God rather than relying on the passing traditions of men, churches and denominations, the message of Evangelical Christianity remains essentially simple and accessible to all.

The fact that Evangelicalism emphatically proclaims forgiveness and salvation by God's grace alone is another aspect that makes it immensely attractive.  All other religions make salvation, enlightenment, nirvana, something that we must strive to attain through our own efforts.  Christianity is radically different in that God has given us a Savior, who truly saves us from our sins independently of our good works.  Salvation is a free gift that we could never possibly earn.

At the center of Evangelical worship is the believer's personal relationship with God.  It is frequently pointed out that attending a church is of no value if the believer has no genuine, personal prayer life where he experiences God's guidance and presence.  God speaks to us not only through his written Word but also through the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.  We respond in turn by spontaneous prayer from the heart.  No intermediaries are necessary, whether they be special people, places of worship, or religious traditions.  Consequently, Evangelical services are essentially an extension of the believer's private devotions, including a time of praise and worship, a teaching from the Bible, sometimes the Lord's Supper, and often a time of prayer and ministry.  The absence of liturgy and of set traditions often allows for much spontaneity, freshness and dynamism in Evangelical meetings, especially in those churches that have embraced the charismatic movement.

Regarding ethics and the Christian life, Evangelicals are generally conservative, or, they would rather say, simply biblical. There is in Evangelicalism a genuine and sincere striving after holiness and a deep desire to conform to the image of the Son of God.  Sin is the number one enemy, and it is our imperative to apply Christ's victory over it in our own lives.

Faithful to Jesus' Great Commission commanding us to go into all the world and make disciples, Evangelicals constantly look for ways to share their faith with others so that they too make have a part in the Kingdom of God.  Of all branches of Christianity, it is probably the average Evangelical that has the best grasp of the basics of the Gospel and a knack at putting these into practice.  This is why Evangelicals are usually successful in evangelism, youth ministry, and discipleship, which deal with these first foundations of the Christian life.

Tensions within Evangelicalism

Still, many Evangelicals, deep down, have a faint sense that something is missing, that the puzzle is not yet complete. Although one cannot always accurately pinpoint the problem, a number of elements may account for this discomfort.

Lack of Historical Continuity

First, Evangelicalism suffers from a lack of historical continuity with the Early Church of the apostles.   Evangelicals are usually knowledgeable about biblical history from creation up to Paul's missionary trips, but generally know very little of what happened to the Church after the close of book of Acts up to modern times.  This is a rather big "missing link"!  Did Christians, say, in Alexandria in the second century, interpret Scripture the way modern Evangelicals do?  What doctrines did they believe?  How did they worship?  Evangelicals generally don't know.  More, modern Evangelicalism is even quite different in theology, in beliefs, and forms of worship than the churches of the early Reformation.  This lack of historical continuity is no small matter, since it means that there is no way of knowing whether the Christianity that we practice today is the Christianity that was handed down to humanity by Christ and the apostles.  

Doctrinal Disunity and Relativism

A direct result of this lack of historical continuity is the wide range of doctrinal disagreement among the different Evangelical churches, denominations and congregations.  Thus, though Evangelicals are typically disapproving of religious relativism towards other religions - for the Gospel is of course the only way to God - they must de facto accept a kind of doctrinal relativism within the Church, once they go beyond the basics of the Gospel.  Embarrassed at the existence of thousands of Protestant denominations, no Evangelical today will dare to ascribe the whole truth to any one group.  Rather, they will lovingly overlook differences that are not "central" to the faith (whatever these "central" issues may be - there is no agreement there either), and do their best to try to reach a kind of eclectic unity together.  The result is that truth, or at least large parts of it beyond a lowest common denominator of basic doctrines, becomes relativized.  There is an unspoken resignation that, since there is so much disagreement on doctrinal, theological, and moral issues, we have to accept the fact that we can't really have full certainty about these.

Because of the absence of a central authority, there is also a lack of unity in the administration, work and activities of the different congregations.  Even though occasional attempts at working together sometimes attain a measure of success, the more common phenomenon is that each congregation really does its own thing independently of others.

Worship without Roots

The lack of historical continuity in Evangelicalism not only affects doctrine but also worship.  How the early believers worshipped and prayed remains much of a mystery to the modern Evangelical.   Devoid of historical roots, the typical "non-denominational" service can in the long run leave a feeling of shallowness, despite the enthusiasm and energy that may have been invested into it.  The absence of a tradition of worship may initially give the impression of great liberty, but this freedom also gives room to people who may want to "hijack" a meeting to push forward their own agenda.

Justification, Sanctification, and Much Confusion

The sincere Evangelical may also become frustrated with time with his inability to experience a true transformation of his sinful nature to a state of genuine holiness.  Often Evangelicals don't even know what to believe regarding salvation, baptism, justification, sanctification, and the relation between faith and works, since there are almost as many teachings on these as there are churches.  For instance, it is generally said that one "is saved" when he "receives the Lord in his heart."  What, then, is the role of baptism?  All will agree that it is an important ordinance, because the Lord said so, but is it essential for our salvation, since we have already "been saved" by "receiving the Lord"?

This is only the first of many problematic issues:  For instance, what are the consequences of serious and repeated sins for the believer?  Can he lose his salvation?  Luther answers "no" with his doctrine of extrinsic justification, which states that God merely legally declares the sinner, who in himself is still guilty and polluted, to be righteous in Christ.  Justification involves only the legal imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ to the sinner, and does not actually enable him to truly become righteous.  We are therefore but a dung heap covered with snow.  Our essential nature remains corrupt and unchanged, yet God not longer looks at it but at the righteousness of Christ covering us.  In other words, God declares us to be righteous, but does not actually make us righteous.  The grace of God envelops us as in a cloak but this leaves us exactly as we were.  The sinner, after receiving grace and so being saved, is no less a sinner than before.[1]

Few today integrally believe in Luther's strict doctrine of extrinsic justification.  Calvin already saw the flaw in the idea of a justification totally divorced from a change in our nature, and stressed the need for personal sanctification. He described this, however, as a process distinct from our justification.  Thus, we are justified by faith alone, but if this justification is genuine, it will be prolonged by a sanctification that is effective externally.

The different Protestant theories of justification have generated considerable confusion in the Evangelical world, even more so because this confusion is usually unconscious.  Most Evangelicals believe that we are justified by faith alone, with works playing no part in our salvation.  Most believe that we are also to undergo a process of sanctification.  Yet what about the sins in thoughts, in words, in deed, in omission that remain, that stubbornly cling to us?  If we believe in Luther, we give up the fight and accept them as part of our unchangeable nature.  We find comfort and security in our belief that we are saved by faith alone, yet our conscience screams as we continue to sin. 

Even if we believe in the importance of sanctification, we are confronted with the utter inability of our nature to conquer many of our bad habits and shortcomings.  Of course, we confess that only God's grace can effect a true change in us, but this is easier said than done. Sometimes we even question the reasons why we should make an effort to overcome our selfishness and weaknesses. What difference does it make if we are saved by faith alone and perfect holiness is unattainable anyway?  Yet if we truly love God, we are grieved and burdened by our sins.  We may eventually even despair of winning this inner war and of being perpetually condemned to not doing the good that we should do and of doing the wrong that we shouldn't do.  Perhaps we are not even saved?

Thus the cloudy Evangelical concept of justification and salvation, if taken seriously, creates havoc in our minds, hearts, and consciences.  We are not sure what to make of our sins and imperfections, and not sure of their consequences.  Depending on our (usually unconscious) theological bent, we run the danger of either giving up the battle and sliding down the slope of indifference, or of developing an overly disciplined, regimented and ascetic devotional life in our quest for sanctification.

Evangelical Christianity, then, despite its vitality is plagued with an inherent instability because of these tensions in its belief system.  It seems unable to offer a genuine point of certainty for the mind and rest for the soul, a strong spiritual home where the believer can grow unhindered in holiness and in the knowledge and love of God.  Rather, the Evangelical seems to be perpetually searching after something more.  As much as he clings to scriptures promising him a solid rock on which to stand, a refuge, a fortress, and rest unto his soul - and he indeed does have a foretaste of these things in his relationship with Christ - there always remains something ungraspable, an element of these that is not fully attainable in the perpetually shifting doctrinal sands of Evangelicalism.

Messianic Judaism: The Solution, or More Problems?

Many believers have tried to fill in this gap by returning to the Jewish roots of their faith.  They have "rediscovered" Jesus as Yeshua the Jewish Messiah, and have gone on to appreciate and to love Judaism as a key to a fuller understanding of Christianity. 

Yet the Messianic movement remains largely Evangelical in its basic precepts, chiefly because it adheres to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, that is, the Bible is the only accepted source of authority which each individual or group is free to interpret "as he feels led".  There is no more central authority here as there is in Evangelicalism.

In addition, although Messianic Judaism provides many enriching insights into our faith, it also raises new questions at a much faster pace than it has been able to answer old ones.  Far from providing effective solutions to the problems of Evangelical Christianity, it has made the situation even more complex.  We must now add to the unsolved questions of Evangelicalism the thorny issues how the Torah relates to the Gospel, what are the different roles of Jewish and Gentile believers, whether they should keep kosher or not, what is the significance of Israel in the end times and how we should reconcile this with finding justice for the Palestinians.  It is now commonly asked whether the Trinity is not after all a pagan concept, whether we should worship on the Sabbath instead of on Sunday, whether we should discard the Christian feasts and return to the Jewish ones, and how we can restore the Jewishness to our worship services.  Discussions around these issues are endless, and there are no signs that the parties involved are anywhere close to reaching an agreement about them.

Messianic Judaism may be an important step on the way to the truth, and indeed, it has in a certain measure satisfied the hunger of many Christians to rediscover their Jewish roots.  Yet despite enlightening glimpses of revelation, Messianic Judaism has left us with even more question marks, tensions and instability than "classical" Evangelicalism.  It can hardly be the perfect way, then, to finding the "peace of God which surpasses all understanding" and a satisfying point of rest to the soul.  Human nature can only tolerate uncertainty for so long - eventually it demands answers, or abandons the questions altogether. 

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How, then, are believers to solve the tensions and instability inherent to Evangelicalism and Messianic Judaism? Is there a way out?

I have been able to identify four ways, four natural directions or tendencies that attempt to resolve these tensions.  I believe that Evangelicals and Messianic Believers, either as individuals or congregationally, consciously or unconsciously tend to move in one of these four ways.  This movement may be slow and consistent in a single direction, or it may be erratic over time, combining various elements of the four options.  Some will perhaps find this to be a crude and simplistic model, which I can very well accept; yet the idea is not to put people in boxed categories.  I describe these not as organized, distinct movements that believers necessarily identify with or belong to, but rather as loose currents of thoughts and beliefs that are present and influential in the Evangelical world. 

The Four Tendencies

1)     Stagnation/Unbelief

This option is not really a tendency as such, but rather an absence of movement.  After a few years as a believer one has attended all the Bible studies, has heard all the sermons, and sung all the songs.  With time, the same sermons seem to return, or perhaps new ones that contradict the earlier ones.  The believer masters the basics of the faith, but has great difficulty to move beyond them largely because of the doctrinal uncertainty described earlier. 

The songs and other aspects of the services may change to some degree, yet what was previously perceived as fresh and spontaneous is becoming somewhat lackluster and predictable.  It seems increasingly difficult to maintain the enthusiasm and growth of earlier years. 

The believer feels that he is running out of things to say in prayer.  After all, God knows everything.  His mundane concerns expressed in prayer sound increasingly like banalities.  The drive towards holiness decreases to some extent, and he seems caught in a cycle of perpetually repenting for the same sins and swaying between temporary renewed fervor and lukewarmness.  The result is that the believer's faith begins to stagnate.  He remains essentially at the same point where he was several years ago, with little significant progress in spiritual understanding or holiness in his life.

Many Evangelicals, aware of the dangers of stagnation, attempt to escape it by moving towards fundamentalism. 

2)     The tendency towards Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism, for the purpose of this essay, will be described as a sort of pumped-up Evangelicalism that is seeking a way out of stagnation.  It quite rightly identifies the necessity of continued spiritual growth, and attempts to accomplish this with intensified fervor, renewed zeal and increased dedication and commitment to the church.   

Doctrinally, fundamentalists usually solve the tensions and uncertainties of Evangelicalism with simplistic, black-and-white answers, of course still relying on the principle of "Scripture alone" but now taken to an extreme.  The historical dimension of the Church is usually totally ignored, or consists of a few crude and inaccurate clich├ęs, with each pastor and congregation interpreting Scripture in light of their own personal experience and views.  Verses are not infrequently taken out of context and interpreted in a way that supports the group's specific premises.

Even though fundamentalism in itself holds to no formal theological or doctrinal system, it thrives on clear-cut, absolute statements of faith of the like: salvation is by faith alone; infant baptism is wrong; Christmas is pagan; liturgy is "dead religion".  As a result, it is typically intolerant of divergent beliefs, and often affirms itself by negating and attacking the streams of Christianity that do not conform to its own views. 

The contradictions involved in providing simplistic answers to complex questions do not usually bother fundamentalists.  In fact, they commonly look down on using reason and intellect as a way of understanding spiritual matters, quoting instead Proverbs 3:5 "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding", as if this would imply a suggestion not to use our mental faculties!

The good side of this absolutism is that fundamentalism firmly holds on to the core Evangelical truths of the Gospel.  The inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, the deity of Christ (including his virgin birth), the substitutionary atonement of his death, his literal resurrection from the dead, and his literal return in the Second Coming are all non-negotiable issues.   Yet the upholding of these doctrines on the sole basis of faith independently of reason makes them all the more vulnerable in times of personal crises, not to mention this being a weak and even negative testimony in the eyes of the unbelievers.

Regarding worship, fundamentalism is usually intensely charismatic, thriving on gifts, tongues, signs, wonders, and the latest prophecies and revelations.  It is experience-centered and usually quite individualistic, with the emphasis of the faith on personal experiences of God, on what "God told me".  The most sought-after feeling is to "experience God's presence".  There is consequently little sense for collective revelation beyond the individual and congregational level. 

In its underlying drive to avoid stagnation, the fundamentalist's spiritual life is intense in every way: in the number of weekly meetings (3 or more not uncommon), in their length (several hours) and considerable display of emotions and sentiments, in the amount of teaching and preaching received, in the intensity of its praise, worship and prayer, and in the insistence on daily private devotions, Bible reading and "quiet time" with God.  This intensity and seeking after God's blessings partly and logically derives from a belief in the "Faith Movement" or the "health and wealth" gospel, where the Christian is promised victory in every area of his life if he would only have enough faith, pray enough, or know how to apply the necessary Scriptures.  Even though fundamentalists will typically stress that salvation is by faith alone, in practice no one is expected to work and "perform" for the church as much as they are!

Fundamentalist beliefs and practices are commonly influenced by a subtle, underlying Gnosticism:  the spiritual world is seen as good, and the material, physical world as inferior.  Faith, therefore, should be expressed in purely spiritual ways, free of any physical, material, or visible agents: liturgy, sacraments, statues are inadmissible, superstitious, and abominable hindrances to true "spiritual" faith in God.  Special Feasts, Jewish or Christian, have little importance.  The fundamentalist will typically affirm a dislike of tradition and "religion" yet will quickly develop very distinctive customs and traditions of its own.   

Because of the high expectation of holiness imposed on its members, fundamentalism will often tend to be puritan and legalistic, giving lip service to the "freedom" we have in Christ, yet tending at the same time to control the lives and activities of its members, at least to some extent.

Fundamentalists place a strong emphasis on eschatology.  They believe the second coming is imminent and are constantly speculating on the details of the rapture and the revealing of the anti-Christ. Consequently, they are also very evangelistic, feeling a clear urgency to go out and "save the lost" while there is still time.  Revival is surely just around the corner if they would only keep pressing on. 

Fundamentalists often manifest a remarkable faith and trust in God, and their attempts at "energizing" stagnating Evangelicalism is truly laudable.  Yet they all too often move from a simple, child-like faith to a simplistic, childish faith.  The exaggerated emphasis and pressure on the need to "hear from God" is an endless source of confusion and disappointments.  "Prophecies" that fail to materialize shatter the faith and enthusiasm of those who have received them.  Believers either fall into erratic behavior, raising up all kinds of strange, independent ministries "because the Lord has told them" to do so (after which He commonly changes His mind a few times); or, they justify inertia, apathy and irresponsibility because they are still "waiting upon the Lord" to speak.  The fundamentalist is often so focused on the world to come that he often has a hard time relating in a practical way to our world here and now and making a positive and concrete contribution to the society he lives in.

Despite its good sides and the usually genuine sincerity of fundamentalists, the anti-intellectual nature of the movement, the insistence upon a literal interpretation of scripture divorced from its historical and cultural context, the constant expectation of revival and victory in all areas of life, the intolerant attitude towards mainstream Christianity, combined with the high intensity and effort it demands of its members often turns fundamentalism into a fanatic form of Christianity with little compassion.  Waking up to this reality, not a few Fundamentalists have reached a breaking point, fell into major doubt, experienced total burnout and subsequently left the faith altogether.

3)     The tendency towards Liberalism

In opposition to the tendency towards fundamentalism is the tendency towards liberalism, or unbelief. This is not necessarily a tendency towards complete atheism, but nonetheless a subtle, progressive, and real crumbling of the simple, child-like faith in the message of the Gospel.  It is the logical continuation of stagnation left unchecked and not infrequently a reaction to the excesses of fundamentalism.

Here, the Evangelical seeks growth not so much by intensifying his spiritual practices but rather by expanding his horizons, usually in the intellectual realm.  In genuine open-mindedness, he develops an interest for Church history and traditions, philosophy, theology, and, perhaps, Judaism - and indeed finds treasures of wisdom and knowledge in these disciplines.  He begins to move away from a literal interpretation of the Bible and from the narrow-mindedness of the fundamentalist worldview.

The problem with this is that if the believer moves beyond a narrow interpretation of Scripture to a broader study of it in its historical, social and cultural context, but without an authoritative tradition protecting its original meaning, there remains nothing to guard it from "modernist" and liberal reinterpretations.  This may begin as harmlessly as questioning the continuing validity of praying in tongues and of prophesying, but can quickly move on to speculating whether or not the Trinity is a later invention of the Church, reinterpreting Jesus' claims to divinity and reevaluating whether He really said the words that the New Testament claims are His.  The doctrinal uncertainty of Evangelicalism is thus solved by simply declaring the questions irrelevant or "rationalizing" them away.

Once traditional Christian doctrines have become debatable, open-mindedness and tolerance turn into religious relativism and pluralism where other religions are given an equal claim to truth as Christianity.  Consequently, the zeal to evangelize completely fizzles out.

Whereas the Evangelical tending towards fundamentalism becomes increasingly "other worldly" at the expense of the reality of our life today, the Evangelical tending towards liberalism becomes progressively more "this worldly".  Thus, the Gospel may become redefined as a "social gospel" where the emphasis shifts from salvation of mankind from sin to the physical, humanitarian relief of human suffering (liberation theology). 

With the growth of Messianic Judaism, one popular expression of the tendency towards unbelief is increasingly taking the form of an extreme return to traditional Judaism, much deeper in scope than a simple rediscovery of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.  Here, Jewish traditions take on increasing importance even for gentile believers, often even taking the center stage at the expense of the salvific message of the Gospel and of "conventional" Christian theology.  One sees more and more of this "spiritual snobbism" in the Body of Christ where anything too traditionally Christian or "gentile" is looked down upon.

Granted, there is something genuinely attractive about Judaism, being in itself of divine origin.  In reaction to the exaggerated other-worldliness and Gnostic tendencies of fundamentalism rooted in salvation by "faith alone" theology, the believer here is borrowing from the beautiful and harmonious Jewish worldview which reconciles spirit and matter, the present life and the afterlife, faith and good works.  There is a greater appreciation of community, tradition and the idea of collective revelation, where God enters into a covenant with an entire people and not merely with individuals on a one to one relationship with Him.  Unfortunately, this personal relationship between God and the believer often becomes weakened in the process, along with the loss of the sense of supernatural and the watering down of the Gospel message.

The tendency towards liberalism is also characterized by increasing compromises in the realm of morals and ethics.  Practices that were once unanimously condemned by all of Christianity such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or the remarriage of divorced persons are now relativized or even seen as acceptable.

In short, while the tendency towards liberalism proposes a broader, more tolerant, and in a certain sense more intellectual way of resolving some of the tensions of Evangelicalism, there is no doubt that it does this at the expense of a massive surrender and betrayal of the basic doctrinal and moral precepts of the Gospel.  In a sense it is a way that is even more simplistic than fundamentalism: there is no longer one single truth that needs to be discovered.  Every believer (if he may still be granted the title of "believer") may pick and choose what he prefers to believe.

The Fundamentalism - Liberalism Dualism

Thus, although the tendencies of fundamentalism and liberalism do solve some of the tensions of Evangelicalism, neither of them fully succeeds in this task because they do not appeal to the whole man, to the heart and mind, to reason and faith.  Each tendency satisfies only one of the two dimensions and remains in opposition to the other.  Interestingly enough, we can observe in the history of Protestantism a steady pendulum swing of movements going from fundamentalism to liberalism and back.  Many of the great Evangelical revivals that began as genuine moves of the Spirit eventually developed into forms of extreme, legalistic and sectarian Puritanism, only to lose their steam after one or two generations and become yet another liberal Protestant denomination.  This would prompt a new revival in the next generation, a split from the old denomination and a time of renewed fervor followed by another cooling off, setting again the same process in motion.

We can already see a similar dualism emerging in the young Messianic movement.  On one side of the spectrum, we find congregations that are enthusiastic, charismatic, lively, free, loving, "non-religious", but theologically shallow, and anti-intellectual.  On the other hand, other congregations react to this by seeking theological depth and a greater respect for tradition but lose in the process the simplicity, warmth and power of the Gospel, not infrequently abandoning the doctrinal pillars of Christian orthodoxy such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity.

4)     The tendency towards Catholicism

The sincere, God-loving Evangelical who is attracted by both the simplicity and enthusiasm of fundamentalism, and the open-mindedness and intellectual dimension of liberalism is already moving, whether he knows it or not, towards Catholicism.

The Catholic faith solves the tensions inherent in Evangelicalism by reconciling faith with reason and providing food for both the mind and the heart.  Catholicism in its essence retains a pure, child-like faith and trust in God, along with a resolute belief in the supernatural and in the inspiration of Scripture.  It affirms and protects the central Evangelical doctrines and moral teachings of the Gospel as infallible dogmas that will never be changed or "modernized".  At the same time, however, the Catholic faith offers a formidable, intelligent and solid theological system, firmly grounded in the Old and New Testaments, but also strengthened by the treasures of human wisdom developed in its authoritative tradition.

How does the Catholic faith manage to effectively resolve the tensions of Evangelicalism?  The answer to this question is revealed in the ancient Nicene Creed, where four characteristic marks of the Church are described:  The Church founded by Christ, we read there, is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic". 

The Church is one: The Catholic Church has unity in faith, doctrine, worship and government.  Its authoritative interpretation of Scripture enables us to have certainty in doctrinal questions that are crucial for our spiritual development, rather than to have our growth constantly hindered by doubts in these matters.   Christ has given us the Church as a guardian of true doctrine, a central and infallible authority (in matters of faith and morals) to preserve the truth of the gospel.  Thus, Catholics are protected from the subjective and sectarian disagreements and divisions that are bound to occur when each seeks to interpret the Bible his own way.

The Church is holy: Not in the sense that all of her members are holy (far from it!), but in that she is the source of all holiness for those who wish to be conformed to the image of Christ.  First, in her teachings, the Church has never swerved from the highest moral standards.  Second, in her dogmas, she insists that our righteousness is far more than a mere legal imputation of Christ's righteousness, but that God's grace actually makes us righteous by effecting a true change in our nature.  Third, the Catholic faith provides us the incentive to attain complete holiness since, it insists, "nothing unclean will enter heaven".  If we are not totally purified of sin in this life, we will be made perfect in the final purification of purgatory.  Fourth, the Church offers the means to attain this holiness in the sanctifying power of the sacraments, and primarily in the miracle of the Eucharist where we receive the body and blood of the Lord and become partakers of His divine nature.  Fifth, the Church provides us with a myriad of models and examples in the holiness of the saints, providing us the necessary inspiration and encouragement to reach our goal.

The Church is catholic, that is, universal to all times, all places, and to all types of men.  The unity of faith, worship and government has now lasted 2,000 years and has spread to all corners of the world, to all levels of society and to all cultures.

The Church is apostolic: all of the above characteristics would be worthless if they were not resting on the authority of Christ and His apostles.  The Catholic Church is apostolic in character and outlook (hierarchical organization), in teaching, and especially, in descent by going back to the time of the Apostles and claiming Christ as her founder.  It is this unbroken historical link with the Church of Christ and the apostles that guarantees not only certainty of doctrine but also continuity of worship throughout the ages in the Eucharistic Liturgy.  Thus, we find summary descriptions of the Mass in works dating back as early as the second century.  The Tradition of the Church, though it has undergone development and growth (as a child growing to adult stature does not change in his essence), goes back to the time of the apostles and reveals us the faith that they originally received from the Lord.  Tradition in this sense is not a departure from biblical faith, but rather the preservation of it.

The Best of Both Worlds

The Catholic Church shares fundamentalism's belief in the infallibility of the Bible without the subjectivity and divisiveness of private interpretation.  She encourages all to receive the Gospel with the faith of a child without oversimplifying complex theological issues.  She affirms the miraculous events of the life of Jesus and the foundational doctrines of Christianity without neglecting their historical, social and cultural context.

The Church encourages her children to have a burning fervor to know and love God, yet without the need of frenetic activity to accomplish this.  She calls them to develop a deep personal relationship with Him without diminishing the importance of His collective revelation to the Church.  She embraces the charismatic movement and gifts of the Holy Spirit without straying away from a tradition deeply rooted in history. 

The Catholic Church upholds a high moral standard without falling into exaggerated Puritanism.  She is driven by a fiery missionary zeal to proclaim Jesus-Christ as the only way to salvation, yet without losing respect in the good things that can be found in other religions.  She patiently and hopefully awaits the second coming of Christ without falling into hysterical rapture frenzies.  She embraces the intellectual openness of Liberalism without in the least bit compromising her belief in the supernatural.  She keeps the delicate balance of the need to improve life in this world without losing sight of our destiny in the next. 

Catholicism and Judaism

The Catholic faith also resolves many of the tensions of Messianic Judaism by being the true fulfillment of Biblical Judaism (although much could still be done in culturally adapting Catholic faith and worship to bring out with greater clarity its Jewish roots).  Like Judaism, it rejects the unbiblical idea of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and affirms the existence of an authoritative tradition that preserves the original meaning of Scripture.  Like Judaism, it teaches salvation by grace through faith and works, but not the unbiblical concept of salvation by faith alone (Ja. 2:24).  As in Judaism, Catholics believe that it is good and profitable to pray that God would have mercy on departed souls.

As with the Jewish worship in the Synagogues, the Catholic worship is liturgical in nature, with written prayers, blessings and Scripture readings.  More, the Mass is the true fulfillment of the Jewish temple service, integrating all of its major elements: an altar, a sacrifice (Christ in the Eucharist, the Lamb of God), water for the washing of hands, candles, incense, bread and wine, and the very presence of God in the Tabernacle to which we now have full access, the Eucharist, the true fulfillment of the presence of God in the Holy of Holies that was then inaccessible to men.

Like Judaism, Catholicism rejects Gnostic tendencies in its view of man and creation.  It reconciles matter and spirit, body and soul by affirming that our present world, though tainted by sin, is essentially good.  Far from depreciating the value of physical, material things, the Church sanctifies them with the sacramental principle of transmitting and expressing spiritual realities through them.

A Word of Caution

It must be said that the Catholic is by no means immune from experiencing stagnation, developing a "fundamentalist" narrow-mindedness and intolerance, or from being infected by modern rationalism and liberalism.  Just as holiness is available in its fullness to all Catholics but is sought and seized by a precious few, the perfect Catholic equilibrium of faith and intellect, Bible and Tradition, dogmatic and philosophical, spontaneous and liturgical is certainly not equally well lived out by all Catholics.

The dangers of stagnation, fundamentalism and liberalism are not, however, inherent pitfalls of the Catholic faith like they are in Evangelicalism, but rather only become possible when one fails to grasp the balance and harmony of the Catholic faith in its entirety. 

The Stumbling Blocks

If the Catholic faith is really the ideal solution to the tensions of Evangelicalism, retaining the best elements of fundamentalism and liberalism while avoiding their negative sides, one may wonder why so many Evangelicals who are on the road towards Catholicism never make it the whole way in reaching the completion of their faith.  It seems appropriate to complete this article by taking a look at some common obstacles that prevent the Evangelical from finding the fullness of truth in Catholicism.  These will be listed in decreasing order of sincerity of the argument, beginning with genuinely laudable reasons and ending with simply lame excuses.

  1. Genuine theological difficulties:  Many Catholic doctrines can be extremely difficult to grasp for the Evangelical mind unfamiliar with historical Christianity.  The idea of an authoritative Tradition, the Marian dogmas such as her title of "Mother of God", her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, the communion and intercession of saints, purgatory, the meaning of the Mass, the baptism of infants are some examples of issues that, although they are profoundly biblical, are not easy to see and understand at first sight.[2]
  2. The bad example of Catholics in the past and present:  Sadly, Catholics have at times made an incredibly poor display of their faith, whether it be through intolerance and cruelty (mostly in the past, the Inquisition being the chief example), or through stupidity, apathy, or simple ignorance of their faith (the more modern phenomenon).  In addition, many Evangelicals, fundamentalists and Messianic Jews have a much stronger faith, a better knowledge of the Bible, and attend a more lively church than the average Catholic.  It is hard to blame them for not in the least way feeling attracted to Catholicism if this is the only experience they have had of Catholics.
  3. Doctrinal relativism: Many Evangelicals see Catholicism as one of many valid forms of Christianity, but no more than that.  They are so conditioned by the doctrinal relativism of Protestantism (see above) that they have lost the concept that there can only be one truth.  There is, however, a serious weakness in this reasoning, and here the anti-Catholic fundamentalist has a logical edge over the more tolerant Evangelical.  Just as Christ's claims to divinity are either universal for all men, or wholly to be rejected, so are the claims of the Catholic Church.  If she has truly been founded by Christ as His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, then Protestants can only be, at best, in imperfect communion with Him as long as they remain outside of His Ark of Salvation.  If the Catholic Eucharist truly becomes the body and blood of the Lord, then Protestants are missing a central part of Christ's inheritance to them by reducing the Lord's Supper to a mere memorial meal.
  4. Anti-Catholic prejudices and myths:  It is shocking that even in our age of information, many still believe that Catholics view Mary as a goddess or is given an equal role with Christ in his work of redemption, that the Pope is an authoritarian dictator who can never sin or make a mistake, that Catholics worship saints and pray to statues, that Tradition is a separate body of teachings that contradicts the Bible, or that Catholics are expected to work their way up to salvation.  Even though these fallacies are widespread, they can be easily cleared up with a minimum of serious research.  The Evangelical who rejects Catholicism on the basis of these arguments can therefore hardly have seriously looked into the issue.
  5. Culture shock: 500 years of separation have produced two quite distinct religious cultures within Christianity.  The Evangelical coming into first contact with Catholicism may feel like he is entering a foreign and unknown world.  His unfamiliarity with liturgy, the presence of statues and icons in churches, a more introverted and contemplative form of devotion, and a sometimes very different "religious language" may at first scare him off.  However, a bit of necessary cultural adaptation can hardly be a valid argument for rejecting the truth that God has given us, if indeed it is to be found in the Church.
  6. Laziness, lack of initiative, fear of change: Sometimes the chief obstacle preventing the Evangelical from entering into the fullness of his faith is simply the gravitational pull of apathy.  He simply cannot be bothered to move out of his comfort zone and explore new, unknown territories, despite the invitation that he feels in his conscience to do so.  There may be no particular insincere intention behind this, yet the Lord's warning to those who are neither hot nor cold remains a serious one for those in this category.
  7. Fear and dislike of authority: Even though most Evangelicals have tremendous integrity in seeking God's will and conforming their lives to Scripture, it remains much easier to submit oneself to a book than to a living institution.  If one doesn't agree with his pastor, he can simply leave the church and live his life according to his understanding of the Bible.  Yet how many begin this way to then reinterpret the Bible in order to have it fit their own lifestyle? A faith where one is free to pick and choose what to believe and how to act is much more convenient than one whose divinely ordained authority he is bound to obey.  Nowhere does our primal instinct of rebellion against God and authority come out so clearly as in this case (although the fears that the authority of the Catholic Church robs one of his freedom of conscience are complete nonsense, as I have myself personally experienced).
  8. Lack of sincerity in the search for truth:  It is remarkable to note how many Evangelicals, Fundamentalists and Messianic Jews react to discussions about Catholicism in exactly the same way as unbelievers react when they are presented the Gospel.  They pass a judgment without first looking at the evidence, refuse to seriously think through the issues, or they distort the authentic teachings of the Church in order to better justify rejecting them.  Frequently they attempt to change the subject, or must suddenly go and take care of urgent business.  I am constantly amazed at how many people are afraid of the truth.  Just as many unbelievers are unwilling to pay the price of coming to faith in Jesus, so are some Evangelicals, Fundamentalists and Messianic Jews, sadly, just as unwilling to consider the claims of the Catholic Church.  Keeping in mind that "to whom much was given, much will be required", I don't know which of the two should fear the most giving an account of this insincerity before the judgment seat.

Conclusion

In summary, the Evangelical and Messianic Believer has four ways to choose from in his walk of faith.  He can choose to basically not progress at all and let his faith deteriorate into stagnation, mediocrity and unbelief. Or, he can fan the flames of his devotion and ardor in a narrow, incomplete, and ultimately dissatisfying fundamentalism.  Or, he can risk greater, liberal open-mindedness at the risk of losing the precious simplicity and orthodoxy of his faith.

The only option that appeals to the full man is to move towards Catholicism.  This is not an easy path.  It is ridden with obstacles, and will often be the least popular of all.  Not only will the atheists and unbelievers scorn, ridicule and criticize it, but also many Evangelicals, unaware that Catholicism is but the logical fulfillment of their own faith.  He who perseveres through the historical, theological, social, and emotional difficulties, however, will truly find the fullness of Messiah in the One Church that He founded, the universal Church of the apostles and saints whose children are fed daily with His body and blood, soul and divinity.  I pray daily for the reuniting of all believers on earth, so that we may soon all belong to the One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Evangelical and Jewish Church to which Yeshua will return in glory.

Return to articles on the Catholic Church

[1] Bouyer, Louis, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, p. 168.

[2] I warmly invite the inquiring reader to read my essay "A Prodigal Son Returns Home " where I discuss in detail all of these issues and more.


Bibliography

As this essay is mostly a very personal thesis, I have consulted few works in the process of writing it.  I am however indebted principally to two outstanding books that have largely contributed to its shaping and forming:

Bouyer, Louis, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (London: The Harvill Press, 1956).

Howard, Thomas, Evangelical is not Enough (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984).