7 Principles for Gospel-Centered Conversations Among Catholic Friends

This is a guest post by my friend, Chris Castaldo, who Justin Taylor called, “one of evangelicalism’s most insightful dialogue partners with Roman Catholicism.” Chris is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and contributed the evangelical view in Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism. Hear more from Chris at his blog and on Twitter.

With Easter just behind us, and ahead of us hopes for further discussions with loved ones about the gospel, here are seven helpful principles for evangelicals to keep in mind.

1. Define yourself by Jesus and not your Protestant church tradition

Tradition is great. But when it begins to eclipse the Lord Jesus himself, we’ve missed the point. Tradition should clarify our vision of Christ, not detract from it. Further, we Protestants can’t compete with Catholics in the area of church tradition.

With a 1,500 year head start, they’ve got us beat. Thankfully, however, that’s not our objective. Nor is it a concern of former Catholics. Most of them convert not because they are drawn to a certain Protestant denomination, but because they find Jesus in our churches. Of all things, we are called to embody and proclaim the message of God’s redemptive grace in Jesus.

2. Speak of the Catholic Church with courtesy, even at points of disagreement

Anti-Catholicism has a deep, abiding history in the United States. Even among good-natured Protestants, it is common to hear sharp invectives launched against the Catholic Church. Such an approach is wrong for two reasons.

First, theologically, it fails to convey the redemptive character of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Second, this sort of petulance undermines relationships with our Catholic friends and loved ones. Over and against this approach, a biblically informed and spiritually robust mindset requires that we see our Catholic friend as made in the image of God and therefore worthy of genuine love.

3. Explain biblical concepts and terminology in a way that is clear and accessible

It’s easy for us evangelicals, particularly pastors, to speak the language of Zion, forgetting that many folks in today’s post-Christian world haven’t a clue what we’re saying. It’s fine to speak of “Adam Christology” or “the eschatological substructure of the parousia”; however, be sure to define such terms and offer a reasonable explanation of their meaning.

4. Convey genuine remorse over the divided state of the Church

In his book The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, Jaroslav Pelikan famously described the Reformation as a “tragic necessity,” recognizing that the 16th Century Church needed reform; yet, the subsequent division struck a massive blow to the church’s integrity, particularly in the eyes of the world. This tragedy is something that pastors should recognize, faithfully looking forward to the day when Jesus will return to unify his Body.

5. Be serious about cultural engagement and uphold an ethic of life

The idea of “incarnation” is a core value of Catholic theology and is also of importance on the local parish level. Therefore, Catholics are taught to put a high premium on practical forms of service, application of moral imperatives, and advocacy of the vulnerable in society such as the unborn and elderly.

To the extent that Catholics are indeed faithful to the tradition, they will pursue these ends. Our Protestant churches must do the same.

6. Demonstrate by your actions that you believe what you believe

Hypocrisy is a problem in every religious context. In some ways it’s a function of following a perfect God/man. Yet, some forms of hypocrisy are egregious. Protestants look at moral failure in the priesthood and Catholics point to the shameful behavior of some of our televangelists.

In the face of this perception we must consciously break the cycle of duplicity by embodying genuine love and faithfulness. When we fall short, we must acknowledge our wrongdoing and repent. In demonstrating by our actions what we believe, we make it easier for others to do the same.

7. Express reverence and authenticity when you pray

Prayer is serious business. We all know this, and yet sometimes we evangelicals appear to saunter into God’s presence, express a few platitudes of praise, throw down some personal requests, and conclude in Christ’s name. Yes, Jesus called his disciples “friends” three times in John 15, emphasizing the personal nature of their faith. At the same time, John the Apostle, when confronted by the risen and glorified Christ, fell down as a dead man (Rev 1:17). Our prayers should reflect both of these realities.

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  1. Peter B. says:

    I am a volunteer Chaplain for the Nursing Home Ministries and am blessed to be entrusted with three Nursing Homes. Two of which I give a weekly sermon.
    At the conclusion of my sermons, a very serious and stoic gentleman wheels himself into the space provided for worship. I twice invited him to arrive earlier so we can enjoy fellowship. He curtly said, “I don’t believe in you. You are a Protestant and I am a Catholic”. “Well, I answered, I preach nothing but the Gospel and Jesus Christ.”
    He curtly said emphatically said , “NO!” He did not even so much as look at me as if I was a leper.
    One day, at the conclusion of a message, he again showed up. I relayed to him he missed a great message on Forgiveness, and that I preached about the Pope’s Boss. “What?” he asked puzzled. “Yes, I spoke about Jesus.”
    Sad how much of the Saducees and the Pharisees is still retained in the Catholic Church.