Evangelical Engagement with Adherents of the State Religion in Europe

One of the problems that evangelicals run into in Europe is the question of how to engage with the state churches–usually Catholicism, but also branches of Orthodox, Lutheran, etc., churches.

Nothing I faced as an evangelical in America prepared me for the ubiquity of the state church’s influence.  It’s EVERYWHERE, heavily felt even among the majority of people who are not active in any way.  Croatian adults who have not attended church since they were children still think of themselves as Catholics.  Their inactivity does not change their self-identification.  Their frustration with, anger toward, envy of the Catholic church does not change it either.

I recently heard a speaker, an evangelical church planter in an area that (like Croatia) is heavily Catholic, talk about how Christians can view Catholicism.  He suggested that there are two models.

The first model is Philippians 1.  Paul from prison writes that there are other evangelists and teachers who are celebrating his incarceration, because it gets him out of their way.  “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (1.18).

By this model, evangelicals should look at Catholicism, its strong stance for life, etc., focus on the positive things it has done for the cause of Christ over the centuries, and regard the Catholic church as a potential partner.  There are doctrinal problems and issues on which we will never see eye-to-eye, but the things we have in common are greater than the differences.

  • We read the same Bible.
  • We worship the same Jesus.
  • We preach the same gospel.
  • We have the same kinds of revival movements, etc., which is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work among the Catholics of Europe.

The second model is the Galatians model.  There, Paul writes to believers who are on the threshold of rejecting the gospel that he preached in favor of a gospel of externalities, one that took religious rituals and actions as themselves being necessary for salvation.  Paul says, “The gospel these people are preaching to you is no gospel at all.”

By this model, evangelicals should look at Catholicism, its leadership structure and veneration of saints, its Mariology, the doctrine of purgatory and other doctrinal distinctives, its emphasis on works and merit, and reject it.

  • This is NOT the same gospel.
  • Leaving aside the Apocrypha, the fact that church tradition rules over scripture means that we do not read the same Bible.
  • Jesus’ work on the cross is NOT the same work, because the merit of the saints is also required.
  • The revival movements that are seen as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Philippians 1 model are instead evidence of demonic work, or cancelled out by the New Age and pagan elements in much of folk Catholicism.

A third model. I am suggesting a third model for evangelicals who engage with the state religion in “Christian” Europe.  It is the Acts model.

To wit: evangelical Christians in Europe should interact with the non-practicing adherents of the state religions in their countries in a way modeled after how the church in the Book of Acts interacted with the Jewish communities that surrounded it.

More details tomorrow.

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