When an essential truth of the gospel is condemned, the gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the gospel an institution is not a Christian church. This is simply another way of saying that the gospel is an essential, if not the essential, of biblical Christianity, and that it is the first mark of the church. (R.C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999], 22.)
We live in strange times. What God has revealed in Scripture and in nature regarding sexuality, marriage, and gender has come to be seen as oppressive and bigoted. As witnessed in recent battles over state bills designed to protect religious liberty in the light of such rapid cultural and legal changes regarding sexuality, the cultural forces of the new sexual orthodoxy do not desire merely to secure rights for LGBT people. They want to deny anyone who disagrees with their understanding of gender and sexuality the freedom to live publicly according to their own consciences. Nothing short of full-fledged public approval from all sectors of society will satisfy the left in this culture war. That means that Christians and other religious groups who hold to a traditional understanding of sexuality as a firm conviction of their worldview now have large targets on their backs.
None of this should surprise us. Jesus told his disciples repeatedly that following him would put them at odds with the world, leading to their persecution and suffering. The more we prepare ourselves for the kinds of cultural pressures that seem to be heading our way in coming years, the better we will be able to endure them faithfully when they come.
But of course, that does not mean that we have no recourse to work to protect ourselves, fellow Christians, and people of other religious traditions as well. There are legal and cultural battles to be fought to carve out space for the preservation of true religious liberty before this is all over, and fighting in those spheres will often put evangelical Christians together with Roman Catholics, whose tradition provides them with rich theological resources to defend a biblical understanding of gender and sexuality. I already feel a sense of kinship with Roman Catholics as a result of recent battles that I had not felt before, and I am deeply thankful that, in spite of what I believe to be an unnecessarily provocative Pope, the Roman church continues to stand publicly on truth in this area.
So I am happy to labor as a co-belligerent with Roman Catholics in the culture wars of our generation. But it is important that we as evangelicals not allow kinship with Roman Catholics on this particular question lead us to assume that the differences that still remain between us are not significant. Indeed, they are.
Among the many areas of disagreement that we hold with Rome, we can single out the Council of Trent’s decree concerning justification (16th century) as the most significant. For it was at the Council of Trent that the Roman Catholic Church officially pronounced those who hold to the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone, on the basis Christ’s righteousness imputed to us) to be condemned on the basis of their acceptance of heresy. To a Protestant/evangelical, the Council of Trent pronounced the true gospel a false one. To my mind, such a pronouncement entails the forfeiture of one’s status as a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Sproul quote above explains the logic of such thinking.
I do not mean that there are not many true believers in the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly, I believe there are. I think its rich tradition and teachings have brought many to faith. Nevertheless, so long as it stands officially against the truth of the gospel as revealed in Scripture, I do not see how there can be any complete reconciliation between our respective churches. There have been many positive signs in more recent decades that the Roman Catholic Church is moving away from a rigid adherence to the Council of Trent. I am thankful for these signs of progress. But until the church repudiates its prior condemnation of the gospel, its standing with respect to the gospel remains unclear, to say the least.
As evangelicals, we can labor alongside Roman Catholics in many areas of life. But I do not believe we are yet co-laborers in the same gospel. It’s possible one day that we could be. I hope that day will come. But from where I sit, the only way it can happen is if movement occurs from their side. Until then, let us navigate the current culture wars with wisdom, joining hands with others where we can, but always being careful to guard the truth of the gospel from any compromise.