This interview was published by the Austrian Evangelical Alliance after the Bishops Synod on Marriage and Family in the Vatican in 2015.
Besides me there were four other Protestants who attended, even if most of them were only there part of the time and not, as I was, for the entire three weeks. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity always invites a number of representatives from other churches to the Synod, in particular, however, from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as the two largest Christian umbrella organizations. Since I moderate the WEA team which maintains our contact to other Christian world communions (and to other religions), in a certain sense our General Secretary nominated me automatically. Furthermore, I have been a specialist in Catholic issues for 30 years – for instance, one could think of my book Indulgences – and the fact that I personally know the Pope well (I spoke privately with him every day at the Synod), sometimes even 2-3 times per day, with the exception of Sundays.
How were you accepted?
I really have to begin with some significant praise: There is no Protestant church where I have been a guest where I have been taken so directly into ongoing discussions and which has treated me as an equal partner in dialogue. This is due to the fact that we were not mere observers, and we were in no way inferior to the other delegates except when it came to voting rights. We had three minutes for plenary addresses, just like everyone else did. We were present for all internal matters under discussion, discussed in the various language groups without limitation, and this included textual suggestions for the closing document. We had chosen Cardinal Schönborn as the German language moderator, and he brilliantly incorporated the breadth of opinions into a very substantial conversation. He did the same with the Serbian Orthodox Archbishop of Vienna and with me, since we were in the same group.
So, is the Reformation is over, and we are going to become Catholic?
Sure, I receive letters with concerns that we Evangelicals are going to convert in droves to this nice Pope’s church. But please, the reality is the opposite: Everyday there are thousands of Catholics in Latin America and in the Global South coming over to Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, and a counter development is not recognizable. And we theologians who are conducting conversations with Rome are all very conservative representatives of Reformed theology.
Our good contact with Rome accompanies a much more open, honest, and respectful dispute about differences and similarities. We have ongoing serious doctrinal conversations, and the express desire from the Catholic side is for us to clearly formulate and introduce our point of view.
The difference when compared to what used to happen is clear: The Pope sees Evangelical Christians as full-fledged believers and openly addresses the fact that the active Christian life Evangelicals and Pentecostals lead in prayer, sanctification, and in giving witness can be a model for Catholics. He has even officially apologized to the Pentecostal movement that the Catholic Church persecuted it in former times.
Well then, is there a lot of talking but no cooperation?
One really has to see the following along with all the differences in doctrinal teaching: In the battle against injustice in this world, there are a lot of topics where Evangelicals and Catholics, along with all people of good will, have to stay on the ball (e.g., human trafficking, corruption) or where for long stretches along the trodden path we only have each other – together, after all, we make up a group totaling almost 2 billion people (e.g., when it comes to abortion, lifetime marriage). Additionally, one can sense that the Pope sees much more in common with us than, for instance, with what used to be the Protestant state churches. Furthermore, these former state churches only play a large role in the West. Outside of the West, the majority of Protestants are Evangelical. In Korea, for instance, the percentage of Evangelicals is 90%.
On the one hand, we have spoken about a closer cooperation in questions relating to family policies. On the other hand, I have publicly recommended to him in urgent terms to pursue a more decisive approach against the persecution of Christians. There should really be a shock going through global Christianity in light of this tragedy. It was also important to me to see the ISIS battle against Christians and Yesidis categorized as genocide. According to the United Nations‘ definition, genocide occurs when an ethnic or religious group is systematically persecuted, raped, displaced, or enslaved. These criteria have, unfortunately, been fulfilled in Syria and Iraq.
How did the Pope react?
During my talk he vigorously nodded, and in the end he thanked me and asked for the written version of the talk. On the next day, he again took me aside and assured me that in any case he wanted to address the issue. Let’s see what happens.
Do you also expect repercussions from the decisions made by this Catholic Bishops Synod on the member communities of the Evangelical Alliance?
Yes, of course. To this end, I have to explain my “pie thesis”! Around the world there are three large Christian groups sharing the Christian pie. The Catholic Church accounts for one-half of the pie. The churches making up the second half, the non-Catholics, are divided further into two halves since there are two global umbrella organizations. The World Council of Churches comprises the Orthodox churches and the historical Protestant mainline churches, mostly prior state churches. The Evangelical Alliance essentially comprises younger Protestant churches. With almost 600 million members each, both umbrella organizations are approximately the same size and each account for one quarter of the pie. These three associations influence each other enormously, as what one group does influences the others directly, for better or for worse. When recently the Pope was traveling around in a Fiat, American televangelists were suddenly asked by their own people if they realy need their own Gulfstream.
Where do we essentially stand in the German speaking countries when it comes to contact between the Evangelical Alliance and Catholics?
The situation in the German speaking world in Germany and Austria is different from almost all other countries because the Evangelical Alliances there are not umbrella organizations of churches – as is, for instance, the case in Switzerland, but gather together Evangelical pastors, individuals, NGOs etc. That has to do the fact that in both countries about one-half of Evangelicals are members in the historic Protestant churches and for that reason formed other organizational forms of cooperation 150 years ago. That makes things rather unclear for the Catholic side in Austria and Germany, because they do not speak to representatives of churches. In Kenya and Korea, for example, the Catholic Church simply interfaces with the conservative Protestant churches as the Evangelical Alliance and beside this the National Church Council with other churches. There one speaks with Evangelicals as churches. Nonetheless, we increasingly experience that the Catholic side more and more takes Evangelical theologians and leaders seriously as representatives of one-quarter of global Christianity and is learning to differentiate between the situation in our countries and the global situation.
Why do you consider it important to be in dialogue with the Catholic Church?
On the one hand, we can no longer avoid each other in light of the world situation and the expansion of the Catholic Church and Evangelicals everywhere in the world. Humanity has no sympathy for our not speaking with each other while the world burns. And when it comes to the issue of the persecution of Christians – my focus – I find it abysmal not to work in concert.
On the other hand, it is important for me that every high-ranking religious leader in the world does not learn who we are and what we stand for from the media or from the rumor mill but rather from an Evangelical leader as a qualified source. Conversely, I also do not want to be informed about other churches by the media or the rumor mill. Rather, and in addition to thorough source study – I want to get information out of the mouths of those who are responsible, for instance from the Pope or from the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith in Rome, Cardinal Müller. This is how trust develops, indeed friendship, and it is in this way that real differences can be talked about and true commonalities can be discovered.
One really has to say that we also maintain closer relationships to all other historic churches than we used to, even if that naturally interests the media much less than the relationship with the Pope. Thus, I visit the Ecumenical Patriarch, the head of all Orthodox Christians, in Istanbul once a year, and I meet once a year with the Patriarch of all Oriental churches. The other individuals maintaining the WEA’s relationships with other particular denomination will be doing something similar.
By the way, all of this does not weaken our Evangelical identity. Rather, it effects the opposite: it forces us to clearly work out what we stand for and why we do what we do.
And it makes it clear to us that we not only have a great responsibility for ourselves but also help to carry the responsibility for the future of all churches.