When I was in high school, I knew a girl whom I will call S.
S. was quiet and shy, and she was a part of the friend-circle of Christian girls that I knew back then; I was fond of her and admired her peaceful manner. So one day, when I was speaking about her to another acquaintance of mine who did not know her, this is what I said:
“And you know, she’s a really great Christian! I mean, even though she’s Catholic.”
Cringe. I thought I was giving a compliment at the time. My understanding of Catholicism was vague and involved mostly the ideas of saints and confessionals; Catholics themselves seemed hopelessly alien to me, their worship and faith practices worthy of skepticism. In short, I was not quite convinced that they were Doing The Christianity Thing Right, whereas I was fairly certain I was Doing The Christianity Thing Very Right.
How presumptuous of me! In the years since, I’ve had cause to be embarrassed by my youthful ignorance. Sure, I have my issues with Catholic doctrine; but I have issues with some Protestant doctrine, too. And sure, I’ve had my issues with particular Catholic practices; but, if I’m being honest, I have my issues with particular Protestant practices, too.
Frankly, any of us who consider ourselves members of x denomination – and even those of who do not – differentiate ourselves from other denominations and other believers in terms of interpretation, doctrine, and practice. There are things we all agree on; there are matters on which we disagree, deeply. Denominational divisions in Christianity are real and seem to only grow deeper as the years go by, which is troubling – surely we can all get along and serve each other in truth even if we don’t always see eye to eye. In fact, Scripture indicates that we ought to be able to do this; there is room within Christianity for debates and for varying points of view.
If we want to get along better in spite of our differences, a two-pronged approach will do it:
1) Leave the divisions for God to deal with.
Even if you are right about this one particular point of interpretation and doctrine – and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are – repetition and yelling louder isn’t going to coax anyone around to your point of view. Simply settling deeper into your trench and yelling “I’m right!” over the gunfire is not going to do anything to advance church unity or advance the cause of Christ.
Sometimes we have to let God change minds. We have to turn issues of disagreement over to the Lord, set them aside, and ask Him to change the necessary hearts involved. (You might be surprised to find that the heart in need of changing is yours). God created the entire world from nothing; He is Everything that was, and is, and is to come – so why don’t we let Him have sovereignty over some of these matters and simply take it upon ourselves to love and to serve?
In the end, a lot of what we have to do as a church doesn’t require that we agree on everything. Our unanimity isn’t required for us to serve, to love, or to give.
2) Look for what you can learn, use, or appreciate.
What happened to me to change my “even though she’s Catholic” viewpoint is that, over time, I began to enjoy and appreciate the legacy of my Catholic brothers and sisters and how it had influenced my own spiritual life. Many of the great thinkers of the church that I studied were Catholic; many of the preservers of learning and great literature over the ages were Catholic. The marriage of intellect and faith has a long history in the Catholic church as well, and that is something I both appreciate and honor.
Over time, I met Catholics and read books by Catholics who spoke about God’s grace and love in ways that opened my heart to seeing and experiencing more of Him. Who taught the value of silence and close communion with God. I learned that my Protestant “God is my best buddy” ethos could afford to be leavened with the realization that God is also holy and mighty and worthy of profound reverence and awe.
In short, I found out that in this other denomination there were practices and contributions of great value – wonderful things that I could incorporate into my own spiritual life. And the same goes for you, too. Whatever denomination it is that you side-eye – whether it’s Southern Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, whatever – there are believers in that denomination who can teach you and bless you. There are ideas and actions that are worth noting and preserving.
I don’t think my friend S. ever knew that I considered her to be a good Christian “even though” she was a Catholic. But if she did, what I wish I could do is to go back and to say this to her and to any of the other Catholics I ever unthinkingly passed by in my smug superiority:
Even though we probably don’t agree on everything, I’m sorry if I ever considered you to be somehow less than me. God put me here to serve you; thank you for everything I know you can teach me and that I know you will do for Christ.
That attitude might have made a world of difference. I think it still can.