The National Association of Evangelicals has expressed appreciation to Pope John Paul II for "his valiant effort to preserve certain significant biblical teachings" while adding that he "stands for all of the teachings that have historically divided a biblically rooted evangelical Christianity from Roman Catholicism."
Based in Wheaton, Ill., the NAE represents more than 50,000 evangelical congregations from 71 denominations and serves a constituency of more than 15 million. In a statement issued Sept. 3, the organization highlighted areas in which evangelicals and Catholics have common interest and continuing theological differences.
The Rev. Billy Melvin, executive director of the NAE, said the organization has not addressed the Reformation teaching that the pope is the anti-Christ, which was cited by the Rev. Ralph A. Bohlmann, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, as a reason he would not take part in yesterday's joint worship service with the pope in Columbia, S.C.
Melvin said the NAE has not been invited to send a representative to the papal meeting with Protestant leaders in Columbia. Asked if evangelicals could take part in joint worship with Catholics, he said, "It would not be appropriate in light of the doctrinal differences" highlighted in the NAE statement.
"We acknowledge Pope John Paul's conciliatory efforts throughout the world," the statement said. "We are grateful for his efforts to promote religious liberty in both the East and the West and his concern for the poor and oppressed. We also respect his insistence on the priority of the Christian message over political involvement and his bold stand against unjust national governments, seeking to destroy the personal, political and religious freedom of their citizens."
The NAE also expressed gratitude for what it called "the new spirit of freedom in the Roman Catholic Church" and urged that "all aspects of faith and practice be tested by God's word, the Bible."
But it said it "cannot ignore the fact that this gifted pope, like his predecessors, stands for all of the teachings that have historically divided a biblically rooted evangelical Christianity from Roman Catholicism. Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone -- these great truths, which were at the heart of the Reformation -- are still central to evangelicalism and cannot be abandoned."
While the evangelicals said they "cannot accept Pope John Paul's claim to be the vicar of Christ on earth and head of the one true church," they added that they "do believe in the spiritual unity of all true believers in Jesus Christ. However, we reject the notion that this unity can exist apart from a firm commitment to the central and essential doctrines of the Reformation."
The NAE statement declared that "the papacy, with its claim of infallible doctrine, poses for evangelicals a continuing obstacle to Christian unity. Evangelicals seek unity, but the only valid unity is one based on biblical truth. However, we acknowledge the common Judeo-Christian value system we share with Roman Catholics."
The evangelicals said they can work with Catholics on such issues as opposition to abortion, euthanasia, homosexual activity, pornography and permissive sexual life styles, as well as joint efforts to strengthen family life and to advance peace, freedom and security around the world.
"It is our sincere hope that the visit of Pope John Paul II to our country will help to strengthen biblical moral values and inspire new initiatives for freedom and religious liberty worldwide," the statement said. "We wish him a safe journey."