The other day I was talking on the phone with a friend in ministry. He is one of three brothers, all of whom are in ministry here in Maryland, themselves sons of a Baptist pastor (now retired) who spent his entire ministry in Maryland. He told me that one of his brothers who is a pastor has become very good friends with a Catholic priest. “My brother said that he has learned things about Christianity that he never knew.” And he also said that when they were young, this friendship would have never occurred. They were warned to stay away from Catholics, that they had nothing to learn from Catholics, that Catholics believed in salvation by works, worshiped Mary, and practiced empty worship. And it’s true. Thirty years ago it would have been extremely unlikely that a Baptist pastor and a Catholic priest would not only be good friends but would consider one another fellow travelers on the journey of faith, with much to learn and much to teach one another. They would have instead looked upon each other with suspicion—suspicion born of ignorance. The Baptist would have questioned the salvation of the Catholic because they didn’t believe in salvation by grace through faith apart from works. I know this for a fact because this is what I myself was taught. On the other hand, the Catholic was taught that those outside the Catholic church, like us Baptists, were in danger as well because there is no salvation outside the Church, and there is only one Church.
Thank God, we know better now. They were wrong about us, and we were wrong about them. I don't agree with everything that the Catholic Church teaches, but that’s all right—I don’t agree with everything the Baptist church teaches either. I have learned, as has my friend and his brothers, that none of us have a monopoly on the truth, that we all see through a glass dimly, and that we have much to learn from the different traditions that fall under the large umbrella of Christianity.
As recently as twenty years ago, the information that was readily available to the average Christian was controlled by the denomination. We bought all of our Sunday School literature from the Southern Baptist Sunday School board. When pastors bought commentaries and study aids, they went to the Baptist Book Store and bought commentaries and study aids written by Baptists, for Baptists. Everything that I learned growing up about Christianity came from Baptist sources. To me, it wasn’t Baptist theology, it was just theology. It was Christian theology. I figured every Christian believed in this particular way and if they didn’t, well, they were wrong. What was true for me was also true for my Methodist friends—the only religious literature they were exposed was by and large Methodist. This was how it was for all Christians.
A lot has changed in the last twenty years, and the Internet has been the biggest factor in the change. If I want to read about a subject, I can order any book I want to from Christian Book Distributors or even from Amazon. I can find articles on the Internet written by every different breed of Christian that exists. Through email, blogs, book review postings and other online media I can be exposed to a wide variety of opinion, viewpoints, worldviews, interpretations, etc. Some of it is insipid, some of it is ignorant and/or ill-informed, but some of it is extremely insightful, extremely enlightening, and extremely helpful. And like my friend’s brother—I’m actually friends with all three brothers—I enjoy and learn from friends from different traditions. My closest friends include not only Baptists, but a Catholic, a Methodist, and a Christian who gave up on the church but not on Jesus. They each bring something different and something important to my understanding of Jesus. And because I have come to respect them and have seen firsthand that they are serious about following Jesus, I have had to be more respectful and more understanding of their views while at the same time holding my own with more humility. None of us have it all right, and none have it all wrong, and so—and this is most important—we need to listen to one another and learn from one another.
Because in the end what matters is not our identity as Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Greek Orthodox, etc. The only identity that matters is that we are followers of Jesus Christ.