Ecumenical Dialogue

Baptism holds together the Body of Christ.

Someone dies and is welcomed by St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter gives the new arrival a tour of heaven. As they walk past various rooms, St. Peter says, “The Methodists are in this room, the Presbyterians are in the room across the hall, the Baptists are in this other room, and the Lutherans are over in that room.” 

Then St. Peter tells the new arrival to be quiet as they walk past another room. Afterwards, the newcomer asks why. “That’s the room for the ______,” St. Peter says, “and they think they’re the only ones here.” I have heard this story told on various occasions, with different groups named to fill in the blank.

Even though we sometimes act as if members of our own denomination are the only ones destined to enjoy eternal life with God, we also know on a deep level that the Body of Christ includes Christians from a variety of backgrounds and denominations. If that’s so, then what holds the Body of Christ from various denominations together? And what, in particular, unites Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians?

Part of the answer arises from the Protestant Reformation, when the split between Reformed and Roman Catholics began. During the Protestant Reformation, Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians disagreed over a variety of issues, especially issues related to the nature of and authority in the church, how we are saved, and the theology of the sacraments. These differences were so strongly held that members of Reformed and Roman Catholic churches were sometimes willing to kill one another. Even during periods of relative peace, people on both sides of this religious divide questioned whether those on the other side could be saved.

Nevertheless, even during the Reformation era, Reformed Christians did not rebaptize those who had previously been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. For example, John Calvin was born in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church (in 1509) and later joined the reformation movement. But he was not rebaptized when he became a Protestant. The same was true for other reformers, including Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. In fact, those during the Reformation era who did rebaptize people who had previously been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church were called Anabaptists. They believed that baptism is valid only if it is administered to believers, but not when it is administered to the children of believers.

During the 50 years since Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholic and Reformed Christians have engaged in significant ecumenical dialogue. One recent fruit of that dialogue is the “Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism,” which was approved by the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod in 2011. In this agreement, various Reformed denominations – including the Christian Reformed Church – and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops formally agree to recognize the validity of one another’s baptisms. (There is no similar formal agreement between Reformed churches and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.) This formal agreement stands as one significant thread that holds Roman Catholic and Reformed Christians together despite many remaining differences in belief and practice.

But even before this recent formal agreement, the Christian Reformed Church already recognized baptisms done by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus an ecumenical report to Synod 1944 noted that our recognition of Roman Catholic baptisms seemed to imply that the Roman Catholic Church is in fact a church of Christ.

Given this recognition of Roman Catholic baptisms, and even to some extent the Roman Catholic Church, how should we today engage with Roman Catholics in our communities and within our families? How can we respectfully discuss and debate our differences while also recognizing the many bonds that unite us, including our common adherence to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds? This is part of our ecumenical calling, both as a denomination and within our local communities. As we engage in that task, we will come into a richer and fuller understanding of the faith we share.


  • Ronald is an Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic and Philosophical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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