Sharply challenging the push for harmony among Catholics and evangelicals, a nationally prominent leader of one of the San Fernando Valley's largest Protestant churches says that half the 7,000 people who turn out to hear him preach each Sunday are ex-Catholics whom he aggressively tries to woo away from what he regards as "a false religion."
Catholic authorities in turn have accused him of "Catholic bashing."
"We want to lead Catholics to Christ," the Rev. John MacArthur said in a recent interview at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. "I believe it is a false religion."
Responding for the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, Father Gregory Coiro countered that Grace Community Church "has a long record for Catholic bashing."
MacArthur's statements are unusual in this era of ecumenical goodwill, symbolized by the frequent alliance of the two groups in social morality debates and the publication last year of a groundbreaking statement of cooperation by Catholic and evangelical leaders.
The unofficial document, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," was signed in March, 1994, by 40 eminent U.S. Catholics and evangelical Protestants. It urges that each religion stop proselytizing in the other's ranks and cooperate more in fighting common targets, such as legalized abortion.
The agreement created a furor among many evangelical clergy--including MacArthur--who declared that they would not stop seeking converts among Catholics and criticized the statement for underplaying theological differences between the two groups.
In his latest book, "Reckless Faith," MacArthur said the evangelical-Catholic document "threatens to split the evangelical community" by "implying that all forms of Christianity are equally valid."
MacArthur contends that the key Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone--as opposed to the Catholic insistence on good works as well--was glossed over in the document in order to blur Catholic-Protestant doctrinal differences.
MacArthur, a biblical fundamentalist, is president of the Master's College in Newhall and has a nationwide following for his books, seminars and radio broadcast, "Grace to You." His salvos against the Catholic Church are not unexpected, but his claim that his church is built on a steady influx of former Catholics was surprising.
Catholics whose relatives have joined MacArthur's church contend that the new converts were told that they would burn in hell unless they left the Catholic Church, said Coiro, spokesman for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's office.
"It's kind of cheeky (for MacArthur) to say they want to 'lead Catholics to Christ,' considering we kept belief in Christ alive and well for 1,500 years before an evangelical Protestant ever set foot on the planet," Coiro said, referring to the centuries when Catholicism dominated Western Christianity until the 16th-Century Protestant Reformation.
Evangelicals who sought the accord with Catholic leaders wanted to have a greater moral impact on U.S. culture through a unified voice, MacArthur said. But those who downplay doctrinal distinctions "emasculate the Christian faith," the pastor said in an interview.
MacArthur said he does not attack the Catholic Church from the pulpit or hold special seminars on Catholicism. Rather, he said, Grace Church members tell friends and neighbors of their beliefs--"and it's the Catholic people who respond."
"The Roman Catholic Church is as fertile a soil for evangelism as any (group) because they already believe in God, the deity of Christ, his death and Resurrection," he said.
MacArthur is not alone as a staunch defender of Protestant doctrine. Author Michael Horton of Anaheim, another critic of the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" document, was one of three evangelicals who debated three defenders of Catholicism earlier this month in Pasadena. About 1,100 people attended the two-day event at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, said a spokeswoman for Horton's organization, Christians United for Reformation.
On the whole, however, evangelical-Catholic relations nationally and in Southern California are cordial, Coiro said.
"I think most evangelicals would reject most of the hard-line posturing that comes from Grace Community Church," said Coiro, a frequent panelist on KABC's "Religion on the Line" radio program. "On many issues, evangelicals and Catholics are in fundamental agreement."
Similar views were expressed by the Rev. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and a signer of the original evangelical-Catholic accord.
"Some evangelicals want to hold to the old conflicts with Catholicism, and we do see things differently on questions about salvation and the relationship of faith and works," Mouw said.
"There is a new openness and a spiritual renewal in Catholicism that we as evangelicals want to encourage," Mouw said. "Our views on the nature of salvation motivate us to work at renewal in other churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church--not to try to get everyone out of the Catholic Church into ours."