I’ve already shared significant portions of my journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in my posts Considering Catholicism, On the Road to Rome, and How Francis Chan Helped Me Become Catholic, however I also wanted to share a pivotal moment of my testimony that I haven’t shared on my blog before. By the time 2013 was winding down, I was facing some very real questions about my faith. Some questions had begun to nag me years before, such as why someone as intelligent as G.K. Chesterton could conclude that Rome was right. But others were more recent, such as how Catholics can point to Jesus’ clearly articulated words in John chapter six to explain Christ’s Body and Blood being present in the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion or Lord’s Supper), while Evangelical Protestant explanations were falling short to say the least in saying our Lord’s words must surely be symbolic.
Facing the very real prospect of being convinced of the truth of Catholicism, but struggling with the unfamiliarity of it compared to my prior beliefs, I began looking for a way out of the spiritual conflict. Turns out, it’s easy to find a way out, especially when you’ve been raised in the fringe minority of Christianity that thrives in modern American culture. It’s easy to lose yourself in American culture whenever you get tired of theology (the study of God). I even found a song that I felt I could adopt as symbolizing my new determination to pursue only minimalist Christianity. “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd was how I felt and by determining to believe that God wanted nothing more from me than wholehearted simplicity, I decided to just read the Bible in a simple way, pray in a simple way, and serve others in a simple way, and Christianity didn’t need to be any more complicated than that. The admonitions of my relatives and friends seemed to echo the lyrics of the song:
“Boy, don’t you worry you’ll find yourself
Follow your heart and nothing else
And you can do this, oh baby, if you try
All that I want for you my son is to be satisfied
And be a simple kind of man
Oh, Be something you love and understand
Baby be a simple kind of man
Oh, won’t you do this for me son if you can?”
Trust me, if you drive down the road blasting songs like this with the windows down, it’s easy to forget about things like sacraments and ancient beliefs. But some things still rise above the noise:
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” -1 Cor. 10:16-17
I had a nagging suspicion that the little symbolic crackers that are passed out in Evangelical Protestant churches are not the body of Christ, even if I wished that it might be true, and if it wasn’t “a participation in the body of Christ”, was I even part of the body of Christ: His Church? Nonetheless, all of the Christians I grew up with and hung out with were all able to shrug it off as no big deal, and I was determined to do the same. Forget the Catholics and their evidence, they’re weird anyway! Perhaps the less I think about it, the better… Well, God had a patient way of working in my restless mind, and I should mention that even though I was growing weary of theology and wanted to live a simple life, I was also praying earnestly for God’s direction.
In the mean time, my wife and I decided to back away from Catholicism and we determined to make our Pentecostal church home work for us. We were sitting in a sparsely populated worship service at the Assemblies of God church one Sunday morning, and it was time for communion. I had been raised to take communion very seriously growing up, and I did, using it as a time of quiet reflection and bringing my sins before God. The pastor usually goes out of his way to remind everyone that it’s a symbol, even while hearkening back to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Even though I had been wrestling with the biblical, theological, and historical evidence put forth by the Catholics, I decided that I was just going to leave it in God’s hands and take my time figuring it all out… someday.
As we sat in what was nearly the center of the sanctuary waiting for the crackers and grape juice trays to make their way to us, it gradually dawned on me that the ushers had somehow missed us. I tried to think whether in all my years of attending Evangelical Protestant church services this had ever happened to me before… it never had as far as I could remember. How could they have missed us? I had determined that it would be fine to partake of this symbolic communion as I always had, but had God prevented it? A crazy thought… or was it? While the short communion time proceeded without me, I pondered the possibility that God was saying, “I am fine with you taking your time to work through the process of understanding the Catholic Church… but you know better than this.” My wife wasn’t as sure that God had intended to send a clear message, but she did find it strange at least that we were missed, especially since we had been wrestling with whether or not to continue the Evangelical Protestant version of communion in a symbolic way.
An usher came up to us after the service and was genuinely apologetic for having missed us. He didn’t realize it until after he had passed us by. I happily informed him that it was no problem at all. Little did he know how much God may have used him in that moment.
The journey was still long after that point, but it did seem to be the final clincher in the subject of symbolic communion. And knowing what I know now, it would probably be a sin for me to do something that I know to be a symbolic reinvention of what God intended to be a Sacrament, without the defense of unknowing sincerity. I know that people can quickly and easily disregard this story as coincidental (and even bring up instances of being missed in communion themselves), but I see this as being just the sort of thing that God would use to speak to a specific person in a specific way, and in a way that cannot be used as proof for anyone else. In and of itself, it is hardly evidence of anything, but as it was a tipping point for me (on top of a pile of evidence and prayers for God’s guidance), it might be helpful to others in a similar situation.
In closing, I’ve noticed that if there is one subject that even the most biblically-minded Evangelical Protestants like to avoid, it’s the subject of the Eucharist. Once the biblical evidence is honestly examined, you need to do some very creative footwork to justify that communion is a symbolic “ordinance” rather than a sacrament. After ruling out the churches of our upbringing, we still had to choose between the options that remained. For awhile, we tried out the local Episcopal church, and we would have gladly gone to an Anglican church (at the time) if one was nearby. Also, the Eastern Orthodox have some substantial arguments… but we knew we could never innocently go back to where we were before.
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” -1 Cor. 11:27
From here, I recommend this post:
“I never dreamed that the Roman religion was true; but I knew that its accusers, for some reason or other, were curiously inaccurate.” –G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion
I would like to share a bit of my journey with those who are interested. A year ago, I was frustrated because I knew that Christianity must be something real, courageous, and deep, but as much as I wanted to experience real Christianity and be an effective servant of God, the mission seemed vague. Christians who were naturally passionate seemed to be experiencing something special, so I tried to be more extroverted, but this was unnatural for me. Why would God create me with a mostly introverted personality, and then require me to adopt a different personality in order to properly serve Him? Plus, there were too many theological questions unanswered for me to be truly effective as a Christian witness. I wanted to get the tough questions answered for myself before facing them from unbelievers. Christianity is too important to risk getting it wrong and leading others astray.
I was also discovering many so-called Christians whose doctrines I knew must be wrong, but because they pointed to the Bible while explaining their beliefs it became an argument over interpretational opinion. Who can effectively demonstrate that the Calvinists are wrong? The Arminians have been trying for centuries, but does anybody really care about what the Arminians have to say? Who’s to say the Swedenborgians are further off-track than the Lutherans, if they’re both pointing to the Bible as their doctrinal authority? After 2,000 years it didn’t seem right that Christianity should involve so much uncertainty. Is God fine with our personal interpretations, or did He put structure in place?
“And therefore they [Protestants] would maintain that the Church is invisible and unperceivable. I consider that this is the extreme of absurdity and that immediately beyond this abide frenzy and madness… in all Scripture it will never be found that the Church is taken for an invisible assembly.” –St. Francis de Sales, ca. 1595, in his Defense of the Faith
I assumed the Bible was the Christian’s handbook for life, and that it is really all we need. But try applying verses like Luke 14:33 without interpretational help. People have opinions about Scripture, but who’s qualified to have the final word? Amidst all the questions and frustration, I was blessed to discover the early Church fathers, and their relevance, and their writings, which had basically been hidden from me before. I began to notice how people who appealed to the history and traditions of Christianity had explanations of Scripture that were far better than those that came from modern attempts at using the Bible alone.
“The Scriptures are given for our salvation, but not the Scriptures alone; traditions also have their place. Birds have a right wing to fly with; is the left wing therefore of no use? The one does not move without the other… the Scripture then is the Gospel, but it is not the whole Gospel, for traditions form the other part… the Apostles have taught by writing and by tradition, and the whole is the Gospel.” –St. Francis de Sales, ca. 1595, in his Defense of the Faith
So it became a search for authentic, historical Christianity. This opened up a whole new world of understanding and research, but I was still left with two big frustrations: who settles matters of doctrinal dispute, and how are Christians supposed to live today? Although obviously aware of the Roman Catholic Church (who isn’t?), I hesitated to consider it because their doctrines seemed so weird, and had the apparent “baggage” of things like Marian theology and purgatory. Basically Catholicism wasn’t Protestant enough for my tastes. I’ve since come to realize that it is Protestantism that is peculiar when examined from a historical perspective.
Protestant theology (which is the lens through which I viewed the Bible, even while avoiding the title of “Protestant”) is inherently a protest against Catholic doctrines. It was created that way on purpose about 500 years ago, and perpetuated to this day by the allure of doctrinal freedom. Protesting the Catholic Church is just about the only thing that really unites Protestants. But I digress.
I was desperate enough for answers that I decided I may as well check out Catholic Mass. It seemed weird, and I was uncomfortable. But encountering the first century Church would be weird too, and who ever said Christianity was supposed to be comfortable? So those factors shouldn’t count. The question was, is this legitimate? Or more specifically, is this the Church? The last few months have been an investigation into answering that question. There have been ups and downs, hardships and joy, but the end of the tunnel seems to be in sight. At this point I would guess there’s about a 95% chance that I will be joining the Catholic Church. If there are no more misconceptions about the Church left for me to protest, there’s little sense in remaining a Protestant. I still have months to wait, but in the mean time the evidence has been pouring in to support the Church’s legitimacy, while Protestantism only gets weaker in comparison.
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the succession of bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” –Irenaeus, early Church father, ca. 180 A.D. in his famous work Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, para. 2 (italics added)
Many of Protestantism’s best theological arguments were demolished over 400 years ago by St. Francis de Sales. Stereotypical reactions from concerned Protestant relatives were playfully mocked almost a century ago by G.K. Chesterton. Deep biblical concepts pondered from Protestant pulpits are often found to be elementary within Catholicism. It’s funny to note how hard it is to understand Scripture when you impose the rule of Sola Scriptura on yourself.
What’s not so funny, however, is the refusal I see among Protestants to test their faith.
What if your perception of certain Bible verses is not a contract that legally binds God to save you? What good is a feeling of relationship with Him if you are not obeying the instructions and people He put in place for you to obey? What if it turns out in the end that Truth wasn’t a democracy and you weren’t part of Christ’s Church? What projects, hobbies, recreational activities, or TV shows could possibly be more important than figuring this stuff out?!
“…it must not be said that sins are forgiven or have been forgiven to anyone who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, resting on that alone, though among heretics and schismatics this vain and ungodly confidence may be and in our troubled times indeed is found and preached with untiring fury against the Catholic Church.” -Council of Trent, Session Six, 1547
It is a scary thing to discover that your theology is dangerously wrong. But in honestly confronting it, I was ultimately rewarded with the joy of finding the Christianity I had always hoped was real. The “gates of hell” did not prevail against the Church after all. How could I have assumed that the Church was in error for more than 1,000 years awaiting Protestant reformers? How absurd!
“Was he not lifted up on the Cross? Did He not suffer? And how then having drawn to himself the Church, should he let it escape so utterly from him? how should he let go this prize which had cost him so dear? Had the prince of the world, the devil, been driven out with the stick of the cross for a time of 300 or 400 years, to return and reign a thousand years? Would you make so absolutely vain the might of the cross? …he who trusts to the infallibility of the Church trusts to no lie, unless that is a lie which is written: the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. We place our trust then in the Holy Word, which promises perpetuity to the Church.” –St. Francis de Sales, ca. 1595, in his Defense of the Faith
I can tell you from personal experience that if you truly want to see, God will open your eyes. The answers are out there. Satan wants you to be too distracted or complacent to find them. You must seek the Truth out of your own free will. Are you assuming that God will forcibly turn you around if you’re on the wrong track? Some action is required on our part, despite what the Calvinists might tell you.
Heresies have been all-too common since the beginning of the Church, many based largely upon misunderstandings of Scripture. How do you know you’re not a heretic? I could not leave this question unanswered in my own mind.
Questions that had piled higher and higher regarding my Christian faith have been getting answered en masse by the Catholic Church. They were answered specifically and thoroughly long before I even knew to ask them. I feel like I’m the last one to arrive at the party. Better late than never. The flow of information has become almost overwhelming. It’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose. And Protestants get annoyed when an answer to a question can’t be conveniently placed in a drinking glass for them! Have we gotten so used to Facebook and thirty-second commercials that our attention spans are entirely shot? I have a newly discovered world to share with you, but you must be willing to understand and invest the time to understand it.
The bad part for me is that even though I can already see that Catholic theology is far more substantive than Protestant theology, I can’t explain it as well as it should be explained. The good news is that the wealth of information I’ve been uncovering is available to anyone who wants to learn. Since discovering the many Catholic resources that are out there, I’ve been hungrily devouring theological books as if I had been spiritually starving for the previous 30 years of my life. Things click in my mind that were mysteries before, and I want so badly to share the good news with others, but things are not so simple. I think people are understandably nervous that I might be on to something and they would rather not consider how their own faith might be affected. Christians, pursue and defend the Truth with courage!
If you think you’re too busy living a Christian life to figure out what Christianity really is, I challenge you to challenge yourself. If your loyalty to the Protestant “Reformers” runs too deep, or your own legacy is too dear, I feel sorry for you. If discomfort is too high of a price for you to pay, then I ask you to remember the martyrs, as Catholics are good at doing. Really study the history. Really study the Scriptures. Acknowledge that Christianity involves traditions either way, but does yours come from men or from God through the Apostles?
To those of you who care enough to be reading this, I am happy to announce my intention to join the Roman Catholic Church. As a Christian, what choice do I have but to obey Christ and be part of His Church? Chesterton may as well have been referring to me when he said, “There drops from him the holy armour of his invincible ignorance…” And I’m glad to be rid of it. Even though I can hardly wait, it may not be until Easter 2015 that I can officially be confirmed into the Church, after completing months of weekly classes. But there’s a lot of learning to do and wonderful people to meet in the interim, and it may take awhile for relatives and friends to adjust. Who knows, maybe some would like to learn more also and be at the Church on the big day!
I may be more hesitant in the coming months to write out my “ruminations” for the world to see, because even though Catholicism is pretty much the only thing I want to write about these days, the subject is better explained by people far more qualified than myself. It turns out that Christianity is deep! Many of my previous blog posts seem uninformed to me now, and my respect for the Church makes me want to be careful, at least until I can communicate effectively enough.
Please pray for me and my family as we go down this road, and I hope that God blesses all of us who seek His Truth rather than just our preferences.
“We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” –G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion
I’m excited to see that I can know how to live, and it’s wonderful to find out that doctrinal disputes have actually been settled for a long time.
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Why? There is no way to list all of the reasons here, but I will at least attempt to offer a glimpse of my basic reasoning process. The Christian faith must surely be a durable one, and has nothing to fear from my questions. Even if you do not trust my judgment as I look into this, perhaps you can read my thoughts out of curiosity, and I can read your comments in the same manner. My goal is the fullness of the Christian faith, and this is not intended as a condemnation of people who choose to believe differently, or are content where they are spiritually. Think of it this way: someone who is in pursuit of a master’s degree is not necessarily doing it in condemnation of people who are content with a bachelor’s degree. I am grateful beyond words for those who have brought me up in the Christian faith, and I do not wish to appear as though I’m shrugging off their love and legacy by digging deeper.
First of all, let me establish what is NOT being questioned. Christianity itself, in a nutshell, is the core of this whole thing. My faith is grounded in Jesus Christ, who is (and always will be) my Lord and Savior. The Gospel and the Creeds make up my basic declaration of faith which I can refer to as “mere Christianity.” The questions I’m asking arise out of matters of authority within the Church, proper interpretation and understanding of Scripture, the role of tradition within the faith, and the way that Christians are to live their lives. These questions lead to disagreements over the possible answers. Resolving them ultimately requires putting trust in some person’s ability to understand God (even if you only recognize your own ability). So, the overarching question becomes, “Who do you trust, and why?” I ask this in the sense of a trustworthy source that everyone can use. For me this question is separate from questions like “Who has cared about you?” or “Who has invested most in you?” or “What has your family long believed?” It is important to recognize the distinction. Also, you shouldn’t simply point to the Bible as the means of understanding the faith, when the Bible itself is part of what Christians are attempting to understand. If someone is wondering how a masterful work of art was painted and how to interpret its meaning you don’t simply hand the painting to them as an explanation.
One of the first things about Catholicism that becomes apparent to the inquisitor (no pun intended) is that non-Catholics (and even many Catholics!) have many misconceptions of what Catholic beliefs and Church history actually are. I have learned a lot in the past few weeks simply by allowing myself to see the Bible through a Catholic lens instead of a Protestant one. Note: this “lens” concept is important to realize, especially when bringing up points about what the Bible says. Even if I do not end up joining the Catholic Church, I cannot help but have a greater respect for Catholics and a greater sympathy for them as they face constant misunderstanding and mockery in our culture. It has become somewhat amusing to me (yet frustrating) to see the Catholic Church held up to a standard of perfection and be demonstrated as imperfect, while the great many branches of Protestantism are barely held up to any standard at all and are thus demonstrated to be adequate.
In many ways my spiritual journey began years ago, in my frustration with the various churches that I have been a part of. I ended up experimenting with the house church concept, based loosely on an attempt to understand New Testament house churches. Stephen Ray (a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism) tried a similar experiment earlier in his life and described reverting back to the New Testament house church as being like an attempt to take a full-size tree and revert it back into the form of the acorn that it came from. It is an unnatural disregard of what has transpired within the Church since its founding. I realize now that a person can protest their way completely out of the picture. I suppose my attempt at house church could be thought of as the final product of Protestantism.
In other ways this spiritual journey of mine began as a result of my parents’ divorce, causing me to re-evaluate many aspects of the foundation of my upbringing, and the inadequacies of churches that value freedom more than doctrine. In other ways it resulted from my faith being challenged during my time in a secular college, and hours-worth of discussion with a Muslim friend of mine as we compared our faiths. My encounters with Calvinism and various forms of egoism led me to ponder what Christianity would look like apart from those influences, since Christianity seems naturally opposed to them anyway. It appears to me that many Protestants are more Calvinist than they realize or are willing to admit. Calvinism has a foothold in American churches in a profound but immeasurable way.
The Catholic Church seems to naturally repel Calvinists.
I developed a frustration from reading books like “The Cost of Discipleship”, “Crazy Love”, and “Radical”. These books alluded to a very real and powerful way to live the Christian life, but left me with far more questions than answers.
Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism are worthy of serious consideration, but for various reasons I have set them aside. I would be willing to reconsider them or discuss my thoughts if asked.
The issue as I see it is not whether we will accept a human authority on this earth, but which human authority we accept. Some accept the established doctrines of the Catholic Church, others accept the doctrines of their Wesleyan church, or Baptist church, while others establish doctrines on their own, based on their ideas, readings, preferences, etc. What doctrines are the most legitimate? Again, who do you trust, and why? This is NOT ruling out the Holy Spirit as a guide. It is simply an honest acknowledgement of the countless divisions found within the faith, and the logical assumption that divisions are not a sign of strength. If there is one universal Church, it would be great news to anyone like me who is sick and tired of opinions and guesses being used to determine important questions within the faith. Obviously the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s doctrine is still questionable in my mind at this point (hence the title of this post), but I cannot help but wonder how it can be less legitimate than all of the various ideas that people outside the Catholic Church come up with on any given day. Established doctrines can mean less freedom it’s true, but I for one am willing to release my grip on doctrinal freedom if Truth is found to supersede it.
I admit that much of the appeal of the Catholic Church is its universality. It spans not only the centuries, but the globe. It still boggles my mind that there are 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church. From what I’ve heard that’s far more than all other versions of Christianity combined. Somebody might be quick to claim that he is smarter than all of those people, but I am not that quick. Like Socrates, learning has made me realize how little I know. An American Evangelical Protestant shaking his fist at Catholicism and declaring it to be “pagan” or some other similar term seems rather self-destructive considering that he is part of a small sliver of the overall Christian population of the world, with the vast majority being Catholic. If the Catholic Church is not Christian, then the legitimacy of all churches around the world looks a bit shaky. It’s more of a question of whether we can justify being outside of it or not. Perhaps we can, but we’d better be sure.
Many different people interpret the Bible in many different ways, and some are quick to accept the responsibility for taking interpretive authority upon their own shoulders. James said “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Knowing Greek is not the same as understanding the Greek of the New Testament, and reading the Bible does not mean we can teach ourselves or others correctly. The “Magisterium” of the Catholic Church takes that awesome doctrinal responsibility upon its shoulders (I wouldn’t want it!), and the Catholics believe that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. Even if the Catholic Church is simply regarded as an institution apart from God’s divine preservation, G.K. Chesterton said, “There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.” It has the accumulated experience of centuries, dating back to the beginning of the Church. We individuals with our limited experience have to sift through more concepts and ideas than we have time for on this earth. There is simply not enough time to get it all figured out, so why try? But it’s still important to base our beliefs on the best sources of instruction. Our eternity may depend upon it.
A few miscellaneous thoughts may help offer some insight as well: I have begun to question Americanized Christianity, allowing myself to be humbled by the age and enormity of the faith outside of our usual perception of it. I have discovered the early Church Fathers. Guys like Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr are some of the best resources Christians have in order to better understand what Christianity was intended to be. The Catholic Church cherishes the writings of the Fathers, while Protestants seem content to ignore them and rely more on their own judgment and modern commentary. I find that to be interesting. I have developed a greater appreciation for great works of Catholics, from the architecture of cathedrals to the imagination behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Things like crossing oneself for prayer and the psychological need people have for confession (and even penance) are making more and more sense. Also, the “age of the earth” debate that Protestants constantly stumble through is practically nonexistent within the Catholic Church, because there are fewer misconceptions running rampant about how to understand the Bible. G.K. Chesterton’s writings have helped me to better grasp the balance between human intellect and the sanity of mystery. I could go on and on, but I’ve shared enough for now.
I ask for your prayers as I continue to follow Christ. Feedback is welcome, and encouragement is always appreciated. I put a lot of careful work into my writing, and this post is no exception. Bear in mind that this post is NOT a declaration of intent to join the Catholic Church. These thoughts are meant to be taken only as thoughts, and I encourage you to keep an eye out for future posts. You may have noticed that I’ve hardly discussed any theology in this post. There will be plenty of time for that. I merely wanted to create a basis from which to launch my future ruminations on the subject of the Catholic Church. Stay tuned…
“It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.”
-G.K. Chesterton in his book The Catholic Church and Conversion, ch. 3
Intrigued? Click here for an essay that Chesterton wrote in 1926 called “Why I am a Catholic”