News such as what I’ve just announced on the most recent episode of The Sci-Fi Christian is liable to provoke a variety of different reactions. Among them almost certainly are ambivalence, happiness, curiosity, confusion and likely even anger. I imagine that most of the people whose emotions fall in the second half of that list are, like myself until recently, devoted Protestants and Evangelicals.
For two main reasons, I feel compelled to write this to those of you who fall within that audience. First, within that group is a fair amount of anti-Catholic sentiment, some of it tragically earned by failures of the church and its members. Regardless of the reasons for that sentiment, it tends to have the effect of widening the divisions in Christianity and causing bitterness among those who are, Protestant and Catholic alike, God’s children. As someone who cares deeply about ecumenism, I feel compelled to take whatever opportunity I can to work for the unity of the Church and against the widening of that divide.
Second, I’ve spent the last three years in pastoral ministry at a Baptist Church and earned my Master of Arts in Theological Studies from an Evangelical college. While it is by no means unheard of for someone from that background to make this transition (I follow in the footsteps of a great many Evangelicals), it is certainly not an everyday occurrence, and I feel it necessary to shed some light on why I would turn my back on what was a promising start to a pastoral ministry career. With my two reasons for writing explained, I’ll move on to my story.
I never intended to become Catholic. Even six months ago the idea was nothing more than a very remote possibility in the back of my mind. However, looking back on the last few years I can see God paving the way for this conversion, almost without me realizing it.
The 2+ years I spent earning my Master’s played a significant role in my journey. None of my professors were Catholic and none of them taught anything close to Catholic doctrine. In fact, outside of my Church History class, Catholicism rarely, if ever, came up in class discussion. But what my professors did do was teach me how to think theologically. They taught me how to hold up my presuppositions against Scripture and let my views, many of them held for my entire life, be challenged in a way that was wonderfully vulnerable. While I doubt that any of them would agree fully with my decision to convert, I’d like to think I’ve honored their teaching in the way I’ve gone about my conversion.
It was about 6 months into my degree that I found myself becoming quite passionate about theology. At a recommendation from one of my teachers I began to read the works of Anglican theologian N.T. Wright. Wright was a revelation to me. He thought about the Bible in ways that I had never even considered but were still loyal to the Christian Orthodoxy and Scripture. I spent the next several months tearing through as much of his material as I could get my hands on.
One of the big areas Wright challenged me on was my individualistic view of my faith. He talked about the Church in a way I had never heard before. To be sure, I had grown up convinced of the importance of the Church, but Wright’s thoughts on the subject were well beyond any I had heard articulated or been able to articulate myself. He challenged my view (held as a presupposition by many Protestants and especially Evangelicals) that Jesus primarily came to save individual sinners. Wright placed the concept of individual salvation within a larger scheme – Christ came first and foremost to fulfill God’s ancient covenantal promises to Abraham and by doing so to establish God’s Kingdom. Only within that context are we able to begin to think about the “individual relationship with God” that was given such unquestioned prominence in Evangelical thought and in my own teaching up to that point.
In a sense, nothing I believed had been changed. I still believed in the importance of both the Church and individual salvation. But instead of the bottom-up approach I’d held (God saves individuals, which then establishes the Church), I’d changed to a top-down approach (God establishes his Church, which allows for the salvation of individuals). It would be well over a year before I fully realized its implications, but that small shift in order changed everything.
In the Spring of 2011, I began the part of my program focused on Systematic Theology. My professor was a Presbyterian minister. While he was still a long way from Catholicism, his views were also quite different from the Evangelicalism I’d spent my life immersed in. Among the many topics we discussed in that class, we spent some time talking about liturgy and sacraments. I began to think about the importance of “how” we do church. I began to think about Baptism and Communion in a way I hadn’t before. I started to question some of the casual assumptions Evangelicalism (and I along with it) had made on those topics. I didn’t leave that class with solid answers on those topics, but I did leave convinced that they were topics that matter. The “how” of church was not irrelevant or a matter of personal preference. Where before I’d seen lifeless ritualism, I now sensed something significant in liturgical practice. I was determined to find out more.
That determination led me to Thomas Howard’s classic work Evangelical is Not Enough. At the time Howard wrote the book he was a former Evangelical and current Anglican. He wrote about liturgy, sacraments, Church structure and hierarchy, as well as other topics I hadn’t begun to consider. I found the book impossible to put down. It seemed like every word of it was giving voice to the unformed thoughts and feelings I’d been having. Howard’s book brought together the conclusions that had resonated with me in Wright with the questions that had been raised in my Systematic Theology class. I knew I was onto something and that whatever that something was had begun to come into focus.
Thomas Howard’s book contained a postscript written a couple years after the book’s initial release. In it, he explained that he had joined the Catholic Church. He saw it as the natural extension and conclusion of his journey thus far. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Everything he’d said had resonated with me deeply, but I was far from sure how I felt about Catholicism. I shoved the tension it provoked away, convinced I could apply Howard’s teaching in my own context. Nevertheless, that tension would resurface each time I thought about the book.
The Fall of 2011 brought with it more study as I began to dive into the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, as well as more New Perspective authors in the vein of Wright. While I’m unable to pinpoint an exact source for this, and attribute it more to the cumulative effect of my study, I began to become very convicted about the disunity of the Church. I began to realize that there was something deeply wrong with our denominational divisions. Through the writings of the New Perspective, especially N.T. Wright, I’d begun to see Paul’s writings in Galatians and Romans as a passionate plea for the unity of God’s people rather than treatises on individual salvation. I became convinced beyond any doubt that the divisions of the Church were sinful and completely unacceptable.
While I still remained a committed Protestant, I began to historically question the goals of the Reformation. I saw valid points, and plenty of them, in the Reformers’ complaints, but I began to grow uneasy with the way they’d gone about effecting change. Regardless of how persuasive their arguments were or how just the reasons behind their actions, the result of what they’d done was the sinful disunity of the Western Church. Although I still agreed with their Protestant theology, I began to reluctantly admit that the Reformation had been a mistake. This didn’t yet push me to Catholicism, mistake or not Christians must live with the Reformation and work from the current status quo, but one of my long held historical convictions had fallen.
In the early part of 2012 I began to consider how much I had changed over the last year and a half and wonder where I best fit within Christianity. I was serving in an associate pastoral role at a Baptist Church. While I didn’t see a conflict of interest in the short term, I knew that in the long term my ministry career would likely need to be lived out in another denomination. Though I certainly had no plans of leaving in the foreseeable future, I began to think about what denomination that might be. My search proved quite fruitless. Every denomination I investigated seemed to have theological roadblocks as big or bigger to what I found in the Baptist Church. The Anglican Communion was the closest to what I was looking for, but I was deeply uncomfortable with its historical beginnings. Given that part of what I was looking for was a Church that lived in the deep, rich history of Christendom, the dubious beginnings of Anglicanism gave me more than a little pause. I considered whether I might someday branch out and start my own, non-denominational church, but that flew in the face of all my convictions about the need for Christian unity and the sinfulness of division.
In the back of my mind a thought formed that suggested I consider Catholicism. I ignored it. Catholicism was simply not an option. There were too many issues I couldn’t get past (or so I thought at the time).
But the thought didn’t go away. It stayed for several months and, despite my efforts to the contrary, it grew. Around April of this year I realized I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I still found the idea of becoming Catholic quite improbable, but it was at least worth investigating. I began to read two things: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (the Church’s official doctrine) and the Apostolic Fathers (the oldest Christian writings outside the New Testament).
As I read my defenses quickly began to crumble. In the Apostolic Fathers I found teaching that was overwhelmingly Catholic in its thought, primitive to be sure but far more like Catholicism than anything within Protestant theology. Their writings spoke of Apostolic succession, Church authority, the primacy of the Roman bishop (who would later be known as the Pope), early forms of penance and much more. Their writings quoted the Protestant-rejected deuterocanonical books liberally and with the same authority as Scripture.
Meanwhile, the Catechism showed me how little I actually knew about Catholicism. Long held myths and prejudices fell with every page. Rather than the misguided and unbiblical faith I expected to find, I found instead a faith that was thoroughly biblical, reasonable and practical. What’s more, everything I’d been looking for in a denomination was there. For so long I’d been frustrated with the apparent non-existence of my ideal church. Reading the Catechism I realized that all this time it had been hiding in plain sight.
The last several months Annie and I have spent reading and discussing these and other sources. We started out our research intent to find out if we could join the Catholic Church. Over time, it became obvious that it was no longer a question of if but when. We knew it was time to change.
Since making our decision, I’ve continued to read and study. I feel overwhelming confidence in what we’ve decided, and I’ve experienced incredible joy as I’ve learned, for the first time, to participate in the spiritual practices of the Church.
At the same time, that joy is coupled with sadness. At the end of this month (August) I will leave behind the pastoral ministry that has meant so much to me these last three years. In some ways, knowing that would be required was the hardest part of making this decision. I am confident in my choice and grateful for my ministry. Serving as a pastor has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and it will be hard to let it go.
I haven’t written this in the hope of convincing anyone to join me. Rather, my hope is for understanding in the midst of disagreement. Some of you may have questions that I haven’t answered here. I’m more than happy to discuss any part of this with you provided we can do so in a way that’s mutually respectful and without the anti-Catholic prejudices that too often invade such dialogues.
Let me close this far too long note by affirming that anyone who calls Jesus Lord is my brother or sister in Christ, regardless of if they are Catholic or Protestant. We serve one God and have been given one mission. Let us all pray for the unity of God’s Church as we live out our mutual faith. ἸηςοῦςΚύριος! Jesus is Lord, yours and mine, now and forever. May his Church always remember that truth.