This is a guest post by a friend of mine, Anthony, who recently emailed me to inform me of his decision to become Catholic.
My name is Anthony and I am becoming Catholic. Writing this sentence would have made me cry two months ago. As an aspiring evangelical missionary studying at a Southern Baptist seminary, I knew that most Catholics were not “believers,” true Christians, yet now . . . things are different. I begged God for six months to let me remain in evangelicalism. He didn’t. My hope is that this story will encourage fellow Catholics and lead many of my evangelical friends to, at the very least, have a more charitable view of the Roman Catholic Church.
One year ago I came home to visit my family. My dad, a worship and preaching pastor from when I was in fourth grade on, had resigned his position a year prior and was finishing his Masters in Theological Studies. He had grown up in the Catholic Church and one of his graduate courses caused him to reexamine some of the teaching. I found a silly-looking book titled Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic on his desk. Maybe I picked it up because I had brought nothing else home to read, or maybe my curiosity was peaked after spending a summer as a missionary to Catholics in Poland. For whatever reason, reading the testimony was the start of my confusing and reluctant journey to Rome.
David Currie’s 1996 memoir of leaving behind his fundamentalist upbringing, Trinity Evangelical education and ministries was bothersome. Currie’s unapologetic defense of controversial doctrines like Mary and the Pope were most shocking, as I had never seriously considered that Catholics would have sensible, scriptural defenses to these beliefs.
As I grew in my evangelical faith at a midwestern liberal arts college and listened to over two hundred hours of evangelical sermons by popular Reformed preachers like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, my assumption was hardened that the Roman Catholic Church didn’t adhere to the Bible. When I asked one pastor friend of mine during my junior year why Catholics thought Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth when the Bible clearly said Jesus had “brothers,” he simply grimaced: “They don’t read the Bible.”
If Currie’s book bothered me, slipping nervously into Mass that weekend didn’t help the situation. I was shocked that the lyrics sung were derived directly from the Scriptures, a quality lacking in many Protestant songs. Three times as many Bible passages were read than was typical at my non-denominational and Baptist services I attended, and the priest spoke on the Great Commission and the need for evangelization. Many Catholics will not be able to appreciate my shock.
If I had further doubts after that weekend I don’t remember them. When I returned to my post-graduate job at school I continued memorizing Scripture, listening to online sermons, and praying with friends for the salvation of close friends and family, including Catholics. My evangelical assumption of salvation was that every person, whether it is subtle or dramatic, must have a “born-again” conversion experience in order to become a true believer and go to heaven. The experience does not take place in baptism, but in a mystical way that is different for each person. The assumption is what gave me no qualms about desiring to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” with Polish Catholic youth or agreeing with a respected evangelical leader who questioned whether Mother Teresa was truly a Christian. In fact, the common line I had heard from pastors and friends was that there are some believers in the Catholic Church, but not many. That is, some have managed to decisively put their faith in Jesus Christ and thereby become a true Christian, but not many. It is now surprising to me how disparaging I was towards Catholicism without remotely understanding it.
If reading David Currie’s book was the start of a journey, a phone call from my dad in late August quickened the pace. “You’re becoming Catholic? But, can’t you just be Lutheran or something? Do you still hold to our evangelical beliefs? ” The decision was annoying. Somehow my dad had managed to go astray from the gospel and now I needed to bring him back. Yet I couldn’t help but feel seeds of doubt beginning to grow as I processed the news over the next few days. My dad had always been a spiritual mentor of mine and didn’t make rash decisions. How could he have gone so wrong?
A month before the phone call my very kind and gracious Southern Baptist church asked me to be their youth and outreach pastor until I left for seminary in January. At some point during my employment I had stumbled onto a Christianity Today article that depicted an “evangelical identity crisis.” The author painted of picture of young evangelicals, growing up in a post-modern world and yearning to be firmly rooted in history, encouraged that others had stood strong for Christ in changing and troubled times. Yet in most evangelical churches much of the church calendar is not observed, the Apostles Creed is never mentioned, many of the songs are written after 1997, and if any anecdotal story is told about a hero from church history, it certainly occured after the Reformation. History is nowhere to be found. The articles depicted my experience perfectly.
For the first time, I panicked. I started looking at the Catechism, finding the most controversial doctrines and laughing at the silliness of the Catholic Church. Indulgences? Papal infallibility? Reassured. The mass was beautiful and the idea of a visible, unified Church sounded wonderful, but it was at the expense of the gospel! Obviously Satan would encourage a large organization that would lead many just short of heaven. I shook off most of the doubts and enjoyed the remainder of my time at university, having fun with the youth group and sharing my faith with the students. Any lingering doubts, my closest friends assured me, would be dealt with at seminary.
I had been looking forward to attending seminary for quite some time. In late 2009 I read a book called Don’t Waste Your Life and was inspired to become a missionary to areas of the world where people had never heard of Jesus. Books like Don’t Waste Your Life and Let the Nations Be Glad convinced me that these people were all going to Hell and that there was no time to waste. My trip to Central Asia was rerouted to Poland because of visa problems, but I still wanted to devote my life to training pastors in a country like India. Like many young evangelicals I had little denominational loyalty, but the Southern Baptists had a fantastic seminary and missions program. After delaying my entry into seminary for a year after graduation, I finally started classes in early January.
The troubles didn’t start until the second week. We were learning about spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting and I was struck how often the professor would skip from St. Paul to Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards when describing admirable lives of piety. Did nothing worthwhile happen in the first 1500 years? The skipping of history would continue in many other classes or assigned textbooks. Occasional references to St. Augustine did not obscure the fact that the majority of church history was ignored.
Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video compounded my distress. This young man went to the church of a pastor I listened to online, and he was simply repeating in poetic form what I had already heard in many sermons: religion, man-made rituals, get in the way of seeing Jesus. I was deeply distressed by the video and its popularity. Even after receiving criticism from both Protestants and Catholics, Jefferson encouraged people to peel back “everything that’s been added” over the last 2,000 years and see the Jesus of the Bible. Here was the key point: church councils who defined the nature of Christ and set up a liturgical calendar celebrating the life of Christ just got in the way of seeing the true Jesus. Of course, who the “true Jesus” was depended on what evangelical mega-church pastor you downloaded.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed noted this “dangereous theological anarchy that is all too common among young evangelicals.” A Catholic blog noted that after all of the denomination splits in Protestantism, it was no wonder that many young evangelicals throw their hands up in frustration and call it all rubbish. The Catholic assertion hit home. Maybe this was why so many of my friends preferred to be called “Christ-followers” rather than “Christians.” They simply wanted to get away from the chaos of Protestant schisms and missed the beautiful unity of the Roman Catholic Church.
I called my dad crying on January 28th. I was going to become Catholic and hated the idea so much. I listed nearly a dozen reasons I felt I had no choice, including the Bethke video and Protestant beliefs that contradicted most of church history. He had never encouraged me to become Catholic—in fact quite the opposite—and told me to wait a few days until I was no longer emotional. I was probably just lonely and needed some community, he said. I agreed and the doubts started to go away the next day.
Ultimately it was questions about church history and the Bible that caused me to withdraw from the seminary three weeks later. As I read my Church History I textbooks and Martin Luther biography I was struck by how novel many of my Baptist beliefs were. Throughout the early church and even during the Reformation I learned that issues like baptism and communion were extremely important. Yet for me they had always been “open-handed” issues. After all, communion was simply eating bread and grape juice every now and then to remember Christ. Strictly speaking, baptism was not necessary for salvation and was simply a symbol demonstrated after someone had gotten “saved.” Not only did these views contradict church history but, increasingly, they did not match with uncomfortable Bible passages I had always shrugged off (cf John 6, Rom 6).
Further, the foundation of Protestantism that had been so precious to me, Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone as the sole source of authority, ceased to make sense. Where did the Bible come from? Why did the Reformers remove seven books from the Bible and threaten to remove more? Why didn’t the Bible itself claim to be “sufficient?” Why were there passages that indicated it was not sufficient? The Protestant answers that had sufficed for a year were no longer satisfying. Once this presupposition fell, dozens of others began to crumble.
The last two months have been a continuation of my journey. I have visited several priests and parishes in different states and read much of the U.S. Catechism. I am amazed at the rich history of the Catholic Church and its vast influence as the largest charity in the world and representative of over half the world’s Christians. I am not naïve. I am aware of the many “cradle Catholics” who do not know and even disregard their faith, the priest abuse scandals, and the Medici popes. The Catholic Church understands the importance of “catechizing” people and understands the destruction sin can cause. Poor behavior of Catholics does not negate the entire Catholic faith, just as one scandalous evangelical pastor does not negate the Bible.
I would like to conclude with a note to all evangelicals reading my story, especially my friends. Please understand that I still value my experiences in evangelicalism and that I still affirm much of what you practice. Catholics and Protestants can agree on many things. Contrary to what I was told as an evangelical, Catholics do not think Protestants are denied entrance in heaven. They are not assured of salvation, but neither are Catholics! You are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I hope my story encourages you to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.
Thank you for reading! There are, of course, many more reasons for my move to Catholicism, but I’ll let those reasons be explained by the authors below.
Books by evangelicals turned Catholic
Beckwith, Francis. Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.
Currie, David B. Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic
Hahn, Kimberly and Scott. Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism
Howard, Thomas. Evangelical is Not Enough
Shea, Mark. By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.
Rose, Devin. If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome
Smith, Christian. How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.