I have been Catholic for three years now, having been received into the Church in the Easter Vigil of 2010. My journey home to the Holy Catholic Church was more theological than it was emotional. That’s not to say that there was no emotion involved – there certainly was. But the main catalyst that the Lord used to bring me home was theology.
For some time now, a few people have asked me to post my conversion story on my blog page, but because of the depth of theological controversy that I encountered along the way, I have up until now shyed away from it.
But, towards the end of last year I finally gave in and decided that I was going to put pen to paper and to put together something of a “testimony” of my conversion from Protestantism to the Catholic Church.
Well, I spent about three weeks just working on the draft……….which was 15 pages long……….in short-hand……….and that wasn’t even delving into all the reasons for my theological shifts. Then I started typing……….and I found that 2 pages of my short-hand notes equated to about 5 pages of type……..
Needless to say, I started rethinking whether I actually wanted to finish the work of my conversion story, which for most people would probably just end up being long, dry, and boring. But, that’s when I found something that I had completely forgotten about.
When I first started taking the steps of being received into the Catholic Church, a few of my non-Catholic Christian friends were shocked, and one or two of them actually took the time to e-mail me and ask me about my reasons. My response to them back then was short and succinct, so I thought what better way to share the story of my conversion that to let the three-year-ago version of myself tell the story…so, here goes….
We most certainly expected lots of eyebrows to raise at our move [to the Catholic Church], but I can assure you that we were not looking forward to it. In fact, it was one of the things that made us a bit apprehensive about becoming Catholic...we expected that most of our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters would end up writing us off as apostates. There is little more one could expect given the massive misconceptions amongst Protestants as to what Catholics believe. Anyway, our hearts were finally settled when the local parish priest reminded us that when we stand before God in judgment, His concern is not going to be others - we must give our own account for our own selves. What also helped was that as we delved more and more into Catholic teaching we saw more and more of Christ, and we fell more and more in love with the Church that he founded 2,000 years ago and through the Traditions handed down from the Apostles continues to stand the test of time. There is no other institution on earth that could go through what the Catholic Church has been through and still be going strong today...unless it was guarded and protected by God Almighty.
There is no one particular reason why my wife and I became Catholic. Rather there are so many of them that we could go on forever. So, rather than being cumbersome with all the details, I have tried to highlight to the best of my ability some of the more pertinent things that influenced us. As I look back and reflect, I can clearly see how the Lord has led us to the Catholic Church even though we were completely oblivious to His plan all along.
The seeds for our conversion were probably planted way back when we were part of a dispensational independent Baptist church in South Africa. The pastor, who is still the “chief elder” there, is an excellent Bible teacher. I will always remember the most important things that he has always stressed in his ministry:
- never take anything for granted – always study the Scriptures
- love the Lord Jesus with everything that you are - this means that obedience to Christ will often take us where we would never dream of going
- love the Church because this is what Christ loves and died for
When we were still in our dating years, my now-wife and I left South Africa and moved to New Zealand…and when we left, we were far from being obedient Christians. But we weren't in New Zealand for long before God brought us back to Himself. We got involved in a local dispensational independent Baptist church and everything was going along just fine. I was appointed as a deacon in the church, and I was working closely with the pastor with the intention of training for the pastorate. That was until an old friend from the Baptist church in South Africa told us that their church had gone through a major eschatalogical shift based on a verse-by-verse exposition of Matthew 24. Well, I studied and studied and studied Matthew 24 and ended up coming to the same conclusions as them. This was a massive problem in our Baptist church in New Zealand, because the pastor (and his Mission Board) was committed whole-heartedly to dispensationalism. To cut a long story short, we were basically forced out of the church...and so started our journey to find the fullness of truth.
As horrible as the experience of being forced out of a congregation that we loved was, it was a good opportunity for us to really challenge a lot of things that we had taken for granted. As I studied, I was becoming more and more influenced by Reformed thinking - which led us to start fellowshipping with Reformed Baptists. But, as I got deeper into Reformed theology, a lot of my previous theology started to unravel.
I became convinced that baptism by immersion was not the Scriptural mode of baptism, but rather baptism by sprinkling. However, I still maintained that one should only be baptised after making a profession of faith. So, you could say that I was a sort of Anabaptist of the Reformation...believer's baptism by sprinkling. Be that as it was, I respected the authority of the local Reformed Baptist church and wasn't going to make it an issue of fellowship. That was until our understanding of the covenant became more focused.
As I began to understand the idea of covenant, I saw that “believers' only” baptism wasn't biblical either. Rather, the very essence of covenant necessitates that our children are included, and so I became fully Reformed i.e. I now held to the teaching of the Reformers (like Calvin and Luther) that infant baptism was Scriptural. This was opposed to my thinking of so many years that the Reformers maintained infant baptism simply because they couldn't let go of that old Romanistic teaching (oh, how ironic when I look back now). Again, it wasn't an issue of fellowship until it became an issue of obedience i.e. we only left the Reformed Baptist church when our first daughter was born so that we could (in obedience to Christ) have her baptised as a full member of God's covenant.
Being fully Reformed, I delved more and more into Reformed theology, with particular focus on the spearhead of the Reformation i.e. Sola Scriptura. In addition, John Calvin became a big focus because, of all the Reformers, I believed he had the best grasp on the issues. Of particular significance to me was the Reformed teaching on worship - particularly the Regulative Principle i.e. that God should only be worshipped as commanded in the Scriptures; anything not commanded in the Scriptures was forbidden. As the Regulative Principle, firmly based on Sola Scriptura, began to take hold in my thinking I started to see that Reformed Christians incorporated things into their worship that weren't commanded; and not only that, but they even disagreed amongst themselves about the interpretation of the Regulative Principle. Mostly, I think that this was due to most Reformed Christians not understanding their own principles of the elements of worship and the circumstances of worship. According to traditional and conservative Reformed scholars things like what is sung and accompaniment were elements of worship and should find commandment in the Scriptures before being done. After intense study, I was convinced that singing hymns, choruses, etc. in corporate worship was not in accordance with the Regulative Principle - only the Psalms were to be sung (the strongest argument for this position coming from Col 3:16 & Eph 5:19). I also became a strong proponent for a weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper and ultimately agreed with the teaching that children (as full members of the covenant) should also partake. I had solid biblical arguments for my convictions, and I brought these up with pastors from time to time. After all, the cry of the Reformed is supposed to be "reformed and always reforming".
It was frustrating (and also interesting in hindsight) because the responses I received were hardly biblical. In fact, one Reformed pastor made the comment to me that the Regulative Principle is simply a "wax-nose" that can be moulded any which way that you desired. The objections raised to my points ultimately ranged from what was practical - to a different flavour of Reformed tradition (e.g. Puritan vs. Continental). And this was from men who were thoroughly committed to the Sola Scriptura and Reformed teaching.
To my biblical arguments I began to add the argument of Reformed Tradition (particularly Calvin) and when it suited me, the Early Church Fathers. After all, they were much closer to the Apostles, and where they agreed with Scripture, we could validly use them as support. What I failed to realise was that my interpretation of the Scriptures was different from the Fathers…but what I did realise (and it became more and more frustrating) was that every Christian interprets the Scriptures differently.
After many theological discussions on the Regulative Principle and the numerous interpretations held by so many different Reformed Christians and denominations, I became completely disillusioned with it. After all, how regulative can a principle be when it is always relative? And so I discarded the Regulative Principle because it truly is a wax nose.
By God's providence, at around the same time I had been in contact with a Reformed Episcopilian priest. In my discussions with him, he helped me to see the value of tradition in the history of the Church (but specifically in the Anglican way of only wanting to accept the first 5 centuries).
He also helped me to see the importance of the succession of authority in the Church. He showed me that towards the end of his ministry, John Calvin regretted the way that he had tampered with church government, and how he hoped to restore an episcopal order in the church so that the various churches in Europe that had arisen due to the "free thinking" of the Reformation could be united. Calvin actually approached the Church of England in an attempt to have ordinations in Europe recognised so that there could be a valid line of succession from the Apostles. But his letters were intercepted by certain English bishops who were supporters of the Catholic Church and they [Calvin’s letters] never found their way to their intended destination.
Up until this point, I understood that a valid church could not be started unless someone had authority to start that church by those in authority e.g. I couldn't simply start my own church because I couldn't find a church that agreed with me. I would only be able to start a church if I had been validly sent by a church ministry which had the authority to send. But I never worked this understanding to its logical conclusion i.e. where did John Calvin get his authority from? All Protestant pastors (perhaps with the exception of some Anglicans, depending on who you are talking to) can only trace their authority back as far as someone who somewhere along the line assumed authority for himself. That's when I realised that the Reformers had no right whatsoever to leave the Church of Jesus Christ and assume their own authority in setting up churches according to their own whims. Unfortunately, that is what happened. And every single Christian denomination that has set itself up since then has at some point adoted a self-appointed authority. What's more, almost every single Protestant denomination claims to base their system of beliefs on Sola Scriptura. However, what I came to realise is that "Sola Scriptura" really means "Sola Scriptura as I interpret it". So, the Sola Scriptura is nothing more than My Interpretation Alone (or my pastor's interpretation for that matter). In this way, Sola Scriptura is also a wax nose.
What is really interesting is that the Scriptures never actually teach Sola Scriptura. Nor do they teach that the Scriptures are for private individuals to interpret. Yet, private interpretation since the Reformation has led to the formation of over 35,000 denominations. I doubt whether this was Christ's intention in His High Priestly prayer when He prayed that the Church would be one.
That's when I really started to dig into the early Church. How could we as Protestants, almost 2,000 years removed from the facts, determine what Christ and His Apostles meant when they lived. The Church Fathers, much closer to the Apostles, and some of them even personal disciples of the Apostles, began to hold much more weight in how I should read and understand the Scriptures.
The Anglican priest I mentioned also helped me to be far more gracious towards Catholics. He showed me that we can call them brothers and sisters in Christ even though we disagreed with a lot of their teachings. He pointed out that a lot of what we thought Catholics believed were misconceptions and required a bit more of an understanding of things from their perspective. Well, that was okay and I was happy to accept it. I accepted Catholics as potential brothers and sisters in Christ, but it would snow in the Sahara before I would dream of becoming one. And at that point I had no real interest in finding out more about the Catholic faith. Instead, we became Anglicans because it meant that could stay reformed (rather than Reformed) and adopt a form of catholicity (in the Anglican sense of the word). It was kind of a middle ground that maintained that the Catholic Church was still in serious error.
Being Anglican in NZ was interesting. There were things that we didn't agree with (e.g. ordination of women) but we felt that the spirit of Christ compelled us to be gracious and humble, leading by example and prayer for change. But it wasn't long before we saw that this approach simply wouldn't work in the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion worldwide is under huge attack from liberals who want to have the worldwide Communion adopt ordination of homosexuals. In some Provinces it is already accepted...and in others it is seriously rejected. I personally think that this will ultimately lead to a split in the Anglican Communion. What was a real eye-opener for us was how powerless the Archbishop of Canterbury was/is in this whole fiasco. Scripture and the historic traditions are completely against homosexuality, and yet the Anglican Church which claims to hold to the Scriptures, and some of historical tradition (in varying degrees depending on which Anglican you speak to), is powerless to do anything about these liberal Anglicans who threatened to destroy the Anglican Church. I started to appreciate the idea of having an authoritative figure like the Pope but I still wouldn't have dreamed of calling him my authoritative figure. However, it did start to perk my interest a little more....
Oneday, I was reading the newspaper and I stumbled across an advert for the Catholic Enquiry Centre in NZ - inviting people to obtain some free material to tell them more about Christianity in general and the Catholic faith in particular. Well, I was now interested enough to find out exactly what it was that Catholics believed. The reading material arrived and I just couldn't put it down. I was awestruck at how Christ-centred Catholic teaching was, and I couldn't believe how much of Catholic teaching was pretty much in line with some of my own thinking. The difference was that there seemed to be something in Catholic teaching that I was missing all along...something vital, but I just couldn't put my finger on it. Well, this has to be a smoke-screen I thought. It can't be true - it's a decoy to entice unsuspecting and naive Christians into the Catholic Church. So, I started reading more...I started listening to more Catholic teachers. Well, it wasn't long and the holes started appearing on the wrong side of the argument. All the holes were in the Protestant position. The Catholic position was SOLID. The Protestant position became shakier and shakier and eventually crumbled like a house of cards. Somewhere along that line I finally realised that Protestantism was built on a foundation of sand; and I found that it was the Catholic Church that was built upon the foundation of rock. The final straw that broke the camel's back was finally being shown that the Scriptures are not the pillar and foundation of the truth - simply because the Scriptures are subject to a multitude of interpretations. Instead, St. Paul clearly taught St. Timothy that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15). And that Church that Paul was referring to is the same Church that remains undefeated to this day under the oversight of the Pope as the successor of St. Peter, the rock upon whom our Lord built His Church. And most assuredly, the gates of hell have never prevailed against it.
From that point I started reading Catholic theology from a perspective of faith rather than criticism. All my doubts finally melted away...the Lord truly helped my unbelief. I started looking more deeply into the Church Fathers and started studying history from a Catholic perspective. WOW! I have never felt more blessed. I started praying the Rosary because I now saw it for what it really was....a prayerful walk with Mary, our Lord's closest disciple; a beautiful prayer for meditating deeply on the person and work of our Lord Jesus.
God had led me to the treasury of truth openly displayed in the Catholic Church - the last place on earth I would ever have dreamed of finding it. The Catholic Church really is a family/household. We have God as our Father; Christ is our elder brother; Mary is our Mother; and all the saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Like the prodigal son, God has brought us home, and we cannot praise and thank Him enough for this great gift that He has given us. I only wish that I could describe in words the change that has happened in our lives because of this journey home. All I can say is that if you are on that path searching for the truth, then don’t stop looking until you find it.
With my hand on my heart, I would encourage you to find out more about the Catholic faith, but find out from a faithful Catholic. Unfortunately, Protestants do not understand Catholicism. For example, most Protestants think that Catholics worship Mary and pray to her like they pray to God. This is not true. Catholics don't pray to Mary (at least not in the sense that Protestants think). We ask Mary, as our Mother (Jn 19:26) and the Mother of our Lord (Lk 1:43) to pray for us. Our prayers to God are on a completely different level (similar to how your discussions with friends are on a totally different level to your discussions with your spouse, which are again totally different to your discussions with God). The same is true of the saints. We ask Mary and the saints to assist us in our prayers because we believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is One. If we can ask our brothers and sisters on earth to pray for us, surely we can also ask our brothers and sisters in heaven to pray for us, especially since their prayer in the glorified state is far more perfect than ours on earth can ever be.
Another misconception is that Catholics hate the Scriptures and the Catholic Church tries to hide them from the faithful. This couldn't be further from the truth. After all, if it weren't for the Catholic Church, Protestants would not have the Scriptures. The Catholic Church was God's agent, as the pillar and ground of truth, to firstly determine the New Testament Canon, and then to faithfully preserve the Scriptures throughout history. Catholics love the Scriptures far more than any Protestant could imagine. In a single Mass liturgy, there are more Scripture readings and allusions than a month of Sundays' services in most Protestant churches (apart from Anglican churches of course because Anglicans follow a liturgy very similar to the Catholics). Interestingly, the focus in most Protestant churches is the pulpit. This might give the impression that the Scriptures are central...but what it really tells is that the preacher is central along with his interpretation of the Scripture he is preaching on. [[[It's funny (not in the ha-ha kind of way) because it just goes to show that every Christian has his own pope - whether it is himself, or his pastor, or his favourite theologian]]]. There is far more preaching in Protestant churches than there is Scripture reading. However, in a Catholic Mass the first half of the service is dedicated to the Word; the second half to the Sacrament. The first half is dedicated to various Scripture readings: Old Testament and New. As a lover of the Bible, I was astounded when I first realised that the liturgy of the Word in a Catholic Mass is so Scripturally focused. But more than the Scriptures, or the sermon / homily, the supreme focus of the Mass is Jesus Christ Himself…present the in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Catholic Church, it is not a pulpit that is central; it is the altar i.e. the place where the once-for-all Sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ is made present for us today. And so, Jesus and His Communion of Himself completely with us is the whole focus of the Mass - not the priest; not the homily; not the beautiful decor - it is Christ that we all lift our eyes to behold when bread and wine are miraculously changed by God Himself into the life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ...for us.
The amazing thing for me is that I am still a babe; I have only understood and seen the tip of the iceberg (if indeed that much). If this is the beginning, I can't wait to see the depth and majesty of the treasures that God has in store. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehesible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways!
I hope that I haven't been too long-winded...but I am glad that I have had the opportunity of sharing the most important points of our journey to the Catholic Church.