My varied background in Protestant denominations left me with a healthy respect for differing points of view — but there were two divisive issues I couldn’t ignore.
My Road to Rome: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
My journey from Protestantism to Catholicism began, in part, with doubts about the Protestant case for the canon of scripture. (Yikes, my first post in this series was over a year ago! God willing, Part 3 will follow more quickly.)
This was compounded by doubts that scripture alone really gives us everything we need to know and believe in order to live Christian lives.
As a young Evangelical Protestant, my background had been mixed, to say the least — and that compounded my awareness of the diversity of theological opinions out there:
- My father had been a pastor in the Dutch Calvinist tradition (the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America).
- When I was around 10 my father left fulltime ministry and we began attending an Episcopal church, where I served as an acolyte (altar server).
- On Wednesdays, my siblings and I attended youth group at a nearby Assemblies of God church, a denomination in the Pentecostal tradition, where my sister Lisa and I participated in Bible Quiz.
- On Sunday evenings I began attending services at an independent Bible church in the Anabaptist tradition. This started in high school and continued into college.
- As a college student I went regularly to three churches. The first was a contemporary-style church in the Church of the Nazarene denomination, which grew out of the 19th-century Wesleyan Holiness movement. (The pastor, Charlie Rizzo, was a local radio preacher; he is still the pastor, though I don’t know if he still does the radio show.)
- Later I went with my family for a number of months to an Evangelical Free church, a pietistic denomination with Lutheran and Scandinavian roots.
- Finally, I became deeply involved in a very small church group with Jesus Movement roots that met in a hotel basement.
- After college I moved to Charlotte, where Suzanne was attending nursing school, and began attending the Presbyterian church where we were later married.
This highly diverse background taught me two things:
- A lot of devout, holy, smart, well-educated Christians believed contradictory things about what the Bible really taught.
- No matter how devout or educated I was or might become, I was not going to unravel all these questions myself.
Now, some of those disagreements didn’t bother me, or not much. I never believed that agreement on absolutely everything was essential. I still don’t. There’s room for people to have different opinions on certain questions.
I never felt, attending any of these churches, that I was expected to be in total agreement with every aspect of its denominational heritage or baggage at all times. It was my understanding that Protestant churches, being by their own lights fallible human institutions, reasonably allow a level of leeway for individual members to hold their own views and go their own way, even to an extent if it is at odds with views endorsed by the church itself.
At the same time, I came to recognize there were a few issues that are intractably practical, and relate directly to the workings of the community, in such a way that, in order to function, a body must do one thing or another, and those with strong convictions at odds with the practice of the community will not in conscience be able to continue to participate as full-fledged members in that community.
So, for instance, I wasn’t too bothered by different opinions on knotty theological questions like predestination or even eternal security (i.e., whether a person who is really a Christian can fall away and be lost).
These debates didn’t bother me too much because they seemed abstract and theoretical in a way that didn’t necessary have to divide Christians into opposing camps.
On the other hand, there were two issues that couldn’t be so easily bracketed or set aside.
One such issue was pedobaptism vs. believer’s baptism. Here, I recognized, is an issue where a church must do one thing or another.
When couples get married and have children, either the church is going to baptize them or it’s going to wait until they grow older and profess their faith for themselves. And if they baptize babies, then people who consider this practice unscriptural and believe God wants us to be baptized as believers, and those people are going to have to have a different church with different practices.
The fact that different denominations existed was not in itself a problem for me. As far as I was concerned, denominations were a merely human way of organizing communities, and I didn’t think God cared about that. If different communities of Christians chose to call themselves Whosits or Whatsits and went to churches across the street from one another, that didn’t bother me.
It was when the Whosits and Whatsits held contradictory views on issues that wouldn’t allow them to be members of the same church — when they had to go to separate churches — that I thought there was a problem. I believed that Jesus wanted his followers to be united, not necessarily in actual organization, but in faith and spirit.
My father had done his pastoral thesis on pedobaptism. I knew the arguments well. Even so, while attending that Bible church I became confused enough to submit to an attempted rebaptism.
In the end I talked to enough people on both sides of the issue to come to feel that there was no way, ultimately, for me to be completely sure once and for all what the Bible really taught.
Ironically, none of the people I talked to about the issue were terribly invested in it because it wasn’t a live issue for their communities. Nobody in pedobaptist churches were worried about the arguments for believer’s baptism, and nobody in anabaptist churches were worried about the arguments for pedobaptism. Within each church, everyone seemed satisfied that they had gotten it right. I was the only one who seemed concerned.
But there was another issue that was very divisive for the denomination to which I had the oldest ties.
Ordination of women?
Although we no longer attended a Reformed church, I was still sharply aware that the Christian Reformed Church, the tradition in which my father had been ordained, was completely up in arms over the question of the ordination of women.
The official magazine of the CRC in North America, the Banner, still came to our house. In those days there was something about women’s ordination in practically every issue — if not an article or editorial, at least a letter to the editor.
The issue had an absolute stranglehold on the denomination — and, once again, the arguments seemed subtle and slippery to me. First I agreed with one side, then I agreed with the other, and after going back and forth a few times I began to feel that resolving the issue was beyond my pay grade.
Then I began to ask myself: Should knowing and doing God’s will be beyond anyone’s pay grade?
God doesn’t want us all to be Bible scholars
I was always grateful enough, and I had perspective enough, to realize that in the grand scheme of things I was pretty privileged to have had the leisure, education and resources that I did. Most people in this world live and die without getting to go to college or graduate school, and many don’t have access to libraries with large collections of patristic and theological works.
Lots of people work ten or twelve-hour days and barely have time to spend with their spouses and children, let alone investigate the theological distinctives of their particular tradition in relation to those of other competing traditions. For that matter, lots of people can’t even read.
And I was very much aware that Jesus came not only for scholars, but also for the illiterate and uneducated (if anything he probably prefers the latter to the former).
It therefore seemed to me that, whatever Christianity is meant to be, it’s got to be something that works as well for an illiterate Idaho farmer, a single mom working swing shift as a checkout clerk while her parents mind the kids, a twelfth-century Italian stonemason, an eighth-century Greek fisherman, and so on.
In a word, it doesn’t seem to be God’s plan that all his children become Bible scholars, students of patrology, and armchair theologians. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be God’s plan that every young couple who become parents proceed to research arguments pro and con pedobaptism before seeing their way clear to have their child dunked/sprinkled or dedicated.
At the same time, it seemed to me that whether the kid is dunked/sprinkled or dedicated could conceivably be something that God would actually care about, a thing about which he has a will that he wants his children to follow — if only there were some way for them to know what it is.
Sola scriptura doesn’t work in practice
So I began to find myself increasingly forced to recognize that sola scriptura doesn’t work in practice. The Bible alone doesn’t tell us what God wants us to do — not with sufficient clarity to enable us, even if we are sincerely trying to discern and follow God’s will, to actually do it.
Yet I believed that God does want us to know the answer, to know his will and be able to act on it. I even believed that the Christian faith must be something that we can simply receive in humble simplicity, in faith and docility to God's known will. But how can this be, if sola scriptura is true? Scripture alone, or even scripture as interpreted and applied by those who follow sola scriptura, does not give us the answers.
Such considerations were among many converging lines that led me to begin consider the possibility that God had given us something more than the Bible alone to go on, that the Christian faith is something that is meant to be received in humble simplicity within the community of faith, the “faith delivered once for all to the saints” — and that when Christians first began pitting their own interpretations of “scripture alone” (and more, the principle of “scripture alone”) against the established faith of the Church, this was a disastrous mistake that has had devastating consequences for believers and unbelievers alike.
My Road to Rome: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3