Category Archives: Evangelical

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.

Christ in His Fullness – Bruce Sullivan

“I will begin with a statement that I made to a Catholic friend of mine back in 1993. In complete seriousness — and with absolute confidence — I said, “Look, Sharon, if you or anyone else can show me from the Bible that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ established, I’ll become a Catholic tomorrow.” With that bold challenge, I had hoped to goad my devoutly Catholic friend into a serious, evangelistic Bible study. Instead, she handed me a copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and so began the end of my career as a Fundamentalist preacher.

I was raised in the South as a Southern Baptist. Attending church three times each week was standard fare in our home. I am eternally grateful to the Southern Baptist Convention, and to my family, for rooting me in the Scriptures, for introducing me to Christ, and for instilling within my soul the conviction that what this world needs more than anything else is Jesus. But it was not until I went off to college that I began to examine what I believed and, more importantly, why I believed it.

Throughout my college years, I interacted with members of various Protestant denominations and listened to a wide variety of campus preachers. I knew that my own theology had several loose ends, and I was searching intently for what could tie it all together. My searching eventually led me to a relatively small denomination known as the Church of Christ.

The Church of Christ is a denomination that sprang out of what some historians refer to as the American Restoration Movement or the Stone-Campbell Movement (so named for its two most prominent historical figures, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell). Launched in the early nineteenth century, the movement was originally conceived by its proponents as a means of transcending denominational divisions and uniting all believers in Christ on universally accepted essentials of the faith. Because of the difficulty in establishing the precise content of “universally accepted essentials,” the movement soon became a very divisive one and eventually split into three separate denominations: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the independent Christian Churches, and the Churches of Christ. The modern-day Disciples of Christ emphasize the movement’s early theme of Christian unity, whereas the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ tend to emphasize the theme of “restoration.” Together, these three denominations can claim approximately four million members.

The Churches of Christ attracted me by what they would call “nondenominational Christianity.” They had several neat-sounding “credal” statements that I found nothing short of enthralling. These included such declarations as: “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians”; “We speak where the Bible speaks, and we’re silent where the Bible is silent”; and “We call Bible things by Bible names.” These concepts were mighty attractive for me in view of the denominational chaos surrounding me. So in 1985, I was baptized at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama, and began a ten-year association with the denomination.

The Churches of Christ had an enormous impact on my life. For one thing, they introduced me to my wife Gloria, who was a fifth-generation follower of the Stone-Campbell Movement and an active member of the Auburn Church of Christ. They also introduced me to ideas that were very much at odds with my Baptist upbringing — ideas that would dramatically impact my spiritual journey.

First of all, the Stone-Campbell Churches of Christ introduced me to the biblical basis for believing that Christ established a visible, identifiable, and institutional Church. That is a very Catholic idea, and one that is not usually associated with Evangelical Protestantism. Secondly, they showed me — from the Bible — that Baptism is for the remission of sins. Likewise, this may be a distinctly Catholic idea, but it is not a very Baptist idea. Finally, they also presented me with the scriptural evidence for believing that justification is not by faith alone and that one can, indeed, fall from grace (as opposed to the Calvinist teaching of “once saved, always saved). Again, these ideas were definitely not in line with Baptist teaching, but as I was to learn later, these were solidly in line with Catholic teaching. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the Churches of Christ were to become something of a stepping-stone from my Evangelical Protestant upbringing to the Catholic faith.

After graduation from Auburn in 1986, Gloria and I were married and departed for studies at the Sunset School of Preaching in Lubbock, Texas. We chose Sunset because of its reputation for academic intensity and missionary zeal. For two years, we were the privileged pupils of men who had given their lives in missionary service all around the globe. Their examples served to heighten our own desire for missionary service. We became charter members of a missionary team that was bound for Brazil — the largest Catholic nation in the world. We selected Brazil because, at the time, we believed that more than anyone else, Catholics stood in need of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It goes without saying, but my view of Catholicism at the time was somewhat less than complimentary. I did not believe that Catholics should be considered Christians in the proper sense of the word. In my mind, they were idolatrous, Mary-worshipping, children of the Whore of Babylon, who had embraced a soul-damning false gospel that came straight from the pits of hell! I must hasten to add, however, that it was not mean-spiritedness that animated me in my posture towards Catholics and Catholicism. Rather, I was compelled by sincere conviction and, sadly, gross ignorance.

The plan was for each of the mission team families to work with a sponsoring congregation for a period of two years prior to embarking on a five-year service commitment in Brazil. So upon graduation, Gloria and I moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, to work with a congregation that had agreed to be our sponsor. Those two years were intended to provide team members the opportunity to gain practical ministry experience, study Portuguese (the language of Brazil), and develop a working relationship with their sponsoring congregation. It was a solid plan formulated by a group of veteran missionaries. Within less than a year, however, our mission team disbanded.

The disruption in our missionary plans left us in a tough spot financially. With Gloria and I both determined to keep her at home with our daughter Mary, I decided to seek employment outside of the ministry. Since my degree from Auburn was in agriculture, I applied for — and received — a position with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. I was given the appointment as County Extension Agent for 4-H & Youth Development in Hart County, Kentucky (only thirty miles from Gloria’s home in Metcalfe County). We continued to actively serve in our local congregation of the Church of Christ. I continued to preach and teach on a regular basis. And true to the vision instilled in us at Sunset, we continued to look for the opportunity to join a mission team bound for South America.

It was after moving back to Gloria’s home in Kentucky that our conversion to Catholicism began in earnest. It began when a large Catholic family — the family of Art and Sharon Antonio — moved into our area.

Art had just retired from the Navy. He and Sharon were drawn to Kentucky by affordable land and the prospect of raising their children in a wholesome, rural setting. We became acquainted through my work in the county Extension office. Upon learning of their devotion to the Catholic faith, I set out to do the most charitable thing I could think of: introduce them to the “true” Gospel of Christ as presented by the “true” Church of Christ.

For many months, I tried to “evangelize” the Antonios. In turn, they gave me a three-pronged introduction to the Catholic faith. This three-pronged introduction took the form of the Couple to Couple League, Karl Keating, and Father Benjamin Luther.

First, let me mention the Couple to Couple League. Gloria and I had always been very pro-life on the issue of abortion but were unaware of the connection between contraception and abortion. Through the Couple to Couple League, we learned the scriptural, historical, and rational support for the Catholic Church’s moral teachings regarding artificial means of contraception. In response to this, we immediately changed our practices in this area of life. And, believe it or not, what I had thought would drive a wedge between husband and wife — namely, the Church’s teaching on marital chastity — proved instead to be a most sublime blessing. Ironically, this teaching that is so often dismissed out of hand by those born into the Catholic faith, has been shown, time and again, to actually draw people into the Church.

But while the impact of this introduction to the beauty of the Church’s moral teaching was profound and life-changing, we were far from convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ. As we say in Kentucky, “There was still a long row to hoe.”

The second part of our introduction to the Catholic faith came in the form of a book by Karl Keating, the president of Catholic Answers. After months of getting nowhere in my attempts to get Mrs. Antonio to study the Bible with me, I decided to engage in a little bit of charitable baiting. It was after one particularly frustrating exchange that I looked at her and said, “Look, if you or anyone else can show me from the Bible that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ established, I’ll become a Catholic tomorrow.” The next day, she handed me a copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism. I could not have been more thrilled. As I saw it, in giving me that book to read, she was also giving me license to critique it and expose to her the manifest errors that I knew it had to contain. In other words, I took it as a sign that we were finally getting somewhere.

I went home and looked at the book. On the back cover, I read a statement by Sheldon Vanauken: “I strongly advise honest fundamentalists not to read this book. They might find their whole position collapsing in ruins.” I laughed. I think I may have even laughed out loud. But I didn’t laugh for long.

Keating’s book did at least three things for me. First, he provided numerous examples of the ways in which anti-Catholics distort the Catholic faith and obscure the truth about Catholicism. Second, he exposed the flimsy nature of the assumptions underlying my own Protestant faith (particularly those assumptions pertaining to the Bible and authority). And last, but surely not least, he did something that I thought no one could do: he provided a compelling biblical presentation of the Catholic doctrines that are most often opposed by Fundamentalist Christians. By the time I had finished reading the book, I knew that I was in trouble. I realized that I had far more questions than answers.

The questions that troubled me the most were those pertaining to authority. I was particularly perplexed by the issue of canon. How could I claim that the Bible alone was all that I needed when the Bible itself does not identify its own canon? After all, there were literally dozens of writings that had circulated throughout the early Church that claimed to be inspired. On what basis did I accept the canon of New Testament Scripture upon which my faith depended? How could I know with infallible certitude that the twenty-seven books in my New Testament comprised the true canon? Maybe there were supposed to be twenty-nine books in the New Testament, and the two that were missing contained keys to understanding the other twenty-seven. Maybe there were supposed to be only twenty-five books in the New Testament, in which case our present canon would have two too many. What if those two extra books contain false doctrine? After all, Martin Luther struggled with this notion and actually suggested that the Epistle of St. James be removed from the Bible!

Were I to gloss over the problem of determining canon, I was still left in the unenviable position of claiming that all I needed was the Bible when, in fact, the Bible itself teaches no such thing. Actually, it indicates the contrary. For example, St. Paul expressly underscored our need for oral Tradition (cf. 2 Thess 2:15) and the Church (cf. 1 Tim 3:15). Moreover, virtually every New Testament Epistle was written with the assumption that the writer and his intended recipients shared a body of common knowledge — the deposit of faith (cf. Jude 3). In other words, the recipients understood what was written in light of the teaching they had already received. Oral Tradition was therefore the context through which what was written was understood and put into practice. Or, to put it yet another way: God inspired members of the Church to write to other members of the Church about matters of concern to the Church — thereby underscoring the teaching that the Church, Sacred Tradition, and the Bible are truly inseparable. Yet as a Protestant, I downplayed — if not denied — the role of both Sacred Tradition and the Church.

The more I struggled with the issue of authority, the more I became convinced that it is the ultimate Protestant “pickle.” As a Protestant, I had claimed that the Bible alone was all that I needed. Yet the Bible itself indicated otherwise. Without an infallible certitude of canon, the best I could do was stand in the pulpit and proclaim, “Thus sayeth the Lord … I think.” I could offer only my own, admittedly fallible, opinions about the interpretation of writings that I thought to be inspired.

While these realities served to expose the inadequacies of my Protestant faith, they did not necessarily mean that I was ready to accept the Catholic faith. There remained a seemingly endless list of standard objections to Catholicism that needed to be addressed. To help us address those issues, Art and Sharon encouraged us to contact Father Benjamin Luther, a priest from the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, who also happened to be a convert from the Stone-Campbell Churches of Christ.

Father Luther drove nearly four hours to meet with me at a roadside diner near my home. That first meeting lasted six hours. When we parted company, Father Luther assured me that he would keep in touch — and he proved to be a man of his word. From that point forward, it seemed as if our mailbox was hardly ever empty. I am quite convinced that he impoverished himself sending me a veritable library through the mail and taking my collect phone calls nearly every Saturday morning. He proved immeasurably helpful as we worked through the issues in our efforts to separate fact from fiction regarding the Catholic faith.

Early in the course of our studies, we came to the realization that most of what we had been told about Catholicism had been grossly distorted. That realization itself was a tremendous grace. It helped us to see that before we could decide whether or not the Catholic Church teaches the truth, we had to know the truth about the Catholic Church and her teaching. With that realization to guide us — coupled with the knowledge that our former approach to authority was hopelessly flawed — we delved into a thorough, and at times anxious, study of Catholicism.

I characterize our studies as “anxious” because, coming from a Church of Christ background, we had some rather serious convictions regarding truth, judgment, heaven, and hell. We feared not only for our own souls but also for those of our children if, inadvertently, we led them astray. We wanted desperately to do the will of the Lord by embracing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. At times, it seemed as if we could argue both sides of the issues. At times, we wondered if there would ever be any clear-cut answers. We knew we could never go back to our former denomination, but that did not mean that we were at ease with Catholicism. A lifetime of prior teaching, coupled with the ghosts of false caricatures of Catholicism, seemed to have a death grip on us intellectually and emotionally. But our Lord is the One who has conquered death. Thankfully, through time, prayer, and study, He freed us from the deadly grip of error and gave to us the grace to embrace our holy Mother, the Catholic Church.

A watershed event in this process came in December of 1993 when Father Luther and I attended the first Coming Home Network retreat on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. On the second day of the retreat, I awakened early in the home of my host family and went downstairs while everyone else was either asleep or occupied with the start of a new day. I could not help but notice a small “prayer closet” off to the side of the living room. It was a rather small niche with a kneeler, various holy images, and candles. In the dark solitude of that moment, I was drawn to prayer. This time, however, my prayer would be different than any prayer I had offered before.

For months, I had found myself arguing both sides of the issues almost to the point of despair. In the quiet of this moment, I knew that I had come to the end of my rope and needed help. I remember thinking to myself, “If what the Catholic Church teaches about the communion of saints is true, then maybe this is the time to enlist the prayers of the saints in heaven.” Kneeling in that little niche, I approached the Father’s throne of grace, asking for the grace of clarity and understanding. This, of course, was nothing new. I had done so more times than I could count over the preceding six months of struggle. What was new was this: I concluded by asking the saints in heaven to pray for me. Specifically, I solicited the prayers of Peter, Paul, and Mary (not to be confused with the popular 1960s’ singing group). Interestingly enough, I was also quick to ask God to forgive me if such an action was offensive to Him. I did this because, while my studies had sufficiently demonstrated the veracity of the Catholic teaching on the communion of saints, the outward, concrete expression of the teaching ran against the emotional grain of my Protestant upbringing. What was about to follow during the next hour, however, would assure me that Sts. Peter, Paul, and Mary had indeed heard my plea and that, in response to their prayers, God was pouring out His grace.

Back on the campus of Franciscan University, our retreat resumed with all of us participating in the early morning Mass in the campus chapel. I had been to Mass a couple of times before, but could never get past the knee-jerk reactions that I seemed to have at nearly everything that was said or done. This time something was different. I was seated in the back of the chapel, simply observing the proceedings. But instead of nitpicking and criticizing, I found myself contemplating questions that were slowly taking shape in my mind. What if that man (the priest) is who they say he is? What if he is really doing what they say he is doing? What if what they say is happening is actually happening? As I considered these questions in the light of what I had learned from the Scriptures and early Christian writings pertaining to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I was left quite literally speechless (which, for those who know me well, comes awfully close to a confirming miracle in my conversion to Catholicism).

Please keep in mind that, as a former Church of Christ preacher, this was all a bit difficult to swallow. Church of Christ members are generally very leery of subjective experiences. As a rule, they demand cold, hard, objective facts with the accompanying “chapter and verse” from the Scriptures. Yet the Scriptures themselves testify to the marvelous ways in which God works in our hearts — ways that many might call “subjective.” Would I become a Catholic based merely upon a fuzzy, subjective, emotional experience? Hardly. That is not what occurred that morning. What did occur was this: God took all of the “cold, hard, objective facts” that I had learned concerning the Eucharist, tied them together, and removed my self-imposed barriers to understanding. In a word, He gave grace. And with that grace, I knew that I would one day be Catholic.

I was received into the Church during the Easter Vigil of 1995. Shortly thereafter, I went away on a business trip. In the course of a casual conversation, a coworker asked me, “What did you find in the Catholic Church that you did not find in Protestantism?” It was a sincere question and a good one as well. I mulled it over for quite some time and finally settled on a short answer (something quite unusual for me). In Catholicism, I had found Christ in His fullness.

As Protestant Christians, Gloria and I did know and love Christ. We did not, however, experience Him in His fullness. Without realizing it, we had inadvertently rejected many of the gifts He wanted to give us — gifts that could be received only through full incorporation into His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church. Looking back, we are both truly amazed at what God has so graciously given to us in the Catholic Church: He has given Christ in all of His fullness — the fullness of His Word, the fullness of His sacraments, the fullness of worship, the fullness of His family, the fullness of vocation, and the fullness of salvation.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:20–21).”

Love,
Matthew