Why would this average, born-n-raised Protestant ever wish he could be Catholic?
— Because Protestantism is a mess!
Back Story & Full Disclosure
I was raised within Protestantism by Methodist parents. Early on we attended what I would call liberal Protestant churches. Then, we moved into the Evangelical Protestant stream where I first heard the gospel, but not in a way I understood. Later, we moved on to Pentecostalism, where I understood enough of the gospel to know that faith in Jesus was my only hope for God’s forgiveness and heaven. At that time I accepted the gospel to be true (as best I understood it at the time), trusted in Christ to save me and began a life of following Him.
I stayed within the Pentecostal movement for 20+ years, while I slowly became more and more disenchanted with its grasp on Scripture. Ultimately, I faced a my-theology-versus-my-church crisis in 1999 and decided to step down as pastor of my Pentecostal congregation. Today I align myself with the “Reformed” stream of Protestantism (think The Reformation that birthed Protestantism in the 1500’s), because I believe it has the best understanding of the Faith that God revealed through Scripture and His Son.
The Problem with Pro / test / ant / ism
I said all this to admit that I’m a living example of the problem – an average example of the mess that I’m lamenting in this post.
What mess? — The awful, Christ-dishonoring disunity in Protestantism. We are a disheveled tangle of denominations, sects, splinter groups, outright cults, and self-made apostles, prophets and bishops, some of whom hold doctrines that were condemned as heresy by the historic church. These abound because we all follow different versions of Christianity while all claiming to be Bible believers.
The mass media age has compounded the problem by churning out a string of celebrity mega-pastors and mega-evangelists teaching dubious doctrines since the 1970’s. This has the effect of mainstreaming their errors, making it harder and harder for the average American Christian to imagine that any popular and sincere voice might be sincerely wrong.
In such an environment could there ever be a single, authoritative doctrinal voice to straighten this mess out? It seems unlikely.
Too Much Doctrine Isn’t the Problem
You might think doctrine itself is the problem. “Doctrine divides,” some say. “Not so,” say I.
Rather, it’s new doctrines, and bad doctrines, and neglect of the historic, central doctrines of our Faith that has given rise to the mess we’re in. Ironically the seeds of new, bad doctrines took root in a potting mix of highly-educated Protestant Liberalism (birthed in Europe) and anti-educational Fundamentalism (birthed in America) over a hundred years ago. And today they flourish in a mass-produced fertilizer that values subjective personal experiences over objective revealed truths.
But, the giants of Christianity – men like Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon – were men of intense study who placed doctrine first. They studied Scripture and those who had studied before them in order to understand the divinely revealed truths that should shape their experience. However today, anyone who can read an English translation of the Bible and gather a crowd can invent a fad teaching, publish a book, influence tens of thousands, and consider himself or herself a Teacher (capital “T”) of the Faith, even if they never heard of the real giants who preceded them. In this context, the core doctrines of Scripture are often ignored or perverted, old heresies are revived, and new teachings multiply like hydra’s heads dividing, and sub-dividing the Church.
Catholics Said This Would Happen
Roman Catholicism doesn’t have this problem.
Disunity is a uniquely Protestant curse.
And here is more irony: The doctrinal seeds that divide us were made possible by the Reformation itself, which gave every averageus a Bible in our own language. The Catholic Church of the 1500’s saw the mess coming and insisted on keeping the Bible in Latin, and in the hands of a few scholars who were responsible for upholding church doctrine. But, the Reformers rightly put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people. However, they never dreamed that so many of them would presume to speak for God while ignoring Church history and the historic creeds, disdaining theological education, and invent doctrines that distort Scripture beyond recognition.
What a sad, sad state we are in. The Protestantism of which I am a part dishonors the very prayer of Jesus for the unity of His followers in John chapter 17.
Is there a way out? Is there a way forward? Better, is there a way back to Protestant unity?
Honestly, I’m not sure that there is, and this disheartens me.
But, I’ve decided that I shouldn’t just accept hundreds or thousands of Protestant groups as normal for Christ’s Church. And if there is a way back to unity, I think we Protestants may have to look to our Catholic friends for advice on what that way may be.
And, I’ll think that over with you in my next post.
Do you think there is a solution to Christian disunity? Does it matter?
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28 thoughts on “Sometimes I Wish I Could Be Catholic”
I believe there is a solution to Christian disunity and it’s the same solution that Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 1:10 – “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
Our standard should be God’s word and if we handle and use it correctly (2 Timothy 2:15) we can have the oneness that Jesus prayed for (John 17:20-21).
I do not consider myself catholic or protestant. I consider myself a Christian and a Christian alone. If people in the first century could be added to the church without joining a denomination (because without a doubt at that time none existed) then I believe people can do the same today (Acts 2:37-42, 47).
Restoration before reformation can get us back to the original.
Have a great night.
Thanks for the addition to the conversation. You made two comments that are pretty close to where I think I’m gonna go in the follow up post. Can’t tell you which two yet, but thanks for bringing 1 Corinthians 1:10 into the picture. So appropriate for all Christians to remember!
Sent from my iPhone; please pardon the short message. Lon
I read a book called “Crossing the Tiber” by Steven Ray. You might appreciate it, if you care to read it. It reads like a doctoral dissertation. I am very concerned about many of the things you have mentioned as well. Hence, my progressive examination of history and church fathers has commenced over the past few years.
Most people read about the Protestant movement under the assumption that it was a “solution” to the Catholic “problem”. I’m not saying it was wrong, I’m merely commenting on our understanding and perspective and how we need to challenge ourselves to come to a “right” understanding after weighing the matter (which is Biblical) and reading all sides of the “argument”.
I understand and embrace much more of the Catholic doctrines because I understand their origins. We’ve blighted their expressions of worship and practices because of our ignorance about them and the “hearsay” of disgruntled people who’ve left it, all the while exhibiting a superiority in our own practices and doctrines, which probably have the same origins or have become equally as diluted. It’s
interesting that technically, we draw all of our church history information from the same sources, even to this day, with the exception of the Reformation and the people who emerged within that stream. There are many who, as you have mentioned, are men of notable faith who emerged within the Protestant Reformation. So, I’m not inclined to dismiss the movement as much as recognize that restoration comes when we humble ourselves and “love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
Thanks for your post. I’ll look forward to reading the next one.
Thanks for your comments David. How I would love to see Catholic and Protestant reunited, but the views of justification and church authority are still unresolved between them.
If you don’t mind, would you read the book I suggested and then let me know your thoughts?
I don’t have it, but if you can let me borrow your copy I’ll skim through it and share my impressions with you.
I like the idea of being a Christian – without the denominational label. Anyone can have a denominational label – whether they actually follow Christ is a question that can be answered by their fruit. Remember John 15 where Jesus says “I am the true vine and my Father is the Gardener…..” any(one) branch that doesn’t bear fruit is cut off from the vine and burned and even those branches who do bear fruit are pruned so they can bear even more fruit! What kind of fruit is God looking for? I would suggest that since an apple tree bears apples, then a Christian Branch of the Vine of Christ should bear Christians. Many different denominations bear fruit – new Christians. (This is different, yet related, to the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace,….) So, doctrine aside – as they say in our church (Christian & Missionary Alliance) most churches agree on the basic doctrines – are YOU bearing fruit? And when I say YOU, I really mean ME! My answer? Yes, some… I have had the privilege of leading both my children in the sinners prayer and am now teaching them sound Bible Doctrine and hopefully how to live for Christ. Have I had an influence on others so they may also become Christians? Yes, some I know about and some that I do not. Given the length of my personal relationship with Christ, should I have been bearing a whole lot more fruit than that? Yes. Thank God, he is more merciful to me (and you) than I am to myself (you are to yourself)!
And, although anyone may say “I am _______ Denomination.”, there is really ONLY ONE CHURCH! Those who are attached to the TRUE VINE and bearing fruit!
PS – It is painful to be pruned, isn’t it? But so worth it!
Thanks for your comments Julie! Unfortunately labels will always be with us. I find it interesting that even the term “Christian” was originally a pejorative label given to followers of Jesus by their pagan neighbors in Antioch. Labels have their place, but ultimately I, like you, long to be known by Him, and as His. God bless your family. Teach them to trust Jesus alone daily for their hope.
Very interesting, and true, Lon.
Interesting post. I’ve been on both sides of the TIber, Lutheranism, then Catholicism. I love being in the middle now, Anglo-Catholic. We embrace all of Catholicism, without accepting the infalibility of the Pope, and certain additions of Vatican II. Yes, Anglicans are divided too. My husband is a Bishop. Anglicans split from the Episcopal church when they became too liberal and then splintered away in seperate groups. I think only unity will come in Heaven, when we know the truth. In the meantime, I feel safe in an orthodox church. The churches are a mess. Individually, we must do our best to follow the teachings of Christ and fear and honor God,The Father, while embracing the Holy Spirit. It’s not ever easy.
I’ve never heard that term “Anglo-Catholic”- but it makes sense to me. I also didn’t know there was an Anglican / Episcopal split. I thought Episcopalians were just American Anglicans. But I can see the divide you described. J. I. Packer is a wonderful Anglican, and I’ve been to the National Cathedral (Episcopalian) for Sunday worship, and I’m sad to say I didn’t hear the gospel that day. BTW – one of my favorite quotes is from Anglican Bishop William Temple: “The only thing I contributed to my own salvation is the sin that made it necessary.” Love that!
We remain conservative and orthodox. I tend to think relligion needs to remain conservative and to the right, because the flock always drifts. Personally, I need to be held accountable. If the Gospel makes me squirm, good.
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You are where I was 7-10 years ago and saying the same things. After years of study, prayer and reflection I am Catholic and loving it. An in-depth exploration of why is way beyond the scope of a combox, but a few observations I found helpful in pointing me in the right direction:
1. Everyone claims theirs is the true interpretation of scripture as illumined by the Holy Spirit. But we have multiple, mutually contradictory “inspired” understandings. I asked how the Spirit illumines, or does anything in the church. According to 1 Corinthians, He acts within the body corporately and not solely within individuals, which is why the hand can’t say to the foot “I don’t need you.” This has been the historic Catholic understanding. The Reformers knew it, and they could not justify separating from the universal church short of anathematizing it. OTOH if the pope is not Antichrist and Catholics are not all damned prisoners of an apostate church then they knew they shouldn’t have left. This corporate nature of the Spirit’s leading and illuminating has saved the Catholic Church from the apostasy of liberalism, the intellectual suicide of fundamentalism and the quagmire of relativism/doctrinal minimalism.
2. Acts 1 shows the apostles selecting a successor to Judas. This shows that Jesus didn’t just pick twelve individuals but created offices that the apostles –those He appointed to speak and act with His authority– regarded as continuing and to be passed down by succession. Examination of the Greek behind “let another take his office” backs this up.
3. Of the many thousands of pages I read pro and con Catholicism, the book that did the most to push me toward Catholicism was written by a Protestant: JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines. I highly recommend it. I also offer the observation that when Kelly demonstrates that the nature of early church teaching lines up with Catholicism he backs up his conclusion with ample citations to the patristics; but when he says the early church believed differently than Catholicism the ample citations tend to give way to bare assertion. See if you notice that too! The writings of the early church are available at ccel.org and in Logos software format. You will see that authority in the early church resided in bishops with apostolic authority. Ideas about individuals on their own or in small groups measuring doctrines against the Bible in their lap is an anachronism that awaited 1400 years until the printing press made Bibles widely available.
I could go on and on, but I hope this helps.
Thanks for reading and replying so thoughtfully. You deserve a response, but it’ll have to wait a few days. In the mean time, thanks again. Lon
I just came across your post today and was interested to read that you refer to the Catholic Church has insisting on keeping the Bible in Latin. You may like to check out this website for more information about that
Many people are surprised to find out that even before Luther’s German Bible was printed the Catholic Church had many bibles available in vernacular languages. This included French, English, Spanish, Slavic, Norwegian, Scandinavian, Italian, Dutch, Greek, and at least 30 different editions of the first German bible (1466). They also created the first dictionary (1470) to help people understand the more difficult words in Scripture. They even created the first concordance so people could reference Scripture a bit easier. It is a very informative webpage. I hope you take a look at it. Thanks.
Thank you! I stand corrected!
Hi, Lon. I just wanted to say hello and encourage you to really explore the Catholic faith if you feel like that it might be right for you. You might like Dr. Scott Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home. Youtube also has some great talks by popular converts like Stephen Ray, Michael Cumbie, and Tim Staples and from other catholic speakers like Father Robert Barron, Mother Angelica, and Father Larry Richards. You might also enjoy Marcus Grodi’s show The Journey Home, which you can also find on youtube. He interviews converts from different faiths and asks them to discuss the different roadblocks and struggles they encountered along the way. I think you might especially like Chris Zajdzinski’s testimony because he addresses some of the frustrations you mentioned here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvLULMqANAU
I wish all of God’s graces and blessings on you, Dawn, and your children. God bless you. Yours in Christ, Shannon
Hi Shannon, Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ll look into a few of these. Happy to hear of another person following hard after Christ.
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Good post, sir, though I tend to disagree regarding the emphasis on doctrine. You mention how men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon deeply emphasized doctrine, but none of these men saw eye to eye with each other (with the exception of perhaps Edwards, Spurgeon and Calvin). Even when the Reformers themselves met (Luther and Zwingli in this case, among others), they couldn’t even settle their doctrinal differences. Reformers TODAY can’t even agree on how to understand Luther and Calvin. These misunderstandings in doctrine have been occurring as long as the church has existed, resulting in excommunications, sharp arguments between bishops, and even schisms.
To me, unification on orthodoxy isn’t the way to go; rather, uniting on orthopraxy (right practice) is more ideal. We’re going to disagree up and down all day long over petty matters such as predestination, atonement, and other divisive issues that we can’t even fully comprehend with our finite minds to begin with, but what we can come to agree on is what Jesus (and the Apostles) taught about living and how we are to be a light in the darkness. Make no mistake; belief is key, but we can’t be handing people a checklist of doctrine to affirm to come to Christ. His disciples believed only AFTER what they had seen Jesus do and teach.
Nor is belief the mark of a follower of Jesus; James makes it clear that “even the demons believe.” What we do and how we act as Christians is what will mark us as members of the kingdom of God. This is where the church can come to agreement and unification, albeit some compromise will have to come here as well (matters of just-war theory and nonviolence come to mind). What must be remembered above all else here is that we, as finite human beings, cannot fully grasp the infinite mind, and often our doctrine (and practice) is our own projection of our beliefs onto the Divine. Our creeds and confessions, no matter how ancient, must conform to the Scriptures(yes, I do affirm Sola Scriptura), and always be ready to be altered in light of revealed truth. When we’re not ready to do that is when division comes.
BTW, like your blog!
Thanks for your response! Your proposal sounds interesting and I wonder if you’ll be blogging about that? I’m assuming you don’t mean that Protestants and Catholics could unite with Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses on the basis of some common practice. BTW – I do think the people you mentioned did agree broadly on foundational issues, but then, now I’m subjectively determining what’s foundational. For example, I think agreement on the atonement is foundational (not “petty”), since this is the doctrine of how God saves people, and how one can trust in that work. I agree that even if we had an infallible understanding of all that God has revealed, that understanding is not the same as saving faith. But, still I hope that the Scriptures which are God’s sufficient revelation for our salvation can be “sufficiently” understood by fallible minds to result in one, unifying saving faith.
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