Flashback: Southern Baptist Seminarian Turns to Rome

Wow, thank you everyone for the positive encouragement and for sharing the previous post on social media. I’ve decided to repost the original version from a year ago below, ” originally from Devin Rose’s blog. The picture is of Dr. Scott Hahn and me at a Steubenville conference. He was briefly in the gymnasium for a Matt Maher conference and our youth pastor hustled me over to his section before he left. 

My name is Anthony and I am becoming Catholic. Writing this sentence would have made me cry two months ago. As an aspiring evangelical missionary studying at a Southern Baptist seminary, I knew that most Catholics were not “believers,” true Christians, yet now . . . things are different. I begged God for six months to let me remain in evangelicalism. He didn’t. My hope is that this story will encourage fellow Catholics and lead many of my evangelical friends to, at the very least, have a more charitable view of the Roman Catholic Church.

The beginning

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 8.23.34 PMOne year ago I came home to visit my family. My dad, a worship and preaching pastor from when I was in fourth grade on, had resigned his position a year prior and was finishing his Masters in Theological Studies. He had grown up in the Catholic Church and one of his graduate courses caused him to reexamine some of the teaching. I found a silly-looking book titled Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic on his desk. Maybe I picked it up because I had brought nothing else home to read, or maybe my curiosity was peaked after spending a summer as a missionary to Catholics in Poland. For whatever reason, reading the testimony was the start of my confusing and reluctant journey to Rome.

David Currie’s 1996 memoir of leaving behind his fundamentalist upbringing, Trinity Evangelical education and ministries was bothersome. Currie’s unapologetic defense of controversial doctrines like Mary and the Pope were most shocking, as I had never seriously considered that Catholics would have sensible, scriptural defenses to these beliefs.

As I grew in my evangelical faith at a midwestern liberal arts college and listened to over two hundred hours of evangelical sermons by popular Reformed preachers like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, my assumption was hardened that the Roman Catholic Church didn’t adhere to the Bible. When I asked one pastor friend of mine during my junior year why Catholics thought Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth when the Bible clearly said Jesus had “brothers,” he simply grimaced: “They don’t read the Bible.”

If Currie’s book bothered me, slipping nervously into Mass that weekend didn’t help the situation. I was shocked that the lyrics sung were derived directly from the Scriptures, a quality lacking in many Protestant songs. Three times as many Bible passages were read than was typical at my non-denominational and Baptist services I attended, and the priest spoke on the Great Commission and the need for evangelization. Many Catholics will not be able to appreciate my shock.

The fall

If I had further doubts after that weekend I don’t remember them. When I returned to my post-graduate job at school I continued memorizing Scripture, listening to online sermons, and praying with friends for the salvation of close friends and family, including Catholics. My evangelical assumption of salvation was that every person, whether it is subtle or dramatic, must have a “born-again” conversion experience in order to become a true believer and go to heaven. The experience does not take place in baptism, but in a mystical way that is different for each person. The assumption is what gave me no qualms about desiring to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” with Polish Catholic youth or agreeing with a respected evangelical leader who questioned whether Mother Teresa was truly a Christian. In fact, the common line I had heard from pastors and friends was that there are some believers in the Catholic Church, but not many. That is, some have managed to decisively put their faith in Jesus Christ and thereby become a true Christian, but not many. It is now surprising to me how disparaging I was towards Catholicism without remotely understanding it.

If reading David Currie’s book was the start of a journey, a phone call from my dad in late August quickened the pace. “You’re becoming Catholic? But, can’t you just be Lutheran or something? Do you still hold to our evangelical beliefs? ” The decision was annoying. Somehow my dad had managed to go astray from the gospel and now I needed to bring him back. Yet I couldn’t help but feel seeds of doubt beginning to grow as I processed the news over the next few days. My dad had always been a spiritual mentor of mine and didn’t make rash decisions. How could he have gone so wrong?

A month before the phone call my very kind and gracious Southern Baptist church asked me to be their youth and outreach pastor until I left for seminary in January. At some point during my employment I had stumbled onto a Christianity Today article that depicted an “evangelical identity crisis.” The author painted of picture of young evangelicals, growing up in a post-modern world and yearning to be firmly rooted in history, encouraged that others had stood strong for Christ in changing and troubled times. Yet in most evangelical churches much of the church calendar is not observed, the Apostles Creed is never mentioned, many of the songs are written after 1997, and if any anecdotal story is told about a hero from church history, it certainly occured after the Reformation. History is nowhere to be found. The articles depicted my experience perfectly.

For the first time, I panicked. I started looking at the Catechism, finding the most controversial doctrines and laughing at the silliness of the Catholic Church. Indulgences? Papal infallibility? Reassured. The mass was beautiful and the idea of a visible, unified Church sounded wonderful, but it was at the expense of the gospel! Obviously Satan would encourage a large organization that would lead many just short of heaven. I shook off most of the doubts and enjoyed the remainder of my time at university, having fun with the youth group and sharing my faith with the students. Any lingering doubts, my closest friends assured me, would be dealt with at seminary.

The seminary  

I had been looking forward to attending seminary for quite some time. In late 2009 I read a book called Don’t Waste Your Life and was inspired to become a missionary to areas of the world where people had never heard of Jesus. Books like Don’t Waste Your Life andLet the Nations Be Glad convinced me that these people were all going to Hell and that there was no time to waste. My trip to Central Asia was rerouted to Poland because of visa problems, but I still wanted to devote my life to training pastors in a country like India. Like many young evangelicals I had little denominational loyalty, but the Southern Baptists had a fantastic seminary and missions program. After delaying my entry into seminary for a year after graduation, I finally started classes in early January.

The troubles didn’t start until the second week. We were learning about spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting and I was struck how often the professor would skip from St. Paul to Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards when describing admirable lives of piety. Did nothing worthwhile happen in the first 1500 years? The skipping of history would continue in many other classes or assigned textbooks. Occasional references to St. Augustine did not obscure the fact that the majority of church history was ignored.

Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video compounded my distress. This young man went to the church of a pastor I listened to online, and he was simply repeating in poetic form what I had already heard in many sermons: religion, man-made rituals, get in the way of seeing Jesus. I was deeply distressed by the video and its popularity. Even after receiving criticism from both Protestants and Catholics, Jefferson encouraged people to peel back “everything that’s been added” over the last 2,000 years and see the Jesus of the Bible. Here was the key point: church councils who defined the nature of Christ and set up a liturgical calendar celebrating the life of Christ just got in the way of seeing the true Jesus. Of course, who the “true Jesus” was depended on what evangelical mega-church pastor you downloaded.

A Wall Street Journal op-ed noted this “dangereous theological anarchy that is all too common among young evangelicals.” A Catholic blog noted that after all of the denomination splits in Protestantism, it was no wonder that many young evangelicals throw their hands up in frustration and call it all rubbish. The Catholic assertion hit home. Maybe this was why so many of my friends preferred to be called “Christ-followers” rather than “Christians.” They simply wanted to get away from the chaos of Protestant schisms and missed the beautiful unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

I called my dad crying on January 28th. I was going to become Catholic and hated the idea so much. I listed nearly a dozen reasons I felt I had no choice, including the Bethke video and Protestant beliefs that contradicted most of church history. He had never encouraged me to become Catholic—in fact quite the opposite—and told me to wait a few days until I was no longer emotional. I was probably just lonely and needed some community, he said. I agreed and the doubts started to go away the next day.

Ultimately it was questions about church history and the Bible that caused me to withdraw from the seminary three weeks later. As I read my Church History I textbooks and Martin Luther biography I was struck by how novel many of my Baptist beliefs were. Throughout the early church and even during the Reformation I learned that issues like baptism and communion were extremely important. Yet for me they had always been “open-handed” issues. After all, communion was simply eating bread and grape juice every now and then to remember Christ.  Strictly speaking, baptism was not necessary for salvation and was simply a symbol demonstrated after someone had gotten “saved.” Not only did these views contradict church history but, increasingly, they did not match with uncomfortable Bible passages I had always shrugged off (cf  John 6, Rom 6).

Further, the foundation of Protestantism that had been so precious to me, Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone as the sole source of authority, ceased to make sense. Where did the Bible come from? Why did the Reformers remove seven books from the Bible and threaten to remove more? Why didn’t the Bible itself claim to be “sufficient?” Why were there passages that indicated it was not sufficient? The Protestant answers that had sufficed for a year were no longer satisfying. Once this presupposition fell, dozens of others began to crumble.

Conclusion

The last two months have been a continuation of my journey. I have visited several priests and parishes in different states and read much of the U.S. Catechism. I am amazed at the rich history of the Catholic Church and its vast influence as the largest charity in the world and representative of over half the world’s Christians. I am not naïve. I am aware of the many “cradle Catholics” who do not know and even disregard their faith, the priest abuse scandals, and the Medici popes. The Catholic Church understands the importance of “catechizing” people and understands the destruction sin can cause. Poor behavior of Catholics does not negate the entire Catholic faith, just as one scandalous evangelical pastor does not negate the Bible.

I would like to conclude with a note to all evangelicals reading my story, especially my friends. Please understand that I still value my experiences in evangelicalism and that I still affirm much of what you practice. Catholics and Protestants can agree on many things. Contrary to what I was told as an evangelical, Catholics do not think Protestants are denied entrance in heaven. They are not assured of salvation, but neither are Catholics! You are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I hope my story encourages you to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.

Thank you for reading! There are, of course, many more reasons for my move to Catholicism, but I’ll let those reasons be explained by the authors below.

– Anthony

Books by evangelicals turned Catholic

Beckwith, Francis. Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.

Currie, David B. Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic

Hahn, Kimberly and Scott. Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism

Howard, Thomas. Evangelical is Not Enough  

Shea, Mark. By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.

Rose, Devin. If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome

Smith, Christian. How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic    in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.

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8 thoughts on “Flashback: Southern Baptist Seminarian Turns to Rome

  1. I am very moved by your story. It sounds very similar to my journey from being a fundamentalist Baptist preacher’s son until I was 18, then evangelical until I was 25…to unchurched for many years after that. I never found that “feeling” that so many Baptists/evangelicals believe that they have to have to be a “good Christian”. I never heard an inner voice talking to me, like evangelicals told me I should, so I figured God didn’t want to speak to me so I left the Church.

    I eventually started attending masses at a Catholic church while I attended college. I REALLY liked Catholic mass. One thing that really impressed me was the reverence shown when people enter a Catholic church. People are reverant. They whisper if they speak. There is a beautiful stillness. The mass is very beautiful and meaningful. I seriously contemplated becoming Catholic.

    But a couple of things bothered me. It seemed that if I were to become a Catholic, my Baptist baptism would be accepted, of course, but my assurance of salvation would change. My salvation was earned by Christ as a free gift, and yes Catholics do agree on this doctrine, no matter what Baptists try to tell you, BUT I would be responsible for sustaining my salvation and “completing” my salvation. If you read the Book of James, that seems like accurate doctrine, but that interpretation doesn’t fit with the rest of the New Testament.

    The other thing that bothered me was the emphasis on the Virgin Mary. Unlike what Baptists will tell you, Catholics do NOT worship Mary. They do not ask Mary to forgive their sins. But they do venerate her. They believe that by asking Mary, the Mother of Christ, to go to her Son with our earthly requests, he will pay more attention to her because she is her mother. In other words, Christ will pay more attention to a prayer coming by way of his mother, than a prayer directed directly to him. That just doesn’t seem scriptural. In Latin America, where my wife comes from, Mary seems to be the center of the worship service. A statue of Mary is at the front of the altar in many Catholic churches down there, instead of the crucifix.

    So, as much as I like the Catholic mass, I could not become a Catholic, mainly, for those two reasons. I then started attending liberal Christian churches: Lutheran and Episcopal. I really got out of the habit of going to church, because it didn’t seem like these liberal churches really believed anything.

    Then I became a father. I wanted my children to be Christians and to be baptized. I decided to attend a conservative Lutheran Church. I was blown away! It was a Catholic mass but with the preaching of the Gospel: the free gift of salvation in baptism AND life of good works BECAUSE we are Christians…not to keep our salvation.

    Conservative Lutherans (Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod) are much closer to the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church than we are to Protestants. In fact, we call ourselves, Evangelical Catholics. We, like Catholics and Orthodox: 1. Believe God saves in baptism. 2) We baptize infants and adult converts 3) We have catechism, confirmation, first communion 4) We believe that Christ’s body and blood are present in the Holy Sacrament 5) We practice confession and absolution 6) we use the ancient liturgy (in most LCMS Lutheran churches)

    We consider Roman Catholics our brothers and sisters in Christ. We accept Roman Catholic baptism as valid. My church allows Roman Catholics (such as my wife), Orthodox, and Anglicans
    to share in the Sacrament with us.

  2. Pingback: What made me leave seminary? Ash Wednesday | Evangelical to Catholic

  3. @ gary: Thanks for your story, lead by the Holy Spirit to the Lutheran Church – I read your journey to the Lutheran Church with great interest; but something sadly is still missing: being ‘close’ is not as being the ‘same’. The Lutheran Church you belong to does not have the marks of the Catholic/Orthodox Churches – it is not One, nor is it Catholic, nor is it Apostolic. In other words, it is not the Church founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – it was founded by someone? in Missouri USA? I am happy that you are at home in this community – but allow the Holy Spirit to continue to lead you into the fullness of the faith.
    If I may? I would like to give some ideas to think and pray about – About our Mother Mary – only Jesus loves His Mother more than we do! Yes, there are liturgical abuses in our Church; but we all know that the BLESSED TRINITY is the centre of our worship; Catholics do not worship Mary!
    On the point of salvation and justification – the Lutherans and the Catholics have agreed on what is the correct understanding. You might want to speak to your pastor about the agreed teachings.
    The last idea I would like to share with you is a quote from an American Saint, when she discussed her becoming a Catholic. She said: ‘I will go peacefully and firmly to the Catholic Church, for if Faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.’ St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
    Thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope that as Christians we will continue to love, serve and respect each other. Let us continue to pray for Christian unity, so that the world will believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Jn 17:21. God bless you my brother for being so faithful to Christ!

  4. What “Southern Baptist Seminary” did you go to? What degree were you trying to obtain? How far into the degree program were you? What passages in the bible that indicated that it was not sufficient?

    Just wondering,
    Stuart Young
    Master in Divinity with Biblical Languages
    Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
    I have been working with hospice patients (people with 6 months or less to live) over the past 8 years.

    • Hi Stuart,

      Thanks so much for commenting! I was in the 2+3 International Missions program in the Billy Graham school at SBTS. I wasn’t very far at all, only two months! I’d previously been a SB youth minister for 6 months.

      Your question made me think for a moment, it’s been awhile since I’ve wrestled with apologetics. 2 Thes 2:15 bothered me the most, http://biblehub.com/2_thessalonians/2-15.htm

      That sounds like a wonderful ministry you have with hospice patients brother. My dad was a hospitable chaplain for ~2 years and considered doing that work. Powerful ministry!

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