“You’re a closet Catholic Josh; and I’m going to convince you to convert.” Thus spoke Frank; a young homeless man who had entered the shelter a hopeless drunk and, now, stood before me sober, with a rosary, a Bible, and a huge smile on his face. He and several of our other residents had been visiting St. Patrick’s (a large Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown Fort Worth) on Sundays and regularly attended catechumen classes every Wednesday night.
I watched in amazement as Frank and his friends transformed their living spaces into little churches–hanging postcards with beautiful iconography and the prayers of the saints on their lockers–and huddled together every day to study the Bible and read the Church Fathers. I noticed a marked change in their behavior as well: they cleaned up, quite associating with some of the rougher characters in the shelter, and became far more compliant with staff. When they were not working, or looking for work, they spent their time discussing theology. Sadly, such a drastic transformation rarely took place among our residents. Which is why their case caught my attention
Suffice it to say, Frank did not convince me to convert that day; but, I was very impressed by his attempt; and, he was right . . . I was a closet Catholic (or, more correctly, a closet Orthodox Christian). Earlier that year, my wife and I had begun to question our Evangelical Protestant worldview. Over time, and through much prayer and study, we had come to doubt the doctrine of Sola scriptura and came to embrace the ancient Christian belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We also began to wonder if there was something to the notion of apostolic succession as well. Soon we began visiting a Russian Orthodox parish on date nights and developed a friendship with the priest and deacon there.
In spite of this, however, we were not ready to convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism; we still had too many questions and struggled to accept things like praying to saints, Mariology, venerating icons, and other such things. Therefore, seeing that God was clearly calling me to vocational ministry, we continued with our plans. I was to pursue ordination through the C&MA.
Yet, something unusual started happening. The moment I submitted my application to the district superintendent (the C&MA equivalent of a bishop), requesting permission to pursue ordination, I began having visions. These visions happened multiple times a day, and typically when I walked down the street in front of the shelter. They came upon me in waves–that is, I did not intentionally stir up the images I experienced or consciously choose to think about them–and I could not stop having them. It’s also important to note, for the skeptics reading this, that I was wide awake, in my right mind, and not taking any medication or drugs, when they occurred.
What were the visions of? One simple thing: me wearing a robe. In each vision I saw myself walking down East Lancaster (the street I worked on) wearing a black robe (like the one’s worn by Orthodox priests). I was baffled by this. For, although my wife and I were interested in Eastern Christianity, and had started questioning some of our evangelical beliefs, we were far from ready to convert. Our hearts and minds were firmly set on pursuing a life of ministry within the C&MA. After a while, these visions drove me crazy. Mainly because I couldn’t make them stop!
The visions persisted up to the day I faced the ordination panel–the pastors assigned to interview me and determine if I was to be trained. During my interview, which lasted over two hours, something unusual happened. The first half of the interview was comprised of questions about my personal life and the second half focused on matters of theology. The primary aim of their questioning was to ensure I accepted the C&MA’s official statement of faith.
Obviously, I had come to the interview prepared–having studied the statement of faith carefully and read the supporting Bible verses–and felt I could, in good conscience, agree with most of what it said. However, during the interview, all of this changed. The first thing they questioned me on was article four which states that the bible is the, “only rule of Christian faith and practice.” I suddenly found that I could barely answer the question. A million thoughts flooded my head in a manner of seconds! Here are five of them:
(1) The scripture verses used to support this article (i.e., 2 Peter 1:20-21; 2 Timothy 3:15-16) did not say that the Bible is the only rule but, rather, that the Bible is good for or profitable for instruction, or that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
(2) In fact, nowhere in the Bible does it state that the Bible is the only rule of Christian faith and practice.
(3) On multiple occasions St. Paul commands us to hold fast to the traditions of the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2).
(4) Nearly all of the other articles of faith the C&MA were committed to contained theological interpretations and vocabulary that are not in the Bible; but, rather, inferred or implied by passages in the bible. For instance, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ, the doctrine of salvation, and the end times, were all essential articles of faith but not obvious beliefs that would be apparent to someone who picked up and read the Bible for the first time (having no prior theological experience or contact with Western culture).
(5) So, it seemed, therefore, that a large part of Christian faith and practice was dependent upon how we interpret the Bible; and how we apply our interpretations to other areas of life that the Bible never speaks on. But, if this was the case, how do we know which interpretation is correct or true? Are all of them right? Or only one of them? Or is anyone’s correct or true?
These five thoughts hit me like a ton of bricks; and nearly caused me to stop the interview. However, I pressed on–paying lip service to the supporting verses and trying to be as vague as possible without lying.
Then came a discussion about the annual council the C&MA held; in which delegates from all of the churches joined together to discuss and vote on important matters. One of the interviewers stressed that this was a biblical idea; citing the first council in Jerusalem recorded in Acts to back it up. He then asked me if I was ready and willing to submit myself to the decisions made during those meetings? Again, my head began to race:
(1) Historically, Christians never stopped following this pattern of holding meetings to make decisions on important issues. In fact, after Jerusalem, there were eight ecumenical councils that made proclamations on such important things as: the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Two Natures of Christ, the Canon (what books belong in the bible), and many other important matters. Plus, the Catholic Church continued having large councils to make decisions of this sort up to the present day.
(2) In fact, from what I knew a that point, the Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican churches each had strong claims to being the organic continuation of that same Holy Apostolic Church that held these councils. Indeed, it was highly probable that one of them was the Church founded by Christ in the New Testament!
(3) If I was willing to submit myself to the decisions made at C&MA councils why was I not willing to submit myself to the decisions made by one of the ancient churches which have a more valid claim to authority?
(4) Also, doesn’t the need to have councils to make decisions like this count as more evidence against Sola scriptura?
Once again I bumbled my way through this question; trying hard to ignore the torrent of doubts now swirling around my mind.
In the end I was approved for ministry within the C&MA, made an assistant pastor, assigned a mentor, and shipped off to Houston to work with several church plants (missions) and begin training for ordination. Before moving to Houston, however, I once again struggled with my call to vocational ministry. This time, not from a lack of desire, but with the uncertainty and doubts that clouded my mind. Was I really doing the right thing? Was I pursuing ministry in the right church? Was it right for me to teach and preach when I had so many doubts and questions?
I’ll finish this story in part three . . .