Led by the Good Shepherd to the Catholic Church
by Ed Hopkins
I was raised in a small-town, Southern Baptist church in Virginia where I, along with my sister, my two brothers, and our parents, attended Sunday School and church nearly every Sunday that I can remember. In my early teen years, I responded to a preacher’s invitation to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior and was baptized. The experience of the waters of baptism seemed to be one of re-birth. I felt as though my sins were washed away and there was a new beginning and opportunity for me ahead. However, I did not experience much growth in grace during my later high school years and I went away to college in 1970 very disappointed with my hometown and the Christians that I knew.
I was a religiously interested skeptic at that time, but a period of soul-searching and contacts with evangelical friends at college led me back to faith. I begin to seriously pray and study Scripture. Within a couple of years I began to consider theological seminary and preparation for ministry.
During these college years, I was involved with a campus ministry group, the Navigators, that sought to make disciples of the Lord Jesus through a process of discipleship they saw outlined in 2 Timothy 2:2, “…and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” This campus ministry taught me a deep respect for the Scriptures (but now I think during that time, I learned some rather dubious interpretations of Scripture). Surely, Paul’s words to Timothy are in the context of establishing apostolic leadership for the Church. Timothy was a bishop, ordained by Paul to have oversight over the Christians in Ephesus and perhaps other cities. Timothy was to ordain elders and deacons, root out heresy, and preserve the Faith. The context was nothing like what we were attempting to do with young men and women in college.
We tended to miss the corporate dimension of the New Testament faith — discipleship for us was a very personal, individual thing. During the last year or two of college, some of us began to see the inadequacy of the model we had been taught, and our campus fellowship began to have more the atmosphere of a house church, including celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I had come to see that the New Testament had much to say about the Body of Christ, the Church: a divinely appointed organization with structure, discipline, and offices. I finally joined a small Presbyterian church, though I was not yet fully “Reformed” or Presbyterian in my theology. The doctrine of the Church, along with the issues of worship and sacraments, would become major areas of interest in my future studies.
Searching for a church home
Following graduation, I married my wife, Debi, and a year later, we were blessed with a child. Then in the summer of 1976 we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where I began studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. Moving several hundred miles away from family was a significant step of faith, but the Lord provided for our needs.
We lived in an apartment a few miles from campus in downtown Jackson, just a few blocks from the State Capitol building. Also downtown was a Catholic church. One Saturday I rode out on my bike for a time of prayer, and passed this church. I stopped, went in, and noticed the inscription over the doorway, taken from John 10:16: “There shall be one flock, one shepherd.” I entered the sanctuary — impressed with its beauty — and prayed. Something stirred within me. I went away with a small glimmer of Catholicism traced on my consciousness.
In the first year of seminary, we studied church history, one of my favorite fields of study. I went beyond the required readings and explored the writings of the early Church Fathers. In their writings, I found a world very different from that of the Evangelical and Reformed Christianity of my experience.
Around this time, our family began to worship with a house church that was called New Covenant Catholic Church. This was a group of young people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who were led by a group of men formerly in leadership positions with the evangelical ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Mildly charismatic, much of the teaching of this group was concerned with recovering the teaching of the early Church. There was also a heavy emphasis on “shepherding,” which was found in many, new house churches in that era. We left this fellowship, mostly because of this “shepherding” approach that we thought to be heavy handed and suspicious. A few years later, this group became part of the Evangelical Orthodox church, which was later received by the Antiochian Orthodox church.
I was seeking a more ancient, catholic expression of the faith, which these folks also were seeking, though, at the time we were there, they had not yet quite figured out where they were going. The rest of our years in Jackson we worshiped with a non-denominational church that was heavily involved in social outreach and community development. I never really felt at home theologically, but I admired and supported the mission work of this community and it was a place of good fellowship and support. This was a church that transcended racial and cultural lines — something not often seen in the Deep South in those days. It seemed as though this was the way the Kingdom of God should be. I later found this concern for racial inclusiveness and social justice very effectively realized in the Catholic Church.
“Reformed” way of thinking
My seminary experience was an enjoyable one. I studied hard, made good grades, and this experience was intellectually fulfilling. I grew more Calvinistic, but was slow to embrace a consistently “Reformed” way of thinking. To my shame, however, it seems I absorbed an anti-Catholic bias during my time there — or perhaps the bias was already there and the seminary only reinforced it. The reality was that I knew hardly any Catholics and never seriously studied what the Catholic Church taught.
I did come to embrace, however, a deep respect for the ancient creeds, and therefore for the teaching of the early Church. It was my understanding that the Reformers also wanted to go back to the early Church Fathers and thus reform the church to what it was before the “corruption of the Middle Ages.” I have since learned that Reformation era scholarship knew comparatively little of the writings of the earliest centuries beyond the New Testament. While Lutherans retained much of Catholic tradition and liturgy, the Reformed movement, and especially the Presbyterians, generally threw out anything that could not be found in the Bible.
The principle of sola Scriptura was the touchstone of orthodoxy at my seminary. It was a given, an axiom, and certainly not debatable. To question this principle was practically to question the faith itself. One might as well object to the deity of Christ as to question whether or not the Bible alone is the final authority for faith and practice. I don’t think I ever asked, “But does the Bible itself teach that the Bible is the only authority?” Now I have come to see that the Bible does not teach that the Bible is the only authority. I see that the Bible does teach, however, that Christians are to observe the traditions and the teachings, as well as the writings of the Apostles.
I must credit my seminary professors for clarifying how the New Testament canon was shaped. I learned that it was the Church that determined the canon. I don’t think the implications of this reality were drawn out for me then, as I see them now, of course. Nevertheless, the historical reality is that the authority of the Church did form a canon. It was not left up to the interpretation of individuals.
By the time of my seminary graduation, I had come to embrace most of the Reformed faith as taught in the Westminster Standards (the doctrinal standards of historic Presbyterianism), though I could not see the teaching of a “limited atonement” in Scripture. This made me what we called a “four-point” as opposed to a “five-point” Calvinist. I also struggled with the doctrine of infant Baptism until my senior year. Writing a research paper attempting to prove the opposite, I became convinced that infant Baptism was proper.
Ordained ministry introduced me to Catholics
After graduation, I was called to a small Presbyterian church near Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I was ordained and served as a pastor. A few years later my family, now with two daughters and two sons, moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was pastor of another Presbyterian church for several years. In Shreveport, I first had the opportunity to come to know many Catholics, both clergy and laity. In knowing these dear Christians, many of my prejudices against Catholicism were demolished.
I was active in the Right to Life movement, eventually heading up and helping reestablish the local chapter of the National Right to Life committee. Of course, many of the most dedicated advocates for the life of the unborn were Catholic. As I got to know them, I found them to be devout and sincere men and women who loved Christ. I was able to spend time with several priests and once had a visit with the local Catholic bishop. I was always warmly received and my position as a Protestant pastor acknowledged with respect. During this time, my wife taught at the local Catholic high school, which gave us both more opportunity to see the world of Catholic life and faith. One of our Catholic friends from Shreveport prayed for me over the years and gently urged me towards considering the Catholic Church with occasional gifts of tapes and books. I now believe her faithfulness in prayer and gifts she shared were divinely instrumental in our coming into communion with the Catholic Church.
“There is one body and one spirit…”
I returned to Virginia a few years later, as pastor of another Presbyterian church, but I had become increasingly restless in pastoral ministry and resigned from the pastorate to open a bookshop in downtown Lynchburg. At this same time, my wife and I became involved in the work of a classical, Christian school, associated with the Reformed Episcopal Church. The small parish affiliated with the school was without a minister and I was asked to preach for them on a few occasions. This became a regular, part-time job and, as I learned the prayer book for liturgy and studied the Episcopal tradition, I found it increasingly appealing. In January of 1997, I was received into that denomination and became rector of that parish.
Over nearly fifteen years of using the prayer book and studying Anglicanism, I moved farther away from my Calvinistic perspective, though for most of my time in that church I would have thought of myself as an “evangelical catholic.” That is, I had a high regard for the ancient church, particularly the creeds, and the liturgy (in a fairly low-church expression). Yet, I came to believe in a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of Baptism. I once would have seen these as primarily symbolic, now I regarded these as vehicles of grace and among the ordinary appointed means for salvation. I came to believe that “outside the church there is no salvation,” that the Church is the Ark of God, but I still thought of that “one, holy, Catholic church” as the “invisible” church, as it was obviously broken into too many pieces to think of it as having a visible unity.
Even so, if the Church is one, as Paul declares, “there is one body and one spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:4-5), how is that unity to be known today? If our Lord prays for the unity of the Church, what is our responsibility to seek and affect that unity?
Protestants seem to love the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but how can we sing this line in good conscience: “We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity”? I am not aware of anything in current hymnody that seems so profoundly false as this statement. The disunity of the church is a dreadful scandal and it seems to me that any serious Christian should do all in his or her power to remedy the disunity of the Church. It now seems to be highly ironic that biblical literalists interpret a concept such as the “Body of Christ” in primarily spiritual terms. Isn’t a “body” a material thing? Shouldn’t we be able to see a body? Yet over and over, Protestants interpret the Body of Christ — the Church — as primarily an invisible, spiritual entity.
When I was still a Presbyterian, the many divisions among the heirs of Calvin often distressed me. In the Anglican world, it is no better, or perhaps, it is worse. Dozens of small “Anglican” groups can be found on the Internet. Apparently, it is fairly easy to find a bishop who is willing to lay hands of “consecration” on another, making yet another bishop and another Anglican jurisdiction.
By what authority?
Throughout the Protestant world, it is the same. For any reason, a person may start a Christian church, and a new denomination — a new schism — is born. This seems to be the inevitable result of the doctrine of sola Scriptura and the lack of a teaching authority or Magesterium. In the Protestant world, the final arbiter of doctrine is not the Bible, nor the tradition, nor a council, but the sovereign individual. It is one man’s interpretation of the Bible against another’s. When a man says, “the Bible alone is my authority,” what he really means is “only my interpretation of the Bible is my authority,” or else he cedes that role to some pastor or teacher that he, for whatever reason, has come to trust. Protestants complain that Catholics have a pope, yet they don’t see that Protestants also have popes; indeed, there may be as many popes as there are Protestants.
Of course, my Reformed friends would see the problem and deny that it is this bad. For this reason we have the confessions, they would say — the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, etc. They seem to think that Calvinism, as articulated by the Westminster standards, is the full-flowering of Christianity. But why should anyone regard the assembly of pastors and theologians at Westminster as more likely to have the right interpretation of Scripture than the councils that produced the Lutheran statements of faith, or, for that matter, the Council of Trent? Even when we have confessions of faith, we must still interpret those confessions. Whose interpretation shall be regarded as most accurate and reliable? We go from disputes about the meaning of Scripture, to disputes about the meaning of the confessions. In recent years we have seen the sad phenomenon of pastors of one Presbyterian denomination pronouncing anathemas upon ministers of other Presbyterian denominations for not holding the same interpretation of the Westminster standards on the doctrine of justification as held by themselves.
Those who came before us
Another largely unexamined presupposition of the whole Protestant project, as it stands today, is this: using the tools of modern Biblical exegesis, we can discern the true meaning of Scripture. I don’t know why I never saw this before, but I began to realize the absurdity of believing that a modern exegete can jump back over 2,000 years and have a better understanding of the New Testament and the teaching of the Apostles than those men we call the early Church Fathers. If a modern scholar interprets the New Testament in a way not in accord with the Didache, Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, or Cyprian, who is more likely to be right? Until recently, I tended to read the Fathers and look for affirmation of what I already believed. If they contradicted my confessional stance (first Westminster, then The Thirty-Nine articles) I would set the early Church teaching aside, intending to “come back to it later.” However, some of the questions raised by the Fathers concern the very core of the Christian Faith. One may put off deciding for a time, but one can’t do that forever. One must eventually take a stand. If I must decide, who, then, is more likely to have the correct interpretation? I think the safer bet, or the more logical, reasonable decision, would be to side with the early Church Fathers.
Another significant change in my perception of spiritual reality has to do with the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. In the creed, I confessed to believe in the Communion of the Saints, but what does that really mean? A few years ago I discovered the Charles Wesley hymn, “Let saints on earth in concert sing, with those whose work is done; for all the servants of our king in heaven and earth are one…E’en now we join our hands with those who went before, and greet the ever-living bands, on the eternal shore.” Hearing this for the first time moved me deeply and the vision it unfolds is a wonderful one. Those who have crossed the stream of death are still living; they sing with us. If they may sing with us, why may they not pray for us? If we are in communion with them, why may we not seek their intercession for us? As I was drawn to the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, I happened to watch a video on the life of Edith Stein. She was a remarkable woman. A Jewish, university teacher of philosophy in Germany between the wars; as a young adult, she became an atheist, then later was converted to Christ and became a Carmelite nun. She died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She was later canonized as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I was moved by her story and found myself invoking her prayers for my son.
I no longer found it a strange thing to think of asking for the prayers of the Blessed Virgin or other saints. There is a Christian inscription from around 250 a.d. that says, “Pray for your parents Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days.” What a beautiful vision this brings to mind: an infant alive in the presence of God and the holy angels, interceding for her parents.
Authority in the Kingdom
I have always been intrigued by the parables of the Kingdom. The theme of the Kingdom of God is so crucial to understanding the teaching of our Lord. How closely related are the Church and the Kingdom? Are they the same? Is the Church the gate of the Kingdom, or something like the visible expression in time of the timeless, transcendent Kingdom? That they are very closely related seems clear in such passages as Matthew 16:18-20. Jesus speaks of the building of the Church on the Rock (Petros) and the keys of the Kingdom are given to Peter.
Surely the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. A flock of sheep is not a democracy. Families are not democracies. Kingdoms have a top-down government. Several of the Kingdom parables speak of a ruler or landowner, going away and leaving a trusted servant in charge. Peter and the Apostles are the trusted servants. The New Testament clearly puts Peter in a position of some prestige or respect above the rest of the twelve. It would seem reasonable, even necessary, that upon Peter’s death, another would take his place. A precedent for filling the place of a departed apostle is set in Acts 1, with the appointment of Matthias to take the place of Judas.
Therefore, it is surely not unreasonable to expect that the rule of the Church, or Kingdom of God on earth, should be under a visible head or regent in place of the Lord and King, Jesus. If anyone filled that role in the Church between 30 and 60 a.d., then it was surely Peter. It would then seem most reasonable that upon his demise, someone would have been recognized to take his place. Of course, the records from the second century on indicate that this was indeed what happened — the Fathers are careful to trace the succession of the bishops of Rome back to Peter (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, chapters 2-4).
Irenaeus’ Against Heresies seems especially appropriate for modern times when heresy and schism abound. Irenaeus counsels: “What if there should be a dispute about some matter of moderate importance? Should we not run to the oldest churches, where the apostles themselves were known, and find from them the clear and certain answer to the problem now being raised?”(Book 3, Chapter 4.1). Ireaneus counsels that to settle disputes we need both Scripture and Tradition. For this Tradition we look ad fontes, to the source in the oldest churches.
Cardinal Newman famously observed: “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I found this to be true in my case. As I read more Church history, especially the early Church Fathers, and Reformation history from Catholic writers, my Protestant viewpoint was slowly eroded. It became clear to me that if there is one Church, which Jesus established, the Catholic Church under the bishop of Rome has the most clear and convincing claim to be that Church.
A matter of conscience
After this realization, it then became to me a matter of conscience. I was convinced that the denominations to which I had belonged were in schism from the one Church that our Lord established and I came to believe that to continue in separation from that Church would be to sin against my conscience and my Lord. My wife and I enrolled in our local parish’s RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program and after several months of study, we were received into the Catholic Church on June 24, 2012.
Though I am deeply sorry for the schism of Protestantism and my part in perpetuating that schism, I rejoice in the ministry I have received from the churches and teachers of my former denominations. In my childhood church, I became aware of the reality of God, was first awakened to faith, and was baptized. In the college ministry of the Navigators, I was taught to be zealous for Scripture and learned a concern for evangelism and mission. In seminary, I was instructed by good and godly men who taught me to think and write. In my sojourn among Presbyterians, I saw a zeal for social concern and, among the Anglicans, I learned to love beautiful liturgy. Along the way, many Catholic ministries such as Catholic Answers, as well as local parishes and friends have been very helpful. Finally, through the Coming Home Network International’s ministry, especially through the Deep in History conference, we were able to see the intellectual integrity, spiritual depth, and amazing beauty of Catholic Faith. Along the way, our gracious good Shepherd has patiently led us, and we now rejoice to be at home in His flock. Thanks be to God.
Ed Hopkins was formerly a minister in the Presbyterian and Anglican churches. He and his wife Debi have four children and two grandchildren and live in Lynchburg, Virginia. Ed occasionally blogs at thecoffeedrivenlife.blogspot.com.