Our devout, fundamentalist-evangelical family of six children attended Sunday School, Sunday morning and evening worship services, Wednesday evening prayer meeting, and choir rehearsal after prayer meeting — even when traveling. My parents alternately took us to Nazarene and Baptist congregations. Nazarenes taught Arminian doctrine; that sinning resulted in loss of salvation. Baptists taught “once saved – always saved – safe and secure for eternity.” As early as grade school I became aware that different denominations taught contradictory doctrines, yet logic dictates that only one can be correct. Fundamentalist-evangelical pastors taught the precepts: (1) the Bible is the only authority; (2) salvation is by faith alone; and (3) the requirement to live according to biblical morality while simultaneously believing that our actions (works) had nothing to do with salvation. Fundamentalists erected legalistic barriers around immoral behavior in order to avoid any occasion for temptation.
I never remember not believing in Jesus Christ, though our family had faith, we were not happy. There was, however, one bright spot in my childhood: Bible Club.
The late Allan Emery, Jr. and his wife, Marian, held Bible Club in their living room for 50 to 90 teenagers every Thursday night. Allan was President and Chief Operating Officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. These loving Christians made everyone feel special and welcome at Bible Club — Protestant, Catholic, or un-churched. On alternate weekends, twelve teens were taken to Whisperwood, their New Hampshire farm, for weekend retreats. The strict rule was no more than two weekends, per teen, each year. One year, because the Emerys knew about each teen’s home life, every weekend they found a way to “need” one more boy. I was that fortunate boy. The Emery’s personal commitment led me to view them as being “Christ to me.” Bible Club was a godsend where my first happy memories were formed and where I met, courted, and (in 1975) married Paula (the perfect girlfriend) in the Emery’s flower garden.
Besides Bible Club, two other childhood factors influenced my faith journey. I had an intense yearning to participate in communion, but to receive communion in my childhood church required being twelve years of age, baptized, and a member. After communion one Sunday, at about age eight, I discovered that the communion trays of Matzo crackers and cups of grape juice were left unattended in the kitchen. On subsequent communion Sundays, after the ushers returned from disposing of the trays, I would ask to use the restroom and proceed to reverently serve myself communion. When our family moved to a new congregation, communion was infrequent. Later, as a busy student at Wheaton College, the congregation I attended never seemed to have communion, yet my deep desire for communion never faded.
Besides a desire for communion, I was drawn to the story of Christ’s birth and the Ave Maria (my mother’s favorite music). Our beautiful (Catholic) Advent Calendar was a treasured Christmas tradition; however, because my mother was the choir director in all the congregations we attended, and my father was a deacon, we children were advised never to discuss these topics with other members. None of the congregations we attended were open to ecumenism with other Protestant denominations and utterly rejected the Catholic Church. The serene image of Mary brought a sense of peace to me, especially as a child in an unhappy family. Interestingly, the Emerys were the only Protestants I knew who openly recognized Catholics as Christians. Although Paula, who was Catholic, joined me in Protestant congregations, the Emerys never encouraged her to leave the Catholic Church.
A jigsaw of interpretation
Living with many mutually contradictory doctrines made understanding the faith similar to trying to complete a complex puzzle from a combination of different jigsaw puzzles stirred together. As a teen I viewed the contradictions with perplexity. For example, altar calls in the Nazarene congregations (when only members were present) made sense based on the Arminian doctrine of the possibility of losing one’s salvation. However, in the “once saved – always saved – safe and secure for eternity” Baptist congregations, altar calls to members seemed utterly absurd. In one congregation, this only impacted one mentally feeble woman who tearfully went forward each time and “finally accepted Jesus — again.” As an adult, maintaining the theological tension between contradictory biblical interpretations eventually led to a minimalistic faith. That is, the acceptance of Jesus was the only necessary aspect of the faith; nothing else mattered. So after college, since both Paula and I were employed at different evangelical agencies with weekly chapel services led by pastors and missionaries, we readily substituted the chapel services for Sunday attendance. But there persisted a desire to find a church that taught all of what we knew Scripture taught.
In 1979, a move to a small New England town resulted in a limited choice of congregations. Two of the local congregations were so theologically liberal that the pastors were more likely to quote sentimental poems than Scripture. One fundamentalist congregation was pastored by a high school graduate whose exegesis was agonizingly embarrassing. Another congregation was so unreceptive to newcomers that not a single member of the congregation, or the pastor, greeted us.
Discounting the Catholic church in town, Paula and I hesitantly visited the remaining small Episcopal chapel. The beauty of the liturgy and the opportunity to receive communion at every service was such a blessing that that congregation became our spiritual home. Two years later, in 1981, we moved again for graduate school and attended a large, active, Episcopal congregation with dynamic liturgy, powerful sermons, and some of the best music we have ever enjoyed. Yet, sadly, it was in that congregation where it became evident that, while the words were biblical, a double-speak was at play. The realization that something was amiss occurred after learning that the rector’s “wife” was actually still married to an ex-parishioner. Gradually, it became evident the evangelical and biblical language was actually code for left-leaning political messages.
Without describing every issue, my Protestant experience confirmed that there was no congregation in which I could trust that all (or only) biblical truth was being taught. Certainly, much truth was taught at all the congregations we attended, but never was “all truth” (Jn 16:12) taught. In fact, it took only a few sermons to identify some false, unbiblical doctrine being proffered. It became increasingly evident that every pastor and member — not the Bible — was his or her own final authority. Utter discouragement with the contradictory theological doctrines led us to live our faith on our own for more than two decades. During that time many evangelical clients came to my practice specifically because I am listed with insurance companies as a Christian psychologist. Often, what these clients believed and practiced was foreign to what I previously knew to be evangelicalism. This made it apparent that evangelicalism had changed radically during those two decades. Many aspects of moral living were also conspicuously absent.
These experiences made it obvious that the “once saved – always saved – safe and secure for eternity” doctrine was “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6-7). The carefully guarded and entrenched belief regarding their prerogative to a personal, private interpretation of Scripture insulated these individuals from recognizing the fallacy of their beliefs and practices. I came to recognize that the schismatic nature of Protestant denominations is likely due to this non-biblical and faulty assurance that individual believers are guaranteed to be led into “all truth” (Jn 16:12). Yet, as I later discovered, Scripture is clear that only the Apostles, individually (Jn 16:12), and “God’s household, which [is] the Church of the Living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) were given any assurance of acquiring “all truth.”
This forced me to face up to the fact that sola Scriptura (the belief that the Bible is the only source of authority) is not found in Scripture and sola fide (the belief of salvation through faith alone) was soundly rejected by James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Accepting these doctrines would suggest that the Holy Spirit leads entire denominations of sincere, devout, Bible-believers to contradictory conclusions on such vital matters as salvation and morality with modern denominations contradicting basic orthodox doctrine and adopting pop-culture morality. As Marcus Grodi would say, I discovered Bible passages I had “never seen” before and those passages did not support Protestant doctrines.
One evangelical congregation near my practice hired a new pastor who did his first communion service “In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, Allah, Buddha and all other deities.” Evidently sola Scriptura gives one a license to interpret Scripture, free from all authority, in violation of 2 Peter 1:20, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” These experiences made me recognize that something was terribly wrong in evangelicalism. I was forced to realize that I, like all Bible-believers, didn’t accept what the Bible actually teaches.
From our wedding on, Paula and I had followed the advice of a number of devout Protestants and used contraception in order to get our careers and finances established. Years after having stopped using contraception, we concluded that we were infertile. Then, in 1991, Paula and I finally had a son, Sean. Paula’s labor of forty-eight hours seemed to last longer than the concurrent Desert Storm invasion. Selfishly, we had waited too long so now he is an only child who will face the responsibility and demands of our last years alone.
By Sean’s teen years, we realized home-based devotions were not enough. Because of the rejection of biblical truth in the liturgical Protestant denominations, we returned to a non-liturgical congregation for biblical, orthodox doctrine. Being away from evangelicalism for twenty years allowed us to recognize how many changes had occurred and how often Bible-believing pastors “corrected” Scripture. We heard statements like, “That passage doesn’t mean what it says” or “The word ‘is’ doesn’t mean ‘is’.” The phrase “faith alone” was verbally inserted into biblical passages in which it was not written. After declaring there was no need for baptism, one pastor explained, “See those lines in the text separating the verses? You don’t have to accept anything between those lines. Those verses are not in the manuscripts our scholars consider valid.” What a shock to be told to ignore Scripture! Sean’s teen Bible study interpreted Christ’s comment, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me…” (Mt 25:32-46) by concluding: “Jesus is not saying you will be judged for what you do. He is just talking about having faith.”
Exegesis of this type resulted in our spending virtually all of our Sunday afternoons reviewing the morning’s biblical passages and correcting the faulty interpretations contained in the sermon. How? By merely reading the passages in context, reviewing topically related passages, and taking Scripture for what it actually said. Despite a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Wheaton College, a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, I found myself, approaching sixty years of age, entangled in a theological belief system fraught with contradictions that required me either to ignore, reinterpret, or wildly over-emphasize biblical passages.
All generations will call me blessed…
About eight years ago, my dear friend Bob Frasco, a Catholic, asked, “Why do evangelical Christians ignore, demean, and even reject the role that Mary played in redemptive history?”
I responded, “Evangelical Christians, led by the Reformers, have learned the lessons of the Old Testament and faithfully guard against idolatry. Therefore, we utterly reject the worship of Mary.”
Shocked, Bob exclaimed, “Catholics don’t worship Mary. We only worship God. We honor Mary, as we are told to do in Scripture.” He finished with what I thought to be the demonstrably absurd comment, “Don’t you know the Hail Mary is biblical?”
As a theologically trained evangelical, with no knowledge of Catholic theology, I intuitively knew my friend must be wrong, because no authentic translation could possibly contain pagan material. To my chagrin, once I learned the Hail Mary and re-studied chapter one of Luke, I was faced with the fact that all Protestant Bibles contain the text of the Hail Mary. More unsettling was Mary’s statement, “From now on all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). Never in my entire life had I ever heard Mary blessed. Rather than hearing Mary be blessed, I had uncritically accepted the teaching of pastors who downplayed her importance. In fact, what was commonly taught about Mary is summed up in statements such as:
• “Mary wasn’t born sinless.”
• “Mary didn’t remain a virgin.”
• “Mary wasn’t assumed into heaven.”
• “Mary never became a Christian, because there is no evidence in Scripture that she ever accepted Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.”
• “Mary was rejected by Christ at Cana, because she was a social status-seeking mother, trying to show off her son as a miracle worker.” With a snarling voice, a pastor once quoted John 2:4 (KJV), “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” and almost spat out “woman” and “thee”, as if Jesus, righteous in all things, would have violated the Fourth Commandment and dishonored His mother.
One pastor said, “Mary was only a vessel and any teenage girl would have sufficed.” He named two teens in the congregation “who just as easily could have been the mother of Jesus.” Even as a twelve-year-old, since I knew that the one girl had a lengthy history that precluded her from being a virgin and the other girl was quite rebellious, that suggestion seemed wrong.
In one Christmas sermon, a pastor only used the phrase, “the virgin.” As a child, I was afraid to ask my parents who the virgin was, since I knew the word had some questionable connotation. It was not until the car ride home, when my mother complained to my father about her discomfort that our pastor was referring to Mary “like that,” did I understand.
During my childhood, I heard sermons on most biblical characters, godly and ungodly, familiar and obscure — even a sermon on what Christ’s coming meant to the ass on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem (Mt 21:2-7; Jn 12:14-15). But, in more than fifty years of sermons, I had never heard a single sermon on Mary. I became aware that in an effort to avoid being in submission to the only source of authority established by Christ, Protestants, including me, had defied Scripture and failed to bless Mary.
Breaking through misunderstanding
To understand my point of reference: my parents and childhood pastors had taught us that our varied denominations (despite theological contradictions) were members of the true church that had been persecuted by Catholics throughout history. Our denominations were on a quest to replicate the Church of Acts. We were taught: that Catholics had turned biblical characters and deceased Christians into demigods (called saints) whom they worshipped; Catholics, contrary to the Bible, believed we must earn our way into heaven; that the pope was the antichrist and the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelation. Most pastors held that the majority of Catholics were apostate and pagan and thus, were consigned to hell. My mother would draw attention to the Catholic neighbors who were kind, sober, caring, charitable people, and state, “They are such wonderful people, it is too bad they believe they can earn their way into heaven by going to church every day. It is sad to think such nice people will end up in hell, because they refuse to accept Christ.”
My friend Bob gave me a subscription to National Catholic Register and recommended EWTN’s The Journey Home show. The discovery that Mary was to be blessed by all generations caused me, for the first time, to begin studying the writings of the early Church Fathers. The seven letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. ad 90 – 110) proved that the first century Church was undeniably Catholic. I consumed books by Catholic apologists and read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In my first reading through the Catechism, I intentionally included only those portions discussing doctrines shared with Protestant denominations. Unfamiliar material (e.g., penance, purgatory, indulgences) would have been far too easy to reject out-of-hand. What I discovered was comprehensive biblical support for all Catholic doctrines. Nowhere did I encounter the simplistic proof-texting, which is so prevalent in Protestant theology.
Having presumed that none of the denominations I attended taught “all truth” (Jn 16:12), I had developed a complacency when reading Christ’s words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:53-56). In verses 60-69, Christ didn’t reassure those who hesitated, because they thought He was suggesting cannibalism, which made it explicitly clear that Christ intended His words to be taken literally. It was with great distress that I became aware that the Apostles and the early Church did not view communion as symbolic. Of greatest concern was the reality that I had been excluded from receiving the Body and Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, which, according to Christ, is necessary for eternal life (Jn 6:51-53). Receiving Him in this way was only possible through His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
As a family, into the biblical Church
When taking Scripture at face value, the Catholic understanding of Mary and the Eucharist were correct and biblical. Sadly, what all the denominations we attended had taught about the Catholic Church was absolutely wrong and some of what these congregations taught as truth was actually anti-biblical. Since the first century, heretics viewed the Eucharist as merely symbolic, but not the heirs of the Apostles; not the Church. After discovering that Catholic doctrine on the familiar theological issues was based on a comprehensive view of Scripture and, thus, indisputably true, I realized the doctrines that are rejected by Protestants could then be recognized as true and necessary.
As a family, we explored Scripture and compared Catholic and Protestant doctrines, and together we discovered the historical longevity and biblical nature of Catholic teaching. We all agreed there was only one reasonable response. During late summer of 2007, I visited a local Catholic church to request how to enter the Church and was helped by a wonderful priest who met with Sean and me for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and Paula for a review of catechetical material. For me, recognizing the roles of Mary and the Communion of the Saints in salvation history was the one puzzle piece that brought comprehension of the bigger picture.
In order for Sean to avoid unnecessary pressure from his lifelong evangelical peer group by a sudden departure, we attended Mass weekly, but also attended the Protestant congregation on alternate Sundays. The time to make a full departure occurred close to Christmas when the evangelical pastor found it necessary to launch into a debunking of all the “Catholic myths” about Mary, proclaiming virtually every anti-Mary comment I previously listed. I now find it horribly sad that, as a Protestant, I had ignored the teaching of Scripture regarding the Eucharist, baptism, and other sacraments, as well as demeaned Mary’s role in salvation history.
Sadly, the doctrinal errors of sola Scriptura and sola fide lead to a faulty interpretation of the Bible and allow some evangelicals to be trapped in sinful lifestyles, while believing themselves to be “saved” — safe and secure for eternity. It is not that Catholics are immune from sin, but the type of error is qualitatively different. Orthodox doctrine allows for correction, whereas false doctrine prevents correction. If a reasonably catechized Catholic chooses to sin, they know they are sinning. In contrast, the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura promotes the right to a personal, private interpretation of Scripture and, therefore, does not allow for the correction of a faulty interpretation that leads to an anti-biblical lifestyle.
Devoid of any and all authority, Protestants have divided the visible Church into thousands of competing denominations in violation of Christ’s prayer, “I do not pray for these only [the Apostles], but also for those who believe in me through their word [all subsequent believers], that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17:20-21). There is no more explicit condemnation of Protestant denominationalism than that last phrase.
In contrast, Catholic doctrine consistently teaches what the Apostles taught, making Bible reading sensible. The Catholic Mass is composed almost entirely of scriptural passages. Celebrating the Eucharist involves the glorious experience of sitting at the Lord’s Table receiving Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
And then, there is Mary. While God could certainly have worked salvation history in some other way, Jesus would not be the Messiah if Mary refused to accept the angel Gabriel’s request (Lk 1:38). This biblical fact repudiates the hyper-omnipotent Calvinistic doctrine. Salvation history actually demonstrates that God subjected His omnipotence to the will of one young girl.
At Easter Vigil 2008, our family entered the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ. That Church was led by the Holy Spirit to establish all orthodox doctrines. I came to realize that the claims made by Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers (not to mention all those Protestant books about what the Catholic Church teaches) are false. Furthermore, we discovered that the faith, which all Christians in every place for fifteen hundred years had understood to be true, was stood on its head by the Reformers.
Though I previously considered abortion as an unfortunate, but unavoidable reality, I had an instantaneous conversion of heart when I became aware of the need to enter the Catholic Church. In addition to participating annually in 40 Days for Life, it has also been a joy to attend weekly Eucharistic Adoration and to serve as a lector and as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. Paula volunteers weekly to publish the bulletin. Our son, Sean, is now an officer in the United States Air Force, training as a pilot.
In gratitude I offer the following prayer:
Heavenly Father we pray that, in Your mercy,
You will forgive those of us who have grieved Your Son,
Jesus Christ by ignoring His Mother Mary, the Woman, (Gen 3:15; Jn 2:4; 19:26f; Rev 12)
whom He honors. (Ex 20:12; Lk 2:51; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15)
Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that in Your mercy
You will forgive those of us who have defied Scripture
by not blessing Mary. (Lk 1:48)
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
grant that we may enjoy full communion with Your Church and with all Your saints.
Grant that by recognizing You as our Savior and brother, (Rom 8:23; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) we may recognize Mary
as our Blessed Mother. (Jn 19:26-27; Rev 12:17)
Blessed be Mary, at whose request,
You revealed Your glory at Cana. (Jn 2:1-11)
Blessed be Mary, Mother of the “Lord of lords.” (Rev 17:14)
Blessed be Mary, Mother of the “King of kings.” (Rev 17:14)
Blessed be Mary, “Ark of the Covenant.” (Rev 11:19)
Blessed be Mary, Mother of God. (Lk 1:43; Jn 1:1)
Blessed be Mary, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (Rev 12:1)
Blessed be Mary, who reigns as Queen Mother
of Your Kingdom. (Ps 45:6-9)
Grant that all who love You, grow to love her.
Grant us understanding that to honor You, is a blessing to her, and to bless her, is to honor You.
Wesley Vincent is a private practice psychologist in Enfield, Connecticut.