From the Churches of Christ to the One Church
Featuring Rachelle Parker/
Background: Church of Christ/
January 3, 2017
My two younger sisters and I were raised in Springfield, MO by parents who valued faith, family, and friendships, and who served the community. We attended Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night services in a large, active Churches of Christ congregation. Our social as well as religious life revolved around this church.
The Churches of Christ are part of the Restoration Movement that began in the early 19th century, which sought to move away from denominationalism and to be like the early Church as seen in the Bible. In this Bible-only environment, I often heard the refrain, “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.” For instance, it was argued that musical instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament as being used in worship, so we should sing a cappella. Some members would go so far as to say that those who worship with instruments are in danger of losing their salvation. Even as a child I had difficulty with this idea. I couldn’t understand why God would command the Israelites to worship Him with instruments and then forbid it when Christ arrived. Had God changed?
Baptism in the Churches of Christ is by immersion, for the forgiveness of sins. There were, however, some doctrinal inconsistencies. Some members would say those not baptized would not be saved, while others were less certain. The Bible did not appear to be completely clear on the matter. And in fact, I was baptized twice — a fairly common practice among the Churches of Christ. I was initially baptized at ten years old. Later, when I had arrived at a deeper level of conversion, I was baptized again. Later still, this practice helped me to accept the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation. I certainly always needed to feel forgiven.
The Churches of Christ also observe the Lord’s Supper weekly, with only the baptized partaking. This is understood as a commandment from Christ, though the elements were considered only a symbol of His Body and Blood. I was not aware of any other interpretations of this practice until I began studying the Catholic Faith as an adult.
I attended a university affiliated with the Churches of Christ. After college, I began to attend another Churches of Christ congregation, where we occasionally used musical instruments and partnered with other denominations for worship. I also went to non-denominational worship services from time to time, while coming to the conclusion that generally Christians believe the same things. However, even as I branched out, adopting the “invisible Church” of all believers concept, I remained most comfortable with the Churches of Christ.
I met my husband — or rather, met him again — at our ten year high school reunion in 2005. We began a long distance relationship shortly after the reunion, since I was living in Nashville, TN and he was in Cleveland, OH.
One of our first conversations was about faith. Will had been raised Catholic but had not been attending Mass regularly. I wasn’t deterred by the difference in our traditions; that, I felt, could be overcome.
He told me that he was a Christian and that his faith was important to him. I trusted that God had placed us together and that He would lead us forward according to His will. However, our faith differences became a source of concern as our relationship grew more serious and talk of marriage ensued. My primary worry was that he would regret or even resent that he had not married a Catholic woman. He eased my mind and told me that he didn’t know what the future would bring for us regarding church, but he knew that he loved God, and he loved me, and that everything would work out. After that, I let go of my fear and prayerfully trusted in God’s plan. We were married on September 15, 2007 in my childhood Church of Christ congregation.
We had been living in Nashville, where the Churches of Christ was vibrant, and it was easy to find a congregation to belong to. When we later moved to Cleveland, OH, it was a different picture religiously, a predominantly Catholic part of the country. I was anxious about where we would go to church. We began visiting various denominations, struggling to find a fit for us both. We finally settled on a Churches of Christ congregation that was significantly smaller than any other church I had experienced and more conservative in teaching and style of worship. The people, though, were kind and welcoming.
An Anti-Catholic Congregation
I became aware early on that the congregation’s predominant view regarding Catholics was that they are not Christians and had been terribly led astray. Many of the members were former Catholics who had become convinced that the Church’s teachings were false. I began to feel uncomfortable there, especially concerned about others making anti-Catholic comments to Will. One Sunday, we decided to attend an adult Bible class. Sure enough, that morning some comments were made regarding Catholics that were highly offensive to us. But we went again the following week. Once more, we heard anti-Catholic comments. It was all we could do to stay for services that day, we were so hurt and saddened. We talked and cried after church as we discussed what happened and our feelings about it. We knew that we could no longer worship there but had no idea where to go.
This set us on a most unexpected journey. Although my husband, Will, was raised Catholic, seeking to learn about the Catholic Church was not my first thought. Instead, I bought a book about Christian denominations and read through it, trying to discern the difference between all the various churches. What I read was troubling and discouraging. My belief that Christians basically believed the same things began to crumble. I began to question how all these churches with such different perspectives on fundamental questions could all be right. We visited several churches, making the rounds to find one with all the things Will and I were looking for, but we could not find it.
Finally, we had a talk that changed the direction of our journey entirely. Will began to share with me what the Catholic Church meant to him: what he loved about it, what he had taken for granted prior to going on this church search with me, and even things he still didn’t quite understand. As I listened, something — I believe it was the Holy Spirit — stirred deep within me. I just knew that I needed to study the Catholic Faith: where Will was coming from and what that religion really taught.
The Journey Begins
I began by reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I kept my Bible open and would check out all the Scripture references given in the Catechism. When I came upon a teaching that I didn’t understand, I found other references from Catholics to read and study further. I began reading conversion stories and watching The Journey Home on EWTN television. All my spare time was poured into prayer and study.
The first basic question I had was: What kind of Church did Jesus establish? Did He establish a Church with authority, as the Catholics say? The second question that followed naturally from the first was related to the teaching of Scripture alone. Is sola Scriptura correct or, if Jesus had really established an authoritative Church, what is the place of Scripture? Following those questions, I looked at other Catholic teachings that I was most concerned with: infant baptism, the Eucharist, the Communion of Saints, and the role of Mary.
What about the Church? Did Jesus give His Apostles authority, and was that authority meant to continue after their deaths? In Matthew 16:18–19 we see Jesus stating that He will build His Church on Peter and that the gates of Hades “shall not prevail against it.” He tells Peter that He will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” As I studied this passage further in context, I discovered the meaning behind “the keys.” It appeared that Jesus did give Peter, specifically, an office in the Church. Additionally, He conferred authority on all the Apostles in Matthew 28:18–20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded of you.” He also gave them all authority to forgive sins in John 20:21–23, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In the early Church, as written in Acts, we see matters of dispute being brought to the Apostles and that their teaching is accepted as from the Holy Spirit. The early believers understood that the Apostles held an office that must be filled continuously. In Acts 1, the deceased Judas is replaced by another eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Another Scripture that really impacted me regarding the Church was 1 Timothy 3:15, in which Paul refers to the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
I discovered that the Church Fathers had some important things to say on the topic as well.
Be not deceived, my brethren: If anyone follows a maker of schism, he does not inherit the kingdom of God; if anyone walks in strange doctrine [in other words, is a heretic], he has no part in the passion [of Christ]. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop, with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons (Ignatius of Antioch – ad 110, Letter to the Philadelphians 3:3–4:1).
Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he ordains [a presbyter]. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church (Ignatius of Antioch – ad 110, Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2).
In the Church, God has placed apostles, prophets, teachers, and every other working of the Spirit, of whom none of those are sharers who do not conform to the Church, but who defraud themselves of life by an evil mind and even worse way of acting. Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace (Irenaeus – ad 189, Against Heresies 3:24:1).
So it became clear to me that Jesus did indeed intend to establish an authoritative Church built upon Himself and His Apostles, whom He taught and charged with the task of spreading these teachings to the entire world. It also became clear that the only Church who could trace herself back to the Apostles and Jesus Himself was the Catholic Church.
Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition: If Jesus established a Church with authority; does it make sense to say that the Bible alone is our authority? As I studied, I began to see the problems with this teaching.
First, the Bible never says it is the only authority. In fact, in many of the letters to churches we see the people being told to follow the teachings they have learned whether written or by word of mouth. “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). What, then, is “tradition”? It is all the teachings that Jesus passed to His Apostles and they passed on to us in the Church. Without Sacred Tradition, some texts in the Bible are difficult to understand. The Catholic Church holds Scripture in the highest regard and honor. It is the inspired word of God. But it was never intended to be used as a detailed owner’s manual for discovering Christianity.
The doctrine of Scripture alone is why there is so much division among Protestants. There always will be division outside of the authoritative Church led by the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is only by the authority given the Church that we have the canon of Scripture in its current form. While this was a difficult truth for me on the journey, it really made the most sense historically and biblically.
Infant Baptism: This topic actually was not as difficult as I thought it would be. In the Churches of Christ we did not practice infant baptism, and my impression was that it was not generally seen as a valid form of Baptism. The argument was that the validity of Baptism depends on a person’s ability to understand and acknowledge his sins, and profess belief that Jesus is the Son of God. What had been confusing to me was how to know when a person was truly ready. The criterion seemed to be a subjective one.
When I looked at Scripture in light of the fact that most early Christians were Jewish, I was able to understand why infants would have been baptized. Baptism was an initiation into the body of believers. The Jewish people had circumcision as their initiation, the means to identify them as God’s people. When the Jewish believers heard Peter say, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Him” (Acts 2:38-39) they would have interpreted that as including all their children, regardless of age. Also, in the Book of Acts, we see the conversion and baptism of the jailer and his entire household. There is no indication that all others in the house professed belief themselves or were even old enough to do so.
This was enough to convince me that the early Christians practiced infant baptism. Had it not been allowed, it would have caused open controversy. This also makes more sense when coupled with the teaching of original sin. I had always believed in original sin, even though I don’t recall it being formally taught by the Churches of Christ. I gathered from Scripture that we are born in a fallen state because of the sin committed by Adam and Eve. So it would seem that if Baptism is indeed for the forgiveness of original sin, we would want to offer it as soon as possible. Appropriately, it is based on the parents’ belief and their promise to raise their children in the Catholic Faith — a beautiful sacrament of authentic community, love, and responsibility for each other in the Church!
The Church’s teaching on Baptism also solved the problem of depending on an individual’s understanding of what he is doing and professing. It is incredibly beautiful that an infant — completely helpless and unable to profess anything — can be saved by receiving the grace of Baptism. He cannot earn it; he cannot understand it. It is all gift. And isn’t that really the way it works for all of us?
There are other sacraments to help us grow in our faith, as we grow in understanding. We receive the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Confirmation at more mature stages on the journey.
Eucharist: Before Will and I were married, I bought a book on Catholicism. I felt that I should have more understanding of where Will was coming from. Of all things, I read Catholicism for Dummies! I was moving right along until I got to the Church’s belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I closed the book and put it down. This teaching was too strange, and I wanted no part of it.
It’s amazing to look back on this, and it is such a testament to the role of the Holy Spirit in leading me to belief. I clearly remember the moment I began to believe. I was listening to a talk on the Eucharist by Dr. Brant Pitre, specifically about how Jews would have understood what Jesus was saying. As I meditated on John 6, I felt suddenly overwhelmed by Jesus’ love for me, and I knew then … it’s true!
After that revelation, I knew there could be no other church for me. Where else could I be so truly close to our Lord? There were still things to study, but I knew in my heart that I had to receive the Eucharist for the rest of my life! When we think about the lavish love of Jesus, who gave His very life for us … of course He would give Himself to us in such an intimate and beautifully simple way.
Several Scriptures stood out to me concerning the Eucharist. One was John 6 that describes the Bread of Life discourse in which Jesus commands us to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood to have eternal life. Later, we see Him institute the Lord’s Supper as the way in which we receive Him (Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20).
But without knowing how early Christians taught and practiced it, this teaching still was a mystery to me. Some of the early Church writings that helped me understand the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist include:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again (Ignatius of Antioch – circa ad 110, Epistle to Smyrnaeans, 7, 1).
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (Justin Martyr – circa ad 110–165, First Apology, 66).
[T]he bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup is His blood (Irenaeus – circa. ad 200, Against Heresies, IV: 18, 4).
There were other Scriptures that I grew up reading but completely missed their significance until I came to see how the early Church understood the Lord’s Supper through quotes such as the above ones. Then, I could better make sense of Scriptures such as “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27–29). There it was!
Communion of Saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary: Prior to looking at the Church’s teaching regarding those souls who have died in the Body of Christ, I didn’t realize that I had never been taught anything on this subject. I believed that the saved went to heaven but had never considered deeply what they were doing there and had no idea of what Scripture has to say concerning them.
Two biblical passages in particular were influential for me coming to understand the Communion of Saints. One was Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” This verse describes that those who have died in Christ somehow remain with us. They are aware of us and what we are doing, cheering us on as we walk this journey of faith. I then read in Revelation 8:4 where it depicts the saints lifting up prayers as incense to the throne of God. For what or whom could they be praying? Surely they are not lacking anything in heaven? These two verses combined showed me the truth of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Communion of Saints.
Integrating It All
Once I accepted the Church’s teaching regarding the Communion of Saints in heaven interceding for us, I could begin to look at the Church’s teachings on Mary and her role in our salvation. I decided at some point after becoming Catholic to stop trying to understand it and to just begin speaking with Mary. It was awkward at first. I would talk to her honestly about how strange it felt to talk to her and ask her for help to connect with her more. I started praying the Rosary and grew to love this daily devotion.
The first time we went to Mass, I was still deep in my studying. I cried through the entire Mass! I was completely overwhelmed as I saw the early Church I had been reading about unfold in front of me. The Eucharist especially moved me. I couldn’t even speak to Will without crying, so we had to wait until we got back to the car to talk. I burst out, “I loved it!”
Not long after that, we met with the parish pastor to introduce ourselves and let him know about our journey. He was wonderfully kind and supportive. I began attending RCIA in the fall, making friends along the way.
Will and I had the amazing experience of marrying each other for a second time in January 2010 so that our marriage would be considered valid by the Church. On Easter Vigil 2010, I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Interestingly, we were pregnant with our first child one month later, even though we had been actively trying to conceive for over a year. We now have two daughters, and I am full of joy as Will and I raise them in the Church.
While intellectually I understood and believed the Church’s teachings, sometimes I struggled to find how to live them. But when I began teaching my oldest daughter that saints in heaven pray for us, especially the Blessed Mother (Mary), and we began singing the Litany of Saints together before she went to preschool, I began to see the beauty of this truth and to feel on some level their presence with me. In addition, something surprising happened when I attended the Easter Vigil in 2015. It was the first time I had been able to attend the Vigil since entering the Church in 2010, due to small children and no childcare. The thing that moved me most was when we sang the Litany of Saints. Those saints were all participating in the liturgy with us!
I have begun teaching Sunday school for preschoolers. I hope to continue as a children’s catechist and eventually help teach RCIA. I’m learning that God opens a way through life at just the right time, in just the right manner. Even if it doesn’t line up with what I think should happen, I trust Him completely. He recently made it possible for our family to move back to our old hometown, near the rest of our family. I know God has amazing plans for us here and can’t wait to see what He will do next!
Rachelle Parker and her husband currently live in Springfield, MO, where they are raising their two daughters (3 and 5). They attend St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.