Confessions of a Protestant Pew Potato
Featuring Tim Cooper/
April 9, 2012
I thought to myself, Oh, no, here we go again. Some latecomers had forced us to move into the middle of the pew. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of the pew in a Catholic church if you’re a Protestant “pew potato.”
You’ve heard of a couch potato? I was a pew potato. I plunked down in my pew every week but didn’t participate a whole lot, other than singing a hymn I recognized or shaking hands with my neighbors during the sign of peace.
So what’s the big deal about sitting in the middle of the pew? The problem is with the Communion line.
My choice: I could either go up front with my arms crossed and receive a blessing, or I could stay back in the pew. I hated going up and not receiving the Eucharist. And in a large church like ours, chances are I would get a “blessing” from some teenager serving as a eucharistic minister.
No thanks, I thought. I’ll just stay in the pew.
Unfortunately, this meant I would end up being a hurdle for some folks in my pew, who would have to climb over me either on the way up or on the way back. I always wanted to sit at the end of the pew so I could avoid the “hurdle” problem — which brings up another pet peeve I had about the Catholic Mass (besides the numerous crying babies in the sanctuary). It seemed to me that half of the parishioners showed up two minutes prior to the start of Mass. The situation made it nearly impossible to guarantee my coveted end-of-the-pew position.
This situation was just one dilemma facing a Protestant pew potato. There were others as well. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do during the Mass. Was I supposed to cross myself? Genuflect? Kneel?
If I wasn’t participating in the Eucharist, was I to kneel during the prayer of consecration? At first, I just sat while others knelt. But I felt awkward sitting while everyone else was kneeling.
So I started kneeling during the prayer of consecration. But I didn’t believe in the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” or transubstantiation. I didn’t want to bear a “false witness” to what was going on. So I finally settled on the “half-sitting, half-kneeling” position.
How I Got into This Predicament
I’d never had these problems as a member of various Protestant congregations. They had passed trays of wafers and tiny grape juice glasses, so there were never any communion lines to deal with, where you might have to trip over somebody who couldn’t or wouldn’t participate. Deciding whether to take part wasn’t an issue, especially in one particular nondenominational congregation that publicized its “open” communion policy every week.
So how did I get myself in this predicament? It’s all because of my wife, Sandy. I love Sandy with every fiber of my being. I would do just about anything for her.
I agreed to get married in the Catholic Church because Sandy was Catholic and I loved her so much. I agreed to raise our kids Catholic because I loved her so much. I agreed to go to Mass with her every week so we could worship as a family because I loved her so much.
However, I did draw the line at becoming Catholic myself. Before we got married, I told her I would never, ever, become Catholic. She was fine with that. Even so, she told me she could never become Protestant, either, so we would have to figure out a way to work it out.
I had dated several nice girls before, but there was something different about Sandy. It was hard for me to put my finger on it. She was very quiet about her faith. I think I knew in the back of my mind that I was going to marry her after our first date.
What really “sealed the deal” was my observation of how she treated children and the elderly. When we were dating in college, my wife had an internship at a local club for boys. After graduating, she worked in a nursing home. She treated everyone she encountered, young and old, with dignity, love, and respect. I thought to myself, I have got to make this woman my wife. A mixed marriage was the price I was willing to accept in order to spend my life with the woman I loved.
If you had told me only a few years before that I would eventually get married in the Catholic Church, I would have told you, “No way.” I was born in Indianapolis, one of six kids in a family that belonged to the Nazarene denomination, which was largely hostile to the Catholic faith. (We later relocated to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I finished my high school years.)
My mom and dad were, and still are, wonderful Christian role models. We frequently had family devotions, including Bible study and prayer. Our faith was part of the air we breathed.
I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior when I was twelve years old. I was baptized at the age of fourteen. I gave several emotional testimonies at church.
I remember saying once that I believed God had a special plan for my life. At the time, I was thinking about missionary work or the ministry. They even allowed me to preach the sermon one Sunday: it was “Youth Day,” when young people were allowed to lead the services.
I have many wonderful memories from my youth in the Nazarene Church. Our sense of community was strong, and other members of our congregation were always good to me. I remember one Nazarene minister in particular who taught me much when I was a young man. He and his wife were so humble, kind, and pure that the light of Jesus shone through them. I cannot explain it any other way.
The Nazarene denomination had broken away from the Methodist denomination in the early twentieth century as a result of the Holiness revival movement. The Nazarenes remain part of the Wesleyan tradition, so John and Charles Wesley, the central leaders of the early Methodist movement, were heroes of mine.
I was close to my aunt and her husband, a United Methodist minister, and their children. Their youngest son, whom they named Charles Wesley, was close to me and my younger brother. My cousin would eventually enter seminary and become a wonderful minister himself.
Three of my four great-grandfathers were ordained as ministers in various Wesleyan denominations. Even today, numerous Protestant ministers and missionaries are in my extended family. One family is working in Guatemala, encouraging Catholics to leave their religion and embrace what they call “Bible Christianity” instead. Another family is currently serving in Croatia (a country that’s more than ninety percent Catholic) with the same goal.
It may be different today, but when I was growing up in the Nazarene denomination, we considered three particular religious communities to be “off the reservation”: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Roman Catholic Church. We saw none of these groups as truly “Christian.”
We believed that salvation came by faith alone, and that Roman Catholics practiced a religion with the heretical view of justification by faith plus works. Roman Catholic teaching was, we said, full of unbiblical, manmade doctrines, rituals, and traditions such as Mariolatry (the worship of Mary). We believed that the Church had fallen off the rails many centuries ago, but that the Protestant Reformers had restored the Christian faith to its true biblical roots.
Pebbles in My Shoe
When I was young, the issue of Christian unity bothered me. St. Paul told the Corinthians: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). In Romans 12:5, the Apostle teaches that we are “one body in Christ.”
St. Paul repeatedly wrote about the importance of unity, even demanded it, throughout his Epistles (See, for example, Rom 12:4–5; 16:17–18; 1 Cor 1:10–13; Eph 4:1–6; Phil 1:27; 2:1–2; Tit 3:9–11). Jesus prayed for our unity: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (Jn 17:20).
Nevertheless, we couldn’t maintain unity even among Wesleyans, much less the broader Protestant community. The Wesleyans had serious problems with the Calvinists. I remember frequent sermons on the “errors of Calvinism” in our Nazarene congregation. Of course, Calvinists weren’t as bad as Catholics. But they still had serious errors in their doctrines. We affirmed free will, which Calvin rejected. We agreed with other Christians who taught a type of assurance of salvation. But we rejected the notion of “absolute” assurance. We did not agree with the “once saved always saved” doctrine.
Every once in a while we would make a little fun of our Lutheran and Anglican brothers and sisters, labeling them “Catholic-Lite.” We called them that because they believed in some type of Real Presence in the Eucharist, and their worship was liturgical. (For us, “ritual” was a no-no.) Most of them seemed to live like the Catholic “heathen” we encountered, with habits of dancing, smoking, drinking, cussing — that kind of thing. The so-called “mainline denominations” were viewed in general with scorn, since many had modernist interpretations of Scripture, and their members also lived “worldly” lives.
Meanwhile, we didn’t agree with our Pentecostal brothers that the gift of tongues is the sure-fire sign of “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” In fact, while we recognized the possibility that the gift of tongues is still today a valid gift from the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues was not a part of our spiritual practice in the Nazarene denomination.
Given all these denominational divisions, the biblical injunction to Christian unity was like a bothersome pebble in my shoe. I couldn’t figure out how we were supposed to achieve unity if we couldn’t agree on how to interpret Scripture. How literally were we to interpret certain passages that didn’t easily lend themselves to a strictly literal interpretation, such as the Genesis account of creation? Was the world created in six days about six thousand years ago?
Another pebble in my shoe was our Nazarene stand on certain practices such as dancing, gambling, going to movies, and drinking. I understood some of the logic behind the prohibitions, but I didn’t see them explicitly stated in Scripture. Didn’t Jesus change water into wine as His first miracle?
At the time, these practices were absolutely prohibited in the Nazarene denomination. Internally, I started to question this black-and-white view of some of these so-called “moral” issues. I started to wonder whether some of these issues should be approached with moderation and common sense.
Was it really so evil to see a Disney movie at a theatre just because the same theatre might also show an R-rated movie? How far did we have to go with this approach? Should we just hide ourselves in caves until Jesus comes back to snatch us out of an evil world?
As a young adult, I eventually left the Nazarene denomination, and most of my family did as well. We tried other denominations. For a time, I attended the Missionary Church (which also has some roots in the Wesleyan tradition). That denomination didn’t have the legalistic view of some of the prudential questions that bothered me about the Nazarene denomination.
In college, I met with a nondenominational congregation, but I never felt comfortable there. For one thing, their continuous harping on “open” communion seemed to water down the faith too much. They would say it doesn’t matter whether you’re Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox; all are welcome to the table. It sounded as if they were saying, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe.” I thought I might have found the unity I was seeking, but at what cost? Didn’t truth matter too?
A Spiritual Crisis
When I was in college, I experienced a spiritual crisis. I encountered too many competing views of reality, and I couldn’t make sense of all the different religions and worldviews. I started to question everything.
While I became something of a skeptic, I never became an atheist. Atheists have no explanation why there is anything at all. I also realized I couldn’t be an agnostic. Agnostics still have to make a choice. You either live as if God doesn’t exist, or you live as if God does exist. I still believed in God, but I was quite confused about the Christian faith.
Eventually, I happened on a book by the Anglican writer C. S. Lewis that brought me back firmly into the traditional Christian fold. The book was called Mere Christianity. In it, Lewis posed the question that all seekers must ask themselves. Jesus claimed to be the divine Son of God; He said, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn 8:58). So if He isn’t our divine Lord, He must have been either an evil liar or a lunatic. Neither of the latter options seemed reasonable in light of the evidence we have about His life, so I reaffirmed the Lordship of Jesus in my life.
Since the time Mere Christianity was written, skeptics have proposed a new option for the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” proposition. I would call this the “legend” option. That is, the “divine Jesus” was merely a “legend.” This position holds that the early Church leaders, possibly including the Apostle Paul, collaborated to fabricate Jesus’ claims to divinity, along with followers’ claims that He rose from the dead, for the sake of self-promotion, or for other motives.
The problem with the “legend” conspiracy theory, of course, is obvious. All but one of the Apostles, including St. Paul (along with their successors, the early bishops) faced tremendous persecution and suffered eventual martyrdom for proclaiming that Jesus was the divine Son of God. How could they have been motivated to do so by a desire for self-promotion? And would they actually have been willing to die for making a claim they knew to be a lie?
Journey to the Church Jesus Founded
With these convictions, I settled into my own form of “mere Christianity.” My wife had proven to me that Catholics could indeed be very good Christians. She maintained a better prayer life than I did. She treated others with more charity than many of my Evangelical friends did. I met many good Catholic Christians and became close friends with them.
Even so, I still wasn’t interested in becoming a Catholic. Too many doctrinal hurdles remained. I was still firmly entrenched in the doctrine of sola scriptura (the notion that Scripture alone is the authoritative source of doctrine and practice). And I couldn’t see the pope or the doctrines about Mary (among others) in Scripture. I eventually became involved in several Protestant Bible studies, while my wife started attending a Bible study at our parish.
I had started a business and was busy building my career. When my daughter received her First Communion in 1999, I started to think about investigating the Church. I thought it would be good to receive Communion as a family.
By the time I finally started RCIA (Rite for the Initiation of Christian Adults) in the fall of 2002, I had been attending Mass nearly every week for twenty-two years. I enrolled in the program in our parish to learn why the Church holds to the doctrines she proclaims. I wanted to get scriptural support for Catholic teachings.
Instead, I received a continuous stream of negative views on the papacy and how the Church was unfair to women. For that reason, today I tell people inquiring about the faith to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Many RCIA programs are solid, but in some parishes, inquirers have to take what they hear in RCIA programs with a grain of salt. I started RCIA in September, and by Christmas, I was ready to quit because of what I was hearing there.
Reading That Helped
Fortunately, my wife gave me a book for Christmas, Rome Sweet Home, by Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Dr. Scott Hahn was a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor who quit his ministry to become Catholic. Through his research into Catholic doctrines, history, and Scripture, he decided that Catholics got it right. The account of this couple’s journey into the Catholic Church was easy to read and captivating.
This book got me thinking about the validity of sola scriptura. Dr. Hahn made a rather convincing case that sola scriptura is a theological assumption, not a biblical truth. As I read his insights, everything started to fall into place.
His arguments solved the dilemma that had confronted me in college about unity and truth. Since the Bible needs an interpreter, the sola scriptura position guarantees you will have to compromise one or the other, but you can’t have both. However, when you add Apostolic Tradition and a living teaching office to Scripture, you have a firm foundation that ensures both unity and truth.
Another question that had challenged me was the New Testament canon. Shortly after reading Rome Sweet Home, I read another book about the authority of Sacred Tradition, by Mark Shea, entitled By What Authority? Together these two books rocked my world.
The canon of Scripture was in flux for more than four hundred years. It was the Catholic Church that finally defined the New Testament canon that I subscribed to as a Protestant. How could a fallible Church produce an infallible canon? I had no good answer to that question.
I soon realized that another one of my cherished doctrines, the notion of the “invisible church,” was also a theological assumption and not a biblical truth. Scripture points to a visible church. In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus gives the Church the final authority to determine what it means to be part of the Christian community. How can an invisible church define its own membership?
These authors, also, introduced me to the Church Fathers. I started to read them for myself. I had read some Protestants’ attempts to defend Protestant doctrines by using various quotes from the Church Fathers. However, as I read the same Church Fathers, I was surprised to find a very Catholic understanding of ordination, Tradition, authority, the communion of saints, liturgy (including the Sacrifice of the Mass), Baptism, the Eucharist, and much more.
I learned that Protestants had been guilty of cherry-picking quotes that “sounded” Protestant but were from Church Fathers who were thoroughly Catholic. The Fathers opened Scripture in ways I had never imagined before. Suddenly everything in Scripture started coming up Catholic.
I began to see baptismal regeneration referred to in John 3:3–5 as the Fathers interpreted it. I saw purgatory in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15. I saw the Eucharist in John 6:32–58. I connected the dots between the Passover (the Jews consumed the Passover Lamb) and Jesus as our Passover Lamb. I saw the connection between the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek on the one hand, and the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary on the other, in light of what Paul said about the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians chapters 10 and 11.
The Eucharist is clearly one of the practices Paul was referring to when he repeatedly told the early Church communities to hold on to the traditions he had passed on to them, either by epistle or by word of mouth (see 2 Thess 2:15). The very earliest Christians, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus, confirmed that the Tradition that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ had come to them from the Apostles. In addition, the earliest Christians, including St. Ignatius, understood the connection between valid ordinations and the Eucharist — an issue that raises the question of apostolic succession.
I started to find a teaching office in both the Old and New Testaments. I saw the connection between Isaiah 22:19–25 and Matthew 16:19. Why did Jesus give the keys to only one Apostle? Why didn’t Jesus explain what the keys mean? These questions had haunted me.
The account in Isaiah chapter 22 is the only Old Testament passage in which a key is passed between one person and another. We see a king (Hezekiah) in the line of David, who removes the key from one royal steward (Shebna) and gives it to another (Eliakim). The royal steward is the king’s right-hand man.
Such authority is given to only one person. Verse 19 in this passage refers to the steward filling an “office.” This means that the unique authority does not end at that one person’s death; it is passed down through an office. Verse 21 clarifies this authority even further: “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (emphasis added).
I began connecting the dots. Jesus, a royal descendant of David, is our King. He left His earthly kingdom and appointed His royal steward (St. Peter) to be a shepherd for His flock (see Jn 21:15–17) and their spiritual father (Is 22:21). The keys Jesus gave to St. Peter designate an office and succession (Is 22:19). This succession was passed on to bishops through the laying on of hands (cf. 1 Tim 3:1; 2 Tim 1:6).
The early Church Fathers constantly wrote about the office of bishop. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (now in France), spent twenty years with the bishop and future martyr St. Polycarp, who had spent twenty years with the Apostle John. He once wrote about St. Linus, the first bishop of Rome to succeed St. Peter: “The blessed Apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate” (Against Heresies, 3, 3, 3). Hippolytus, Eusebius, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and many others also affirm that Linus was the first to succeed Peter.
St. Irenaeus added: “With that church [the church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (Against Heresies, 3, 3, 2). For this reason, I always get a chuckle when I see Protestants using quotes from St. Irenaeus or other Church Fathers to support the doctrine of sola scriptura.
Mary was my last hurdle. From my perspective (and that of many Protestants), the idea of having a relationship with Mary took away from the proper attention due to Christ, our sole mediator. What I discovered is that Mary brought Jesus to us two thousand years ago, and she continues to bring Jesus to us today through her intercessory prayers. She always points us to her divine Son. She doesn’t take away from God’s glory, but is an awe-inspiring reflection of it.
When I considered becoming Catholic, I asked: Where are the Marian doctrines (such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption) to be found in Scripture? But if Christian truths can be passed on through oral Tradition from the Apostles (and therefore aren’t limited to explicit references in Scripture), then I should ask other questions: Are these doctrines reasonable? Do they contradict Scripture? Where do they come from? Why are they important?
What I discovered from my research is this: Yes, the Marian doctrines are reasonable. No, they do not contradict Scripture. They come in part from Scripture (or are rooted in Scripture), in part from Tradition and the natural development of doctrine. This natural doctrinal development isn’t new revelation or invention, but rather a deeper understanding of revelation, often achieved by connecting the dots in Scripture.
Home at Last
I was received into the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2003. I have never regretted the decision, and I absolutely love being Catholic. I didn’t become a Catholic to please my wife; I became a Catholic because I had found the “pearl of great price” (see Mt 13:45–46).
I’ve never stopped searching for the holiness that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, first challenged me to seek. Granted, I still have a long way to go to achieve that goal. But having new channels of sanctifying grace in the sacraments — most especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation — have been a real blessing for me.
Tim Cooper is the software developer for the Faith Database CD-ROM, a searchable library of Catholic writings and multiple Scripture translations. (For more information, go to www.faithdatabase.com.) Tim, his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Katie, reside in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they are active volunteers in St. Charles Borromeo parish. Tim also volunteers as a helper for the Coming Home Network International.