Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

The Land was Broad, Quiet, and Peaceful

By: Gerald Tritle January 18, 2011 One Comment

Throughout our spiritual journey, Jennifer and I always seemed to be advancing in one direction while our Christian friends were reverting to others. When we left the Charismatic movement for modern Evangelicalism, our friends were becoming Pentecostal. When we transitioned to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, our friends were migrating to modern Evangelicalism, and when our friends and acquaintances deserted Rome for Protestant Evangelicalism, we joyfully went to Rome.

I was born in Springfield, Ohio, into a line of Lutherans whom I can trace to sixteenth-century Germany. Baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran denomination, I worshipped with my grandparents and parents in this liturgical and sacramental environment until I reached age seven. My parents then quit attending church services, and we ceased discussing religion in our home.

When I was twenty-two years old, a zealous Evangelical Christian presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ to me. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, I consciously embraced Christ as Lord and joined the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. I devoured the Sacred Scriptures and Pentecostal theology.

Ultimately, while maintaining my business vocation, I became a lay minister. I never desired to become a fulltime minister, but wanted instead to help build up the church, living out my faith as a layman.

Three years later, I transferred from the Assemblies of God to an independent charismatic church that I believed was more aligned to the Scriptures’ presentation of the early Church in polity and theology. From these experiences, I came to appreciate the charismatics’ respect and zeal for understanding the Scriptures. I also came to pursue a right, authoritative church polity and an understanding of God’s covenant with man.

On the other hand, I became disenchanted with the charismatics’ errors: dispensational theology, a pietistic and pessimistic outlook on life and culture, and a discipleship that produced ascetic, self-absorbed believers who focused continually on their own psyches.

Jennifer’s relatives had immigrated to America from Italy during the 1940s. Originally Catholic, they quickly became Protestant, joining the Christian Church of North America (an Italian Pentecostal church). Her family’s spiritual journey over several years included attending Nazarene, Free Methodist, Calvary Chapel, and Evangelical Free churches.

Jennifer was baptized at age ten, but by age twenty, after having witnessed years of church infighting, pastoral immorality, and doctrinal immaturity, she became disillusioned with organized religion. The Holy Spirit intervened when she was twenty-one and opened her eyes to see that the Scriptures were the standard for faith and life and God required obedience to them.

Jennifer and I met in 1986, when I was on a business trip to California. We were married in Ohio in 1988. In our marriage ceremony we vowed to love each other and dedicate ourselves to serving and blessing Christ’s people, His church.

On our honeymoon in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we met a noted Reformed scholar who was ministering in a local charismatic church. He taught us the glory of church history and her saints, the errors of dispensationalism, and the need to train one’s children diligently in the faith. We resonated with his message. It launched within both Jennifer and me a great desire to seek and know and enjoy the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit — the Kingdom of God — to which the Scriptures refer in Romans 14:11.

God had graced us to seek the blessed land wherein, according to 1 Chronicles 4:40, the children of Israel found rich, good pasture; a land that was broad, quiet, and peaceful; that is, the Church. We had not yet found this land, but upon our return to Springfield, Jennifer started her new job as a clinical therapist working with male juvenile sex offenders. Her associate in this work and his wife, the Whites, were a lovely, peaceful, and knowledgeable Catholic couple.

Within a few months of our marriage, Jennifer and I mutually agreed to save money so that the following year we could take a sabbatical to attend a charismatic Bible school in East Texas to deepen our understanding of the Scriptures and the Kingdom of God. Our spiritual journey to date had left us without assurance that we were interpreting God and His will for our lives correctly. We were desperate to know God and His way, a desperation that to our friends seemed overly zealous and somewhat foolish.

By the end of that sabbatical year, God had answered more of our prayers regarding His Kingdom: To put it bluntly, He had showed us through our experience at the Bible school that the undisciplined and subjective nature of the charismatic tradition was misguided. We saw that it lacked unity with the broader church; it was substandard in theology and devoid of any historical roots prior to the early 1900s.

The Reformed Tradition

On our last day in Texas before returning to Springfield, we visited a bookstore where we found several volumes by Reformed Presbyterian and Christian Reconstructionist authors. The store manager was the wife of a minister who would become one of our Reformed Presbyterian mentors. We purchased $200 worth of books that would, over the subsequent months, root us in the history of the Church, in the theology of the creeds and confessions, in the knowledge of the Kingdom of God, and in the doctrines of the broader Protestant tradition.

Jennifer and I were so distracted by all that God was teaching us that we never considered that we were entrenched in an irrational Protestant bias. We were not consciously bigoted against the Catholic Church. The thought of embracing the Catholic faith simply never occurred to us. Sadly, most of the Catholics we knew were cynical and unknowledgeable about the Church and the Scriptures.

After returning to Springfield in 1990, Jennifer and I had no church affiliation, having left the charismatic movement. Instead we led a home Bible study in which we and others studied the Scriptures, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Schaff’s History of the Christian Church. Eventually our group concluded that we needed to join the Presbyterian Church.

We were extremely attracted to its polity of elder rule, its Reformation-based theology (much of which is grounded in the Scriptures), and its historical roots — all elements that are missing in much of Evangelical Protestantism. Confused by the existence of hundreds of Presbyterian denominations and thousands of church congregations, we called upon our mentor in Texas for help. He belonged to the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (RPCUS), but counseled us and the rest of our Bible study group to join the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), which we all did in 1992.

We thought that our journey into the broad land was accomplished. We had found more of the Kingdom of God than we had ever known: spiritual authority, enthusiastic preaching of the Scriptures, and the organized and visible church in all of her — as we believed at the time — orthodox glory. The Reformation cries of sola fide and sola Scriptura were faithfully taught, and we took church membership vows to honor those tenets.

Unbiblical ecclesiastical traditions were nixed in that denomination, or so we thought. Our three children — Jedidiah, Josiah, and Sarah — were baptized in the OPC. Three years later, I became a ruling elder, and the following year I began to train to become a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

In 1997, I earned a Master of Divinity degree from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the most conservative seminary servicing the OPC. My studies were steeped in Church history, the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages, and the development of theology. These, along with my extra historical and ecclesiastical studies with Jennifer, broadened our theological and ethical outlook. By reading the early Church Fathers, the creeds and confessions, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I began learning a great deal about the Catholic faith.

Jennifer and I were exhilarated by all we were learning, and our zeal infected many of our lay brethren in the church. Delighting in God’s will, we were forming intimate fellowship with many families who seemed fervent for the faith. In addition, I taught a series from the Book of Ecclesiastes that changed Jennifer and me to this day.

From that book we learned that we did not need to be overly righteous or religious about life (see Eccl 7:16). We could relax and eat, drink, and be merry while submitting to the fear of God and the keeping of His commandments (Eccl 8:15; 12:13). We realized that God did not require us to be able to split every doctrinal hair in order to please Him.

We assessed our lives and agreed that our journey to date had made us overly narrow theologically, too legalistic, too pietistic, overly critical of others and other churches, anti-Catholic (although we believed that there were Christians in the Catholic Church), and devoid of a zeal to perform good works out of a warm heart of love. We saw ourselves becoming what we did not want to become and what we clearly saw in the Scriptures that Christ detested.

We repented thoroughly to God. Christ, we realized, was not as concerned about what exactly we believed as He was concerned about our charity toward all of mankind. The parables that we had studied about the sheep and the goats and about the poor and the needy were illuminating our minds and correcting our thoughts.

We realized that God would be just as pleased whether I was serving others in my business vocation or in fulltime ministry. In addition, each day we were feeling more and more the need to burst out of the fetters that our elders had placed on us. We were serving the church twenty to thirty hours per week and were exhausted. They were merciless about giving us any reprieve.

In addition, we were feeling the need to be outside of the church’s four walls to serve Christ and to build our own lives: to serve in a soup kitchen, to bake for the neighbors, to provide free tutoring for a child, to enroll our children in community affairs, and to pursue creative ventures. But verbally and nonverbally, the elders communicated to us their displeasure with our newfound liberty and trajectory.

Becoming a Pastor

We subsequently made a collaborative decision not to pursue a pastorate in the OPC. This was the beginning of sorrows. In 2000, not having found a suitable congregation to join and yet equipped with the qualifications, ministerial experience, sponsorship, and desire to begin a less legalistic and more merciful Reformed congregation in Springfield, we joined with our mentor minister in the RPCUS to begin pastoring a new congregation: Springfield Reformed Presbyterian Church.

The OPC that we left learned of our new congregation and the sponsoring RPCUS denomination. Though Springfield had no Reformed congregation, and though the nearest OPC congregation was about thirty-five miles away, the OPC congregation feared that their parishioners would travel that distance to Springfield to partake of a former elder’s ministry. The RPCUS graciously requested that the OPC allow the Springfield congregation to come into the RPCUS without incident.

The OPC, after much discourse, refused to do so. Because of this refusal, our congregation became a member of the Association of Free Reformed Churches.

Although our congregation seemed free and clear of the most sectarian portions of the Presbyterian world, we were beginning to note that these several judicatories were basically doing “what was right in [their] own eyes” (Jgs 21:25). Not only was all this an example of disunity, but my family also had to bear my verdict of excommunication by the OPC, a result of a humiliating and public church trial. The judgment of excommunication means that that particular session of elders ruled me an “infidel” or an “unbeliever” to be shunned.

Families and friends with whom we had spent countless ministry and friendship hours no longer spoke to us, fearing punishment if they disobeyed the elders. Nearly ten years of relationships and emotions were annihilated. We were ousted and ostracized because we failed to adhere to what the OPC defined as the Protestant ministerial tradition. Nevertheless, we ministered, published, worked, and persevered for nearly four years at Springfield Reformed Church.

Our congregation grew, and we served our community. We urged the flock to be rich in good works. Eventually, however, as we witnessed the continued disunity and hateful infighting among many members of the Reformed community locally and nationally, Jennifer and I began to become disenchanted with the Reformed Presbyterian tradition and the Protestant tradition altogether. A crisis point in our spiritual journey home had arrived.

While teaching a series on the justification of the saints to my congregation, I returned to my studies of Protestant doctrines and Catholic doctrines that I had learned in seminary. Several theologians seeking Protestant and Catholic dialogue had sparked my consideration of the legitimacy of the Catholic faith.

While poring over Protestant and Catholic dogma, I lost my theological moorings. I began to vacillate back and forth between wanting to remain Protestant and wanting to join the broad fellowship of the Catholic faith, which I saw as “deep in Scripture, deep in tradition, and deep in history” (a quote from the Coming Home Network International website, which I had been perusing).

At first, I would spend days holding to Protestant teaching and minutes holding to Catholic teaching. Then I would wake up Protestant in the morning and become a convinced Catholic at night. I was angry that my spiritual journey had come to this major confusion.

My poor wife, while waiting for me to land, longed for our family to be rightly planted and rested in Christ’s Church. She would have continued in our denomination if I had desired it, but she did not want me to continue ministering as a pastor if I was so frustrated and unhappy.

Coming to Conclusions

Eventually we came to some rational conclusions. First, Jennifer and I realized that Protestant teaching was not honest, as it purported to be, with all the Scriptures regarding justification by works (such as Jas 2:24). As a result, we concluded that sola fide was now out.

I also found that the Scriptures themselves were a part of Church (that is, Catholic Church) Tradition and even spoke of the reception of Church Tradition. This made the phrase sola scriptura not only unscriptural, but also unethical. So, sola scriptura was out too.

Moreover, Church Tradition and Sacred Scripture compose the “deposit of faith” handed down to us by the Fathers. My eyes were opened to the fact that Protestants reject the pope in favor of establishing their own smaller popes (independent congregations) and curia (Presbyterian denominations).

Furthermore, I was deeply frustrated that Protestants, no matter how large their denomination, were unable to work out theological or ministerial unity among themselves, to the detriment of the growth of the entire Church. Their pursuits of what has been called the “narcissism of small [doctrinal] differences” will be their collective doom. Along with every other Protestant pastor or bishop, I would always be relegated to reinventing the wheel of polity and ministerial infrastructure.

How, in this divided and schismatic enterprise called Protestantism, could I ever work to minister effectively to those in Africa, Croatia — or even Cincinnati, for that matter?

Finally, I saw and understood that, according to St. Peter’s words recorded in Acts 10:34–35, God accepts all who fear Him and work righteousness. The Catholic Church teaches and lives this reality. The Protestants tack on theological particulars that go beyond what God Himself requires.

I pondered the major reforms of the Catholic Church since the sixteenth century. I began to acknowledge the fervent love for Christ and His Word exhibited by the Catholic Church. I wanted a unified, international, and historically legitimate Church that embraced the historic creeds and confessions. I believed in Trent over against the Reformed creeds, and I realized that I was no longer fighting the ecclesiastical wars of the sixteenth century.

We contacted our Catholic friends, the Whites, to tell them of our decision. They eventually became our sponsors into St. Teresa Catholic Church back in Springfield.

Our transition to the Catholic faith was emotional and difficult, but ultimately healing. I drafted a letter to my presbyter, my original mentor, stating my intentions to leave the ministry of the Springfield congregation and join the Catholic Church. My plan was to continue preaching for six weeks so that I could help the parishioners transition to other traditions, including the Catholic Church, should any desire to do so. But within a few hours, the presbyter called each parishioner personally and told them that I, now an “idolatrous papist,” was defecting to the “Sicilian pit” of Rome and was not worthy to be their pastor for a single day longer.

This action devastated the congregation and me. Given that I was obviously fired, I visited my own congregation one more Sunday, trying to explain my transition to the Catholic faith and offer my help. The weeping among the congregation was great — and brief. The crying turned to anger and name-calling within only a few days.

The congregation dissolved fourteen weeks later. Even though I lost ministry income, I had kept my professional job and thus avoided problematic entanglements and financial difficulties while making this transition.

A Glorious Joy

In November 2003, my family joined our parish’s RCIA and CCD classes, and during the 2004 Easter Vigil, Jennifer, my three children, and I were confirmed in the Catholic Church and partook of our First Communion. The pain and wounds notwithstanding, God, through much tribulation, had driven my family out of harrowing trials and into the broad and blessed land of His Catholic Church.

Though we knew the pleasant and unpleasant episodes of Catholic history, we embraced Christ and the Church because it is His Church. We now know the blessedness of the faith once and for all given to the saints; the rightly administered and Real Presence of Christ in the sacraments; the legitimate Church polity and clergy whose origin comes from the Apostles; and the joy of worshipping with unified Christians from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

In fact, we are now preparing to minister on our RCIA team, to provide premarital counseling to engaged couples, and to teach our parish’s youth group. We now, without doubting, finally have the assurance that we know God, His will, and His Church, and this is a most blessed estate in which to be. We diligently sought the Kingdom of God, and, as He promised in Sacred Scripture, we found it (Mt 6:33; 7:7).

We understand what the online edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article “Protestantism,” means when it says: “The convert, beside and beyond his knowledge, must have sufficient strength of will to break with old associations, old friendships, old habits, and to face the uncertainties of life in new surroundings. His sense of duty, in many cases, must be of a heroic temper.” Although we embrace a greater breadth and number of friends today, we are sad about the loss of those friends and associations that were apparently based only upon mutual agreement on small theological differences.

Were the non-Catholic beginnings of the journey a tremendous waste of time and resources? Not at all! Our Reformed instruction rightly taught us that nothing happens apart from God’s sustaining and governing love over all His creatures and over all their actions.

Our journey thus far was God’s decretive will. Ours was to love and to obey His Word as it was revealed by the Holy Spirit to us at each step of the way. We kept seeking after His Kingdom and praying for His wisdom. We trusted God to direct our steps providentially (through circumstances and the like) to where He would have us.

The tribulations were a sanctifying part of the journey. As St. Paul stated:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance; and endurance produces character; and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3–5).

On reflection, we can see that for us, life as Protestants was difficult, fractured, and somewhat hopeless. The cost of transitioning to the Catholic faith was small when compared to the glorious joy that my family and I are now experiencing at home and serving the Lord in the Catholic Church.

The Coming Home Network International