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Church of ChristConversion Stories

From Sect to Sacrament

James Green
March 16, 2023 No Comments

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us…” (John 17:20–21). A desperate search for the remedy to denominationalism and Christian disunity led to the discovery of the complete prescription in the Catholic Church, which led to my encounter with the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and along with Him, all the desires of my soul.

For I Have Called You by Name

I was born on July 30, 1990, in Cheltenham, PA, but my mother died when I was 15 months old, so my dad and I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, so that my grandmother, aunts and uncles could help raise me. Spiritually speaking, I was born and raised in the Stone-Campbell churches of Christ. The founder, Alexander Campbell, was a Presbyterian preacher in the mid-19th century who went into a deep study of the Scriptures and concluded that the Protestant Reformers had not gone far enough in their restoration of the first century Church. He rejected infant baptism, instrumental music in worship, use of formal creeds and catechisms across churches, the use of names for churches that are not found in the New Testament directly, and other such things as unbiblical. For Campbell and those who followed him, the New Testament is a group of documents from which the essential practices and teachings of the first-century Church can be distilled with enough applied reason and effort, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Generally, my church experience was happy and positive as a kid. On Sunday, October 2002, at 12 years old, I agreed to be baptized, and I was officially incorporated into Christ’s body, the Church. My first taste of Christian disunity happened a few months later, still in 2002, when the eldership at our church was dissolved due to a personality conflict, and the congregation split in two. Looking back, while the church conflict wasn’t pleasant for anyone (there were multiple shouting matches at congregational meetings), my being young and not at the center of the conflict meant that I didn’t have that much emotional hurt.

After this, life continued as normal. I got more and more involved with the kids my age at church, as well as getting serious with my classical piano studies. By the end of my senior year of high school in May 2009, I was attending church anytime the doors were open. I had close relationships with several families, to the point where I adopted one of the older women in the congregation as my grandmother.

At the same time, I had advanced enough in music to be able to get into the Piano Performance Program at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. The night before I moved to college, I heard a sermon regarding a subset of churches of Christ that had departed from the New Testament pattern. Their specific sin is that they employ unscriptural means to accomplish the work of the church. For example, they build kitchens in the church building. There is no mention of the building of kitchens in the book of Acts to do the benevolent work of the church or giving church treasury money to an organization that is not a local church (such as a Bible college). Money is only given in the New Testament to individuals or congregations. The specific term for this division is institutional vs. non-institutional churches of Christ.

Wanting to be intellectually fair to both sides of the argument, I met with my grandparents, the elders at my home church, friends, other family members, read several books and articles regarding the subject and wrestled with the issue for a couple of months. The issue boiled down to arguments from silence as well as the nature of means and ends. Kitchens aren’t mentioned in the New Testament; on the other hand, neither are church buildings. So Christian colleges with contributions from local churches don’t exist in the New Testament, but neither do Sunday Schools or preachers that stay in one place. I eventually concluded that the question was a matter of opinion, not the difference between heaven and hell, so I sided with the institutional churches.

I let the elders at my church know about my decision, and in early winter of 2010, they sent me a letter of disfellowship, meaning that I was not in good standing with Christ’s Church and in danger of being eternally lost. Looking back, I don’t have any lingering resentment towards those men who, while wrong on many counts, loved God and tried to defend the truth as best they knew how. At the time, however, I was emotionally and spiritually devastated.

This devastation lasted into the summer of 2010, and I reached a spiritual impasse. Specifically, my prayer life was on the ropes. I don’t remember much teaching growing up on the practice of prayer besides (A) that I should pray and (B) what the Bible says about what you should pray about. When I talked to God about the church disfellowshipping, I didn’t view it from the perspective that the elders at my former church were the enemies of God’s true church. Rather, I viewed it as a tragedy that God had to answer for. I remember mentally screaming to him, “God, help! Why won’t you do something about this! This isn’t fair! Why won’t you take away my pain?! Do you hear me God? Are you there? Am I just talking to a brick wall, to myself, to nothingness?”

At this point my best friend Matthew, a nominal Baptist turned atheist, told me, “I don’t know if I’d classify you as an atheist, but you’re definitely agnostic.” From that point on, I identified as an agnostic during my sophomore and junior years, opposed to all things religious.

My senior year of college, however, everything converged to bring about my reversion to the Christian faith. One of those experiences was the influence of several music school friends who evangelized me, not by talking, but by their kindness and integrity of character. The second was Steve, a pastor at an institutional church of Christ whom I could understand, and who I felt could understand me. He had been kicked out of churches for similar reasons to mine, and he had also struggled with deep sadness and suffering, so we were able to slowly work together through the hurts of being disfellowshipped. At this point, the conditions were ripe for a reversion, but I still didn’t have a complete intellectual ground upon which to stand.

Can’t Be Too Careful What You Read

That ground would come in the form of a CS Lewis book called Mere Christianity. I remember reading the book one night, and being furious: here is a former atheist turned Christian making compelling historical and rational arguments for objective morality and the historicity of the resurrection. Additionally, the pain of suffering and evil is only objectively meaningful if God exists, so I would have to work with God to overcome the suffering, not turn away from Him or deny that He exists. At the beginning of my college years, I could dismiss Christianity because I hadn’t encountered a fearless, whole Christian intellectual vision with which to resist the secular status quo, but after reading Lewis, I realized that refusing to be Christian was “reasoning against reason with the very power that gave me the ability to reason.”

Although I reverted to Christianity as I started my master’s degree in Piano Performance in August of 2013, my influences in reverting changed my spiritual trajectory from what I was raised with. Lewis, while unapologetically defending many of the core doctrines of the faith, doesn’t point you in a denominational direction. He simply says you must pick the denomination that best corresponds to the truth. The friends who encouraged me to revert were all either Baptist or Presbyterian, groups that the conservative churches of Christ are historically opposed to. Both Steve, my minister friend, and my non-church-of-Christ friends rejected the churches of Christ’s claim to be the one true church that Christ established, so I also rejected that belief in favor of a more amiable “ecumenism.” Essentially, we may not be able to evangelize together, but I’m not going to evangelize you, and we’ll agree to disagree. If you had asked me what creed or catechism I assented to, I would probably answer Mere Christianity (although Lewis himself did not intend for the book to be a creed, only a steppingstone to a creed). Looking back, I can see that my belief in the doctrinal distinctives of the churches of Christ, especially the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (that baptism, by the power of God, causes forgiveness of sins and adoption into the family of God) hadn’t weakened: it was only suppressed.

My new brothers and sisters extended their ecumenism even to the Catholic church, which was helpful in starting to purge what anti-Catholicism I may have absorbed growing up. I picked up a cheap copy of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church and read the whole thing from cover to cover (not a typical Protestant activity, I know). At the time, I would say that I begrudgingly respected Mary’s role as Mother of God and a pivotal player in salvation history, and I respected the current Popes (St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI) as one would respect that old professor at university that is brilliant but sometimes goes past the point of moderation when expounding his favorite ideas. Ideas like purgatory, the sacraments, the infallibility of Sacred Tradition, I glossed over as well intentioned but forced, wishful reading into biblical text, but I was surprised at how much I agreed with the basic christology and morality that I was reading. Throughout most of my twenties, my attitude towards the Church was a mixture of indifference, confusion and begrudging admiration.

The next few years of my life don’t have any significant spiritual change, only professional ones. I grew in my knowledge of Scripture and theology, established strong spiritual friendships that have lasted to the present day, and was generally content and happy. I ended up getting my master’s degree in piano at the University of Memphis in May 2015, and then got into the doctoral piano program at University of North Carolina – Greensboro. Unfortunately, due to overloading my schedule with classes, gigs, and church work, at the end of my third year in the doctoral program, I had done poorly enough in my academic classes (anything below a C is considered poor performance in a doctoral program) that my overall grade average was just below the minimum grade average to stay in school, so I was kicked out of the program, the only consolation being that I could reapply in a year and finish. This did a number on my self-confidence, but I managed, teaching piano and taking gigs until I could re-apply and finish.

Around the same time, I left my church congregation to find one with more young people, without regard for denomination. During the summer of 2018 (the same summer that I was kicked out of school), I had visited several congregations to see where I could fit in and build relationships. One church, a mid-sized Baptist church, seemed like they had a ton of good people, but the preaching and teaching was a bit too basic for me. The next church was a Presbyterian church to which one of my music friends had invited me. While it had intellectually robust preaching and Bible classes, there weren’t that many young adults, and the way they treated Calvinism as the only biblical worldview reminded me a bit too much of the church that had disfellowshipped me. Finally, I discovered a Baptist church plant that was bursting at the seams with young people, with a lead pastor who had an apologetics degree AND quoted CS Lewis and Augustine! Therefore, this congregation would be my church as I tried to get back into school and finish my degree.

While getting settled in at my new church and working as a freelance musician in Greensboro, I had ample time on my hands. While a fair chunk of it was spent on video games and music, most of the time was spent reading theology and classic literature, a program which included any CS Lewis books I could get my hands on. I started to dip my toes into the Carmelite mystics, Augustine, the apostolic Church Fathers, Church history, apologetics debates, and the like.

What I didn’t realize (until after my conversion) is that, while CS Lewis never formally entered the Catholic Church, his underlying worldview is dangerously close to Catholic teaching in many places — that is, the more deeply you absorb his thinking, the more proto-Catholic you become. Examples from Mere Christianity include virtue ethics (four cardinal and three theological), theosis or divinization, Holy Communion as actually affecting the spiritual life in the soul, insistence on spiritual perfection, and the development and fierce protection of doctrine. Lewis once said in his conversion narrative, Surprised by Joy, that if one wants to remain an atheist, he cannot be too careful about what he reads. I would eventually discover that the same was doubly true concerning Catholicism.

While the Baptist church I attended stuck to contemporary Christian music in their worship, my soul was being pulled in another direction. The churches of Christ paraphrased the Psalms in their songbook, so I thought it would be better simply to sing the Psalms through from start to finish. Somehow, through a Google search, I discovered Anglican chant, and while I would play contemporary Christian on Sundays, my personal worship consisted of chanting the Psalms. Another check for proto-Catholic influences.

A Man Without a (Faith) Home

While unknowingly inching toward a high church version of Protestantism, there were a number of incidents at this Baptist church that started to put a crack in the castle wall of denominational relativism that I had built for myself. The most extreme incident was that one of our small group members wanted to become a full member of the church, but he had been baptized as an infant, so the elders did not recognize his baptism as valid — even though this particular church didn’t consider the matter to be a salvation issue. I explained to my friend over lunch that infant baptism isn’t explicitly mentioned in the New Testament; it’s not that big of a deal, because Baptist churches agree that baptism does not save.

But I believed privately that baptism is necessary for salvation. Now, if I was being intellectually consistent, I shouldn’t have been a member of that Baptist church, and I should have spent my time convincing them that my position on baptism was biblical and theirs was not. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but such was the state of my soul in October of 2019. Little did I know, God, in His infinite mercy, was about to step in to rescue me from this spiritual fog in a completely unexpected way.

On Sunday, October 27th, 2019, I was reading CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, the account of his coming to grips with his wife’s death. What I was not expecting — what unsettled me — was an indirect apologetic for purgatory and prayers for the dead:

How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before — I thought it immensely improbable — that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat. It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter. (A Grief Observed, New York: Bantam, 1976, 48–51)

According to Lewis, the reality of a total spiritual cleansing after death is a logical consequence of two ideas. One: Most people, even the most spiritually advanced ones, are not free of every sin and filled with every virtue when they die. Two: In order to enjoy the fullness of God’s glory in heaven, one must be free of every vice and filled with every virtue. If God doesn’t instantly grant virtue in this life, but only after painful striving and suffering, why would our spiritual growth after death be any different?

Here was CS Lewis, whom I viewed as the most logical and intellectually sober Christian in recent memory, not only defending purgatory, but rejecting the opposing position as “wishful thinking with a vengeance!”

Near the end of the book, Lewis talks about sensing the presence of his wife one night:

I said, several notebooks ago, that even if I got what seemed like an assurance of H.’s presence, I wouldn’t believe it. Easier said than done. Even now, though, I won’t treat anything of that sort as evidence. It’s the quality of last night’s experience… that makes it worth putting down. It was quite incredibly unemotional. Just the impression of her mind momentarily facing my own. …there was an extreme and cheerful intimacy. An intimacy that had not passed through the senses or the emotions at all. Now I’m terrified. If this great Christian was not immune to awareness of the supernatural, who was to say that I was? (A Grief Observed, Toronto: Bantam Books edition, 1961, 85)

Around the same time, I sent a prayer request to Madison, one of my Reformed Baptist friends. She then texted: “I’m praying for you, also Mom is praying for you.” Knowing nothing about the Catholic teaching about the Blessed Virgin Mary or the communion of saints, I was exceedingly confused. “Who are you talking about? How do you know that my dead mother is praying for me?” She replied, “No, I mean that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is praying for you.”

“Mary.” At this point, Madison called me and told me of her intention of becoming Catholic, as well as directing me to a series of Marian theology talks by her parish priest on YouTube. In addition, when she said the name of Mary, a supernatural presence made itself known to me on the edge of my consciousness, while at the same time I had an extremely intense experience and awareness of God’s goodness, love, and protection that I have never had in my life. I figured I would get to these Mary videos, likely at some point in the distant future, and that whatever this presence (and accompanying spiritual high) was, it would go away after a good night’s rest.

Not a Figment of the Imagination

The next day, Monday, the presence was still with me. It was with me all the time — in the shower, walking, going to work, doing laundry. What was strange was that this presence was like a mind, as Lewis said, but I could sense that it was protecting me, guarding me, loving me, comforting me. Next day, Tuesday, the presence still hadn’t gone away. Wednesday, the presence remained there. Despite the peace I felt due to the presence, I was also perplexed. Am I insane? Am I demonically possessed? Do I have a mental illness that I don’t know about? I vaguely knew that Catholics were more equipped to deal with the supernatural than other Christian groups, so maybe I could get something from these RCIA videos to help me without becoming Catholic myself.

I started watching the YouTube videos on Wednesday night (October 30th). Madison’s parish priest started explaining that the Church’s teachings about Mary are grounded in Old Testament typology. For example, in Genesis 3, we see that Eve (the Mother of All the Living and a virgin), listens to the devil (a wicked angel) and thereby dooms all of her progeny to possessing a sinful nature, suffering, and death. Paul in the New Testament tells us explicitly that Jesus Christ is the New Adam (Romans 5:12–21). Well and good, but where’s the New Eve? In Luke 1, we see a virgin listening to a good angel, the archangel Gabriel, but instead of saying no to God like Eve did, Mary said yes, and won salvation for herself and the new humanity that was to be formed in the person of her Son, Jesus. (St. Irenaeus Lyons writes about this in his treatise Against Heresies, only a few decades after the death of the last apostle.) Additionally, if the First Eve was conceived without sin, and Old Testament types are surpassed by their fulfillments, then it would make sense for the Second Eve to not only be sinless, but to be filled with every virtue and grace. Thus, we have a biblical defense for the Immaculate Conception, the dogma of the Theotokos (Mother of God), and Mary as the Mother of all Christians in one stroke.

By the time I got to the end of the videos and explored most of the Old Testament types of our Lady, I knew two things: One, that Mary was everything that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches said she was. Two, that the probability of my staying Protestant was close to zero. I wondered to myself, did the Virgin Mary just reveal herself to me? The presence and accompanying consolations went away as soon as I finished watching the RCIA videos. Looking back, I think that our Lord knew I needed more of a push to get the conversion train going, so he graciously sent his Mother to get the job done.

Around 6 AM on Thursday, October 31st, 2019 (ironically, Reformation Day), I had finished all the videos (it was about six hours in total, and I didn’t sleep) and texted Madison about everything that had happened. Being the proactive evangelist that she is, she promptly found a 7 AM Mass at a Catholic parish within five minutes’ driving distance from my apartment, and suggested I go there to observe. The following Sunday, I went to the morning Mass at the same parish. I was swept off my feet when the priest started chanting; it was like my private Anglican chant, but times a million! I grabbed a business card for the RCIA director to set up a meeting time to do individual sessions so I could get caught up with the rest of the class, which had started back in August 2019.

Reason That Is Reasonable

The next couple of months could be described as drinking from a Catholic firehose. I read through the Catechism multiple times, watched every video my catechist had, and absorbed every Word on Fire episode possible. Initially, I became attracted to the Church because of how its Mariology flows from its Christology. But as I studied, I came to realize that the Catholic approach to doctrinal unity is the only approach that can infallibly discern essentials of the faith from non-essentials. Romans 14 (a popular passage in churches of Christ) exhorts the Christian to bear patiently with the man who is weak in faith, but not to quarrel over disputable matters. What the Catholic Church showed me was that Romans 14 only works because the Apostles made an infallible and irrevocable pronouncement on the matter of Jewish customs in Acts 15. Furthermore, if a Christian is excommunicated according to Matthew 18, it doesn’t do much good if the excommunicated starts another church. At some point, there must be a super-rational authority to keep James, a reasoning being, from reasoning his way into Unreason, especially in religious matters.

I intentionally use the term “super-rational authority,” because I discovered that, while the Church sets boundaries for the debate and rational disagreement of Christians, she is herself the greatest champion of Reason, and she purifies and refines man’s reason so it can fire on all cylinders. Over time, through the work of its Fathers, Doctors, and the entire body of the faithful, the Church reflects on and reasons through the Scriptures, art, history, sexuality, philosophy, biology, mathematics, social justice, economics, and the like. After doing some digging, I discovered that, under the guidance of the Church, philosophy and the natural sciences flourished throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance (in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas refers to theology as a sacred science). For detailed information, read How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods and Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark.

As I was studying the teachings of the Church further, I came across the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (what Protestants commonly call the Lord’s Supper). When I was younger, the Catholic concept of Holy Communion seemed weird. If God is Spirit, I thought, there’s no need for bodily union like in human marriage because spirit is superior to matter. I can’t remember the exact moment I finally got it, but when reading up about this, it dawned on me: the Church says that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Most Holy Eucharist. If I am consuming the whole Jesus in Communion, this means that my body, blood, soul, and humanity is becoming one with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. My intellectual discovery of the Church turned into an all-consuming love affair, and I knew I was going to be Catholic, no matter what.

At the end of December 2019, I had given a letter to my current church stating that I was becoming Catholic. In February 2020, I had to move in with my parents in Muncie, Indiana, until COVID died down and I could get back on my feet financially. Easter was spent watching Mass online due the spread of COVID, and I wouldn’t be able to be received into the Church until June 14, 2020, the Feast of Corpus Christi. At present, I’m still in Muncie, Indiana, working as a supervisor at a call center, actively involved in the music ministry at my parish and discerning what to do with my musical abilities. I am also in the process of discerning what state of life God has called me to — whether the consecrated religious life, the priesthood, or the sacramentally married life. Please pray for my discernment.

If I had to trace my spiritual journey from my baptism to the present day, I would say the final part of my journey home came when I discovered that the Church’s doctrinal unity exists for the sole purpose of facilitating our mystical, all-consuming union with God, presently in the Holy Eucharist, eternally in heaven. In the words of our Lord: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love from before the foundation of the world… that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:24, 26)

James Green

James Green came home to the Catholic Church in June of 2020. He is a heavily-involved parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and Newman Center in Muncie, Indiana, especially in the music ministry, while working a day job as a call center supervisor. In his free time, James enjoys video games, memes, reading theology and philosophy, playing classical and jazz piano, and taking care of his three dogs.

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