I did not receive a very religious upbringing. I was, however, indirectly taught that God existed, and I retained some vague belief in Him until high school, when I became a practical agnostic. With thousands of religions in the world, and even science constantly changing its mind about “truth,” I didn’t feel a pressing need to commit to any faith. More importantly, I liked my life without religious rules. Further, it seemed to me that whenever Christians would attempt to evangelize me, they could never answer my questions to my satisfaction. I wasn’t going to change my life if I didn’t have good reasons to do so.
Although my faith in God wavered, my commitment to truth never did. Near the end of my high school journey, a couple of Christian evangelists managed to engage me. They actually knew their faith and rather handily took my arguments against Christianity apart. My disbelief became merely a matter of the will, and it did not take long for me to give up and give in. I prayed for God’s forgiveness and put my trust in Jesus for my salvation — but I didn’t know what to do next.
The summer before college I got a job at a Christian summer camp and finally began to actually learn my faith. This was followed by several years of being ministered to at various Christian campus groups. During this time, I was mentored by some faithful leaders who helped me move from student to teacher. By the time I graduated from college, I was being prompted to go to seminary. A formal theological education sounded interesting, but in the Evangelical world, one usually went to seminary to become either a pastor or a missionary, and I was not interested in either role.
Then I heard about Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) on a popular radio program. One of my heroes of the faith, Dr. Norman Geisler, was featured as a guest. He said he had started a seminary in North Carolina dedicated to defending the faith. The decision felt like it made itself! I might have packed my bags the next day, but at the time I was dating an incredible woman named Elaine, who I thought might be my future wife. I told her that if we remained together, she’d be moving across the country with me for seminary. Three years later we married and took a 3,000-mile road trip to North Carolina in an overloaded pickup truck to begin classes.
The next several years were simply amazing. I was stretched in directions I didn’t know existed, made many lifelong friends, and felt my faith solidifying in ways that were both intellectually satisfying and even fun. In my second year, I was asked by Dr. Geisler to be his grader and research assistant, and after graduating at the top of my class, I was hired full-time at SES.
For several more years, I served variously as Director of Distance Education, Recruiter, Webmaster, and, finally, as a professor.
By the time I began my doctoral studies (again with SES), I had been ordained, published, and was speaking at Evangelical churches, conferences, and campuses across the nation. I felt I had nearly reached “Evangelical Rock Star” status. From the outside it appeared that I had “arrived” and that my future was in the bag. That very well might have been, but there was another side to the story.
This problem had begun working its way into my life when I read a letter from a friend and former SES employee who announced that he had become Catholic. Catholic! The faculty and staff were shocked — many even felt betrayed. I was mostly bewildered. He had gone through the same program I had and had read Dr. Geisler’s book on Catholicism. How could this have happened? I replied to his letter, and we embarked on several months of dialogue and debate. During these theological duels, I came out the worse more times than I wanted to admit. I eventually had to shelve the discussion until I could devote the time that I apparently needed to get the better of this budding Catholic apologist. The Catholic conundrum remained at the back of my mind for several years until a series of distressing events threw it back to the forefront.
After 15 years of living the Evangelical life, things began to fall apart at SES. Although SES looked good from the outside, behind the scenes there was a church split (splintering would be a more accurate term) in addition to theological debates, firings both professional and ministerial, political maneuvering, and all manner of internal strife that tore the faculty and staff apart. Unsurprisingly, this eventuated in the school falling on hard times. It was an emotional time, but objectively speaking, it was Evangelicalism’s inability to authoritatively settle these problems that troubled me the most. Having had my eyes opened to the reality behind the rhetoric I had bought into for so many years, I became disillusioned. What followed was a five-year journey of discovery that eventually led me out of Evangelicalism.
I wasn’t looking for an escape — I was looking for answers. Why did we Evangelicals (specifically, baptistic, dispensational, non-charismatic, moderate-realist Evangelicals) think we had it all figured out when, apparently, no other Christian group had got it right in nearly 2,000 years? How did we know that only the books in the Protestant Bible were inspired? Why was Evangelicalism in such bad shape doctrinally and morally? Why could “orthodox” Christians disagree on everything but the “essential” truths when the Bible did not say what counted as the essentials? I had been asking these questions for years. What was different this time around was that I was not going to settle for easy replies.
The first big issue for me was how we knew which books belonged in the Bible (the canon of Scripture). I knew good apologetic arguments for “the Bible” — but not everyone agreed on the exact contents of the Bible, so who was right? SES taught me that the Church only “discovered” the canon; it did not “determine” it, as Catholics believed. The explanations I was given of the process of putting the canon together were basically “reverse engineered” speculations that turned out to be inaccurate or could not explain the entire Bible. As I studied the history behind the Bible, I kept running into the Catholic Church. Not only was it the Church that decided which books went into the Bible, the Church did so after several centuries of existence — so long a period, in fact, that by the time we encounter any authoritative canonical list, many of what were to me the most objectionable Catholic doctrines were already in place. It seemed inconsistent to trust the Church for the Bible but not for anything else it taught at that time.
Once I gained a greater understanding of where we got the Bible, the next question was how we knew we were interpreting it correctly. It was no secret that the theological world of Protestantism was one of chaos. I had shelves of books dedicated to Protestant doctrinal disagreements. Even Protestantism’s super-essential belief in salvation by faith alone was hotly debated among scholars who all claimed the Bible as their source.¹ At SES, we were taught that we were learning to defend the “historic Christian faith.” But many of SES’s distinctive teachings could not be counted as “historical” in any meaningful sense. Rather, it was a mishmash of Anabaptist doctrines, post-Reformation theology, and even late 19th century beliefs. Right or wrong, these did not seem to constitute “the historic Christian faith.”
I gradually realized that holding to an authoritative and infallible Bible only made sense if we had an authoritative and infallible list of which books belonged in it. Furthermore, it did little good to agree on the Bible’s contents if Christians could legitimately disagree about practically everything it taught. It started to appear that without an authoritative and infallible tradition, Christianity could be lost to relativism. But which tradition? It seemed clear to me that if the Church did decide which books belonged in the Bible, and what counted as orthodoxy, then the answer was to be found in the Church. I finally decided that the Church which produced the orthodox creeds and the canon of Scripture was, objectively, the solution to these foundational issues. Of course, that did not leave many attractive options for one who remained a committed Protestant.
It is important to understand that at this time I was not reading Catholic apologists. Indeed, it was mostly Evangelical scholars who were bringing these issues to my attention.² Evangelicalism had so many in-house disagreements that it was practically impossible to even define it, yet theological issues were not the only ones plaguing the movement.
It began to seem to me that many of the problems I had with Evangelicalism were a natural outcome of how it operated. I knew so many Evangelicals who were upset with what various churches, ministries, and leaders were doing, but they lacked authoritative responses. With any given church’s authority based on the collective opinion of its members, Evangelical ministries and leaders could only attain success by gaining and maintaining a fan base. This often required either compromise (to keep fans) or controversy (to expel non-fans). I knew there had to be a level of authority beyond the individual’s (or group of individuals’) private interpretation of Scripture.
I thought that perhaps this authority could be found in one of the older Protestant denominations. However, the process of choosing a Protestant denomination was basically to simply choose a group that agreed most nearly with one’s own interpretations of the Bible. Regardless of the historical pedigree or hierarchical structure of a given denomination, its authority was ultimately limited by each individual’s reading of the Bible. Protestant denominations, then, were just one step removed from Evangelical church authority — and thus were only removed by one degree from the same problems.
At this point, my questions and research were starting to raise eyebrows. I became convinced that the Church Jesus founded had to be authoritative and objectively, historically identifiable. While I was still well within the limits of conservative Protestant thought, my viewpoints on some teachings were starting to shift away from Evangelicalism on such issues as infant baptism and the real presence of Christ in Communion. Sadly, historical ignorance caused many of my own students to confuse even historically Protestant views with Catholicism, and complaints started coming in. Eventually I was called into an “inquisition” of sorts in front of the SES faculty and questioned about my faith. I managed to pass their test that day, but I could see that if my investigations over the last three years continued to lead me in the direction they were, I was likely not long for the Evangelical world.
In order to honestly continue my quest, while retaining job and academic security, I decided to distance myself from the SES crowd. My family and I began attending some Anglican churches. Both were conservative groups who had broken away from the liberal Episcopal Church. These faithful Anglicans aided in my exploration due to their appreciation of history, liturgy, the creeds, etc. However, although Anglicanism seemed to offer better answers to my incessant questions, the very existence of these breakaway groups was made possible by the same principles that undergirded any other Protestant denomination. Worse, neither Anglicanism’s causes (e.g., Henry the VIII’s desire for divorce) nor its effects (e.g., divorce, contraception, homosexual marriage and ordination, heretical bishops, etc.) were easily defensible. In the end, although I respected many Anglicans, I could not commit to Anglicanism. My Protestant prospects were starting to look dim.
I eventually had to admit that the problems I was having justifying Protestantism were not going to go away by sticking to the Protestant methodology that was causing them. Instead of using my subjective theological opinions to justify a tradition that affirmed them, I needed to identify the historic Church objectively by looking at how Jesus built His Church. In the first century, the Church was whoever followed Jesus. After His Ascension, it was identified by the Apostles. Once they passed, the Church was found in the successors to the Apostles. These latter were, I knew, the men who determined the biblical canon and theological orthodoxy. The only question now was which Church had these apostolic successors at its helm.
As it turned out, this was not as easy to discover in the second millennium as it was in the first.
The problem with this “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” was that it seemed to be a thing of the past. Just after the turn of the first millennium, the ancient Church divided into “Eastern Orthodoxy” and “Roman Catholicism.” While this meant more research (and, as I would soon discover, a new methodology), I was happy to discover that at least I wasn’t necessarily headed for Rome. Anything but Catholicism sounded good to me!
The difficulty was that both the Catholics and the Orthodox had a legitimate claim to being apostolic. Perhaps, I thought, at this point it would simply come down more to taste — and I had a taste for the East. Eastern Orthodoxy was not only ancient and apostolic, but it was also beautiful. Unlike Catholicism, Orthodoxy didn’t have to answer for the Crusades, Galileo, the Inquisition, or even the Reformation. Best of all, there was no Pope to deal with. Indeed, the faith was so mystical that most Protestants had no idea what it even taught. I eventually took classes in Orthodoxy at a local Greek church with several others from SES (several of whom became Orthodox themselves). My excitement over the Orthodox option, however, was not to last.
Although I loved Orthodoxy in theory, I found it problematic in reality. Orthodoxy was culturally divided to the point that I feared what would happen if I ever moved away from my local Orthodox church. Further, they seemed to lack the ability to make universally binding judgments. Finally, I was not interested in fighting the East–West battle with the Catholics. For one thing, I doubted I’d have much of a chance against the Church of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas! Moreover, I could not see how it could be done without reverting to the problematic strategies I’d seen tear Protestantism apart.
That left only one viable option: the only Christian body to retain apostolic succession, dogmatic unity, and universal authority was … the Catholic Church. Immediately, my mind swam with the objections I’d heard (and taught) for the last 20 years or so. Papal infallibility? Marian devotion? Prayers to the dead? Bowing before statues? Purgatory? The Apocrypha? Celibate priests (many of whom were apparently homosexual pedophiles)? It was a dizzying prospect to even have Catholicism on the table, and as it turned out, my troubles were only beginning.
By this point I was heading into my fifth year of inquiry into these issues. Friendships were becoming strained. (I had never been the most gracious apologist, and after nearly four years of obsessive and aggravating conversations, I was not in a place most people could relate to anymore.) My family did not escape the stress of this time either. My wife, a fundamentalist Baptist from birth, was having a very hard time with the direction in which my thoughts were going. Our conversations regularly ended in tears, and I eventually made up my mind to stop having them until I was more settled. (In hindsight, this was a bad idea. But in my defense, I was simply trying to protect her from becoming upset over musings that might end up leading me nowhere.)
My relationship with SES was also strained to the breaking point. Several unrelated incidents had soured my view of the school’s ever-shifting leadership. The school was drifting further and further from its former greatness, and I was no longer on the inside. I knew it was time to cut the cord, so, as my 14th year with SES drew to a close, I did not accept the classes offered to me in the coming fall and told my Ph.D. director that I would not be finishing my doctorate with SES — a program I was instrumental in creating. I got a job in the secular world and embarked on what would be the final leg of my journey out of Evangelicalism.
I was desperate to find a way out of reaching a conclusion that now seemed unavoidable. So, in the fall of 2013, I went to my local Catholic parish and signed up for RCIA — the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I figured that if Easter came around and I had not discovered a way out of becoming Catholic, then the Church would have me.
Now, by this time I was certainly not alone. As my research took me further and further afield from SES-approved resources, I began to discover that SES had been producing Catholics for most of its existence. Indeed, although most of its graduating classes were in the teens or twenties, I found that a couple dozen former students and faculty had become Catholic over the years. I knew some of these folks; others I met along the way. In addition, there were a number of those at SES who were in various stages of investigating the Catholic Church. For the most part, we only discovered each other near the end of our own personal inquiries, but many an hour was spent alternately arguing for or against such a “conversion.” It was a wild and scary time, but in the end, a number of us entered the Church (you can read about many of these journeys in the book Evangelical Exodus, published by Ignatius Press.)
Although I learned quite a bit during my time in RCIA, much time was spent unlearning. I found Catholicism to be quite different from what I had envisioned from the outside. Many “problematic” Catholic teachings actually made quite a bit more sense when I learned what they actually were. And many others seemed to be based on principles I already accepted as a Protestant but simply had never applied consistently. (This is the subject of my book from Catholic Answers, With One Accord.) I began to suspect that perhaps Catholicism wasn’t a cult after all!
To help me finalize my thoughts, I blogged, debated, taught, and discussed these issues as much as possible. Finally, after five years of study and discussion, I felt my investigation’s end had to come soon. Although I did not want to become Catholic for numerous reasons, I had not found a way out. Catholicism wasn’t disprovable logically, because true contradictions did not seem to exist (at least none worse than skeptics accused the Bible of having). Further, Catholicism wasn’t disprovable scripturally, because if the Protestant notion of justification by faith alone (sola fide) could be reconciled with James 2:24, I did not see how Catholics could ever be trapped by a biblical contradiction! Finally, Catholicism wasn’t disprovable historically, because many of the Catholic teachings that Protestants denied were taught before the biblical canon and Christian orthodoxy were even settled.
In truth, Catholicism filled in so many of the holes I always had to step around in Evangelicalism, and the Catholic Church offered more of everything I already had and appreciated as an Evangelical. Becoming Catholic, I saw, would be much more about receiving than relinquishing. The final straw came when I read Thomas Aquinas’s explanation of heresy, which really convicted me of my theological autonomy: “He who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will” (Summa Theologiae II.II.5.3). This description of heresy was dangerously close to how I had spent my Christian life up to this point. Although the object of my faith was the God of the Bible, I had put my trust in my own thinking all along. Becoming Catholic meant choosing to trust the Church God built instead of myself. I had to honestly ask myself if I could really do that — and what it would mean if I didn’t.
All my life I had, to the best of my ability, followed the truth. I was an agnostic because I really thought it was true that we could not know ultimate truths about God. I became a Christian because I really thought it was true that Jesus died for my sins and that the Bible was God’s revelation. I followed the Evangelical version of Christianity because I really thought it was the truest expression of the faith, and I left Evangelicalism when I no longer thought it was true. In the end, the decision eventually made itself. If, and only if, I thought Catholicism was false could I continue to remain outside the Church — and I didn’t think that. I resonated with St. Peter’s words: “To whom shall we go?” (John 6:68).
The end of my five-year conversion arrived with the 2014 Easter Vigil. Family and friends gathered at my parish for my entry into the Catholic Church. My wife was gracious enough to attend, even though she remained unconvinced of Catholicism’s claims. I received the Holy Eucharist for the first time and was confirmed as well. (It turned out that my Evangelical baptism was a legitimate sacrament, even though I didn’t believe in sacraments at the time!) That Easter morning, I awoke Catholic.
I close with an observation. During my time of inquiry, it seemed to me that the ex-Catholic Evangelicals I knew often tended to both hate and misunderstand Catholicism, while ex-Evangelical Catholics generally appreciated and understood Evangelicalism. I had a difficult time understanding this, but I can say that for many, myself included, Catholicism is not so much a rejection of past belief as it is development. As I concluded my chapter in Evangelical Exodus: “Although I have settled on a different shore than many of my fellow Christians, I appreciate, respect, and love them still. If you are eyeing the Tiber’s far shore as I once was, know that I am working on building bridges to aid you in your journey.”