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When Fairness to the Church Leads You Home

Chris Kellam
June 27, 2024 No Comments

It was 2018, and I was catching up on life with a college friend. For a brief time after graduation in 2016, we had both been youth ministers at separate churches in Jacksonville, Florida—he at an Episcopal Church, I at a Presbyterian one. He had left his job to return to grad school, and I was excited to hear how it was going. After a few minutes of casual conversation, he hit me with a bomb: “Well Kellam… I’m on the road to Rome.” When he said this, I thought he was telling me about a study abroad program of some kind and congratulated him. He quickly clarified that he was in the process of converting to the Roman Catholic Church and would be confirmed as a member that upcoming Easter. I was taken aback. What was he talking about? Didn’t he know that Catholics become Protestants, not the other way around?

Unsure how to wrap my head around this decision, I began asking him questions about why he was doing this. Somebody knowingly and willingly embracing Catholicism, in my mind, was akin to embracing Mormonism—or worse. It was just so obviously wrong. Even more confusing was that we had gone through the same undergraduate program together: Bible teaching. We had spent years learning to study, interpret, and teach the Bible, and if there  was one thing I thought I knew about Catholics, it was that they did not know the Bible. If they did know it, they would reject their beliefs and practices regarding the pope, Mary, the sacraments, purgatory, praying to the saints, a works-based salvation, and more. This had been the case with every person I knew who had been part of the Catholic Church at some point; when they began to learn the Bible, they walked away from the Catholic Church and its false teachings. My friend, however, already knew the Bible very well and was doing the exact opposite, and was convinced that in doing so, he was following Jesus. The more we talked, the more it became clear he had arrived at his decision through extensive study, and I would not be able to show him his errors in this one brief conversation.

Clarifying Misunderstandings

About a year later, my friend moved back to Jacksonville, and we began having more regular conversations about theology and Catholicism. Each time we talked, our conversation typically followed the same pattern. I would bring up a Catholic doctrine any good Protestant knew was false and ask him how he squared it with Scripture. He would then explain what the Catholic Church actually taught on the topic and how it did not contradict Scripture. In addition, he would usually direct me to the writings of the Church Fathers who backed up the Catholic teachings.

For example, I had always heard of purgatory as a “second chance” at heaven for those who die without being saved, or a way to finish paying for your sins in the next life. The selling of indulgences (which free souls from purgatory) during the early 16th century is largely what sparked the Reformation.

It seemed to me that purgatory and indulgences were clearly anti-biblical and an affront to the Gospel. However, my friend explained to me that this is not what purgatory is. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the meaning of purgatory when it states that “all who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). Purgatory is not a second chance at heaven for unrepentant sinners, but a state of purification for those who die in a state of grace but still have some level of attachment to sin.

As Revelation 21:27 states regarding heaven, “Nothing unclean shall enter it.” How can a person enter heaven, the presence of the all-holy God, and still have impurity in their soul? Therefore, between death and entry into heaven, the forgiven but imperfect soul must somehow be purified. This purification is what the Catholic Church calls purgatory. Explained this way, I reluctantly acknowledged that it at least made sense and was built upon biblical principles. In addition, the writings of various Church Fathers show that, from early Christian history, this doctrine was believed. St. Augustine, for example, writes, “Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment” (The City of God 21:13).

I wasn’t ready to embrace the doctrine, but I had to admit it wasn’t as terrible as I thought. It made a lot of sense, and properly understood, it didn’t contradict the Bible. Furthermore, there was more historical weight for Christians believing that doctrine than not, which put me on the wrong side of history. I quickly moved on to the next topic.

These conversations continued for about two years as I worked at my church. During this time, I learned that Catholics don’t have a works-based salvation, they don’t worship Mary, they believe the Bible, and on and on. Over the course of these conversations and my own study, I learned some important things: first, what I knew of the Catholic Church and its teachings was incorrect. Most of what I had been taught about the dissent from Catholic doctrines was based on misunderstandings and misrepresentations of what the Catholic Church actually teaches. As I kept telling my friend after each of my misunderstandings was corrected, “While I don’t agree with what you believe, I can at least see where the Church is coming from.” I don’t know how many times I used those words. I also didn’t know how much trouble I was in by beginning to be “fair” to the Catholic Church, as G.K. Chesterton says.

The second thing I came to see in a new and deeper way during this time was that everyone reads the Bible through some kind of theological lens. The Bible is not a systematic theology book or a catechism explaining every point of doctrine, but the story of salvation history. It must be interpreted, and the truths it teaches about God and the world are not always as plain as one might think. The denomination one is part of generally determines how one interprets the Bible and provides the lens through which it is read. It slowly became clear that the Catholic/Protestant debate is not a matter of the Bible’s teachings versus the Catholic Church’s teachings, but who is interpreting the Bible the right way. How could we solve this problem?

The Baptism Dilemma

While working at the Presbyterian church, I also began working toward a Master of Divinity degree through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, with hopes of continuing a career in ministry and Bible teaching of some kind. At this time, my interest in the Catholic Church was still primarily one of curiosity and fairness—I wanted to be sure that, as a teacher, I was accurately representing those with whom I disagreed.

Additionally, I found that I was in a perfect position to learn more about the Catholic Church through my classes and personal study. One topic I kept encountering that gave me trouble was baptism.

I had grown up in Non-denominational and Reformed Baptist churches, so working at a Presbyterian church was the first time in my life that I was part of a church that baptized babies. I wrestled with the extremely broad range of beliefs and practices surrounding baptism within Protestantism. Because baptism is viewed by most Protestants as a secondary theological issue, these differences are significant enough to cause Christians to worship in separate churches while not considering each other as heretics. This approach is often summarized with the phrase, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The more I studied baptism, though, the more I questioned if it could really be considered a “non-essential” tenet of Christianity. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus gives the Great Commission to the apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” How are they to accomplish this mission? By baptizing and teaching. If baptism is what Jesus clearly commanded his followers to do in the making of disciples, isn’t it important that we get the questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how regarding it right? How could there be so many vastly different opinions on the most important outward sign of being a Christian?

My problems only deepened when, through my studies, I was faced with the reality that, before the Reformation, the consensus view of baptism held by Christians through all Church history was the Catholic position—baptismal regeneration. Two examples from St. Justin Martyr and St. Augustine illustrate this reality:

“Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are reborn in the same kind of rebirth in which we ourselves were reborn: In the name of God, the Lord and Father of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing of water. For Christ said, ‘Unless you be reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’…The reason for doing this, we have learned from the Apostles.” (St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, 61:14–17)

“This is the witness of Scripture too… If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend briefly to this… The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration.” (St. Augustine, On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants, 2:27:43)

The testimony was overwhelming that this was what the early Church believed about baptism. I re-examined the New Testament teaching and found that nowhere does it describe baptism as a symbol of human action, but God’s. In addition, it is never defined as being merely symbolic. On the contrary, each text (see Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21; Colossians 2:12) describes something taking place in baptism, namely God’s action of regenerating, forgiving, adopting, uniting with Christ, and incorporating the baptized into the Church.

If baptismal regeneration was the correct interpretation of the scriptural passages on baptism, then it could not be a secondary issue, for through it we become God’s children and are forgiven of our sins. And for the first 1500 years of Church history, there was agreement about the nature of baptism. Again, I found myself on the wrong side of Church history with little ground to stand on. Ulrich Zwingli, one of the Reformers, recognized this but still said the following: “In this matter of baptism—if I may be pardoned for saying it—I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles.” (Zwingli, On Baptism). I could not bring myself to make the same claim.

Foundations Shaking

Convinced of baptismal regeneration by the biblical and historical data, I thought my main theological dilemma had been solved. But this theological shift surprised me, because I now agreed with the Catholic Church on an issue I previously believed the total opposite. It didn’t cause me to consider becoming Catholic myself, since there were Protestant denomina- tions that held this view of baptism. However, the underlying questions about authority and the interpretation of Scripture had begun to shake the foundations of many of my other long-held beliefs, as well. My change of mind on baptism was simultaneously exciting and unsettling. The excitement stemmed from the result of discovering something new and being deeply convicted of its truth after studying it for so long. As time went on, however, it unsettled me because it caused me to wonder: if I had been wrong about baptism, could I be similarly wrong about other doctrines, especially Catholic ones? And how does the Church determine which doctrines and practices are the essential ones? Who decides that?

I had done enough basic study of Catholicism up to this point to have moved past the common misconceptions of it, but I still had the “I-don’t-agree-with-where-you-are-but-I- see-how-you-got-there” attitude toward it. Nevertheless, discoveries up to this point led me to share some of my findings with my parents and older brother. In talking about what I had learned about Catholicism, I expressed frustration that so  many Protestants didn’t understand Catholic theology. I explained to them various Catholic beliefs such as why they have priests, what they really believe about Mary, and where they find their basis for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in Scripture. Hesitantly, they listened to me.

My parents raised my siblings and me with a commitment to teach us to know and love God. I owe my faith to them more than anyone in my life. The Second Vatican Council states in Lumen Gentium that, “The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children” (LG, 11). My parents exemplified this in both aspects described: word and example. We had family devotions together every night, memorized Scripture, sang hymns, and faithfully attended church.

There wasn’t anything explicitly hostile towards the Catholic Church in the practice of our faith, but we were informed and convinced of our Protestantism, so there was a natural bias and negative outlook towards Catholicism. After several months of conversations, I realized that I was scaring them when they sent me a concerned, loving email, expressing caution about a few Catholic beliefs. They told me that it would be easier for them if I became Anglican. I reassured them that I had zero intention of becoming Catholic and that I was primarily concerned with fair and honest conversations between the two sides.

My older brother and I have always loved discussing theology, so when I told him that I believed in baptismal regeneration, he created a group chat with some other friends who also liked debating theology to discuss the topic. We went back and forth for a couple of weeks, and after the discussion had run its course, one of them jokingly asked what topic we could discuss next where everyone could gang up on me. I responded, “Well, I’m okay with relics, icons, and prayer to the saints.” As you can imagine, the conversation quickly moved there.

I had been only half serious, still firmly in the “under- standing but not embracing” stage regarding these practices. I had not yet prayed a Hail Mary or venerated an icon myself, but I was starting to wonder why I shouldn’t. So once again, I found myself defending the Catholic Church, even though I reassured others (and now, myself as well) that I was not, and would not, become Catholic. I simply wanted the Catholic claims to be taken seriously, because then I could accurately and fully evaluate them, and then, once and for all, reject them.

As I tried to find Protestant engagement with Catholic beliefs, however, I repeatedly ran into the same basic anti-Catholic argument: where is that in the Bible? The problem with this question is that it completely misses the point of the Catholic/Protestant divide. As mentioned before, doctrinal disagreements cannot simply be solved by asking, “What does the Bible say?” because, as St. Vincent of Lerins says, there are as many interpretations of Scripture as there are interpreters (The Commonitory of St. Vincent, II, 5). So how are we supposed to solve interpretive disagreements?

The breakdown of the principle of sola Scriptura was complete for me when two realities became obvious. The first was that Scripture itself doesn’t teach sola Scriptura. The second was that before one can determine how to interpret the Word of God, they must know what the Word of God is. Which books belong in the Bible? On this question, like so many others, Christians disagree. The Bible itself does not give us a list of books which are inspired by God. This means that one must go outside the Bible to determine the canon. However, if only the Bible is an infallible authority, then any outside group determining the canon by definition is fallible, and therefore they could have gotten the list of books wrong.

This twofold crisis of the dismantling of the Protestant structure of authority and the problem of the canon promptly moved me from “fair, but contentedly removed from the Catholic Church,” to seriously wondering and worrying if it was right. Its threefold authority structure of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium seemed to provide the only reasonable solution to these problems. With this structure, questions like that of the biblical canon can be answered. This is because the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit through its divinely instituted teaching authority, the Magisterium. I was now acutely aware of the impact the answer to these questions would have on my current job, career, school, and life.

Not knowing how much longer I’d be able to continue working at my church while questioning so many fundamental tenets of Protestantism, I knew I needed to figure out if Catholicism’s claim to be the authoritative interpreter of Scripture was true. However, with a full-time job and taking seminary classes, I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have to dedicate to this level of study. Then, COVID hit, and everything shut down.

The Final Stage

Suddenly, like everyone else, I found myself stuck at home with a lot of extra time on my hands. I focused my study on the question of authority and the canon of Scripture. I saw that the Catholic Church’s claims to authority affected not only its uniquely Catholic dogmas, but also Christianity as a whole. If sola Scriptura is true, then foundational beliefs like the Trinity and the deity of Christ could be called into question because the orthodox formulations of such doctrines required Ecumenical Councils to formulate them. Furthermore, how could I trust the Bible itself unless the Church is guided by the Holy  Spirit to get the books contained in it correct? As St. Augustine said, “I would not believe in the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church” (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundations,” 5:6).

G.K. Chesterton powerfully describes this discrepancy with an analogy of an ornate priestly procession going down the street, laden with their canopies, headdresses, staffs, scrolls, images, candles, relics, and more. He writes:

“I can understand the spectator saying, ‘This is all hocus-pocus’… I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view… But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned?” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, Ignatius Press: 1926. 39-40)

I realized that, as a Protestant, I was inconsistently relying on the Catholic Church for the Bible itself, for fundamental formulations of doctrine like the Trinity and the nature of Christ, but was throwing out other beliefs simply because they were Catholic. It was apparent that the Catholic Church’s threefold structure of authority—Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium—was necessary to have confidence in the sources and truths of our faith. Through this means, Christ’s promise to lead His Church into all truth through the Holy Spirit is ensured, and protection from error is guaranteed. I also found, through the New Testament and onwards through the writings of the Church Fathers, that the early Church was centralized, hierarchical, and universal, not individually governed or congregational. The Catholic Church was the only Church that still could claim continuity with the early Church in both form and doctrine and the only Church that had ongoing means by which it could be protected from error through its Magisterium and Apostolic Succession. The biblical, historical, and epistemological weight of the Catholic Church’s position was overwhelming.

When COVID restrictions began to lift, I attended Mass when possible, but I wasn’t yet ready to swim the Tiber. I didn’t have any more doctrinal hang ups, but I still had a fear that I might have missed something or not studied enough. And, if I did take the plunge, what if something down the road changed my mind again?

Amid this uncertainty and fear, however, the knowledge that God is a God of truth and promises to lead us into the truth if we are honest and obedient, gave me the comfort and courage I needed to step out in faith. In addition, I had begun praying the Rosary, and I’m convinced that the intercession of Mary, who always points us to her Son (John 2:5), helped calm my fears and strengthen my trust in God’s guidance.

Thus, at the end of summer 2020, I stopped protesting the Catholic Church. I began telling my family, friends, and church of my decision to convert. These were some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had, and joining the Catholic Church led to the loss of some relationships. Becoming Catholic, of course, does involve the denial of some Protestant distinctives and the acceptance of one’s incompatibility with it, but I see my entrance into Catholicism as an embracing of the fullness of Christianity, not a conversion to a different religion.

I learned to love Jesus, the Bible, truth, and what it means to follow Him from the countless Protestants in my life, and because of them I had the courage to continue to do so into His Church.

Once I had decided, I did not want to wait to be confirmed and receive the Eucharist, but thought it would be wise to go through RCIA first. I enrolled in the RCIA class at the local parish, had my first confession after a few months, and was joyfully confirmed at the Easter Vigil in April 2021. My confirmation saint was St. Ignatius of Antioch, an Apostolic Father whose writings were instrumental in my journey.

The most common question I’ve received, of course, is why I converted. I always have trouble answering this question, though. How can I pick one thing? Over the course of my journey, I became convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith one piece at a time. To be sure, the question of authority and interpretation is foundational and the most important, and ultimately what it came down to for me. The truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is itself a singularly great reason to convert. The beauty of the liturgy, the grace of the sacraments, the deep historical roots, the communion of saints…

I could go on. But in my moment of decision, it was because I knew it was true, and I knew that, no matter the cost, I had to surrender to the Truth.

The second most common question I’ve received, due to the nature of my conversion primarily involving theological study, is whether my conversion has been beneficial for my spiritual life and relationship with the Lord, and not just an intellectual conversion. This question is also difficult to answer because it drives an unnecessary wedge between the mind and heart in one’s walk with the Lord. Ask any married man and he will probably tell you that the more he gets to know his wife, the more he loves her. It has been no different for me upon en- tering the Church. To know God is to love Him, and to grow in my knowledge of Him and His love for me, more fully and deeply than ever before, within the Catholic Church has been transformative.

Chris Kellam

Chris Kellam was born and raised in Colorado, and now lives in Jacksonville, FL, where he met and married his wife Taylor after entering the Catholic Church. They have one son and another baby on the way. He has a Masters Degree in Theology from Ave Maria University and teaches theology at a Catholic high school.

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