5 Things Young Ex-Evangelicals Wish Their Reformed Brothers and Sisters Knew
Ryan McLaughlin writes about several misconceptions that he thinks that Protestants have about Catholic theology and belief. We asked Ryan to write some words about this issue to equip us to better understand and thus dialogue about these issues with friends and family who are Catholic. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of these discussions end up being more about clearing up misconceptions both sides have about the other rather than helpful and constructive dialogue. We publish this not because we think there are no differences between the two camps (there's a reason why we are not Catholic and Ryan is no longer Protestant) but because we want to see our discussions and dialogue on these issues to become more helpful and sanctifying. Our prayer is that this post would be educational and helpful. We are very grateful to Ryan for taking the time to write this post!
Ryan McLaughlin has a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of South Florida and a J.D. from Boston College. After an interesting 3 years in law school (that included a rather disillusioning summer in The Hague) and passing the Massachusetts Bar, he decided that his calling was ultimately to return to his teaching career. He couldn't be happier about that decision! He currently teaches 7th & 8th grade honors math classes at a private school. He and his wife and their three beautiful children live in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. In his free time, Ryan enjoys craft beer, good theological discussions, and reading 19th century Russian novelists.
If you spend much time in the Christian blogosphere, you may have come into contact with the controversy surrounding a former pastor named Jason Stellman. He was a prominent young pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, but two years ago he converted to Roman Catholicism. Since then, he’s been treated pretty brutally by his former friends: he says that most of the Calvinists he once knew won’t even speak to him, and James White even took to the internet recently to call him an apostate.
As much attention as Jason is receiving, though, he’s not a unique case: there are a LOT of young Christians who are leaving the evangelical fold in favor of a pre-Reformation church these days. These twenty- and thirty-something converts to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy frequently report that friends and family act bewildered at best, openly hostile and unloving at worst.
I’ve been there. Having grown up in charismatic churches, I was a member of a Sovereign Grace church for about six years in my late teens and early twenties. Then, about three years ago, my wife and I became Roman Catholics. To say that people were perplexed is, well… a major understatement.
Those of us who leave Protestantism for Rome or for the East completely understand the concern our Reformed brothers and sisters express: you love Jesus Christ, you love us, and you’re concerned about our souls. Though it’s not always expressed well, we get that most of the people in our old churches just care about our well-being.
Here’s the good news: those of us who have joined pre-Reformation churches still love Jesus Christ. We would sooner die than stop following Him. We want you to know that first and foremost.
But you may still be wondering: “what on Earth are these kids thinking? Haven’t they ever read the Bible?” So I’d like to offer five things we wish you knew about what we were thinking… Five points about the changes we’ve made in our theology that might help you to better understand where we are. You may notice that my list of five mirrors the “five solas” of the Reformation somewhat. That’s intentional, and I hope you’ll see that the good teaching we received in the churches of our youth prepared us for the Holy Spirit’s leading on these next steps in our walks with Christ.
1) We still believe the Scriptures are authoritative
Every young ex-evangelical that I have ever met that converted to Catholicism or Orthodoxy still believes that the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and essential to the life of the believer.
So what’s changed?
For many of us, we started reading Church history. For most of my youth, I was given a very truncated version of Church history: basically, I was told that nothing good happened after the death of the apostles (save for a brief stopover at St. Augustine) until Luther and Calvin showed up. When I was in my early twenties I discovered Irenaeus of Lyon, and Ignatius of Antioch, and Clement of Rome, and Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers, and John of Damascus, and the Didache, and… and so many other wonderful, godly, brilliant theologians that I had no idea even existed.
These men from the first centuries of Christianity were passionate about the Bible. They also interpreted Scripture in a way that was completely at odds with what I grew up hearing. And I found them very persuasive on topics ranging from the Sacraments to church government and a whole host of other things.
So you see, it’s not that we’ve abandoned the Bible, it’s that we’ve found patristic exegesis, and we like what we see. We love Scripture so much, we just aren’t convinced any more that the Reformers were correct in how they interpreted it.
2) We believe in justification by faith…and hope and love
Perhaps no point of contention between Protestants and Catholics has more bitterly divided us than arguments about justification. Here’s the thing: while our beliefs ARE different, they are much closer than you may think. Believe it or not, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification a while back. Here’s a relevant passage from the text:
“We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin's enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ. When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two aspects of God's gracious action are not to be separated, for persons are by faith united with Christ, who in his person is our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30): both the forgiveness of sin and the saving presence of God himself. Because Catholics and Lutherans confess this together, it is true to say that: When Lutherans emphasize that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, their intention is above all to insist that the sinner is granted righteousness before God in Christ through the declaration of forgiveness and that only in union with Christ is one's life renewed. When they stress that God's grace is forgiving love ("the favor of God"), they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian's life. They intend rather to express that justification remains free from human cooperation and is not dependent on the life-renewing effects of grace in human beings. When Catholics emphasize the renewal of the interior person through the reception of grace imparted as a gift to the believer, they wish to insist that God's forgiving grace always brings with it a gift of new life, which in the Holy Spirit becomes effective in active love. They do not thereby deny that God's gift of grace in justification remains independent of human cooperation.”
Interesting, right? Here’s the thing: Catholic believe that faith, hope, and love can’t be separated in our salvation. Saving faith is a faith that gives us a love for God and a hope for the next life. It initiates us into a new life of communion with God, leading us to draw ever closer to Him. In the East, this is called theosis, and it means that the very goal of our faith is to be drawn ever deeper into life with God, loving Him more and more from now and unto ages of ages.
3) We aren’t trying to attain works righteousness
Can anyone be saved apart from grace? Of course not! As sinful human beings, we cannot have any hope apart from the grace and mercy of God. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox converts have not given up on grace and started trying to earn their way to Heaven. That would be the height of foolishness. Rather, what we’ve argued—and here I think we share a common belief with Reformed theology—is that we cannot truly experience God’s grace without being changed by it.
That doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight! But can we truly say that we are Christians if we aren’t even attempting to live a life of repentance and discipleship? How we live in this life matters eternally, else why would the New Testament spend so much time exhorting us to live godly lives?
4) We know of no other name by which men might be saved
Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father. Period. He alone is our Savior.
One of the bedrocks of Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic spirituality is what’s been traditionally called “the Jesus Prayer.” In its most typical form, it just simply says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Volumes and volumes have been written about the depths of truth that are contained in that short line, and the effects it can have on the soul of the person who prays it. What it reveals about our beliefs to others is that the cry of our hearts is that Jesus Christ, the God-Man and Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is our only hope.
We aren’t trusting in a Pope or a bishop to save us. We, like you, “dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
5) We worship God alone
None of us—let me repeat—NONE of us worship Mary or any of the other saints. Worship is reserved for God alone, and anything else, any other practice, is idolatry.
What we’ve found in the saints are not demi-gods to idolize, but rather elder brothers and sisters in Christ to turn to for prayer. All of us have asked a fellow believer for prayer in this life, right? Perhaps you’ve called a parent or a friend to ask them to keep you in their prayers as you’ve gone through hard times… those of us who have converted to a pre-Reformation church are doing the same thing, except that some of the people we ask for prayers from happen to already be in Heaven. They’ve run their race, they’ve lived Christian lives worthy of imitation, they’re seated in heavenly places with Christ… and as a part of the great cloud of witnesses, they’re still praying for us.
All we are saying is this: why would God take away Christians’ ability to pray for us, right when they’ve had any impediments to prayer (such as sin and doubt) removed?
My sincerest hope and desire for this post is not to be polemical, but to offer perspective. As Christians, we can’t afford to be at war with each other. My hope is that we can have better dialogue if we understand each other, and that you may be encouraged to love and understand those of us who feel God leading us down these ancient paths. Together, we must present a more united front to a lost and dying world in desperate need of Jesus Christ.
And if you’d like to talk further, I’d love to be in touch!