In the Midst of Cradle Catholics

October 19, 2009

I’ve been a member of the mom’s group at our church for a little while, and recently joined a Bible study with some of the women. We had our second session yesterday and I was struck, as I was at the first meeting, by the strangeness of being the “voice of orthodoxy” in a group of Catholics, when I’m not even Catholic yet. All of them are cradle Catholics, and it’s really strange the questions I was getting asked.

The first session, we were sharing a little of our background, and when it came to light that I was in RCIA I was asked, “What’s the difference between Protestants and Catholics?” This completely stumped me! I mean, where do I start? I muttered something about there’s a lot of differences and we even use the same words in a different way. When pressed, I gave a brief synopsis of “saved by faith through grace” meaning different things for Protestants and Catholics. What I should have said was something along the lines of acknowledging the authority of the church through the anointing of Christ on the Apostles and their successors vs. believing that the Bible itself is our only authority. The question took me too off guard though. It’s good practice for my coming out.

At the second session, I was more used as a different perspective. This time I was asked, “So why did you convert? What made you believe the Catholic Church was the true church?” The real clincher for me was that the Catholic Church possesses the authority of Christ through Apostolic succession. I got it right that time, and thought I’d said something common to the group. Until someone said, “What do you mean? How is that different than any other church?” Uh… I tried to explain as concisely as possible that Christ instituted the church at the Last Supper, and sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church in all truth, that the Apostles laid hands on their successors to confer the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that there is a direct line of those they’ve ordained from current priests and bishops going back to the Apostles and Christ. I felt like I was speaking a foreign language though.

The conversation took a weird turn, in which she said she couldn’t defend being Catholic at all. Her husband is not Catholic. She doesn’t know why she should be Catholic, other than she is and she won’t be anything else. Kudos to her for sticking with what she knows is right, even if she’s not sure why it is. That was always a problem for me when I was young. If I wasn’t as clear on my reasons, people could talk me into their perspective. This woman said she’s heard something to the effect of: Catholics just trust other people to figure things out and follow along uneducated and unquestioning. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to say that obedience doesn’t equal blind following and that we have to understand the rules of the faith if we want to grow in our faith at all! At least I had a chance to tell her, when she pointed out how screwed up the leaders of the church can be, that this is one reason the Catholics have it right. Everyone’s screwed up. We can’t let people we elect direct our faith because they’re so holy and smart. They’re not good enough. Man’s best is not good enough. That is why we trust that God is able to do His will and the Holy Spirit will direct His church through fallen and faulty men. Otherwise, we are just like the rest of them.

I wonder how common this is for cradle Catholics. I worry that not everyone who lacks apologetic prowess will be as resilient as the woman I was talking to against the reasonable sounding wolves that will question their faith. It’s a real danger for people not well educated in their faith, that someone will come along, point out a few difficulties (not inconsistencies!) of belief and *poof* they’ll turn coat faster than Benedict Arnold. It’s easy enough to see how it could happen. Chris has been scouring Out of the Labyrinth, a book “disproving” Catholicism which was written by an ex-priest who ought to have known better! It contains so many just plain wrong representations of Catholic beliefs, it’s no wonder people can show them to be unbiblical and persuade believers to turn Protestant. If you don’t know enough about what the Church teaches to point out the flaws of their arguments, what defense will you have except plain old stubbornness?

Chris thinks every parish ought to have a basic apologetics course available, on top of RCIA, since RCIA really only describes Catholicism in its most basic form. It’s a good idea. Until then, here I am, explaining orthodox Catholic beliefs to people who have always believed them but don’t know why. The leader of the group says she’s glad to have my perspective, thinks converts make the best Catholics, and says she’ll ask me many more questions. I hope I can do the Church justice. I’ve already found myself having a typical over-reaction against anything that smacks of my Protestant experiences, even when they’re alright for Catholics. The Bible study is focused on the Holy Spirit, and of course, there’s a lot of run ins with charasmatic Protestantism which I usually run from screaming. I have to watch myself and try not to let the pendulum swing too far off center. So pray for me, that I will say what God wants me to say when the time comes.

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My Ecclesiastic Past in Excrutiating Detail

February 19, 2009

I often make reference to the bad experiences that I had as a Protestant, so it’s only fair that I detail what those experiences were and what I make of them now. Keep in mind, although I know that not all Protestant churches are as self-glorifying, nonsensical, and downright un-Christian as some of the churches I’ve attended, I believe that the foundation of Protestantism, that is the rejection of earthly authority combined with a reliance on an individual’s spirituality or intelligence (either your own or that of the pastor or theologian you esteem), naturally and necessarily gives birth to this kind of Christianity. That said, I warn everyone, this is a long ‘un.

The first church I remember attending was a Word of Faith church when I was about four years old. The only things I really remember from that church are the orange tic-tacs the pastor’s wife used to give me and this really odd experience in Sunday school. A visiting guitarist told us that we had to speak in tongues as evidence that we were really saved and had the Holy Spirit living in us. I was encouraged to just open my mouth and start talking in my private tongues language. I could not and would not. As a result, for years I thought my salvation was in jeopardy. Recently I told my mom about this and she was horrified, wondering why I had never said anything earlier. Then she related an experience with that church that I don’t remember. At some point I no longer wanted to attend my Sunday school class, so my mom came in with me to see what was wrong. She found the Sunday school workers were rebuking the kids in the name of Jesus when we did something wrong! My mom took this up with the pastors and they stopped. Already, by the age of five, I had experienced abuses in Protestantism from individuals using their own interpretations.

We moved, and so joined an Assembly of God church. The only thing I remember from this church is that I wasn’t given the role I wanted in the church production. I remember I wanted a dancing part, but my sister warned me not to try for it since she knew the daughter and friend of the Sunday school leader would get the part. I stubbornly refused and tried to be a dancer. I ended up as an extra angel while my sister was proved right. Although this isn’t of great theological import and nepotism is a human frailty, it occurs again and again in different Protestant churches. It makes you see a little wisdom in mandatory celibacy for priests. This church split when the AG board wanted to appoint one pastor and half the congregation wanted another one. My family left with the schismatics, but we moved again soon after to join the church that would be the bane of my adolescence.

I will mention specifics with regard to this church, because I don’t know if the breadth of the issues involved can be understood otherwise. After our move, we joined Metro Christian Fellowship (which was previously called Kansas City Fellowship and then Metro Vineyard Fellowship) because my uncle went there. This church was led by Mike Bickle, a good man on the whole, but highly inexperienced and easily misled. He was under John Wimber and closely involved with Paul Cain and the Kansas City Prophets. The goings on in this church are hard to describe for anyone who has not seen them, but I’ll do my best.

There is a charismatic Pentecostal end times revival movement which believes that a recent renewal of the gifts of the Spirit has occurred after an extended period in history during which they were absent. These gifts include speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, etc. This particular movement has been dubbed “charismatic renewal” by Hank Hanegraaf and is familiar in the sensationalism of those like Benny Hinn. For a full history of its sordid past, I recommend Hank Hanegraaf’s Counterfeit Revival. The character of those involved is decidedly not Christian and the basis of many of their beliefs are heretical. For example, William Branham rebaptized his followers in the name of Christ only and denied the Trinity. Metro Christian Fellowship was deeply mired in charismatic renewal revivalism and intimately connected with Joel’s Army and Latter Rain beliefs.

Joel’s Army (Joel 2) is the army that God will raise in the end times to be victorious over those who oppose God’s church – literally in battle. The Latter Rain movement emphasizes a restoration of Christ’s church in the end times. They believe the five fold ministry of prophets, apostles, teachers, pastors, and healers as well as the unity of the church will be restored in the last days for a “great harvest of souls”. There are also other beliefs that did not come into my experience as much so I will not belabor those points here. All in all, theology didn’t really enter into things at Metro. Everything was very experience driven. They would call on the Holy Spirit in order to “experience” God in a personal way. They claimed God was “loving on” His church and filling them up with the Spirit to get them ready for end times revivals and trials. They repeatedly encouraged people to abandon reason and so open themselves up more to the Holy Spirit. This “experiencing the Spirit” manifested as uncontrollable laughing or crying, being “slain in the Spirit” or falling flat on the ground unmoving, strange demonstrations such as barking like a dog, convulsing, visions, miraculous healings that I never saw, and prophetic words that were never verified, among other things. I went to the private school under this church for a year, and they occasionally stopped classes to accommodate the “movement of the Holy Spirit”. I can remember a classmate of mine describing a vision she had of a beautiful flower, although later she admitted faking it.

Although many people do admit faking it, there are many that are sincere in these manifestations. They either sincerely experience nothing, like I did, or they sincerely experience the more bizarre behaviors. Of course, as a young person who was told that this was the power of God, it didn’t occur to me that there could be another explanation. An alternate explanation is that these people worked themselves up into a frenzy. They repeat phrases, verses, and songs over and over waiting for the Holy Spirit until people start manifesting. I think the brain is wired to slip into an altered mental state when you concentrate in such a suggestive way. The effects are similar to those of kundalini awakenings brought on by Hindu gurus. To be clear, as I have been misunderstood before, I am not suggesting that these Christians tapped into their shakras and experienced awakening. I am suggesting that in both cases people abused their bodies and minds in such a way as to induce an altered mental state that may be physically, mentally, and emotionally damaging. For more information on these practices, I again recommend Counterfeit Revival.

I don’t know what to think about the authenticity of the Holy Spirit moving in such a manner and whether or not God touches people through such practices. God moves in mysterious and frightening ways, like at Pentecost, and He is certainly capable of prostrating us forcibly in His presence. But He never moves in a useless or detrimental way. I do know that in my experience, and in those associated with this particular movement (like the Toronto Blessing, the Pensacola Outpouring, or the most recent Lakeland Revival), sensationalism has been used to gain an audience rather than edify the body of Christ. It has been used for renown, financial gain, and personal satisfaction. As a result, Christians focus less on Christ and more on the spiritual superstar on stage and the fantastic experiences they’re chasing. Christians end up feeling abandoned, used, misguided, and distrustful from broken promises while the superstars move on to their latest ministry project. Two banners used to hang at Metro, one said “Passion for Jesus” and the other “Compassion for People” and both mission statements fell short. Little pastoring and fellowship occurs in the charismatic end times revival scene. That does not sound like God’s work to me.

Whatever the origin of such manifestations, I abstained from them. I was determined not to prevent God from doing such things with me, but never to force it. As a result, nothing happened. It’s strange. I felt less spiritual than those around me who performed and were prophesied over. There was an uber-spiritual in-crowd at Metro which they liked to call “forerunners”, usually staff members and their families, and it was understood that they were really spiritual and God was doing something in their lives. I grew to despise them and yet still felt inferior to them for some reason. I was an every day Christian, and as such did not fit in. There was little room in the missions of this church for those who just go to work and school, go home, and do so for the Lord. Never was a sermon preached on how to live like Christ. With such little content to find there, my sister and I began skipping out on the sermons, which could run nearly two hours in length, and opted instead to visit the nearby McDonald’s or hang out on the train tracks. I drifted further away from church, aided by a youth ministry with ever-changing leaders leaving to fulfill their own private mission. It didn’t help that the pastor’s sons would have keggers on Saturday night and try to lead us all in the Spirit of the Lord on Sunday morning.

We were perpetually promised revival, miracles, and greatness and it all fell flat. I remember once tagging along with my parents to a home group focused on growing in the prophetic. There was a woman there who was prophesied over. She was told that her desire to be a leader instead of a follower, and to not be just another one of God’s sheep, would be fulfilled. I was about ten years old at the time, and I can remember thinking, “What’s wrong with just being God’s sheep? We can’t all be leaders. They’re just telling her what she wants to hear. I don’t want to be a leader. I want to be His sheep.”

My attendance lagged until Mike Bickle left Metro Christian Fellowship starting the International House of Prayer in an effort to revive the old practice of “contemplative” prayer. He repeatedly praises the Catholic Church for their prayerful practices, which he is often criticized for doing because, as we all know, nothing good can come from Catholics! His contemplative prayer bears little resemblance to the traditional Catholic prayers though. There is a difference between repeated prayers during which you contemplate God’s glory and His mysterious and put forth your petitions, and repeated short phrases or verses that are chanted while you clear your mind and try to force the appearance and manifestation of the Holy Spirit. So I believe the kind of contemplative prayer committed at IHOP is tailored by repetitiveness to induce hyper-suggestible states like those seen above. When Mike Bickle left for IHOP, Metro Christian Fellowship split three ways. There was a remnant that remained “Metro Christian Fellowship”, another group left with Mike to attend the church at IHOP, and a third group dispersed but a majority of these joined Christ Triumphant Church, or CTC.

I feel violated by the things that happened at Metro, because nobody stopped it. There were no leaders that said “This is not of God!” or kept the church grounded in reality. There was no tradition that said “Return of the gifts? They didn’t go anywhere!” There was no one to correct the pastors, because Protestants have done away with earthly authority. There is nothing protecting Christians from such abuses. The Bible was used to back up everything these people had to say, and so it was proved to me first hand that the Bible can be misused to support ungodly things and its meaning can be twisted to attain the ends of those who interpret it. I can’t just escape to Catholicism out of reaction to a bad experience. However, these bad experiences prove to me that Protestantism invites abuses by the very nature in which it began – that is, the spirit of self-reliance and skeptical inquiry which bucks authority.

After the congregation at Metro dispersed, my parents went searching through several churches to find one that was “alive” with the Holy Spirit and was a “good fit” for them. Among these was a Word of Faith church I attended only once. For a time, my parents settled at CTC, but my brother, sister, and I refused to go to any church as insincere and flamboyant as Metro. In an effort to lure us back, they tried to find a more conservative atmosphere. This led them to a non-denominational, start-up church that began meeting in the local theater until they gained enough of a following to fund their own building. At this time, Chris and I were engaged, so he had the privileged of attending there for a time. Then, a man from Metro started his own church (a fourth spin off), and my parents have settled there. Although this final church has refrained from the flamboyant end times revivalism found at Metro, the formula is the same: upbeat music for an hour, allowing for the Holy Spirit to guide them, and an hour from the pastor on his latest personal revelations. I do like this pastor, he even married my husband and I, and he preaches more on the every day level than the revivalists, but I felt that there was something fundamentally lacking. I don’t think God’s church should look like a personal effort on the part of the pastor, which is what Protestantism has become. The vitality of a church depends on the pastor’s preaching and ability to gain a following. From a lack of oversight, experience, and unity, Protestants have lost their effectiveness. The “word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb 4:12) and it should not be ineffective.

Going back in my story to shortly after Metro scattered and while my parents church shopped, I left town for college. For a time, I avoided churches altogether and it was just “me and my Bible under a tree”. I never believed God wants us to be self-sufficient and so I eventually built up the courage to find a “good church”, though I was incredibly gun shy after the mess I had been through. I started rather small, and attended a start-up church near my college. The atmosphere was stale and I felt like crawling out of my skin rather than returning the plastic smiles of those around me. I then attempted an Assembly of God church that a friend of a friend took us to. First we went to the young adult Bible study, which wasn’t bad. Then we went to the Sunday service, though I should probably call it a Sunday exhibition. Their services were televised and the church was so massive that they had giant television screens so the people in the back could see. Not only that, but there was a camera crew roaming around on stage getting power shots of the pastor and worship team. That was more conducive to worshiping the pastor than to worshiping God.

I ended up in another Assembly of God church that was much more conservative. The pastor at this church was a good speaker and had his doctorate in physics to boot. I loved being able to relate to his off the wall references and intellectual approaches to things. I attended the Young Adults group, befriending a couple really great girls and we formed a Bible study. I was in a relatively good place when I met Chris, and wasn’t expecting to be derailed from my new found security.

Through my investigations into history, theology, Catholicism, and Protestantism, I now believe that my experiences were the inevitable result of the fundamental principles of Protestantism. Hilaire Belloc wrote countless books discussing this including Survivals and New Arrivals and The Great Heresies. He believed that Protestants took the Catholic teaching that Scripture is God-breathed and turned it against the Church, elevating Scripture to a thing worthy of worship, therefore initially practicing Bible literalism and self-reliance, which necessarily led to self-contradictions and self-worship, which then devolved in not knowing who to believe and what the Bible meant at all. He believed the next step is a completely subjective religion, neo-Paganism, of which we see the fruits every day. Belloc lived and died before the charismatic renewal movement, and I wonder how he could see, over 75 years ago, that people would begin to ignore even Scripture and rely on their personal experience of God to lead them.