As a kid, I observed Abuelita reading her Bible. Each day she faithfully opened the Scriptures and struggled to pronounce the words aloud in Spanish. Even with only a third-grade education, daily Bible reading was a priority, and it soon became a priority for me, too. My abuelita was beautiful and simple; she had a childlike faith in Jesus that showed me what it meant to be salt and light to the world.
Abuelita was a devout Roman Catholic.
I ended up attending a conservative Baptist college, though I knew little about denominational distinctions. I assumed all Christian colleges were the same: utopias where everyone loved Jesus. Imagine my dismay when I heard professors and students alike assert that Catholics were going to hell.
I couldn’t understand how they could so casually damn abuelita and others who followed Jesus like her. I challenged one history professor, asking about all the professing Christians who were Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox prior to the Protestant Reformation: “Are you saying they all went to hell?” He replied that most of them probably did, but “God always has a remnant.” That’s a sobering sentiment worth pausing over.
Only a few years later, I witnessed a number of classmates from my Baptist alma mater “converting” to Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. I know these people well enough to believe they were, and continue to be, committed followers of Jesus. Their journeys are similar to the twin brothers recently featured in The Wall Street Journal, who were raised Baptist but became Catholic and Anglican priests.
The twins’ story renewed a debate we’ve been having for nearly the entire history of the church: what it means to be the One True Faith, and which tradition is most faithful to the biblical witness. On the more extreme ends, some conservative Protestants insinuate that converting to Roman Catholicism (or, presumably, to Eastern Orthodoxy) and abandoning conservative evangelicalism means “changing religions”—leaving “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” to embrace a theology that involves a “denial of the very essentials of the gospel.” It’s not just Protestants who have extreme views. Some Roman Catholics declare that Protestants are not Christians.
Did my Baptist friends who became evangelical, Jesus-centered Roman Catholics really leave the faith?
Of course, this is an important discussion because it involves critical conversation over who Jesus is and what it means to follow him faithfully today. Throughout history, the church has sought to discern heresy, beliefs that are not a faithful response to God’s gift of Jesus. That’s why the Church convened the first seven ecumenical councils; they wanted to come to a consensus about the bounds of orthodoxy and what beliefs were essential to our Christianity.
I think of my experience in seminary, where I studied alongside students from 50 different church backgrounds and denominations, from Pentecostal to Presbyterian and Roman Catholic to African Methodist Episcopal. The distinctives of our traditions meant that at core, we had intense disagreements over doctrine (especially over the nature and practice of the sacraments) and other controversial issues (like the ordination of women). But amazingly, we didn’t spend time debating our differences.
We could all trace the genesis, trajectories, emphases, and tragedies of our particular traditions in church history. None of us could afford to be arrogant about our traditions. We all “called upon the name of the Lord”; we all “declared with our mouths, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believed in our hearts that God raised him from the dead” (Rom. 10:9-13). Our common devotion to Jesus and love for one another reigned supreme. For the first time in my life I thought, “This is what heaven must be like.”
As Protestant evangelicals, we have some specific beliefs that are starkly different than a lot of fellow Christians, including Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. But to those who suggest that moving from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy amounts to “changing religions,” I direct them to our brothers in Christ who have been martyred for the faith.
Those Coptic Christians killed in February, or the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians killed just days ago, are they not really Christians? Are they members of a different religion, Orthodoxy, not “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”? I certainly wouldn’t say that. (And, for the record, neither would Pope Francis.)
As CT blogger Peter Chin wrote earlier this year:
Our response to the death of the 21 clearly demonstrated that we share a profound connection with other believers despite the considerable geographical, cultural, and theological gaps between us. We have proven that we do not need to be in complete alignment with other followers of Christ to stand with them in their pain.
Whether these martyrs had a simple faith like Abuelita, or were the most erudite, learned scholars harboring a complex and nuanced faith, or if they struggled in their faith as many of us do—if they placed their trust in Jesus, as they seemed to since they were willing to die rather than recant their faith, then I believe they are with him—even if their faith practices or doctrinal formulations didn’t resemble my own.
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