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Archive for the ‘background’ Category

Confirmed

My wife and I were confirmed in the Anglican church this morning. What an amazing journey this has been. Had you asked the me of my late teens or college years if I thought I’d ever be going to a church like this, I’d have thought you were crazy. I was knee deep in Pentecostalism and looked askance at anything that smacked of “tradition” or “ritual.” If a place wasn’t buzzing with people speaking in tongues or throwing down some funky worship music, it was dead and wasn’t ‘free in the Spirit.’

Amazing how things change. Now I crave the quietness and time to reflect and pray. Not even my favorite worship song (and I do still enjoy some modern worship music) comes anywhere close to the worship I experience when I receive the Body and Blood of Christ each week. My children are learning more about God than ever before and we get to worship together and they get to see Mommy and Daddy worship instead of being shuttled off until the service is over.

I’m happy. And a year or so ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to say that anytime soon. Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia!

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So, getting back to my background in legalistic Christianity…

All of this stuff from my past makes me highly suspicious of anything that smacks of man-made tradition. I spent so long trying to earn God’s favor, trying to live up to standards that humans, not God, imposed on me and the thought of ever getting bogged down in something like that again gives me a sinking, hopeless feeling if I allow myself to go there in my mind. And this is my dilemma as I consider the claims of the Catholic Church.

As I study the teachings of the Catholic Church, I run into this problem time and again because of the Catholic teaching on the authority of Sacred Tradition. There are dozens of things that a person must do or assent to if they are to be considered a truly Catholic Christian that have little to no support in Scripture. Some of these beliefs include:

The Assumption of Mary

The Immaculate Conception

Missing mass or any Holy Day of Obligation being a possible mortal sin

Not fasting an hour before communion making one unable to receive the Eucharist. (see this thread for an example of what I mean.)

Issues surrounding the use of contraception such as a wife using the pill for medical reasons unrelated to pregnancy and this meaning the couple cannot have sex or a spouse with a communicable disease (AIDS, hepatits) and not being able to use condom to allow them to have sex without infecting the other.

In general, it’s the Catholic Church’s pattern of binding the believer’s conscience on matters that Scripture either doesn’t talk about or doesn’t give enough detail to warrant such definitive rulings. I realize there are orthodox Christian doctrines that Scripture doesn’t go into a ton of detail about such as the Trinity, but there is enough in Scripture to toss aside the Oneness theology fairly easily if you use some basic logic. But the Catholic Church has elevated some pretty obscure beliefs to the level of official dogma that just doesn’t make sense to me. Where is the Assumption of Mary mentioned? And how do you build a case for the Immaculate Conception out of a vague “full of grace” reference? And while I do understand that Scripture teaches us not to “forsake the assembling of (our)selves together”, how does that translate into missing Mass or a Holy Day of Obligation being a mortal sin unless you were too sick or some other serious reason?

It just smacks of the same sort of building of doctrine on oblique Scripture references and man-made taboos and no-nos that I dealt with in the Assemblies of God. It seems to run completely counter to admonitions in the New Testament such as this from the Apostle Paul:

Colossians 2:8, 16-218 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ… 16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (emphasis mine)

If you bind someone’s conscience regarding Sunday Mass or various non-Sabbath Holy Days for instance, how is that not passing judgment on someone with regard to festivals and Sabbaths? And while fasting an hour before receiving the Eucharist might be a good practice, should we be making it a requirement to the point of telling someone not to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord if they forgot and ate something within that time frame?

If I’m being honest, this sort of thing scares me. I’ve been in the rut of adding to God’s requirements and it only ends with frustration. The commands He does give are hard enough to live up to without piling on a few extras just because I think they are good things. On the one hand, Catholics don’t seem to be all hung up on certain externals like drinking alcohol in the way that so many conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to be. But then there’s this whole host of other things that you never hear a peep about in Protestant churches that they do get hung up on. It just seems like a journey to Rome just trades one set of man-made legalisms for another. And that worries me as I weigh the merits and claims of the Catholic Church.

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As I mentioned before, I came to Christ in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church, just shy of my 17th birthday. The process actually began about 2 ½ years earlier when we started attending this church after growing up in a rather staid, lifeless Methodist church. My parents were Christians, but in terms of the church environment, a daily walk with God, really understanding the Bible and things of that nature weren’t emphasized. Truth be known, I don’t remember any kind of invitation to come to Christ. I went through confirmation classes or some sort but that was about it.

So when I encountered this new environment, I was at once intrigued and repelled. Intrigued because these folks spoke about a relationship with Jesus and prayed as if God were right there in the room with them and they were friends. Repelled because of some of the excesses…a lot of emotional and overwrought expressions of worship in church, use of a lot of “Christianese” that seemed bizarre to me at the time and really strict beliefs regarding sin. They seemed to have a lot more restrictions on what proper Christians could or couldn’t do. Some of the women didn’t wear makeup (though this was rare), some wouldn’t play any game that involved playing cards, drinking was a huge no-no as was listening to rock music (particularly “secular rock”), going to movies and the like. It was quite extensive. It wasn’t codified or anything where you could go read it, but it came out in discussions with the more serious believers. And at any moment, you could find out that something you thought was totally innocuous or even good was actually something bad. It changed from person to person so it was hard to nail down.

Then there were the implied or expressed marks of spirituality such as speaking in tongues, whooping, yelling and dancing in the aisles during the praise and worship music, how much you read your Bible each day, how many hours you prayed each day, how many people you “witnessed” to that week, the number of times Jesus was mentioned in the contemporary Christian music you liked, whether or not your were experiencing the “victorious Christian life”, whether you were at church on Sunday morning AND Sunday night, plus Tuesday night visitation, the Wednesday night service, the Friday night Bible Study or attended every night of the yearly “revival week.” Then there were the ones who were into Spiritual Warfare who seemed to see a demon lurking behind every problem, setback, hindrance, rock, bush, tree or corner. If you didn’t agree or see these things also, you weren’t “in tune with the Spirit” or lacked discernment.

Somewhere around age 20 or 21, I hit a wall. I held impossibly high standards and made people feel inferior when they didn’t keep them or didn’t deem certain things as important as I thought they should. But as rough as I was on others, I was just as bad toward myself if not worse. I was exhausted. I loved God and was trying so hard to please Him and live up to what I thought were His standards. But it was taking a toll because nothing I did was good enough. I could have prayed harder, worshiped more freely, sinned less, read my Bible more, been more disciplined and had purer motives. I needed to have more faith, believe in God’s promises better, have more joy, be an overcomer and expect more miracles. I was on a vicious treadmill and I was ready to give up on the Christian life altogether. The song “We All Need” from Bryan Duncan summarized my dilemma perfectly:

I was raised with the lessons and the victory speech,
And I fought for the standards that I could not reach,
And I hold my tongue when the pain is great,
And cover my tears as we celebrate,
While a private war rages with the fear and the doubt,
As I try to run faster to find a way out
I’m convinced if I stumble they’ll just cast me aside,
Mock at my weakness and shatter my pride.
‘Cause I’ve watched as we’ve stoned the more hesitant soul,
So, we all must remember,
It’s still God’s grace we all need to know.

I was beaten down by the expectations. I don’t mean to say there were never times of great joy, but there was always this underlying heaviness and doubt. I just wasn’t sure I could do it anymore. But mercifully, I had a breakthrough.

True to God’s relational nature and His desire for us to grow and learn with the help of others (rather than this lone ranger thing I was trying even in the midst of the crowd), it was a friend’s gentle challenge to me that saved me. I was arguing with her about something that I (and my denomination) regarded as sinful. After debating it for a while she issued me a challenge to take as long as I needed and to look up every verse I could find on the subject and if I could make my case from Scripture that this thing was indeed sinful, she would agree with me and stop doing it. I thought it would be easy. I poured over every passage. I worked in a Christian bookstore at the time and had access to tons of books and reference materials, multiple Bible translations and other study helps. I researched for weeks. In the end, I had to admit that the case against this thing wasn’t just weak, it was almost non-existent. I couldn’t make my case. I couldn’t even appeal to church history to support it beyond a scant few denominational strains within the last century or so. I was floored.

But beyond that, a light came on. What else had I been told that wasn’t discussed in Scripture? I became ravenous. I was reading the Bible more than at any time since I first became a believer. I was looking up this taboo and that no-no and finding that the vast majority of the things I was fretting about were either greatly exaggerated in their importance or hardly mentioned in Scripture at all. I read a really good book called The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll and a whole other picture of God began to emerge for me. God wasn’t standing over me, shaking His head and lecturing me on how disappointed He was. He loved me even in the immature, goofy, bound up mess I was in. He wasn’t standing aloof at the finish line mocking me when I fell and berating me to get up. He was running the race with me, guiding and teaching me. And he wasn’t nearly as concerned about some of these cultural taboos as I was.

Everything changed from that point. I became an absolute stickler for people being able to support a viewpoint from Scripture that took all of the Bible into account and wasn’t just built on man-made traditions or some unique interpretation of one or two verses isolated from the context in which it was written or the rest of the Bible. I had enough to worry about just trying to follow the things that God had revealed in Scripture without adding a whole host of other additions that ultimately repeated the errors of the Pharisees in creating a system of laws to earn God’s favor and prove one’s spiritual prowess (though to be fair, none of the proponents of these things would ever characterize them that way). It was so freeing. And while the pendulum probably swung too far toward Christian liberty in some cases, on the whole I found a renewed joy and enthusiasm for serving God. I was actually sharing my faith more and it came more naturally rather than being a task-oriented sort of thing. I took comfort in the idea that my sanctification wasn’t something that was instantaneous but that “he who began a good work in [me] would be faithful to complete it.” (Phil 1:6) and I’ve lived my life that way ever since. Confidence in my standing with God and His grace toward me while striving to know Him better has become my creed.

It’s this experience that provides the backdrop for my current dilemma. That will come in the next post.

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First, a little background since none of you know me from Adam. You can decide later if you care.

I’m an evangelical Protestant. I’ve been a Christian since shortly before my 17th birthday and am coming up on the 20-year anniversary of the day I came to Christ. I grew up in the Methodist church but when my parents divorced around age 14, I started attending an Assemblies of God church. It was here that I first encountered people who seemed to have a real and personal relationship with Christ and enjoyed coming to church on Sundays. Unfortunately, the Methodist church I attended was dead and stale and most of the people seemed to be just punching a time card because going to church is What You’re Supposed To Do.

So anyway, it’s in this Pentecostal environment that I came to know Christ. After I graduated college and moved to another city, I attended other kinds of churches: a non-denominational charismatic church (which interestingly was Calvinist in its soteriology), a Presbyterian (PCA) church and finally settled upon a non-denominational Evangelical church that was basically Calvinist in and believed in expository preaching, yet was contemporary and informal in style. I loved the place and still do.

But I’m at a crossroads.

I’ve moved back to my hometown to get closer to family (so my children can see their grandparents more) and take a job that pays better and has better future prospects. We’re attending a good church now, but I’m less than satisfied if I’m being honest. I’m longing for something but I’m not sure what. I’m dismayed by the continuing drift and divisions in Protestant churches. A good friend of mine who also attended the AG church I came to Christ in recently converted to Catholicism. And this is someone I deeply respect. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He deeply loves God and wants to follow His commands. He doesn’t make rash decisions or jump from fad to fad. In fact, he grew up in the AG denomination and remained there until converting, so he’s way less of a religious mutt than I am. Yet he read the writings of the early church fathers extensively and prayed for several months and decided that the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be and joined it.

Well, that got me curious. First of all, I wanted to be able to converse knowledgeably with him. I love discussing theology and wanted to know where he was coming from. But second, I realized that his conversion, coupled with my interactions with a couple of wonderful Catholic friends online was really making me want to know more about my faith from a historical perspective. Even as I’ve enjoyed things like modern praise music (done well) and more informal worship services, I’ve quietly lamented the lack of connection to our history as Christians not only on an individual level, but in our corporate expressions of worship as well. Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself drawn more to old hymns, even if redone with more modern arrangements because of the poetic lyrics and deep theological truths they expressed. I loved it when our church would recite the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed or Phos Hilaron (as translated by John Keble) as I felt such a deep connection to generations of Christians centuries before me in reciting the same words they said, but those occasions were all too rare (though more than most contemporary-style churches I’ve known). I wondered why in all the striving for cultural relevance, we’d seemingly lost the sense of awe and mystery in Holy Communion (did we ever have it?), and why we don’t partake of it more often.

I wondered why as Protestants, we more or less trace our Christian history back to the 1500s and Martin Luther, then leap back 15 centuries to the approximate date the Apostle John died. We never talk about it. Did the church cease to exist for 1500 of the last 2000 years? Did pagan influences and corrupt theology and doctrine come barging in immediately after the Apostles died? There are probably different answers to that question that would attribute varying degrees of apostasy and theological error to the Apostles successors, but the point is, we almost act like those 1500 years never existed. Or if they did, nothing between about A.D. 90 and 1517 has, nor should it have, any bearing on our understanding of the Bible and our Christian faith. I don’t know how to answer that but it seems preposterous on its face. So, all of this has brought me to something of a crisis of faith. Not between having faith in God or not having faith in God or debating his existence. It’s more of a crisis over what the Christian faith is. Being raised a Protestant and becoming something of a Calvinist in soteriology about 10 years ago, I thought I was done figuring out the big stuff. But the more I read of the writings of the early church…men who risked all they had and often paid with their very lives…the more I found that they believed an awful lot of stuff we Protestants eschewed long ago in our quest to get back to the primacy of Scripture and dispense with unnecessary man-made traditions. My head is spinning and I’m not sure where it’s going to go from here. Maybe this blog will help me sort it all out.

I just want the truth, no matter where it leads.

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