A good friend of mine is fond of saying,
"Always search, always question..."
Yet, even he might say this search has been much ado about nothing -- or, at least, much ado about something best left alone. It seems so very complicated, doesn't it? And why would anyone think they could unravel whether Protestantism spent the last five hundred years heading in the wrong direction? What audacity! What nerve!
Such feelings might seem further justified by some of the conversion stories in the recommended reading section. These pilgrimmages are very informative; I could not have done without them. Yet their chapters sometimes come off a little daunting and difficult. That's because many of these Catholic converts were Protestant ministers and avid Bible scholars. Everything -- including family, career, friends -- rode on their decision regarding the claims of Catholicism. They found it essential to nail down every possible objection, pouring years of research into what Scripture, the early church, and contemporary theology had to say about Mary, the Mass, Confession, the Eucharist, Papal Authority, Purgatory, Justification, and much, much more.
Contrast these folks with my grandmother, Elizabeth Woodward, a dedicated member of Antioch Baptist Church and the very epitome of kindness. She was not, by nature, a theologian and not, by vocation, a Protestant minister or Bible scholar. When visiting with her, I would often think, regarding the whole denominational dilemma, "It's one thing for a seminary graduate to work his way through all these questions, but what about my grandmother? And what about me? Are only fired-up Reformed theology Presbyterian Bible scholars meant to unravel this mystery?"
I didn't think so. In fact, I became convinced that God's intense desire to "bring all men to the truth" implied a simpler path for people like my grandmother and myself.
In other words, a stalemate consisting of "This is too complicated for people like us" is not possible -- not if Christ's message was meant for all of us. God must have made a way. If his message is meant for all of us and if, in our day, getting the authentic content of that message necessarily involves sifting through denominations, then a "simpler sifting" had to be possible -- one that, compared to the route taken by ministers and Bible scholars, narrowed the scope of the questions with which "regular folk" must contend.
Fortunately, a good friend of mine, Rod Bennett, shared an idea that helped bring this alternate path into focus. A recent convert himself, Rod knew what I was reaching for in my almost inarticulate grasping for a "simple path."
"Is there is anything simpler," Rod pointed out, "than one tangible, approachable, visible Church saying to everyone, 'Do you want to be with God? Come on in!'?"
The Church herself turned out to be the focus of that simpler, more direct path.
The nature of this Church, the authority of this Church, are points often lost in debate over the multitudes of specific teachings. I could debate with myself over a handful of doctrines for years -- especially if my own predilections, my own grasp of the evidence are my only reference point. Yet, having lost faith in private interpretation, how could I still put it to use in making a decision regarding Catholicism?! It is not for me to piece together a patchwork quilt of Catholic doctrines I can believe in and then to see whether that adds up to sufficient reason to "join up." If this Church actually has authority to speak to me in the name of Christ, who am I to quibble with her about infant baptism or priestly celibacy?
It may seem a "simplistic" approach rather than merely a "simple" one. Yet, if you can acknowledge the existence of revealed truth -- information about reality which we did not unravel, but which was given to us by God whether we understand it or not -- this sort of childlike response to authority is inevitable. Doesn't the Bible-only Christian place the same sort of trust in the Scriptures themselves?
My question became simply, "Which church has the authority to speak to me in the name of Christ?" I suppose it was the question I had been asking all along. Yet it had a certain clarity now. The relationship between church and authority had become clearer -- or, better yet, it had become believable. And, as theological questions go, this was not "too complicated for me." Although I did continue to research other, more specific doctrinal matters -- it was irresistable -- it became more and more apparent that, once the authority issue was settled, the rest fell into place.
Still, this is not to say that I had found a method or approach that put everything within my mental grasp. Some things remained "too complicated for me" and were up to God to unravel. In particular, I'm thinking of the peeling away of layer after layer of bias, the unlearning of what I once accepted without question as true regarding the Catholic Church. That was, indeed, far beyond me. Getting past all that involved another, unanticipated ingredient: simple, God-awful suffering. This took the form of my wife's illness -- severe and prolonged -- after the birth of our first child. For some reason, moving beyond my prejudices and fears involved a forced march over hot coals. But, so what -- that part is over now.
In John's Gospel, the resurrected Lord appears to the gathered disciples and says, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me so I am sending you." Breathing on them, he says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:19-23 NIV)
Non-Catholics object to Confession on principle they assert that God would never give men power to forgive sins, not even the apostles and not even forgiveness by proxy "in the name of Christ." And yet, there you have it in John. He did it. (The NIV Study Bible's attempt to squeeze past this Scripture is pretty lame, by the way.)
In Scripture, we find the Son of Man condemned for forgiving sins; people didn't realize he was God in the flesh. Today, the Catholic Church receives a similar condemnation. It makes people uncomfortable when the Church behaves as though it is actually Christ's presence in the world; they can't accept the strange, supernatural way in which the Church operates "in persona Christi" as the Body of Christ. Yet "As the Father sent Me so I am sending you."
We sometimes wonder how we would have responded if we had lived in Christ's day and met the Lord face-to-face. Entrenched in our first century ideas of what the Messiah ought to be like, would we manage to set aside our biases, to have "eyes to see" and "ears to hear?" I submit to you, dear reader, that one does not have to live in first century Galilee to encounter such a test. The strangeness, the otherworldly "offense" of the Christ is with us to this day. We may, in our own century, respond to the "stumbling block" by making it the "pillar and foundation of truth" in our lives -- by our decision to make Jesus Christ our personal Lord and Savior and by our response to his tangible presence in this world. The Church, the Body of Christ stands before us, demanding a response, just as surely as Christ himself would have 2000 years ago.