A few years ago I went through an internal crisis: I wrestled with the idea of becoming Roman Catholic. (I’m not sure if I’d call this a fad, but I know that my experience is not out of the ordinary.) I was taking a theology class at Regent College in Vancouver with Hans Boersma. Hans attended a Reformed church but had immersed himself in the writings and thought of traditions outside of his own. He had us reading all sorts of great stuff written by the Fathers and Orthodox and Catholic theologians. At the same time I was taking a church history course at ACTS Seminary with Bruce Guenther. As providence would have it, it seemed that each week’s class at each respective school overlapped. For example, while reading St. Basil’s works on the Holy Spirit with Hans at Regent I’d be discussing St. Basil’s life with Bruce at ACTS. I was drawn into a world with which I had little experience.
Cue the personal ecclesiological whirlwind.
Having grown up in the C&MA (Evangelical Protestant) I was not often exposed to other traditions of the faith. In fact, I implicitly grew up with a distrust of others, especially those crazy Catholics (sarcasm). I’d never even heard of the Orthodox Church. More to the point, I grew up thinking that the church was a nice idea (it provided food on our table because my parents were pastors) and a beneficial place to hang out, but I never thought that it was much beyond that. My faith was personal. It was about me and Jesus (after all, Jesus was my personal saviour). The idea that being a part of the church was somehow essential to my faith, and that the church could exist in other shapes and forms outside of my own tradition, had not crossed my mind.
However, as I began to read people like St. Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory the Great, J.M.R. Tillard, and Henri De Lubac my eyes began to open to the wonder, hope, essential nature, and wideness of the Church (which is kind of odd since each of the previously mentioned guys would likely consider me, a rebellious Protestant, a distant ecclesial cousin). I felt that I needed to repent of my myopic understanding of Christ’s Body. I felt drawn into the Tradition (a living entity which I’d never heard of before). I felt sacramentally and corporately deprived. And so wanting to run back to the mother ship I considered leaving my Evangelical Protestant home and becoming Roman Catholic. As I shared this internal crisis with some of my peers and friends I received a variety of responses but mostly looks of “are you crazy?” Yet it was an internal struggle that kept me awake at night. I felt lost in the world of church and needing a new home.
However, as I prayed, read D.H. Williams’ book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, reflected on my fondness for the tradition in which I was a part, and talked with my mentors and family, I realized that the Spirit wasn’t asking me to leave the C&MA. Instead, I felt that the Spirit was asking me to re-embrace my tradition and to bring my new found appreciation for the Church, the corporate, and traditions outside of my own, to my tribe’s table. There is a beautiful freedom that comes with being in the C&MA. What I realized was that I had the ability to bring C&MA people into contact with other traditions in a way that most of those other traditions would never be capable of doing. I don’t know too many Orthodox churches that can fashion a corporate gathering to reflect, for example, a Pentecostal-style service (nor would they likely want to). Whereas I, especially as a church planter, have a wonderful freedom to experiment with all sorts of traditions, rituals, and rites. For me, it’s a fantastic denominational asset.
I find myself now more in love with the C&MA than before, but with a passion to speak some sacramental and corporate theology into our discussion. I am completely convinced of the essential nature of the Church, her mission, and the Christian’s role a part of her; the us is equally as important as (if not more important than) the me. I am also now a lover of Catholic and Orthodox theological discussions. I think that every Protestant Evangelical pastor should spend some time reading Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, the Roman Catholic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and some Vladimir Lossky (Orthodox theologian).
I leave you with J.M.R. Tillard’s response to the question, “What is the local church?” from his book, I Believe, Despite Everything.
It is only to be understood in the function of God’s visitation made in Jesus Christ. It is the human space — with all the realism of its history, its problems, its projects, its culture, its joys, and its pains — linking its inhabitants in a community of destiny and where the Gospel has taken root. In it the visitation of Christ continues. The Church of God is the communion of all these local churches. Already present in God, in its head, the resurrected Christ, it thus takes form in the flesh of the people and in the realism of the human condition.