Jason’s Questions: #2 Why Is It So Hard to Pick a Church?

Up until I was drawing nearer to the Catholic Church, the question of how I should “pick” which local congregation to attend was always a difficult and unsettling one for me.  I was raised broadly “evangelical.”[1]  When I was born, my family attended a United Methodist church.  Then, when we moved to Florida, we attended an Assembly of God church, which was charismatic.  I still have my workbook from one of the boys’ programs I attended there, teaching me all about the “gifts of the Spirit.”  At the same time we attended the Assembly of God church, I went to a Southern Baptist private school.  All of our textbooks were published by A Beka press from Pensacola Christian College (more on that some other time).

Shortly before I finished elementary school at the Southern Baptist elementary school and began attending an independent, fundamentalist Baptist middle school, we switched churches and started attending a Presbyterian USA church.  We weren’t there for long, though, before we began attending a congregation in the instrumental Churches of Christ.  We attended there throughout my years in public high school, and I went to an instrumental Church of Christ congregation and Bible study throughout college.  When I would be back home in Orlando, though, I stopped attending the instrumental Church of Christ and started attending a Southern Baptist church that was highly Calvinistic in its teaching.  For law school, I went to Regent University—founded by Pat Robertson of The 700 Club fame.  While there, Nikki and I attended an independent Baptist church and then, when we moved to Northern Virginia, attended a Baptist church associated with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (a more “moderate” Baptist group).

Did everyone follow that?  Even I almost need to call in a graphic designer to make a timeline for me, and it was my life.  What strikes me now about this experience is that I never fully agreed with any of these various churches and faith-based schools, although I came close with the instrumental Churches of Christ.[2]  With the Assemblies of God, I thought they got a little too carried away with the whole “baptism of the Spirit” thing.  With the Baptists, I always disagreed with the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.”  With the Calvinists, I could never resign myself to believing human free will was an utter illusion and that, from time immemorial, God had written our eternal destinies in stone.

My inability to completely accept any particular denomination or local congregation’s doctrine made it hard to decide where to attend Sunday services, especially since it seemed to me the main point of going to worship services and Bible studies was to learn more about doctrine (which I’ve already discussed here).  As a consequence of this, I felt compelled to put together my own list of “essential” Christian doctrines so that I could test a local congregation against it when I’d visit.[3]  In my experience, this is something many Protestants do, and, although the lists of “essentials” tend to be similar, they can also differ in respects that at least a few folks will insist are absolutely critical.[4]

I eventually came to the realization that there were several problems with this method of local church selection, but, for this post, I’m going to confine myself to one:  this way of picking a church is utterly exhausting for the individual Christian (at least it was for me).  This is because it pretty much required me to have a theology degree, which I don’t have.  But, if a legitimate local church is determined solely on the basis of what it teaches, then it would follow that all Christians have to be experts on orthodoxy before they join a church.  Otherwise, how would they have confidence that the organization they were joining was really a church?[5]

From where I am now, my old way of selecting a local church to attend seems completely backwards.  Why should a person need to have all of “essential” Christian doctrine completely figured out before they even join a church?  If that’s the case, then what are they going to learn after they join?  Also, this way of selecting a church pretty much assumes literacy:  if I determine where to go to church based solely on how “orthodox” it is, and if I determine orthodoxy based “solely” on the Bible, what happens to the vast majority of folks who were Christian over the last 2,000 years who couldn’t read?  Were they all just condemned to taking their chances when picking a local church?  Certainly a good and loving God wouldn’t have set up a church-selection system that only literate, fairly well-educated people could use.

Those of you who’ve read my prior posts have already probably figured out I’m something of a “doctrine junkie,” so I’d be the last person to say doctrine isn’t important.  In fact, I believe it’s vitally important.  But it’s also important to realize that the Catholic answer to how to pick a local church to attend is not simply:  “Find one that teaches Catholic doctrine.”  Rather, for the Catholic, there’s a far easier test for selecting a local congregation to attend:  find one in communion with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.

As a Protestant, of course, this answer was difficult for me to swallow.  However, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, because it was based on the belief that Christ loves us so much that He would make sure there was a way everyone, regardless of intellect, doctrinal sophistication, or literacy, could have confidence when they were choosing a local church–anyone can figure out whether a local congregation is in communion with the Pope.  This is why I ultimately came to accept the Catholic understanding of Christ’s words to Peter:  “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”[6]  It made sense to me, and gave me great comfort, to believe that Christ didn’t just leave us with a Church based entirely on a set of doctrinal propositions, no matter how important those doctrinal propositions are.  Rather, He left us with a Church initially led by the Apostles themselves, with Peter as their head, who handed down their authority to their successors, the current bishops of the Catholic Church who are headed by the current Pope, Benedict XVI, the visible guarantor of Catholic unity.

By accepting the office of the Bishop of Rome as the unifying principle of the Church on earth–all the while continuing to recognize that Christ alone is the “head of the body, the Church” (Gal. 1:18; see also Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) No. 792)–I was freed from the necessity of having to make sure every theological t was crossed and i dotted before I walked into a church building on a Sunday morning.[7]  What’s more, even if the preaching was bad and the music stunk, I could be sure worship had taken place.  This also freed me from the slavery of thinking that where I went to church each week was entirely up to me.  Of course, I still had to play my part.  I had to get behind the wheel of the car and drive to church, but that is just cooperating with God’s grace.

Without the papacy, none of this would be possible.  There has to be a single, solitary head of the Church on earth for this kind of simplicity, and he has to be a head that, when necessary, can speak with binding, infallible authority on matters of faith and morals.  If the Church were headed by a committee, there would be too great a tendency for the forming of factions.  As with so many things, I think Chesterton explains the role of the Pope well so I’ll end with a quote from his essay “Upon This Rock”:

It is needless to explain, I trust, that the only despotism of the Pope consists in the fact that all Catholics believe that God will guard him from teaching falsehood to the Church on those special and rather rare occasions when he is appealed to to end a controversy with a final statement of faith.  His ordinary pronouncements, though naturally received with profound respect, are not infallible.  His private character depends on his own free will, like anybody else’s.  He can commit sins like anybody else; he must confess sins like anybody else; and his having been Pope is nothing to his salvation.  But the question is, given our need for such final decisions to save Christianity at great crises, what organ of the Church decides?  The longer historical experience accumulates, the more profoundly thankful most Catholics are that the organ is a human being; a mind and not a type, a will and not a tradition or tone of a class.  The best bishops ruling as a class would become a club, as a parliament does.  They would have all of its scattered responsibility, all its mutual flattery, all its diffused and dangerous pride.  But the responsibility of a Pope is so solitary and so solemn that a man would need to be a maniac not to be humbled by it.

[1]               I recognize that the term “evangelical” has no settled meaning.  For my purpose here, I’m using it to refer to non-Catholic churches that are somehow descended from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and still believe that the Resurrection was an actual historical event and that it’s somehow “better” for a person to be a Christian than not to be a Christian.

[2]               Please understand I’m not saying anything here about my feelings for any of the people in these different congregations and schools, whose love for Christ I absolutely do not question.  Almost all of my close friendships throughout my life have been formed in the churches and schools I have attended.  I also learned much about God in each of these places, and I will forever be thankful for that as well.

[3]               The quality of the music and the style of the preaching also played a very large role in how I’d select a church to attend.  As the priest who commented on my last posted indicated, however, these criteria cannot be outcome-determinitive, and there’s no indication in the New Testament that Christ intended for these criteria to be used to identify a church.

[4]               In fact, in my experience, it seems Protestants are putting together their own lists of “essentials” more and more, which I think is one of the reasons the old mainline denominations have been declining.  Sticking with your own brand of Protestant church and accepting all of its teachings, just because it’s “your brand,” doesn’t seem to have the cache it used to.  For myself, I just see that as the working out of the logic of Protestantism, which places the ultimate locus of authority for settling disputes over matters of faith and morals (including disputes over what the Bible means) in the hands of individual believers, instead of in the Church.

[5]               Please note I’m not saying that the Catholic Church has a monopoly on the word “church.”  If you want to read more on the Catholic Church’s stance on this subject, see CCC Nos. 748-870.  I think it’s noteworthy, however, that, regardless of the Catholic view of how we should use the word “church,” many Protestant congregations are dropping the word from their names anyway.  I do wonder where folks in such congregations say they’re going on Sunday mornings since it seems their leaders don’t want them saying they’re “going to church.”

[6]               This, of course, is the famous passage in Matthew 16 that, according to Catholic teaching, records Christ’s institution of Peter as the head of the Apostles and, as a consequence, the “shepherd of the whole flock.”  See CCC No. 880-81.  For more on the Biblical and historical basis for the papacy, see here.

[7]               If I can say one thing to my Protestant readers on this subject, it is:  getting to make up doctrine for myself wasn’t “freedom,” although that’s what I always believed.  In fact, I think it was complete slavery.  Now that I’ve accepted Catholic teaching, I have the freedom to explore all of its implications without forever revisiting the question of whether the fundamental teaching itself is valid.  As Chesterton would say, it’s only since I’ve accepted Catholic orthodoxy that I’ve known “mental emancipation.”

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3 Responses to Jason’s Questions: #2 Why Is It So Hard to Pick a Church?

  1. Steve Dee says:

    Hey Jason, just wanted to drop a note saying that I’m a big fan of your writing. I also wanted to thank you – I was raised Catholic (left the Church, came back in my early 20s) and my wife was raised Lutheran/Assemblies of God. Her family does the “church hop” and as a Catholic, I didn’t get it (especially from a doctrinal point of view). Your blog, and especially this post has really given me insight in to my wife’s faith and will help me as she converts to Catholicism.

  2. Pingback: I Never Prayed that Everyone Would Be a Baptist | The Roman Road

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