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How Being a Baptist Prepared Me to be a Good Catholic (II of IV)

August 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Faith, Paul McCusker

Life, As I Find It

I’ve been reminiscing about how my formative years as a Baptist actually helped me get to Catholicism – and Good Catholiccontinue to impact my Catholic life.

It may surprise some that being a Baptist taught me to respect the authority of the church. I don’t mean the Church with the capital “C”, but the little “c” church, meaning an autonomous and local assembly with a Pastor (or pastors), a group of deacons, and the congregation. That’s the church we thought the New Testament was talking about. No Bishops, no Pope, no monolithic hierarchy with men dressed in funny clothes and hats (not counting Baptist conventions with all the polyester and toupees).

We believed our church was what Jesus Himself intended churches to be. Fallen, not perfect, but a church, doing what true First-Century-type believers did. That our church bore no resemblance whatsoever to the historical First Century church was something we didn’t know. Not that it mattered. Actually history meant very little when we could simply bypass the 2000 years and go to the Bible directly. At least our hearts were certainly in the right places.

Of greater importance, I learned that the local church was essential to Christian living, not merely the “optional extra” it seems to be now. There was no living the Christian life without it. A good Christian needed the church to survive spiritually. The church fed my personal spiritual life, which would, in turn, feed the church. That’s what it meant to be part of the Body of Christ, as we understood it. Going to Sunday School and Sunday morning service – and Sunday evening and Wednesday evening – and Awana on Thursday – and youth group on Friday – wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If I wanted to grow in Christ, then I needed to take my place in the church and all its activities.

I remember, as a teenager, skipping a Sunday evening service once. The Pastor’s wife later asked me why I wasn’t there. I honestly admitted that I didn’t feel like going. She asked, in that very Baptist way: “What if Jesus didn’t feel like going to the cross? Where would we be?” To which I replied, “At home, since there wouldn’t be a church if He didn’t go to the cross.”

She would have been within her rights to slap me.

I’ve mused that, considering the Baptist mantra of “Saved By Grace and not Works,” Baptists tend to be the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. It’s a funny thing. Catholics minimally have to go to Mass once a week and Confession once a year and they think they’re good to go. That’s pretty light stuff for a “Works-based” religion. Whereas Baptists could slide through Purgatory if only for the time they spent making chicken casseroles for the next fellowship, wedding or funeral. (If they believed in Purgatory. Which they don’t. Just to be clear about that.)

And the authority of the local church, as its leadership taught and acted according to Biblical principles, was rock-solid – at least at a corporate level. Our church would never presume to be tyrannical like that other group. As Baptists we were lovers of American democracy, which meant the authority of the church was never supposed to encroach on our personal convictions (so long as those convictions were Biblically supported). The Pastor never presumed to tell us what to do. But the Biblical authority behind his advice, as the Shepherd of the flock, was to be respected.

My sense of the place and authority of the church was so strong that, for years, I was wary of para-church organizations that tried to usurp the authority of local churches. Ironic, considering I’ve spent most of my working life with Evangelical para-church organizations.

Respect for the church was a key part of my Baptist experience and would stay with me in the many years to follow. Eventually it became a litmus test, one that led me to the pivotal question which guided me into the Catholic faith.

Most Baptists would be concerned, if not horrified, about how I went so wrong with their good teaching. But wait! There’s more.



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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • Yule

    waiting for Part 3 and 4 ;).

    • LizEst

      They are coming soon!

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  • T. C.

    This is so helpful, my background is almost identical and Lord willing will start RCIA this fall. Thank you for posting these thoughts, it’s such a big move and helps to read another’s similar thoughts and path.

    • LizEst

      God bless you, T. C. …and welcome!

    • Midget01

      I will pray for you. I know all RCIA programs are not exactly the same but with the spirit guiding you things will go well. I use to be a Director of my former parishes program. I wanted the people to feel as comfortable as possible so that they could ask anything that I told them that my job was to answer any question they had and if when they decided to become a CAtholic or not that was ok with me. That I only hope it made then a better whatever they were at the beginning of the program or gave them enough information to help them accept their future destiny. If it was Catholic than I did a great job. If it made them a better Protestant I did ok. but If they were headed towards becoming an atheist we need to talk because they obviously had missed something. I only lost 1 person not because of what I said but because they decided they needed to get their annulment processed first and then decide if they wanted to return to the process. My prayers are with you. Peace May your journey last for ever but always with God. Midget

      • T. C.

        thank you, Midget, kind words, but the prayers are a richer gift.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Paul…Following your journey home with great interest and eagerly look forward to the next installation. One thing you stated here that I find peculiar, given you have
    accepted the teachings of Catholicism. That is your statement here where you referred to our religion as a *works-based* religion? Can you expand your thought a little as surely we are not a *works-based* religion but rather one where we
    give evidence of grace working within us by our good deeds. No teaching of the Church tells us we can earn salvation but rather it is a freely given gift through the Cross of Jesus. I look forward to a response when time permits..thanks and God bless.

    • Paul McCusker

      Baptists would consider Catholicism a “works-based” religion because it is, in essence, “participatory salvation.” Namely, to put it simply, God through His Son has done His part (the free gift) and then expects us to do ours as He works through us (faith made real in our works). Catholics believe we can sin in such a way that jeopardizes our condition of salvation. Catholics will also experience Purgatory, based on what we’ve done in our lives. On the other hand, my Baptist church taught a “saved by grace alone/ once saved always saved” theology that, technically, meant I didn’t have to do anything – anything at all – except bring Jesus in my heart as my Lord and Savior. Does that make any sense?

      • ThirstforTruth

        Thanks Paul for the clarification. I see now what you were
        stating in the phrase used *works-based* was meant from the viewpoint of the Baptist faith, not the Catholic. In fact, you made clearer for me the “once saved, always saved” theology which describes such a different approach to salvation….so simplistic that I would think anyone really giving thought to Christ’s salvific work would realize there has to be more involved on our part. I like especially the phrase you used here, “participatory salvation”. As long as we keep in mind the pure gift Jesus salvation presents to us; the enormity of unearned grace it presents. Thanks and God bless.


          Thirst for Truth: I found that mediating on the passage from St. James 2: 12-17 edifying when I confronted the question of once saved always saved in RCIA class.

          • ThirstforTruth

            Beautiful! The next few passages are also relevant when
            the question of faith versus works arises. Abraham’s
            faith was completed by his works ( sacrifice of Isaac )
            and our God “credited it as rightousness…and he was
            called the friend of God”! Imagine that!! The friend of
            God….how could Luther have missed all this or interpreted
            so badly this revelation?

      • Patti Day

        I knew you were going to take it on the chin over that tongue-in-cheek “works-based” remark. Glad you and Thirstfotruth are friends again :) I enjoy your articles and look forward to parts iii and iv.

  • walker_percy

    Awana? Do tell….

    • LizEst

      The Awana acronym comes from the first letters of “Approved workmen are not ashamed” (as 2 Timothy 2:15 is translated in some Bible translations). It is an integrated evangelism and discipleship program for ages 2 through 18. This information is came from the Awana site.

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  • Midget01

    You mention that Catholics do not have to do many things with their faith that they are only expected to attend mass as though they are commanded to do so and therefore insinuate that because of this most Catholics do not take their faith serious enough. While I can see how watching most Catholics this is what appears to happen. Yet I also know that those who really get into and take their faith seriously tend to be the ones who become so involved that they take on deep religious roles and do more things than some priests do in their spiritual life. Not to put the priests down but to try to make a point of the person being called deeper to their faith. They do it not out of guilt but out of desire and therefore it doesn’t seem like an effort but a drive to accomplish. For them their lives would have become spirit led. Much like the desert fathers and/or mothers.
    I see a lot of converts discovering that their former faith did provide a foundation for them once they decided not to through their former faith (the baby) out with
    the bath water. If you watch Journey Home with Marcus Grodi many of the converts speak about their foundations in other faiths. As a long term Catholic it is hard to see how they can justify the span between the early Church and the founding of their Church. I know they seem to approach it with ignorance. Not being disrespectful but that’s a big span of time to not be aware of .

    • Paul McCusker

      Dear Midget01: I was being glib about the “minimal requirements” for Catholics, but didn’t mean to suggest that all Catholics are like that. There are many, many Catholics who are deeply faithful.

      By the way, the gap between the Early Church and the present is a non-issue if you believe in “The Bible Only” as your source of God’s Truth. 2000 years of history simply aren’t relevant. In other words, I don’t need to know the history of automobiles to read my car’s manual and drive my car. If that makes any sense :)

      • Midget01

        Thank you for a better way of looking at it. For the most part of my experiences I have seen many non catholics using their scripture to challenge catholics to believe they are correct and our understanding to have been altered over time. I find it amazing how they look at things differently when they are introduced to the Doctors or Fathers of the Church. When I try to bring up tradition they act as though tradition can be decided and formed by the early church with/ for a specific purpose and direction; instead of being Spiritually formed Through Christ. Many of the people I talk with seem to agree to disagree because we are merely trying to understand where each of us are coming from. Conversion is not their goal but trying to understand each other is our direction. We all tend to respect each other on our journey of understanding the direction we have come from. It has been an interesting gift for me to find such a group of people willing to discuss our faith and remain friends for over 7 years. While religion is not always our center it does give us a common bond. We have one Jew who told me because of my questions she chose to finally go through her Bat Mitzvah and if they had God Mothers I would be hers. A truly blessed moment. Thank you Peace/ Midget01
        PS my real challenge is my Universalist. Most of it is her personality because she takes things as personal attacks and we all have to remind her we are sharing and discussing not accusing her. We just want to understand her beliefs.

      • David

        Tradition also plays into the foundation of the Church. Who first wrote the Bible. Read “Where We Got The Bible” by Henry G. Graham. And what did the earlier Christian do before the Bible, was made available to the poor. Tradition – such as the Rosary

        • Paul McCusker

          Jaroslav Pelikan’s “Whose Bible Is It?” is a good read, too. But, to your point, an ignorance of history plays into many Protestant assumptions. People don’t think that, before the Printing Press, getting the Bible into the hands of the average person was nearly impossible, so Church was the only place to hear it. This fact, when thought about by Protestants, becomes twisted into “The Catholic Church didn’t want people to read the Bible, so they wouldn’t let the average person have it.” (Though, admittedly, in times of great heresy, it’s understandable that Church leadership would be wary of how the Bible might be used as a weapon to deceive.)

          • David

            Paul I just want to thank you also because you helped me a great in my further understanding of Mary as Mother of God. (Theotokos). But later I want to share more about Tradition, and the Bible with you. Because there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the Church

  • David

    Paul I just wanted to add, that being a Secular, (I’am so happy to hear the story of your conversion) I have always been drawn towards the contemplative life of prayer, and so works, I just wonder. But I have also always wondered because it was a number of Baptists that told me that Mary was not the Mother of God. Point! And so who is She to Baptists? Also they told me that the Church was the Great Hoer of Babylon, and the Pope was the Anti Christ (2010). I still remember back in 1970 traveling through the back hills of Tennessee and Georgia, off the I 75, and coming across this huge sign, which read this “This County Is Control By The KKK” and these people are not allow in this county _ Jews, Catholics, N___, and so on. And on the bottom painted by hand Hippies. And so looking back on history, I know that a vast majority of Southern Baptists were KKK. I have always prayed that the hate will stop, and that the Church will become one, as Christ told us, about His Body…
    Also one other thing I remember hearing at a retreat, was we can say and do what ever we like against Our Lord, and if we repent from the depth of our heart, He will forgive us. But on the other hand being the Son of Mary (like any son). You say anything against His Mother, watch out! But then His Mother does plead for us. She loves us.

    • Paul McCusker

      Thanks, David. Baptists wouldn’t use a phrase like “Mother of God” for Mary. She was the mother of Jesus Christ, the son of God, not the mother of God the Father (which is what the phrase makes Baptists think). The phrase ‘The Whore of Babylon’ is one of those phrases that emerged, I think, from one of the Reformers. I’m not sure about that. But not all Baptists are like the Baptists you mentioned in the South, just as not all Catholics are like the characters in “The Godfather” :)

      • David

        Paul I love the Catholic Church, and I love sharing my (Christian)faith in Her with others. And I do mean sharing. But I have always found that the second I tell them I’am Catholic (not just Christian) I’am hit by this long list of why Catholics are not Christians. And I mean a long list. I seem to have better luck sharing with Muslim people. And again do Baptists believe in “the Trinity,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… So that means that in simple form Jesus is God on earth, and that means that Mary is the Mother of God (the Theotokos) Because God is truly three in One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the Hail Mary says it all. Hail Mary “Full of Grace.”
        Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

        • Paul McCusker

          Catholics and Protestants are divided by a common language. Both believe in the Trinity, but no Baptist I knew would have accepted wording that made Mary the “Mother of God” – she was the mother of Jesus, God the Son. Your logic is right in how you explained it, but a Baptist would still argue over that wording – and be very uncomfortable with it.

  • SarMos

    I was “saved” at Baptist summer camp, fed through the instruction of Southern Baptist Sunday school, and developed a love of God’s people watching lots of kind, devout Baptists just live their lives for Christ. I became Catholic several years ago and wouldn’t have it any other way. But it hurts when I hear other former evangelicals rag on Baptists out of bitterness, or when lifelong Catholics do so out of ignorance– for better or worse, Baptists planted the seeds of my conversion, and I may have been damned without them. So thank you for your charitable thoughts in this post.

  • Mgwps63

    More! More! I can imagine that the great respect for authority that your Baptist upbringing gave you has prepared the soil of your soul well, to respect the True Authority of the Church founded by God Himself, when you found it! This is timely food for thought; it made me ponder what has happened to us cradle Catholics? Our Catholic parochial schools used to have the kind of requirements which develop such habits as you had in your upbringing, such as memorizing certain prayers, memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, and the pope was respected as if he were Christ Himelf! they called it brainwashing, but really, that is not true, it was teaching GOOD habits! Now,in the current culture of our American society, we so need to be taught to form thise GOOD habits, to actually LIVE our Faith each day, but it should ideally start when we are young to form such habits. Today, it is a struggle for most people to respect any authority! Our culture fosters SELF authority! And we haven’t the root of habits formed to hold true to the authority of The Church. Now, we allow the media and culture to dictate our creed. No wonder there is so much dessention in the Catholic Church.

  • Mgwps63

    More! More! I can imagine that the great respect for authority that your Baptist upbringing gave you has prepared the soil of your soul well, to respect the True Authority of the Church founded by God Himself, when you found it! This is timely food for thought; it made me ponder what has happened to Catholics and the respect for the authority of Christ and His Church? Our Catholic parochial schools used to have the kind of faith requirements which develop such habits as you had in your upbringing, (ok, so we did not get enough scripture, but we did get more Mass, which was just as good), such as memorizing certain prayers, memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, and the pope was respected as if he were Christ Himself! Today, they called it brainwashing, but really, it was teaching GOOD habits! It was immersing in The Faith. Now, in the current culture of our American society, we so need to be taught to form these GOOD habits, to actually LIVE our Faith each day, but it should ideally start when we are young to form such habits, and it needs to be done daily if not weekly, but who does this these days? It is so rare with our busy society, parents cannot do it alone, we need that community” you write of. Today, it is a struggle for most people to respect any authority! Our culture fosters SELF authority! And sadly most of us, haven’t the root of habits formed to hold true to the authority of The Church. Now, we allow the media and culture to dictate our creed. No wonder there is so much dessention in the Catholic Church today.

    • LizEst

      Mgwps63 – For future, when you are going to update a post, underneath your post, you will see the word “Edit”. Click that, and you can edit what you wrote with having to post it again. Be sure to click the “Save Edit” button when you are done. That is all you have to do. Thanks.

    • David

      You made a good point Mgwps63. Did you know that over a 3 year period, if you attend Daily Mass , that the Catholic along with I believe the Orthodox Church, are the only ones where you will hear the whole of the Bible read. And as I have also understood we also pray at every Mass as Our Lord taught us. The Our Father.

      • Mgwps63

        Yes, David, I did hear that somewhere. That if we are blessed enough go to Mass every day, besides just Sundays, is how we get the whole bible, and not only just hearing the Word of God, and contemplating Him, but receiving Him into our bodies…the whole of Truth, fully! I wish that I were able to convey that understanding to the protestants that as you said, say we are not Christians….not only do they not know what they are doing, they know not what they are missing!

        • Paul McCusker

          I had a conversation with a family member who hit me with the “Catholics don’t read the Bible and don’t know the Bible” line – which may be, in part, true – but I reminded her that we have FOUR Scripture readings in Mass, which is a lot more than you’ll get in Protestant services. Of course, how we absorb those readings is a different issue.

  • X Contra

    I think it was a good article, but my mental train went off the tracks in the second paragraph when you covered the concepts of polyester leisure suits and toupees.

    I kept wondering, has there ever been a pope who wore a toupee?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. ;D

    • Paul McCusker

      Sorry, X Contra, I was referring to many Baptist conventions (back in
      the ’70s) where such things were worn by the participants. Though, it’s a
      good trivia question about whether or not a Pope ever wore a toupee.
      Does anyone know?

      • LizEst

        I don’t know, Paul. But, I know a priest who often does. I suspect there must be a medical reason for it as he doesn’t appear to be a vain person.

  • Ed

    “Saved by Grace and not by works” Why are Baptists and other Evangelicals so afraid of works. Even the Reformers amended the “Faith Alone” doctrine with the statement: “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” James said that faith without works is a dead faith. Even Luther said that a saving faith is a “fides viva”, a vital faith or living faith. True faith(vital faith)is demonstrated by good works(agape love or charity).”For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”(Ephesians 2:10). Good works do not save save us, but affirm that Christ is in us.

    • Paul McCusker

      It’s not a fear of works, Ed, only of the misunderstanding of what works mean – or don’t mean – to salvation. As a Baptist, I understood the role of works as an expression of my faith in Christ – something I “ought” to do, but don’t really “need” to do in order to be “saved.” Simply put: all one needed to do to be saved was accept Jesus into his or her heart. That’s it. Anything additional – even baptism by immersion – were merely good ideas for church membership, but not needed for salvation. (It’s worth keeping in mind that the variations of Baptist are not technically considered a mainline denomination (meaning one that has theological ties directly back to the Reformers. Baptists skip past the 2000 years of history to the Bible itself. So it doesn’t matter what Luther or any of the Reformers said. And as for the Bible verses about works, those are all filtered through the belief in “saved by grace and not by works” and were explained away accordingly.

      • Ed

        Thank you for the reply, Mr. McCusker. Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, Act 22:16, Romans 6:3, etc seem to place more importance on baptism than just a good idea or an ordinance, and it certainly was not considered works by the early Christians. Ignoring 2000 years of church history is reckless. The Catholic Church seems to have a more balanced and holistic view of justification and sanctification. Thanks again for writing this interesting series.

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  • NewCatholic08

    Having spent close to sixty years seeking the true Church and traversing the myriad denominations ranging from Nazarene and Baptist and culminating penultimately with the Episcopal denomination, isn’t it wonderful to be able to read scripture free of the mental gymnastics and selective blindness toward all those passages that make it so very clear that Christ established one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

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