How Being a Baptist Prepared Me to be a Good Catholic (II of IV)
Life, As I Find It
I’ve been reminiscing about how my formative years as a Baptist actually helped me get to Catholicism – and continue 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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