My friend and fellow pastor in the CREC, Toby Sumpter, has been posting some clear-thinking reflections on what is practically involved when Reformed Christians convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. I thought this post was especially accurate, particularly this paragraph:
A convert must leave the unity of the church that he/she is currently enjoying. The convert must cut ties and refuse to enact the central sacrament of unity with those Christians any more. A convert must sometimes be re-baptized, often confirmed/chrismated, but at the very least make a profession of faith that the new communion is the fullness of the Body of Christ and implicitly (if not explicitly) denounce the previous church as something less than a true church where the Lord is present in all His glory.
This is exactly right, and it shows why anyone who converts from an informed and self-aware Reformed church to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy needs to make strong and exclusive claims and why they had better really believe them. The act of joining a church which makes such claims is itself a profession of a kind of faith, and it bears direct and sober implications about the status of churches outside of their institutional jurisdiction. The various nice-guy converts who try to downplay all of this and say that it’s not that big a deal, or that nobody has to take a big criticism in all of this, are actually the least loving and least responsible of all. Let me explain.
To join the Roman Catholic Church, you must believe that Jesus ordained Peter as a singular bishop with full jurisdiction over the entire church. Further, you must believe that this Peter set up his jurisdiction in Rome and conferred that jurisdiction, in an institutional form, to all succeeding bishops of Rome. They were given, by Jesus Christ Himself, plenary authority over all other Christian churches. Beyond this, one must also believe that the substance of bread and wine are wholly removed from the eucharistic elements when the words of institution are spoken (Council of Trent, 13th Session, Declaration Concerning the Eucharist, Canon 2) and that anyone who denies this is anathema. An anathema is the placing of someone under a divine curse:
Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N– himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.
There are many more claims for which the Roman Catholic Church places objectors under anathema. One must believe that Jesus Christ is truly sacrificed in the Mass for continued remission of sins. One must believe that priests have judicial and penal authorities over the laity. One must believe that the pope can speak infallibly under certain conditions and that earlier ex cathedra papal statements, including prior anathemas, are also infallible and thus irrevocable.
And I just don’t see how you can believe those things in any other way than dead-serious earnest. You don’t have to be boastful or puffed-up. But you can’t view them as “not really that big of a deal.” And you can’t rightly take issue with people who think those things are direct affronts to them. You can believe those people are wrong, and you can be sad for them, but you can’t think they are ridiculous for making a stink over it.
Vatican II did not change this situation. Vatican II did change a number of things, and its exact meaning is hotly contested among Roman Catholics, but it did not cancel earlier anathemas. Vatican II extended a sort of exception (or exemption) to those who are sufficiently ignorant of the teachings of the Roman Church, and so it does take away a lot of the earlier exclusivity, but it does not lift anathemas from those who study the matter and become informed. A conscientious and informed Protestant is as condemned today as he was in the 17th century.
Eastern Orthodoxy does not have the same distinctives as Rome, and they do not have nearly as many or as specific anathemas, and yet the Service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy does include the following:
To those who dare to say that the all-pure Virgin Mary was not virgin before giving birth, during birthgiving, and after her child-birth, Anathema!
To those who mock and profane the holy images and relics which the holy Church receives as revelations of God’s work and of those pleasing to Him, to inspire their beholders with piety, and to arouse them to follow these examples; and to those who say that they are idols, Anathema!
Many Orthodox refuse to recognize Protestants (in general) as Christians, but even the more big-minded of them will need to say that informed and committed Protestants who actively reject teachings like those quoted above are outside of salvation. I don’t doubt that many individuals in Orthodox churches do not believe this, but the sort of “official” position is what it is.
And so again, to believe this requires a strong personal constitution. One ought to speak clearly and firmly, and one really ought to be evangelizing Protestants with a sincere passion. What someone who converts to these churches cannot do is downplay the action as a minor move, an internecine squabble, or a case of different flavors for different tastes. To do so would be terribly insensitive and demeaning towards those who sincerely disagree, to the memories of those who fought and died in the past, and to the integrity of God’s truth.
Many converts take refuge in the postmodern retreat to commitment. They say, “Hey, don’t be mad. This isn’t personal. It’s just what I believe now.” And yet they do not seem to recognize or admit that what they believe has public consequences and bears directly on the status and fate of others. It cannot but impact all of those in their former congregation.
Now, none of this is an argument for why Protestantism is right and why Rome or Orthodoxy are wrong. I have not tried to make that claim (though I believe it). I am only talking about how conversions ought to be understood. They are not the kinds of things which can avoid hard edges. I also do not mean that all converts need to be jerks. One can be very kind and very sympathetic while still maintaining an uncompromising and clear position.
And this means that Protestant responses to such conversions must also be firm. As tempting as it would be to hug it out and tell everyone to be warm and filled, it would not actually be the right thing to do. It would not be loving. It would not be respectful. It would not be true.