Sunday, July 31, 2011


One of the Church Fathers that made a big impression on me was St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was born around 50 AD, and had been a student of the Apostle John. He was the third bishop of Antioch (the Apostle Peter was the first), and was arrested and taken to Rome, sentenced to die in the Colosseum, eaten by lions sometime between 98 and 117 AD. On his way from Syria to Rome, he wrote seven letters that have been preserved to this day.

The first thing that amazed me about these letters was the description of the structure of the leadership of the churches. Ignatius always spoke of each church as being led by a single bishop, assisted by a group of presbyters and a group of deacons. While the words for bishop, presbyter, and deacon appear in the New Testament, the words for bishop and presbyter appear to be interchangeable, and there is not a clear indication of only a single bishop in a local church. This 3-tiered structure is what we find later in church history, and continues today in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. I was amazed, however, to find this structure spoken of by someone so close to the Apostles. Also, Ignatius was not proposing this structure, but he spoke of it as if everyone knew that this is how churches are structured.

The other thing that made an impression on me was St. Ignatius' concern for unity within the churches. This was not a new issue for me; the Apostle Paul had written very strong words against the divisions in the church at Corinth. Even back when I was a college student reading 1 Corinthians, I thought that St. Paul would not approve of the present existence of so many denominations, with rival churches sometimes on the same city block. Although St. Paul spoke against the divisions at Corinth, he didn't provide a practical, structural way of solving it, short of his own personal intervention. However, St. Ignatius said that the key to unity was the single local bishop. This one man was to be the point around which the church would gather, and nothing was to be done in the church apart from the bishop. His language was shocking in its absolute tone.
Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.
—Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1
As I thought about a single person being the point around which a church maintains unity, it made sense to me. History repeatedly shows the failure of other methods. Co-leaders, or a small group of leaders don't work because factions form around the various leaders, and there is no one with the authority to arbitrate between them. A document like a constitution, confession, statement of faith, or even the Bible, is not sufficient by itself as a point of unity. The problem with a document is that different people can interpret it differently. Unless there is someone who can judge how the document applies in a given circumstance, division is bound to occur with no mechanism for resolving it.

The theme of unity came up again while reading the Venerable St. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He is very concerned about the lack of unity between the Celtic Christians, who follow traditions they developed through many years of separation from the rest of the Christian world, and the English Christians, who have been evangelized by missionaries from Rome, and thus follow Roman practices. The biggest difference was how they calculated the date of Easter. What got my attention is that there were no doctrinal issues dividing them like we have between Protestant denominations. These days we would say there were cultural issues dividing them, and once adequate communication took place between the cultures, they were able to be united.

As I thought about the problem of unity of the world-wide Church, which Jesus prays for in John 17:21, I saw how the principle of unity around one man that St. Ignatius described for the local church could be extended throughout the whole Church. The bishops of the various local churches would need a man that would be the point of unity that they would gather around. Although there could still be councils, committees, and documents, the existence of one man that could arbitrate when these other structure broke down seemed necessary. The Catholic Church claims that Jesus set up such a structure when he chose the twelve Apostles as the foundation of the Church, and chose Peter as the leader of the Apostles. The Church in the beginning consisted of those who were united to the Apostles, who were led by Peter. As Peter and the other Apostles died, they were replaced by bishops. The Pope, the bishop of Rome, is seen as the successor of Peter because Peter was the leader of the Roman church when he was executed. The Catholic Church today consists of those who are united to those bishops who are united to the Pope.

Jesus only uses the word "church" twice in the Gospels, both occurring in Matthew. The second occurrence, Matthew 18:17, indicates that there is a church which can resolve disputes (not invisible). The first time the word is used is after Peter makes his confession of Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). Jesus gives him the name of Peter, and says, "on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (vv. 18-19).

The same passage that confers some kind of special authority on Peter is the passage where Jesus says "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against the Church. There seems to be a link between the authority of Peter and the permanence of the Church. Kingdoms and empires have come and gone, but the Papacy has lasted for almost 2000 years. We know the name of every Pope from Peter to Benedict XVI. There is no other institution in human history with that kind of longevity.

I came to a strong conviction of the truth of the claim of the Catholic Church to be the Church that Jesus founded, and that in order to be obedient to Jesus' desire for unity, I should do my part by becoming Catholic. However, I did not want to leave my friends in the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC). I went through several weeks of agony over what to do, only telling two people in the leadership of my diocese about my thoughts, and they both encouraged me to stay. They provided some counter arguments for staying, none of which were convincing, but eventually I came to the conclusion that God had put me with the CEC, and I should stay there until I saw I clear path otherwise.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Orthodoxy and the CEC

After the Malcolm Smith retreat, I wanted to find out more about his denomination, the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC). I found some information on the web, and saw that there was a parish not too far away in West Plano. We decided to visit one Sunday morning, and were disappointed to find that we were two out of six people at the service. Still, the priest was very friendly, and took us out for lunch after the service. One of the things he said was that theologically, the CEC was very similar to Eastern Orthodoxy.

So, I decided to check out Orthodoxy, and called up Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas. I spoke to one of the priests, who was very friendly and invited us to come for a tour. He showed us the church, explained some of the worship, and gave me a book. A few days later I attended my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy service at Holy Trinity on New Years Day, 1999. It was beautiful, but the service was half English and half Greek. So I next tried St. Seraphim Cathedral, Orthodox Church of America (OCA), which had their services in English. They also had a Wednesday night Bible Study conducted by their Archbishop, who was doing a study in the epistle to the Romans. It was a great opportunity for me to learn the Orthodox approach to the doctrines of grace and salvation. I continued going to the Bible Study, and trying various Orthodox churches in the area through Easter of 1999.

Unfortunately, something about the Orthodox churches didn't fit for us, so we decided to give the CEC another try. The Sunday after Orthodox Easter, we visited Christ Church Cathedral in Sherman, and we liked it very much. After a while, we were going up to Sherman every Sunday, and often on Wednesday nights. That fall, I was invited to their seminary program, which was held in Sherman one weekend a month, with classes on Friday night, and all day Saturday, with lots of reading in between the class sessions. Theology in the CEC was rooted in the Patristic tradition, which means it was rooted in the theology of the Church Fathers in the early centuries of Christianity. This Patristic approach gave new life to my study of theology. We ended up moving to Sherman in the Spring of 2000, and lived there several years.

One interesting effect of my studies was a growing appreciation of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the CEC had its disagreements with Catholicism, they still respected the Catholic Church, and saw her as a sister church. I learned that in some cases I had misconceptions about actual Catholic beliefs, but I also learned the Biblical and historical basis for a lot of what Catholics truly did believe because there was a lot that the CEC and Catholic Church had in common.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


At Mesquite Bible Church, I ended up getting involved in their “Worship Team.” I helped out with the music, sound, and the slide projector for the words of the worship songs. (Yes, we used a real 35mm carrousel slide projector back then.) We had regular Worship Team meetings in which we discussed how we could improve the worship experience, with an emphasis on increasing congregation participation. We knew that worship should be more than being a passive audience member. In Charismatic churches, the congregation was very involved, but we wanted something more orderly.

Bob, the leader of the Worship Team, bought a copy of The Complete Library of Christian Worship, edited by Robert Webber. He asked that members of the Worship Team read a volume of it and report back to the team. I was assigned the volume on the history of worship, which I began to read, and I was surprised at what I found.

All of the churches I had been involved in had a relatively simple order of worship, and although there were common elements, such as the singing of hymns, reading of scripture, and a sermon, each church determined an order of worship as they thought best. The New Testament appeared to say nothing about the subject, so we thought that God left up to the judgment of the congregation. However, I saw in this history of worship that there had been a rather consistent traditional form of worship that went back to the early centuries of Christianity. I also saw that this liturgical style of worship involved the congregation in the worship, but in an orderly manner. The orderly involvement was made possible through the liturgy, which was like a script for a play. The liturgy said who said what, and at what time. There were parts for the leaders and the congregation. I reported all of this to the worship team, but was told that there was no way our church could move to a liturgical form of worship.

At about this same time, I had been listening to tapes of a Christian teacher named Malcolm Smith. He taught about God’s love for us, which was rooted in his covenant with humanity. I got a catalog of his tapes, and while most of them where on similar themes, one series jumped out at me called “The Power of the Holy Spirit in Liturgy.” I was very curious about this because my conception was that the power of the Holy Spirit and liturgy were at different ends of the worship spectrum. I bought the tapes, and listened to them. They were interesting because he gave a lot of theological reasoning behind the liturgical practices of his church. However, I had become jaded when it came to theology and thought that his church had  come up with a theological rationale for their liturgy, and other churches probably had just as much rationale for their own liturgies. Therefore, I put the tapes on the shelf.

A few months later, Toni and I found out that Malcolm Smith was doing a retreat in Kerrville, Texas. We had enjoyed his tapes so much that we thought it would be nice to go to his retreat and see what he was like in person. When we arrived, I was surprised to see him dressed up like a priest, with a black shirt and white collar. It turned out that he was a bishop in a denomination called the “Charismatic Episcopal Church.” He considered himself “Catholic, but not Roman” because he said that there was one Catholic Church that went back to Jesus and the Apostles, and that it was now split into three main branches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox. He taught that the liturgies that these churches used were all descended from how Jesus taught his disciples how to worship, beginning at the Last Supper, with bread and wine in which Jesus was truly present.

This retreat turned my thinking upside-down in so many ways. Rather than picking up a Bible and trying to reconstruct Apostolic Christianity the way Bible churches did, Malcolm claimed that the worship of the Apostles had been passed down in a living tradition. You did not find descriptions of how to conduct a worship service in the Bible because the liturgy was taught by example, and all Christians at the time the New Testament was written already knew it. I had heard that Catholics claimed to have an authoritative tradition, but somehow the fact that there were other branches descended from the Apostolic tradition besides the Roman Catholics, made the whole idea more believable. Nevertheless, it was still another kind of theological system competing against many others. It was attractive to me, but I had no idea how to know if it was true.

In the last session of the retreat, Malcolm described how he discovered liturgy while he was a young Pentecostal preacher in England doing prison ministry. Because the Church of England is the established church there (no separation of church and state), all prison ministry had to be approved by the Anglican chaplain. Where Malcolm was ministering, the chaplain was an older priest who would have tea with him and talk about the ministry. From Malcolm’s Pentecostal perspective, this Anglican priest needed conversion, but instead it was the priest who ended up doing the converting. He casually asked Malcolm how much time he spent in prayer each day. This was a sore point for Malcolm because of the emotional nature of his Pentecostal spirituality. Although he had his share of spiritual highs, he had no consistent daily practice. Malcolm asked the priest the same question and received the immediate reply, “two hours.” This impressed Malcolm, so the priest taught him about the Daily Office of prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, and Malcolm said he’s been praying the Daily Office since then, and that it transformed his prayer life.

This story resonated with me because I had a very poor prayer life. I had tried various systems and never had lasting success. Many of them seemed like fads, but Malcolm’s system was centuries old, and he had used it for decades. I thought it would be worth a try, so I found everything I needed on the Internet, and eventually bought my own copy of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). Even though my church did not want to adopt liturgical worship, I was able to bring liturgical worship into my prayer life. I immediately took to this form of prayer. It had a depth that I had not experienced before, and the fact that it was rooted in history was very attractive. The most impressive thing for me, however, was the consistency it brought to my prayer life. After so many years of struggle with prayer, I had finally found something I could do every day over several years. I continued to pray the Daily Office in the BCP from 1999 until 2006 when I entered the Catholic Church. Then I switched to the Catholic Divine Office, which is similar, and I continue to use it to this day.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


I think it was near the end of my Sophomore year, after a few people had suggested it, that I decided to visit Westminster Presbyterian Church. Westminster was a smaller church than Grace Bible Church, and only a few college students attended there, although there were several professors there. Westminster had no separate college Sunday school or any other specific college ministry. College students attended regular adult Sunday school classes, and Westminster spent money they would have use for their own college ministry to give to InterVarsity and some other campus groups. I thought this made Westminster a good fit with my own growing involvement with InterVarsity. I also liked being more involved with the whole congregation rather than being just with other college students.

Westminster was a Presbyterian church, but it was in a different denomination (PCA) than the church I had belonged to as a child (PCUS). In general, the PCA was more conservative and traditional than the PCUS. While I was there, I learned that the PCA had a strong missionary and church planting effort. They also had a high regard for the Protestant reformers, especially John Calvin, and they wanted to revive some of the principles of the Protestant Reformation that they thought had subsided in contemporary times.

After I graduated, and was on my own, I ended up continuing in PCA churches. At Arlington Presbyterian Church, I learned more about the theology of Calvinism, and it made a lot of sense to me. I found the strong emphasis on God's transformative power at work in the life of the Christian to be helpful in this question of whether a person can be saved without there being any change in their life.

Another thing I liked about Calvinism was its logical consistency. It was built on a few principles, including the sovereignty of God, and the sinfulness of man, and everything else in the system followed from these principles. Many Calvinists were masters of logical argument. One of my favorites in this regard was R. C. Sproul, who crushed opposing views with his logic and intellect.

However, after a few years, I came to be bothered by the realization that there were Calvinist doctrines, which although they seemed to follow logically from a system built on Biblical principles, they themselves did not seem to be Biblical. The primary example of this was the doctrine of "limited atonement," which states that Christ's death on the cross was only for the elect who were chosen by God to be saved. Although Calvinists could make this doctrine seem to fit with the Bible, it seemed a strain. I did not see how someone would come up with limited atonement by reading the Bible without the structure of the Calvinist system.

I came to form this mental image about Calvinism, and theological systems in general. I saw the truth of the Bible to be like a rugged mountain that was sometimes difficult to climb. Theological systems such as Calvinism or Dispensationalism were like scaffolding that was constructed on the mountainside to aid people in getting up the mountain. Although the scaffolding of Calvinism was firmly attached to the mountain at its base, the straight and orderly construction of the theological scaffolding did not always fit with the ruggedness of the mountain, and at certain points, there were huge gaps between the scaffold and the mountain. I came to decide that while Calvinism was one of the better built scaffolds, it still had serious problems. Unfortunately, I did not know how I could find a better system. Each system argued from Scripture, but interpreted the Bible differently.

After studying theology with excitement for a few years, I came to despair of such study leading to ultimate truth. I even came to believe that theological study could actually get in the way of a person's relationship with God. Therefore, after Toni and I married, and we had reason to consider going back to Mesquite Bible Church, I decided it would be fine, even though I had left the Bible churches a few years earlier based on theological problems. I was just going back to one flawed theological system from another flawed theological system, and I was unable to definitively rank one as superior to the other. We ended up back at Mesquite Bible Church because there were caring people there who had known us for several years, and it felt more like home.