Why I Won’t Convert Part 3 or Doing the Dishes: The Ancient Catholic Faith

One of the common claims of “converts” to Rome and Constantinople is that they were seeking real unity. They wanted perhaps the unity of the universal church in all of the world, the unity of worship practice, the unity of authority in the bishops (and/or the pope), the unity of history, the unity of tradition, and perhaps others.

But what I don’t get is why they had to “convert” to get any of those things. Actually, I would insist that I already have them all right now, and I’m still a Presbyterian.

St. Paul says: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:1-6)

As sure as there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of us all, there is only one Church. The unity of that one church rests in “bearing with one another in love” and preserving it through the “bond of peace.” It simply is not true that this unity is found in one person apart from Jesus Christ. It does not say that this unity is based on letterhead, a central office, or some other human invention. It says that this unity exists in the fact that God is one, that there is one faith, and one baptism. I’m very sorry that various individuals have divided over the centuries. I’m sorry Paul and Barnabas did it in Acts 15, and I’m sorry that Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople (and the incompetent messenger of the Pope) had their falling out in the 11th century. And yes, I’m sorry that Luther and Leo X couldn’t have kept on better terms. But divisions between individuals do not in fact divide Christ, anymore than they actually divide the Holy Trinity. They are ugly blemishes, signs of remaining sin, and inconsistent with the confession and sacramental union of the church, but in fact when Joe Christian gets up the next morning his duty is to love God and neighbor. That is the unity of the one church. As far as I’m concerned, as far as it depends upon me, I’m in full communion with the universal church.

But what is particularly annoying is that the other thing that many “converts” are after is disunity. They are trying to divide the body of Christ. They want to disassociate themselves with lots of stuff they don’t approve of. They do not want to be united to flaky Charismatics. They do not want to be associated with cranky southern Presbyterians. They do not want to be connected to homosexual bishops, praise choruses, doctrinal ignorance, biblical illiteracy, petty divisiveness, and a whole host of other ugly stains that are currently defacing the dress of the bride of Christ.

But the fact of the matter is that they have merely run around the house and haven’t really left the building. Sorry, friends, you still have brothers and sisters doing stupid things. Your “conversion” got you no closer to heaven and no further from hell.

But what’s at the heart of this is a false notion of unity. I insist that unity is not and cannot ultimately be grounded in the letterhead of some church in Italy or the Patriarch of Constantinople. All unity has its roots in the doctrine of the Trinity. Unity is personal. The “oneness” of the Church is to mirror the oneness of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. The unity of the Trinity is the archetype of all real unity. For all the yammering about unity in the “person” of the Bishop or the Pope or the Archimandrite of Buffalo, the refusal to love and honor the person standing right in front of them is nothing but ideological idolatry.

Unity is personal, organic, and ultimately consists in the communion of the Godhead through the Holy Spirit. This personal unity is one of love, loyalty, and sacrifice. That is what we see in the Godhead. The Father does not ask the Son about his paperwork. He doesn’t ask about the pedigree of his ordination, whether he has the right letters before or after his name. The Father and the Son love one another and are bound together in the unity and loyalty of the Spirit.

It is that same Spirit which the apostle Paul insists binds the church together. The same principle of unity which binds the Trinity together is the principle of unity in the church.

In Holy Baptism, you put on Christ, you were united to his person through the Holy Spirit, you were anointed with His Spirit and called upon to be Christ to the world. This is the renewal of the image of God in humanity, and this means that if you want unity, if you want one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, it’s standing right in front of you. It’s the widow who lives upstairs, it’s the neglected government school kids running around on your street, it’s the prisoners in your county jail, and it’s the jerk who keeps parking in your space at work.

Jesus has harsh words for those who refused to see him in the sick, the naked, the hungry, and the imprisoned. ‘In as much as you did not do it unto the least of these, you did not do unto me. Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.’ I fear that many, caught in the grip of an idea, in the name of unity, are doing nothing more than busying themselves with stupid controversies in order to ignore the Christ standing right in front of them. And they have the audacity to claim they are seeking unity. I don’t buy it. They’re nothing but sectarian anabaptists with icons.

You want to show me the catholic faith? You want to impress me with an ancient and glorious tradition? Why don’t you go find a widow to care for, an orphan in distress. Or, even better, maybe you have a wife or a few small children begging for some attention, some love, some discipline. Maybe you should send your mother some flowers, write your father a letter bestowing honor upon him. Wash some feet, do some dishes, take out the garbage, take up your cross: that’s the ancient catholic faith. That’s the unity of the Trinity, the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.

And let me just add a final note for anyone who may read this who is Roman Catholic or Orthodox. I would encourage you to do the same: Love God, love your neighbor, and please take no offense at all the new baptists running around in your church.

  1. Johannulus de Silentio September 23

    Thank you Toby, for these very valuable thoughts. I think there are plenty of young people like myself who need to hear that sort of thing.

    Along the lines of what you are saying, it occurs to me that we might have an inverted notion of heroism and courage when it comes to this whole conversion thing. The Presbyterian who “follows his conscience” and becomes a Catholic, “no matter what the cost,” thinks he is doing something very brave and heroic, and that all those who are staying behind don’t have the guts, and just want to remain in their comfort zone. Even those of us who might disagree with the convert’s decision might praise his courage and moral fiber. And, perhaps we sometimes should (I for one am a great admirer of Cardinal Newman).

    But, more often than not, it seems to me that the Presbyterian who reconciles himself to a life of putting up with, serving, teaching, communing with annoying sectarian low-church Presbyterians is showing much greater courage, willingness to suffer, and heroism, than the one who just says “to heck with it all” and seeks a more peaceful haven in the Catholic Church, or wherever it may be.

  2. Toby September 23

    Thanks, Brad.

    I think you’re exactly right about the hero-myth. The heroism of the cross is far less glorious looking, feeling, seeming… and yet that IS the glory that we are called to, laying our lives down for our friends, in hope of resurrection.

  3. Matt September 24

    Toby,

    I wrote you a big e-mail that the internet kindly ate for me that I’m attempting to reconstruct, but a quick note.

    Both of your posts and the comments from the kind admirer of Cardinal Newman are all well and good, unless the claims of the Catholic Church are true. Acting as if the claims of all Christian communities are equal in weight or exclusivity, or alternately that those claims don’t matter, is avoiding the issue.

    If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, she must be obeyed in the way she commands we obey her, which is to join her formally. If she is not what she claims to be, she is full of damnable lies and deceit and ought to be shunned and thwarted by all people of good will.

    Just a thought,

    Guido

  4. Toby September 25

    Thanks for the thought, Matt. Sorry about the internet eating your email. I know how that goes. I look forward to receiving it when you get a chance to reconstruct it.

    In response to your short note: It is actually the very same, simplistic and false dichotomy that you present here that I was primarily objecting to. Paul says that our unity is based directly upon the Holy Spirit. The unity of the body of Christ is found in the ‘one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of us all’. I assume that when you say “the claims of the Catholic Church” you refer primarily to the claim of the Church of Rome to be the “true church” over and against all other branches of Christendom. But Rome can claim to be the true church just as much as certain Dutch Calvinists or certain Charismatic sects. Claiming this does not make it true any more than (if it’s false) it automatically makes that entire branch of the church “full of damnable lies and deceit” which “ought to be shunned and thwarted by all people of good will.” There are more than two ways to skin a cat. There are many different sorts of spots and wrinkles on the Bride of Christ, and while some are certainly worse than others, Paul calls us to “keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” That means that we are *already* united by the Spirit, and our calling is to keep it. That’s only “avoiding the issue” if our unity is based upon something or someone other than the Triune God himself.

Post your Thoughts