Former Baptist Pastor Explains His Conversion to Catholicism
“If this is the same Church that traces its roots back to the Apostles,” says John Thompson, “yes, this is where all men and women belong.”
John Thompson is a good-humored, energetic Catholic most anxious to share his faith in Christ with others. He speaks with a deep conviction and unwavering certainty as he declares the Catholic Church to be “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ,” and invites others to examine the Church’s history and teachings.
However, John has not always held this view. In 1990, the then 41-year-old resigned as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Orange, California, a 125-member congregation not far from Holy Family Cathedral, which was previously the cathedral church of the Diocese of Orange (before the purchase of Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove).
Born in Long Beach and reared in Fullerton, John has since visited many parishes sharing the story of his conversion. He spoke with this writer to discuss his conversion, and shared his perspective on the Church and Protestantism.
What were your early attitudes towards Catholics?
Negative. I was reared with an anti-Catholic bias. I didn’t know a thing about Catholics, other than that they were profane, totally secularized idol worshippers, who obviously didn’t know God; they didn’t talk about God in their own personal lives. I maintained a lot of vague prejudices that Protestants are raised with, that Catholics are somehow less than Protestants, not really Christians and that they really don’t live out their faith. There is a lot of fear and mistrust of the Catholic Church based on ignorance.
When did you begin to have doubts about your Baptist faith?
Around 1988. I began studying to find out why different Christian religions use different forms of worship. There are a vast variety of worship forms. I wanted to confirm in my own mind that what I had been raised with was really right.
I went back and looked at worship in the early Church. I expected to find the Baptist Church with preaching and worship that reflected Baptist beliefs. Yet I found that the earliest post-Scriptural documents that we have speak of liturgy from the very beginning. You don’t find the free worship of the Baptist or the Evangelical tradition. You find the liturgy, forms of worship and set prayers from very early in the Church.
And, most importantly, you find not just the Liturgy of the Word, the proclaimed or preached Word of God, but you have the Liturgy of the Eucharist. You discover the two-fold action of hearing the Word of God and responding by offering up the Sacrifice through which you receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. As I began to see this, I was touched. This is what I was missing in worship, the two-fold action of hearing and receiving.
Sounds like the Thomas Howard [1935-2020] conversation story in Evangelical is Not Enough.
Definitely when I read his book, I realized that this is exactly what I was feeling. Howard explained many of the shortcomings of Evangelical Protestantism. I highly recommend his beautifully written book. It is devastating to Evangelical Protestant belief from the point of view that the Protestant Reformation, as necessary as reform in the Catholic Church may have been at the time of Martin Luther, threw out the very core of the Church.
Martin Luther is perhaps best remembered for his teaching that the individual believer is saved by faith alone.
Yes, but the Bible never says that we are saved by faith alone! By faith, yes, but not by faith alone. It is totally Scriptural, however, to say that we are saved by faith and works, as the Catholic Church teaches. Scripture says we are saved by faith working in love [Galatians 5:6].
As a Baptist minister, I was troubled when I came across passages such as the one where the Lord Jesus would say he who perseveres to the end shall be saved [Matthew 24:13]. And how many times Paul likened his experience with running a race, and how it says he is not finished yet, he has not yet won the prize for which he is striving [1 Corinthians 9:24-27]. Paul also admonishes us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling [Philippians 2:12].
There were many other Scriptures that I, as an Evangelical Protestant, just kind of zipped over. The whole John Chapter 6, we just kind of zipped over that. What did Jesus mean by eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Baptists certainly do not subscribe to that.
This topic leads us into the whole question of sola scriptura, the common Protestant belief that the Bible is the only source of God’s revelation, and that the individual believer has the ultimate authority to interpret that Scripture.
As I was struggling through my identity as a Baptist, I really came to see how sola scriptura opened the door to some real problems in the life of the Church. Each person is free to read the Scripture, pray to the Holy Spirit, and then determine what the Scripture means to him or her. Then the believer is free to choose the Christian denomination that best suits his or her reading of the Bible, or start his or her own denomination for that matter!
Yet something’s wrong. When the Scriptures were given to us by God, he must have had something in mind. If a certain passage means A, then it can’t mean B, even though denomination XYZ says that’s what it means.
There was a real tension here for me as a Baptist pastor; how could I know what the Scriptures really mean? Former Evangelical minister Scott Hahn said that if Protestant ministers were really honest about preparing and delivering their sermons, they would say from the pulpit, “This is the Word of God, I think.”
That’s exactly how I felt. Scripture is not what most Baptists and Evangelicals think it is! The word of God is something more fluid than dried ink on a page. The Scriptures are living documents reflecting God working through people. That’s where the Catholic Church teaches us that the word of God comes down to us not on the page, but through the living tradition of the Church. When you discard the teaching authority of the Church as Protestants do, there is no way to authoritatively know what the Word of God is.
This perspective, in turn, divides Christians and leads them into a variety of different directions.
The tremendous divisions within Christianity and the proliferation of thousands of different Christian denominations has bothered me for a long, long time. Christ established his Church, one Church, one in love, one in doctrine, one in effort, one in the Spirit, and yet what happened, primarily triggered by Martin Luther, was a whole process of splintering. And when followers of Martin Luther did not agree with him about his interpretation of Scripture, then they splintered off, and splintered, and splintered, and splintered.
What then arises is not the cooperation, unity and love that Christ intended, but tremendous competition between denominations. That is one of the things that really troubled me the most about Evangelical Protestantism, the sometimes unspoken competition between and among churches for members.
This must put tremendous pressure on Protestant pastors to perform.
Sure, as it did with me in my small Baptist church. But take the case of a large, growing church like Calvary Church of Santa Ana. What will happen to that church if its pastor retires, moves or dies? Unless they can find someone as dynamic as he is in terms of speaking, personality and charisma, membership in that church is going to spiral downward. So another drawback to Protestantism is that individual churches rely too much upon the personality and charisma of their pastors for their success.
Why do we see Protestant churches splitting rather than unifying?
For me, I had to go back to something like the Creed. There is the core of the faith that we, as Catholics, profess. An Evangelical would look at the Creed and say: “I agree with that. Although I’m not sure about that line about one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; I would have to redefine those terms a little bit differently than the Catholic Church would. But yeah, I’d hold to that Creed.”
But is the Creed Scripture? No, it’s a tradition. It’s a tradition of the Catholic Church. Protestants do hold to some traditions, the ones they find useful and convenient to their own interpretation, but then they reject anything that they can’t find in the Scripture. They think it’s anti-Scriptural. Ye, the amazing thing to me was that the more I studied Catholic beliefs and practices, thinking all along that these things were totally unscriptural, the more I came to realize that they were completely consistent with Scripture. Not all Catholic teachings are found in Scripture word for word, but they’re there in spirit.
And I would, in turn, ask my non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters: how can we give up things like the authority of the Church? How can we give up the ordained leadership of the Church, the bishops, and the priesthood? How can we give up the sacraments? How can we give up the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? These teachings became real and compelling to me. No longer did the Catholic Church seem like the whore of Babylon which I thought it was. More and more, the Church became the beautiful bride of Christ beckoning me and calling me saying that his is the truth.
Does God call all men and women to be Catholic?
Yes! Yes! I believe that strongly. Not all can hear that message and not all are able to receive that gift of faith, to see the truth in the Catholic Church. But certainly, if the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded upon the Rock who is Peter and the Church that he endowed with his Spirit, if this is the same Church that traces its roots back to the Apostles, and yes, this is where all men and women belong.
I have experienced this reality with both my head and my heart, and I give thanks to God for my gift of faith and showing me the path to his Church. It’s great to be home.