Pastor Toby J. Sumpter, a Reformed minister in Moscow, Idaho, reflects on a much-discussed round-table talk about the future of Protestantism. This jumped out at me:
But what really pleased me about Rich’s family analogy was the explanation it offered for why it’s ridiculous to convert to Rome or Constantinople. It’s like moving back in with your parents when you’re forty-two.
Not sure that analogy works as well as Pastor Sumpter thinks it does. Moving back in with the folks in mid-life is what the Prodigal Son did when he realized he couldn’t make it on his own. More:
In other words, Rich’s essay frames the issue in a way that highlights the tension of disunity while presenting the solution as something other than conversion. I think that’s extremely helpful. One of the great dragons that faces all inter-denominational dialogue is romanticism. And what I mean is that romantics on the whole tend to be idealists and perfectionists. They have a particular vision for a particularly pristine version of their own heritage, doctrine, liturgy, etc., and anything short of that perfection is considered compromise at best and apostasy at worst. And converts are often created by this romantic perfectionism.
He’s onto something here. I tell Protestants I know who are considering Rome or Constantinople to dispel from their minds any thought that the challenges of modernity can be escaped by becoming either Catholic or Orthodox. Having spent significant time in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I would say that Orthodoxy in general offers deeper theological and liturgical roots than Catholicism as it is practiced in this country today, but it is far too easy to find Orthodox parishes where it’s just the frozen (ethnic) chosen at prayer. In any case, if you believe that Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) is true — the only real reason to convert — you must strive to enter the Church without illusions. Flannery O’Connor’s wisdom here applies to all potential converts to one of the ancient churches: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life, and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
She’s right; I have lived this out.
That said, I think Pastor Sumpter is utterly ridiculous here:
I happen to think that evangelical Protestants converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are engaged in highhanded spiritual adultery. I tweeted one time that converts are basically giving their Protestant families and churches an ecclesiastical middle finger, and I still think that. It starts as ecclesiastical voyerism, lusting over papal swimsuit issues and before you know it, it’s turned into a full blown ecclesiastical porn addiction, where Protestants are drooling over icons late at night on their computers. Really, this has gotten so bad that there ought to be some kind of porn blocker for this particular malady. But then when he gets busted by his wife (or he comes clean), he explains to his pastor that the arguments for apostolic succession and prayers to saints are just so sexy, and the fragmentation of protestantism just makes his little heart go flub-flub-flubbity. But the way this goes, this guy is well past actually talking about theology. You can’t reason with a man in heat. That dog won’t hunt. This guy isn’t following Jesus; he’s found a mistress in the trappings of liturgy and a lazy mysticism.
To be clear, the official policy statement of his church with reference to its position on Catholicism and Orthodoxy is uncompromising, but much less insulting to the dignity of Catholics and Orthodox, and to the intelligence of us all.
At the risk of special pleading, I think it’s almost always a mistake to make ad hominem attacks on anyone for their religious conversion, unless there is something blatantly opportunistic about it. Someone may certainly be wrong, but we don’t always know what their circumstances are, and why they made the choice they did. It will be up to God to decide these things. I say this as someone who is faithful to my Orthodox church, but who knows Catholics and Protestants who are better Christians than I’ll ever be, and to whom I look to with love and admiration. Having said that, I wonder why it is so difficult for young Pastor Sumpter to imagine that some Protestants may have wondered why there is so much fragmentation in Protestantism, or why there is so little emphasis on the incarnational aspect of the Christian faith within Protestantism, and come to the conclusion that Protestantism is untenable and, finally, wrong.
I mean, obviously Pastor Sumpter believes that Protestantism is right; he’s a Protestant pastor, after all, and one who sounds thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his cause. I’ve got no problem with that, in principle. But if he thinks the only reason restless Protestants leave for Catholicism or Orthodoxy is to spite their families and because they’ve been smitten by smells, bells, and vestments (“ecclesiastical voyerism” [sic]), and because the beauty of the Virgin Mary in an icon is the same thing as the corrupt image of a naked whore … well, good luck trying to win converts to that cranky — dare I say depraved? — vision.
Oh, he’ll probably do fine; Moscow, Idaho, ain’t no big town. But these days, I don’t think any pastor — Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox — can afford to be insensitive to the very real reasons why their people would leave the churches of their birth. You can call them names all you want, and denigrate their character, but it’s not going to stop anyone in our secular age (by the Charles Taylor definition). All it will do is prevent you from dealing with possible weaknesses in your own faith, practice, and leadership. I have Orthodox friends who left early in life for Evangelicalism, precisely because they were starving for an experience of Christ, but were fed nothing but warmed-over ethnic pride. In principle, I think they made a mistake, but if their priests had written something saying these men only left Orthodoxy because they wanted to thumb their noses at their families, and wanted to exchange their birthrights for a pot of happy-clappy Evangelical message, those priests would have been both wrong and foolish.
UPDATE: The Reformed theologian Peter Leithart goes, or used to go, to that church. He appears to generally share the view on conversion that Pastor Sumpter does, but manages to state it without being nasty and ungracious about it.
UPDATE.2: A Reformed pastor writes to say that Sumpter is Leithart’s pupil and successor at that church. The pastor also says I have misrepresented Pastor Sumpter’s overall message; he points out that Sumpter took a more irenic tone later in the lengthy blog entry. An excerpt of what he’s talking about for those who didn’t read the whole thing:
But on the other hand, for all my polemics, I believe that the Roman communion is a branch of the one true Church. It’s a branch full of deadwood, but it’s still a real, live branch, and there is still fruit being produced there. I’m reading JPII’s Theology of the Body at the moment and there are some wonderful biblical treasures there. There are Christians from liberal congregations finding a comparatively real, biblical Jesus in the Roman Church. There are cradle RCs that somehow find the gospel of grace through the Bible teaching of parish priests. There are Bible study renewal movements in branches of Orthodoxy. Not to mention the rich history of sources we have stretching back into the middle ages and early church. Whatever their foibles, misunderstandings, and blind spots (and they had many), they are our fathers and mothers in the faith. When RCs and EOs show up at my church, they are welcomed to the Lord’s Table because we recognize their Christian baptism and trust that the Lord is at work in them. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned for them; this doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t seek to teach them what I consider the doctrines of grace as articulated in the Reformation. But here I would agree with Fred Sanders, Orthodox missions to Muslims are to be celebrated. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ (Nicaea/Chalcedon) do not exhaust what the Spirit has said to the churches, but they are certainly bedrock doctrines which I would be willing to argue imply a robust Reformational confessionalism, despite the protestations of our Roman and Eastern brethren.
I find it difficult to make the leap from “Protestants who become Catholic or Orthodox are like spiritual adulterers entranced by pornography” to being grateful for “but Jesus is at work among some of them too, however screwed up and childish those churches are.” But that’s me; you ought to read the entire Sumpter post before drawing your own conclusion. The reader says, “It’s fine to criticize what Toby wrote, but you can’t misrepresent him all the while calling for charity.” I don’t believe I did misrepresent him initially, but I could be wrong about that; read all of his entry, in the interest of fairness and accuracy.