Thomas Road Baptist Church
Read this amazing conversion story by Renee Linn:
“The Bible says it…. I believe it…. that settles it!”
If Thomas Road Baptist Church had an unofficial mantra back in the 1990s, that probably would have been it. Dr. Jerry Falwell was fond of saying that, and I enjoyed hearing it. I took the Bible seriously, very seriously, and if Scripture made a pronouncement on any given issue, it seemed only reasonable to me to take those verses as literally as possible and to act upon them. If a Christian couldn’t base his life on the Word of God, then what else was there?
One Sunday morning when Dr. Falwell proclaimed that “everything we believe and do here at Thomas Road comes straight from Scripture,” I took that seriously, too. Everything we believe and do…. Everything?
My mind began to wander as some obvious exceptions to this bold pronouncement came to mind. Asking people to receive Jesus Christ into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior? I knew that Peter and Paul certainly had never read someone the “Four Spiritual Laws” and invited them to ask Jesus into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior. “Repent and be baptized” was actually the approach taken by the Christians in the book of Acts.
Other discrepancies came to mind. Altar calls – we had one every Sunday. I really couldn’t imagine a first-century altar call. Sunday school? Unheard of in Bible times as far as I knew.
Not that I felt that this was important. Asking someone to receive Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior was simply our way of helping the modern-day, semi-pagan, self-enthralled culture understand that one’s relationship with God must be personal – nothing wrong with that. Certainly I could find nothing sinister in the Baptist practices of altar calls or Sunday School. But I knew of at least one deeply held belief that I could not square with Scripture – the belief that children go to Heaven if they die below the age of reason. I could find no verse in Scripture that taught this doctrine, yet it was the conviction of every Christian I knew, and I believed it myself.
“Everything we believe and do here at Thomas Road comes straight from Scripture….” What I came away with that day was a new-found understanding of our Evangelical outlook on our beliefs. We at Thomas Road were certain, despite the lack of any objective evidence, that our beliefs and practices all came straight from Scripture….
On the Richter scale of my soul, this incident was merely a 1.8. But there had been other, more impressive tremors in the past, most notably when I was teaching overseas. In the mid 1980s I taught English as a second language at a Christian college in Taiwan, and I was an honorary member of the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship (honorary in that I had not been sent by a missionary organization, yet was employed at a Christian school). I loved my job, I loved my students, and I loved my fellow teachers. However, I was not interested in leading Bible studies as all my colleagues were doing, the reason being that I had no formal training in theology, and to me the Bible was not an easy book to understand. I knew that different Christians understood various passages to mean different things. I really didn’t want to take the responsibility of possibly teaching error to unsuspecting students.
A small group of students finally talked me into holding a weekly Bible study on the book of Acts. I figured I couldn’t stray too far from the orthodox path in a book which basically details the history of the fledgling body of Christ. I was also encouraged by the fact that the school library boasted three or four massive theological commentaries. If I started to get in trouble, I reasoned, I could read what the experts had to say. I was determined not to lead the students astray.
And we were fine, as long as we stayed in the book of Acts. Unfortunately, we all enjoyed the Bible study so much that we decided to hold a second one. I chose the book of 2 Corinthians for that study, a personal favorite, beginning as it does with Paul’s eloquent description of the comfort he received from “the God of all comfort.” Studying that first chapter of 2 Corinthians, we all became enthusiastic about learning more on the topic of suffering. We looked up other New Testament verses that deal with this subject. Eventually we came to Colossians 1:24:
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. “
I will never forget those faces staring at mine in perfect trust, waiting for me to elucidate that verse to them. I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions? I wasn’t a theologian, but that verse appeared to be contradicting what I understood of the Christian faith. I told the students that I would have to look into the subject, and that I would get back to them.
I spent a lot of time in the school library trying to better understand that verse. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Protestant theologians I was counting on to answer my question had questions themselves about this verse. No one gave me an answer. I knew and found reasonable that there are passages in Scripture that we don’t understand, but this verse seemed so straightforward. I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions – there don’t seem to be too many ways to understand that. The problem was that it contradicted our Protestant theology. As a Protestant, you simply can’t say that when you suffer, you fill up in your flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions. And yet, that’s what Paul said. I was baffled, and I eventually had to tell the students that I just couldn’t account for the theological implications of that verse. Another theological earthquake – 4.3 on my Richter scale.
I married while in Taiwan, and when my husband was accepted as a student at Liberty University, we moved to Virginia, joining Thomas Road Baptist Church. I had never been a Baptist before, having been raised Methodist, and then attending Pentecostal, non-denominational, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches over the years. But I liked the fact that Baptists were so bold about their faith, and I believed that all the Protestant denominations were merely different facets of the same beautiful gem of Christianity. When my husband and I had children, they were “dedicated to the Lord” at Thomas Road, and later attended the Christian school affiliated with the church.
It was in Lynchburg that I first encountered the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They came to our door telling us that we needed to reject conventional Christianity and embrace their belief system. Since I had previously read the Koran and the Book of Mormon in an effort to better understand and evangelize Muslims and Latter-Day Saints, I decided to engage the Witnesses. Two of them came to my house once a week for a year. They presented their beliefs to me, and I presented mine to them.
Understanding their belief that Jesus is not God, it seemed to me that if I could prove to these ladies from Scripture the doctrine of the Trinity, they would be forced to accept the truth of the Christian belief system. I bought The Doctrine of the Trinity by Dr. Harold Willmington, a Liberty professor who often spoke at Thomas Road. The book was full to bursting with verses proving that Almighty God was the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could not wait to present this information to the Witnesses.
To my surprise, they sat patiently through my presentation as if biding their time. Then, it was their turn. The conversation went something like this:
JW #1: “Let’s read John 17:3, Renée. These are the words of Jesus: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.’”
JW#2 (smiling): “The truth is right before your eyes. This is what the Bible teaches in a nutshell: There is only one true God. Jesus Christ is the one sent by the only true God – he himself is not God.”
Me (stammering): “I have never heard this verse explained that way before…..”
JW#2: “Well, let’s hurry on to John 8:17, where Jesus chides the Pharisees when they claim that He appears as His own witness and therefore His testimony is not valid. Jesus’ argument that His testimony is valid is based on the fact that there are two witnesses, ‘I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.’”
Me (clueless): “So what?”
JW#2: “So once again we see that Jesus and his Father are separate – therefore, Jesus cannot be God.”
Me: “Well, yes, no one says that Jesus and the Father are one and the same… I mean, that they are the same – we believe that they are two Persons but both God!”
JW#1: “Renée, can you explain John 20:17? Jesus is telling Mary Magdalene that He is returning ‘to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ How can Jesus talk about ‘his Father’ and ‘his God’ if He is God? And John 14: 1 – ‘Trust in God; trust also in me.’ That means Jehovah God and Jesus are two separate beings, right?”
Like rabbits out of a voluminous theological hat, the verses kept coming – 1 Timothy 5:21, 1 Timothy 2:5… verses that the Witnesses claim show that Jesus is not God. And 1 Timothy 1:17 topped it all off:
“Now to the King, eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
JW#1: “Renée, do you take that verse literally?”
Me: “Absolutely! How else could I take it?”
JW#1 (smiling broadly): “You’ve just proved that Jesus cannot be God! That verse tells us that God is eternal, immortal and invisible. Yet as we all know:
1. Jesus is not eternal – Proverbs 8:22 says concerning Jesus ‘Jehovah brought me forth as the first of his works!’ Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is the ‘firstborn of all creation!’ In Hebrews 1:5 Jehovah God says to Jesus ‘Today I have become your Father!’ Revelation 3:14 calls Jesus ‘the beginning of the creation of God!’
2. Jesus is not immortal – We don’t have to list all the Bible verses that tell us that Jesus died! That means he was mortal!
3. Jesus is obviously not invisible – and yet the Bible tells us that no one can see God and live!
“So, Renée, according to I Timothy 1:17, which you say you agree with absolutely, there is only one God – and He is not Jesus!”
Me (in desperation resorting to verse-slinging): “1 John 5:7!”
JW#1: “Mark 10:18!”
Me: “Titus 2:13!”
JW#2: “John 14:28!”
Me: “John 10:30!”
JW#1: “1 Corinthians 8:6!”
Me: “Matthew 28:19!!”
JW#2: “1 Corinthians 11:3!!”
Me: “John 5:18!!!”
Both JWs in chorus: “Philippians 2:5-11!!!”
Fortunately, by this point it was time for them to leave. I don’t know if they learned anything from that encounter, but I certainly did: While the case for the doctrine of the Trinity can certainly be made from Scripture, it cannot be proven from Scripture. The verses the Witnesses showed me sounded like a reasonable alternative viewpoint. I was horrified. The doctrine of the Trinity is the core belief of Christianity – it tells us who God is. How could it not be self-evident from Scripture alone?
7.9 on my theological Richter scale….
I providentially found a book called Jehovah’s Witnesses on Trial – The Testimony of the Early Church Fathers by a physician named Robert U. Finnerty. I had never read anything written by a Christian in the centuries between the writing of the book of Revelation and the 95 Theses, but Dr. Finnerty advocated using the writings of these “church fathers” to witness to the Witnesses. His reasoning was that:
“… the Bible, which can be a challenge to understand, is easily misinterpreted by those who rend its parts out of context to ‘prove’ their doctrinal presuppositions. This approach has been raised to a fine art by the followers of Charles Russell…. The church fathers… make it clear that the deity of Christ was at the heart of the Christian faith, and their writings are more difficult to twist in support of erroneous theological formulations.”
I ran to the bookstore to buy a copy of the Apostolic Fathers, and scoured the writings of Ignatius of Antioch to find references to the deity of Christ. To my delight there were plenty of them, and I shared them all with the ladies when they returned the following week. Their printed materials instructed them that when Ignatius said “yes,” what he actually meant was “no,” and vice versa. It was around this time that we decided to discontinue our weekly meetings. To tell the truth, I had other fish to fry. My husband had left, and though we did not divorce, I was raising our two children alone with no family in the area.
One day when substitute-teaching, a sixth grader asked me what Catholics believe. My mind was a startling blank. I mumbled something about Catholics believing a lot of things that aren’t in the Bible, and how we mustn’t do that – everything we believe and do must come straight from Scripture. She seemed satisfied, but I wasn’t. Had she asked me about Muslims or Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, I could have given her an earful. But I had never looked into Catholic beliefs. It had simply never come up.
Deciding to remedy my knowledge deficit, I bought a book called Catholicism and Fundamentalism by a lawyer named Karl Keating. The author was Catholic, and that suited me fine; I like to hear it “from the horse’s mouth.” When I began reading the chapter on “The Holy Eucharist,” I could see that Mr. Keating was going to base his argument on John 6. Not desirous of being deceived by a tricky Catholic lawyer, I decided to read my Bible first and his explanation of the text second. It seemed to me that he would have to distort the text of John 6 to fit Catholic preconceptions, so I stuck with Scripture. I picked up my NIV, found John 6, and began to read it, over and over. This was of course not the first time I had read John 6; as an Evangelical I had read through the New Testament several times, but I was not finding what I thought I would find there. Jesus states in John 6 quite clearly that He expects us to eat His body and drink His blood. I knew the standard Protestant treatment of these verses (I had believed them all my life), but as I read the text I could not for the life of me see how anyone can claim that these verses should properly be taken figuratively rather than taken literally. Why not take Jesus at His word? After all, Jesus’ words are quite clear:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.’
Protestants would have us believe that the “eating and drinking” in these verses means “believing in Jesus” or “feasting on the Word of God,” but at that moment that approach to John 6 struck me as ludicrously weak. I began to suspect that we Evangelicals might be doing exactly what we accused more liberal denominations of doing: reserving the right to take figuratively the parts of the Bible that we don’t believe….
This earthquake was off the scale. And returning to Keating’s book, I was in for an aftershock. Keating pointed out that the earliest Christians took John 6 literally, producing as proof a quote from Ignatius of Antioch, the same Ignatius I had begged the Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept as a reliable witness to the beliefs of the first Christians. In this quote (written around 110 A.D.) Ignatius is talking about the Docetist heresy, the folks who believed Jesus didn’t really die in the flesh on the cross. He writes:
“Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God…. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.”
That was all it took. I looked up from my reading and said to myself, “I have to start attending a church that takes John 6 literally.” The Bible says it - I believe it – that settles it.
Actually, it wasn’t as easy as that. It took months before I was brave enough to cross the threshold of a Catholic church, and months more before I got up the courage to enroll in RCIA. All the while I was studying, dissecting Catholic doctrine, comparing Protestant explanations of the “errors of Romanism” to the actual beliefs of the Catholic Church. I had done this before with Mormon beliefs and Jehovah’s Witness beliefs, and I had found the Protestant apologetic materials to be reliable guides. However, this time a disturbing trend emerged. The Protestant argument against a particular Catholic teaching would seem rock-solid at first glance. But when I persevered in my investigation, the Catholic answer to the argument would make a great deal of sense, and many times the Protestant argument would completely fall apart. I began to see that our Protestant apologetics against Catholicism were based on a strategy of “downplaying, denigrating, distorting, and denying” key portions of the Catholic argument.
- We downplayed the importance of the writings of the early Christians. Since no Church Father agreed with us Baptists on the issues of justification by faith alone, sola Scriptura, once-saved/always saved, baptism, the Eucharist, church governance, etc., we ignored their writings. We downplayed Protestant disunity. We downplayed the importance of the question of the origin of the canon of Scripture, a question that can only be answered by recognizing the authority of the Church who discerned the canon.
- We denigrated the holiness of Catholic saints. While rightly proclaiming the fact that all of history is “His-story,” we were willfully blind to the “His-toric” importance of the lives of John Paul II and Mother Teresa, just to mention two examples. Although I have known several godly Protestants (most especially when I was associated with the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship), I know of no 20th- century Protestant examples of the saints that the Catholic faith produces. We also denigrated Protestant converts to Catholicism, routinely implying that no one without an ulterior motive would leave the “truth” of Evangelicalism for the errors of Rome.
- We distorted Catholic beliefs when we presented them, so that they would be easier to refute. The classic examples, of course, are the Protestant arguments against “Mary worship,” or “works-righteousness.” By raging against two Catholic doctrines which do not actually exist, Protestant apologists are able to turn their readers against a hypothetical evil, rather than addressing and refuting actual Catholic teaching.
- We denied the development of doctrine, the key to understanding why the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be proved from Scripture and yet is the valid interpretation of the teaching of the Apostles. As a Protestant, I was relying on development of doctrine as the basis of my Trinitarian beliefs, and yet ignorantly believed that “the Bible alone” was the basis of what I believed and practiced.
I sadly came to realize that these “four D’s” added up to a fifth – deceit. We were deceiving others in our arguments against the Church that Jesus established, and sadly, we had deceived ourselves as well.
Most Protestants investigating the Church never persevere past the initial Protestant arguments, taking them at face value and assuming that there is no Catholic answer to Protestant objections. Protestants claim the high ground by advertising their belief system as “faithful to Scripture” and condemning Catholic theology as “unbiblical.” Yet so very many Bible verses are “explained away” in the Protestant system rather than letting them say what they actually say, among them 1 Timothy 3:15, John 17:20-21, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Corinthians 1:11-13, Luke 11:2, John 6: 25-70 (we claimed that “eating and drinking” actually mean “having faith”), Luke 22: 19, 1 Corinthians 11: 27-29, James 2:24, Philippians 2: 12-13 (if I had a dime for every time we explained these two verses away at Thomas Road….), Galatians 5:4-6, 1 Corinthians 13:13, Ephesians 2: 8-10, Matthew 25:31-46, John 15:1-10, II Timothy 2:19, Hebrews 5:9 (Calvin explained this verse away by claiming that “obedience” actually means “faith”), Hebrews 12:14, John 15: 1-5, 1 John 2:6, 1 John 3:10, 1 John 5:13 (how we twisted that verse!), Revelation 2-3 (the NIV actually translates “works” as “deeds” here, in order to avoid the obvious implication of the necessity of works), Revelation 19:6-8, Matthew 10:22, Hebrews 6:4-6, Colossians 1:24, Hebrews 3:14, Hebrews 10:26-27, Romans 11:22, Matthew 16:13-19 (again, many Protestants claim that it is Peter’s “faith” which Jesus referring to), II Kings 13:21, Acts 19:11-12 (I found this passage especially distasteful – it sounded so Catholic!), John 20:22-23, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, 1 John 5:16-17, I Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 1:13-14, John 3:5-8, John 3:22-23, Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:4-7, 1 Peter 3:21, Luke 1:46-49, Genesis 1:28, Psalm 127:3-5, Matthew 19: 6-9, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:32, Proverbs 3:5-6 (leaning on one’s own understanding was the basis for the formation of the Protestant denominations), Nehemiah 8:7-8, and Acts 8:30-31. The Bible says it – I believe it – that settles it!
I was reconciled to the Church at the Easter Vigil of 2003, bringing my two children into the Church with me. They chose to continue attending their Baptist school, although we discussed that it might be hard for them when they identified themselves as Catholics. And sometimes it has been hard. My daughter has recently written about the joys and sorrows of being Catholic at a Baptist school in a guest blog at http://sententias.org/2012/02/11/being-catholic-at-liberty-university/. One episode she did not recount was the time her high school teacher stopped her in the hallway to ask, “Shoshana, do you believe everything the Bible says?”
“Of course!” she answered.
“Then you’re a bad Catholic!” was his arch reply.
Funny, that’s the very reason her mom became Catholic. The Bible says it – I believe it – that settles it!
Renée Lin works in Research at a medical practice in Central Virginia.