Joe Stauffer: Church of Christ Convert

Editor’s Introduction: The challenge of which Mr. Stauffer speaks was an invitation to Church of Christ members to debate with the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Due to a lack of time and resources, the challenge no longer stands. However, members of the Church of Christ sincerely seeking to learn about the Catholic Faith are encouraged to email the religious.

My greetings to the reader. I was wandering the Web the other day, looking for sites of interest for Catholics and came upon the Saint Benedict Center home page. The line, “Open Challenge to the ‘Church of Christ'” got my immediate attention. After reading the challenge, I wrote the owners of the Web site and described my experience with the points raised in the challenge. Brother John Mary answered my e-mail and asked if he could post it on the Web site for all to read. I consented on the condition that I could rewrite it.

I am a 37-year-old Catholic convert-RCIA Class of 1989. I grew up in the “Church of Christ” (hereafter abbreviated as the “COC”). The fact that I am now Catholic has absolutely nothing to do with why I left the COC as a teen. I did not walk out into the arms of another denomination. (My apologies to my former COC brothers and sisters for the use of the term “denomination” throughout this message. I never fully understood why that was such a loaded term, and I have no satisfactory alternative. I assure you that I am not taking cheap shots.) It would be a good ten years before I would even step foot into a Catholic church. The disdain with which I was taught to hold all other Christian faiths prevented me from looking for a better way. I fully believed that the COC was the one true faith and that all others were lost. So it followed logically that when I lost faith in the COC, I lost faith in God himself.

Why did I walk out on the COC? There were basically two reasons, one of which relates to the challenge mentioned above.

The first reason was that I simply had all the enthusiasm for Christianity beaten out of me by the incessant and seemingly obligatory scorn and bickering we engaged in with other faiths and ourselves. “Division and strife” was our motto. My own tiny congregation (of perhaps 20 people?) in Monmouth, Illinois, split up two or three times while I was growing up – over things I never adequately understood. Monmouth has no congregation today. The COC members travel to other towns to attend services rather than have to commune with each other. That whole attitude and, really, way of life flat burnt me out.

The second reason for my departure from the COC – and the one more germane to the debate – was that I had come to a point where I felt the leadership was intentionally deceiving me. It began the day when I read in an encyclopedia at school (junior high) that the COC was the progeny of Presbyterianism. I checked around. It seemed like the whole world knew that we were a spin-off of the Presbyterian Church. I recall how I very delicately tip-toed around my own congregational leadership-and my mother-to ask other COC heavyweights about it. They basically told me that it was true. They pointed out that what we were trying to do was to emulate the first-century church, to reestablish, or “restore”, what they called New Testament worship.

Try to understand what I was going through. I was very young and very naïve. I was crushed. First of all, this was not the story I was fed from Day One. I had grown up believing that the COC had been around since the Apostles. The famous Pauline greeting, “The Churches of Christ salute you!” was proof positive that my church, the COC, was not only the true church (after all, where in the Bible do you find reference to the Methodists, Lutherans, or Catholics?) but had been around since New Testament times. I recall how utterly fortunate – and amazed – I felt to have been born into a family that belonged to the one true faith. That feeling of good fortune was amplified when I reflected on how precious few of us there seemed to be in the world. Now common, ordinary library references were telling me that a denomination calling itself the COC did not even exist until this century. I felt so stupid for thinking that “Church of Christ” was some sort of registered trademark, an appellation that could only be, and was, used exclusively by one particular denomination.

Second, I felt betrayed and humiliated by my own kind. I felt like a son who had been told all his life that his family owned the factory where his father worked only to find later that his father was merely one of the workers. It wasn’t the fact that his father was a common laborer that bothered the son; it was the fact that his own family had lied to him and that he had gone around bragging about something that just wasn’t true. Yes, I was humiliated. What made it worse was that I was now relegated to using the same sort of lame argument that I had grown to despise in groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Now, in order to defend my faith, I had to convince people that the Church Jesus and the Apostles established was so impotent that it would not survive one generation after the Apostles before it slipped into utter apostasy. (Granted, I did not use words like “impotent” and “apostasy” back then.) I recall how arrogant I thought the Mormons were to suggest that Joseph Smith was so much more powerful that the Church he established would now stand apostasy-proof until the end of time. They were sure of that. It all seemed to border on blasphemy to me: the very idea that a Christian could believe that what Jesus and the Apostles founded could not endure but would endure once some other human being came along centuries later and revived it. That’s what I now had to argue to assert the efficacy of the COC. Thank you, but no thanks. I walked. (Actually, I stewed about it for a few years and slipped into my own personal apostasy. It wasn’t until I entered the Army at age 18 that I physically absconded from the COC.)

So when I wrote to the brothers here in reference to their challenge, I made two points. First, as everyone knows, it is impossible to answer the two questions posed in the challenge. That’s no big secret. What isn’t as well known is that the COC leadership knows that it can’t be done but isn’t letting on to the rank and file that it can’t. In fact, it seemed to me that they were intentionally asserting the opposite despite what they really knew to be true.

The rest of my original message to the brothers here was more of an adolescent ranting about how the COC is harming its own members by allowing this myth that it is the church mentioned in Romans 16:16.

(Yes, I had to look up the verse just now – in a Catholic Bible, no less. I vaguely remembered it being at the end of the letter – a strange place for a greeting, I always thought.) I hold that the COC leadership is intentionally deceiving its members on this and other points. That was my experience. Now, it could be that the men I confronted were not equipped to defend it (e.g., weren’t educated well enough in the history of the various “heretical” sects they might have claimed were the COC through the centuries) and just simply botched their response. But they spoke of things like the “Restoration” and such, which sounded to me like an official explanation (doctrine?) contrary to what they were telling the rank and file. Therefore, I felt defrauded. There were other things I found out that added insult to injury. For example, the assembling of the New Testament by the pagan Roman Church in the late 4th century was another historical fact that smacked me right between the eyes. The very idea that the Catholic Church, which everyone knew included forbidden texts and translations in its Bible, was the one that adjudicated which Christian writings were inspired and which were not was completely incomprehensible to me. I never could resolve that one logically. Did we believe that the Holy Spirit was with them long enough to do this right? If so, what reason was there to believe that the Holy Spirit wasn’t with them on other occasions? How was one to know? If we believed that the Holy Spirit wasn’t with them when they did it, where does that leave us who base everything on the authority of the New Testament? It was terrible. I was a mess.

My original message was, at least subconsciously, intended to blow off steam about one of the most emotionally and, obviously, spiritually traumatic experiences in my life. This bad experience with the COC robbed me of my youthful exuberance and passion for my faith. I lapsed into a personal apostasy because of the humiliation and betrayal I felt. It still upsets me. The challenge that the brothers here posed to the COC brought it all back. I didn’t intend to try to convert anyone with my story, but I do hope it helps shed some light on things. Perhaps at least the COC will pause and think about what it’s telling its members and what impact that may have on them – especially the curious youth.

I must add before I close that joining the Catholic Church was the only way I could resolve the seemingly intractable conflict between history and matters of faith. For me it was either coming back to Christianity through the Catholic Church or not at all. I just don’t see how it was possible any other way. There are many reasons why the Catholic Church was the answer for me. I’d love to tell anyone who is interested.

May we all find the peace and communion Jesus so desperately wants us to share. Amen.

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