Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Problem with Lateral Converts

By "lateral convert" I mean someone who moves from one branch of Christianity to another: Catholics who become Protestants (and vice versa), Protestants or Catholics who become Orthodox (and vice versa again), and so on. I may explain my own view of ecclesiology at some point, but for now I'll just say that I consider the main groups just mentioned valid forms of Christianity; I just don't consider any of them the One True Church.

Anyway, my own background is Protestant--Evangelical and Pentecostal, in fact--but I make a point of learning from other Christians. My theology is actually closer to Eastern Orthodox than Protestant in many ways, and I have studied Catholic and Orthodox positions as well as those of other Protestant groups. Within Protestantism, my best match would probably be a conservative Methodist group.

End of disclosure.

The problem is that in studying these various groups, I tend to run into converts from some other group who have gone the True Believer route. (Note: I am not a particular fan of Hoffer's, though some of his points are valid.) This is particularly annoying when one of them starts pontificating about what some group, usually the one he left, believes.

They are typically wrong.

This leads to an observation: the lateral converts I've encountered (personally or through media) tend to be ignorant of the beliefs they left behind. The Catholics-turned-Protestant I've met have been remarkably ignorant of Catholic doctrine. The Protestants-turned-whatever regularly demonstrate abysmal ignorance of Protestant views, often lumping very different groups together.

Even the scholars goof. I've recently encountered people who ought to know better claiming that the Protestant idea of "sola fides" (salvation by faith alone) meant a rejection of works of any kind: just believe you're saved; you don't have to live out your salvation. But anyone familiar with Protestantism can trace the opposite view easily, from Philipp Melancthon ("Sola fides iustificat, sed fides non est sola"--"Faith alone justifies, but faith is not alone") to the modern idea that "if you're gonna talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk." And I frequently hear Protestants claim that Catholics (more rarely Orthodox) believe in salvation by works. (Properly speaking, they don't.)

Nicodemus asked the Sanhedrin, "Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?" (John 7:51) It's still a good question--even if you're talking about the group you left.

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