Last May, well-known Protestant and founder of the pro-life group Operation Rescue, Randall Terry, made a seemingly bizarre announcement: He was converting to Roman Catholicism. He is not alone. According to Orthodox researcher Alexey D. Krindach, 37 percent of the priests in The Orthodox Church in America are Protestant converts, and more than three-quarters of the seminary students at two of the largest Orthodox seminaries are former Protestants.
"This is an entirely new situation in the history of Eastern Christianity in America," Krindach notes.
Former charismatic Protestant pastor Jeff Cavins is now a popular Catholic speaker. Former Campus Crusade staffer Peter Gillquist is now an Orthodox priest. Former Assemblies of God (AG) missionary Don Newville is now a Catholic convert, as he notes in his testimony on a Catholic Web site.
According to a 2006 study by the National Council of Churches, the fastest growing major church in the United States is neither Protestant nor Catholic. It is Eastern Orthodox. The million-member Orthodox Church in America grew at a rate of 6.4 percent in 2005, compared to the AG's only 1.8 percent.
The Roman Catholic Church has started a special organization with a Web site (chnetwork.org) just to help convert Protestant clergy. Entire Protestant churches have converted, including the charismatic Maranatha Christian Church in Detroit (now Catholic), a Vineyard church and its pastor in San Jose, California (now Orthodox), two entire Episcopalian parishes in South Carolina and two small nationwide denominations, Christ the Savior Brotherhood and the Evangelical Orthodox Church.
Zealous former Protestants have created several Web sites explaining their conversions and encouraging others to follow their example.
"These narratives all had a recurring theme: Converts saw themselves returning to the Age of the Apostles, to the primitive Christian community depicted in the New Testament," notes researcher Phillip Charles Lucas in Enfants Terribles: The Challenge of Sectarian Converts to Ethnic Orthodox Churches in the United States. "The discovery of Orthodoxy is experienced as a return to something pure and sacred, something that had been lost."
Even in Springfield, Missouri—the headquarters of the AG and a Baptist denomination—there is a newly opened Orthodox church, housed in a former Protestant building, and led by a priest who was a Lutheran minister. Why are so many Protestants converting?
For Cavins, it was a challenge by his Catholic father, who asked, "If you believe the Bible, why don't you believe what Jesus said when He told the disciples, 'This is My body'?"
"It was a question that stuck in my craw and a seed that took root inside me," Cavins writes in his autobiography My Life on the Rock: A Rebel Returns to the Catholic Faith. "But it would take some time to get above the soil."
Formerly charismatic Episcopalian Randall Terry converted to Catholicism even though as a divorced person he is forbidden from receiving the Eucharist.
"It was during my work in Operation Rescue that I first became interested in the Roman Catholic Church," Terry noted in an interview in the National Catholic Register. "The Roman Catholic communion had a much better sociology and better stability, coupled with a phenomenal theology of suffering.
"I would look at my evangelical friends, who would come and go from the pro-life movement. They would proclaim undying devotion for pro-life activism and then disappear. Then I would look at my Roman Catholic friends who would never swerve. That had a tremendous magnetism for me. What took me so long was that I was a cultural Protestant, trained in Protestant theology."
Terry said papal infallibility, Marian dogma and purgatory were his biggest roadblocks.
"For years I have craved to be in the Catholic Church, but couldn't figure a way to get around these hurdles. Once I realized the truth, I had to go in. I couldn't wait. ... Being in the Church has brought a wonderful sense of belonging. I am part of 2,000 years of Christian history that is glorious, that has warts and heroes and villains, but that is nonetheless the Church founded by Jesus upon Peter."
Paradox and Mystery
Former Dutch Reformed Christian Mark Sietsema is now a Greek Orthodox priest in Lansing, Michigan. He said his journey to orthodoxy took several years.
"It was my study of the Scriptures that led me away from sola scriptura [scripture only]," Sietsema said in a phone interview. Two passages that especially convinced him were John 17 and 1 Timothy 3:15.
"The high priestly prayer in John 17, where Christ prayed that His disciples may be one. That is a prayer that could not possibly be fulfilled if Protestantism is correct, because what you find is a complete disunity of all the Protestant sects. It just seemed impossible to me that Jesus Christ could pray a prayer that could not receive its fulfillment.
"The other is where St. Paul speaks in Timothy about the church being the pillar and ground of the truth. He doesn't say that the Bible is the pillar and ground of the truth, but the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. So seeing that passage made me realize that from the apostolic point of view, it is the community—and not the book of the community—that is to be normative in defining the life of the community," Sietsema said.
Author Frank Schaeffer, son of well-known Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer, had different reasons for his conversion as reported in an article at beliefnet.com: "I abandoned Protestant Christian fundamentalism many years ago for Greek orthodoxy. I converted because the Orthodox tradition embraces paradox and mystery. For someone raised in a strict Calvinist home, relief from absolutist certainty was most welcome."
Schaeffer, in his book, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion, says he "spent half a lifetime in the evangelical Protestant world without learning one iota" of the church's tradition. "It was as if a lobotomy had been performed on the Protestant community, and that the history, faith and practices of the ancient church had been obliterated in the operation."
Schaeffer calls the conflict between Protestantism and orthodoxy an "ideological war raging within our borders."
For other former Protestants, orthodoxy and Catholicism offer a rock of stability in the stormy seas of Protestant theology. Former Protestant Matt Hubinger says the No. 1 reason for conversions in his experience is that converts believe that sola scriptura doesn't work.
"We would say that it is historically untrue. It was never meant to function the way it does. The proof is in the pudding," Hubinger said in an interview.
"The many Protestant churches all claim the same text as their source, but they all have different beliefs. A Lutheran believes in the actual presence and infant baptism. The Baptist believes in neither. And the Episcopalian doesn't know what he believes. All of these look to the same text as their source. So it is a yearning for something more stable that we found in the Orthodox tradition."
Reverence and Formality
While some liberal Protestant churches are ordaining homosexual bishops and actively promoting the right to abort unborn infants, Orthodox and Catholic churches have consistently stood for ancient biblical values.
While Protestant churches have gotten ever more casual in dress, worship and theology, Catholic and Orthodox churches have maintained an ancient, reverent and formal worship. For clergy, they offer a return to a time when pastors and priests were highly respected and not subject to annual votes or hostile deacon boards. The robes, the incense, the majestic churches and the familiar rituals are in themselves comforting to both clergy and laity.
Orthodoxy and Catholicism may also be attractive to those who want to break as completely as possible with Protestant churches or relatives who have hurt them. Catholicism and orthodoxy offer the radical change they want, without leaving Christianity. It can, therefore, in some cases be a sly slap at family and church friends, designed to shock and irritate dyed-in-the-wool Protestants.
"Some people become Orthodox or Catholic because they are angry," Hubinger says. "It's personal." Some of the worst of these are found online in Orthodox chat rooms. "It is easy to be a jerk online." Such converts often delight in challenging traditional Protestant beliefs. They are often more Catholic than the pope, Hubinger says, and more rigorously orthodox than the Orthodox.
For such converts, however, the very zealousness that led them to Catholicism and orthodoxy may lead them right out again.
Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Ben Lomond, California, is an example of what can happen when democratically minded Protestant converts run head-on into a traditional hierarchy. The split was preceded by the conversion of the 2,000 members of the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC) denomination to the Antiochian Orthodox Church (AOC) in 1987. The EOC was composed primarily of former Protestants, many of whom were Campus Crusade and Young Life leaders.
After formally being accepted into the Orthodox Church, they soon grew unhappy with directives from their local bishop, finally asking in 1998 for permission from the archbishop to leave the AOC for the sister The Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Instead of permission, 19 of the church's 29 priests and deacons were defrocked and excommunicated by fax, and the church and its school were taken from the control of the leadership and entrusted to the few who remained faithful to the AOC bishop.
Approximately two-thirds of the congregation left, eventually forming a semi-independent Orthodox group under the Jerusalem Patriarchate called the Orthodox Christian Brotherhood.
Hubinger says his experience is that most conversions to orthodoxy are due to theological reasons. However, few Protestants would agree.
"People mainly make decisions on the basis of emotions, not rational or theological reasons," opines Robert Hosken, a protestant missionary to Russia and founder of agape-biblia.org, an online Russian Bible.
"People may be attracted to orthodoxy or Catholicism by the spectacular rituals of either church, the 'smells and bells' of orthodoxy, or they may be driven away from Protestantism by disappointments, unfriendly personal treatment and so on."
Newville, for instance, converted after a brother converted to Orthodoxy and a son converted to Catholicism. Terry converted after finding most of his friends in the pro-life movement were Catholic. Cavin's conversion was a return to the faith of his family and his youth and resolved a long-standing family dispute over his protestant faith.
Such converts are not likely to admit to themselves or others that their conversions were due to emotional isolation or pressure from friends and family. They naturally would prefer to say it was due to theology.
Hosken believes that lax morality and worldliness may turn some people away from Protestantism. "However, once a person 'jumps the fence' he may find that the grass isn't really greener, it just appeared to be from afar. He may find that the requirements of total submission to church authority, or the excessive veneration (one might be tempted to call it "worship") of Mary, is too much for him to swallow. But once he has made the switch it may be too embarrassing to go back again to Protestantism, so he may just sit tight and keep quiet about the situation, or drop out of organized religion altogether."
Protestants can likely expect to see more converts to Catholicism and Eastern orthodoxy in the future, but perhaps this is not really the change that it seems at first.
First, Protestants (57 percent) still far outnumber Catholics (24 percent) and Orthodox (1 percent) in the United States, according to The Barna Group. And this difference, as far as Catholics and Protestants are concerned, is growing in favor of Protestants. Protestants jumped from 51 percent in 1991 to 57 percent in 2006, while Catholics dropped as a percentage of the U.S. population from 28 percent in 1996 to 24 percent in 2006.
Orthodox Church growth—6.4 percent—is the fastest of the 25 largest denominations, as reported by the National Council of Churches. However, this statistic may not be accurate, according to Orthodox researcher Kindrach. He reports that the actual total of Orthodox believers in the United States is only 1.2 million, not the 4 million often cited, meaning their percentage is less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
The greatest disproportions between "claimed" and actual memberships were found in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (1,954,500 claimed members versus 440,000 actual adherents) and the Russian Orthodox Church in America (1 million versus 115,000 actual adherents). These figures are from the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, National Council of Churches, 2000, as reported by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The discrepancy is apparently due to the common practice of equating church membership with the ethnic group, including second and third generation descendants of the original immigrants. These descendants often do not attend.
Second, the conversions to Catholicism and orthodoxy are an ironic reinforcement of an American Protestant practice—that of church hopping. In the ecumenical eyes of many Americans, there is not much difference between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are, it seems, just two more denominations to add to the long list of Protestant ones.
Accordingly, moving from one to the other is a reinforcement of Protestant beliefs that each believer can hear directly from God about where they should worship and that God moves through many churches, not just one.
Very likely, just as many Catholics and Orthodox are becoming Protestant as the other way around—perhaps more, as seems to be the case with the Catholic Church. And, given the history of some former Protestants, it shouldn't be surprising to see at least a few of them back in Protestant pews in the future. For instance, before converting to the Catholic Church, Newville had been a member of a United Brethren, a United Methodist, a Lutheran, an independent Pentecostal, a Word-Faith and an AG church.
Drifting Toward Rome?
In a way, the increasing numbers of Protestants converting is a natural result of the last 40 years of ecumenical cooperation between churches in community-wide evangelistic efforts such as that of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, joint anti-abortion protests, the ecumenical movement and the charismatic renewal. Working together in these contexts has required a de-emphasis on doctrinal issues and a welcome commitment to what Christians have in common.
But a perhaps unintended result of this change is that doctrine has come to be seen as a divisive, nonessential issue—one trumpeted usually by stick-in-the-mud religious bigots. This has led many Christians to dance around doctrinal differences in order to preserve unity.
For Protestants from mainline churches, such as former Lutheran Hubinger, orthodoxy was not that much of a change. As a Lutheran he was already used to a liturgy, infant baptism and belief that Christ is in or with the communion elements. The fact that he attended Catholic high school for four years, he said, also made it easier, since Catholicism and Orthodoxy have much in common. In addition, of course, the Orthodox do not accept the pope any more than Lutherans do.
And yet for many Protestants, understanding why more Protestants are abandoning Luther's maxims such as sola scriptura and sola fides (faith alone) is no comfort. The issues are considered too important to dismiss.
Some take the issue further and point to the "doctrinal drift" as a sign of the end times, when a false church represented by the great harlot Babylon (see Rev. 17) will arise to persecute the faithful few symbolized by the woman clothed by the sun (see Rev. 12). Some see the blurring of differences as a prelude to the prophesied dividing of the Christian world into two camps—one a powerful worldly church and another, a persecuted godly one.
Joseph Mizzi, a former Catholic who operates a Protestant Web site to help Catholics know Christ (www.justforcatholics.org), is one of those concerned about defending Protestant distinctives.
"We cannot afford to be mistaken in this vital matter," Mizzi notes. "We must turn to the Scriptures and compare Catholic doctrine with the teaching of the Bible, the ultimate authority and judge in all spiritual disputes. The Bible teaches that a sinner is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is the only gospel that saves.
"The apostle warns those who, in addition to faith in the Lord, seek to be justified by ritual or works of the law, that they are alienated from Christ, and that He could be of no avail to them. Rome's message is a false gospel.
"Each one of us must take his stand. You are either an evangelical, earnestly contending for the faith that was delivered to the saints, or an ecumenist, sacrificing truth on the altar of a false unity. You must choose."
Kerby Rials is an Assemblies of God missionary to Russia, where he and his wife, Sheila, have lived since 1994. He has pastored churches in Louisiana, Switzerland and Russia. He is the author of the book The Protestant's Guide to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: How to Answer the Tough Questions (deltamillsbooks.com). For more information, visit rials.org.