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Exploring Migration within the Body of Christ

By November 1, 2012 No Comments

by Fred Mueller

Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism
Ed. Robert L. Plummer
Zondervan, 2012.
$18.99. 256 pages.

Several years ago, a New Yorker magazine cartoon depicted a scene in which worshipers are coming out the door of a church, greeting the pastor and talking in clusters on the church lawn. Everyone has on their hands those foam “Number One” fingers seen at sporting events. Book CoverTwo men from the church, observing this, are saying, “Our religion really IS number one!” Journeys of Faith is a book about people leaving one faith tradition for another—finding a new number one church.

Within the church there has always been migration. I have pastored churches where, if you removed the former Roman Catholic members, the remaining congregation would be incapable of supporting a full-time minister. Everyone within Protestantism is familiar with the migration of members from Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions to Protestant and evangelical churches.

Robert Plummer, however, noticed that a small number of his students were moving the other way: from evangelicalism to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches. Plummer—who teaches New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as pastoring the Sojourn Community Church—set out to investigate this movement by finding representatives who had moved from evangelicalism toward these other communions.

He chose well. He picked people somewhat well-known in their traditions, such as Francis Beckwith, who served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society before he became Roman Catholic. Lyle Dorsett, who teaches at Beeson Divinity School, became an Anglican. Wilbur Ellsworth was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and then became a Greek Orthodox priest. Finally, the book is balanced with Chris Castalado, who left the Roman Catholic Church for evangelicalism.

Contributors were asked to write their stories by answering a series of questions about their migration, including why they shifted, how they see their new commitment in relation to their former tradition, and what things from scripture and church history convinced them that their move was toward greater faithfulness. Responders with excellent credentials are linked with each contributor and given the task of offering a critique focused on the scriptural case for greater faithfulness put forth by each migrant, in addition to suggesting beneficial things we might learn from the Christian traditions each migrant left.

As expected, the debate warms up. But warm is the right word. The disagreements are gracious and done in a spirit of openness, honoring the belief that all of the authors are part of the holy catholic church. There is a spirit of acceptance on the part of the responders for the contributors and their journeys, even while the responders sharply examine the reasons the contributors migrated to a new ecclesiastical body. The ecumenism in the book does not so much look for commonalities among the different churches, but rather respects the beliefs of the other and accepts that God is working through churches other than one’s own.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is the particularity of the intellectual and faith journeys (as the title indicates) each author has traversed. These are not cookie-cutter conversion stories. Often, when we hear how a person arrived at their faith, their story sounds so similar to others that you wonder if there is not a script out there somewhere from which each of them reads. That is not the case with Journeys of Faith. These stories of church migration take us into the unique spiritual promptings that led each person to uneasiness with their former ecclesial identity.

Best of all are the considerations of theology, history, and ecclesiastical polity and life that marked the inner and outer search and struggle that led to a new direction and new church. These are fascinating and deep. Likewise, responses to each of the four stories examine all the areas mentioned by the “convert,” and then the one who “converted” responds to the responder. This rich exchange draws the reader in.

As I witnessed the journey of each person and the many levels of consideration in their odyssey, I couldn’t help but wish that all our clergy could articulate as well what they believe and why and how they arrived where they are. How much do we take for granted? How well do we understand what we believe and the church within which we practice? How does our own part of the holy catholic church relate to the others, and how does it differ? We who serve within the Reformed tradition are entrusted with a rich treasure of tradition, faith, and theology. Do we value it enough to probe it and grow within it? Do we engage in healthy selfexamination that leads us ever deeper into the riches of our own tradition and helps us understand and value our heritage even more?

Journeys of Faith is highly readable and evocative. The contributors who changed their ecclesiastical affiliations once believed that their “religion was really number one,” but then discovered another tradition more in tune with what they believed God was revealing to them. If reading these stories causes us to ask just one or two questions about our own faith tradition, why we are committed to it, and why we feel God is calling us to serve through it, this book will have been of great value.

Fred Mueller is pastor of Hillsborough Reformed Church in Hillsborough, New Jersey.