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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

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Feminism, Conscience, and the Church: How Reformed Baptist Natalie Richardson Became Catholic

Nov 13th, 2014 | By | Category: Blog Posts
Natalie Richardson is a stay-at-home mom to one boy and a freelance writer on the side. She grew up in a Reformed Baptist home, but after meeting a Catholic who knew his stuff, she attempted to convert him, failed and became Catholic herself in 2012. She, her husband and child now live in Tennessee.

Natalie Richardson
Natalie Richardson
I remember it vividly. I was standing in the kitchen of my friends’ rental house in college. I’m not sure what provoked it, but I remember saying with firm, sanctified conviction, “I will never become Catholic.” My one and only close Catholic friend replied jokingly “Well, we can’t all be perfect.”

In all honesty, my statement was probably unmerited and unprovoked. I was probably saying it as a witness to my friend and for the edification of the others around me — or for some such other sanctimonious reason. And despite my friend’s humorous response, the subject was extremely serious to me. Become Catholic? The poor souls. I was happy in my Reformed world. I was growing spiritually, chasing holiness, deepening in my prayer life and theological knowledge. I was on my way to Heaven, which I was confident I would get to. I was one of the predestined and nothing could tear me away from God. Become Catholic? They had a tenuous connection with Jesus, at best. I believed the maxim that Catholics, if they went to Heaven, would get there not because of but in spite of the Catholic Church.
That was me, circa 2009. On Easter vigil 2012, I entered the Catholic Church.

Many of the points that eventually won me over are common among most Catholic converts: Church unity, true historical Christianity, and Church authority. These all played huge roles in my conversion, but in the end, what pushed me over the edge was actually feminism. In a personal crisis where I found myself at odds with my family and church’s faith, I gave a desperate cry for freedom and security as a woman, and found it in the Church.

Before I get to that, though, I’ll just start from the beginning.
It all began with that Catholic friend whom I mentioned above. We became very close one summer, and it wasn’t long before I realized I was attracted to him. Unfortunately for him, though, he was Catholic, and I was Reformed Protestant. Because I could never date a Catholic, I decided to convert him. But what began with great optimism on my side quickly dwindled into cautious optimism and then utter confusion.
I tried the Scripture angle, pointing out passages in Ephesians and Romans. To my surprise, however, my friend had rebuttals for all of my Scripture-based arguments. I was shocked that such classic apologetics verses such as Romans 8 and Ephesians 2 could understandably fit into an interpretation other than mine. For example, Ephesians 2:8 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This had seemed like the silver bullet against the Catholic Church’s obviously “works-based” system. My friend explained, though, that Catholics also believe that salvation is by grace, through faith. And to boot, the following verse: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,” actually fit better in the Catholic system. As a TULIP Christian, I heartily believed that we were utterly depraved, even after salvation, except that afterwards we were covered with the white robe of Christ. As Martin Luther so eloquently put it, we are dung heaps with a thick top layer of white snow. But if we were still dung heaps, how could we accomplish good works? A Calvinist believes that the Christian’s works cannot be good before God’s eyes. Only God is good.

And so I began to question myself. Only slightly, at first. I was confident I could get through these obstacles. But as my misconceptions about the Catholic Church fell away, so did my hostility. Slowly my prayer for my friend’s conversion became a prayer for us both to reach truth, and then, for me to reach the truth.
One of the first things really to bother me was church disunity. I came from a very serious, Reformed church. We were very serious about following Scripture, no questions. These were good people. But, there weren’t very many of us. One unique conviction we had as a body of four families was our stance on the Sabbath. We continued to believe that all work should be barred on the Sabbath, including giving business on the Sabbath and partaking in activities that caused others to work. This conviction caused me much grief once I left for college, as I quickly discovered that I was the only one, even among other Reformed friends, who thought this way. The isolation and loneliness I felt because of it, at first encouraged me. I thought I was being a martyr for truth. But as I became aware of how disjointed Protestantism was and how unified the Catholic Church’s moral teaching was, I worried. In a paradigm where everyone who has the Holy Spirit is capable of reaching truth on their own, why was it that I was the only one who had found the truth of the Sabbath commandment? My isolation became even more obvious when I spent a semester abroad in Asia. Yes, there were Christians there, but still no one like me.

My doubts and questions blossomed. I began to read about how the Bible was formed, how early theologians interpreted it in regards to justification and salvation. And I realized more and more how different my Christianity and interpretive lens was from many obviously Christian men. I was scandalized when I realized that Augustine’s Bible and the Scriptures that the apostles and Jesus quoted from (the Septuagint) was the Catholic canon and not mine. I was even more scandalized when I realized that the Deuterocanonical books had been consistently used throughout all of history and even continued to be printed in Protestant Bibles by Bible Societies until groups like the Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians complained enough to get them thrown out completely. The Anglican Church continued to have readings from the Apocrypha past the Reformation too. Yet most Protestants couldn’t tell you the name of one of the books, much less tell you that they’d ever read it. I began to feel cheated out of a lot of good Christian history. My changing feelings in regards to my ongoing research soon became apparent to my family and church. And this is where an angry feminist emerged.

I say “angry feminist,” but I wasn’t feminist in a secular sense. I still sought to be submissive. But I began to wonder if my conscience could submit to the doctrine and teaching I had loved for so long but with which I now found myself at terrible odds. For starters, by this point (1.5 years into my research), I had just begun dating my Catholic friend. I had personally become convinced that he was a true Christian. That was a real question for me, and while I eventually decided that there was no way he couldn’t be, even granting his synergistic Catholic view of salvation, my father, and especially my pastor were convinced otherwise. In dating him, I was “unequally yoked,” and disobeying God. Furthermore, my refusal to submit to my pastor and my father’s convictions was also disobedient, and it got me banned from Communion.

I found myself in a shocking situation. My father had never been overbearing, and he had never really proactively taught that daughters must always submit to their fathers. Yet here I was, in my early twenties, and my father was expecting and hoping me simply to obey him, even when my convictions were different from his. (In his defense, though, he found the situation shocking as well. And although he wanted me to listen to him, and sort of thought I should as his daughter, he never demanded it.) As for my church situation, I was aware of church discipline and in agreement with it, but I never thought I would be the receiver.
So here I was in a bind. I wanted to remain obedient to Scripture. And as I searched Scripture for guidance on who I should listen to and obey, I found passages that seemed to point to submission to parents and church leaders. 1 Cor. 14:34-35 comes to mind. It says,

“34 Women[a] should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
And Hebrews 13:17 says,
“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
And of course there is Ephesians 5 which says wives must submit to husbands. And husbands must sanctify their wives.

It all seemed to point towards a woman listening to the man, who had to listen to his pastor. But if the father or husband gets to pick what church, what pastor and what theology, then the woman is left without any recourse. Her conscience could potentially be bound to the conscience of her man, all while living in a tradition that claims no one can bind your conscience except Scripture.

Of course this could really be problematic only if the father or husband is demanding, overbearing, unyielding etc. But even if he isn’t, what happens when a genuine difference in conscience comes up? Who do you turn to when the church and pastor can change, and those who don’t even claim to be infallible, make infallible pronouncements on your conscience? I felt cornered.

By this point I was well-acquainted with the claim the Catholic Church makes in her infallibility and consistency. Her doctrine and teaching are that if you are Catholic, you by default submit to what she binds. So with my ongoing personal crisis of submission, She looked more and more like a safe haven, a place where my conscience was truly equal with anyone else’s in my life. If I were in her fold, I would always have someone to go to to protect my conscience as a woman. And anyone who tried to tell me otherwise, would have to answer to the Church first.

When I came to this conclusion, I had also concluded that her teachings on justification, prayer to the saints, divorce, contraception etc. were beautiful. But with the belief in her unwavering authority, I also found safety. And my angry, submissive feminism found a home.