Evangelical Convert

Russell Stutler

On August 14, 2011, at the age of 54, Russell Stutler joined the Catholic Church after being an evangelical Protestant his entire life. Russell currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.

I was raised in a Protestant Christian home in Akron, Ohio, and we went to church every Sunday. During my childhood my family changed churches several times. We went to the Lutheran Church, Church of the Nazarene (where I promised God I would become a missionary someday), United Methodist Church (where I was baptized), Presbyterian Church, and a non-denominational evangelical mega-church called the Chapel in University Park where I became a member in my early 20s. It was a great teaching church, and I studied the Bible and memorized parts of it, which was the norm for members of that church. I studied New Testament Greek on my own so I could get at the underlying nuances in the text. I was very active in fellowship and evangelism programs, and my sense of calling to be a missionary was re-kindled there. I even went to Japan on a summer missionary program in 1983.

I then went to Malone College (now Malone University) in Canton, Ohio, to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian ministries in preparation to be a career missionary. During my time there, my old junk car wasn't up for the trip home every Sunday so I tried several churches near the campus. I discovered I was attracted to beautiful liturgy, and joined the local Episcopal Church. It was good that I had received good Bible teaching at the Chapel and at Malone College because the Episcopal Church is great at "celebrating" but not "educating" as I heard one Episcopalian say. I enjoyed the beauty of the Episcopal Church and retained all my beliefs as an evangelical Protestant. There was a lot of room in the Episcopal Church for all kinds of beliefs.

I came to Japan in 1987 as a missionary with a small evangelical Episcopal (a.k.a. Anglican) sending agency. I was their only missionary assigned to Japan. I studied the language and was active in a traveling evangelistic ministry at many different Evangelical churches by invitation, and attended the local Anglican parish on Sunday. However, after a few years I was increasingly disturbed by the strange and even heretical teaching and behavior of Anglicans -- even among the leadership -- in Japan and in America.

My missionary career ended when a financial crisis left my home office unable to send me the funds I needed, and I had to look for other ways to make a living in Japan. Although this was a difficult time, I was no longer bound by my career to the Anglican Church, so I became an active member of an evangelical church in Tokyo.

However, after 18 years in the Japanese evangelical Christian community, that hunger for liturgical worship drew me back. I have to believe that it was the Holy Spirit who was drawing me back. But once I returned, I felt like the frog who had the sense to jump out of the water as it was getting hot, only to jump back in when it was boiling! The Anglican Church, especially the Episcopal Church in America had departed from its own doctrines and had descended so low that when you looked past the beautiful facade, it hardly resembled anything Christian, and the leaders were persecuting and driving out what few faithful orthodox Christians that remained. I saw that the disease had started to have an effect on the Anglican Church in Japan. I prayed for some way to have the old liturgy without all the heresies!

Just when I realized I was at a dead end in the Anglican Church, I heard the astounding news that Pope Benedict XVI had opened a door for faithful Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church as groups which could retain the good parts of their rich Anglican heritage. I had never dreamed of being a Catholic, and had no desire to be one now. I didn't have a very positive image of the Catholic Church, although I really didn't know a whole lot about them either -- other than the fact that the Anglican Church split from them a long time ago, and there were similarities in style. But I had heard that they didn't tolerate all the nonsense that plagues the Anglicans, and that was a point in their favor.

Also, I discovered that many of the Anglicans whom I had respected for their solid faith had left the Anglican Church a long time ago. One of these was Fr. Lawrence Wheeler whom I had met in 1987. When we re-established contact after a 20 year gap, I found that he was pastor of a parish that was part of a network of churches which worshipped in the Anglican tradition but were no longer connected to the official Anglican Church. His parish was ready to accept the pope's offer, and Fr. Wheeler challenged me to seriously consider the claims of the Catholic Church myself.

As an evangelical Protestant I was reluctant to go in that direction, but someone whom I respected and had a similar background as mine was actually encouraging me to do so (Fr. Wheeler had also been an evangelical Christian before he became an Anglican). So I began to investigate the Catholic Church. I found lots of internet sources and informative books on Catholicism, many of them written by former Protestants. I discovered EWTN, a Catholic television/radio network, and started listening to podcasts of its shows, such as The Journey Home, Catholic Answers Live, and Open Line.

I spent more than a year studying the claims of the Catholic Church, the writings of the early Church Fathers and related passages in the Bible, and my objections started to melt as I became convinced that the Catholic Church is the true and original church that Jesus established on earth, that "city set on a hill that cannot be hidden," and that all of the Protestant churches I had attended and had been a member of throughout my Christian life were actually "ecclesial communities," something like hut villages located perhaps on the same hill, but clearly outside the walls of that city.

I didn't want to wait for the pope's door for Anglican groups to open, especially since nobody really knows when that will happen in Japan; I felt I had to come over to the Catholic Church.

Now the question was how to go about it. How does a Protestant become a Catholic? During my period of study, I had visited several Catholic parishes in Tokyo on Sunday mornings and ended up in a small friendly parish with an English speaking priest just a few blocks from the Anglican parish where I had attended. This allowed me to attend the 8:00 Sunday morning service at the Anglican parish and then walk over and attend the 10:30 Catholic Mass where I could experience Catholicism first hand on a regular basis and make sure this was the right decision.

I continued in this manner for several months, taking communion at the Anglican service and watching everyone else take Communion at the Catholic Mass. No doubt the music in the Anglican Church was better, but I became convinced that the Real Presence of Jesus was in the Eucharist of the Catholic Church, and that this was indeed the true and original Church that Jesus Christ had established.

By the time I decided to join the Church, I had become a familiar face at the Catholic parish, and had made lots of friends there. So it was no surprise to anyone when I finally asked the head priest how to become a member. I figured the process would be long and drawn out with several months of classes, which is the usual procedure for adults coming into the Church. But the priest surprised me by saying he could let me join at the next international mass which was seven weeks away. For preparation, he only asked me to read one document from the Second Vatican Council about the role of the Church in the modern world (Gaudium Ee Spes). When I asked why the process was so simple and quick in my case, he replied that it was because of my training and background as an Anglican missionary, and that I had studied the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

A few weeks before I was to be confirmed, I went to my first confession, where I confessed all the serious sins I could recall during my entire life. I wasn't embarrassed to confess my sins to the priest since I knew he had heard it all before. Then he said that I was forgiven of all my sins, and I knew he spoke with the authority of Jesus Christ. It felt great.

Then a few weeks later I was confirmed and joined the Catholic Church and finally took Communion there. My baptism as a teenager in the United Methodist church was considered valid, so I only needed to be confirmed.

So now I am Catholic, having become convinced that I had no choice. I was compelled to join the Catholic Church. There were basically two reasons for this.

Reason 1: Peter

Jesus said to Simon Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 , "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Jesus said that his plan was to build a church, and Peter was to be the rock on which it was built. In their native language Aramaic, Peter's name and the word for rock are exactly the same word: Kepha. Later on, Jesus gave all the apostles the authority to bind and loose, but he gave only to Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. And Peter alone was the rock on which Jesus would build His Church.

Jesus gave great authority to the apostles and especially to Peter which would have a binding effect on Heaven itself! This is mind boggling if you read how most of them abandoned Jesus at His crucifixion, and about all the mistakes Peter made; he could be a real bumbler at times. In order to avoid a disaster, you would expect God to keep Peter and the apostles on a short leash at least during those moments when they were exercising this authority! Catholics believe that God has done just that with Peter and the apostles, and with the men who succeeded them as overseers in increasing numbers as the Church spread throughout the world to this very day with the Pope and all the bishops of the world in union with the Pope.

Throughout history God has established specific humans on earth in places of authority to guide His people, such as Moses, the prophets, judges and kings. Without such an authority on earth, the Church would have the same problems that Israel experienced during a dark period in its history: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." Judges 17:6 (NIV)

What happens when Christians reject the authority of Peter's successor? Today there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations and independent churches, each with its own interpretation of the Bible, and the number keeps growing. It has become the norm for people to church-hop until they find one that suits their personal beliefs. They do whatever is right in their own eyes.

I finally realized that I had to end my own church hopping and submit to the teaching authority of the one church that Jesus built on a rock, with the direct successors to Peter and the apostles still leading it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Reason 2: The Eucharist

When Jesus performed the amazing miracle of feeding five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, a large crowd followed him, hoping to be fed again and again with more miraculous food. It was at this time that Jesus made his shocking declaration which alienated many followers:

"I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." John 6:53-58 (NIV)

The crowd obviously took Jesus' declaration at face value because many stopped following him as a result.

Later, at the last supper, we have this account: "While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."" Matthew 26:26-28 (NIV)

The writings of the early Church Fathers clearly show that the Church from the beginning has always taken Jesus' words literally and has always believed in this miracle, that the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ while still retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine. The Church has the power to bring this miracle about.

I had to join the Catholic Church because of the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist and the grace that comes from it.

Of course, I believe I could have gone to heaven as a Protestant. Who can deny that the Holy Spirit is active in Protestant Churches? They have the gifts of the Spirit, an amazing zeal and love for Christ and the Kingdom of God. Many Protestant martyrs have shed their blood for their faith.

For me, becoming a Catholic is about stopping for a moment in the midst of all my hopping from one hut village to another and discovering a huge and beautiful walled city at the top of the hill. It's about finally entering those old and strangely familiar gates and discovering all the riches and the fullness of the faith that I had only gotten a glimpse of before. It's about receiving grace through the sacraments to live the Christian life. It's about coming home to the true Church that Jesus Christ established on earth with Peter and his successors as its leaders. Yes, I am very excited about finally becoming a Catholic.

When I take Communion, the sense of Jesus' Presence is so overwhelming that I am often moved to tears. But it's more than just an emotional high at church; I can recognize the effects of grace. I find my thoughts turning to God more often than before. I'm finally able to succeed in the "practice of the presence of God" which I had been attempting for 30 years since I read the words of Brother Lawrence (by the way, in case you forgot, Brother Lawrence was a Catholic who received all the grace that comes from Jesus' Presence in the Eucharist). I am able to resist sin more successfully than before. My joy as a Christian is deeper than before, my love for the Bible is greater than before, and man, do I look forward to going to church on Sundays -- and any week day when my schedule permits it!

I thank God that I am finally a Catholic.

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