Converting the Converts

There are a couple interesting moments in the book of Acts in which you have a bunch of people who “believe in God” or even “believe in Christ,” but aren’t entirely on the right page in terms of correct doctrine & discipline.  In Acts 19, St. Paul meets some disciples of Christ who had never heard of the Holy Spirit and hadn’t been properly baptized.  So he baptized and laid his hands on them, and they received the Spirit and various charismatic gifts.  Not long before that, one of the other great traveling missionaries of that age, Apollos, also suffered from the same fullness of knowledge.  In both cases, they believed some basics, but had not yet received the Holy Spirit – had not been baptized.  They were in the right chapter, but needed to turn to the next page, so to speak.  Or, in short, the converts needed to be converted.

This helps shed light on the concept of there being multiple conversions in the course of becoming a Christian which often gets overlooked (or worse, rejected) by many Christians today.  Modern Evangelicalism almost always emphasizes conversion as a one-time thing: it’s what you do “the hour I first believed,” or “when you came to Christ,” or “when it finally all clicked.”  Certainly, the birth of true faith in the individual heart and mind is a critically important conversion, but it by no means stand alone in the Christian life.

If there’s more than one conversion point, what are they?  There are many ways of parsing this out; the Bible doesn’t give us a neatly-bundled formula in this department.  There’s a conversion to belief in God, a conversion to the Gospel of Christ, a conversion to the Body of Christ, and a conversion to the empowered ministry of the Holy Spirit.  To some extent these can easily overlap with each other both practically and chronologically, but they are each distinct conversions that ought to take place in the Christian life.  As I mentioned the other day, thinking in this way helps us get away from separating “evangelism” and “discipleship,” and instead putting them back together into a coherent spiritual journey that organically and logically connects the very beginning of our salvation to the very completion of our salvation.

One other dynamic I want to point out in all this talk of multiple conversions is the issue of individualism.  Individualism is a powerful force in Western culture today, to the extent where I doubt any of us (myself included) can properly appreciate what it has done to our perception of the Gospel.  But this I do know: the rampant individualism that our culture preaches is violently opposed to the biblical doctrine of the Church.  Just like our friends in Acts 18 & 19, many of us tend to aim for promoting personal conviction of Gospel truth while missing the vitally important step of Baptism – the submission of the self to the Church of God.

This is not a concept alien to Protestantism; the Reformers were influenced by individualistic Enlightenment thinking, but not at all to the extent that it has taken hold today.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others understood perfectly well that faith was more than the intellectual-emotional commitment to Jesus Christ.  That was an oversimplification of later generations, particularly in the influential Revivalist movement in the USA starting in the late 18th century and really picking up through the 19th and continuing to this day.  But if those whom I might term as “populist Evangelicals” reach back to their Reformation heritage, they’ll find a richer understanding of what it means to be converted to Christ.  You don’t have to be Catholic to believe that being a Christian means being a member of the Church!

A short summary of all this could be the following formula:

low doctrine of Church + high doctrine of individual = simplistic concept of conversion

“Low doctrine of Church” refers to a view of the Church that is more of a concept than a community.  This may require another post for another time, but suffice it to say here that it’s a lot easier to commit to a Church concept than to a Church community.  And the bigger the Church community, the more difficult it can be for the individualist!

So, lots of things kicking around here.  Long story short, be careful about seeking to “make converts,”  lest you later find that your new converts still need to be converted!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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3 Responses to Converting the Converts

  1. Stephen says:

    A quick note on the Reformers. The Reformation = 16th century. The Enlightenment = 18th century. So they couldn’t have been all that bad.

    • Fr. Brench says:

      Oh good catch, sorry about that. I guess I conflate the renaissance Humanist movement with the Enlightenment. Hopefully that’s not too out of order?

      • Stephen says:

        There are probably some similarities, but the issues they addressed were as different as you’d expect with a century or two of dramatic history in between. That’s about all I can say with any confidence. I would guess that someone like Zwingli was a bit more of a precursor of the Enlightenment than some other Reformers, as you imply in your mention of Luther, Calvin, and evangelical individualism.

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