August 4, 2020

iMonk Classic: How My Wife’s Catholicism Has Changed Me For The Better: A Birthday Reflection

Sacra Conversazione, Fra Angelico

Sacra Conversazione, Fra Angelico

First posted in September, 2008.

I got some nice things for my 52nd birthday. A new iPod. (Blue, 4th generation Nano. Be envious.) A book of Benedictine Daily Prayer. (I’m figuring it out.) Birthday cake (Oatmeal. Mmmm) with my wife, daughter and son-in-law. (Their rendition of Happy Birthday somehow made me feel I was boarding a train for Siberia.) A lot of Facebook greetings. Two cards. Many birthday wishes from my students. And right after I’d preached, a large lipsticky kiss on my cheek from a long-time co-worker. (It’s a tradition where I work. My wife approves.)

I missed getting a birthday card from my mom. Twenty-five dollars, as regular as clockwork. I miss hearing her voice on the phone telling me she was in labor for two days and it almost killed her.

I would have liked to go to church on my birthday, but instead I preached for our students. I Corinthians 3:5-9. “On Christians and Those Who Grow Them.” I enjoyed that opportunity.

The greatest gift I have on this 52nd birthday is my wife and our marriage. Particularly this year, as I look back and see how my wife’s conversion to Catholicism has changed me for the better.

Crucifixion and Saints (detail), Fra Angelico

Crucifixion and Saints (detail), Fra Angelico

When I told my friend Mark what was going on at our house, he said immediately that this was “necessary love.” I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that, but I’ve come to understand it as the love we must have and give in order to survive. It is as necessary as any of the other basic components of life.

We go through processes in life where the immediate and required response seems to be anger, bitterness or rage. I know all about this, because my wife’s conversion initially made me very angry. God’s refusal to play by my rules and the little contract I wrote and carried around made me angry. The “compassionate response” of other Christians left me feeling rejected and blamed. I was hurt and defensive; full of despair and bitterness. At times I was overwhelmed as much as if someone in my family was dying.

You can’t live like that. It will destroy you. It will eat up every kind of happiness, flood your marriage with the sewage of bitterness and poison your thoughts, work, emotions and worship. It will bring you to the middle of life hating the fact that you’re alive and empty of the presence and joy of the God who’s been your foundation for the entire journey.

It feels like you can’t resist it, but with God’s help, there has to be another way. Instead of the bitterness and the anger, I had to find necessary love. Very necessary. Necessary for my faith, my marriage, my sanity, my soul, my survival and my continued ministry.

I’ve discovered at least a hundred ways to question and protest what’s happened in our home, but I’ve also discovered that God’s love is more than adequate for the task of giving me hope, peace and forgiving grace. I won’t list all the questions and protests. There’s no point. Love is necessary and love is present in every place, for every disappointment. God’s not on trial. I’m on the way to Christlikeness. This is necessary love 101.

I’ve made enormous progress in the necessary love journey this year, and Denise has demonstrated most of it toward me. I certainly didn’t deserve the kindness and forgiveness she’s shown me. I think we’ve both learned a lot more than we ever knew about how God can give the gifts of marriage to those who simply present themselves as needy and undeserving candidates.

I’ve learned to actually encourage Denise’s journey into Catholicism. In some ways, I’ll probably always understand more than she does about the “outside” of Catholicism, and I have my share of questions about how she’s navigating some of what she must one day affirm, but I have decided to not only respect her journey, but to encourage and affirm it. (I still don’t like the 80 mile round trip to RCIA. Can we please get that over before winter? C’mon Catholics, pray with me on that one, will ya?)

She’s inside the experience of conversion to Catholicism, and I’m not. God is real for her. He may be confusing to me, but he’s real for her every step of the way in this journey. Arguing against God’s reality or pouting about her ability to discern him are both juvenile reactions.

As a Baptist, I deeply believe in what we call “soul competency.” In matters of religion, nothing violates my wife’s competency to determine her own beliefs about God. Not even marriage or my ministry. It’s my opportunity to learn to love and accept her as someone who belongs to Jesus, but who travels a different road than I do.

Crucifixion and Saints (detail), Fra Angelico

Crucifixion and Saints (detail), Fra Angelico

I’ve had to lay aside a lot of things that are very, very important to me, and to admit they aren’t as important to God as I thought they were. Things like communing and worshiping together as a family are very important to me, but sometimes being a follower of Jesus in a marriage means Jesus has to be followed- not some ideal about marriage or family.

I wasn’t capable of that kind of thinking a little more than a year ago. I am now, more so every day.

I’ve learned that Catholicism can’t be force-fit into the box called evangelicalism, and evangelicalism can’t be force-fit into the Catholic experience. The terms “catholic evangelical” and “evangelical catholic” still make some sense to me, but my catholic friends have helped me to see that their faith encompasses a whole that is much larger than the typical evangelical assessment (or caricature.)

I’m attracted to Catholicism, but not to the choices that make it possible for my Catholic friends to take in the whole of Catholic belief and experience. I’m still attracted to reformational Protestantism and vital, missional evangelicalism, and I do not believe, as Louis Bouyer wants me to, that Protestants and evangelicals can find everything they are looking for and valuing within the Roman Catholic church.

No, I’ve learned to be a happy enough Protestant.™ I’m happy enough with the Vatican II view of who I am in relation to Catholicism, and I’m happy enough with the essential basics of Protestant evangelicalism to stay with The Solas as long as they are on tour.

But most of all, I’ve become a person who can believe all of this without insisting that others see it the same way that I do. I’ve even learned to love, appreciate and gently laugh at the (now) 138 Roman Catholics who have spent an email (and in some cases, good money on books) trying to convert me to the RCC. (Just this week someone mailed me their phone number if I have any questions. Please don’t send me anything from Steve Ray. Please.)

God has shown his mercy to us in some unusual ways. He’s shown me the unfortunate side of how Christians respond to a cry of lament that they don’t understand. He’s convinced me that among those of us who look at one another as brothers and sisters across the reformation divide and long to love one another as best we can there is far more of Jesus-shaped Christianity than there is among those whose intention it is to argue the other person into the dust and treat the other side as the enemy.

I’ve found a lot of happiness in what we’ve experienced, and I don’t believe the adventure is over. While God isn’t doing it my way, he is leading me to know him better his way. His path, as Merton said, may appear identical to wanderings in the wilderness. But it all his chosen way to bring us closer to himself, to a greater appreciation of the Gospel and to a passion for conformity to Jesus Christ himself.


  1. I am pretty sure that Michael once said that if he HAD to pick another type of church it would be Anglican. Don’t quote me on that though.

    • I have to say, based on what I’ve read of Michael, that it seemed like he would be most comfortable as a low-church Anglican. But having never met the man–in fact, having only discovered the blog after his death–I don’t want to presume to have him figured out.

      • Faulty O-Ring says

        I had him pegged for some kind of snake-handler.

        • That Other Jean says

          Nope. From his writings, he was Evangelical and conservative–though not as conservative as the school he worked for, and wasn’t permitted to mention his blog to his students–but quite rational. No snakes, but lots of questions, many of which he worked through on this blog.

      • He did say something along the lines of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer ought to be the law of the land, as far as he was concerned.

  2. The ability of people in as intimate a relationship as marriage, people like Denise and Michael Spencer, to follow two such different Christian paths, and to find a way to accept each other within their relationship, even through struggles, as both followers of Jesus Christ, is something that has been impossible for most people throughout most of history, until the advent of modern pluralism. In this way, modern pluralism, and the options it opens up for following ones personal faith journey (which includes those who leave Christianity itself for another or no religion), apart from the formerly constraining demands of marriage and kinship and societal coercion, has changed all of us for the better.

    • What is an attraction to me about the Catholic Church are the universality and the unity that can be found within. Inside of Protestantism you have 40,000+ denominations with hardly any unity between them. It seems they are in competition with one another. Modern pluralism and “following ones personal faith journey” are largely to blame for the lack of unity that Christ so prayed for his disciples. Community is lost, and so is the witness of our faith.

      • I think pluralism is a gift from God, and I thank God for it. I’m grateful that no institution can coerce faith, or superimpose unity, and that pluralism opens up the opportunity to accept and love those who believe and think very differently than me, even among those in my own family and intimate circle. That opportunity is worth all the confusion and dissonance that comes along with pluralism, because it far outbalances them. I wouldn’t go back to the time before pluralism existed for all the tea in China.

        • “To accept and love those who believe and think very differently than me.” Yes!

          This is a value that is endemic to the pluralist landscape, and I am glad for it. One of the most interesting things about figuring out that my perspective and power are limited is that I am freed to be more receptive and more teachable. I might also feel disoriented. Yet if I can avoid being overly fearful, I might learn to be more humble. Perhaps this helps to create “space” within myself to let others in.

          Plus, the fact of diversity–in society now, across history, within my inner circles–makes the world seem bigger, and human experience more expansive.

          It can be terrifying too. But then again, so is an clan leader with a sword, or an angry patriarch.

        • Andrew: “Community is lost, and so is the witness of our faith.”

          I also wish that some of the idealogical chaos could be quieted. For this reason I tend toward big tent traditions that encompass some of what you see in catholicism – some unity across the diversity. I personally find myself tired of every little church trying to be world onto itself. So I go straight for Lutheranism or Anglicanism, or some other “big tradition.” When the Episcopal Church and ELCA decide to cooperate more extensively, that makes me happy as a clam. I’m big on ecumenism.

          So I agree completely that community is necessary, and it has often been a casualty of modernity. We do have to be careful about what we idealize in community, however. It is not as though, in the past, a unifying perspective and shared institutions provided everyone with a place in society, and equal measures of obligation and happiness. Lots of people got the short end of the stick.

          One advantage of the modern chaos is that those who get poked too often by stick can try to find God and community somewhere more hospitable. That’s bad news if God is not there; however, if God is there to meet them, this ability to migrate is good news. If community disintegrates entirely, that is bad; if we have multiple functioning communities, that might actually be good.

          One reason we are free now to wax eloquent about the need for communal constraints is because we get to chose our communities. We’re stuck with one (or several overlapping ones) in childhood. But as an adult, I pick my own poison. And if a community gets too oppressive, or too abusive, I can leave and find another one. Even if I have no such intent (I believe only one community has what I seek), the simple fact that I *can* leave functions like a safety valve. I know there is a panic button, even if I’m sure I don’t need one.

      • Most importantly, modern pluralism opens up the space for me to accept and love those who think and believe very differently from me, even though I may have slim to no hope of convincing them to think and believe the things that I do. That is, I can learn to accept and love others simply because they have an inalienable value that exists quite apart from any religious project of redemption I may wish to include them in.

        It’s interesting that in the late middle ages, Cathars and Roman Catholics lived side by side in peace in some areas of Italy and France, as neighbors and friends. When Pope Innocent III decided that the Cathars needed to be exterminated, he sent an army against them.

        The clerical leader of this army found out that many local Catholics had decided to stay and fight together with the Cathars against the Vatican army, and was asked by his soldiers what should be done to distinguish between Catholics and Cathars in the massacre that was about to unfold. He infamously, and apocryphall, said, “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

        The massacre that ensued was a blow against a nascent pluralism, not the first, not the last, but one of particular horror in a history of such horrors. This is one of the reasons I’m very grateful to God that I live in a society characterized by modern pluralism.

  3. I think it was Numo who said that Luther was excommunicated but my friend Bobby would say we play a part in everything that happens. I have to agree with Bobby. We have discussed all the things wrong with evangelical churches. I guess we could discuss all the things wrong with the others.

    Someone said when it’s all said and done there was a lot said and little done. I like it and I usually hate any type of cliche. I have to keep going and trying the best I can to exhibit what is being given to me. It is always in the flow that I find this full life. I want to work in the gifts. All of them if possible at times as He directs me. Mostly I want to move in love.

    Every Time someone tries to attach something to communion at my church it never changes my inward remembrance and the love that pours into me. Every Time someone gets up and gives a spoken word and I realize it is a repeated word they thought was nifty I just see it for what it is. I won’t make a dramatic impact on what goes on but I will make some. How many of us have passed as a vapor but the incense of our being still lingers as it has touch those around us.

    I wondered about autonomy and what Robert said stuck with me. I wondered if God wanted us so autonomous why He only made just one of us distinctly with all the things that makes us us. Kind of like sunrises and sunsets with none ever the same. Every animal I have ever run into completely their own yet they could look just alike. No there is something to each one of us that makes us all more complete and without well we are incomplete otherwise there would be no use in communion. Just for me keeping anyone from it for any reason is just wrong. It kind of makes my faith in Jesus weak if I can’t believe He can make a difference and something has really happened as we so profess it does. I wonder did the thief on the cross next to Jesus partake of His presence before he passed. I think he did.

    God put me where He put me. Sometimes I don’t feel like I fit at all. Maybe its because I fit everywhere and always have I just can’t stay. I’ll keep loving across the lines because to me there aren’t any because I don’t fit between them anywhere. Seems like a place to start.

  4. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    How refreshing.

    I haven’t heard a Baptist mention “soul competency” in decades.

    The modern pluralism Robert F touts is almost entirely the construction of Baptists. It’s a noble accomplishment, and one that I will have to give more thought to.

    • “Soul competency” is very much a Baptist trait.

      It has come up a couple of times in my six years at a Baptist church. Prior to that, narry a peep.

      • Faulty O-Ring says

        Mormons have “free agency.”

      • Michael, I think, remained committed to some basic Baptist tenants until the end. Baptists have traditionally been influenced by professor E.Y. Mullins, former president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY, Michael’s alma mater. While he was a student there, such views would have been taught. In 1908, Mullins published Axioms of Religion, which has defined Baptist theological concepts, both in the North and South. Mullins six axioms of religion are:
        1. The Theological Axiom: The holy and loving God has a right to be sovereign. (Mullins did not see sovereignty so much as God’s control of everything as the freedom of God to do what God chooses. Human religion cannot manipulate God, or entrap God to get what it wants)
        2. The Religious Axiom: All souls have an equal right to direct access to God.-thus Michael could affirm God relating to another person through the Catholic Church or a Presbyterian church, etc. This is “soul competency”.
        3. The Ecclesiastical Axiom: All believers have a right to equal privileges in the church.
        4. The Moral Axiom: To be responsible (wo)men must be free.
        5. The Religio-Civic Axiom: A free Church in a free State.
        6. The Social Axiom: Love your neighbor as yourself
        This focus on freedom is part of the theological milieu that was part of Michael’s theological education. He was well aware of how such concepts could be misunderstood and abused as well as how many current Baptists-particularly Southern Baptists, were influenced by fundamentalism and no longer emphasized such views.

        • These six axioms are terrific, JSturty. Thank you for drawing my attention to them. I’d never seen them before.

        • And yet originally, and for decades of the last century, So. Baptists stood for, and enforced, racial segregation. I say that not to be rude or to digress, but merely to note the ironic context of many of those 1908 axioms about rights and freedom.

          • I am not a Southern Baptist, nor am I from the South so I can’t really speak to this issue. My point in the post above was to suggest that there were theological resources within Michael Spencer’s Baptist heritage that would enable him to affirm the larger church and value the spiritual contributions of other Christian traditions and yet remain a Baptist, in spite of the reputation of Baptists as redneck fundamentalists or rabid ultra-Calvinists.

    • @Mule — To me your scorn is an accolade.

  5. Denise and Michael’s experience was almost repeated in my marriage. Unlike Michael, I would have not had much struggle with it–I could easily follow my wife in her journey. Unfortunately (like dodging a bullet perhaps), both of us would have needed annulments. When that little requirement came to the forefront my wife decided that The Church didn’t seem as “welcoming” as advertised. We’ve moved on. And I still have a great appreciation for Roman Catholicism. And I REALLY like Francis.

    • Joseph (the original) says

      Tom: could you elaborate if you’re comfortable enough about that minor RCC technicality?

      I wonder if other commenters here have similar experiences with their own spiritual journey or know close friends+family that have been confronted with some of the more, shall we say, ‘sensitive’ ways the RCC handles marriage/divorce/remarriage and those wanting to join or rejoin the RCC.


      • Joseph,

        I’m not uncomfortable talking about it. We were told it was “a minor technicality” and the monetary cost was not an issue.

        The issue for us was the fact of “a minor technicality” being an issue. The underlay of legalism took the shine off, so to speak. Both of us were “Faithful” in legalistic religions before our divorces. We’re just not going back to even the scent of legal slavery. We don’t have to be card carrying RC’s to enjoy the beauty that the tradition contains.

    • I get that. There are many things I think are beautiful about Catholicism.

      But I too am divorced, as is my wife. And we’re both very close with my first wife, whom I still love and think of as family. We were together 13 years, and have a son who’s the joy of both our lives.

      i simply could not go to that woman and ask her to take part in a process to proclaim our marriage invalid, even on the most technical of terms. It feels like that would utterly diminish the reality of what we had together. We both mourn it’s failure, accept our parts of the blame, and forgive one another. But I simply couldn’t ask her to say it was never “really” real.

      • Another annulment issue arises when the former spouse cannot be found. I know a woman married in the RCC in the 1960s. The marriage broke apart early, the woman left the Church, but she eventually remarried. Now, 45 years later, she wants to return, but she cannot find her former spouse. All the witnesses to the wedding likewise are dead or unavailable. The former spouse may even be dead. The point is that, without an annulment, she cannot take communion. And there are no default annulments. So she is effectively consigned to never take communion again in the RCC as long as she remains married to her second husband. Adultery, if one can even use the term for the second marriage, is the real unpardonable sin. I hope the current Synod on the Family finds a way to rectity this wrong, but I’m not sure it can or will.

        Truth be told, what some priests do is allow communion under these circumstances, after talking at length with the pentitent. It’s a lovely and merciful gesture, and yet it is likely to bring the house down on both priest and communicant if it becomes widely advertised. A priest, interestingly, can forgive all manner of brutal and repulsive sin in the confessional – except a remarriage.

        • Joseph (the original) says

          A priest, interestingly, can forgive all manner of brutal and repulsive sin in the confessional – except a remarriage.

          wait. if divorce was the reason for abandonment, adultery, an unbelieving spouse (other exemptions mentioned in the New Testament?), then remarriage is not a sin, but an investigative matter that needs no confessional acknowledgment of any ‘sin’ being committed…

          am i misunderstanding this element of RCC doctrine/teaching???

          • Divorce followed by remarriage is always sinful according to Roman Catholic teaching, which makes no allowance for divorce of any kind, not even the New Testament exemptions that you mention, which the RCC does not interpret as allowing divorce or remarriage. Annulment sidesteps the issue of divorce by declaring, on the basis of a number of different grounds, that there was no first marriage to begin with, even though that may fly in the face of reality. If children came out of that first relationship (formerly known as marriage), I suppose the RCC must consider them to have been born out of wedlock.

          • “If children came out of that first relationship (formerly known as marriage), I suppose the RCC must consider them to have been born out of wedlock.” No they are not considered illegitimate. The marriage was not valid from a sacramental perspective. That does not effect the legitimacy of the children. It is a decree about the sacramentality of the union not the legality of the union.

            A marriage is found invalid for only a few reasons that must be present on the day that the marriage vows were made. The biggies that I remember are:

            1. At least one spouse recited the vows without meaning it: he or she did not intend to actually enter a lifelong union, or did not want to have children, or had no intention of remaining faithful to the partner. For example, in the mind of the groom he thinks I plan to keep playing the field–even though he states the words (without meaning them) to be faithful.
            2. The couple never had sex.
            3. At least one member of the couple kept a significant secret: ex. being previously married, being gay, etc.

            The Catholic conception of marriage is that two Christians perform the sacrament with each other. The priest or officiant does not perform the marriage. The intent of the ministers of the marriage, the couple, is what matters. The validity of the marriage has everything to do with the intent of the couple on the day of wedding. I don’t see how that flies in the face of reality. If I pretended to make a vow but didn’t really mean it, then I really didn’t enter into a sacramental oath.

            If I were to seek an annulment, the primary question would be what did Rick think that he was doing when he recited the vows? Did he mean it when he said that he was entering a lifelong union for better or worse–even if his wife gets sick, has an affair, becomes disabled? Was he open to children–and if he was not did his wife know he did not want them? When he said he would forsake all others and remain faithful, did he mean it or did he plan to have an affair and saw the vow as non-binding?

            A marriage can turn out to be difficult, unhappy, or sexless–but if I made a true vow to my wife and God on my wedding day it is binding until death.

          • The Latin word for “oath” is sacramentum. (Prof. Hahn), In Hebrew Scripture, “oath” means
            “Covenant”. A Vow is a “sacred promise” to God. When you swear an oath, you put yourself
            under a curse. An oath subjects you to God’s judgment! A blessing if you are true to the oath
            and a curse if not [Lev. 26:2-40, the “blessings and the curses”, see also, Deut. 28]! To
            “swear an oath”, in Hebrew; literally means to “seven oneself”! In Leviticus 26:18, God
            promises the Israelites that “if they will not hearken to me, … v. 18, then I will chastise you
            sevenfold.” An oath makes God the “middle man”, to make sure that you do what you say.
            Whenever you swore an oath in ancient Israel, you finished by saying, Amen! Which means,
            “So be it”! When you swear an oath and make a covenant it is the same thing [Lk. 1:72-73].

            As a Catholic I believe that if I reject the marital oath I made to God and my wife, I reject Christ and his cross. I put down the cross I accepted from Christ and say, “I will not serve her or you.”

  6. Christiane says


    ‘“necessary love.” I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that, but I’ve come to understand it as the love we must have and give in order to survive. It is as necessary as any of the other basic components of life.’

    this ‘insight’ is going to help me to deal with a problem I am facing with a family member, and thankfully, this insight has put light on the problem so that I see it differently and I can approach it now with renewed hope . . .

  7. OldProphet says

    I haven’t read any responses about the what I think is the main topic. That is, what does a man of God do to keep his marriage alive under hard and unexpected circumstances. Obviously Mike was an incredible man, willing to compromise his life style, but not his faith or walk with God. Denise did not just join another church, she “converted” to a completely different theological body. And no, I love the Catholic church, so drop your stones! Just sayin that Catholics and Baptists disagree on quotes few issues. Like, which church will the kids go to? Which brings me to my main point. In our walk with with God, what things are non-negotiable and where do we plant a flag and not yield the ground? Denominations? Church body? Small groups? Para-church organizations? I guess Mike Spencer did. He must have been exceptional I wish I could have known him

  8. OldProphet says

    Quotes,should be quite a

  9. Faulty O-Ring says

    You know, Spencer’s tone here sounds like the way religious people talk about death and other tragedies. “It was God’s will,” “It’s made me stronger,” etc.

    • OldProphet says

      Religious? Religious? We don’t need no stinking religious!

    • I dunno, Mr. O’Ring, I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person but I’m certainly doing my best to follow Jesus, and as best I can figure out, Jesus made following God’s will his top priority. In that Jesus grew and developed as a human being, I would imagine that he was able to say all along the say, “It’s made me stronger.”

      Certainly I can say that. Sometimes following God’s will does result in unpleasantness, but sometimes it has a happy ending, or at least a break from nose to the grindstone. What I am finding is that in the long perspective, either one is pretty much irrelevant. tho I definitely prefer happy endings. What matters is whether or not you are learning, growing, and getting stronger in the process. And at this point I see getting stronger as getting better able at overcoming the ego, as painful as that so often is.

      Personally I don’t see your wife joining the Roman Catholic Church as that big a deal as long as she still continues in the committed marriage relationship. But I can see how it would have been a trial for Michael, perhaps as much as if my wife became a staunch fundamentalist Baptist. We all get different lessons according to the cards we were dealt when egos were handed out.