Why I Left Calvary Chapel

Those who have read my books (ShaneSchaetzel.Com) know that I was baptized in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church (LCMS). I was raised “Northern Baptist” in the American Baptist Church (ABC). And as a young adult, I spent about eight years in the Calvary Chapel Association. I joined Calvary Chapel in the spring of 1990, and left in the fall of 1997. I then joined with the Anglicans in a local Episcopal Church for about two years, before finally being received into the Catholic Church in the spring of 2000.

In both of my first two books, I glossed over my experience with Calvary Chapel, and that was mainly because it wasn’t really integral to the topic of either book. However, since a new movie is coming out about the life of Calvary Chapel’s founder, Pastor Chuck Smith, I thought now might be a good time to return to this topic for a more detailed explanation of why I left Calvary Chapel.

Before I do that, however, I want to say that I will probably see the movie, as Calvary Chapel was an important part of my youth, I happen to like Kelsey Grammer (the actor who plays the role of Chuck Smith), and to be honest, it looks like a pretty good movie. Here’s the trailer…

So to be clear, this isn’t a Chuck Smith bashing blog, nor is it a Calvary Chapel bashing blog. I’m going to drop some pretty hefty criticisms of both, but I want to make something very clear up front. I don’t hate Calvary Chapel, nor do I have any ill feelings toward its founder, Pastor Chuck Smith. My problems with both stem from one particular aspect of Smith’s ministry, which has echoed and reverberated throughout the entire Calvary Chapel Association he founded, and that one thing is anti-Catholicism. To be sure, anti-Catholicism does not define Calvary Chapel. There are many other aspects of the ministry too, some of them are quite positive. The anti-Catholic aspect just finally got to me. I suppose if I didn’t think about it so much, it might not have affected me so much. I might have just ignored it, and gone on blissfully ignorant of how wrong it is. The problem was my position within my local Calvary Chapel affiliate. I couldn’t ignore it.

It was during a time in my life when a lot of things were coming to a convergence. I was studying to become a pastor for Calvary Chapel. So I spent a great deal of time researching both the Hebrew roots of the Christian faith, and the writings of the early Church Fathers. Both gave me the impression that the early Christians were a lot more “Catholic” than I was comfortable with. Something else was happening too. I was seriously researching the many claims that Calvary Chapel pastors had made against the Catholic Church, especially as it related to the Dispensationalist Last Days eschatology as taught by many Calvary Chapel pastors. My conclusions were pretty blunt. Calvary Chapel’s claims about the Catholic Church were mostly based on falsehoods and half-truths, poor Biblical exegesis, prejudice and in some cases, downright bullying.

It occurred to me that if I wanted to remain a part of this association, especially as a pastor, I would be required to at least assent to this anti-Catholic position, if not repeat it from behind the pulpit. This was something I did, from time to time, as a guest speaker while the pastor was out of town. With each little dig I made against Catholicism from the pulpit, I started thinking about my grandmother, my aunt and uncle, and my best friends from childhood. All of them were Catholic. So were they all “false Christians” who were “not saved,” and “in bondage to a false religious system” called the Catholic Church? The more I thought about this, the more I disagreed with it, and I finally came to realize that I couldn’t go on as a Calvary Chapel-ite. I had to get out. I had to break free. So I did. My wife came with me and we quietly left the Calvary Chapel Association, never to return.

Catholics on America’s West Coast are well familiar with the ministry of Calvary Chapel, and a lot of them are pretty unhappy with it. Who can blame them? A tremendous number of West Coast Catholics have left the Church as a direct result of Calvary Chapel’s ministry. To be clear, there is nothing new about the kind of anti-Catholic rhetoric Calvary Chapel pastors typically preach. It’s just that among more Evangelical churches, this kind of rhetoric is falling out of favor and fading away. In Calvary Chapels, however, it remains common and plentiful.

As a California Native, born and raised Protestant, I tend to be a little less passionate about this subject than cradle Catholics in that area, but I do share their concerns. It is a problem, a big problem, and it needs to be pointed out. I do hope Calvary Chapel will change someday, but I won’t hold my breath. Anti-Catholicism was a very strong belief of Calvary Chapel’s founder, Chuck Smith, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If Chuck Smith was anti-Catholic (and he was), then most of his disciples will be too, and that has been my experience listening to pastors speak about Catholicism in the Calvary Chapel Association.

Calvary Chapel pastors like to record all of their sermons. This is so they can distribute them to shut-ins and people who are not members. Chuck Smith was no exception. He probably even started the tradition. Because of this, we have access to Pastor Chuck Smith’s anti-Catholic teachings in his own words. Here is a small sampling of Pastor Chuck Smith’s anti-Catholicism…

On tape 5176, Pastor Chuck Smith said: “The dogma that was developed in the Catholic Church of the perpetual virginity of Mary, is sheer poppycock. It is the invention of men who have thought to elevate Mary to the status of deity. The obvious fact is here, ‘And knew her not till’ (Matthew 1:25). It is clear that afterward, they did have normal husband-wife relationships with each other, or else the other sons and daughters that were born of Mary were also virgin-born, and that throws the whole story in disarray. The gospel of Mark names the brothers of Jesus as James, Joses and Simon, and mentions his sisters, so to declare perpetual virginity of Mary is not a scriptural truth. It is a Catholic dogma, without scriptural foundation, as are most dogmas. Paul said, ‘Beware of dogs’ (Philippians 3:2), I say, be wary of dogmas!”

On tape 5209, Smith said: “The Protestant Reformation came as a protest against the evil practices that had arisen within the Catholic Church. Especially the selling of indulgences. For the Pope was desirous to built a great cathedral in Rome, St. Peters. And the money wasn’t coming in fast enough to build this glorious monument, that he was desiring to put up, as a symbol for Christianity. And so someone in the counsel came up with a bright idea. Everybody likes to sin, why don’t we sell them forgiveness for sins. And they can buy an indulgence, before they ever indulged. So as they’re indulging, the thing is covered, because they’ve already buyed (sic) their forgiveness. So you want a little escapade on the side. You want to go out and get drunk? Fine, go down and buy your drunk indulgence. You want to have an affair? Go down and get an adultery indulgence. And they started selling the indulgences to the people. And this so incensed Martin Luther, that he took his 95 Thesis, his objections, to the practices that had developed within the Church, and he tagged them on the door, and he protested. And thus the name Protestant. Beginning of the Protestant Reformation.”

On the same tape, Smith also said: “It is a sad error of the Catholic Church to declare that Peter is the foundation upon which the church was built.”

On tape 5315, Smith said: “And we see it in the Catholic church where the priest says, ‘You come and confess your sins to me and I will remiss your sins and I will go to the Father and I will take care of things for you.’ It is putting a man between you and God. We will see the system develop when we get to the church of Thyatira but at least the church of Ephesus says ‘I hate it and the Lord says I hate it too’ (Revelation 2:6).”

Later on the same tape, Smith said: “And these are the dominant issues of the Roman Catholic Church; their love and their service and their faith and their patience and their work. And this they have a lot of – a lot of good works and there are some marvelous people in the Catholic Church, highly admired. Mother Theresa, such an unusual person. Marvelous. It’s not saying things against those individuals because God has his over-comers. It is just talking about the system.”

Later, Smith said: “‘And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. Behold I will cast her into a bed, and those that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds’ (Revelation 2:22). Here is now first of all, the indication that the Catholic Church would exist right up to the coming of Jesus Christ and the Rapture of the church, because he talks about them being allowed to go into the great tribulation.”

I could write multiple essays on Smith’s misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, but for the sake of this entry, I’ll keep things limited to just my personal experience. The quotes above are by no means comprehensive. They’re just a small cross section. Once in a while I’ll listen to Calvary Chapel radio, just to keep up with the latest in the organization. One time, in December of 2010, Pastor Chuck Smith came onto a live broadcast with a talkshow host. It didn’t take but five minutes for Smith to go straight into some Catholic bashing, calling Church-approved Marian apparitions “demonic.” He then went on to accuse the Catholic Church of idolatry and apostasy from Christianity. In other words, this means Catholics aren’t Christians. Consistent with his character, he did this calmly and methodically, never showing a hint of temper or excitement. That was the last time I heard Chuck Smith’s voice live on the radio. He died in 2013.

I’ve pointed out Smith’s words here, but these alone should not be taken as the final say. Similar statements are made by nearly all of Smith’s disciples in Calvary Chapels around the United States, and in some places, one can hardly get through a single sermon without hearing at least one small anti-Catholic reference.

For example, my home church while I lived in Los Angeles County in the early 1990s was Calvary Chapel of Golden Springs in the City of Diamond Bar. There, I personally heard a pastor, a direct disciple of Chuck Smith, blatantly accuse the Catholic Church of being the “Whore of Babylon” prophesied in Revelation 17. This happened before hundreds of people in the audience. He specifically quoted Revelation 18:4: “Come out of her, my people, that you have no participation in her sins, and that you don’t receive of her plagues.” The implication of that is crystal clear. He didn’t specifically say, if you’re Catholic you need to quit the Catholic Church and come over to Calvary Chapel, but he didn’t have to. By connecting the Catholic Church to the “Whore of Babylon” and quoting that verse, there is no way one could think otherwise. If I were a Catholic sitting in that audience (I had not converted to Catholicism yet), I would have felt a very strong urge to leave the Catholic Church. That’s the general idea. That’s the tactic many Calvary Chapel pastors use, taught to them by none other than their founder — Pastor Chuck Smith — who used Scripture as a weapon to attack the Catholic Church on a regular basis, drawing countless California Catholics into his Evangelical association.

The bottom line is this. While it is rare for Calvary Chapel pastors to come out and bluntly say you must leave the Catholic Church to be saved, the cumulative implication of their regular preaching implies just that, and many Catholics have left the Catholic Church after listening to them. Some have become Calvary Chapel pastors themselves and repeated the pattern.

I discovered the Catholic Church does not question the Christian faith of those who attend Calvary Chapels. I dare say the same cannot be said in reverse. As a Catholic, I can look at people who go to Calvary Chapel as my separated Christian brethren. Our communion in Christ is imperfect, and they are in need of more truth, but nevertheless I can say they are Christians. In most cases, I will not get the same benefit of the doubt back from them. All a Catholic needs to do is say something like “I pray to Mary,” and all benefit of the doubt will cease. The Christianity of said Catholic will be questioned, as well as his salvation. Some Calvary Chapel pastors will admit that it is possible for a Catholic to be saved and go to heaven, but if it happens, it’s probably an accident. Their salvation didn’t come from anything the Catholic Church taught them, but rather something they learned by reading the Bible on their own, or overhearing Evangelicals talk about the gospel.

I just couldn’t take it anymore. This is a level of ignorance and intolerance I cannot abide. It was too much to ask of me. I was unwilling to believe that my beloved grandmother is in hell because she prayed to Mary and the Saints, especially when Catholics can give good Biblical reason for why they pray to Mary and the Saints. While no Calvary Chapel pastor ever told me my grandmother is in hell, the message was received loud and clear, after listening to sermon after sermon from various Calvary Chapel pastors.

My grandmother was a convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism. According to Calvary Chapel, unofficially, this would mean that she apostatized and left the Christian faith. After her untimely death in 1987, I read her notes in the margins of her Bible. (Yes, Catholics read the Bible too.) She was devoutly Catholic, prayed to Mary and the Saints, loved the pope, believed in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, all the while loving Jesus dearly. There was simply no way this women could be anywhere but in the presence of God, as far as I was concerned.

While Pastor Chuck Smith did a very good thing, in welcoming the hippies into his church when nobody else wanted to, he wasn’t the only Evangelical pastor to reach out to the lost. Evangelist Billy Graham did everything Chuck Smith did, and more, except he didn’t seek to make his own Evangelical affiliation in the process. Rather, he sent his converts back to the churches they came from, telling them to share their conversion story with their pastor and ask what to do next. He even applied this to Catholics when they converted, telling them to do the same with their parish priest. In this sense, Billy Graham did things better, and he was able to avoid the interdenominational feuds that plague the Calvary Chapel movement.

Outside of their blatant anti-Catholicism, Calvary Chapels are pretty good Evangelical churches, insofar as Evangelicalism goes. They make it a point to reach out to the youth, which is always a good thing, and they try to keep their teachings as relevant to the modern world as possible, without compromising traditional Protestant theology.

There is something to be said about this. Note that Chuck Smith was able to reach hundreds of thousands of lost hippies, not by compromising his Fundamental Protestant beliefs, but by doubling down on them in a welcoming spirit of love and forgiveness. This should stand as a lesson to all pastors out there, both Protestant and Catholic alike. Pastor Chuck Smith was able to make devout Christians out of hippy Baby Boomers! Let that sink in. These are Baby Boomers we’re talking about here, and not just any Boomers, but hippy Boomers, the most anti-establishment and Leftist kind. Yet Smith was able to reach them just by using good old-fashioned Protestant Fundamentalism in a spirit of love and forgiveness. This man changed the course of history in Southern California, salvaging what could have been a cultural disaster, with conservative Christianity. The lesson here, for all pastors (Protestant and Catholic alike), is that compromising traditional Christian teaching isn’t the answer. It’s not about what you teach, but rather how you teach it. Smith proved that Baby Boomer hippies were willing to forsake their sin, repent and believe the gospel, if somebody would just love them and show them the way. So I don’t want to throw Calvary Chapel under the bus with this essay. It’s ministry, in the late twentieth century, had a positive effect on a macro level that hasn’t been fully assessed yet, as well as a positive effect on a micro level, improving the lives of many people, including my own.

What made Chuck Smith’s ministry different was the circumstances and the time period. When Smith brought in the hippies, they had nowhere else to go. Calvary Chapel became their home, because at that time (late 1960s to early 1970s) nobody else wanted hippies in their churches. Smith embraced them, and THAT was his real claim to fame. It’s a good claim, and he should get credit where credit is due. He did the right thing, and God obviously blessed him for it. So while he annoyed me on the anti-Catholic thing, I’ll give Chuck Smith a “thumbs up” when it comes to the hippies. His is a story worth telling, and I’m glad they finally told it on the silver screen. They couldn’t have picked a better actor too. Kelsey Grammer is a very talented and gifted choice. I’ll probably watch the movie just to see him.


  1. Dear Shane,

    I read all your articles. This one, noless than all the others, was excellent. Keep up the good work.

    The Ordinariate Chirches that exist seem to be growing quite nicely. However, the beginning of new congregations does not get the necessary boost to give them a head start. And, someone told me that there is a fairly large group of men who want to study for Orders, but the resources can only handle a small number at any one time. Are you aware of this problem, or am I misinformed? If these two grave weaknesses are true, it is not promising for the Ordinariate’s future.

    Sincerely In Christ Jesus,
    Larry Clarence Lewis
    Ontario, Canada.


    1. I don’t have much in the way of details to Ordinariate matters, nor am I privy to internal information. However, if what you describe is true, that’s actually a very good problem to have.

      Not having enough resources to accommodate all the vocations waiting to be ordained means the Ordinariate has the exact opposite problem as most dioceses, who have all the resources but don’t have the vocations.

      Furthermore, speaking from experience, forming new Ordinariate communities takes time — years actually. It requires long-term commitment and lots of prayer. The fact that there are plenty of such groups out there demonstrates again this is a good problem for the Ordinariate to have.


  2. Great article. As a Southerner, I had never heard of Calvary Chapel — neither “Chuckie,” nor the “Bride of Chuckie”! Grateful for the inoculation. Thanks!


  3. Hi Shane! I remember the start of Calvary Chapel here in Southern CA and remember one of the first guys I knew who was a member, though he was raised Catholic. I’ve been to Calvary Chapel, Chino Hills to hear Jack Hicks speak. He’s a great speaker and I like a lot of what he says. But I’m a Catholic Priest and love the Catholic Church, the Sacraments, the life of being a Priest. I’m retired now, but serving as Pastor Emeritus at St. Raymond Catholic Church in Downey, CA. I’m also a convert, starting out as a Methodist.
    Fr. John Higgins


  4. Hi Shane. You have written a fair & balanced article on this issue of anti-Catholicism. For me, the main question that arises is: just who is (most likely) the “whore of Babylon” in Revelation that ”His people” are supposed to “come out of.” Your opinion?


    1. I covered this topic extensively in my second book, entitled THE LAST DAYS. Using context and exegesis I demonstrated that “Mystery Babylon” from Revelation 17 & 18 was none other than ancient Jerusalem which had spiritually fornicated with Rome. As the Sanhedrin coaxed the mob to say before Pilate: “we have no king but Caesar!”


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