Toward a Sacramental Faith, by The Reverend Robert Belton, M.Div.
I grew up in an Army family. Both of my grandfathers were Army chaplains: one a Missouri-Synod Lutheran and the other a Northern Baptist. My Lutheran grandfather baptized me as an infant, and my parents raised me in the Christian faith. Our family had devotions every evening for as long as I can remember. For most of my childhood, we attended general Protestant services on our military installation.
I underwent a spiritual awakening during my last two years of high school and began to “own” the Christian faith for myself. I began reading the Bible and changing my habits. My family and I shifted from chapel attendance to a congregation with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). While the preaching was excellent, I gravitated toward the free church, largely because of its use of contemporary music. I began attending youth group with friends at the local Assemblies of God congregation. I loved the music and excitement and learned it was okay to emotionally invest in worshiping God. But before long, it became clear that if I were a “real” Christian, I should speak in tongues. That was not a gift I had received. I did not know a lot about Scripture, but I was sure Paul taught that not all Christians speak in tongues. Feeling a bit discouraged, I began attending youth group with other friends at the local Southern Baptist church. It was a good fit, and I remained in Baptist circles for years to come.
I attended college in Lakeland, Florida, where I met my wife, Meredith. We were involved in campus ministry and joined a Southern Baptist church. I was commissioned as an Army officer through ROTC in 2001, and I spent four years on active duty working in logistics with the Quartermaster Corps. When not deployed, Meredith and I were involved with the Navigators and our local chapel service. I played guitar and helped lead singing at Chapel Next on Fort Bragg, and both of us helped with the Protestant youth group at Fort Lee.
About the time I was promoted to Captain in 2004, I had to decide: Would I continue in the Army or get out? If I got out, what would I do? As I prayed and worked through the options, it seemed that the Lord was calling me to seminary. A mentor from the Navigators encouraged me to come directly on staff with “the Navs” instead. Yet the call to seminary seemed to linger. I shared my dilemma with my good friend Ben on one of our many runs together. Ben said, “Rob, if you think God is calling you to seminary, just go to seminary!” It was the wake-up call I needed. Ben was right.
After a lengthy search, I chose to attend Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the North Shore of Massachusetts. As an evangelical, multi-denominational school founded by Billy Graham, it was exactly what I was looking for. I could learn from the brightest minds across the evangelical tradition. It was also affordable – no small detail for a husband and father who was soon to have no income after leaving the Army.
After surviving summer Greek for my first two seminary classes, I jumped into the rest of my studies. It was good, but painful. The Lord confronted me with His holiness and my sin. I wanted to be a pastor, and the Lord seemed to say, “You want to shepherd My people, do you? There’s a lot of garbage to deal with first.” Seminary was tough in all the ways I needed. The Lord worked on my marriage and worked in my heart.
During seminary, our family joined a congregation that was part of the Baptist General Conference (now called Converge). It was a great church home. It was also more liturgical than most Baptist churches. Services included call and response and confession of sin. We even observed Lent and Holy Week services. It was still very Baptist in terms of its approach to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yet the Lord used all of it for His purposes.
I had hoped that, during seminary, I would find where I belonged in terms of denomination. There was a solid, evangelical Episcopal church nearby that I attended from time to time for conferences and special services. I loved the liturgy and the embrace of mystery, as evidenced by the approach to the Holy Eucharist. I even preached one time at a parish in the pre-ACNA Anglican Communion Network. But I was a strict Baptist in terms of my understanding of baptism itself. I could not in good conscience baptize a baby, so I remained in Baptist circles.
As I finished seminary, I took a call from River of Life Church in Sanford, Maine to be its lead pastor. River of Life had previously been a Baptist church, but there had been a split at some point. It was now fully independent. It was theologically Baptist, yet also somewhat charismatic. It also included the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. Such traits are not often found together.
I served at River of Life for two years. Simultaneously, I was a chaplain in the Army National Guard. I was endorsed for chaplaincy through the Conservative Baptist Association of America (now called Venture Church Network). I loved being a pastor, especially the life-on-life ministry and preaching God’s Word. The Lord taught Meredith and me a great deal about loving and serving people. The Lord also did a work in my heart theologically through the church’s weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. I began to realize that something more than a memorial was occurring. The Lord was present and active in a sacramental way that I could neither fully explain nor understand.
After two years as a pastor, I came onto active duty as an Army Chaplain. My first active-duty assignment was as chaplain for 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. After a few months on ground, I deployed to Afghanistan. That seven-month period was one of the most formative times in my life. I learned a lot about hardship, death, and pastoral care in a time of crisis. I held memorial ceremonies for fallen Paratroopers. I hugged and wept with their angry and devastated brothers-in-arms. I stayed up late at night, sharing Jesus with steely-eyed warriors under the star-filled Afghan sky. I led worship services at small platoon-level outposts, getting as far forward as I possibly could. I continued to offer Communion at every service, believing that Jesus was present in a mystical way.
I began to wrestle within my heart. I felt I was being theologically dishonest because I did not really “fit” with my Baptist ecclesiastical endorser. More and more, I was embracing a sacramental theology. I even used the Book of Common Prayer when I baptized new believers. The vows and accompanying liturgy provided for a much richer experience than what would have been a typical baptismal rite of about thirty seconds in length.
Baptism itself became a major issue for me. I had baptized our oldest daughter, age 7, prior to my deployment. Meredith and I had two other children at the time, neither of whom had been baptized. As I wrestled theologically in Afghanistan, I began to ask myself, “When are my children members of the Church?” I struggled to answer the question. My oldest child had been baptized. We allowed her to start receiving Communion. My youngest two had not been baptized and did not receive Communion. Other Baptists talked about an obscure concept called “the age of accountability,” but I had never seen such language in Scripture and was very skeptical.
Prior to deployment, I read a book from my Lutheran grandfather that challenged the free church’s laid-back, carefree approach to worshiping God. This convicted me as I considered many of the services that I had been a part of, and many of which I had led. At their worst, those services included eight or nine songs filled with repetitive lyrics about me; one short Scripture reading; a long sermon that was neither good nor helpful; and absolutely no concept of God’s action on our behalf in the waters of baptism.
During the deployment, I read a book by a PCA pastor that helped me finally consider the baptism of infants as an appropriate sacramental act. It showed clear biblical and theological ties between Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism. It connected the dots between the covenant act and the covenant meal. Circumcised Jews under the Old Covenant took part in the covenant meal at Passover. Baptized Christians under the New Covenant take part in the covenant meal of Holy Communion. The book began to change my perspective. More than anything else, I began to realize some unsettling truths about myself: I had largely ignored the entire history of the Church. I acted as though there was no Church prior to the Protestant Reformation. Even there, I had thrown out much of what reformers such as Luther and Calvin stood for, including a sacramental paradigm. I called myself a Baptist. I emphasized the importance of a believer’s baptism by immersion. But if pushed, I would have said that baptism was not actually necessary because it did not actually do anything. I was a walking contradiction almost completely disconnected from historical Christianity. I interpreted Scripture based on what I thought and what I felt, rather than on the sure footing of those who had come before us. That is an extremely dangerous place to be.
There was one more critical component of my formation during that deployment to Afghanistan: my supervisory chaplain. Father Kelly O’Lear was my brigade chaplain. We were not co-located, but we enjoyed time together as often as possible. He encouraged me during some difficult days. He let me share my theological struggles. He shared his historical, catholic perspective with me without ever forcing it upon me. As I asked questions, he gently provided answers.
After the deployment, my family and I began attending an ACNA parish in Hope Mills, North Carolina. It was an incredible experience, and God was gracious to us. The preaching was excellent: evangelical; exegetical; and full of passion for God’s written Word. The liturgy, and especially the Holy Eucharist, breathed life into my Christian soul. Our pastor was a former Baptist, and he helped me as I continued to work through the issue of baptism. I read books like Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail and Evangelical is Not Enough. 8 I learned that I was not the only one who longed for something more. There were plenty of other evangelical Christians, like me, who found what they were yearning for in the ancient, catholic faith. It had been there all along! I just had not realized it.
Our family began investing in the life of the ACNA parish. For my chapel duty, I began serving in a Friday night outreach ministry at Fort Bragg, which gave our family the freedom to attend the local church on Sundays. We drank deeply from the well of the historical Church. I began to learn about the Prayer Book and how to pray the Daily Office. I met with our rector. We had our two youngest children baptized. Father Kelly and I continued to talk, and he served as an advocate for me with the Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy (JAFC). I read continually. I took the JAFC’s Distance Tutorial. My catholic faith began to take shape more and more.
There was much I loved about the Anglican tradition. I had been a Christian before, and I was a Christian now. Yet I knew that I was connected to the Church in a way I had never been. My family and I were part of the one Church throughout all time. When we gathered around the Lord’s Table, we joined “… our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven.” We kept in step with the life of Jesus through the Church calendar. We heard four Scripture lessons each Sunday. We got down on our knees to pray and stood to praise the Lord in song. The posture of our bodies influenced the posture of our hearts. We received the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus each week in the Holy Eucharist. Our risen Lord gave us what we so desperately needed: Himself.
Historical, sacramental worship completely changed my paradigm. It changed my thinking from the perspective of what I could do for God to what God has done for us in Christ. This is the very essence of the Gospel! In 1 Timothy, St. Paul writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” In Romans, he writes, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God’s grace washed over me and reoriented my perspective, reminding me of His great love for me and my full dependence upon Him. A life of service to God and others is my faith-filled response to God’s gracious work on my behalf, the overflow of His loving-kindness toward me.
Bishop Derek Jones ordained me a transitional deacon in 2013 and a priest in 2014. I continue to grow in my faith and understanding of issues, like the significance of Apostolic succession, and the way in which the Anglican tradition safeguards the ancient catholic faith once for all delivered to the saints. I will be forever grateful for God’s gracious work in leading me “home” to the faith and life of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as lived out in the Anglican tradition. It is a joy to serve as a Priest and shepherd, ministering to those for whom Christ died. I fall short each day, but the Lord forgives and renews me by His Word, through His Spirit, and at His Table. He is daily making me more like His Son. Surely, He who began a good work in me “… will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
The Reverend Rob Belton received the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He currently serves on the faculty of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he is the Instructor/Writer for World Religions and Advisement. He also serves on the pastoral staff of Saint Martin’s Parish: an Anglican Chapel Community on Fort Jackson. He and his wife Meredith have been married twenty years and have four children.
 1 Cor. 12:30 (ESV).  Ben Knoblet is a dear friend and brother in Christ to this day. He is now Father Ben Knoblet and a member of the Jurisdiction.  “About Converge,” Converge, accessed March 20, 2021, https://converge.org/about.  “Chaplaincy,” Venture Churches, accessed March 20, 2021, https://venturechurches.org/chaplaincy/.  Craig A. Parton, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2003).  Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).  Robert E. Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Church (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1985).  Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984).  The Book of Common Prayer (2019) (Huntington Beach: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 115.  1 Tim. 1:15 (ESV).  Rom. 5:8 (ESV).  Jude 3 (ESV).  Phil. 1:6 (ESV).