Why would someone choose to leave evangelicalism? Why would you choose Eastern Orthodoxy? To my friends and family who cared enough to ask these questions, I’m grateful for your care, heart to listen, and your openness to at least have the discussion.
I’d like to preface my comments by saying that this has not always been a smooth transition. Anyone who leaves evangelicalism is in for a bumpy ride. I never got the memo to wear a seat belt or fasten the chin-strap on my helmet… haha! I have experienced rejection, patronizing comments, and a growing coldness from some. This negativity has made me even more thankful for the deepened relationships with other friends who have embraced me and the positive impact of Orthodoxy in my life. I suspect they may also see the damaging effects of assuming there is no salvation outside of Protestantism.
May we all be challenged by the words of Augustine, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
It may surprise you to know that I didn’t simply pick a tradition. I was anti-liturgy for a long time, knew nothing about the Eastern Church, and never dreamed of pursuing a tradition like Orthodoxy. The reality is our loving Father pursues us and draws us into his holy Orthodox Church and I am forever grateful!
I give my parents a great deal of credit for my faith (I Love you Mom and Dad)! Your faith, prayer, and support have meant a great deal.
I wasn’t initially raised in a Christian family and I remember what it was like beforehand. My first exposure to the Christian faith began when I attended a small community church with my sister. She lived with her dad, had early exposure to Christianity, and I really looked up to her persistence in introducing us to Christ. I was the typical annoying little brother that drove her insane and I desperately wanted to earn her approval. I am fortunate that I tagged along on this trip to church.
The church itself didn’t leave much of an impression. The people seemed awkward yet sincere. If I’m remembering correctly, they gave us free Christian themed pencils and encouraged us to return. We never did return but that visit sparked an interest in Christianity and a series of events in my life.
Slowly but surely my mom started attending church services and despite his rejection of religion, my dad eventually joined her. They were both baptized into the Church when I was in junior high. These memories provided me with a ‘before & after’ perspective of Christianity’s impact. I was able to see the changes in my parent’s lives as they faithfully sought to pragmatically implement their faith in family habits and practices.
As an adult I walked away from the faith for a time while serving in the United States Army and rededicated my life to God in 2002 after realizing I had claimed Christ verbally but denied his truth and power in my actions. My faith grew as a result of my military experiences and I had the privilege of serving as a worship leader.
After leaving the military and starting a family I began to wrestle with my lack of knowledge in the Scriptures. The evangelical church we were attending with my parents wasn’t a particularly bad one. They continually reiterated that we study the Bible “chapter by chapter…book by book.” I learned a lot and developed an appreciation for the scriptures, prayer, and my personal faith in God.
While our church adhered to a very specific hermeuntic (interpretation) of scripture, I recognized a complexity in scripture downplayed or ignored. I decided to read the Bible cover-to-cover and when I reached the end I wanted more. This deep-seated desire to seek God and understand the scriptures launched me toward an entirely new path. Like the Ethiopian, I read the words of scripture and didn’t fully understand (Acts 8:26-40).
In 2013 I quit my job, sold my house, and moved my family to a new city where I attended seminary. I studied Greek, Hebrew, church history, and theology. After several years of intense study I graduated with a Master’s in Biblical studies and started a second Master’s in theology. During this period we were still attending non-denominational churches but increasingly struggled with their teaching and doctrines.
I began to reevaluate the theological positions of my youth including the non-denominational model, which is really its own denomination. Many of these churches use the ‘Moses-model’ (single leader where elders hold no power of accountability), an untenable one in my opinion according to the example of church structure in Acts. It essentially leaves pastors with unchecked interpretive and ecclesial authority.
I also remembered the anti-intellectualism permeating the churches of my youth. We refused to admit the theological complexities and presented a minimalist view of most issues. In a smug way we thought we held the true faith of the Apostles as evangelicals by getting ‘back to the basics’ while everyone else argued over ‘man’s interpretations & traditions.’ I was wrong!
We are commanded to love God with all our being, including the mind, and I developed big theological questions.
Many of the evangelical churches we attended after moving did teach theologically rich and diverse sermons, but something was still missing! I recognized a fundamental lack of discipleship, understanding of Church history prior to the Reformation, and the total absence of several doctrines. I attended the church and got saved…but now what!? I prayed a prayer, is that it? Is the Christian life summed up in attending as many services as possible and waiting to be ‘snatched’ up in the clouds? I look forward to heaven, but we’re called to be active in this life. For further reflection please refer to my critiques of the Disengaged and Disembodied Church.
My family and I bounced from church to church; we saw big light shows, elaborate worship sets, talented speakers, and in the end found a sense of emptiness. More times than not, when I walked out of church the measure of success was the talent of the speaker, the skill of the musician, and whether I felt emotionally or mentally stimulated. I was troubled with motivational speeches from the pulpit, entertainment (fog machines, etc.), and over-politicized evangelical churches lacking a holistic account of Gospel ethos and vision. The emphasis on the personal, American, and modern cost us the communal, the global, and historic Church. For further reflection on worship in the church reference Liturgy Through the lens of history.
Feeling called to a more liturgical tradition I tried ‘high church’ Protestantism at a local Anglican fellowship. I really enjoyed the experience but something felt amiss. My wife and I both knew it wasn’t the place for our family.
During my studies I also acquainted myself with the frigid theology & logicality of a Calvinistic God who creates some to love and others to fuel the fires of damnation. There is a lot we could discuss regarding this topic, but for the sake of time and space let’s press on. In the end, it wasn’t the right place for us!
Like the hobbits, we set out on an ‘unexpected journey’…
I never intended on joining the Orthodox Church. There are so many hurdles to overcome. For example, understanding the differences between western American and Eastern Christianity’s terms of theology and practices of worship. The initial experience was a little jarring but I felt drawn to the doors of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
What is the Eastern Orthodox Church? I remembered hearing about persecuted believers in the Middle East but I had never learned about Orthodoxy. Most people typically ask me “is it Catholic?” We are not Roman Catholic, although some aspects may look similar. When we say the Nicene Creed, “one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, the use of ‘Catholic’ means whole, complete, and lacking in nothing.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is the original Christian Church. Things didn’t disappear or fall off a cliff after Acts as my non-denominational roots insinuated. The Church continued because God is faithful, remaining active in history to sustain and pass down the traditions & scriptures of the Christian faith.
The Church Fathers faithfully continued in Apostolic teaching and doctrine. They took Paul’s exhortation seriously, “to this He called you through our gospel, so that you may share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and cling to the traditions we taught you, whether by speech or by letter” (2 Theses. 2:14-15).
It finally made sense to me! Allow me to elaborate…making sense does not mean we always understand or even attempt to explain everything. Much of the Orthodox tradition is a mystery (the trinity, divinity and humanity of Christ, etc.). What made sense to me is the historic understanding of Church, identity, and the traditions of the faith.
Apostolic succession, scriptural interpretation balanced with tradition, and understanding my identity within the Church community are a few changes, but the Eucharist was the most pivotal change in my understanding. It serves as the epicenter of communal worship and focus. It is a mystery of divine presence and communal identity. For more information on this topic please read my blog Eucharist: A view from Apostolic succession.
The day before Pentecost Sunday I was chrismated (anointed with oil and received) with my family into the Orthodox Church. This joyful occasion came after almost a year of studying, praying, and attending classes and Church services. One common question is “why didn’t you become Catholic?” While I respect my Catholic friends, there are some key doctrinal differences like Papal authority I simply could not reconcile with scripture and early Church tradition. God’s leading to Orthodoxy was also very clear! I won’t get into the specifics of the schism in 1054 right now. It is multi-faceted and complex, but I will reflect on some of these factors in an upcoming blog on ecclesiology (Church authority).
What has changed since my chrismation? I have a different understanding of my faith, identity, and Church community. The early Church believed in confession, the communal, and the disciplines. I see issues like salvation in a more holistic sense- a process (saved, being saved, will be saved) of refining us into the likeness of Christ, referred to as theosis. Salvation is not something I possess after praying a prayer, but a process in my life as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). I can participate and cooperate with his sanctifying work through the disciplines of the faith (prayer, fasting, vigils, confession, alms-giving). I no longer sit passively- ‘let go and let God’, but I am an active participant in this living faith.
This path of life continues and yet the road is much different than expected. Life is centered around the divine. Every service engages us at all levels- sights, smells, sounds, kneeling, bowing, and crossing one’s self. Similarly, the Church calendar reminds us that all of Jesus’ life is important and we can remember and emulate the events of his saints’ lives. Each day we find focus and engagement drawing us in as partakers of the divine (2 Peter 1:4). For more information about the saints please read my blog Saints- Our inspiration and intercessors.
I’m truly saddened by those who have responded negatively to my conversion by questioning my faith or distancing themselves. My earnest desire to know God and have a living faith based on a firm and historic foundation has led me to this living tradition and deepened my understanding.
In Orthodoxy I have found an inexhaustible and multi-faceted treasure trove of beauty, theology, and history. I have met many saints that dearly love the Lord and diligently follow him. I’m learning the impact of our identity as icons of the living God! I’m still broken and flawed, but full of joy to be engaged in this living and active faith community.
I believe in one holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and we finally heard those long-awaited words, “welcome home.”
“Being an Orthodox Christian is firstly a conscious choice of path in life, a constant search for Christ and His truth” (Russian Patriarch Kirill on the 1030 Baptism of the Rus).