I would consider myself to be an evangelical Christian. I grew up in a “casual” Methodist family, spent some time in the 70’s among charismatics, attended Catholic boarding school, studied the Baha’i faith and Bhuddism, and over the last 4 years or so have rededicated myself to Christ and his word.
Upon returning to the Christian faith, I was faced with very difficult decision, that being which church to look towards for true fellowship, and submission to the body as a whole. Looking back into church history I was immediately interested in the eastern church for two primary reasons. First of all, the apparent historical legitimacy of the Eastern church was compelling. I saw an obvious argument to be made for the notion that either the Roman or Eastern church was most likely to be “most true,” simply because of their connection to the first century church. Secondly, I read in Huston Smith’s book on world religions that, at least in his opinion, their seemed to be a much greater appreciation of mysticism and an awareness of the spiritual world—the principalities—within the Eastern church versus that of Rome. I find it incredulous that many churches refuse to really acknowledge anything other than the temporal.
Unfortunately, there was no Orthodox church in my area when I was church shopping. I attended about half of a Catholic mass until I remembered why I had never been attracted to Catholicism as a boy (actually, my investigation into Catholicism was a little more rigorous than this). Eventually I ended up joining an independent evangelical church which I am very happy with. It is a large church with great reverence for God, and an incredible commitment among its congregation to the study of God’s word as revealed in the Bible. We meet on Sundays to worship, but then meet in homes as members of nearly 150 small groups to love one another and feed one another with God’s truth as revealed in the Bible. It is a wonderful congregation. However, it completely lacks any connection with the past, other than the fact (and I don’t intend to diminish my sense of awe over the reality of this) that we have all come to know Christ as those before us have; that is, that we are descendents, each of us, from Christ’s original followers. Our elders have made every attempt to adhere to the blueprints for the church that are included in the New Testament. Lately, my interest in the Orthodox church has again risen. I’m reading a book called, Becoming Orthodox, which you may be aware of in which a former evangelical Christian tells of his conversion to Orthodoxy. I’ve spent some time reading the information on your web site. I still appreciate the seeming validity of the Orthodox claim of being “the” genuine church. However, I have one burning concern that probably doesn’t have a simple answer:
I am convinced of God’s hand on the congregation of which I am a part. Therefore, I would only consider a conversion to Orthodoxy if I became convinced that to do so would be a move to a MORE true path. I wonder if what we see among the Christian churches today is a complete fracturing of the body of Christ? That in fact there is no such thing as “the” church; that what began with the schism was a series of over-reactions to heresy resulting in the destruction of the church.
There seems to be various levels of heresy. There are teachings that contradict the very core of the gospel “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David.” There are others who add to the gospel, taking away from its grace. As a protestant, I tend to see ritual as potentially falling into the latter. However, I’m torn by the very fact that the Orthodox church does seem to be the remnant, even if the first century church was much more humble in its meeting places, accesories, and attire. Is there a resource addressing these fundamental questions that you could recommend?
Have I made any sense at all?
Thank you very much for your inquiry and for sharing the story of your spiritual journey, which was genuinely interesting to read. It also gave me the necessary background information by which to answer your question. I will preface my answer by saying that what follows may appear to be more of a commentary on certain things you related. Nevertheless, I hope it helps. If, of course, you have further questions or which to continue the dialogue, please feel free to do so.
I would begin by saying that, at least in my own opinion, one of the major differences between the Orthodox Church and other Christian confessions—at least in their present-day expressions—is that Orthodoxy maintains its focus on God first and humanity second. It sometimes seems to me that many confessions today place more emphasis on humanity than on God. Above all, Orthodoxy sees the Church as the People of God—People who are called to worship, to praise, to render thanks in all things, and to set their sight on “the life of the world to come.” We, as Saint Paul writes, are “in the world,” but we are not “of the world.” We certainly are to be concerned with the condition of our society, the plight of the poor and homeless, the fallen world which surrounds us—and, as we see clearly in the words and actions of Jesus Christ, we in fact must be involved with such things, for “as often as [we] have done these things to these, the least of My brothers, [we] have done them to [Christ],” to paraphrase the words of Christ in his parable of the last judgment.
However, if we as Orthodox Christians are to make an impact on humanity, it can only come as a result of allowing God to make an impact on us. In the Orthodox Liturgy we sing “now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of All Who comes invisibly upborne by angelic hosts!” This hymn comes after a series of litanies in which we pray for “the peace of the whole world,” for “travelers… the sick and the suffering, captives and their salvation… seasonable weather, an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and peaceful times,” etc. In these petitions at the beginning of the Liturgy, we acknowledge that we cannot divorce ourselves from the world that surrounds us. However, as we sing “now lay aside all earthly cares,” we also acknowledge that the focus of our vision must be, above all and before all, on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—God. We serve God in order to serve others; the Church cannot, however, be limited to the realm of a social agency solely involved in people’s lives apart from the context of humanity’s relationship with the Holy Trinity.
You also mention, “I would only consider a conversion to Orthodoxy if I became convinced that to do so would be a move to a MORE true path. I wonder if what we see among the Christian churches today is a complete fracturing of the body of Christ? that in fact there is no such thing as “the” church; that what began with the schism was a series of over-reactions to heresy resulting in the destruction of the church.” On this point, Orthodox Christianity is the fullness of the truth and the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” which we profess in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Orthodoxy does not see a fracturing of the Body of Christ—Scripture teaches us that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, and St. Paul is clear that there is but one body, stressing that the Body of Christ cannot be divided.
Individuals—or whole groups of individuals—can separate themselves from the Body of Christ and even refer to themselves as a church, but the Orthodox Christian Church remains one, as the Body of Christ is one. Western Church history is replete with what you refer to as “the schism… a series of over-reactions to heresy.” Orthodoxy does not admit the notion, which you imply, of “the destruction of the church.” We could go as far as to say that there is no division in the church, for those who stand apart from the fullness of the truth have not divided the one Church but, rather, have placed themselves outside of it.
You also mention, “As a Protestant, I tend to see ritual as potentially falling into the latter [a falling from grace]. However, I’m torn by the very fact that the Orthodox church does seem to be the remnant, even if the first century church was much more humble in its meeting places, accesories, and attire.” Orthodox Christianity maintains the fullness of Scripture, relying on it heavily in worship, study, etc. However, we also hold to what we call “Holy Tradition,” which is the ongoing life of God’s People and those things which are essential to the salvation of souls. Ritual is not an end in itself; rather, ritual is a way, often non-verbal, to express truth, to celebrate it, to reveal it, and to share it. It is quite clear in countless places in the Old and New Testaments that ritual is a part of the life of God’s People.
The problem is not ritual; the problem is ritual that is empty of any content, ritual that is “performed” for its own sake. Christ did not condemn the rituals of the synagogue and, in fact, He participated in them. What he did condemn are those who observe every point of ritual while ignoring those essential truths that the ritual is intended to express and proclaim.
I hope this gives some insights into the issues mentioned in your email. And I invite you to write back should you have further questions, or if you would like to continue this dialogue.
May God bless you and guide you!
For further information:
Peter Guilquist, Becoming Orthodox is published by Conciliar Press (Ben Lomond, CA, tel +1.800.967.7377) and is available in many bookstores.
A short bibliography on the Orthodox Church is available on the Introduction to the Orthodox Church section of this website.
Read the articles in the Orthodox Faith section of this website.