Conversion stories: look while you are leaping

The guy who currently blogs at ViatorChristianus (or something like that; I don’t like linking to guys who were at one time associated with the Federal Vision movement.  It attracts unnecessary traffic and old wars are brought up) did some really good posts on the reasons why one would leave Evangelical and Reformed communities for the epistemological certainty that Roman Catholicism and/or Orthodoxy brings.   And to be fair, he had a lot of good points.  Many guys do convert to Rome/Orthodoxy for some very bad and shallow reasons.

This post is about conversion stories, though not mine:  I have yet to convert to anything.  I am going to get everybody angry in this post, though in a rather unique way.   Orthodox guys will get angry because they will think I am attacking Orthodoxy.  I am doing no such thing.  If anything, I am actually offering something of an apology for looking into Orthodoxy.  Further, I agree with Orthodoxy, but it is still hard to undo 20 years of Evangelical subculture and the expectations that culture brings.   I do ask your pardon.  This post is simply a snapshot of someone along the way (and in one sense it is no different from Fr Peter Gilquist’s experience when he led some evangelicals to Orthodoxy).

Evangelicals will be tempted to say, upon reading of some of my disappointments, “Aha!  We told you it was a dead church and not biblical and not faithful to our American Conservative Republican Christian distinctives.”  To which I urge silence:  Evangelical theology is flawed on the structural level and cannot mount anything resembling a defense.

Anglicans might be tempted to say, “Well, join Anglicanism.  We have liturgy and we are sensitive, sometimes it appears more so, to many Western liturgical concerns.”  That might be true, but the leader of the Anglican church is still hesitant to say that butt-sex is wrong, and he ordains women.   So, no die.  Perhaps one can see Anglicanism as a stopgap on the way to Orthodox, barring any other liturgical alternative in the community–I can follow that line of reasoning, but no more.

I’ve talked with some facebook friends on my–and others Reformed inquisitors–experience with Orthodoxy.   In what follows I will be told that I should not import Western Evangelical expectations onto the life of the church.  While I still have some questions–based on reading Eastern fathers and noting severe disjuncts between said fathers and what I experienced in Liturgy–I will agree for the moment.  I cannot stand in judgment upon the church, but I can’t pretend I have a blank slate mind as well.

(And before we get started I just have to add, St Gregory of Nazianzus delayed baptism for ten years, while holding to something like Orthodox belief.  Cf. Brian Daley’s St Gregory of Nazianzus).  The following is adapted from several emails with several friends.

I’ll be honest with you–and I’ve told Mr. _______ as much–but I don’t know if I can keep going to St _______’s.  I certainly can’t bring my family there.    Most of the service now seems to be in Greek, and even then isn’t always following the book (so I have no idea what is going on half the time, and while I can read and understand Greek; my wife would be completely lost).   The kids at the church are out of control, and the parents make no effort to discipline them;  I would give examples, but it would seem like I am exaggerating (I am not).  I understand that telling a parent how to discipline their kids is about as awkward as giving sex advice, but still….  It is distracting to see (hear?) a kid playing his Nintendo DS with the volume up, or another kid walking down the aisle gathering liturgy books (and dropping them), or throwing models cars across the room (I am listing the things I have seen).  Add this to the general confusion I feel, and no doubt my wife would feel, I can’t help but recall St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians about worshipping God in a way you really don’t understand, and confusion, and chaos in order.

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t bring Evangelical expectations of corporate singing and judge the Church based on my understanding of what I want it to be.  Fair enough.  Let’s put it into context.   There were about eight to ten people there, and I think maybe two were chanting (yours’ truly being one of them).   Is this what the Psalmist meant when he alluded to corporate singing?  It could be.  I don’t know.

  There was no homily the last time I was there.  I realize the homily/sermon doesn’t have the same import as in Protestantism, but St Paul did say something like “preach the word.”  How do we go from St John Chrysostom to having no homily at all?  And no, before one points out, this was not merely a prayer service. With the last priest at this service there were homilies, and fairly decent ones, too.
I don’t want to be one of those guys who gets all interested in Orthodox theology, but rejects the church because it didn’t meet his expectations.  I’ve had friends reject Christianity on that point.  I realize I don’t have the right to judge the church based on my expectations, but on the other hand, I’m no idiot in Church history either.   Gregory Nazianzus’ sermons were over an hour in length.  I don’t want to sit through an hour long sermon, but how do we go from that to having no sermon at all?
I don’t really expect–nor do I judge them harshly on this–an older, largely Greek community that is very small to engage in active missionary evangelism to Western potential converts (though if the OCA or Antiochians came in with a “Western Rite” church in North Louisiana, it would have HUGE potential.    Yet, there is a substantial undercurrent of resistance to the Western Rite among many Orthodox–see for example, Fr Alexander Schmemann).
 Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.   I’m not rejecting Orthodoxy, but am remembering something that Joseph Farrell said, “When you enter Orthodoxy, enter with your eyes open to the problems in modern World Orthodoxy“).
I have another reason for writing this–it serves as a cautionary tale to guys who read a few books on Orthodoxy, internet debate a few Calvinists, and think they are “truly Orthodox.”  No, we are not.  We are still learning, and there are numerous considerations which are far more difficult than simply trying to follow a Greek-spoken liturgy:
  • Which branch of the Orthodox church is the true one:  Coptic, Armenian, Chalcedonian, etc.? How do you know?
  • How come Monachos.net always deletes threads that ask questions about Freemasonry and the Ecumenical Movement?
  • Which Calendar is correct?
  • If we have to move from our current location, possibly hundreds of miles simply to find the right bishop, doesn’t this also imply that Orthodoxy will never truly come to this region?
  • Is this the approach the Man from Macedonia took?
Even though I am open with my thoughts on this topic, the above reasons are also why I don’t debate Calvinists and Catholics on Orthodoxy.  Most importantly, I don’t want to pull a Jay Dyer and reject Orthodoxy because SCOBA has a weak view of the Old Testament precepts, or whatever Jay’s reasons were.
So yes, I am still very much interested, but the above is a snapshot of life on the way.
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23 comments on “Conversion stories: look while you are leaping

  1. Jacob Brown says:

    “it serves as a cautionary tale to guys who read a few books on Orthodoxy, internet debate a few Calvinists, and think they are “truly Orthodox.” No, we are not. We are still learning, and there are numerous considerations which are far more difficult than simply trying to follow a Greek-spoken liturgy”

    Thanks for talking DIRECTLY to me 😦

    This is not my real name, because I would not want a google search to embarrass me.

    Do you have an email address I can talk to you thru? You seem to be hitting on things EXACTLY where I am at. Thanks

  2. vjhogan says:

    Friend: it is frankly very refreshing to read this sort of thing in — I guess I will lump you in with the rest — Orthoblogdom. I don’t much care for Orthodox convert culture (I will bite my tongue rather than say more), and I think it is better to see someone wait years instead of rushing to the chrism only to “behold! It was Leah.”

    P.S. The Copts and Armenians are in communion, so practically speaking the distinction is ethno-liturgical rather than ecclesial. I think the Oriental/Chalcedonian debate is legitimate in its own right, but I don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to make the argument for a one-word difference in a Christological debate that significant theologians on both sides now conclude was a misunderstanding.

    • Chetnik1945 says:

      I love the phrase and connotations, “Behold, it was Leah.” Yeah, it was definitely Leah the last time I went to Liturgy, if I may say so respectfully.

      I think it is better to wade into the deep in now, rather than jump, get disillusioned, and then apostasize (yes, I’ve seen that numerous times in the past few months).

  3. sermonwriter says:

    For what it’s worth, and at the risk of running contrary to the general atmosphere on this blog post, I have been looking at this from a different point of view. Many in Orthodoxy refuse to allow my confession as “Orthodox” to mean anything significant, or even true. After all, I am not even a catachumen yet. However, what was the attitude in the early Church if it wasn’t, “now is the time of salvation”? How many years of catachism did the first Christian converts need before they trusted Christ and His Church?

    I don’t think we do anybody any favors by trying to convince those who are convinced of Orthodoxy that they need to wait until they are convinced. There is more to convincing than years of education. We cannot discount the more than likely possibility that it is God who is at work, and it is in His timing, not in superior arguments that MUST be learned before one can discern Christ’s Church.

    • Steve says:

      Acts 8:36 ~”And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” ”

      So what prevents us? Is it “good arguments” against Orthodoxy? Or, is it because we haven’t believed the Gospel yet? It’s probably not true with everyone 100% of the time, but if God is shedding light on someone’s heart with the Gospel, they will sooner rather than later recognize the Church if it is in the candidate line-up they’re looking at.

      • Steve says:

        Acts 8:36 ~”And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” ”

        So what prevents us? Is it “good arguments” against Orthodoxy? Or, is it because we haven’t believed the Gospel yet? It’s probably not true with everyone 100% of the time, but if God is shedding light on someone’s heart with the Gospel, they will sooner rather than later recognize the Church if it is in the candidate line-up they’re looking at.

  4. Jacob Brown says:

    Check your FB messages !!!!! LOL LOL LOL

  5. Canadian says:

    I identify with your thoughts. I have been hanging around the local Orthodox mission for about 4 years off and on, working through both theological and practical matters. Now that the option of going to Rome has been dealt a death blow in my mind I am left with Orthodoxy at the end of this road. It’s like I know too much to go back to any form of Protestantism (I tried last year), and on the other end I know too much about the typical Orthodox parishoner’s tendency to barely live what the church teaches. As John Henry Newman (of all people) has written, the Christian’s faith is not just an abstract faith in Christ or God, but was and still is always an act of faith in the Church as well. We will never escape the uncertainties that exist even if we wade in slowly for decades. I am about to enter the catechumenate, submit by faith to the church and if necessary spend 7 years with Leah knowing that if she is here, then Rachel must be too.
    However, the parish I am at has a convert priest who is very good and sincerely sweeps his people to Christ with every homily for which I am thankful.

  6. Maximus says:

    Excellent blog, excellent post, excellent comments. I also think we convertsy tend to idealize how the Church should be. Think about being a first century convert to Christianity from the various schools of Judaism: Judaizers, Docetists, persecutions from the Jews, out of control charismatics in Corinth, guys openly sleeping with their stepmothers, disagreements within the Apostolic ranks, etc. Even deacons initially came into being to avoid the Hellenistic Jews widows from being overlooked to the preferred Judean widows. This is smack dab right in the middle of the Jerusalem Church with all the Apostles present. We have to struggle; if everything were perfect we could never learn to overcome and to walk by faith. I’m an African-American convert and the first time I visited an Orthodox church the guest priest said something very negative about black people. Everyone was very gracious to me afterwards and the regular priest affirmed that everyone was welcome the next week. Truthfully, I wasn’t phased at all only because I refuse to let anything deter me from what I believe is true. Once I came to believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church there remained only one thing to do.

  7. Eric Castleman says:

    @ Steve

    In the early church, the waiting period was 3 years. This changed over time, since Christians were being born more often than not, in the church, and which leads to the poor Baptist view of church history and infant baptism.

    Anyways, because of that reality, the catachumen process in some ways, shortened, mainly because of the martyrdom happening at such extreme levels. For instance, if you were dying from a certain disease, the process would be allot faster.

    I for one have done things differently. When I first got interested in Orthodoxy, I tried my best to surround myself with people that knew allot, had been Orthodox for a long time, and converts. All who could keep an eye on me. Also, when I first attended and Orthodox parish, my main thought was to not be in the background, so that any issues that stood out could be corrected.

    There is one guy that I know at the parish I attend, that has been visiting for 3 years. While this is a good thing, he also stays so far out of focus from anyones view, that he in some ways lacks the extra help from people who can give him important thoughts on his situation, and offer any good advice. My process has been to experience all the realities of Orthodoxy as I have gone towards Orthodoxy. Things like language barriers, political issues, jurisdictionalism etc..

    So, ultimately, waiting is always better than rushing it, since a convert that only stays for a few years, then leaves really is not that great of a story

    • Steve says:

      @Eric,
      Thanks. I understand that. My irritation, if you can call it that, is not even with the catachumen ‘delay’, although it used to be. And of course I agree that true conversion is desired over what everyone here fears, (a flash in the pan who apostasizes). My concern on the other hand, is that from my brief encounter with Reformed/Orthodox converts, they are encouraging interested individuals to become accomplished scholars before letting them make a confession of the faith that is already in them.

      The reason this is irritating to me is because it prioritizes head knowledge over faithfulness. It puts faith on the back burner in a way and gives the inquirer every excuse to delay his/her salvation indefinitely, or at least until they feel they have ‘learned enough’. Well, when will that be? When do we “know” enough before we can start living Liturgical lives?

  8. Steve says:

    @Eric,
    Thanks. I understand that. My irritation, if you can call it that, is not even with the catachumen ‘delay’, although it used to be. And of course I agree that true conversion is desired over what everyone here fears, (a flash in the pan who apostasizes). My concern on the other hand, is that from my brief encounter with Reformed/Orthodox converts, they are encouraging interested individuals to become accomplished scholars before letting them make a confession of the faith that is already in them.

    The reason this is irritating to me is because it prioritizes head knowledge over faithfulness. It puts faith on the back burner in a way and gives the inquirer every excuse to delay his/her salvation indefinitely, or at least until they feel they have ‘learned enough’. Well, when will that be? When do we “know” enough before we can start living Liturgical lives?

  9. Eric Castleman says:

    Let me now comment on the blog itself.

    Jacob, I completely understand where you are coming from, but I might not be anywhere near your situation as to the limited options to choose from when it comes to parishes. I am sorry you are in that position.

    When I was considering Rome, obviously there where huge reservations for me. Virtually no discipline, openly gay people teaching RCIA, no relationships, 100% of the congregation hit the exists once mass was over, and the other obvious issues with Vatican II, not too mention the obvious issues with Rome’s theology.

    But, most of the above was never a reason for me to drop Rome, because I think my disposition towards what one person with a hopeful attitude can do to one church was a major factor in my mind. I was looking forward to going into a Catholic church and changing its mentality, and I never thought that it was not a possibility.

    But, I was raised this way. I grew up in a fully Dutch reformed church, where everyone was there because they were Dutch (300 members). None of them cared at all about what reformed theology actually taught, including me (Not Dutch, just didn’t care) and with just one person coming into the church in 2000 who really cared about bringing to light what reformed theology actually teaches, the whole church completely changed. Which, ultimately made me who I am today.

    The Orthodox parish I am at now, had almost the same exact thing as the reformed church, and just a convert from reformed theology, has made it one of the prime places to go visit.

    What I am trying to say is this. When you look at Orthodoxy, and see all the good, as you do, but must also see the bad, you have to remember that Orthodoxy does the same with you, me, and anyone else. They accept the good things, and the bad things with us. But, it is the good things that brought us there, and the band things that both Orthodoxy, and us and newcomers want to help get better.

    Not too bash anyone, but some people that go from reformed to Rome, to Orthodoxy, to Rome, to the circus, in many ways, want a perfect church, and to be only seen as a plus with their presence in that perfect church. First, if there is a perfect church, we wouldn’t be able to enter it, and secondly, as I stated above, we accept the good and bad, just as we hope Orthodoxy will do with us.

    I will keep you in my prayers Jacob

  10. sermonwriter says:

    This is a TEST comment. 🙂 I’ve posted 2 additional comments under the name ‘Steve’ that are still awaiting moderation since yesterday.

  11. sermonwriter says:

    Ahh! So SW works. Anyway, I’ll try to restate what I’ve said in one comment. First @Eric. Thanks, good stuff. Especially your last comment on this blog post.

    Secondly, in your response to me, I do understand how important a conversion decision really is, and like everyone else commenting here I don’t want to be or see a flash in the pan burned out to apostasy.

    However, what bothers me about the few Reformed/Orthodox converts I’ve met ever since I’ve become convinced about the authenticity of Orthodoxy, is that they really try to push for a delay in faithfulness, (salvation), by insisting that more ‘study’ is a necessary prerequisite to that salvation within Orthodoxy.

    I don’t think such a ‘thorough’ education is any more of a ‘guarantee’ against apostasy than anything else is. Of course this education should be the desire of every inquirer and catachumate, but if someone shows interest, I believe encouraging faithfulness (salvation) is what should be our priority.

    I think this fits well into what you are saying Eric, in that “wanting a perfect Church”, could very well be the result of study taking priority over the realities encountered by faithfully trying to live like Christ within and amongst His people in His visible Church. We won’t apostasize based on what we learn about theology, we will apostasize based on what we can’t face within our own hearts, in the long run. We need the strength of being fully involved and part of the Church with faith to conquer such harsh realities. We can study endlessly all on our own with no such consequences and for the rest of our lives to no eternal value.

    If God is shedding light on someone’s heart with the Gospel, they will sooner rather than later recognize the Church if it is in the candidate line-up they’re looking at.

  12. sermonwriter says:

    I’m reminded of something pertinent from Fr. Freeman that I just saw Peter Tosh post on his wall.

    “The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.” Fr. Freeman

    AND…

    “I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.” Fr. Freeman

    From The Church and the Cross of Christ

  13. sermonwriter says:

    Such comments by Fr Freeman, that line up the Gospel with the Church, have done more to convert me to Orthodoxy than a library of great theological or historical works could ever have hoped to.

    • Chetnik1945 says:

      On one hand you are correct, for the disciples said to get baptized, not to become a scholar. That said, it takes a long time for some of us to undo decades of Protestant wiring. Therefore, reading these materials helps us. Which works out nicely for me anyway, since the logistics of the case practically prevent any move in the near future.

  14. sermonwriter says:

    @ Chetnik
    I understand completely (I think), I hope you don’t think I’m criticizing your predicament, I’m not. I also understand the wiring problem coming from a Western upbringing, let alone Protestant. Old habits die hard sometimes, and Western/Protestant ideas (wiring) have been persistent in my own thoughts and I usually don’t notice them until I embarrass myself conversing with the more educated Orthodox, lol. Keeps me humble I guess.

  15. Vincent says:

    This is an important discussion, but I fear the implications of looking for perfection in a Church whose very ecclesiology depends upon the love of humans for one another.

    It will never be perfect.

    That said, potential converts do need some time to consider the decision to join the Church, as it is a radical change in lifestyle. You are vowing to submit to the Church, flaws and all. There’s no compatibility of that viewpoint with those of Protestant Christians.

  16. Chetnik1945 says:

    I haven’t responded much to the comments because I’ve been sick for a week. I would like to say this.

    Steve,
    I agree with some of your concerns, and there are some passages of Scripture to which I have not always seen Orthodox guys give fully satisfactory answers. That being said, it comes down to this: it is not our church and we must play by their rules.

  17. sermonwriter says:

    Thanks Chetnik1945,

    I sure hope you’re feeling better. What did you eat anyway? 🙂

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