Ever since I was baptized into the Eastern Orthodox Church on September 7th, 2014 I’ve thought of possibly writing an article about the reasons for my leap out of Evangelical Anabaptism and into Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m sure that many people have wondered about why I made the jump and the reasons that I have usually given people when they ask me in person have always been partial and incomplete. There’s been times when I’ve told people about the theological journey I made where I suddenly realized one day that I was no longer a Protestant. Sometimes I’ve told people about an incident where I was a part of a discussion one night where some influential members declared how they don’t care to read commentary on Scripture but would much rather read it and interpret it for themselves. Other times I’ve brought up the doctrinal relativism and hermeneutical chaos that I realized was rampant within Protestantism. All of these reasons that I have mentioned just barely are only a partial picture of why I joined the Orthodox Church. I’ve never attempted to try to give a fuller picture before because I myself wasn’t able to see the big picture myself. I thought of explaining myself shortly after my baptism in the manner of an Orthodox apologetic lathered with anti-Protestant polemics but I knew that I would be writing it as an attempt to smear my former communion; and that’s never productive nor beneficial for anyone. I’ve also never been able to write something up because my memory was still too hazy to remember everything. The move into Orthodoxy was an emotional upheaval and the swelling feelings proved to work as a mental block in trying to remember everything that I wanted to say. Now that it’s been over a year since my reception into the Church and my emotions have stabilized I’ve been able to recall the major points of my journey and feel that it may be beneficial and helpful to finally write it down.
Before I get into it though I want to say as clearly as I can that this is not a work of Orthodox apologetics, nor is it an attempt to bash Protestantism. Obviously since I have left my Protestant background there will be critiques of certain points of Protestant Christianity. This is not to say that all Protestant Christians are therefore automatically headed towards condemnation. God is the one Who judges man, not me. Nor will I attempt to write up treatises for every point of Orthodox doctrine that my Protestant family and friends may find questionable (and believe you me, there’s a lot in Orthodoxy that makes a good Protestant cringe). This is simply my story about how I ended up in the Orthodox Church and what it was that happened that brought me there.
My Conversion to Christianity
To begin my story about my journey into Orthodoxy I must first begin with my conversion to Christianity. I grew up in an Evangelical Mennonite home and would go to church on a regular basis. My upbringing wasn’t predominantly religious but I knew that we were Christians and that this identified us to some degree. I can recall that at a young age that I accepted Jesus into my heart as my Lord and Savior. The funny thing is that I can remember doing this almost every day, even multiple times a day. I was taught that as long as I accept Jesus into my heart then I will be saved forever. Nothing else in required for my salvation; to believe in Jesus is all that is needed. I can recall that once I reached a certain age I didn’t feel like I had much use for church anymore, though I still had to go due to the insistence of my parents. I felt like I knew everything there was to know about Christianity. I knew all the Bible stories that I taught year after year in Sunday School; plus I’m saved already so why is any of this necessary? I continued to go to church and to the youth group until I graduated highschool at the age of 17. After I graduated I immediately moved out of my parent’s home and was therefore free to do whatever I wanted; which involved not going to church anymore. For the next two years my life was defined mostly by getting high as much as I could and going to as many heavy metal concerts as I possibly could. Since the age of 14 I had been a devout metalhead and I had began to smoke pot at the age of 17. After I graduated I slowly began to experiment with other drugs; such as ecstasy, mushrooms, salvia, and cocaine, but I never became a junkie when it came to the hard drugs. My drug of choice was pot, which I would smoke (if it was possible) from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. I lived this way for two years until I began to have some revelations in my life that the way I was living wasn’t making anything better. I still had the same problems as I always had, living the way that I was simply numbed me to my pain, it didn’t get rid of it. A certain string of events happened which lead me back to the Evangelical Mennonite church of my youth determined to give the Christian faith all that I could give it.
The Early Evangelical Days
After my conversion I quit doing drugs, I stopped hanging out with my friends that I had been getting high with, and I got rid of thousands of dollars of heavy metal paraphernalia (everything from cds, to t-shirts, magazines, posters, etc..); I got rid of everything because I saw that heavy metal was my idol and to truly love God with all my heart I must be willing to sacrifice my idols for Him. Since I was no longer spending all my time getting high and listening to music I had a lot of free time. I began to spend most of my time reading the Bible. I also got connected with the youth group that I had attended when I was in highschool as a means of integrating out of my former way of life and into my new found Christian faith. Along with the Bible I began to devour Christian apologetics and the writings of C. S. Lewis, both of which would end up playing significant roles in my move towards Orthodoxy.
My Dissatisfaction with the Christian Culture Surrounding Me
The more and more I read my Bible and the more I became integrated into the Christian community around me the more I began to be dissatisfied with what I saw. When I read the Bible it seemed to me that the life of a Christian should look drastically different from that of those who are outside of the faith. What I saw and experienced around me was hardly different from the the life I formerly lived; the only difference really was that the people I was hanging out with now weren’t getting high and went to church. The Scriptures were telling me that our lives were no longer our own, that we were supposed to take up our crosses daily, to put to death the deeds of the flesh, and to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness. What I was seeing and experiencing didn’t seem to match up. There was one time even that I had posted on Facebook something along the lines of, “To the fellow members of the body of Christ: if our lives are supposed to look different than the worlds’s then why don’t they?”
My First Encounter With Orthodoxy
In response to my Facebook status I got a message from an old friend of mine, a guy by the name of Michael Bremner. He used to hang out with my older brother and they had even played in some bands together. I hadn’t seen him or had really talked to him in a number of years since he had moved to Saskatchewan for school. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote to me but he started to message me more frequently afterwards. Eventually he mentioned to me something about the Orthodox Church. I had never heard of the Orthodox Church before. All I knew about Christianity was that there was a million different Mennonite churches in Winkler, plus a Baptist church, and that there was such a thing as Roman Catholicism (but they worship Mary and practice confession so they’re obviously wrong). He sent me to the website of the Orthodox Church in American website and told me to read their articles on doctrine (taken from the book by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko; Memory Eternal). As I read through all the different articles (which covered all the main points found within the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) I found that I agreed with everything that I read; some of it even made me look at certain doctrinal points differently that I found very helpful. I can remember thinking to myself, “Huh, I think I’m Orthodox”. I didn’t realize at this point that to be Orthodox meant more than simply signing on to their basic doctrinal statements (the article I read didn’t cover topics such as Mariology, Sacraments, of Ecclesiology; it was just a simply overview of topics like God, Creation, The Fall, Jesus, Eschatology, etc..). I may have even told Michael at this point that I thought that I might be Orthodox. I don’t recall the exact dialogue but I remember one point. He, not so delicately, informed me that I wasn’t Orthodox. To be Orthodox I needed to be a member of the Orthodox Church and that the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; and all other churches are not by extension. To become Orthodox I would have to leave the church that I was a part of.
When I was told that the Orthodox Church was the ‘one true Church’ what I heard was, “You and everyone you know and love are therefore going to hell because we you aren’t a part of the true Church”. I had never seen an Orthodox Church before, let alone been to one. How was I supposed to become Orthodox? How was I supposed to leave the church that I was apart of? Was I going to hell? Was everyone that I know and love going to hell? Questions like this haunted me for months afterwards. It was a pretty bleak time in my life. I can remember going to work and constantly having these sort of thoughts and questions running through my mind only to come home from work and lay on my bed doing nothing except running these questions through my mind again. Around this time I blocked Michael on Facebook because the very thought of Orthodoxy terrified me and at this point I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I remember that I had actually gone and sought the help of a few different people from the area with ‘prophetic’ gifts, hoping that they would tell me something to ease my anxiety. Sure enough, when they would pray over me and tell me what they saw it would be something along the lines of “You’re in a good place in your life. God loves you and is going to use you”. I started to calm down at this point and life began to take a more positive turn.
What strikes me as I look back at that point in my life is that from my first encounter with Orthodoxy my intuition told me, ‘This is right”. In fact, the more I looked at the claims of Orthodoxy the more legit it seemed to me; and this only served to frighten me more. One of the ways I came to deal with my intuitive recognize of the validity of Orthodoxy (even if I didn’t entirely accept this intuition) was coming to a secret belief in universal salvation. I had bought the book, “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” by the Christian author Brad Jersak (who I first heard about in the documentary “Hellbound”) which is highly sympathetic to Universalism. What struck me in the book was some of the ancient Christian writers who were proponents of Universalism; most notably for myself were St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac of Syria. When I saw that there were people who are recognized saints in the Orthodox Church who were Universalists this opened up the doors to accepting Universalism (though it was mostly a secret belief; I only talked about it with select people that I trusted). I also found out that some contemporary Orthodox thinkers were Universalists (or at least sympathetic); such as the late Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (both Metropolitans are ‘hopeful universalists’: they do not say that God ‘will’ save everyone, but they ‘hope’ that He will). My secret affair with Universalism was important for my journey towards Orthodoxy because through it I came into contact with certain Saints and Orthodox writers (who I would most likely have never read due to the fact that they were Orthodox) through whom I began to discover other Orthodox writers and Saints. *Note: I am no longer a Univeralist since I became Orthodox and I now recognize that the Church, while it did not condemn certain people for holding onto what She would say are heretical beliefs, does not affirm the Univeralist position at large; nonetheless one can find Orthodox writers who do affirm Universalism, such as the contemporary scholar and historian David Bentley Hart*
A Theological Journey
Once things started to brighten up in my life, and I was able to put that pesky Orthodoxy out of my mind (for the most part) I began my theological journey. It started one day when I was thinking to myself about whether or not people who had become Christians and walked away from their faith were able to repent. In response to my ruminating I turned to the internet to investigate what people said about the issue. Somehow through my searching I ended up on a Wikipedia article that contrasted the main points of theology of the Lutherans with the Reformed and Arminians. Lutheran, Reformed, and Arminian are three of the largest schools of Christian thought so I decided that it would be helpful to see whether or not I was Lutheran, Reformed, or Arminian in my theology. I recall that I didn’t agree with the Lutherans but that I appreciated them more than the Reformed (the Scottish enigma George MacDonald is quoted as saying, “I turn with loathing from the God of Jonathon Edwards”; a sentiment which I share with no less intensity). When I looked at the Arminian theology I generally agreed: Free Will, a rejection of the Calvinistic understanding of ‘predestination’, the affirmation that the economy of Christ is open to salvation, and that someone can walk away from the faith. The only point that I didn’t agree with in Arminian theology was the doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’. The reason that I rejected total depravity was because of Lewis. Lewis, in his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, notes something along the lines of, “if we were totally depraved, our minds would also be totally depraved, so we could never conclude that we were depraved”. The logic of Lewis stuck with me. I had also officially come to reject the doctrine of total depravity when I came across an article of an Orthodox response to the doctrine (I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder what the Orthodox say about total depravity”) which I found quite compelling. At this point in my life I would have described myself as an Arminian who rejects total depravity. Since I found myself more or less in the Arminian camp I did more reading into it. Through my investigation I came across the one and only John Wesley (and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I initially looked into him due to his great name). John Wesley had a major impact on my direction in numerous ways but the most noteworthy influence that he had on me was his doctrine of ‘Christian Perfection’. In it Wesley describes a state of perfection that Christians can attain to by the purification of sin and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This doctrine resonated with me since the scriptural passage of 2 Corinthians 3:18 (“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”) always had a profound impact on me when I read it. The Wikipedia article on John Wesley even mentioned the fact that John Wesley studied Eastern Orthodoxy (in other studies I discovered that he was quite fond of the Greek Fathers), particularly the doctrine of theosis. I clicked on the article that talked about theosis and was sold immediately. Theosis as the process by which we are transformed into the likeness of Christ by the Holy Spirit resulting in union with God was a perfect description of what I read in the Bible. Here I abandoned the position I was taught growing up that salvation is a one time thing; salvation became far more dynamic and an ongoing process (just as it is taught in the New Testament). Along with the doctrine of Theosis I accepted the doctrine of ‘synergy’. Synergy states that man must co-operate in his salvation by grace and I agreed with this wholeheartedly. I first explicitly accepted this position when I came across it in C. S. Lewis’ classic, ‘Mere Christianity’. Lewis said, regarding the relationship between faith and works, “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ … it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” John Wesley also taught the doctrine of synergy (as well as Arminian theology in general) and since I constantly saw in the Scriptures that we were suppose to do good works I signed onto synergy as well. The next major theological advances that I made were when I was turned on to the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright. I can not emphasize enough how much of an impact he had on me. More than any other writer (even my beloved C. S. Lewis) he shaped my theological vision and understanding. Some of the major positions that I gained from N. T. Wright include: rejection of the ‘rapture’, recognition of the fulfillment of salvation being the resurrection of the dead (rather than some sort of vague platonic disembodied afterlife that dominated the popular presentations on heaven) and cosmic transfiguration, a more ecclesiological dimension to salvation, a rejection of the traditional Protestant understanding of ‘justification’, the Church as the fulfillment of Israel (aka: supersessionism), an amillenial/partial-preterist eschatology, sin as being a falling short of what we were created for rather than the breaking of a rule, a Christus Victor model of the atonement, an understanding of original sin that isn’t Augustinian, a complete redefinition of ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’, along with other points which we shall look at in other sections of this story. What was most important about the impact of N. T. Wright was his opening of my mind which ultimately lead me to reject most of the popular forms of Protestant doctrines that I had been raised to believe. I devoured as many of his books as I could and watched endless amounts of videos of his on YouTube. I also frequently visited theological blogs of a wide variety. One of the blogs that I visited, ‘the Pocket Scroll’, introduced me to many of the Church Fathers. Another was by the scholar Ben Witherington (the third) where he discussed how the early Church would never have accepted to notion of ‘Sola Scriptura’ since there wasn’t a canon until the fourth century; a startling realization for myself which led to a new approach to the place of ‘tradition’. I would also read random theological articles that I could find regarding topics that interested me. One such article I read somewhere, possibly on Christianity Today, had an interview of Met. Kallistos Ware in which he presented that redemption begins with the Incarnation since at the Incarnation man is reunited with God. Another blog that I would visit, ‘Euangelion’ on the Patheos website, once shared an article describing the Orthodox understanding of the infancy of the original man. According to the article (which was reviewing the book, ‘Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology’ by Fr. Andrew Louth) the Orthodox understanding was the man was meant to grow and mature even in his paradisal state, thus from the very beginning the purpose of man’s life was theosis. This was another position that I signed onto. One of the most odd blogs that I followed was the self-proclaimed liturgical anabaptist Kurt Willems and his Pangea blog. The importance of this blog is that it lead me to the, now Anglican, scholar Scot Mcknight. Scot McKnight had a big impact on me due to his teaching on man being the ‘eikon’ of God. Obviously the Bible speaks about man being made in the image of God but it’s implications never struck me until I came across Scot Mcknight: man is made to be the icon of God, the fall darkens the image, the economy of Christ restores the image. This teaching perfectly fit in with my understanding of man being made in a state of perfection yet spiritual infancy who is meant to grow through the co-operation of his will with the Grace of God to attain the full likeness of Christ, and thus fulfill his ‘eikonic’ vocation. Also part of Mcknight’s vision is that man was made for communion; first with God, then with himself, then with other human beings, and finally with the whole of creation. This fit in perfectly with my understanding of the purpose of man’s life being theosis and the ultimate salvation being the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the entire cosmos. A short summary of the theological vision I came to acquire (which was over the time of about a year and a half) is: God creates man to be in communion with Him and all creation. Man is perfect but in a dynamic way in which he is meant to co-operate with the Grace of God to be transformed into the full likeness of God and become the perfect ‘eikon’ of God. Sin cuts him off from God which results in mankind being plunged into mortality which is what original sin (not that man inherits Adam’s guilt). The story of Israel is of the preparation for the Messiah who will restore mankind. Christ is the fulfillment of the story of Israel and through his economy all mankind can now be members of the People of God (ie: The Church). Christ restores man to God in the Incarnation, deals with sin at the crucifixion, and destroys death through His resurrection, and brings mankind with Himself into the Kingdom through His ascension. In the Church mankind is once again in communion with God, himself, man, and creation and is able to co-operate with the Grace of God to attain to theosis which is fully accomplished at the resurrection of the dead and the transfiguration of the cosmos. This was the theological vision that I had molded and it’s interesting that it mostly (not exclusively though) was shaped by taking what I felt was the best of the Protestant writers I was reading and molding my own theology. Along the way there were other writers too who helped shape my theology (such as Dallas Willard and Alister McGrath) but this is an accurate picture of what I have come to believe shortly before becoming Orthodox, but before we can get there we have to examine some other paths that I was on in my life; not only the theological one.
My Steps Towards, and then Running Away From, Canterbury
While I was making my theological journey I found myself largely identifying with the Anglican church. My two favorite Christian writers (C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright) were Anglicans as well as some others that I was familiar with (such as Alister McGrath, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, John Wesley, Henry Chadwick, etc..). I found the Church of England very attractive since in many ways it still resembled Classical Christianity by retaining an episcopal structure, a church calendar, lectionary, liturgy, etc.. I was even more attracted to the Anglican church because it was closer to Protestantism than Orthodoxy was (and in the Anglican church I wouldn’t be forced to swallow certain pills; Mariology and the Saints primarily) and if I became Anglican I would still be far closer to be Protestant friends and family. I was so serious about the possibility of Anglicanism that I even went out and bought a copy of the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (though when I opened it I was at a loss how to work it) and would even refer to myself as an ‘Anonymous Anglican’ (since I wasn’t formally a member of the Anglican communion). During this time I was following a blog by an American Episcopalian who was quite eclectic in his own theology. One day he began to sort ‘tell-all’ series of posts describing, in horrible detail, all the let downs, divisions, and interior problems of the Episcopal church. As I read the series I found myself cringing at the disunity, internal fracturing, and at times down right hostility found within the Episcopal church. Before I had read these posts the only real reservation I had about the Anglican church was about her dubious origins but now I found myself running away as fast as I could.
From Symbol to Sacrament
Part of my Evangelical Anabaptist upbringing was a complete rejection of the sacraments. Baptism was only an act of public declaration and the Eucharist (a word entirely foreign to my upbringing; it was simply called ‘communion’) was nothing more than a memorial meal. This was something I held on to myself until I read N. T. Wright. In the writings of N. T. Wright I discovered how all those passages of baptism and the eucharist in the Bible only really make sense if they are more than just symbols. In baptism we are set free from our former oppression to sin just as the Israelites were set free from their former Egyptian oppressors in the water of the Red Sea (I even came to accept infant baptism). The doctrine of the Incarnation naturally implies that reality of the Eucharist; if God enters into the world and takes up His abode in matter through the Incarnation then the Eucharist, being His body and blood, is somehow mystically the very body and blood of Christ which imparts Grace to us. I then began to read the scriptures in a whole new light; a sacramental one. This sacramental vision was also found in C. S. Lewis and John Wesley but it didn’t hit home with me until N. T. Wright.
A Spiritual Development
Alongside my theological and sacramental journeys was a spiritual one. When I first became an Evangelical Christian I was very much a part of a ‘charismatic’ community; prophetic visions, highly emotional worship, ‘mountain top’ experiences, etc.. I never felt entirely home in this atmosphere though and I knew that it wasn’t for me when I was at a charismatic church one time and faked speaking in tongues just so some ‘prophetess’ would leave me alone. My first development came almost a year after my conversion. I was in Winnipeg with some friends of mine to attend a talk from the notable Evangelical figure Tony Campolo when we went to a Christian bookstore and my friends pointed me towards to book “Common Prayer” by Shane Claiborne. My friends were huge Shane Claiborne fans and had heard of this prayer book (one of them had even spent some time living with people who practiced liturgical prayer). I had never heard of liturgy of liturgical prayers before I bought the book but I began to incorporate it into my own devotions. It consisted of a different morning prayer for every day of the year, a midday prayer, as well as an evening prayer for every day of the week. Eventually I had established for myself a prayer rule consisting of the liturgical prayers from the book along with my own personal prayers that I would say throughout the day. During the day I would strive to pray without ceasing, as St. Paul exhorts us to. I was initially inspired to strive to pray more when I read about how much time John Wesley spent each day praying. When I would wake up I would say my liturgical prayers, during the day at work I would say spontaneous prayers, at lunch time I would say my midday prayer, the afternoon would be spent in spontaneous prayers, when I would come home from work I would spend time reciting a prayer of my own composition in which I would pray for others that I know, and before I go to the bed I would say my evening prayers. Within my spontaneous prayers I began to incorporate the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer” (how I first came into contact with the prayer escapes me). I also began to incorporate bodily actions into my prayers. In the ‘Common Prayer’ book it recommended bodily actions such as bows, prostrations, the sign of the cross, as well as using items such as candles and incense. Alongside my incorporation of liturgical prayers and bodily accompaniment I began to fast regularly. I had read once that John Wesley fasted every Wednesday and Friday (something I wasn’t quite ready to take one yet) and so I started fasting once a week. I also began to experiment with other spiritual disciplines. I read the book ‘The Celebration of Discipline’ by Richard Foster and came to the conclusion that our spirituality must be disciplined, ie: ascetic. I came to understand theologically that the Kingdom of Heaven is near and that Grace is all around us but it’s necessary for us to orient ourselves towards it and to open our hearts to receive it. Disciplines such as prayer, fasting, solitude, stillness, silence, study of the scriptures, and other spiritual tools where means towards this end of experiencing to a greater degree the Presence of God within ourselves (this ascetic understanding tied itself in perfectly with my theological understanding of theosis and synergy). I came to understand the intercession of the saints by reading an interview with Frederica Matthewes-Green that was conducted by Rachel Held Evans where she said, “Sometimes people say to me, “I can go directly to Jesus, I don’t need to ask intermediaries,” and I reply, “OK, I won’t pray for you any more, then.” Really, the prayers of the saints are no different from the prayers of our friends on earth. It is “the great cloud of witnesses,” both visible and invisible, all one in Jesus Christ.” I also came to accept the use and veneration of icons through a discussion with my Orthodox friend where he noted that most people point to the commandment in Exodus not to make an images and yet not too shortly after God Himself commands the Israelites to makes images of Cherubim in the Temple Veil and on the Ark of the Covenant (my acceptance of veneration came from the anthropological understanding that all people of ‘icons’ and St. Paul instructs us to greet each other with a holy kiss; so if kissing each other isn’t worship neither is kissing an icon). I began the practice of praying for the dead after reading the book written by N. T. Wright about the after life, but I will quote him from his monumental work ‘Surprised By Hope’, “Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the ‘communion of saints.’ They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist they are there with us, along with the angels and archangels. Why then should we not pray for and with them? The reason the Reformers and their successors did their best to outlaw praying for the dead was because that had been so bound up with the notion of purgatory and the need to get people out of it as soon as possible. Once we rule out purgatory, I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should – not that they will get out of purgatory but that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?”.
My Personal Journey
Everything that I have mentioned so far about my theological, sacramental, and spiritual developments were largely kept to myself. On the outside I seemed to be a typical Evangelical Christian. Over the time that I spent at the church that I was attending I became very involved in many different areas of the community. I became a youth leader, a Sunday School teacher, I played in the youth worship band, I played in a Sunday morning worship band, I would sometimes play my guitar as an ‘intro’ to the service, I would run the projector, I was part of a prison ministry team for youth in Portage La Prairie, I spoke in the youth group a few times, I led a session on a youth retreat once, and I even gave a sermon twice. I became very used to being a respected member of the church community and enjoyed the influence that I had. Due to this I largely kept my personal convictions (such as infant baptism, sacramental theology, prayers for the dead, and so forth) to myself. The community that I was a part of can be largely described as an Evangelical church with Anabaptist roots, a Baptist tinge, and a Charismatic leaning. They were Zwinglian in their sacramental theology, believed in salvation by faith alone, eternal security, and definitely not liturgical in worship. The reason I could still attend this community and secretly believe everything that I did was because I still held onto an ‘invisible church’ ecclesiology where the true church is marked by those who have true faith in Christ (whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) and that this faith in Christ is more important than what we believe (though I still believed that the community that I was a part of was wrong). What mostly kept me silent though was my relationship with a certain family in the church. They had a Baptist background and were pretty set in the classical Protestant Evangelical tenets of Christianity. I would usually go over to their home every other Sunday after church and stay sometimes very late playing guitar with them and having discussions. I had a very strong attachment to this family and I recognized in them a legitimate love for Christ which inspired me to be more Christlike (and I still to this day have the deepest respect and reverence for this family). I also at one point became secretly obsessed with their oldest daughter. I began to think of her and fantasize so much that I wasn’t able to focus on anything theological anymore (this neglect of theology with preference to my feelings also helped me disregard my theological differences).
Fear and Longing
Throughout my Christian journey I would have times where I would draw close to Orthodoxy. I would read an Orthodox blog titled ‘Eclectic Orthodoxy’ and through it came to understand that many of my theological developments where in line with Orthodox theology. I can recall one point saying to my Orthodox friend that if there was ever to be an Orthodox Church in Winkler that I would join. I also remember one time watching a series of videos from Frank Schaeffer, the son of notable Evangelicals Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who had converted to Orthodoxy give a presentation on his journey to Orthodoxy. During the videos I found myself strangely at peace and an odd longing to be Orthodox myself. There was another time that I had bought a copy of an ancient Christian commentary of Scripture (specifically some of the books of the New Testament) and while I was reading a passage from St. John Chrysostom and listening to the hymn ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ I thought to myself, “If this is what it’s like being Orthodox then I wouldn’t mind it”. But almost every time that I found myself fondling these feelings for Orthodoxy I suddenly reacted against them. I became afraid of becoming Orthodox. How would I do it? What would my family think? What would the people at my church think? I was far too emotionally attached to the church I was a part of and couldn’t imagine myself breaking off from them. At these points I would try to do everything I could to convince myself that the Orthodox Church wasn’t the one true Church. I was particularly fond a blog written by a man who had converted to Orthodoxy from Protestantism and eventually, for reasons never specified on his blog, left the Orthodox Church. He would post proof texts from the Fathers that made it look like they held onto Protestant beliefs (such as Faith Alone) and this was enough for me to look at Orthodoxy as if I now knew better than them because I had read some proof texts out of context. I would go so far to say that I was Protestant by choice and would never become Orthodox.
Suffering, Beauty, and the Issue of Unity
During the time of my secret obsession with the daughter of the family that I was very attached too I was unable to focus on theological thought and writings. I began to turn to novels as a way to keep reading. Two novels I read had a huge impact on me as well as a movie that I watched during this time. The novels were ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens and ‘Phantastes’ by George MacDonald. The movie was the recent musical production of ‘Les Miserables’. What struck me in all three cases was Christlike characters who were willing to enter and endure suffering for the sake of their love. These characters pierced my heart and I found the whole concept of suffering for the sake of love exceptionally beautiful. I came to the conclusion that suffering is a necessary element to love and in fact the willingness to endure suffering for another is the proof of love. I began to meditate on this in the context of the life of a Christian and came to really understand that the center of the life of a Christian is to bear our crosses out of love for Christ since He bore the cross out of love for us. The love in turn transforms us and makes us more like Christ (which in my theology took the terminology of theosis). Thus I saw that the path to perfection, the path to union, the path to salvation, is the way of the cross. This to me was truly a beautiful life. Beauty became for me that which points us towards Christ and thus it is necessary for beauty to be a part of the life as a Christian as a means of being directed towards Christ (the place of beauty as a sign-post towards Christ incorporated icons as being necessary as precisely pointing us towards Christ through their beauty towards He Who is Beauty). Around this time I was also reading the Gospel of St. John and became convicted over the passage described as Christ’s ‘Great High Priestly Prayer’ (John 17). In it Christ prayers that His followers may be one even as He is one with the Father. The issue of Christian unity began to become important for me. The best place I thought that I could work on this was at my work place. At my work place was a variety of Christians. One was an Evangelical Mennonite, another was a Charismatic ‘prosperity gospel’ believer, another was an Evangelical with a Reformed bent, while others were simply Mennonites. I figured that I would make an attempt, as poor as it was, to try to be attain to a better sense of unity with them, but I realized that this wasn’t possible. Two things that I personally find deplorable are Calvinistic doctrine and the prosperity gospel. The Calvinists are wrong and the health-and-wealthers are wrong, but since the concept of ‘soul competency’ (which states: in matters of religion, each person has the liberty to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right, and is responsible to no one but God for the decision that is made) is dominant among many people who hold on to ‘Sola Scriptura’ I realized that in their minds they have every ‘right’ to read the Bible as they do and that I have no ‘right’ to tell them how they are supposed to read it. I began to see the the doctrine of Sola Scriptura was in reality the foundation of division and I was beginning to see that as long as Protestants believe in Sola Scriptura there will never be unity among them.
How Dostoevsky Changed My Life
After I had read Dickens and MacDonald I somehow came across a quotation from the famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky that said, “Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams”. The quotation spoke to me profoundly and I found another quote from him which said, “Beauty will save the world”. Both of these quotes were perfectly harmonious with my recent ruminations on love, suffering, and beauty, so I quickly went out and obtained a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Idiot”. As I read the book I was once again struck by the Christlikeness of the main character, the Prince, but what hit me even more was my abhorrence towards to characters he interacted with. At some times they were nice to him, other times they were down right cruel. They were constantly shifting in how they treated the Prince. The reason I was struck so deeply by this observation was because when I looked at these wretched Russian aristocrats I saw a frightening reflection of myself. The relationship of these people towards the Prince in some ways was a reflection of my interior relationship towards the young woman I was obsessed with. I kept this obsession a secret, for the most part (I told a select few people), due to the fact that I myself thought that it was an inappropriate attraction; she was a youth kid, I was a youth leader, she was in the highschool Sunday School class, I was the highschool Sunday School teacher. Most of the time I hated myself for feeling the way that I did but I never felt like I was able to get over my attraction, even though I knew she had no interest in me and there was no real possibility of anything. But nonetheless I continued to obsess. There were times when she might say ‘hi’ to me or smile at me and I would feel great. The next week she might not acknowledge me and I would hate her and tear her apart in my thoughts and feelings. When I saw the two faced Russians I saw myself. Not only did this affect me but the realization that I am a complete hypocrite struck me even more. I had come to adore the man who lays down his life and gives up his own desires out of love for another and here I was selfishly holding on to feelings for someone I knew I could never have. I was the complete opposite of what I preached. I had only one option. I wrote a letter explaining myself to her and the next time I visit her family I managed to get it into her room. Once she found it she emailed me asking if she could show it to her parents. I said that she had every right to.
A Shrinking Circle and an Enlarging Ecclesiology
I was a part of a prison ministry team with her father and it just so happened that the day she discovered the letter and showed her parents was the day of one of our trips to the prison. The whole time I was nervous and uneasy. The thing I was afraid of most of hurting him and his family, something I never would have wanted to do. The whole time he treated me like normal and I began to wonder if perhaps he had left home before his daughter found the letter. After we finished our time at the prison we went to Tim Hortons to get some coffee. As everyone was going in I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sticking around in the vehicle, I had something that I wanted to talk to him about. Turns out he had read the letter and everything was fine. He understood by reading the letter that it was a confession rather than an advance on his daughter. He told me that I had nothing to apologize for but since he is a father and he needs to look after his daughter’s well being that it would be best if I wouldn’t come by his home for a while; at least until things had cooled down. I completely agreed and understood. Not only did my circle begin to shrink here but also many of my fellow Christian co-workers began to leave work. I found myself no longer feeling to need to constantly dwell on how I could never been at union with them, and since I was finally free of my feelings towards the girls I was once again able to focus on theological matters. This was one of the happiest moments of my life. I began to examine my theological convictions and at this point is where I begun reading Scot Mcknight. Another curious development was some connections I began to see in the Bible between the human body of Christ and the Church. The Bible spoke about the fullness of divinity being in Christ bodily (Colossians 2:9) and the Church being His body which is the fullness of all in all (Ephesians 1:22-23). I began to understand the ecclesiology is dependent on Christology and that since Christ assumed a visible and particular human body then there must be a visible and particular Church.
By far the biggest turning point on my Christian journey happened around this time. The church I was a part of was doing a weekly discussion series and the one week we got on to the topic of Biblical interpretation. I was appalled when I heard from two influential men in the congregation the sentiment that it is useless to read biblical commentary (it was likened to listening to talk show radio) and that it is better to just read one’s Bible for oneself and interpret it that way. This statement was absolutely revolting to me! At the time I was in the process of going through the Gospel of John with my Sunday School class according to the commentary written by N. T. Wright. I valued the insight of the commentary because Wright is a biblical scholar; he knows the Greek, he’s studied to text, he’s highly educated. To dismiss commentaries in favor or personal private interpretation provoked this thought in me, “Okay, so you say that it’s useless to read commentary and that we should just read Scripture for ourselves. What then gives you any authority to preach on your interpretation of a biblical text and expect me to believe it? Should I just read the text for myself? Where is the world is there the authority on how the Bible is to be interpreted?” It was around this time that I came across the article by Ben Witherington (the third) that stated that there was no such thing as a New Testament until at least the fourth century (he was referring to the list of canonical Scripture by St. Athanasius of Alexandria). This struck me incredibly. What did the early Church do and believe before there was a Bible?
Coffee and an Icon
When I began to seriously ask these questions about Scripture, Authority, Tradition, and the Early Church my Orthodox friend was in town for the Christmas holidays. He messaged me, or I messaged him (I don’t recall the specifics), and we ended up going for coffee. As we went for coffee he gave me my first icon; the Mother of God holding Christ. As we were talking to began to describe for him my theological convictions to which he replied, “Well, you’re not Protestant”. His words hit me like a train. After our coffee I dropped him off and went back home. I decided to set up my new icon on my coffee table, light some candles in front of it, listen to the hymn ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ (from the Liturgy of St. James) and look at my icon. I had already come to a place where I accepted the title of ‘Theotokos’ (Mother of God) for Mary since she gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son. While I was staring at the icon though something within me clicked as I looked at how the face of Christ was against His mother’s and how they were looking into each other’s eyes and I thought to myself, “She’s His mother, of course she’s important”. In some mystical manner I now finally understood Mariology. That night I was laying in my bed and watching a video of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom when suddenly I realized, “I want to be Orthodox”.
The Scales Tip
All throughout the time of my journey, unknowingly, towards Orthodoxy I had this strange intuition that the Orthodox Church was right but it was as if within me there was an Orthodox and a Protestant arguing against each other and time after time the Protestant won. I can recall a specific moment not long before I had coffee with my Orthodox friend when I was on a bus coming home from Winnipeg with the youth after having finished spending the evening at Teen Challenge. I was looking out the window into the city and thought to myself, “There’s still just too much Protestant in me”. The night after I had coffee with my friend and the strange experience with the icon the scales tipped. Whatever the Protestant said no longer had any sway. I wanted to become Orthodox. It was both a moment of sweet joy and horrible fear.
Back to the Beginning
I still had all these questions about Scripture, Tradition, Authority, and the Early Church but my friend to thrown out some names of ancient Christians that I should read; names like Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch. I decided that I would find out what happened after the book of Acts. I realized that I suffered from a condition of historical amnesia. I knew nothing about what happened between the time of Acts and the Protestant Reformation. I ‘knew’ that somewhere in there the Church fell into apostasy and the Roman Catholic Church emerged. This is generally what I heard from the people around me about Church history. I knew a little bit more than that; such as the Great Schism of 1054 and some of the Latin developments afterwards. I was also a part of a Christian community that seemed to be obsessed with rediscovering the Church of Acts except their approach was to read the book and try to implement some of it’s characteristics into their own church structure and organization. My thoughts were this, “Shouldn’t we see what happened after the book of Acts to see where the Church was ‘lost’?” So I took it upon myself to find out what happened. I did some research and found out that these guys my friend told me about were in fact disciples of the Apostle John! I ordered myself a copy of the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ as well as some other early Christian writers such as St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus of Lyons. When I read these second century Fathers my intuition that Orthodoxy might in fact be right and be the Church that has continued to live the life of the early Church was confirmed. What I found was liturgical worship, an episcopal structure, sacraments, an emphasis on tradition and the Church being the context for reading Scripture, and my theology I had worked on and molded was staring me in the face in the writings of St. Irenaeus. The more I read the early Fathers and looked into early Christian history and practice (such as the icons in the Roman Catacombs or the Hymn to the Mother of God from the third century) that before there was a canonized New Testament the Church gathered around their bishops who were in apostolic succession through their ordinations to celebrate the Eucharistic Liturgy (and they believed that the Eucharist was truly the body and blood of Christ), they maintained Apostolic Tradition, and they practiced such things as venerating relics of martyrs (as in the case with St. Polycarp), singing hymns to the Mother of God, making the sign of the cross, baptizing infants (and believing baptism to be regenerating), reading the Septuagint, among other practices. I now understood the Orthodox claim to being the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; and I believe it.
Saturday Night Orthodoxy
I made my way to the decision of wanting to become Orthodox but I had never even been to an Orthodox Church! My friend had once told me about a Church in Winnipeg called St. Nicholas so I decided to send them an email. Eventually I got a reply and I made the drive up to attend the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in an Orthodox Church for the first time on Lazarus Saturday 2014. I had no idea what was going on but I felt at peace and a quiet joy. After the Liturgy I spoke to the priest briefly and expressed my desires to become Orthodox. Over the next few months I would come up from Winkler to attend the Saturday evening ‘Vespers’ service and once in a while the priest (Fr. Gregory Scratch) would come down to Winkler to chat. During this time I slowly began to drop out of all the commitments I had made to the church I was attending (quitting the worship bands, not doing intros anymore, stepping down from running the projector, etc..) and the more I attended Vespers the more restless I became Sunday mornings at the church I was attending.
Sunday School and the Sermon
At this time I still had to finish the Sunday School year and the youth year and I decided to finish what I had started. We had finished the commentary on the Gospel of John but we needed something to do for the remaining weeks and I was hesitant to teach anything that I would no longer be able to teach in good conscience. I had also been asked by the pastor of the church to give a sermon. I began to read ‘The Screwtape Letters” by C. S. Lewis to my class and prepared a sermon on theosis for the congregation. On the day of my sermon I was reading to my class as normal when suddenly the topic of baptism came up. One of the young women retorted that baptism was simply a profession of faith. I began to bring up certain passages of Scripture that speak about baptism being our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ and that even in one place it says quite explicitly, ‘baptism now saves you’. “BAPTISM DOESN’T SAVE YOU, JESUS SAVES YOU!” was her reply. I don’t handle well when people become antagonistic. I get worked up and become antagonistic myself. I then proceeded to spend the rest of the time ranting about how baptism is a gift by which we are freed from our bondage to sin and made real members of the body of Christ. When class ended I went upstairs and preached a sermon, which was far too academic for anyone’s good, about the centrality of theosis in the Christian life. A few days latter I got a call from the pastor; the ministerial wanted to have a meeting with me.
That Friday I went to the church. I had decided that I was going to play my cards and announce my departure to become Orthodox. I had written up a big letter attempting to explain why I was doing what I was doing and brought along a few copies with me. When I got to the church I got straight to business and said what I wanted to say. They were kind to me about everything, though a few uncomfortable questions were asked. In the end the didn’t bless my decision but they let me go.
Enter the Catechuman
Two days later, on the Feast of Pentecost I was made a catechuman in the Orthodox Church. Three months later on the Sunday before the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross I was baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church.
Some Final Words
This is but the core of my journey and obviously there were other things that happened that had an impact but I feel that this was as comprehensive a description of my journey as I can make.