Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!1”
A few years ago my wife and I went to a Greek festival hosted by a Greek Orthodox Church in downtown St. Louis. As we were walking around the building trying to decide which food looked most appetizing to us, we stumbled across a bookstore right inside the doors of the church. The avid reader in me picked up a book by an author I had never heard of before and I began thumbing my way through it. It was so refreshingly succinct, beautifully articulated, and…well…different from what I had become so accustomed to in Western Christianity. I found the author saying things that I always felt like I wanted to say but had been too reluctant to do so out of fear of being ostracized. But, here was this author making bold claims about the communal nature of salvation, the self-punishment of hell, the importance of the Church Fathers, the necessity of prayer for salvation, etc. I had grown incredibly weary of aspects of Christianity that were solely based off of individualistic intellectual assent. I also sensed a tremendous depth to what the author was saying. It was clear that he really knew what he was talking about as he spoke of prayer. He also seemed to reflect a tradition, a history, that was so much bigger than himself at the same time. So, needless to say, the book spoke to me. The author, of course, was Kallistos Ware and the book was a simple little book titled, “How Are We Saved?2”
That day marked the beginning of a very intense spiritual journey for me. I desired to learn more about the Orthodox faith and the Patristic way. So, I began where most Protestants begin, especially those who have been parked in the Reformed camp for a while. I began with the intellectual side of things. I wanted to better understand the church’s theological teachings. I began attending Vespers services at a couple of the local parishes nearby and I sought out conversation partners in local Orthodox parishioners and priests alike. Even though the whole experience was a bit like trying to drink from a firehose, I felt spiritually dehydrated enough to take it on. My prayer life was in shambles and I was genuinely burnt out from the ministry I was a part of. Orthodoxy was an awful lot to seek—to understand—but I felt there was something therapeutic in wrestling through it all. I quickly found that Orthodoxy is much more comprehensive than the versions of Western Christianity that I had been a part of. There wasn’t merely a deep theological perspective, but a way in which one was to live it out through asceticism. What really drew me in from there was the notion that there was no question for the Orthodox as to what the life of individual prayer and corporate worship is supposed to look like. I had grown weary of constantly seeking to innovate worship services around my own personality whenever I was leading the liturgy on Sunday mornings in my church. I was also extremely bothered by how much prayer, especially silent prayer, was underemphasized, neglected and deprioritized within the Reformed tradition. Orthodoxy presented a way in which God’s people are to gather for worship and it taught a way in which people should embody prayer. I found something remedial in these things.
I also began to dabble more and more in Eastern Orthodox writings. I read all of John Zizioulas’s books and most of Dumitu Staniloae’s as well. “St. Silouan the Athonite3,” by Elder Sophrony became my favorite book (still is) and I read all that I could of Elder Sophrony and his disciple, Archimadrite Zacharias. Later on, someone introduced me to John Behr and I soaked his teachings in like a sponge. After reading the works of all of these modern figures, I began to read the Church Fathers that they cited so frequently. I committed large amounts of time to studying Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Gregory Palamas and Ignatius of Antioch. Both Zizioulas and Staniloae, however, really triggered a love in me for the Cappadocian Fathers and Maximus the Confessor, and I read them all fairly extensively.
I was hooked and was definitely in a puppy love sort of phase with all things Orthodox. It wasn’t too long after that when I began to notice a disturbing trend, however. My wife, in her perceptive wisdom, picked up on it right from the start. She never shared in the love which was slowly kindled in my heart for the Orthodox faith. I was initially confused as to why she wasn’t as enthused about this newfound version of the faith as I was. But, as I began seeing the things she was pushing back against, I began to gradually come out of my puppy love infatuation and see exactly what she was talking about.
Here is where the Orthodox lost me (or, us): I wasn’t looking for a new faith. To paraphrase Kallistos Ware, I was looking for a “fuller version” of the faith that I already had. This attitude, however, was not enough for many of the real life Eastern Orthodox relationships that I had developed. I was expected to renounce and reject the entirety of my Christian past. All things Protestant were to become an anathema to me. My Orthodox acquaintances were baffled that I didn’t hate all things Western and Protestant as much as they did. I simply couldn’t disqualify all of the grace that I had experienced as a Protestant. I couldn’t bite the hand that had fed me for so long.
Those of us who are searching are not all the 1990’s version of Frank Schaeffer. We are not all utterly scarred from and enthusiastically pissed off about our spiritual upbringings. The anti-Western tirade that is launched by so many Orthodox converts, which is often applauded and supported by Orthodox leaders, truly bothered me. I couldn’t convert and become another anti-Western poster child for the Orthodox, and that is where I saw my journey quickly heading. I couldn’t tell my devout Christian friends (Protestant and Catholic alike) that they were “heretics” and “schismatics”—many of them had never even heard of the Eastern Orthodox Church before. I could never say the types of things to them that were being said to me as I was inquiring about Orthodoxy. Orthodox people, laity and priests alike, were delighted to meet with me whenever I had questions because they always enjoyed opportunities for “evangelism.” I didn’t understand how I, someone who had been following Christ for several years, needed to be “evangelized.” I couldn’t, in turn, treat my non-Orthodox friends as if they were non-Christian and “evangelize” them into Orthodoxy. I couldn’t treat them as if they weren’t a part of the authentic Church of Christ.
Many Orthodox would accuse me of being too worldly, assuming that I am only seeking to embrace modern Western sentiments towards political correctness and inclusiveness. This is not the case whatsoever. I wouldn’t resist telling my non-Orthodox Christian friends that they were heretical and not truly a part of the Church because I am simply seeking to abstain from hurting their feelings. I would resist telling them such an atrocious thing because it would be utterly untrue. I found Christ in Protestantism or, better, Christ found me through Protestantism. I never would deny such a thing nor expect others around me to do so.
After sharing my frustrations with a priest and later on with a monk, they both told me to do that which brings my heart peace. After taking their guidance to heart and spending several months in fasting and prayer, I did exactly what they told me. I quit gravitating towards Orthodoxy because the journey was not bringing me any peace whatsoever. I realized that, at the center of it all, I could not pursue Christ-like humility and Orthodoxy at the same time. I couldn’t pronounce other Christians as being estranged from God’s Kingdom while believing that I was in. I couldn’t believe that the vast majority of the Christians that I know, most of whom know absolutely nothing about the Orthodox Church, had never found the true Way of Christ and union with Him. I could never believe that my Western Christian friends were heretical.
In the end, it wasn’t the theology or the worship which soured me. What soured me was an elitist attitude that several Orthodox embody and what these particular people expected of me. I recall Frank Schaeffer saying in a few of his lectures that “salvation is a mystery” to the Orthodox. Many of the Orthodox that I have known agree with this notion…as long as you are becoming Orthodox. If not, then salvation is no longer so mysterious…because you aren’t acquiring it. As I mentioned before, Kallistos Ware is known for saying that Orthodoxy is a “fuller version of the faith.” Again, many of the Orthodox people that I know would agree as long as you are on your way to becoming Orthodox. If this is not the case, the lesser version of the faith is actually no faith at all. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas notes, “As the late Fr Georges Florovsky likes to repeat, the authentic catholicity of the Church must include both the West and the East.4” Many of the Orthodox that I have known would, again, agree with such a statement as long as the “West” mentioned here is Orthodoxy in the West, not the actual Western Church itself.
At this point I want to iterate a very important caveat. I am not seeking to critique all Orthodox Christians here. This is not a reaction to the whole of Orthodoxy, but to my very limited interaction with it. Many people who have interacted with Orthodoxy or even converted in this community have stories that are vastly different from my own and I fully acknowledge that. I am not looking to mount a critique against the Eastern Orthodox Church but against an attitude within parts of the Eastern Orthodox community that I have had direct personal contact with. I also know that Orthodox readers will react in a few different ways. Some will truly believe that I am a heretic and am doing nothing more than spouting off a bunch of delusional rubbish. Others will understand where I am coming from (even if they disagree with me on several points) because they have seen similar trends within the Orthodox fold and they lament such tendencies. They will say, “This is unfortunate because this is not the way Orthodoxy is meant to be.” Let me be clear, again, I am not seeking to launch a full-on attack of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I am simply seeking to share my own story because I think it is good for Eastern Orthodox readers out there to hear it, whether they agree with me or not. I also write this for my Western Christian friends who have been shamed by our Eastern brothers and sisters for finding Christ in the Western Church, and for choosing to continue to pursue him there. I know people who have been hurt very deeply by the dismissive and spitefully elitist attitudes of loved ones who have converted to Orthodoxy.
With all that I have said so far, you can probably imagine that some of the recent happenings within the Orthodox world have been fairly unsettling for me. I have been reading about all of the controversy leading up to the recent Council in Crete and the subsequent aftershock which followed it. The reaction towards Crete within the Orthodox world, especially in terms of section 6 of the text “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” really bothers me. Here is what I am talking about. This was written by a Metropolitan before the Council ever convened:
“The Orthodox Church of Christ never lost the ‘unity of faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit’ and does not accept the theory of the restoration of the unity of those “who believe in Christ,” because it believes that the unity of those who believe in Christ already exists in the unity of all of Her baptized children, between themselves and with Christ, in Her correct faith, where no heretics or schismatics are present, for which reason She prays for their return to Orthodoxy in repentance.5”
My heart sunk even further as I read about the reaction from Mt. Athos as well (remember, my favorite book is “St. Silouan the Athonite”). The monks there believe that the Patriarch of Constantinople to be facilitating the “pan-heresy of ecumenism.6”
It is a weird and utterly off-putting notion for me; that in order to pursue unity with the Orthodox my “schismatic” and “heretical” self has to convert, especially whenever I personally never left the membership of any Orthodox parish to begin with. Furthermore, whenever I recognize the grace of Christ within your tradition while you denounce God’s grace within my own, it doesn’t give me the impression that I am the one being schismatic.
I can’t help but reflect upon the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch as I read through and hear about much of the Orthodox world’s negative reaction to some of the conclusions of the Council in Crete. I sense that a lot of this negative outburst finds its origin in the writings of St. Ignatius (how could it not?). Others quote him directly to support their claims. While I get that St. Ignatius writes that the churches should “do nothing without the bishop”7 and be on their guard against the heretics who break themselves off, I can’t help but think that the context is quite a bit different in today’s world than the one in which Ignatius was living.
For one, the early Church was quite united already under the teachings of the Apostles and the establishment of the elders. This is vastly different from today’s world. There was no such thing as denominations back then. So, one had to be proactively and intentionally divisive if they wanted to sever off from the Church and go their own way.
In addition to this, the divisions that existed back then between the bishops and the heretics were quite a bit more severe than the divisions which exist between the Orthodox bishops and the Western Church today. Listen to how St. Ignatius describes the heretics of his day:
“For they speak of Christ, not that they may preach Christ, but that they may reject Christ; and they speak of the law, not that they may establish the law, but that they may proclaim things contrary to it. For they alienate Christ from the Father, and the law from Christ. They also calumniate His being born of the Virgin; they are ashamed of His cross; they deny His passion; and they do not believe His resurrection. They introduce God as a Being unknown; they suppose Christ to be unbegotten; and as to the Spirit, they do not admit that He exists. Some of them say that the Son is a mere man, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are but the same person, and that the creation is the work of God, not by Christ, but by some other strange power.8”
I personally do not know of any Western Christians, Catholic or Protestant, who would adhere themselves to any point of this heretical tradition as described by St. Ignatius. Given that this is the case, perhaps the word “heretic” needs to be reconsidered just a bit. I sincerely hope that my Orthodox friends can see that the wedge which divides us Western Christians from their bishops is much less severe than the divisive issues that St. Ignatius is speaking of.
Lastly, there is a double standard in the perspective of those who desire to withhold unity from us Western Christians. I don’t understand how those who don’t adhere to the Orthodox bishop are somehow heretical whenever those who don’t observe the one Eucharist that St. Ignatius speaks of are not.
“Take ye heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever ye do, ye may do it according to the will of God.9”
Metropolitan John Zizioulas elaborates further:
“As the combination of the existing fragmentary liturgical evidence of the first centuries allows us to know, the ‘whole Church’ dwelling in a certain city would ‘come together’ mainly on a Sunday to ‘break bread.’ This synaxis would be the only one in that particular place in the sense that it would include the ‘whole Church.10”
Is there one Eastern Orthodox eucharist within a region under the headship of one Eastern Orthodox bishop, or do we often find multiple eucharists under multiple bishops in a region? Do not the various jurisdictions (OCA, ROCOR, Antiochian, Greek, Romanian, Serbian, etc.) have their own churches within close proximity to one another that celebrate their own eucharistic services under the oversight of their own bishops? Within my own city (St. Louis) I know that all of the various parishes do not come together for the Eucharistic Liturgy, but rather do their own thing on Sundays. Is this not contrary to what St. Ignatius is instructing us in? Does this embody the oneness that he speaks of whenever Orthodox churches are divided along lines of ethnicity?
Delving further in terms of the office of Bishop:
“The office of bishop in the early Church is essentially that of the president of the Eucharistic assembly. All the liturgical and canonical elements in the ordination of a bishop presuppose the primitive situation whereby there was in each city Church—one bishop (all bishops’ names in the early Church, beginning with the times of Ignatius of Antioch, bear connection with a particular city), who was surrounded by the college of presbyters (he was in fact one of the presbyters himself) and was called “presbyter” for a long time (cf. Irenaeus). What the emergence of the parish did was to destroy this structure, a destruction which affected not only the episcopal office but also that of the presbyter. For it meant that from then on the eucharist did not require the presence of presbyters as a college—an essential aspect of the original significance of the presbyterium—in order to exist as local Church. An individual presbyter was thus enough to create and lead a eucharistic gathering—a parish. Could that gathering be called ‘Church’?11”
Zizioulas goes on to argue here and elsewhere (he touches on the subject in all of his books that I have read) that whenever the ancient Church shifted from having two different types of services (Dom Gregory Dix refers these services as the Synaxis Service and the Eucharistic Service; J.J. Von Allmon refers to them as The Service of the Word and the Service of the Eucharist), much was compromised liturgically and ecclesiologically that has affected the entirety of Christendom. Thus, to reiterate and rephrase the question with which Zizioulas ends that last quote: Can any of us really call our gatherings “Church” whenever they stand in stark contrast to how things were done in the ancient Church?
Zizioulas also elaborates on the liturgical shifts that have affected Orthodoxy throughout the ages in his book, “The Eucharistic Communion and the World.12” While he acknowledges that “the form of the Liturgy and all the services is preserved with almost complete faithfulness and exactitude,” he also urges his readers to think through the changes from Byzantine times “which had an indirect and destructive influence on the iconic symbolism of the Liturgy.” He then goes on to note four changes:
a) The skevophylakion disappeared from the churches, altering the symbolism behind the Little and Great Entrances.
b) The distinctions between the episcopal and presbyterial liturgies dissolved.
c) Because of the adoption of individualistic and rationalistic attitudes, he says: “We Orthodox have come to the point of not knowing what to do with our Liturgy and our Tradition. Those who kiss the icons or the priest’s hand do it out of habit, without knowing why, and under the mocking gaze of those who know better.” By this he means that there are some who have been so swayed by the Enlightenment within Orthodoxy that much of the symbolism in Orthodox worship has become, “pious naivete,” “nonsense,” “superstition,” and “magic” to those who “know better.”
d) Piety has taken over much of the Orthodox world, thus stripping much of the grandeur of the eschatological symbolism in the Liturgy down to simpler forms. He gives the examples of how people prefer country chapels over the cathedrals, prayers read rather than prayers chanted, modest vestments rather than elaborately decorated ones.
I am not trying to make an elaborate argument against Eastern Orthodox theology or ecclesiology. For one, Western Christianity falls quite short of St. Ignatius’ teaching here as well. Secondly, Metropolitan Zizioulas is already critiquing his own tradition from within it; I don’t wish to add anything (nor am I qualified to do so), but just to point out what he has already said.
I simply want to ask those Orthodox who would deem me a heretic and not worthy of being reunited with: “Why do I (and other Western Christians) need to follow St. Ignatius’s writings whenever it comes to the teaching on the bishops, but you do not need to follow his teaching and the teaching of other Church Fathers whenever it comes to observing the one Eucharist under the one bishop? How are Western Christians heretics and deviants of Tradition when the Orthodox Church has also not been entirely faithful in terms of maintaining the original mode of worship of the ancient Church, as noted by its own prominent theologians?”
As I come to a close, I suppose I also want to address the notion that is emphasized by many Orthodox today, that the Divine Liturgy has been handed down in an unaltered way throughout the ages. I often hear the claim that the Apostle Paul or any of the other Apostles would readily recognize the modern Orthodox liturgy. I completely agree that there is much in the Eastern liturgies that ancient Christians would readily recognize. The same could also be said of the traditional Western Rites as well. I do think that the Orthodox need to be challenged in their perspective on this a bit, though. As we see in Zizoulas’ notes above, things have not remained completely unchanged by time. We Westerners are not the only ones who have wavered from the ancient ways, nor are we the only ones who have innovated the traditions we’ve received:
One Orthodox worship service on Sunday mornings is not the two services of the ancient Church. Something was changed by merging them together.
Letting the catechumens remain in the service is not the same as dismissing them.
Multiple Bishops in one city does not equate with the one Bishop in ancient Christendom, and multiple Eucharists in one city is not the same as having one Eucharist under one Bishop in one city.
Removing the ancient processionals for the sake of convenience or time is not the same as keeping them.
Altering the motions of the Entrances is not the same as leaving them unaltered.
- Zizioulas, John. Being As Communion. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985. 26
- Zizioulas, John. Being As Communion. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985. 150
- Zizioulas, John. Being As Communion. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985. 250
- Zizioulas, John. The Eucharistic Communion and the World. London: T & T Clark, 2011. 95