Moving East: Part Two

by Phil Silouan Thompson

I read on from the earliest Fathers into the third and fourth centuries — Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil. Where was the break I was expecting? Where was the change from congregational democracy and unstructured charismatic worship, to liturgical, hierarchical religion? That change was nowhere to be found; instead, it looked more like the writers of the first and fourth centuries were all on the same page, all in the same Church.

Of course there were variations of opinion, but all these ancient writers, from across the civilized world, shared the beliefs of those first-century teachers who’d written with the words of the Apostles still ringing in their ears.

The writers after Constantine didn’t differ materially from those before; instead there was a real sense of harmony among all the ancient writers I read; and an increasing dissonance as I compared their ancient beliefs to what I was accustomed to preaching.

Virtually all my concepts of worship and church government were turning out to be modern innovations. Before 1500, who had ever heard of democratic church government? Symbolic crackers and grape juice? An invisible church independent of the original apostles? Baptism that doesn’t really do anything? Thousands of years and thousands of miles removed from the apostles who wrote Scripture, with Greek a foreign language at best, by the dim light of archaeology, speculation, and changing winds of scholarship, I was in no position to judge the interpretations and teachings of these earliest Christians, who had learned their doctrine directly from the apostles. I had to start letting them judge me.

I experimented with adding liturgical elements in our services; but the results were unsatisfying to say the least. The Vietnamese Christians knew how they were used to doing church, and while they’d humor me in my liturgical notions, they were not about to significantly change their practices at this late date. As I realized the centrality of the Eucharist in early Christianity, we emphasized Communion more, and I found myself preaching against doctrines I had taught not too many months before — and in increasing disagreement with the other teachers in the congregation.

I had always believed my job as a mission pastor was to work myself out of a job. I had already been working toward turning the Vietnamese mission over to Vietnamese leaders. So I was glad to hand over most of the task of preaching to the Vietnamese leaders. I didn’t have much choice; preaching had become terribly difficult. My “Thus Saith The Lord” had gone away, and I felt like a fraud. The doctrines I’d taught were internally consistent — but not faithful to what the earliest Christians believed.

It was especially disturbing, in attempting to preach the Gospel as the early Christians did, that the early Christians didn’t seem to believe that a “decision for Christ” was the same thing as “salvation.” They all taught that salvation was a lifelong process, not a transaction or a legal fiction, and “he who perseveres to the end will be saved.” I had long believed I had a message that would save the world; now after seeing the sadly temporary results of much of evangelical preaching and discipleship, I couldn’t preach a simplistic “Get saved” gospel any more.

What was I supposed to invite people into? Ancient Christianity was all about the relationship of the member of the Church to Christ and His body; not about anybody’s “personal Savior.” Outsiders were invited to join the people of God, get aboard the ark, become a part of the body — not to individually “accept Christ” but to come and be accepted, healed, and sanctified in the community of believers.

Was there a place in the Assemblies of God for this kind of grace community to be found — or created? Could our congregation become a community I could invite someone to be immersed in and find the healing they need? I doubted it. Our modern Christianity was starting to look like something consisting primarily of words and ideas and unreal things that happen in a person’s head: Intellectual things like those derived from Bible study and sermon listening, or emotional things like born again experiences and charismatic events. Wasn’t there anything real, effectual, and tangible? Were justification, sanctification, and participation in the divine nature just concepts or “spiritual realities” unrelated to life as we live it, here and now? Nobody seemed to have an answer that they hadn’t just invented, or reconstructed out of Scriptural proof-texts pulled together in an attempt to guess what the apostles had meant. Unfortunately, the apostles were long dead and all we evangelicals had to work with was their letters.

About this time, I ran across a reference to “The Carpenter’s Company”, a Foursquare congregation that had converted en masse and become — get this — Eastern Orthodox. How bizarre! Aren’t the Orthodox just ethnic Catholics? What could possibly be attractive about that? I’d seen Catholicism, gone to Catholic school, lived with Catholic families… they may have started out with the Fathers, and kept some of the trappings of the original worship of the early Church, but their ever-evolving doctrines, military-style chain of command, and weird sentimental devotions didn’t look anything like the community Ignatius or Basil wrote about. Could these Foursquare folks have bought into a form of Catholicism? Following up on this incomprehensible conversion story provided a welcome distraction.

After reading a bit about Orthodoxy, I discovered that Orthodoxy and Catholicism are vastly different … and that these Orthodox people were way ahead of me! They had not only already thought of the ancient ideas I was trying on for size — they’d been working them out in detail, with all their implications, for a very long time. Suddenly my thinking didn’t seem so very “out there” at all; and evidently there were plenty of other Evangelicals coming to the same conclusions that Foursquare congregation did — and converting to Orthodoxy. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon lately for entire congregations to join the Orthodox Church. Congregations convert from a variety of backgrounds: Foursquare, Episcopal, Vineyard, and others.

I even read about the “Evangelical Orthodox”, an entire Protestant denomination that joined the Orthodox Church in 1987.

These converts claimed they were finding in Orthodoxy a community devoted to the disciplines and worship of ancient Christianity — not by restoring or reinventing it, but by receiving it as it had been practiced since the days of Peter and Paul. (Quite a claim, if they could back it up!) As it turned out, outside of the Western Roman Empire, there were no “dark ages”, but an unbroken chain of literate, articulate theologians who never forgot their roots.

As I read the Orthodox writers of the fifth, eighth, or twelfth centuries, I thought that they might be right — this was the same stream I’d been wading in while reading the early Fathers.

Discovering twentieth-century Orthodoxy was not entirely welcome. For all its warts I liked my denomination — there are some good men and women there, who sincerely love the Lord — and I loved the people I went to church with. I didn’t want to leave the church family I’d been part of for most of my Christian life. I made up my mind to incorporate the good parts of Orthodox spirituality into my life and stay what and where I was. Meanwhile, my curiosity got the best of me, I looked up an Orthodox church near me in Yakima, and took a Sunday off to go visit.

What can I say about Orthodox worship? It was reverent, intimate, repentant… alive with faith, strange yet oddly familiar. The liturgy had elements I recognized from the Catholic Mass and from popular “chant” CD’s, and it consisted mostly of praying a lot of Scripture. In fact they read and prayed more complete chapters of the Bible in a single service than I’d ever heard before in a church service. But what really struck me was how Jewish it was. The words of the prayers, the melodies the cantor used while chanting, the menorah up front — so many things reminded me of a synagogue service. (I already knew that Christian liturgy was adapted from first-century Jewish synagogue liturgy, but I hadn’t thought it would still be that way.) They hadn’t stopped offering prayers with incense; “Bow down” wasn’t a song lyric but a practical physical act; the women still wore head coverings; they still celebrated the body and blood of Christ — it seemed like they were out to practice all the verses I’d never highlighted in my Bible. This was very much not a modern American invention! I was hooked, and returned to visit Orthodox worship services again and again over the following months.

By contrast with the charismatic services I led every week, the Orthodox liturgies I attended were such a relief! There was no pressure to make every week fresh, unique and exciting. There’s not a lot of performance pressure on the cantor or clergy, because the whole church is the worship team. Personalities don’t affect the worship, and the prayers don’t depend on anyone’s subjective eloquence or how their week has gone. In the set form of the Liturgy was also, paradoxically, a sense of freedom I’d not experienced before: Because there are boundaries and the worshipers know what to expect, they are free to concentrate wholly on their common prayers. There’s no wondering what new thing the worship leader will ask us to do this week!

More important to me than the worship services was the fact that among Orthodox Christians, I’d found people who still practiced the same worship and disciplines described by Justin Martyr or Irenaeus or Hippolytus in the first or second century. They didn’t read a lot of Max Lucado or Dr. Dobson; instead they spent most of their time putting the earliest Christian writers’ advice into action. And I was vastly relieved to find out that they didn’t believe in purgatory, Mary as “co-redeemer”, indulgences, or infallible popes!

In mid 1998 I was introduced to an Orthodox church-planting team that had moved up from California to start an Orthodox community in Walla Walla. (These people were from the church that started out as the San Jose Vineyard and in the early 90’s wound up becoming St Stephen Orthodox Church.) They were doing all the things I promised myself I’d do if I ever was involved in starting another church. At the Vietnamese mission, we had started having services, and a church slowly coalesced and filled in the framework — but too many relationships were centered on the leaders.

Before you start having services, you need to already be a church!

There’s got to be a network of relationships and a common worship experience, a community, an environment where outsiders can come and encounter authentic fellowship and community. That’s what these church planters were doing. I began attending inquirers’ meetings in Walla Walla.

At the end of the year I found that I couldn’t remain in both worlds; I had to make a decision. As G.K. Chesterton wrote,

“I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy.”

With mixed emotions, I resigned from ministry and membership in Calvary Assembly of God. It was painful to leave behind friends and family in Christ; but it was also a relief to at last be free to wholeheartedly participate in the historic faith and worship I’d been dabbling in for the previous two years. I moved to Walla Walla to join in the life of the Orthodox community there, and on August 14, 1999 I was received into the Orthodox Church.

When a person enters the Church, they often are given the name of some hero of the faith who has finished the race triumphantly. I’ve always been inordinately proud of my knowledge, so it’s appropriate that for a patron saint I felt moved to choose Silouan of Mt Athos. St Silouan, a simple monk and all but illiterate, was consulted by pilgrims who sought out his wisdom and teaching on humility, obedience, and love. His life challenged me so much that I specifically wanted him praying for me today.

So I became Orthodox. And lived happily ever after? Well. The jury’s still out on that. A few years isn’t long enough to make a serious dent in a lifetime’s immersion in Western thought and independent self-inventing religion. I do know that, for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced long-term consistency in prayer, and personal accountability on a deeper level than I’ve ever known.

And, incidentally, far from relaxing carefree in a new level of freedom from sin, I’ve become much more conscious of the rebellion, selfishness, and pride that underlie so much of my way of living and thinking. But (our culture’s pop psychology to the contrary) guilt is not a burden to be rolled away and ignored; guilt means we’ve sinned and have the opportunity to repent. Compunction is good news! The practical how-to of repentance and humility is the place where Orthodoxy begins to show up as something different from every religion I know.

It’s after having been exposed to Orthodox preaching and teaching for a little while that I’ve begin to realize that in my life I have heard (and preached!) far more sermons on what the text of Scripture meant, than on how, practically and concretely, to live a life that leads to experiencing salvation from sin here and now. It’s much more common in many churches to hear exposition on the Sermon on the Mount than to hear usable, practical counsel from that Sermon on how to live, now, in the Kingdom. I can’t count how many vague sermons I’ve heard on “living in the Spirit” which never included a shred of practical instruction on what to do. In two thousand years the Orthodox have had time to prove what works for training the spiritual athlete to run the race to win.

Asceticism for me has quit being a word to describe crazed masochists, and has become part of my personal vocabulary. In Greek, askesis refers to athletic disciplines — and that’s a very apt metaphor for a Christian life that denies our nation’s cult of immediate gratification and materialism. Instead of seeing fasting as a heroic way to impress God when I want something from Him, fasting has become a regular part of the normal Christian life.

After all, Christ did say

“They shall fast”

and

“When you fast”

so self-denial is meant to be common to all Christians. When disciplines are received and obeyed they can lead to humility. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in self-will, where we independently decide what cross to carry, and we just feed our pride. It’s a challenge for me to submit to the wisdom of two millennia of Christians who Know What Works, instead of developing my own personal rule of prayer or devotion.

All that discipline, submission, and obedience is not the result of any desire to measure up to a standard that will make me acceptable to God. The fact is, we don’t need to measure up at all. God loves us as we are. Period. A friend of mine wrote in a recent letter:

Do we love Him? Fine, then: True Love doesn’t ask “what I need to do and how much I need to measure up.” True love simply does as much as it can, the max, and prays for the ability to do yet more. (“More Love to Thee, O Christ, More love to Thee!”)

What has surprised me in speaking with my Evangelical friends has been that often the Orthodox emphasis on active faith — obedience — comes across either as an attempt to earn God’s favor through works, or as “something extra”, something above and beyond what is needed for salvation. And that’s the biggest difference between the gospel I used to preach and the one I’m trying to live today. I’m not interested in identifying the minimum that’s “needed for salvation.” Given an infinite goal – transforming union with God – and given the foolishness, pride, and sin that still characterize me, I’m motivated to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

And what ever happened to that vision of an Acts 2:42 church?

It might be surprising when you look at the surface of incense and icons and ancient melodies, but the kind of community described in Acts is happening here. The Lord is adding continually those who are being saved.

People encounter members of our community socially, get exposed to our way of life and of relating to one another (humility, mutual submission, prayer) and they are drawn by God to join us. Some of us are former Evangelicals, pastors, elders, what-have-you. But a number of our inquirers and catechumens are post-Christians who got burned out on church a long time ago, or normal people who have little church background at all.

Many of them have never before seen an atmosphere where absolutes are proclaimed, yet nobody points a finger — instead, we confess that we’re a bunch of hypocrites and sinners and we pray constantly for mercy and the grace of repentance.

I lean toward this vision not of evangelism but of community even more strongly as I’m painfully aware that I’m far from the godly example I’d like an unbeliever or non-Orthodox inquirer to encounter. No message is more credible than the messenger. I have a little credibility with the few people who know me well; they may or may not trust me when I tell them about the claims of Christ. But when they encounter a healthy community of faith, they see proof that Christ is among us.

Maybe it’s fitting that I started this piece speaking of my own individual experience but ended up talking about the Church. The promises and commands of Christ and the apostles are almost always in the plural. And while we can sin as individuals, we will be saved as members of Christ or not at all.

Philip Silouan Thompson

“We, unwise and with the meagerness of our intelligence, with God’s help have written this as a reminder to myself and to others of similar mind… If there is anything found here not pleasing to God and not helpful to souls because of my foolishness and ignorance, let it be not so, but may the will of God perfect it and make it well-pleasing. I ask pardon or beg that, if anyone should find anything else more practical and useful, then let him do it and we shall be glad and rewarded. If anyone should find from these writings some help, let him pray for me a sinner that I may obtain mercy before God.”   — St. Nil Sorsky

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