To Convert or Not To Convert?

by Fr. Leonidas

No priestly act is of more far-reaching consequence than a conversion to Orthodoxy.

It crucially determines for all time the convert’s personal status, his marital rights and restrictions as well as his religious allegiance. If a pledge of unqualified loyalty to the Orthodox Church is subsequently betrayed, the result is disastrous, not least for the priest involved, should he have been guilty of an error of judgment in authorising the conversion on insufficient evidence of sincerity.

In that event, he is bound to feel some personal responsibility and liability for every violation of Canon Law the convert may commit. For only through his act in accepting a non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church do actions like not attending the Sacraments or not keeping the fast days become grave breaches of Canon Law. Little wonder that many conscientious priests, under the weight of this crushing responsibility, contemplate conversions with extreme, sometimes perhaps excessive, hesitation.

The conditions for becoming an Orthodox Christian are simple enough in definition. A properly qualified catechist, after instructing the candidate, must be satisfied that the candidate is genuinely willing and able to accept the religious discipline of the Orthodox Church without reservation, whereupon the formal act of conversion is carried out, either by baptism where the candidate has not been previously baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, or by the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation, and the signing. of a letter by which the candidate on the one hand is renouncing his former faith and on the other confessing his Orthodox faith.

Conversion under these conditions is open to any person, irrespective of race, colour or previous creed. A person so converted then has all the rights and obligations of any Orthodox Christian. Strictly speaking, the actual conversion from any faith (or none) to Orthodoxy is of course carried out by the proselyte himself. The desire to become an Orthodox Christian is brought about by radical changes inside a person’s heart determining all his future loyalties, his thinking, feelings and actions, the mould of his very personality.

A conversion is the most delicate heart operation to which a person.could ever submit, and the onus rests on the candidate to prove that he is adequately prepared to undergo such an operation. Some may complete the requisite preparation in intensive study and environmental experience in a matter of months; others lacking in determination or opportunity, may never be ready even after years of fruitless effort.

How long this process takes is determined by the candidate not the priest. The ultimate test is certainly not the candidate’s love for an Orthodox party he or she seeks to marry. On the contrary, such an ulterior motive will militate against accepting the application.

The criterion is the love of Orthodoxy, generated by such thorough familiarity and fascination with the Orthodox way of life as to render all sacrifices and obstacles. Only if this love and belief in Orthodoxy, in theory and practice, transcends any other love and loyalty, are the conditions for admission truly fulfilled. But why are these conditions so rigid and demanding?

Almost every candidate (and many Greek Orthodox) question their justice with the seemingly plausible argument:

Why should so much more be expected of a convert than most Orthodox are prepared to do for their Orthodoxy? Why should converts be more punctilious in their religious observance than are the majority of Orthodox?

To begin with, true proselytes are welcome, but converts of questionable loyalty attenuate rather than consolidate our strength.

Throughout the Christian era the Orthodox Church has been exposed to constant oppression and frequent massacres. Yet no Orthodox Christian ever worried about the survival of the Orthodox Church. Therefore the survival of the Orthodox Church does not depend on numbers, but solely on the intensity of our Orthodox commitment.

Moreover, a conversion is a religious naturalisation. Even for a civil naturalisation – though effecting infinitely less significantly the innermost belief, the whole personality and the daily routine of the life of the applicant – certain rigid requirements are universally accepted.

For the grant of citizenship, countries usually required a period of at least two years, fluency in the vernacular, and certainly ready submission to all the laws of the land. Any alien declaring his readiness to observe all the country’s laws except one would be refused his naturalisation, and it would not help him to argue that there are many native citizens who also sometimes transgress one regulation or another. In these matters it is all or nothing.

Yet when would-be converts are told that it may take two years or more to gain the required knowledge and religious atmosphere (which even those Orthodox who were baptised at birth must cultivate through years of religious education, plus living in an Orthodox Christian environment from birth), that they are expected to have some familiarity with the Greek language, and that they must undertake to observe the Canon Law of the Orthodox Church, they argue, often amid a chorus of popular Greek applause, why should we have to meet requirements which so many Greeks fall short of?

It would be of little avail to an applicant for Australian citizenship to resort to a similar argument. The incontestable answer would be that anyone born of Australian parents – whether good, bad or indifferent, whether he knows English and abides by the law or not – is Australian. Even a criminal’s citizenship cannot be disowned. But if a foreigner wants to become Australian, every effort may and must be made to ensure that he will prove a law-abiding citizen, an asset and not a liability. Likewise parents must accept their natural child, healthy or crippled, upright or delinquent.

But in adopting a child, they are free to choose, entitled to take all reasonable precautions to make sure that the child will be a source of pride and joy to them. Surely the arguments in favour of similar safeguards in admitting persons to the Orthodox faith and people are no less compelling or convincing.

Within these general principles, there is of course a degree of variation. Since the assessment of a candidate’s sincerity and the inadequacy of his preparation is subject to a human estimation, there is bound to be a subjective factor in any such judgment. One priest may be more credulous, another more suspicious in accepting a declaration of submission to Orthodoxy. Diverse local conditions, too, may have an important bearing on the decision to admit proselytes.

In Greece, for instance, where all converts will certainly live in an Orthodox environment, learn Greek, send their children to Greek schools where religion is taught, and observe the Orthodox calendar – at least in great measure – and where there is hardly any opportunity of becoming integrated into non-Orthodox society, it is obviously far easier to accept converts than in the Diaspora where these conditions do not exist.

Naturally, the circumstances prompting an application will invariably be taken into account. A woman who wants to become an Orthodox Christian because she has fallen in love with a Greek, seeking to change her religion almost like one changes a passport on being married, will find far less sympathy than parents who wish to convert an adopted non-Orthodox child because they could find no Orthodox child.

Extreme compassion will also be shown in cases of non-Orthodox children from mixed marriages. But these are clearly exceptions. As a rule, it will be found that anyone prepared to change his religion neither had a deep religious allegiance before the change nor will have one after the change. Those who can be, and are, admitted to the Orthodox Church indeed turn out to be rather exceptional people.

True proselytes live up to the qualifications so concisely expressed by the most famous of them all, when Ruth the Moabite pledged:

“Where you go, I will go; and where you lodge for the night, I will lodge”

– sharing the life of the people she converted to;

“your people will be my people”

– joining the togetherness of the people she converted to;

“and your God will be my God”

– serving as a witness to religious commitments

“where you die, I will die, and there shall I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17)

– defending the beliefs and practices even to the grave.

Anyone prepared to follow Ruth’s example of total loyalty will be accepted into the Orthodox faith with open arms. But in the absence of such candidates, we should occupy ourselves with the challenge to convert should-be Orthodox, rather than would-be-Orthodox, to Orthodoxy.

 

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Comments

  1. A beautiful article! Touched my heart deeply! As one “looking” into Orthodoxy and feeling somewhat overwhelmed, this put so much into perspective: what is really important in this journey. Beautiful! Thank you!

  2. Michael,

    It’s a well worn journey. Let us know how we can help.
    And please remember us in your holy prayers!

  3. Travis Cutbirth says:

    Hi, Michael,

    Have you attended or been attending Orthodox services yet? 10 years of reading did not accomplish for me what one Divine Liturgy and after-service conversation with the Pastor did. I knew I had found something so precious and immeasurably rich that I would be a fool to ever give it up for what I once knew. And now I know – Orthodox Christianity is *the* One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith, and I have discovered Love, Holiness, and even Christ himself in a new way I never really began to approach in my nearly 40 years on this earth, having been a zealous Protestant (Christian college, frequent scripture reading, studied Greek, etc.) My priest is a truly holy, loving man, a kind husband and father and a veritable image (eikon) of Christ right before my eyes. He literally radiates the love and Holy character of Christ in a way that educates my spirit far more than endless sermonizing and Bible studies ever did.

    Blessings on your quest. I knew the Lord would finally get me, and I’m so glad He did. I could have cut at least 5 years off of my quest by putting the books down (and they were good and helpful, like Kallistos Ware’s “Orthodox Church” and “the Orthodox Way”, as well as Fr. Peter Gillquist’s “Becoming Orthodox” and Jordan Bajis’ “Common Ground: An introduction to Eastern Christianity for American Christians) by just attending a few services off the bat and spending time with the priest.

    I’m SO thankful to be in the Holy Orthodox Church now!

  4. Robert Frisby says:

    Father John, What dioceses is Fr. Leonidas affiliated with? The article was wonderful. As a recent convert from evangelicalism I thoroughly enjoyed the observations.

  5. I am surprised at all the positive comments. As a convert and father of adopted children, I found the article borderline offensive. The pro-Hellenic attitude aside, his implication that only Orthodox children should be adopted by Orthodox families except as a concession in extreme cases shows little understanding of adoptive families. Likewise, he trivializes the spiritual struggles of those of us who have chosen Orthodoxy after being raised in other traditions with comments like, “As a rule, it will be found that anyone prepared to change his religion neither had a deep religious allegiance before the change nor will have one after the change.”

    I really question the appropriateness of this article on this site. It comes across as anti-convert, and I would have found it very discouraging a few years ago.

  6. JT Klopcic – We share a reaction to the article that I had when I read the article (and was discouraged) a few years ago. The spiritual struggle seems trivialised, the command to preach and to accept those who wish to be Orthodox seems ignored entirely.

    Robert – I suspect that he was with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia (given that he references Australian citizenship and that the article was on the GOA of Australia’s website for many years), though I don’t know which Fr Leonidas he is or when he served.

  7. I myself am a convert to Orthodoxy and I don’t completely agree with the topic.
    Quote:

    ‘As a rule, it will be found that anyone prepared to change his religion neither had a deep religious allegiance before the change nor…’

    And what about ‘deep allegiance’ of St Paul before his convertion to Christ?

    Quote:

    ‘But in the absence of such candidates, we should occupy ourselves with the challenge to convert should-be Orthodox, rather than would-be-Orthodox, to Orthodoxy.’

    And what about the commandment of the Lord: ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ (Mt 28: 19)?
    I thank the apostles, St Cyril and Methodios the Enlighteners of the Slavs, St Herman of Alasca and many others who changed the world by performing it.
    JT Klopcic – I agree with you.

  8. Fr. John says:

    Daniel,

    I agree.

  9. Brett L says:

    As someone who, with my wife (Catholic converts both), is considering the road to Orthodoxy this article is not encouraging at all.

  10. philip toone says:

    definitely Greek , lazy , idle racist . greeks are automatically Christians , the rest of us , not , Greeks regard non -greek orthodox as scrum, When i was a catechumen , i basically had to teach myself , as the priest wasnt interested, as he didnt want English people in his church, But was massively interested in how much i was going to spend on the baptismal party

  11. Fr. John says:

    There are scoundrels everywhere, Philip, and some of us know it better than others.

    How can we help you?

  12. I myself have been studying Orthodox for about three years now. This subject has been one of my stumbling blocks. I get the impression I must PROVE my conversion or PROVE what’s in my heart before baptism. I feel this does not harmonize with Holy Scripture. In EVERY example of conversion in the book of Acts, they where baptized IMMEDIATELY after they heard the Gospel and believed it. If one puts all the scripture concerning conversions and baptism together, you find that they ALL; 1) heard the gospel, 2) believed it, 3) repented of their sins, 4) confessed Jesus was the Son of God 5) and then was baptized for the remission of sins in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Sprit, sometimes that same hour. Over 3000 where baptized after hearing ONE sermon in Acts 2:38ff.

    I fully agree one must know and understand what they’re getting into and what it’s all about etc. and this does take some time (but not years!). Now it may take years for a new person to become converted and want to become a Christian, but only they themselves can know that, not someone on the outside observing them. I also understand there is a difference between being “convinced” and being “converted”. I feel Orthodox, at times, takes it to the extreme and expects a new convert to be an “expert” on everything Orthodox before baptism. The Holy Scriptures teach us that a basic understanding of Jesus and the church is all that is needed to be baptized. Deeper study and devotion is taught and comes after that. It is a misunderstanding and disservice to the new convert to think a new person must be at the same level of dedication and knowledge as the teacher before baptism.

    People are going to fall away from the faith no matter how dedicated they may “seem” at 1st. I know those who help in someone’s conversion feels some responsibility to that person. I do not believe the person that has taught and studied with a new convert is going to be held responsible for that persons soul if that person decides to leave the church sometime in the future.

  13. Fr. John says:

    I agree, and I think that while spiritual formation is the most important aspect of a catechumenate, the mistake which is often made is to lengthen the catechumenate rather than extend it into inclusion in the Church. That is, I’m actually in favor of quicker baptisms/chrismations IF there is a deep, well organized and specific ‘mystagogy’ once in. For too many folks, the instruction stops before the Chrism is dry.

  14. If I were not at work, I would be weeping openly. God has led me to this web page. I have been considering converting to Orthodoxy for over a year. I currently attend a UCC church and had made a commitment to the church government that ends this December. I am counting the days until my obligation is fulfilled and I can begin my journey to Orthodoxy unhindered. It seems that whenever doubts plague me, God sends me some encouragement, as in this web page. Currently I am reading the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Thank you for your encouragement!

  15. Grace, you’re on a well worn path, and we are here to help. Welcome!

  16. Fr. John: as one who has been moving toward Orthodoxy for some time, I–like several others here–find it not only discouraging but insulting that Fr. Leonidas says “anyone prepared to change his religion neither had a deep religious allegiance before the change nor will have one after the change.” In point of fact, I have had a a deep Christian faith for many years, first as as Southern Baptist, then as a Lutheran. I wonder if Fr. Leonidas is unaware of the late Fr. Peter Gilquist and the many Christians raised in other denominations who became quite pious and productive Orthodox? And I wonder if such would have ever joined the Orthodox church, is the views expressed in this epistle had been the ones regnant in their cases?

  17. Tim, indeed. Please remember, this is Fr. Leonidas’ story and his experience. Our mileage may vary. Almost everyone who has come to Orthodoxy has come precisely because of a rich and meaningful personal spiritual experience. Fr Leonidas is also not a convert, he is what we call a ‘revert’ – someone who grew up in the Church and either left or fell away, and then came back with a strong spiritual experience. His experience is intended to speak to fellow ‘fall aways’, not the fervent truth seeker on a gut-wrenching search for reality.

    Most of us are the latter.

  18. Fr. John: thanks. I shall take that under advisement–and to heart.

  19. It’s alright, Tim. We’re all in this together.

  20. Thomas Yakopin says:

    Excellent article. I am a Christian born into Presbyterianism which then migrated into evangelical Christianity.
    After studying the scriptures and better understanding the churches heritage, I see orthodoxy as the closest thing to biblical, historical Christianity alive today.

  21. Thomas, let us know how we can help you.

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