The Well-Thought-Out Conversion

well thought out orthodoxyFrom The Well Thought Out Life blog. You may recognize a few of these names.

I promised this post a while ago, when I mentioned that I’d been reading about a number of converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, some that were quite surprising. Supposedly over 70% of priests in the Orthodox church in America today are converts, which is a pretty stunning statistic, particularly in light of the fact that that is up from 10% a few decades ago.

I’ve mentioned Frederica Mathewe’s Greene before, and I just finished her book Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. Greene’s husband was a priest in the Episcopalian church when they converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and their story is fascinating to me, and seems pretty classic. They are a part of the recent wave of converts from the Episcopalian/Anglican and Cathlic church.Another convert from the Anglican church is Kallistos Ware, an Oxford-educated scholar who intensely encountered Orthodoxy when he travelled through Greece. He is now an Orthodox Metropolitan.

A truly watershed conversion was Jaroslav Pelikan, who was a preeminent church historian and a professor at Yale. He was born in Ohio to a strongly Lutheran family, he also became a church historian and Lutheran scholar, earning a PhD by the age of 22. He was known for the great breadth of his expertise, which included study and books on the early church, Augustine, Luther, the development of doctrine, Kierkegaard, medieval philosophy, etc. He came out with a five-volume work of church history, and was the first Protestant scholar to include Eastern Orthodoxy in their work on church history.

After being such a strong scholar and Lutheran for so long, it was shocking to the Protestant world when he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy at the age of 70 years old in 1996. He didn’t talk much about his conversion, but a few quotes caught my eye. He said:

“I was the Lutheran with the greatest knowledge of the Orthodox Church, and now I am the Orthodox with the greatest knowledge of Luther. “

He also said that he didn’t so much find Orthodoxy as much as return to it,

“peeling back the layers of my own belief to reveal the Orthodoxy that was always there.”

Even more surprising to me than Pelikan was the discovery of the story of Peter E Gillquist, who was not so much a high church scholar as much as a low church evangelical leader. He got involved with Campus Crusade in college and became a born-again Christian. He pursued graduate studies at Wheaton and then Dallas Theological seminary (where my husband is now). He began working for Campus Crusade based in Notre Dame, and eventually became a regional director.

While with Crusades Gilquist and some co-workers began studying historical Christianity and reading the Church Fathers, and eventually became convinced that the Orthodox church was the only unchanged historical church. They initially formed house churches that intended to recapture the historical practice of the early church, but most ended up joining the Antiochian Archdiocese. When Gillquist finally converted, in 1987, he led 17 parishes and 2,000 evangelicals with him. Holy cow. That story stunned me.

Another convert from low-church evangelicalism is Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer. Many don’t know the name Francis Schaeffer, but for evangelicals in the 60’s he was writing books like A Christian Manifesto, How Should We Then Live?, and True Spirituality. He was a BIG name. He went to Switzerland and started L’abri, a center for discussion and debate about faith and spirituality. He was super influential. His son Frank became an artist and filmmaker. He picked up the reigns and followed his father’s path, until the mid-1980’s when he publicly stepped away from the Religious Right. I knew about that part of his story and have appreciated his critique of the Religious Right. I did not know, however, that he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1992.

Kallistos Ware, formerly Timothy Ware, was Anglican clergy when he travelled through Greece and deeply encountered Orthodoxy at some churches there. He is now a preeminent Orthodox theologian, author, and Metropolitan.

Peter Jackson was an evangelical and Wycliffe Bible Translators missionary to Columbia. As he dealt with translation difficulties he began to look for clarity in authorial intent by studying church history. He really took a look at the East as he searched further for rational and reasons against Calvinism. They actually joined an Orthodox church while on the mission field, even though the Orthodox community was tiny and didn’t even have a priest. He is now studying at an Orthodox seminary with the intent of starting an official Orthodox church back in Columbia.

Matthew Gallatin was part of the Jesus movement. He was a singer/songwriter, youth minister, and Calvary Chapel pastor. In this position he struggled with the huge range of Protestant opinions, all brought from the same belief in the final authority of scripture. This drove him to a study of the early church, which lead him to the place that he believes still holds the beliefs and practices of the early church: Eastern Orthodoxy.

Joel Kalvesmaki was an eager young evangelical who also became a missionary with OM. When a fellow Wheaton grad and OM missionary shared his search into the Orthodox Church with Joel, Joel was skeptical. He began to read up on the Church Fathers to argue again his friend’s journey, and was indeed initially very anti-Orthodox. The more he read, the more humbled and surprised he was at the lack of understanding in his own evangelical faith. He considered Anglicanism, and heavily considered Roman Catholicism. He saw other history-hunting evangelicals journeying the same way and landing in a variety of places. Eventually the belief that the Orthodox best hold to the simplicity of early faith rather than adding to it led him into Orthodoxy.

John Maddex has been mentioned on my blog before. He helped run Moody Radio for years, and his daugthers attended Moody and Wheaton. One daughter and her boyfriend began exploring Eastern Orthodoxy after some church history courses, and the other daughter and her boyfriend followed. John began attending with them purely to be able to argue against their journey into Orthodoxy. His wife immediately felt at home in the Orthodox church, and as he began to read the Church Fathers his arguments also melted away. After the whole family converted he ended up starting Ancient Faith radio for the Orthodox Church, and I got to hear him speak in a spiritual formation course while I was at Moody.

Fascinating, eh? The theme of nearly every conversion to Orthodoxy is a study of the Early Church. I(t) seems to be rather earth-shattering for most Protestants.


  1. Lillibet says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for so long I’ve gone gray. (Not all gray, just a bit more than I’d like.) Getting to parishes is tough as I need a lot of things fixed, like eight fractures and a joint or two replaced. Despite this, after repairs are done (which depends on having enough to pay for post-op care — ACA is an oxymoron in so many ways), things should be better, and I’ll be in a new city. I’ll have a new home, new church with easy access on the bus line a block from where I’ll be living. This is in contrast to the mile walk required to attend here in the Big City. I’ll miss the local parishes here, from the few times I’ve attended, yet look forward to new beginnings in a new place.

    For now, I enjoy the doing part of Orthodoxy. Prayer, reading, the lovely customs, and the relaxed enjoyment of life in and outside the church, without much Calvinistic guilt make me smile. That’s true whether or not Calvin would have been guilty in the circumstances, which I highly doubt. [So much for my being a good Presbyterian.] I look forward to Sunday mornings, and to Saturday nights, even if those services come over an Internet live feed.

    I have noticed changes in me. I feel part of something that is bigger than I am or will ever be. I never wanted to be center of the Universe, and now feel a part of a church that doesn’t change with the wind, but remains constant and dependable. Orthodoxy seems to encourage us to walk daily with the Center of the Universe. Even though I don’t belong to a particular parish yet, I have gone to several parishes when I can get a ride, and have been welcomed in each like the prodigal daughter. While I’ll never be on the list of ‘famous people that convert,” there are times when Orthodox explain what they think Protestants think about some issue or other. Then, they explain Orthodox thinking. I find I never truly agreed with Protestants in the first place, but was too polite to say so. I am more comfortable with quiet witness to others, knowing that I am in the company of greatness only when in the church, never on my own. In the end, family and others have noticed differences in me and declare them good. That’s enough for me, and in an odd way, an endorsement that Orthodoxy is the right choice for me beyond what my own heart says.. So, just like the adverts, my life is changing in so many ways, all of which seemed to get underway when I first looked around and thought Orthodoxy has some real possibilities for me. With my now stronger faith, it does indeed.

  2. Fr. Peter Jackson says:

    I was taken aback to see my name mentioned among more worthy ones.
    A brief update, since the article says:
    “He is now studying at an Orthodox seminary with the intent of starting an official Orthodox church back in Columbia.”
    I have now been a priest for fourteen years, serving at Sts. Theodore Russian Orthodox Church in Buffalo NY. But my wife and I are currently in the process of joining the Orthodox Christian Mission Center to serve as missionaries to the new 200,000-strong Guatemalan Orthodox Church. I will be teaching in the seminary that is being set up, and I will also be overseeing the translation of liturgical and catechetical materials in the numerous Mayan languages spoken by the faithful. If anyone is interested in our new ministry, please contact us at

  3. Somebody I know from church told me his story of his remarkable conversion. A disillusioned Roman Catholic, he was exploring Orthodoxy but was reluctant to make decisive steps. (Didn’t we all?)

    One day he opened the Bible in a random place, and his eyes fell on Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the Lord: stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

    And the rest is history.

  4. Fr. John says:

    Fr. Peter – thank you for writing! What glorious news. Please consider writing up your own journey to orthodoxy story for us to publish.

  5. This is a wonderful survey, with vignettes into some of the great conversion stories of the last fifty years or so. Perhaps a book-length treatment could spring from such an effort?
    One major suggestion for improvement: there are a number of horrendous typos, misspellings and grammatical errors which might “turn off” the very people we seek to reach. Not only a spell-check, but a grammar check would have been advisable for this post.

  6. Father John,
    I was deeply saddened to see the following video of Frank Schaeffer speaking. The content and presentation of the speech are hardly Orthodox. He even says scriptures are bronze age BS and that correctness of belief does not matter.

  7. Fr. John says:

    I’m afraid Mr Schaeffer has been suffering for some time. Clearly, what he believes is not the Orthodox teaching. Please pray for him!

  8. Lillibet says:

    I watched the video that Andrew provided a link for, and am perplexed. How can the Bible ever be self-contradictory? How can one believe in one part of it, and not another?

    I am not that familiar with Mr. Schaeffer’s work, having only viewed his video regarding his reason for choosing the Orthodox church, and his description of the beauty of Holy Week following a full participation in the various services and obligations of Great Lent. Other than that, I am more familiar with his father’s writings, as he comes from a family of evangelical super-stars. That said, there is a lot of cutting in and out, taking snippets of his speech, which may or may not be a true representation of his present thoughts. I just don’t know.

    No matter how major or minor, when a thought of internal inconsistency regarding any portion of the Bible springs to mind, i immediately go to work. I know deep in my heart that such a thought cannot be true and correct. Momentary doubts and questions cause me to research and analyze. I go as far as possible to lay such doubts to rest. In that way, I am both satisfied that the Bible is true and without error, and that my own human reason is not, on its own, up to the task of calling the inerrant and divinely inspired Bible, less than what it truly is. Perfection in this world is rare. Confirming its existence in the Bible is a lesson well remembered.

  9. Pauline Pujol says:

    I am a twice baptized (sprinkling and full immersion) and confirmed Protestant. Never a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant but still Protestant and a member of a Protestant Church. Still, I occasionally visit different Orthodox Churches in the New York City area and find myself attracted to the faith. In the midst of ordering a Lady of Vladimir medallion from a Russian Christian Orthodox online Jewelry Store. That is a new one for a Protestant. My Protestant friends could ask me, “What do have around your neck?” My answer will be, “the Mother of God”. There are a few doctrinal issues which I bat back and forth and then again back forth and where this will lead me is in the hands of the Almighty God.

  10. I wish that Pelikan had elaborated on his conversion more publicly. Fascinating post!

  11. Lillibet says:

    Pauline, as a dyed in the wool Presbyterian, get questions most often about icons. With a mother that painted almost all her life, glib answers never get me far. My reply is usually using terms family understand, and Presbyterians don’t much go in for The Theotokis, as you noted. I appreciate the differences, as most are the clear glass windows, stripped down, rugged empty cross, no images ever, sorts of Protestants.

    My family is vocal about icons, and their (to them), obvious perils. Tones of dread creep in as they wonder if I worship the picture as I do have a copies of famous icons in my room. Of course, the family has a portrait of Jesus (a famous one from the 1940’s with blondish hair and hazel eyes), hanging in a location visible to all in that lovely small home. It never caused my Presbyterian mother to stop and worship that picture. But somehow that’s just different. Or so they say. It’s not an icon, but is in some ways, the very same thing, having been hung there to remind all we to be loving, obedient and good, and to say our prayers.

    Icons, and many other things in worship seem to serve many functions, including being visual reminders, about how to worship, or to provide visible indicators of the beauty of God’s love for us. So many other reasons are likely behind these objects, including icons. I am mentioning only one that works for me. Ions are images that work as visual representations of what these people looked like when living on earth and are visual reminders that bring to the fore the words, deeds and stories surrounding them. The picture is not the object of reverence, even as it kick starts reverence for what it represents. My sister claims the eyes of one of my little icon copies seem to follow one anywhere in the room. In that way, that reminds me of how present God is, with or without images on walls or windows. My sister has yet to conclude anything regarding that, other than the original artist was amazing to accomplish that with paints and a brush. I agree with her. There was some amazing painting going on.

  12. Rob Cottrell says:

    Icons windows to heaven – I first heard the phrase at an independent Charismatic church. We (that community) had developed a good relationship with an Anglo-Catholic Priest. He visited the church to address us occasionally and at the time in question he brought along a Greek orthodox icon and spoke to us about icons.

    I am also a twice baptized Christian having been introduced to Christ and spent my first phase of life as a believer amongst those others labeled ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Their form of worship centers upon the Lord’s Supper or Breaking of Bread’ as they refer to the communion. They have no cross or images of any kind and are probably amongst those most opposed to them.

    However my approach to icons has developed and I consider them fine. The issue is how we relate to them as idolatry is an issue of the heart rather than the iconographic image.

    The first icon we are presented with in the Bible is Adam and then Eve, created by God in His own image. All living icons created by the Lord Himself are windows to his very own image; these are the icons that it is most crucial for us to relate to in a Godly manner. Of course the more sanctified the icon (person) the clearer the image of God. But the eye of faith and love should perceive that image and its potential in Christ no matter how marred.

    My ministry is chiefly that of evangelism and it has often been (I find it hard to express) a sort of enlightening in my experience of such potential about an individual that has led me to pursue them with the Gospel of Christ. Such experiences have invariably led to a willing response from the individual pursued. I can only conclude I have been privileged to partner with the Lord in His love toward them.

    Jesus, God incarnate, the “Image of the Invisible God” is of course ‘The Icon’ par excellence and perfect. As he said of Himself “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”.

    Then I have hanging on my wall – what for me is an icon. In some church meetings where art is valued as a means of communication and grace, artist produce or complete works of art while the service is in progress. Such is the painting of Jesus that I have. It brings to mind the trial and mockery preceding the crucifixion. At a glance He seems to be crowned with bright colored thorns. On closer inspection you see that the thorns are actually depictions of people with hands raised in praise; to me they seem full of joy and contrast with the grief on the face of my Saviour.

    Every time I look at this painting it brings to mind my favorite scripture from Isaiah 53, “He will of the travail of His soul and will be satisfied”.

    The image and the text speak together to me and strengthen me in times of trial and pain and renew my desire to bring satisfaction to the heart of the Lord.

    Yes I vote for icons correctly related to. You may consider that a significant step towards Orthodoxy from where I began.

  13. Fr. John says:

    Icons – properly understood (as you put it) – are the guarantor of us avoiding idolatry. Without icons, we fail to understand the Incarnation properly, and end up in gnosticism or Calvinism, which is worse!

  14. Lillibet says:

    Fr. John, thanks so much for the many interesting topics here. I am curious how strictly icon images are regulated, approved or otherwise supervised by the Church? Are there some sorts of standards for images? How close would the images be to the actual appearance of, e.g., the disciples, or is there a tradition that his appearance is always to conform to a particular facial structure and so on? I know there are perspective requirements and images must contain various elements and colors for certain figures, or they are not good story tellers. I also know the colors of garments is also according to particular rules, and if Christ and the Theotokis are enthroned, other ‘regal’ elements must be included by the icon writer. Icons are not exactly like regular portraits, but what makes a picture to be an icon?

    Sorry about the number of questions. Inquiring minds and all that… I’ve suffered from questionitis since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My family used to just throw a book under my nose, or point me to the nearest library.

    How does misunderstanding icons get us to Calvinism or Gnosticism? As a reforming former Presbyterian, what am I supposed to unlearn?

  15. Fr. John says:

    Lillibet, there are too many questions to answer here in the comments. Send me an email and I will happily help out.

  16. Barbara says:

    There is an article on the web (PDF file) called “Jaroslav Pelikan and the Road to Orthodoxy” written by Robert Louis Wilken that may be of interest to your readers about Pelikan’s conversion to Orthodoxy. Wilken is a former Lutheran historian/author and friend of Pelikan’s who converted to Roman Catholicism. Google article title to read.

  17. I have been considering the Orthodox Church for several years, and I’m still on the journey (my husband is still firmly opposed to the idea, so I am praying and reading for now, for the most part), and I’ve become good friends with an Orthodox priest and his family, which is how I became interested in the first place (Fr. J. gave me some great books on the early church). I’m very drawn to the historical church, but I am also grateful for my protestant spiritual family, too. I do hope, though, that one day the door to the Orthodox Church may be opened to me. Anyway, as I was reading through this list, your inclusion of Frank Schaeffer gave me pause. From what I’ve read, I wonder if he’s even actually a Christ follower at all. As an artist he writes extensively about his admiration of the Orthodox aesthetic experience, but he also openly doubts the existence of God, and he has been quite liberal with the mud-slinging, especially in his criticism of his own parents, who don’t seem to deserve the vitriol he’s reserved for them — and that anger has been financially profitable for him. My mom, a self-described “liberal feminist agnostic”, holds him up as a personal hero because he “hates the right-wingers so much.” (Mom makes an exception for me and my husband — us she loves, I’m glad to say 😉 I’m not sure it helps your outreach to those like myself on the journey to hold him up as a “famous conversion.” His own profanity-filled book, “Crazy For God” is not the work of a man after God’s own heart, but the product of someone out to air his personal sexual obsessions and the dirty laundry of others. Have you read any of his books? This has me scratching my head, is all, and I needed to ask. Thanks for the encouragement and direction I’ve received through your site. It’s been a wonderful source of inspiration.

  18. Michael Seraphim says:

    I was suprised to read this on orthodox wiki about Frank Schaeffer:

    “Schaeffer is a controversial figure among many Orthodox Christians because of statements he’s made, including those where he’s said that he does not believe in God (although he indicates that he still receives the Eucharist at his parish). Alternately, he has also claimed, as in the title of his book published in 2014 that he is an “atheist who believes in God”. He also has written that “In my lifetime I can’t think of a more insidious act done in the name of the Christian God than the Republican Party’s nefarious campaign to teach Americans that God opposes abortion.” Furthermore, he has also written that the Russian Orthodox Church is “homophobic”.”

  19. Fr. John says:

    Yeah, Frank (God bless him) has really gone off the rails. Please join us and pray for him. A lot.

  20. Van Gig says:

    If I might add a thought or two about coming into the arms of the Orthodox Church. It was interesting to read all the names in the article and think back to how each author was the impetus to read another, another which in turn lead me to finally approach a priest about conversion. Frederica Greene’s writings lifted me off the ground into an Orthodox orbit and Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone kept me there when I wanted to fall to earth.

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