Yet Another Lutheran Pastor Journeys Into The Orthodox Church

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by Joshua Genig

I recall being deeply moved by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ recounting of his journey from Lutheranism into the Roman Catholic Church (“How I Became the Catholic I Was”). It is a move that not a few have made, with denominational provenance spanning most every Protestant confession. Though I journeyed in a different direction from that of Neuhaus, many of the sights along the way were quite similar.

Like him, however, neither do I wish for what follows to be an argument for my position, nor do I wish to engage those who have “cruelly, disdainfully, and despitefully” spoken against me, with little or no basis for their assertions (Psalm 31:20). The former I wish to avoid because I have embraced a way of life, not a set of dogmatic presuppositions, and everyone must be persuaded for himself or herself; and the latter because, as Jesus said,

“they have received their reward” (Matt 6:5).

Instead, I wish to tell my story for the sake of my friends, for those who may be asking, with kindness: Why?

On 1 December 2013, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church by the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation. On that same day, my entire family received, for the first time as Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist—the constitutive gift of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Nevertheless, my journey began long before that most profound day, probably around the time I entered the Fort Wayne seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 2003.

At seminary, for the first time, I encountered the liturgy, rich in meaning and overflowing with the ability to bring order to my life. There, for the first time, I came to see that, by virtue of the Incarnation, all theology was principally Christology, and the sacraments were the source and summit of our very existence as humans. There, for the first time, I came to embrace the rigors of theological study, such that upon graduation, I immediately commenced doctoral work in that same discipline. I am grateful for those years, and I would not be who or where I am today without them.

But that institution did not embody the reality of Lutheranism (as a whole) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (in particular).

What struck me within weeks of my ordination was the reality that most parishes did not “do church” the way my parish did (not to mention some of the other theological and confessional aberrations and contradictions). And that was okay, or so the Synod said. In fact, that was encouraged. Unity was important, or so it seemed, but only in the essentials. While some very good pastors supported the understanding that Leitourgia Divina adiaphora non est, the general practice of the Synod conveyed a different reality. In short, it was left to every parish (governed by the voters’ assembly) to determine what it thought was best. In turn, some were liturgical. Others were more liturgical than many Roman Catholic parishes. Still others were middle-of-the-road. And many were indistinguishable from the local charismatic Protestant parish. What this discontinuity signified, however, was a break in communion. We did not have

“all things in common” (Acts 2:44).

In fact, in many instances, we had very little in common, save a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. Yet, even that was delineated by interpretation.

For some time, I was determined to put my head down and simply live faithfully in my own little corner of the LCMS world, doing what I had always done and doing it as best I could. Consequently, the parish grew, giving increased, and spiritual maturity flourished. But I quickly discovered that when one lives thusly, he eventually becomes his own church, his own president/bishop, his own synod, and, eventually, his own god. And that was a reality with which my conscience would not allow me to live. Admittedly, I am not so naïve to believe that, in Orthodoxy, such problems of continuity do not exist. However, I do know that, in Orthodoxy, no man is above the liturgy, for the liturgy is the very hermeneutic of continuity and principle of unity, and if the liturgy remains, the Church retains her koinonia, her communion.

The second, and equally significant, reason for my move was my children. I am in no way suggesting that they could not have grown into faithful Christians within the LCMS—many have and many will. Rather, I am suggesting that the best way to help children grow into faithful Christians is by giving them the food for the journey, the bread for the way: the Holy Eucharist. However, it is not just a novelty that Holy Orthodoxy gives the Eucharist to the baptized of all ages. Rather, it presupposes the very heart of our existence as humans—that it is only in Christ’s body and blood given to us that we are enabled to become fully human again.

Moreover, it is only when we are in the process of being restored to our intended humanity that God is glorified (Gloria Dei est vivens homoas St. Irenaeus has said). Clearly, the arguments for and against the communion of all the baptized have been played out elsewhere, so there is no need to recreate them here. Rather, suffice it to say that I accept the clear witness of the Scriptures, the early Church and, for that matter, the Orthodox Church: that those baptized and chrismated are admitted to the Eucharist, precisely so that when they grow up, they never remember a day without it.

To that end, in discovering the great liturgical continuity, coupled with the emphasis on the sacramental life for those of all ages, there is one further reason for my reception into the Orthodox Church, but one that I could not have predicted before becoming a catechumen: In Orthodoxy, God is mercy. God is not an angry judge, nor is he wrathful. Rather, God is a Father, who is always and ever filled with that which he is: mercy. No need for belated commentary on various theories of the atonement, for no single theory accurately conveys the reality. Rather, I should only like to say that you can tell a lot about a church from its liturgy, as I have mentioned already. But, more specifically, for example, the word “mercy” appears 140 times in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

It is also significant that, in the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, the singing of the kyrie actually sounds like a cry for help. Mercy is what drives Orthodoxy and, in particular, her many spiritual disciplines (e.g. fasting, frequent confession, penance, alms giving, prayer, etc.), not out of fear, but as a desire to be united fully with our Father again. Orthodoxy provides the means for healing our broken relationship and the mercy needed to silence our predetermined prodigal deal (“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him . . .” [Luke 15:19]).

Yes, our Father runs to us, precisely because he has always been waiting for us with a merciful heart.

There is more, yes, and with every passing day, as we begin to grow more fully into the Orthodox way, I recognize that reality. But my prayers remain with those who have yet to find their way home. For not only do I believe that the fullness of life is found in Holy Orthodoxy, but I also believe that, in a unique way, this is, in part, the life the Lutheran reformers were after (though the trajectory is markedly different with today’s Lutheran confessors).

It is not insignificant, in fact, that one of the first appeals for Lutheran support went from Germany to Constantinople. The Tübingen theologian, Jakob Andreae, penned the following as an attachment to the Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession, sent to Patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople:

I am sending you a little book that contains the main parts of our entire faith, so that Your Holiness may see what our religion is, and whether we agree with the teachings of the churches under the jurisdiction of Your Holiness; or whether perhaps, there might be something that is not in agreement (which I would not desire). I earnestly ask Your Holiness to receive it with the same good favor with which you have accepted my previous communications and, if it is not too much for your wise person, to kindly express your most favorable judgment concerning these articles, if God would grant that we think alike in Christ.

The hope of the Lutherans, in fact, was that the Orthodox Patriarch “count [them] worthy of [his] indulgence and receive [them] kindly into [his] paternal care.”

Indeed, therefore, from the earliest days of the Reformation, the Lutherans sought theological affirmation from the Orthodox Church (and not vice versa), in no small part because they viewed the Orthodox Church as holding unswervingly to the faith of the apostles. The Orthodox were, very simply, the Church.

And, so, in a most profound way, I have done what the earliest Lutherans had hoped to do. Finally, I have come home. But some are not home, at least not yet.

I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity and faithfulness of my friends who wish to remain Lutheran and, in fact, I commend them for that, because, although I have found my way home, I continue on the journey toward the telos for all Christians—unity with the one true God—a journey that my Lutheran brothers and sisters desire to share. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our eyes have been opened by the Lord to the truth of our human story, and we are all growing into our understanding of that story, into the fullness of who God created us to be: made in the image and striving for the likeness.

And so, we travel together still.

My only prayer, of course, is that my Lutheran traveling companions respect me for lifting the burden on my conscience and doing what I was persuaded by love to do. Indeed, that is what happened to me and my family: We fell in love. And, to steal an idea from Bonhoeffer, while I know that love will not sustain this marriage with Holy Orthodoxy, I am convinced beyond all doubt that my marriage to Holy Orthodoxy will sustain my love for her, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Why? Because

“this is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.”

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Comments

  1. stewardman says:

    Welcome home Father…I came home the past Holy Saturday, via Confession, Chrismation and receiving the Holy Mysteries that evening…after being raised a Southern Baptist, then a Navigator, 33+yr Reformed Calvinists…and then 3.5 yrs study! Thanks be to God. So blessed, grateful and thrilled to be home in His one Holy Apostolic Church…with you. 😉

  2. Constantine says:

    I hope all Traditionalist Protestants such as the Lutherans and Anglicams one day return to the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Orthodox Church of Christ. Mostly through the Anicent Patriarchates or Western Orthodoxy.

    Always remember the best convert is a convert who converts and stays converted!

  3. rev. radu says:

    yes. constantine, is important to people to come to Christ and his Church, but more important is to remanin. the war for u fr. joshua and others converts is just to begining. God blass u all of u orthodox chrisitans form all over the world.

    CHRIST IS RISEN!

  4. As a Lutheran pastor who has discovered pre-modern (read “ancient”) faith I can well understand the pastor’s decision to “swim the Bosphorus” and enter into communion with the Orthodox Church. However, The Lord God has NOT bound Himself in necessity to the institutional Orthodox Church and I still believe that the Holy Spirit works when and where He wills (in spite of us and our religious and messy institutions, I believe) in His “holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” That there is greater solidarity and theological agreement among the Orthodox cannot be denied (when compared with American Lutherans) , yet the fullness of the XC may be found within the Evangelical Lutheran Church and in the Great sacramental Tradition in which she resides. There is NO single human institutional expression of the Faith that is free from sin or the influence of human corruption, O(o)rthodox or not. “Home” is where Christ locates Himself by the Holy Spirit, not in any single and exclusive human claims. Christ’s Church is much bigger than we think. We are NOT free to say where she is not (to quote A. Khomiakov)

  5. Fr. John says:

    Of course, this is an ecclesial debate. Is there actually a Church? Certainly, the Holy Spirit acts wherever he will, and Christ favors faith wherever he finds it, but that is not the same as being part of the Church – which is the vehicle of salvation – Christ’s created and chosen vehicle for it. It is the difference between Orthodox ecclesiology, and protestant ‘invisible Church’ ecclesiology, which no one believed before the Reformation needed to recreate the definition of the Church. Two visions, not compatible. Sadly, by saying the Church is a human institution rather than a Divine-human organism, I can say without fear of contradiction that you do not understand Orthodox Christian doctrine or ecclesiology. In other words, you are trying to fit Orthodoxy into a Lutheran mindset – of course it doesn’t fit!

  6. You can pray for me Father, for unless the Holy Spirit quickens, we do not come to see or know these things on our own. The Church IS always visible where ever Her marks -as ordered by XC- are found; those things are of divine origin. I do understand the Church as a divine and human institution, just as I know XC in the fullness of His humanity and divinity. I am willing to be wrong, and will be accountabel for it, but there is an “orthodoxy” which is properly XC’s and is to be distinguished from Orthodoxy. But I am certain we don’t agree on this! Blessings upon your service.

  7. Thanks! I think we actually do agree on everything but the ‘divine-human institution’ as in Orthodoxy we believe the Church to be a divine-human organism, as I mentioned above. A little point, but significant enough to warrant the divergent ecclesiologies.

  8. bill cordasco says:

    I certainly agree with former LCMS Pr. Steve about the schisms within the LCMS. My wife and I were essentially unchurched, having only had childhood attachments to LCMS and the RCC. When we found our local LCMS, it was initially a traditional liturgy with good preaching; then contemporary but still traditional (and Christ-centered) and still with solid preaching. Now, there is a traditional (though declining) service, a contemporary service, and a “resonate” service, the latter dominated by seekers and some very screechy rock music (the medium is the message, or so said Marshall McLuan). So now we have three churches in effect; though I love our pastor, I do not see how this can work for long. In addition, very little is preached about sin, living a Christian life in a practical sense, etc. Though I by no means hear anything like a prosperity gospel, the resonate style of the worship is mimicking non-denominational, Protestantism, and there is little room for the quiet contemplation which one prefers to this noisy, stress-filled world. The resonate service is also non-participatory, as there is no way for the congregation to audibly contribute to worship (we cannot hear ourselves think). So, even on a more superficial level, as opposed to doctrinal concerns, I am totally sympathetic to those “swimming the Bosporous.” One caution though: I have heard that being an outsider in an ethnic church is NOT a great experience.

    Bill, an LCMS member

  9. Fr. John says:

    Bill, it may seem strange to say it, but most LCMS churches are more ethnic than most Orthodox Churches. It’s just not the ethnicity you notice. Yes, it can be difficult to deal with in some places where your national heritage is more important than your character, but unless you go to a place loaded with immigrants, these places are more and more rare in America.

    All in all, follow the Spirit, take the plunge, the water is wonderful.

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