An American Pilgrimage to the Orthodox Church: Part 1

by James Kushiner

I don’t remember when I first became aware that there are other than Roman Catholic or Protestant Christians. There are so many Catholics and so many Protestants in the United States that the Orthodox virtually are an invisible minority to many.

When I finally became aware of the Orthodox, I was not impressed. I heard about a local Greek Orthodox parish, where they mostly spoke Greek; I figured it was just an “immigrant” religion. The children and grandchildren of those Greeks, having been born and raised in America, would adopt American churchgoing habits, I thought, and become either Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Methodist, or perhaps even Roman Catholic through marriage.

Orthodoxy, I thought, belonged to Eastern Europe or, I later found out, parts of the Middle East and Asia, but was not indigenous to America and would never be embraced by native-born Americans. Orthodoxy was a religion of the “old country” but not for the New World.

It turned out that I was wrong, as an increasing number of Americans now are joining the Orthodox Church—and I joined it too. In June 1993 I and 48 other American-born English-speaking former Protestants and Catholics were received into the communion of the Holy Orthodox Church by the sacrament of chrismation at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero, Illinois.

All 49 of us then became All Saints Orthodox Mission, part of the Antiochian Christian Archdiocese of North America. We now have some 120 members in our parish on the northwest side of Chicago, and have 3 members who serve as missionaries overseas. We are no longer a mission, but simply All Saints Orthodox Church, and fully American.

Too Many Churches

Our journey to the Orthodox Church took a long time. I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant home. My father became a Christian—“gave his life to Christ”—at a Billy Graham Crusade in the 1950s. He went forward and made a profession of faith in Christ, and for as long as I can remember we attended church every Sunday and I was taught the Bible in Sunday School. We attended a Bible church, and later a Baptist Church.

When I was in high school, I made a profession of faith in Christ as well. I attended Christian youth retreats and Bible studies and was active in my church youth group. I read the writings of other Protestant Christians like C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer and found them very helpful.

While a freshman at the University of Michigan, a thoroughly secular school, unlike many students, I did not abandon my Christian faith, but joined with other Christian students in fellowship, Bible study, and prayer.

Through the influence of Protestant Bible study groups, including some that were part of what was called the “Jesus Movement” in the 1960s, I and other young people began to wonder to what extent the institutional churches had remained faithful to the true teachings of Christ and the New Testament. We were in this way very idealistic.

One of the things that troubled us most was the great number of Protestant denominations, divided from each other, disagreeing on how to interpret the New Testament. As a Baptist, I had been taught to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was in serious error, and that the Protestant Reformation had been necessary to correct the abuses of the Roman Church.

I did not question that interpretation, but I also saw that the churches derived from the Reformation were not united and did not say the same things about the Christian faith and had their own errors. Some said that Holy Communion was a sacrament of grace, others that it was merely a symbol. Some said children of Christian parents should be baptized, others that only adults should be. Some said the church should have bishops, others said presbyters, and others called them pastors. Some said each congregation should be entirely independent and not subject to any higher authority at all.

There were, and still are, of course, several points of agreement between various denominations, especially about Jesus: that He is Lord, He was born of a Virgin, was crucified, dead, and buried, and that He rose again on the third day. They agreed that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God—and that the Roman Catholic Church was wrong about salvation. But it’s hard to remain united around an identity that depends partly on what we were against: Rome. And so Protestantism kept dividing into more and more denominations.

A Private Decision?

With so many divisions and disagreement, how does a Christian decide which church to join? That was a question that we had to face as we became adults, got married, and started to raise families. Shouldn’t I just join the one with which I most agree? But Scripture itself says that the Bible is not a matter for my own personal interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), and there are some things

“hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16),

so the Christian needs to look outside himself for the interpretation.

While I eventually understood that the Bible is not best interpreted privately, and that its meaning has been public and knowable by looking at the history of the Church, I at first joined in a somewhat private search for the True Church and true interpretation of the Bible. It was a quest for authentic Christianity. But I also was well aware that many denominations had split from one another by trying to claim authentic Christianity for themselves: they, and not the others, were teaching and practicing authentic Christianity. Who was right?

I said the search was somewhat private. It was not entirely individualistic, for I joined with other members of a local Bible study fellowship group in Chicago that eventually formed into a small local Christian congregation.

But where should we search? It took us a few years before we realized that Christian wisdom is best found by looking to past generations for guidance. And that’s when we discovered the writings of the early Church, writings that with which we were almost completely unfamiliar as Protestant Evangelicals.

It was through reading about the early Church martyrs and the writings of the Church fathers that we finally decided to join the Eastern Orthodox Church. I will deal with my experience within this small local congregation in some detail in order to explain why we decided to join the Orthodox Church.

A Journey With Questions

It took me about 20 years to make my way to the Orthodox Church, along with my wife and a number of others. We began our journey in Chicago in 1972 as a Protestant Evangelical “house fellowship” that attempted to do what we thought the early Church did. We wanted to be a “New Testament Church.”

We read Acts 2 and saw a pattern of daily fellowship and worship and attention to the study of scripture. So we met quite often and studied a lot, and prayed. In our youthful zeal we thought we could bypass all the denominational disagreements and just go back to the Bible to the way the apostles did things. We simply wanted to return to an ideal of primitive Christianity.

But even with our starting point being the Bible, we had to debate certain questions and make certain decisions, all based on our own reading and understanding of Holy Scripture. Were Baptists or Lutherans correct about baptizing infants? We struggled with this question for a long time and around 1980 finally decided that the baptism of children was what was done in the New Testament Church. Because of this decision, some left our fellowship.

What form of worship should we use on Sunday? Spontaneous or Formal liturgy? Were “the prayers” of Acts 2 a clue about fixed and formal prayers for worship, what some call “liturgy,” or was worship a free “Spirit-led” experience as Pentecostals claimed? We decided to worship liturgically, and some of our members didn’t agree with this decision either.

Since we (correctly) saw that Christians in the New Testament shared the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, it was natural to ask how this should be done. When we decided to use a common Communion cup and that worshippers should come forward to receive Communion rather than receive it sitting in their seats, some people left our congregation saying this was “too Catholic” for them.

Were Catholics correct about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or were Baptists correct about the Communion being only a symbol and nothing more—or were the Lutherans closer to the truth? We emphasized the Real Presence of Christ and embraced the idea of a priest leading the congregation in worship.

But we didn’t have any clergy ordained to the priesthood. We had to decide whether the “elders” of Presbyterians were the biblically correct form of church governance or were the “bishops” of the Episcopalians and Catholics and some Lutherans? In those churches, only bishops could ordain clergy to offer Holy Communion, and we didn’t have either clergy or bishops, but had to rely on conducting liturgy with those we deemed to be leaders of our congregation.

All of these questions, we thought, we should be able to answer completely from the pages of the Bible without reference to any other living (or dead) authority. But we were wrong.

Where Did We Get Our Bible?

After all, how do I know that the 27 books of the New Testament are the inspired Word of God? Who tells me its writings are inspired? Well, the Church and no one else.

So how did we come to make the decisions we made, even if they caused us to lose members of our fellowship? We naturally thought it also might help to find out what the Christians who lived right after the Bible believed and did. We found out that not only did they give us some of the answers we were seeking, but they also played an important role in giving us the New Testament in the first place.

There really is no such thing as just me and my Bible, because the Bible comes with an entire church and its history attached to it. Where did I get my Bible? First, I got it from translators. Second, I got it from Christians who copied the books and manuscripts from one generation to another. They passed on the texts and copied them from one church and monastery to another. Third, the texts that they copied were those texts that the earliest Christians had preserved—the writings of Paul, Peter, James, John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

We say that we get our Bible from the Church because it was the Church that told us what belongs in the Bible. There were many other Christian writings—the Epistles of Ignatius, Epistle of Clement, Gospel of Thomas, Shepherd of Hermas, The Protoevangelium of James, and so on—but after a few hundred years the Church meeting in a council agreed on a final list of accepted writings. These various writings were recognized as canonical, that is, authoritative for the life of the Church.

The Church of the Bible

Now if we trust the Church to tell us the contents of the Bible, why shouldn’t we trust that same Church to know how the Bible is to be interpreted when it comes to certain questions? The Church that tells us what belongs in the New Testament: what did it believe and practice about worship, sacraments, and so on?

It seemed wise, then, to consider what these early Christians thought about these other questions. So our little fellowship, our Bible study group started reading the writings of the early church writers, those who were taught by the apostles and their immediate followers.

At first we were surprised to find that there were available to us so many writings from the second and third and fourth-century Christians. We had no idea these writings even existed. When we read them, we saw that they give clear guidance on many of the questions we wanted to answer—and all this was coming from the same Christians who assured us of the contents of the New Testament.

We were surprised to find that some of the things that we earlier had rejected as Evangelical Protestants were actually part of the life and faith of the early Christians! And where could we find these things still practiced today? In the Orthodox Church.

Click here to read Part 2 – The Marks of the Biblical Church

 

 

Comments

  1. So deeply encouraging. Can’t wait for Day 2.

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