by Timothy Copple
Each story I’ve heard of how people have come into the Orthodox Church has been different. Sometimes there are some general similarities, but each one has specific issues, specific circumstances and specific problems that they deal with. While I recognize that my own circumstances are not, and in some cases should not be, how others come into Orthodoxy, I do feel there were some key elements that moved me in this direction. Most inquirers/converts to Orthodoxy will deal with these key elements at some point.
So allow me to tell you a little of my own journey.
I was born and raised in Texas. We moved a lot, so over my growing up years I’ve lived in several different cities around south-central Texas. The city that I did a majority of my growing up, mostly during my teen years, was Austin, TX. So I tend to think of that as “home”. Ironically, it was in moving back to Austin after having lived in other places for around 16 years that I became Orthodox.
As I was growing up, my Father, Dalton Copple, was a part-time Baptist preacher while he worked for the local electric company around the Uvalde area. Some of my earliest memories as a kid are from those days. I recall a couple of questions I had back then, which I addressed to my Mom, Alice Fay Kiker.
One time I recall, as we were getting dressed for church, asking Mom why we had to go to church. As many people know, kids are often not really excited about going to church. You want to move, you want to play, you want to do anything but sit in a pew and listen for over an hour to people saying words and singing music. For me, however, that was not the full motivation behind my question. It was those blasted black leather shoes.
We were pretty poor people, but of course being the pastor’s family, the kids had to have decent looking shoes for church. Only problem was that our feet were constantly growing and Mom knew that we would hardly get a pair broke in before we would need a new pair. So, like any Mom aware that she had to make every dollar stretch, she would buy us shoes which were just a bit big for us, so that we would have some growing room.
The only problem with this was my ankles. As long as I had those shoes on, the edges of those hard leather shoes rubbed my ankles constantly and it would take no time begin getting sore and hurt. For me, it was bad enough that we had to go through a church service sitting still in the pew next to Mom, but I had to endure literal pain as well! Thus, early in life, I associated pain with Church. Early in life I was experiencing the ascetic life, or so it seemed at the time.
My Mom’s answer to my question, which was always in the sense of “this is just the way it is” answers, was because I was the pastor’s son. Well, that didn’t seem at all fair. You mean other kids don’t have to come to church? They can stay home if they want? I don’t recall getting any more clarification on that one.
The second time I distinctly recall asking a question of Mom about church was while I was listening to my Father preach at the pulpit. My Father was a fairly quiet man, rarely raised his voice, usually didn’t talk real fast and was basically very reserved in manner. Yet, when he got into the pulpit, he would sometimes yell at the top of his lungs as he was preaching. On one such occasion, it just struck me how odd this was, and I asked Mom, “Why is Dad yelling?” Her reply, “Because he is preaching.” Well, that didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter, but who was I to question my all-knowing Mom?
My goal on this site is that you will find more complete answers than these. However, it is also critical to note that even kids have questions. I have found that kids in general take to the Orthodox Church fairly well, teens seem to have more problems due to the social factors they face, and adults have the added questions about many other issues thrown in. Be that as it may, we should not forget that kids have questions too, sometimes very good ones that we should not ignore. So don’t forget to sit down and find out where your kids are on the Orthodox Church if one comes to that stage in one’s journey. I’m sure it will be helpful too if your answers go beyond the “that’s just the way it is” variety.
At one point in the middle of my second grade year we moved away from the Uvalde area to Corpus Christi. At that point we stopped going to church at all. At the time I didn’t mind that one bit and didn’t ask too many questions, but just counted my blessings. But it was to be several years before I would attend church services regularly. Later I found out that my Mom simply had too many problems with being a pastor’s wife. Apparently it was of the nature that she wanted to totally get away from the hypocrisy she experienced there, and so church at that point was totally out.
Back to my journey. When I was in fourth grade, my Mom and Dad ended up divorcing and my Mom married my Step-Father, Andrew Majek. After summer arrived we moved to Austin, where I was to spend the rest of my school years until leaving for college. There are many stories that could be told, but I don’t want to over do it here. I’m predominately going to focus on my spiritual journey, throwing in other relevant information as I go.
Toward the end of my ninth grade year in high school, a fairly insignificant event took place that would forever alter the course of my life. I say insignificant because the event itself was nothing that one would take note of. As a matter of fact, the person involved did not even know I was listening.
It was the beginning of English class, and the students were all doing this and that waiting for the bell to ring and class to begin. I was reading, as I tended to do a lot of, when I over heard a person behind me talking to a small group of other students. What he was saying was a little jarring to me. He told those he was speaking to, “Did you know that the Bible says in the end times that giant scorpions are going to be flying around stinging everyone who is not of God?”
I’m sure he said other things, but that was what stuck in my mind. Having grown up in south Texas, I knew what scorpions were and I had been stung by them many times. It was not a pleasant experience. I couldn’t image what a “giant” one would feel like. Horrible I’m sure. But that is not so much what got to me. It was the fact that the Bible had something so weird in it. I remember from my early Sunday School years “Jesus Loves Me” and things of that nature, but God sending down giant scorpions to torture people?
I overheard the reference and wrote it down. As soon as I got home that afternoon I found an old Bible my Grandmother had given me, dusted it off, found the reference, and read about the giant scorpions in the book of Revelation. I was really surprised to find that in there. Then my curiosity got the best of me, and I wanted to know what else was in this book that I had only vague memories of as a kid. So I opened the Bible to the beginning and began reading.
Now, I liked to read, but this thee and thou stuff was like wading through mud. Occasionally I would run into a word I didn’t know, and the strange sentence constructions at times was really odd. Somehow I made it to the begats. It was at that point that I really got bogged down, as if I were trying to swim in mud. I finally put the book down. I had no idea that there were any “modern” translations. This was the only Bible I knew existed. I couldn’t handle this stuff, at least at that time.
We later went to my Grandmother’s house that summer. Sometime she would have gifts for us, and I distinctly recall when I walked in the door that time spotting a stack of books, four of them, that looked exactly alike on a table. I put two and two together, being that there were four of us and four books. I went over and looked at them, and they were nothing less than the New Testament in modern English. I was shocked. One because I didn’t know such a thing existed and two because this was like an answer to my previous frustration of not being able to stick with the King James English Bible. It was almost as if God was moving me along. So I asked Grandmother if these were for us, and she said they were, and I immediately began to sit down and read.
Usually we stayed at Grandmother’s for about a week. As we were on our way home, I was still reading. I had spent most of my time reading the Bible. Every time I put it down for a while to eat or do something a little different, it was not long before I was reading it again. Even as we were going home and night had fallen, I would read every time we went through a city, and every car that passed us I would hold it up in their headlights and read what I could. Before we reached Austin I had finished the New Testament.
The whole thing was very intriguing to me. I picked up a lot of things that I knew were just a completely different way of thinking. For instance, at one point on our journey home, I told my brother, “Did you know that Jesus said if you loan something to someone not to expect it back?” He simply said, “Really? Hey, can I borrow your watch?” “No!” I said, and quickly went back to reading.
However, I also realized that there were some things that I didn’t understand and I knew that I was not even getting the full message. I knew I need to do something, but exactly what I wasn’t sure. I finally came to the conclusion that I needed to go to a church. There were just a few problems with that need, however.
First, there was just the logical problem of how to get to a church. I was not old enough to drive and no one in my family went to church. It seemed I would first have to see what churches were available and then visit as many of them as I could. That would take some wheels.
But I also recognized another problem that was more difficult.
How will I pick a church?
I didn’t even have the beginnings of a measuring stick that I could use to know whether a particular church was good, bad or just there. I knew that I could not walk into a church and figure out whether it was an OK church or not. In looking back, it is a good thing I didn’t try. It is a good thing I didn’t even open up the phone book and look to see all the various types of churches that I could have visited. I could have spent years visiting churches trying to look for the one that was right, and then it would all be based upon my own criteria, how that church fits into my understanding of what is right and wrong, good or bad.
It is very interesting that this same question would again be posed to me many years later, on a much more abstract basis, as a problem and evidence that what we had in the Protestant movement was contradictory to how the Early Church saw the Church. I will be expanding on that later, but at this point I was faced with that reality, the reality that I in my own ability and reasoning could not figure out which one was right and which one was wrong.
I was afraid if I just started going out to visit churches I could end up falling into a cult of some kind and get really messed up. Many Protestants don’t really deal with this problem because they just grew up in their faith and have never existentially had to deal with how to figure out who is right and who is wrong. On top of that, many people don’t even chose a church based upon what it believes, but the surveys show that the biggest percentage come to a church because it is friendly or they have some relationships established there. Those who do go to a different denomination or “non-denominational” church usually restrict their search for one that fits their understanding of theology.
But I did the only think I could think to do at that time. I placed it in God’s hands and told Him that if He wanted me in a church, He was going to have to choose one and bring them to me. A few weeks later, this is exactly what happened.
The pastor of the local Nazarene Church, Rev. Roger Wilson, came down my street and stopped. He got out and was inviting us to Vacation Bible School. We agreed to come, we came, and that Friday night I went down to the “altar”, or more appropriately called the “mourner’s bench” and gave my heart to Jesus Christ, repented of my sins and asked forgiveness. I knew something had happened that was special. How did I know? Well, I was crying. When I cry, my nose always over runs with liquid from the nasal passages. This time, however, despite all my crying at the altar I got up and my nose was clear as a bell. I was simply amazed! That had never happened before, nor since. I know for many this will seem silly, but I took that as a sign from God that He had indeed heard my prayers and answered them.
In Nazarene theology, I was now saved. Basically what that meant was that now I was not on my way to hell, whereas before I was. I had no grasp on all the theology at that point. I just took it as that. At the core, that was indeed what had taken place. I had made a turn in my life that was to head me in a completely different direction. Before I was headed to the second death, now I was headed towards the Life. What all that meant, I was to learn over several years, and in many ways am still learning. On that day I turned around, God forgave me and I began my journey towards Him. A new relationship had been forged. I’ll go into more of what all that means in relation to Orthodoxy in some of the questions we will look at. However, it is enough to know here that God was definitely working in my life and I am eternally grateful for the Nazarene Church being there at that time, and for Rev. Roger Wilson’s sensitivity to God’s leading and guiding during those formative years as a new follower of Christ.
I began my journey in the Nazarene Church. Like any church, it has its strong points and its weak ones. Overall, I can see why God led me there. Where I was at and what it had to give in the way of spiritual development were complimentary. Rev. Roger Wilson was a great pastor with a big heart, whose main goal so it seemed was to love people as best he could. He would often get a little angry when his superiors didn’t take the same attitude in their administrative decisions.
The Nazarene Church, for those unfamiliar with it, basically grew out of the holiness revivals of the second half of the 1800’s. By the turn of the century several “holiness” groups had evolved around the country who, in contrast to some of the more charismatic groups, did not believe in the “tongues speaking” teaching, though there were plenty of “slain in the Spirit” and running the aisles and pew hopping activities, especially in its early days. The emphasis, however, was upon holiness of life and upon the particular emphasis of the Nazarene Church, the second work of grace, “entire sanctification.”
These were emphasis’ derived from Wesleyan Theology, being that a majority of the pioneer Nazarenes came from Methodist backgrounds. However, in reaction to what was perceived as “dead formalism” in the churches they came out of, the Nazarene Church also adopted a decidedly Zwinglian view of worship and sacraments. Because of this, there is a certain tension between Wesleyan and Zwinglian theology that has created a unique mixture of the two.
For those not familiar with these two people’s theologies, allow me to briefly summarize them in an admittedly simplistic fashion. John Wesley was a member of the Church of England, and was deeply involved with a great revival of religion in his day. He lived what could very well be called an ascetic life, read the Church Fathers, and was a committed Christian. He derived from these things an awareness of holiness and God’s enlightening of the heart to bring this about. His preaching often centered on holiness of life and living out the Christian faith. He is also the “founder” of the Methodist Church, though inadvertently.
He refused to separate from the Church of England, having read from the Church Fathers what a great sin this was. However, no sooner had he died than many of his followers left the Church of England and began the Methodist Church.
Wesley believed that man had a free will, was able to reject God’s grace and could experience sanctification by the Holy Spirit in order to live a life pleasing to God. His theology was derived to a large extent from Armenius’ teachings on man’s free will, but also from the Church Fathers who taught this as well.
Zwingli, who lived much earlier than Wesley, was one of the original Reformers along with Luther and Calvin. Zwingli is most noted for his view of the sacraments and church worship. He was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, but later left when his views departed significantly from that body. He took John 6:33 “…the flesh profits nothing, it is the Spirit which gives life…” to mean that the Eucharist was not meant by Christ to be taken in a literal sense as the Catholic Church had done. The bread remained just bread and the wine just wine. They were simply symbols pointing back to Christ’s death on the cross to serve as a “memorial”, that is, to keep it before our mind and allow us through symbols to actively participate in that event. He believed that the bread and wine are not literally changed into Christ’s body and blood. It was interpreted that Christ was only speaking symbolically.
This new focus reduced the importance of the communion meal in Zwingli’s mind, and what became central and of most significance was the sermon. The worship service was transformed to be primarily a place we come and learn about God in order to know him better. The communion meal was no longer the focus of the service, rather it was not even done in most services. Rather, the highlight of the service became the sermon and instruction from the Bible.
Thus, while Nazarene theology was on the whole Wesleyan, it was also Zwinglian. Most Nazarene services would resemble a Baptist service as far as look and feel than they would a Methodist. This is not exclusively so by any means. Despite the fact that the “Articles of Faith” for the Nazarene’s refers to the Lord’s Supper and baptism as signs of grace in us but not necessarily the grace themselves, there also have been movements to a more liturgical worship in some places. However, by and large in most Nazarene Churches you will not encounter a highly liturgical setting and view of the sacraments, and definitely not through its historical life.
This was the church that God lead me to at this time. Actually, you could say that God lead the pastor to my front door in answer to my inner prayers. God obviously was at work and I soaked up my new faith. It was not long before I ran into the teaching on the second work of grace, “entire sanctification.” Following traditional evangelical theology, they believed that there was a definite moment of being “saved” from hell by repenting of one’s sins. At that point, one was saved. Unlike Calvinistic teaching, it is taught that one can “backslide” and loose their salvation. Regardless, the moment of spiritual birth was considered a first work of grace.
Strictly speaking, that is a simplistic way of looking at it. This did not mean in Nazarene theology that this was the very first time any grace had ever touched this person. Rather that this was a milestone of sorts. Unlike a lot of evangelical traditions, however, the Nazarene Church made an emphasis on teaching the second work of grace. This was a teaching that after one was saved, whether it be seconds or years, there was a decidedly second activity of God’s grace. It went by many names, most notably the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here, but the term entire sanctification was preferred officially because it denoted that one’s heart and life was totally cleansed and healed by the giving of the Holy Spirit to a heart totally committed to Him. After this experience, one’s heart was perfected in holiness entirely, original sin was eradicated, and the barriers to following righteousness were removed.
Interestingly enough, these teachings can also be found in the Church Fathers though using different terminology. This should not be surprising since John Wesley read them extensively. Yet there was also a great confusion about this doctrine. This was brought in part by the way it had been taught in the early years of the Nazarene Church and the reaction against it in later years. What was taught for quite some time was that after this experience one simply did not sin anymore. Thus, those who felt they had been “entirely sanctified” testified to quitting all sorts of sins and claimed to not sin again. The implications were that if one did then they had gone back to step one.
This created all sorts of problems in that people would claim to have been entirely sanctified and to avoid not looking unholy and unsanctified would not label some things as sins that should have been. For those all too aware of their shortcomings and continued sinful habits after this experience, they saw the doctrine itself as flawed, began to interpret it differently, or doubt their own spiritual experience. Having some of the teachings of the Fathers through Wesley, filtered down through various people and traditional ways of looking at things, they lacked the proper context that the Fathers spoke of these things in. Thus these problems arose.
At any rate, I myself felt a need to experience this. While I realize now that there is a simplistic manner that this was understood in the Nazarene Church, I am thankful that it was an emphasis for I think it lead me to where I am now. After two years of trying to understand this teaching and attempting to acquire it, I finally found myself one August night in 1978 at a teen camp meeting. The preacher preaching that night seemed to clarify several things for me and it seemed I knew what I needed to do. I went forward that night and prayed with much tears of repentance asking God to make my whole life His, giving God a “blank check” as the preacher had described.
This time there was not a clear nose. As a matter of fact it was so over running that I did not even want to lift my head because I didn’t want to gross people out. However, there was a different clearing going on. After I got up I had a real sense of peace in my heart. It was a different type of peace than I had experienced before that. I felt as if everything was in God’s hands and there was no concern on my part for anything other than to follow Him. Even though it was dark, things seemed bright and a wonderful contentment settled on my heart that night. I can say unreservedly that God did something in me that night. Whatever term one might want to put on it, I don’t care. All I knew then was before I was blind and now I could see. Not that there was not further blindness to be cured or that I never sinned again. There was, however, a definite opening of the eyes of my heart and God came to dwell there in a new manner than I had experienced before.
From the first moments that I had begun reading the Bible, even before being “saved” I had the sense that God was right there with me and I could talk to Him. There was always the sense of His presence with me. I freely talked with Him as if He were right next to me, because I really believed He was. Now it seemed more real than ever.
It was one such conversation that I had on my way back to Austin from that teen camp meeting that I began to sense that God was wanting me to preach for Him. I had never really seriously considered such a thing because of my shyness, and I was about to offer that up to God when I recalled that this almost brought Moses to the point of death. So I made a “deal” with God that if this is what he wanted me to do, He would open the doors to do that. To make a long story shorter, He did and I began preaching at a nursing home in town on a regular basis. The following year, 1979, after graduating from high school, I made plans to attend our denomination’s college, then called Bethany Nazarene College in Bethany, Oklahoma.
During those years a lot of things took place, which I won’t go into all of them here. Critical highlights, however, are a few. Meeting the girl who would eventually become my wife. Lenita Eby became Lenita Copple in May 15, 1982. Since then we have, as of this date, brought three children into the world; Kalee Ann, Nathaniel Scott, and Jeremiah Lee. Worked various jobs as I worked my way through college, finally graduating in the Spring of 1984 with a BA in religion. I hung around five years there before finally moving to Kansas City, MO to attend seminary. After gaining a year’s worth of credits going part time, the price went up so much that I could not feasibly continue without taking out a loan. Our finances were not all that good and I was not sure I wanted to be in hock for a lot anyway. It so happened that a mission church opened up at that time and I ended up as their pastor.
So I pastored my first church in 1992 in Noel, MO. It is a town tucked into the southwest corner of Missouri, south of Joplin. Spent two years there and was formally ordained as a minister of the Nazarene Church. After that I went to pastor a church in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Weslaco Church of the Nazarene in 1994. It is really during this time that my interest in Orthodoxy was aroused and I began investigating it.
While in Weslaco, for the first time I made my entrance onto the internet via America OnLine in May of 1995. It was not long before I found the theology boards and began discussing various theological issues with various people from all sorts of backgrounds. I really enjoyed it because for the first time in my life I had found a medium that I could effectively speak on. In face to face conversations, I am somewhat shy and so do not always have a whole lot to say immediately. In group conversations, I am easily interrupted, have a hard time interrupting others, and tend to think a little slower so that by the time I do have something worthwhile to add, often the conversation has moved beyond the topic. Now, I could clearly state my whole thought without fear of getting interrupted and not getting back to finish my thoughts, I could take my time to compose a message that was more than just off the top of my head stuff, and I did not feel like I was interrupting anyone to do it.
I spoke with atheist and pagans as well as various other Christians “listening” and offering my own perspectives on various issues. Most of the people I talked with were fairly kind. I actually made some friends out of some atheist and such, simply because I seemed to have a knack for coming across non-threatening to people and not easily angered. Unfortunately, many only see the screen name and forget that there is a real person on the other end of that screen and tend to say things they would never say to someone’s face. However, it was really interesting to see how other people thought, which has always been of interest to me. Being in these discussions groups was a great way to interact with various philosophies and theologies, to discover the manner in which people viewed things.
I should probably back up a bit. Many people, when I tell them that at the beginning of 1996 I had hardly any knowledge of the Orthodoxy Church, and by the end of 1996 I was being baptized into the Orthodox Church, are amazed at how quickly it took place. They are not the only ones. Still, when I look back at that year, I wonder how such massive changes in my life could have come about that quickly. I know part of the answer, but it still amazes me. I would also caution people that if at all possible, it is best to not take it as quickly as I did. The more changes one takes into a shorter period of time, the greater the confusion and disconnectedness that can come from it. One’s identity goes through some major shifts in such times. The slower one can take that, the less chance there is for Satan to send one down the wrong path.
Be that as it may, part of the reason that I converted so quickly was because I had simply been prepared for it by God over the preceding years. I will point this out as we go along, but suffice it to say that when I was hit with this, it was like a lot of things I had been working towards began to fall into place and I was practically forced into the road I ended up taking. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Before encountering Orthodoxy, I only knew a little bit about it, and half of what I did know was wrong.
Back in high school, I had taken a class on world religions. We basically used a PBS series that had an agnostic travel the globe investigating various religions in the hopes to see if he could find one that was especially compelling for him. Of course, in the end, he was still an agnostic, though one with an appreciation for the various religions of the world. One of the programs was on the Eastern Orthodox Church. He observed some services and interviewed some priest. Two main points I recall from that was that their worship was like a “drama” in acting out the gospel and that there was not a sermon.
In my survey of worship class in college, I also had some notes on Orthodox worship, which basically said the same thing, but with a little more words. Of course, I found out later that it is traditional for Orthodox to have a sermon. The reason they didn’t when that guy was visiting was because of communism. The communist would not allow them to preach. If a priest did preach, there was a good likelihood that one would not see him again. The concept that the liturgy is like a “drama” is also a little too simplistic. It does “preach” the gospel in action, but not like it is a play acted out. On top of this knowledge, I knew that it was in the Eastern countries and was once part of the Roman Catholic Church as one church in the early years of Christianity. I also knew that there were some Orthodox churches in the US, but I had never noticed one. Not that many in Texas and Oklahoma.
It was upon entering a discussion on biblical interpretation that I first ran into an actual “live” Orthodox Christian. Participating In this discussion was a “fundamentalist” Protestant, a Roman Catholic layman, an Orthodox priest and I. At the time I didn’t know he was a priest, but found that out later. We spent about two months discussing this issue of how the three different traditions approach biblical interpretation. It was quite interesting and beneficial. However, the Catholic kept making various remarks about all our various Protestant denominations as being evidence of our dividedness and how unlike the concept of the Church that the early Church had. It seemed like this theme was to pop up quite often. I didn’t necessarily get mad at him, but it did tend to get on one’s nerves at times. The Orthodox seemed to agree with him, though he didn’t come across as “pushy” on it.
At one point the Catholic guy asked me to give one good purpose to have so many different denominations. The reason I gave him, now looking back on it, was really quite silly and only demonstrates the Protestant mentality. What I said, however, was that it kept things honest and from locking one into being a part of a heretical church. If my pastor, or my denomination began preaching something not Biblical, I could get up and leave for another communion that did. I also said, to really make my point, that if that was not an option, I could even start my own church!
As you can imagine, that didn’t convince the Catholic or the Orthodox one bit. I guess the Catholic guy sensed that I was on the ropes a bit, if that was the best reason I could give him, and kept pressing the issue home that one only had to go back to the foundation. Realizing my situation, I decided to pull one of St. Paul’s tricks from the book of Acts. So I said something to the effect of,
“Now look, if I were to convert, which of you would I convert to since you both claim to have Apostolic foundation and to be the true Church? See, I’m no better off than I am now!”
Naturally, this started the Catholic and the Orthodox into their own discussion of who had held onto the real Tradition of the Apostles, and I was able to get off the ropes and watch for a while.
I had some further discussions with the Catholic guy on into January of 1996, primarily over sacraments. I had over the years moved away from a purely Zwinglian view of them and adopted a more Calvinistic view that believed there was something there, but it was “spiritual”. In my mind, that meant that the bread and wine themselves never changed, but that by faith one could partake of Christ’s “presence” in one’s heart and that was the extent of the “real presence” of Christ in the elements. In those discussions, I had also come to see that baptism had to be more than just a testimony to an already present grace, but began to think of it at a minimum of entering into something like one would enter into a marriage via a marriage ceremony.
I will explain these things more fully in later chapters. Here it is enough to know that I was definitely moving towards a more sacramental view of God’s grace. I, however, could see no reason to say that the bread and wine were anything more than bread and wine. I could see no reason why Christ would want to make a change there, since the flesh didn’t matter, just the spirit. I looked at the terminology as metaphorical of what we were to be doing in our heart when Christ said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. Whether the Catholic correspondent realized it or not, I had moved a little closer his way.
Finally, he grew tired of the discussion, and school was starting for him and thus our discussion died down. Well, I had explored the atheist’s beliefs, the agnostics’, the pagan’s, various Christians including the Catholics. Who was left? I recalled the discussion on biblical interpretation, that one of them was an Orthodox, and I wondered what Orthodoxy believed about things. So I found a folder titled “Protestant/Orthodox discussion” and jumped in with both feet.
This was around the beginning of February 1996. We discussed various things like infant baptism, the Filioque, veneration of icons, original sin and other related concepts. It was original sin that really perked up my interest. For reasons that I will explain later, I had already rejected to a degree the general “Western” teaching on this subject. As I was taught, original sin was described as
“a tendency towards sin that we have inherited from our parents.”
It was often discussed as some foreign substance within us that was moving us towards sin. There was some truth to this, yet the whole concept was so abstract to me. Through reading Genesis 1-3, I had come to the conclusion that the essence of the fall was not a substance, but a condition of death of spirit. I felt that most of the Western concepts were based upon Augustine’s neo-platonic foundation rather than the biblical model.
Yet this was such a widely held belief in all the Christianity I knew, that I pretty much had kept it to myself. I kept exploring and trying to relate it to the whole of salvation, and had felt that someday I might write this great new innovative systematic theology based upon the constructs of relationships and call it “relational theology.” I had no idea that anyone had ever even looked at it this way.
That is, until I began talking with the Orthodox in that discussion folder. When I started asking questions about original sin, and they started defining it in terms of the spirit’s death, my jaw dropped. Here all the time I felt like I was this lone little Christian in all the world who saw it this way, and suddenly I ran into people who were telling me that this is the way the Orthodox Church had viewed things since the Apostles.
A whole tradition that has been going for hundreds of years agrees with me! I jokingly say every once in a while when I run across a saint who teaches something I had come to believe before Orthodoxy that I’m glad the saints agree with me.
With this discovery, now I was really interested in what Orthodoxy believed about a lot of other things. The guys who were feeding me answers to my questions would send me whole chapters of stuff dealing with my questions. I was soaking this stuff in and was explaining it to other Protestants in the folder. They were surprised at how fast I was taking all this in. Aside from the fact that I am just a person who thinks theologically, a lot of what they were giving me was making so much sense, and confirming many things I had felt in my heart but had not put into words. For me it was like a bunch of previously missing puzzle pieces falling into place and seeing a bigger picture for the first time. It was great.
I also attended my first Orthodox liturgy during that time. Several had indicated that I should go to one, but being a pastor made it difficult. However, the local Orthodox Church was holding Saturday morning liturgies during Lent, so that gave me an opportunity to see one for myself. It was definitely different than what we were use to, and we left that service with the only comment being “interesting”. It did make an impression on me, however. One aspect that I distinctly recall was the smell of incense that stayed with me throughout the day.
By middle of March, I had pretty much come to a definite conclusion. If the Nazarene Church ever went apostate, this would be a good place to fall back on. That’s right, despite all the great theology and historical ties, I felt that God had me where He wanted me, sort of, and I had no intention and desire to leave the Nazarene Church. I was quite happy with where I was at, thank you. Besides, I was an ordained minister and my pastorate was my income as well. Not something one considers leaving behind just because one likes the theology in another church.
The truth is, I still understood the Church itself as a Protestant. All the questions that had been put to me by the Catholic, though I had not really had any good responses to them, I had brushed off as basically things which I didn’t understand yet. What I did know, or felt I knew, was that I was a Christian and God had me where He wanted me. The various groups were just there because that was the way things were, and it would be rectified when sin would no longer reign. Thus, I could appreciate the value and theology of Orthodoxy without ever feeling a need to actually move in that direction.
There were two aspects to all this, however that changed this. The primary one is that I had adopted a more sacramental outlook than I had before. I knew that while the Nazarene Church basically held a Zwinglian view of them, yet there seemed to be room for those who were more sacramental as well. That year, even, one of our seminary professors had come out with a book on the sacraments that took a decidedly more sacramental view, that actual grace was communicated by the sacraments.
If I continued down this path I seemed to be on, to become more sacramental, I could see that at some point I might be forced to leave the Nazarene Church. That was if I went that way. That may or may not happen, and if it did I felt it was a few years down the line. However, I knew that if my theology ever changed significantly enough to where I no longer could accept any of the articles of faith, according to my pledge given at my ordination, I would hand in my ministerial papers and resign.
The other issue I was dealing with concerned my position as a pastor. I had felt that I might not be meant to pastor. After all, I had felt a call to “preach” and there were any number of ways a person might fulfill that. One avenue that was of interest to me was to be an “evangelist”. These were people licensed by the Nazarene Church to travel from church to church and hold revival meetings. This seemed more of a fit for what I and my wife did best. We both enjoyed singing, and many had told us how good we sounded together. Part of the reason I also felt this was because I had at that point a very good church to pastor.
There was not any big problems, the people were very nice and supportive and criticism was at a minimum. Yet, despite all that, I kept feeling like there were areas that I could not adequately fill as a pastor due to my personality. They were areas that I felt were important, but I constantly had the sense that I was failing in these areas. It seemed logical that I should be doing something different if I was having these feelings while pastoring a “good” church. How would I feel if I ended up some day in a church that was difficult?
In reality, the only reason I was still there at that point was because I had felt that God had not released me from that pastorate. I had sort of a crisis the previous summer, and despite my prayers and pleas that God would resolve these feelings and questions where I was suppose to be, I felt God had told me that it was not time yet to move, that I should continue where I was. So I stayed. However, the fall of 1996 my pastoral review would be coming up, and I felt that I would need to make a decision one way or the other by then. I didn’t want to tell them I would stick around for two more years only to leave a few months after that.
These issues were things that I didn’t feel free to bring up to anyone. However, I had developed an on-line relationship with a Catholic friend who lived up around Detroit. Mostly we had discussed the differences in weather, he had told me some of his old war stories, and talked about this and that. We had a nice relationship built up over almost a year, as he was one of the first friends I had made on-line. One day as I was writing to him towards the end of March, I decided that he might make a good safe prayer partner for some of these issues I was dealing with. So I told him a little about what I was going through and that I would appreciate prayer.
He e-mailed me back, indicating that he would definitely pray, and thought I might appreciate a book that dealt with ministers who were going through what I was. What pastor turns down a gift of a book? Not I, so I e-mailed him back and said sure, giving him the address to send it to.
It just so happened that there were about three more Sundays before Palm Sunday that year, and I had decided to do a sermon series leading into the Easter week on the three times Jesus predicted His death. The first one happened to be when Jesus ask them “Who do men say that I am?” and they all respond back with their answers, but only Peter says, “You are the Christ.” After Jesus gives Peter a blessing, he goes on to discuss the death He will experience in Jerusalem. Peter tells Him that this will never happen to Him, and Jesus responds with the all too familiar words, “Get thee behind me Satan.”
My main point in that message was the paradigm shift that Peter had to go through because his concept of what the Messiah was coming to do was not what Christ had in mind. Dying wasn’t part of Peter’s plan. I titled the sermon “The Shock of the Cross.” I left the congregation with the challenge that if God placed a “cross” before them this week that they didn’t understand, would they be willing to pick it up? What I didn’t realize was that God had set me up big time.
Monday morning came, basically my day off, and in the mail came the book my Catholic friend had promised. So I opened the package and pulled out a book titled “Surprised by the Truth”. As I began to look at it, I realized that this was a book about Protestant clergy who had converted to Catholicism. I was a little taken aback, thinking my friend must have misunderstood my message. I certainly was not looking to convert to anything or leave the Nazarene Church. I was happy for the time with the Nazarene Church and felt no need to leave it until the day it might go off the deep end as other groups had done.
However, I didn’t want to say that I had not read it after he had gone to all the trouble to send me the book. So I opened it up and began reading. Most of the stories started out much like this one did. They told of their conversion to Christianity and then of their conversions to Catholicism. They were interesting stories, alright. However, for most of them when they got to explaining why they became Catholic, they didn’t resonate with me, or make any compelling argument for me. I just sort of felt like, “OK, glad it works for you but I’m not convinced.”
That was my attitude until the last two or three stories. They were making a case that the Early Church saw things such as schism and division as sins and of the worst kind. Unity was the prevailing theme, and the Church had always been viewed as one Body visibly on earth until the Protestant Reformation began to break things up so much that a new view of the Church had to be formed within these groups over a period of time. If the Holy Spirit was really going to lead us into all truth, and the very first disciples of the Apostles clearly taught that schism is a great sin, that the Church was unified around a bishop, that the Eucharist was indeed really the body and Blood of the risen Christ; if these were wrong, did the Holy Spirit lose control so quickly that so many and so great heresies would come about before the last of the Apostles had died? They pointed to St. Ignatius and St. Clement, both who lived around the turn of that first century and where taught directly by the Apostles.
That thought struck me, and I happened to have a history book with some of their writings in it on my shelf, so I pulled it down to check out what they were saying. As I read their works, I began to realize that what these guys were saying was correct. These people really believed this stuff. Some of it opposed to what I held. One in particular that caught my attention was the statement St. Ignatius makes in reference to those who “hold themselves aloof because they don’t believe that the Eucharist is really the body and blood of Christ.”
I suddenly began to dawn on me, that if I could not trust these guys to have it right, who were taught by the Apostles, then I had practically no chance to get it right having been removed almost two thousand years from them. Yet, if they were right, then the Catholics and Orthodox were right on this issue, because it was forcefully obvious that unity was everything and schism was a great sin. Here I was, pastoring a church that was a schism from a schism from a schism. It came down to either admitting that what I had always thought the Church was, is not the Church, but at best only a reflection of it. The Eucharist’s “real presence” issue made this abundantly clear. For while I knew that the Nazarenes had a lot of things right, even by Orthodox standards, they also had some things considered very important by the early church very wrong.
The clincher for me, however, was that St. Ignatius had basically said that the Eucharist was really the body and blood of Christ, for real! This is the one thing I had consistently denied as needed theologically. Yet, here was a disciple of St. Paul teaching this clearly and plainly as if it was established fact. It wasn’t a thought that was created during the middle ages, but could be demonstrated as having a consistent history from the very beginning. How could he and the subsequent generations of Christians in the Church be wrong without denying that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Church from the beginning. Would the Holy Spirit have allowed generations of Christians to be deceived about something like this for 1500 years until Zwingli and Calvin came on the scene?
Yet, to accept this as true would definitely put me beyond what the Nazarene Church believes. While some had moved to a more sacramental view, I had heard no one make the claim that the Lord’s Supper was actually the very body and blood of Christ in a real sense. I knew a belief of that nature would not be accepted in the church I was pastoring, nor by my District Superintendent, nor by the denomination as a whole. Nor would the view that there is only one visible Church Body, and all others are not fully within that Body.
What was I to do? I didn’t want to accept that these guys were right, because that would necessitate not only leaving my pastorate, but also handing in my ordination and leaving the Nazarene Church. On the other hand, unless I could find a way to see this differently in an honest manner, to not say they were right was to deny the Holy Spirit and lose all sense of trust that the Holy Spirit was guiding me, the Nazarene Church and all of Christendom. There would be no basis of hope any longer and continued pastoring would only be the height of hypocrisy. I was trapped, and the more I struggled in prayer to get out, it seemed the deeper the conviction settled in me that this was reality.
This revelation came to me on the Wednesday of that week. A cross had been laid before me, one that threatened my understandings of what reality was for a Christian. I went through a whole paradigm change that day concerning the Church. I couldn’t reconcile what St. Ignatius and St. Clement were saying with what I believed up to that point and with what the Nazarene Church believed. I cried long and hard that day in great anguish, because I knew the difficult path this was leading me to and I didn’t want to go that route. Yet, it became a firm conviction in me that I had no other choice unless I was willing to totally throw the faith out.
Some people might marvel at the great “sacrifices” someone like me had to make to convert to Orthodoxy. Yes, there were and are sacrifices, but relatively speaking to not go this route would have been a greater sacrifice for me, for I would have given up the faith and any sense of purpose in life.
There is more of this story I could tell, but I think I’ve hit the key point here. One, in looking at Orthodoxy, might really admire the theology, the historical connection with the past that seems to emanate in the worship, the beauty of the liturgy or the reverence we pay to God as especially things missing in so many other places. However, coming to the point where one begins to see the Church as the early Church saw it is something altogether different. At some point, most true converts will need to deal with this issue, because it is in a context unfamiliar to us. Keep in mind, however, that coming into Orthodoxy is not just a checking out to see if you like the fit and the color. It is a marriage, a marriage to Christ and His Body from beginning to end.
Yes, you will need to investigate, at least gain a sense that the Orthodox Church does not deny Biblical concepts, that it even holds them better than most and in ways you never dreamed. You will need to ask questions and learn and test the spirits. You will need to experience the liturgy and services to really learn the theology. It does take time, and you should. There is no need to rush into this as some may feel that I did. I hope that on this web site we can cover most of the major questions that an inquirer might have when they look into the Orthodox Church.
I also gave you a complete journey here, so that you will know that I am not saying that one does not have a relationship with God and Christ unless they are an Orthodox Christian. The fact is, all of us are on a journey and we are hopefully moving towards God.
I’m still on my journey as well, and relatively speaking I’ve not even been Orthodox all that long. My only excuse for even attempting to write this is because I’ve been on that side of the fence, so I have a sense of where most inquirers are at, and while I’m no saint, I’ve learned and come to answers on a lot of the questions that are asked.
Not answers necessarily in the definitive sense, but answers that will at least, I pray, provide some context that will make the Orthodox Church’s position on various items not so foreign and more understandable to Western minds. My hope is not so much to convince as in a debate, but to help see the Orthodox perspective on these issues in order that particular stumbling blocks might be removed, or at least point one in the right direction for that. This is not a pushy sales job to convert you to our view, but to give you what helped me in learning about these things in hopes that it will of help to others.
I’ll do my best to give real “Orthodox” concepts from the Church Fathers and what I’ve learned as an Orthodox Christian. On the other hand, don’t hesitate to check out anything I have written here, especially if it sounds of doubtful quality. I’ve been wrong before and harbor no pretense of infallibility. Knowing that I am still seeking myself to attain to the likeness, all I can give you is what God has given me in my journey so far that it might help those coming behind me. Consequently, this is not meant to be a catechism, but only an aid to introduce one to Orthodoxy and give some context for the questions commonly asked of the Orthodox.
To the degree that this serves that purpose and furthers anyone on in their journey towards full union with God, may God be glorified accordingly.