by David and Elise Sumner
We were chrismated at St. George in January of 2005 and converted to Orthodoxy from the Episcopal Church. Our journey took place over the last few years as we began reading books about Eastern Orthodoxy. Several things about Orthodoxy, and especially the Antiochian Orthodox Church, attracted us. We felt pulled towards its ancient roots in the geographic origins of Christianity itself. It has its origins in Antioch where,
“…the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
Elise: During the first part of my life, I searched for and found God. During the second part, I searched for and found the Church. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church where I had strong family roots. My grandmother married in that church and my sister married there some 70 years later. I learned of God’s love as I attended church and Sunday school with longtime friends and neighbors.
Later in college I felt very uprooted and empty.
We sometimes worry if young people will lose their faith while in college. Well, I found a deeper faith there. That is an involved story, but suffice it to say that I accepted Christ as my personal savior in college through the work of Campus Crusade for Christ, a Protestant parachurch organization. I noticed a difference in my life as I grew to love God and other people more.
The Bible also came to life for me.
As a Protestant, I had to decide what true doctrine was. But if I heard of a better preacher or a good singles group, I’d go to another church even if the theology contradicted the first church. After marrying David 22 years ago, I became an Episcopalian. I found God’s beauty in the music and the prayers of the church.
Three things led me to the Orthodox Church. First, I found icons. I had grown tired of reading Scripture and only seeing words. I needed some visual aids. That led me to icons. When David and I would go to national Episcopal Church conventions, I would spend a lot of time looking at the icons for sale by St. Isaac of Syria Skete and sensing God’s peace through them.
The second thing that led me to the Orthodox Church was hearing conversion stories. After moving from Cincinnati to Knoxville, David and I attended a Greek Orthodox Church festival. I remember that a convert to Orthodoxy gave us a tour of the building, and he said that the Orthodox Church was the true church. That really irritated me because I thought there was no true church.
Soon after that, I heard that Peter Gillquist, a former staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ, had become an Orthodox priest. I was intrigued by that because I’d heard him speak while I was in college when he was an Evangelical Christian as I was. I wondered why a Campus Crusade for Christ staff member would become an Orthodox priest. Later I read about Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion to Orthodoxy after we received her book Facing East.
The third and final thing that led me to the Orthodox Church was reading Orthodox church history and theology. That happened over a period of years as I gradually saw the truth in the Orthodox Church. I became convinced that the Orthodox view of sin, rather than the Protestant or Roman Catholic view, was the original view held by the early Christians. To paraphrase Frederica Mathewes-Green’s article entitled “Sin: Infraction or Infection?” sin means doing bad things for most Western Christians.
This creates debt to God which Jesus paid off by dying on the cross. He paid the Father, so we would no longer bear the penalty. But to quote Mathewes-Green,
“Orthodox hold to the view of the early church, that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.’ Our sins made us captives of Death, and God in Christ went into Hades to set us free,” she writes.
Then she continues,
“The penalty of sin is not a debt we owe the Father; it is the soul-death that is the immediate and inevitable consequence of sin. We need healing and rescue, not someone to step in and square the bill…When the prodigal son came home, the Father didn’t say, ‘I’d love to take you back, but who’s going to pay this Visa bill?”
She further says that
“sin is not infraction, but infection; sin makes us sick. The Christian life is one of healing and restoration; it’s not merely about paying a debt.”
When I realized that was the original Christian view of sin, and it was different than mine, I started wondering what was the original view of everything else concerning the church. It seemed to me that to find God’s truth, I had to go back as far as I could to the early church to see what those Christians thought. I read what the early church fathers thought and realized I didn’t have to figure everything out myself.
The church councils had done the figuring. I could trust the church. The Orthodox Church is the church that has kept the historic Christian faith of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Through the life of the church and her sacraments we are transfigured into Christ’s likeness.
Our Scripture reading for today says, “There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” The early Christians were not divided into thousands of denominations. They had one faith. The Orthodox have kept that faith, and I am grateful that God led me to His church. I am also grateful to Father Nabil and to our parish family St. George. Thank you for keeping the faith so David and I could become a part of the Church.
David: Like Elise, I spent many years as a young adult searching for God. After studying a little philosophy in college, I lost whatever faith I had as a teenager. As a young man, I encountered life as empty and hollow for several years until I made a personal commitment to Christ at age 27. With a growing interest in the study of religion, I entered seminary and completed master of divinity and master of church history degrees.
Although I sought ordination for a while in the Episcopal Church, I never felt a genuine calling. My professional interests turned to journalism after I was offered the job as editor of the newspaper for the Diocese of Southern Ohio in Cincinnati. I spent five happy, successful years here in the 1980s (and also met and married Elise during this time) before earning a doctorate and begin a college teaching career at Ball State in 1990.
Starting in mid-1990s, however, I starting growing unhappy in my former church, which I felt had started to become more of an obstacle to spiritual growth than an avenue. Elise became interested in Orthodoxy before I did. I began reading some of the books she recommended to me.
Among the most helpful were the two books on Orthodoxy by Bishop Kallistos Ware; an autobiography of his conversion to Orthodoxy by Michael Harper, an author and former Church of England priest; and another spiritual autobiography by an Orthodox convert titled Searching for Water in a Land of Shallow Wells by Matthew Gallatin, a former pastor of a conservative, nondenominational church.
At some point about two years ago, we made the decision to join the Orthodox Church. We made the decision on Orthodoxy before we decided which branch and which parish. We visited two other Orthodox churches in Indianapolis before visiting St. George. It surprises many to learn that we first discovered St. George through its website on the Internet. The decision to leave a comfortable church in Anderson to commute 40 miles to one in Indianapolis wasn’t easy, especially in the midst of rising gas prices. But we felt compelled by God to make it, never looking back and never regretting it.
The same qualities and traditions of Orthodoxy attracted both of us.
But we express those attractions in different ways. First, the roots of Orthodoxy in ancient Christian tradition attract me. I grew up in Florida and came from a 5th generation Florida family. When I first moved to Indiana, I felt like I had moved to another country. It was a difficult adjustment. But I learned, as the Bible teaches, our home and our roots are not on any particular location on earth. Our home is in heaven. A Christian is like an upside-down tree: our roots our anchored in heaven and our branches reach out to earth.
And so in Orthodoxy, I feel that I have sunk my roots into heaven and back 2,000 years to early Christianity. I feel that here I am able to fellowship with the descendents of the very first Christians. My spiritual mentors and masters are no longer the latest pop theologians, but the early fathers who shaped and guided the church through its turbulent first three centuries.
Second, the stability and consistency of Orthodox theology attract me. The faith that you and the pastor teach is the same Gospel that was first preached by the disciples, taught to the early fathers, and transmitted down through the ages. Orthodox theology is remarkably coherent and sensible. It’s never up for a vote at the next convention. I don’t get to pick and choose what I believe. If I want to be saved and follow Christ, I have to take the whole package and conform my life to what the church teaches.
Finally, the missionary outreach of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, in particular, attracts me. I never felt I had to come from a particular ethnic background to be an Antiochian Christian. I read the biography of Metropolitan Phillip by Peter Gillquist, as well as Peter Gillquist’s own remarkable story about how he and 2,000 other evangelicals were welcomed into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the 1980s.
Metropolitan Phillip has taken the Great Commission seriously to reach out into all the world and preach the Gospel to all nations and to all people.
We invite you to join us on this journey.