Back in January, I was baptized and chrismated into membership of the Orthodox Church in Kenya. Much of my life seems like a blur ever since. Prior to that, I tried to make sense of what was happening to me and why I was moving in that direction by writing out a narrative of that process. But since then, I’ve not had the chance to be very reflective. It’s been enough just to live, and try and hang on.
A Presbyterian Church in Yorktown, VA, one of our supporting congregations, asked me to speak yesterday on ‘My Journey to Orthodoxy’ Many people there receive our prayer letters and were genuinely interested in what the Orthodox Church is all about and why I, as a Presbyterian minister, would be willing to lay all that down to become an Orthodox Christian. This forced me to slow down and think again about some of the reasons why I’ve taken these steps.
I am very much in process. There will be some on the Protestant Evangelical/Presbyterian side who may take offense at some things I say, just as there will undoubtedly be some who are further down the Orthodox path who will see shortcomings in my understanding and practice. Guilty as charged, I am sure. So I start by asking your forgiveness for my shortcomings, and for a willingness to help when I have obviously fallen short.
In the meantime, what follows is the talk I gave last night to about 100 very interested and attentive Presbyterians. Their feedback afterwards was very encouraging. I’m grateful they gave me this opportunity.
by Dr William Black
June 1, 2011 Yorkminster Presbyterian Church
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.’
Sixteen years ago, if you had said that I would in 2011 become a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I would have laughed. I was an ordained Presbyterian minister, one of the few remaining ‘Five Point Calvinists’ in the PCUSA. I had just been accepted at the University of Cambridge to work on a PhD in the English Puritan practice of pastoral ministry. We wanted to go from there to serve overseas in a missionary capacity in theological education. And that is, in fact, what we did. After both Stephanie and I finished our PhDs, we affiliated with the largest independent Protestant mission board, SIM. We moved our family to Ethiopia. We both taught in the only Protestant school offering degrees at the Masters level in the whole Horn of Africa. I taught theology and history and I eventually became the senior pastor of the largest English language church in Ethiopia with a staff of twelve, where I served for four years.
In 2008, Stephanie was recruited to take a position in Nairobi at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, the leading Evangelical theological school on the continent of Africa. I came along, too, and though they weren’t looking for someone in my area, they eventually found plenty for me to do. Two years ago, I was appointed to be full-time lecturer in Theological Studies. I have been teaching the Systematic Theological cycle of three courses, and other courses like Contemporary Theology, Christian Apologetics, Reformation History and Theology, etc. And this past year I have been the acting head of our department. One could say that I had done quite well from when we set out as clear-eyed college graduates thirty years ago to prepare ourselves to be missionaries somewhere in Africa.
And even now, when I hear myself saying all this, the thought comes to my mind,
‘Good Lord, what happened to you?’
And there aren’t that many possible answers to a question like that. I could just get it over with and say that I’ve lost my mind. And I’ve wondered if that weren’t the case from time to time. Or I could confess that I’ve been dreadfully deceived, or fell in with the wrong circle of friends and been led astray by the devil himself out of the fold of Protestantism. Or I could say I’ve been confronted by such a compelling historical, theological and spiritual reality that I’ve been brought to a point of personal spiritual crisis and have had to make a choice about what I increasingly understood to be true and real. Or maybe I should ask the question this way: what would cause an otherwise sane (really, I am) and established and theologically Reformed Protestant Presbyterian missionary to become a member of the Orthodox Church?
Now I should also probably give you some additional important background information, just to make things even more weird. I was born in North Carolina and raised in South Carolina. That should be all you need to know right there. I don’t know about here, but in small town South Carolina, at least 35 years ago, we don’t do Orthodox. All we know about are those Catholics, and all we know about Catholics is that they’re wrong, you know the enemy and antichrist and all that and that they need to get saved, and that they also tend to be Yankees which can be worse. So I had no categories in which to put ‘Orthodox’ other than ‘Catholic’. I thought Orthodox were just Catholics with funny black hats.
I didn’t realize how ignorant I was until we moved to Cambridge, and some of our new friends were John and Denise, and John was a Russian Orthodox priest. And they were, like, normal. I was so embarrassed. I’m doing a PhD in church history, had an undergraduate major in medieval and Renaissance intellectual history, and I had to admit to John that I didn’t know a thing about the Eastern Church. And as PhD students will do, he shared some books with me to help remedy my lack. Two by Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way, and one by an anonymous Russian Orthodox monk called The Way of the Pilgrim.
I devoured these books. It was like entering into a completely new world. If you have ever had the experience of snorkeling, you’ll know that from above, the ocean surface looks like this expanse of grey or blue or green with waves. But when you go beneath the surface, an entirely new and fantastic universe opens up right there in front of you. This was Orthodoxy to me, in terms of its history, its theology and its spirituality. So I guess that’s what I want to do with you the rest of our time. I want to take you snorkeling with me into a world that seems fantastic and new and to us Protestants, exotic, even dangerous.
So first, let me talk a bit of history.
Did you know that for the first 1000 years of church history, Christians said that part of the Nicene Creed that says:
‘And I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,’
– that not only did they confess it and believe it, but that it was true? There were, of course, some exceptions. And the most fierce fights tended to be over making sure that who we understood Jesus to be preserved the New Testament understanding of salvation and the gospel. But for the first 1000 years, Christians believed the same things, worshiped in the same way, were organized and governed themselves in the same structure. They weren’t arguing about baptism or about the sacraments or salvation or about any of the things that divide churches today. Christians understood that their faith was the faith handed down by the apostles themselves to godly leaders in the next generation, and on down the line to the present, and that there was direct continuity from what their local bishop proclaimed and taught to the apostles and thus to Jesus himself. None of this was controversial.
The trouble began when the bishop of Rome began to claim that he was not only first in terms of honor (an honor that the rest of the church was happy to give), but first in terms of authority, and that all the rest of the church needed to submit to his authority (for example, Leo the Great in the 5th century). But the rest of the church had, from the very beginning with the Council in Jerusalem that we read about in Acts 15, understood authority in the church differently. From the beginning, when the church has disagreements, they said, we gather together in council and work it out with one another until we come to a consensus.
And this in fact was the way Christians dealt with their disagreements for the first millennium of Church history, with local councils, regional councils and ecumenical councils involving all the churches. But successive bishops in Rome began to develop an alternative authority structure, one that was top down with the pope at the top, all based on Christ’s words to Peter that on this rock I will build my church and on the assumption that Peter was the first bishop of the church in Rome. (It is, of course, much more complicated than this, but in the interest of time I can only paint with a big brush here.) All the bishops in the Eastern churches felt that Rome was violating the precedent set in Acts 15 and taking the place in the church that only Christ himself could take. And so they disagreed with successive bishops of Rome until things came to a head in the 11th century.
The issue was a tiny phrase that a group of bishops meeting in a regional council in Toledo, Spain had added to the Nicene Creed back in the 7th century. Immediately, the rest of the church condemned this because, they said, one doesn’t add to or subtract from an ecumenical creed unless the whole church is in agreement. Even the bishop of Rome took this position. You want to know what the little phrase is? The Nicene Creed says this about the Holy Spirit: ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.’ But the Spanish bishops added ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. In Latin, it’s just one word – filioque.
Now was this just a case of the Byzantine Church being, well, Byzantine? No, because the issue wasn’t just the word filioque, the issue was actually one of authority – how are we going to do authority in the church? The influence of the filioque party actually grew over the next several centuries in Spain and then the land of the Franks. And by the 11th century, the leading political power in Europe, the descendents of Charlemagne, had accepted its teaching. And also at that time, the fortunes of the bishop of Rome were at a very low ebb and he was needing political and military help, and so he reached out to the great power of the day, the kingdom of the Franks. And the price for their support was Roman acceptance of the filioque. So the bishop of Rome proclaimed that the creed with the filioque was official Christian doctrine and that all Christians should accept this teaching.
Well the Eastern Church was gobsmacked when word of the insertion reached Constantinople, but even more so at the unilateral decision that the pope had made. This more than anything set the western church off in a very different direction from the Eastern Church. For the Bishop of Rome continued to make unilateral doctrinal decisions that the rest of the church could not or would not make, decisions about Mary, decisions about sacraments, decisions about grace and salvation, decisions about purgatory, decisions about the pope’s authority. To the point that by the 15th and 16th century, the Western Church desperately needed reforming.
Which brings us to Protestantism. About which I could go on and say a lot, but I’d better not.
The point is, the Eastern Church is not the Western Church. The Eastern Church did not make the same mistakes that the Western Roman Catholic Church made. The Eastern Church did not need a reformation. If you want to see what the one, holy catholic and apostolic church actually looks like, you won’t find it in the Roman Catholic Church, or all those Protestant churches reacting against the Roman Catholic Church, nor will you find it in the Bible Baptist Church or the local Pentecostal Church, all who claim to be the most biblical church. If you want to see what Christianity was in the first millennium and continues to be, the living bridge to the ancient church, come to the Orthodox Church. And when I came, I was amazed.
Let me take another minute and talk a little theology. So do you believe in the Trinity? Of course you do, you’re Christian. But we Western Protestants have always been uncomfortable with the Holy Trinity. It has become for us a matter of apologetics somehow to explain, a problem somehow to solve. We tend to get caught up in the mathematics, the three in one, and how can that be. And because it rationally makes no sense, we give a couple of analogies to try to explain it and then move on to the more interesting and useful bits of theology.
For the Orthodox, the Holy Trinity is the heart of Christian theology. It’s not that we Orthodox have figured it out and you slower Westerners are just being true to form. No, the Trinity is a mystery in terms of how God can be both one and three. But for the Orthodox, the fact that God is Trinity is the focal point that holds Christianity and the gospel together. When God reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God reveals himself to be love. God is relationship.
The Trinity is relationship. And the love that the Father and Son and Spirit have for each other reveal not only what God is like, but what his creation was intended to be. And what about you and me? Genesis 1:27 says that
‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.’
In the West, we when we talk about the image of God, we tend to focus on the fact that God has made us rational, creative, communicative beings, and that this is what it means to share his image. But if it’s the Holy Trinity that’s doing the creating, and if God is love, if God is relationship, then it follows that to be created in the image of the Holy Trinity is to be created with the capacity to love. Notice that it takes being created male and female to be created in the image of God.
And jumping to the New Testament, what does Jesus tell his disciples that they are to do? To love God with all your heart and to love neighbor. And how will the world know that you are Jesus’ follower? Because of your church membership? Because of your facility with Greek or history? Because you have the right theology? No, because you love one another, just as I have loved you. And how can you tell without a doubt if the Holy Spirit is really at work someplace, in a person’s life, or in a church or in some ministry? Because the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work is always always love.
Now I could obviously go a lot deeper in any of these directions. But I just wanted to show you that if you begin reading the Scriptures through the lens of relationships, through the lens of love, you will quickly discover that Christianity has a radical life changing agenda to restore our relationship with the Trinity and our relationship with the people around us and our relationship with the creation itself, starting with our relationship with Jesus through the Gospel. And this is the heart of the gospel as understood and proclaimed and lived in the Eastern Church.
The last thing I want to touch on is the spirituality of Orthodoxy. OK, I admit, there is a lot here that is exotic, that looks different, that feels strange. When we gather for worship, we don’t sit down, we stand for the entire liturgy. Our entire service is chanted. We don’t use musical instruments. We do incense, and candles. We kiss icons. We kiss the priests hand. We kiss the cross. Sometimes we kiss each other. Mary plays a very important role in our church and in our prayers. Our deacons and priests and bishops wear spectacular vestments. We make the sign of the cross. We anoint with oil. We receive communion on a spoon. We baptize everybody by immersion, even our babies. And we spit on the devil when we join the church.
But the heart of Orthodox spirituality is prayer. Prayer is not technique, although technique can help. Prayer is relationship. I start out ever systematic theology course with what Evagrios of Pontus says,
‘A true theologian is one who prays truly. And one who prays truly is a true theologian.’
I could just as easily say, A true Christian is one who prays truly. And one who prays truly is a true Christian.
The past ten years have been a particularly dark decade in my life, having been diagnosed with chronic depression, a pastorate that did not end well in Ethiopia, as well as employing lot of wrong ways of coping with conflict or relational pain or difficulty which have all brought an unhappy harvest in my relationships. And in the midst of my turmoil, the old answers were not working. And when it grew very dark a few years ago, and I started thinking things would be better for everyone if I just ended it, when I couldn’t pray and whatever counsel people tried to give me sounded like so much shallow nonsense, it was the Jesus prayer, the heart of Orthodox spirituality, that I eventually found I wanted to pray.
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
And as I’ve prayed, he meets me in the praying. And as I stand in liturgy, he meets me as we pray together. I carried burdens all through the forty eight years I was a protestant, burdens that were too heavy, burdens I couldn’t lay aside, burdens I couldn’t share with anyone and when I finally screwed up the courage to do so, burdens for which there was no help. I’m not saying that those answers and that help can’t be found in a Presbyterian church, they obviously can. But for me and my past and what I’ve been through, it’s taken the radical therapy of the Eastern Church to begin to get through to me.
It’s like what happened to me when I started my PhD. I had read a lot about Puritanism over the years. I had studied Puritanism when I was at seminary. I had written papers and a thesis on Puritanism. But when I got to Cambridge and began to grapple with what I actually needed to know and do in order to become the world expert on puritan pastoral ministry, I realized that all that stuff I thought I knew was actually superficial piffle. I had to be willing to let go of all of it and start from scratch, to abandon the house of my former knowledge and start from the ground up on a new piece of property. It was humbling. It was hard hard work. But it made me a pretty good scholar. And even more importantly, it opened me up to actually learning something, rather than always feeling like I have the answers and know it all.
I built a really impressive Presbyterian Protestant Evangelical house. But when the ground beneath my feet began to shake, and my house was falling down on top of my head, I had a choice to make. Stay and get buried, or move on to a place where I can help and healing. So I’ve gone to a new piece of property. And I hardly know what I’m doing. And the neighbors and sometimes even Stephanie don’t quite know what to think. It’s been humbling to start over. And it is hard hard work. But it’s opened my up to actually learning something rather than always feeling like I had to have the answers, rather than letting my pride convince me that I know it all already.
To change metaphors, it really is a journey, though. And I’ve had the incredible benefit of doing almost that entire journey from a Presbyterian and reformed perspective. And I wouldn’t trade a single day of it. I first heard the gospel in a Presbyterian church, I first learned to love the Scriptures there, too. I first heard the word ‘Disciple’ from a Presbyterian pastor, and first read C.S. Lewis and J.I. Packer in a Presbyterian youth group. I was called to ministry in a Presbyterian context and given encouragement to go in that direction by Presbyterian friends and mentors. I was (and am) married to a Presbyterian and by a Presbyterian in front of a lot of other Presbyterians! I’ve served Presbyterian churches as their pastor, and even the church I pastored in Ethiopia that wasn’t Presbyterian, I treated them as if they were. So I am grateful to God for my heritage. I am who I am because of all of those people, most of whom are Presbyterians.
But I went as far as Presbyterianism, as Evangelicalism, as Protestantism could take me. And now I’m Orthodox. The Great Physician has referred me to a different hospital, changed my prescriptions. But it is the Same Lord, and the same mission, with the same goal as before.
Thank you so much for giving me this chance to share my heart and my life with you. If there’s any time left, I’d be happy to take a couple of questions if you have any.