by Dylan and Margaret Jenkins
1996-1997: Unwitting Passengers
Our journey to Orthodox Christianity began just prior to our marriage in June 1996 upon meeting Meg’s sister’s new boyfriend, John Oliver. John had a transformative experience at the Valaam Monastery two years earlier (documented in his book Touching Heaven) and had recently converted to Orthodoxy. John was faithfully and diligently working out his new faith in America and was contemplating pursuing the priesthood. We immediately clicked, and spent several late nights discussing many subjects, including the Church. The evening before we departed, John and I locked horns in a friendly but spirited discussion about the Bible, Church history and the legitimacy of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Toward the end of our debate, John punctuated his thoughts (and mine) with;
“Dylan, I am certain that if you continue to seek the Truth, you will embrace Orthodoxy.”
His brief statement initially struck me like a presumptuous punch to the chest and it somewhat sobered our new relationship. But he had already earned enough of my respect for me to accept his comment as a signpost on my journey of faith. Unknown to Meg and me, it marked the beginning of our journey to Orthodoxy.
1998-2003: Turbulence in the “Primitive Church”
The year before and following our marriage, Meg and I searched sincerely for a church we could call home. We attended several churches, but none fulfilled our two basic needs of a congregation’s loyalty to conservative Biblical doctrine and that it view and conduct itself as a tightly knit family. Further, having been exposed to Orthodoxy and knowing enough church history to question the validity of sola scriptura, we were now beginning to develop a third test for evaluating sound church doctrine: the body’s acknowledgement of Holy Tradition as a legitimate and necessary revelation in addition to, and inseparable, from Biblical revelation.
Mainline Protestant denominations had long been ruled out given their subscription to an alarmingly liberalizing theology. We settled on meeting with several Christian families in a local house church. Our house church was the center of our spiritual life for nearly five years. It was an earnestly God-seeking, Bible-loving body and it fully met our first two criteria for what we believe the Church is and should strive to be. Some of our closest friends are still in the Blacksburg house church.
However, as our exposure to Orthodoxy grew, through our relationship with the Olivers, reading and occasional attendance at Orthodox churches, we began to recognize some key structural and foundational fallacies in the house-church theology as well. Most notable was the disdain for the “traditions of men,” which is house-church shorthand for the set of misinterpretations and innovations of the organized church resulting in liberalized theology and departure from Biblical teachings. To this degree the house church movement is enlightened. However, in practice, their rejection of tradition is a zealous but equally unsophisticated disregard for all church tradition; unsophisticated given the house-church movement’s unwitting reliance on Holy Tradition which for two millennia has defended Holy Scripture against every heresy thrown at the Church from the gates of hell. Holy Tradition, largely unknown and consequently unacknowledged by Protestantism and the house-church movement, is nonetheless a necessary pillar of Revelation upon which these churches subsist.
The house churches’ response to the erosion of sound Christian doctrine within Protestantism has been to resurrect the “primitive Church.” Rooted in sola scriptura, house-church theology is cobbled together through “prescriptive evidence” gleaned from the New Testament. However, this very action of church resurrection contradicts Christ’s own words in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell would never prevail against His body, His church. If Christ meant “never means never,” then where was the true church today? And no matter how sincere our intention, what justification did our house church, disconnected from Christ’s ever-living body, have for attempting to recreate His church? Further, as with the rest of the Western church, in rejecting all tradition including Holy Tradition, the house-church movement ironically developed its own tradition, in part by venerating and singing the hymns of their own set of Western saints: Luther, Zwingli, Wesley, Moody.
Yet, like many Protestant churches, these same house-church congregations look askance at icons and are either completely ignorant or profoundly arrogant in rejecting twenty centuries of Church saints who, in unyielding continuity, defended and died for the Church from Pentecost to this day. The theological and doctrinal contradictions were increasingly undeniable, but because we were a very close community of friends and committed to practicing Biblical truth, we continued to meet with the house church.
2004-2006: Circling the Airport
In 2004, we moved to Williamsport, PA because we desired full exposure to the Orthodox church and a sound foundation upon which to either accept or reject it. We couldn’t learn all we needed to know about Orthodoxy by reading books; to fully understand Orthodoxy we had to immerse ourselves in Orthodox life and practice. Although we were not yet Orthodox, we knew enough to believe that we may become so and regularly attended Holy Cross for about 18 months. Meg and I recognized that pledging allegiance to Orthodoxy was equal in commitment to marriage. Having spent 34 years in several Protestant and non-denominational churches including five years in the house-church movement, we were still unsure of our ability to commit to Orthodoxy. We needed to view Orthodoxy one more time from the outside to know for certain that Orthodox practice was superior to the alternatives with which we were more familiar.
We took a somewhat restless “break” from Orthodoxy and attended a non-denominational church for about a year. This church was asking many questions to which Orthodoxy had the answers, and we could see that it was repeating the same set of errors that all churches disconnected from Holy Tradition are destined to repeat. While there, I served on the pastor search committee as the “new guy,” providing guidance in that search according to the churchs’ recently-adopted statement of faith and bylaws. During that time I occasionally mentioned the Orthodox faith and the church elders approached me about incorporating some Orthodox practices into their own. At that point we recognized that unlike Protestantism, true and whole Christian practice is exactly that — true and whole — it is not a holy refrigerator where an individual, congregation, or denomination can select the ingredients that best suit today’s appetite and are free to choose new ingredients for a different appetite tomorrow.
Meg and I practice our faith imperfectly, but we are not Sunday Christians. We immersed ourselves in every church we attended and we understood the theology to which these churches subscribed. All of these churches were composed of good folks who had a genuine desire to know God and His will for guiding their lives. But like most Protestant churches, our interim church suffered from a recurring structural deficiency in foundational theology: adherence to the doctrine of sola scriptura. This doctrine asserts that self-interpreted Biblical revelation is sufficient for knowing and following God’s will in all matters. Adherents to sola scriptura will quickly note that it is not the created conscience, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that allows full and right interpretation of Holy Scripture. However, the Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself — so why so many individual Protestants and Protestant denominations with irreconcilable interpretations of basic theological truths? The answer we came to realize is that the Western church either lacks the Holy Spirit, Holy Tradition, or both. Certainly, in some significant ways, the Western church holds to components of Orthodox teaching. However, what truth is found in Protestantism can rightly be viewed as “artifacts of Orthodoxy” that survived the Great Schism, but are increasingly muffled in a mangled theology disconnected from the Holy Tradition which steadfastly guards and defends Truth in its wholeness. In continuing to distance itself from or outright rejection of Tradition, the Western church flirts with the gates of hell.
Our experience in the Protestant church instilled in us a deep respect for Holy Scripture and the search for true faith and Christian practice. But everything about our last experience with the Protestant church made Meg and I run unambiguously back to Orthodoxy, this time ready to make it our home.
2007: Safe Landing
On April 14, 2007, Meg and I and our children Boone and Molly committed ourselves to the Orthodox faith. I am proud to note that our new son Samuel is the first Jenkins to be born into Orthodoxy. With the Orthodox Church as our spiritual home, we have a new-found peace. While we still have much to learn about our faith, there is great relief in knowing that our search for the true Church is complete, a sense of being home and not having to question where we belong or what stance to take on foundational theology and doctrine. As Protestants, we questioned and sometimes defended inconsistent doctrines, trying to rectify an amalgam of beliefs inherited from the dishearteningly-fragmented Protestant church and attempting to decipher Truth solely through Bible study and commentary. As Orthodox Christians, we have gratefully inherited the fullness of God’s revelation to mankind: Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Holy Scripture, and Holy Tradition. We now have great comfort knowing that our faith and our practice, like Christ, is “the same yesterday, today and forever.”
Jaroslav Pelikan, renowned Yale professor of history and religion, converted to Orthodoxy in the latter years of his life. Dr Pelikan described his lifelong journey to Orthodoxy as
“circling the airport;”
a description that fits our own experience — initial discovery, constant questioning, learning, circling, and finally safely landing upon our conversion. While our flight lasted a decade, we are gratefu that we landed relatively early in our lives and, God-willing, have the better part of our lifetimes to experience the Church in its fulness. As Fr Oliver confidently counseled ten years earlier, an earnest search for the Truth indeed leads one to embrace Orthodoxy.
We thank God for bringing us home. Glory to Jesus Christ!