by Sean Whitted
It was a Sunday morning and my wife Amber and I were leaving Church after our first experience together at a local Eastern Orthodox Parish. I had decided to not ask what she thought about the service, but I figured I would wait for her to say something when she was ready. After about ten minutes in the car on our way home, she finally put an end to the silence:
“Well… I can say, that I will NEVER become Orthodox! However, I can also say, that having been raised a Christian, having spent my whole life in church and around church, and having many ministers and evangelists in my family, I have never experienced such reverence and awe for God as I did today.”
Those words, both bitter and sweet to hear, were ones that were frequently upon my heart as I delved deeper into the mystery of this most sacred Tradition.
The journey started a couple of months prior to that drive home when in a private Facebook group, some Bible College alumni were discussing issues that were intriguing to me; this was just before Easter two years ago. One of the alumni, Marcelo Souza (who later left our common non-denominational experience, then pastored a church in the Reformed tradition, and ultimately became Eastern Orthodox) had written a post which caused me to come to a screeching halt as I wrestled with his beginning words:
“Notwithstanding the fact that we wrote, canonized, and gave you the scriptures…”!
Huh? What? What do you mean “we wrote, canonized, and gave you the scriptures”? From that point on, a dialogue commenced, that led to other ideas, which in turn led me to start digging. Already at that point, in the back of my mind, I had several looming questions wondering how the Bible had been put together and why the books we have were included when others were not included. Questions such as: Why was “The Apocrypha” not included in my Bible, when I knew it was in the Catholic Bible version? What about all of the “Gospels” and other epistles that I kept seeing on the Discovery Channel and so forth- why were they not included? Who decided this? I was pointed by Marcelo to a few sources to start making sense of what he said. As I walked forward down that path, the rabbit hole went deeper and deeper than I everthought was possible.
As the discovery unfolded, I was both thrilled and upset at the same time. I was thrilled because of some of the issues that had always concerned me, the answers that I found in the context of Eastern Orthodoxy were not only sufficient, but a relief. The biggest issue for me, which has been THE issue as a Christian, was the problem of how God could be both sovereign and man still be free. In all my years as a Christian, I was always very bothered by the Calvinist notion of a God that had sovereignly elected His “Jesus team”, so to speak, to the exclusion of those whom He decided not to elect, letting them remain in Adam.
During and after my Bible College days, I was constantly drawn into arguments with my Calvinist friends in which I repeatedly tried to defend God’s honor by suggesting that this idea of God’s sovereignty left Him ultimately as the author of evil- if it were indeed His decision alone as to who would be saved. To my amazement, for the most part they were not convinced, ironically, they thought they were doing the same thing- defending God’s honor to be sovereign. In Orthodox understanding, God is completely sovereign, so sovereign in fact that He created others who havetheir own limited sovereignty-under Him- whom He allows to have meaningful decisions with eternal consequences. The age old battle that has raged in the West between Calvinist and Arminian ideologies really has been the result of some problematic Augustinian notions of original sin (which was somewhat different than the Eastern Fathers of his time and of those before him).
“Some modern scholars have suggested that Manichaean ways of thinking influenced the development of some of Augustine’s ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity”.
What a beautiful thing to discover was that the Fathers had the idea of “ancestral sin” which meant that it was death that occurred as a result of the fall, as well as the inclination towards sin that spread like a cancer to all of humanity. It was not that we were born sinners by nature, but born with a fallen nature. This might seem a trivial distinction to some, but as theology developed through St. Augustine’s ideas in Rome and in the West,and considering the far distance to the other Patriarchates of the East,-Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Antioch, noting the different cultures and differing languages of Latin as contrasted with Greek of the Eastern Churches, the divide grew with time.
What angered me was that I had so little knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox Church, having read many books, gone through Bible College, and spent time in circles with bright people. I asked myself: How in the world was it possible that this most ancient Church escaped my attention? Surely, it must be some kind of cult or weird spin off the Roman Catholic Church gone bad. The claim, however, was that this Church, was THE Church that was founded by the Lord Jesus, passed onto His Apostles by giving them His keys to the Kingdom, and meant to be passed down through Apostolic succession, that is, through the laying on of hands, where one receives the priesthood in order to speak and act in the authority given them through Christ. These were ideas I had encountered before from some Roman Catholic friends and family.
How was it,I asked, that the second largest body of Christians in the world, after Rome, would be so unknown here in the USA? I Looked deeper into the history of our own United States and understood that the founding of this nation was largely by those trying to flee the Church of England and Roman Catholicism to establish a new home, in which colonial populations could practice a form of Christianity whichever way they chose, or however the “Spirit” may lead. A nation built on principles that were birthed from French Enlightenment thinking, man being the measure of all things, and Protestants who were free from “oppressive Patriarchal” leadership, many of the ancient practices and understandings of the Christian Faith were forgotten.
My investigation in time lead to my desire to see for myself what was claimed, and to go experience first hand what I was reading about and was starting to believe. So, the first encounter mentioned in the beginning with my wife, was in the aftermath of experiencing the Divine Liturgy with her best friend Candice, and her husband Wayne.
That’s when I really became even more interested. After several correspondences with that Parish Priest, he suggested that even though he would love to have me there, he thought it might be a better fit for me at St. Barnabas, which is an Antiochian Orthodox Parish in Costa Mesa, CA. He explained that at St. Barnabas, most of the people there were mainly converts from Evangelical Protestant backgrounds, including both Priests who were street preachers back in the Jesus Movement in the 70’s. I then made plans to go visit the church and to find out more about why so many people that left the world of Christianity that I lived in for the first 39 of my 41 years. The first person I met as I walked through the door was Bruce Heying. He was formally of The Vineyard and whose dad was best friends with John Wimber, one of the founders and Senior Pastor of The Vineyard Movement.
Apparently, John got “saved” in Bruce’s parent’s home when Bruce was a child . After a very cordial greeting, I went inside the “nave”, which is the Orthodox sanctuary, where the service is held. I was immediately met by the wonderful smells of incense, low lit lights, candles, many colorful icons, and people standing and singing the most enchanting songs.
The service lasted around an hour and forty-five minutes, but that did not bother me one bit. I looked around drawn in by the beauty, mesmerized by all that flooded my senses, struck by the way in which those were participating, all seemed so serious about their faith. After the service ended, Bruce met me after, asked what I thought, and then told me,
“You need to meet Kevin Allen. He was in the Vineyard too, after being raised a Hindu. He and his wife were leaders there, and found their way to Orthodoxy.”
He then lead me over to Kevin who was drinking a cup of coffee, and reading a book that was just published “Sola Scriptura: A Dialogue”, but not yet released by Keith Buhler, son of the well know Christian Radio host Rich Buhler, of many years in the past. Keith is one of the many students who encountered and then embraced Orthodoxy while attending Biola, which is a reputable Protestant College.
As Kevin and I talked, I discovered that he and his wife Colleen were leaders of a Kinship group the same time my parents were also leading the same kind of Bible study group at the Vineyard, a Non-Denominational Evangelical Protestant Church. My curiosity increased even more now as I was puzzled about why so many that had left my world for this very different “version” of Christianity. He then threw out some names of other well known Protestants that had become Eastern Orthodox. After our meeting, we exchanged emails and from that point he became a go to person when I had questions.
In the depths of my soul, the lingering thoughts were drawn towards trying to understand what these people discovered. Was it just a bunch of disgruntled people looking for something different, something new, the next best thing to come along the pike, or was there something that can be discovered when coming with an open mind, being willing to test my biases. I came the next week, and then the next, and was suggested a book called “Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells” written by Matthew Gallatin, who was a former worship leader and pastor of a Calvary Chapel, the church I grew up in school from k-8 and later went to their Bible College. He too found Orthodoxy and his book gave a very compelling case for not only his owns reasons for his departure, but also for those who have any interest in being connected with the roots of their Faith, the Faith that was
“once and for all delivered to the Saints”(Jude 1:3).