by Timothy Furnish
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He’s been a friend of mine online for some time!
On May 15, 2022, I was brought into the Orthodox Church. And no, NPR, it’s not because I’m a “far-right” American looking for icons of Vladimir Putin. Or even Donald Trump. It’s the result of a quarter-century of study, prayer, and hard thinking about where I can best become more like Christ before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
I have been a Christian my whole life, with the exception of a year or so failed attempt at atheism in college. I was baptized Southern Baptist, the church in which my parents raised me. I will be forever grateful to them for that, and to that denomination for teaching me the importance of Scripture and the need to stand against sinful and malicious societal trends. Like drinking (too much) alcohol. (An edict which, alas, I violated more than once as a college fraternity President.)
Mostly Lived as a Lutheran
After (Baptist) college and one miserable semester in law school, I enlisted in the Army. At some point I attended a Lutheran church, and became enamored of the liturgy and, eventually, the theology. By 1985 I had joined a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. After my discharge, I enrolled at Concordia Seminary to pursue a M.Div. and seek ordination. That didn’t work out, and so I graduated with a M.A. But I remained Lutheran, although over the years drifting from the LC-MS to the ELCA depending on where I lived, then back when the latter became extremely liberal (both theologically and politically).
Strengths of Lutheranism
At its best Lutheranism marries key Scriptural truths to scholastic reasoning. (Lutherans did invent sola Scriptura, after all). Perhaps the best example of this is the key doctrine of justification v. sanctification. The former means that sinners are declared righteous by Jesus Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. The latter is the putting to work of that forgiveness in one’s life — doing good works, in other words. There is even an element in Lutheranism of “Christification” — becoming more like Him in this life. (See the excellent book on that topic by Reverend Dr. Jordan Cooper, Christification: A Lutheran Approach to Theosis.) But by-and-large many, if not most, (conservative) Lutheran churches and pastors highlight justification far more than sanctification — much less Christification.
Being Christian Does Not Depend on Denomination
Still, millions of people are good and faithful Christians as Lutherans or Baptists. Ditto for Protestants as a whole, be they Presbyterians, Methodists, other denominations, or some of the great numbers of folks in nondenominational churches. And this is most certainly true, as well, for legions of believers in the world’s largest Christian body, the Roman Catholic church. But I felt like I had no choice but to join the oft-forgotten third branch of Christianity — Orthodoxy.
Why? Eventually I came to realize that, for me, the practice of the presence of God demanded it. How did I get to that point? I read much Orthodox theology, started using and studying the Orthodox Study Bible, and began praying Orthodox prayers (especially those by St. Basil). That was necessary but not sufficient, as I didn’t yet attend Divine Liturgy regularly. (At one point I dragged my pregnant wife to an Orthodox church — that didn’t have seats. She, and God, eventually forgave me.)
Theologically, I found myself much in tune with Orthodoxy, especially on issues such as original v. ancestral sin, justification by faith alone, and Scripture plus Tradition. Most importantly, I was drawn to the Eastern churches’ teaching on theosis or “deification”: becoming as much like Christ as is possible in this life. This “has been illustrated by the example of a sword in the fire. A steel sword is thrust into a hot fire until the sword takes on a red glow. The energy of the fire interpenetrates the sword. The sword [man] never become fire [God], but it picks up the properties of fire. … Nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, we partake of the grace of God — His strength, His righteousness, His love — and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified” (Orthodox Study Bible, p. 1692).
Ultimately, the Heart Trumps the Head
Finally, last year I began going to Divine Liturgy regularly (while still attending the Lutheran church with my wife and, when they were home, sons). I also started meeting with the priest at the local Orthodox church, who graciously and patiently walked me through the Orthodox faith. But it is the attendance at, and participation in, the Divine Liturgy that really clinched it for me. I have never felt the presence of the Triune God as strongly and as clearly as when I am there. So, once my heart and my head were both convinced, and convicted, I really had no choice but to become Orthodox.
Some of the Sick Need a Holy Hospital
All of my church-going family, both immediate and extended, are Protestants of various kinds. God bless them. I would never question their piety, much less their salvation, in light of Romans 10:9: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” As for me, however, I am sick with sin — and the Orthodox Church is the hospital where I seek, and find, God’s holy medicine.
Plus, I really like incense.