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—The following was an open letter written to my Christian friends prior to my reception into Orthodoxy.—
It is probably no secret to many of you that for a while now, I’ve talked a lot about Eastern Orthodoxy. After having thought about some of these issues for the past two years, I’ve finally decided to put myself forward for reception into the Church by Baptism and Chrismation (as has always been done). This will either be on Holy Saturday before Pascha May 1st (Easter) or a short time before. But before April ends, if all goes according to plan, I will have finally become Orthodox. The following letter is not about starting debates or an apologetic to defend Orthodox teaching and doctrine. Rather it is to show the heart and mind behind this decision. To show the motivation behind it. To assure people that I have not lost my find. Rather, I’ve found it and a lot more.
Often I’ve been told in my journey to making this decision that I am complicating things. That what matters is my personal relationship with Christ. Therefore I should continue reading the Bible, staying put where I am. This, is said, is all that is required of me. There is something to be said here about personal sanctification and holiness. I don’t want to downplay it. In fact, while dealing with all these issues I’ve often prayed during the early days of my enquiry “Lord, if Orthodoxy is true, then bring me there. But I really don’t want to go there.” Being right with the Lord and living how he wants me to is my chief concern. And I suspect that for any sincere Christian, this is truly a desire of their heart. It’s for this very reason, that I don’t see theology as a joke. Or mere academic exercises. The reason being, that words are more than just sounds. When I say “Jesus”, it’s easy to assume that what I mean by that name, is the same thing that others mean. But this is not the case. For some, Jesus is the name of a fictional character in an ancient book. For others, Jesus is a really good moral teacher or enlightened individual. But just one amongst many. Others say he is prophet but not divine. I would say he is the uncreated Creator of all things.While Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons would say he’s a created angel or brother of Lucifer (perish the thought). Even the New Testament records that people were confused over his identity:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied,“Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15).
Paul even chastises believers who are listening to those who preaching a Christ who does not reflect the reality:
“For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” (2 Corinthians 11:4)
You can’t claim to believe in or follow Jesus and not have any claims about him. In other words, everything you say about Jesus or believe about him is theology. To be more precise, it’s Christology. And if Jesus is the foundation of our faith, a mistaken Christology will effect everything else. It’s why my Orthodox friends jokingly say, “We only have one dogma; the Incarnation.” It is no accident that the first seven major councils of the Church were tackling heresies about Jesus. So then then the question every true believer needs to answer, is the same that Christ asked his followers: “Who do you say I am?”
There is also a second related question that every believer needs to address. And in many ways, how one answers the first question, will often come out of what they believe about this second one: What community of confessing believers, if I any, should I participate in? The answer to this will affect ones theology and therefore how they relate to Jesus. And their own personal sanctification.
We are called to personal sanctification, but within a community. Believers are to build each other up and function together as a body. In fact a very important part of loving God, is in loving a fellow believer: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20).
Personal sanctification and the community are unmistankingly linked: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”” (Hebrews3:12-15)
Unless one is going to decide to live a Christian life, apart from belonging to any group, the question of which community, will come up. How then shall we decide which community to belong to? Any answer given here will reflect a theological idea or conviction. Every criteria we use in deciding will reflect assumptions we make about what this community is or ought to be. If I were to ask someone whether they should attend Catholic Mass or a Baptist Service, each of their answers have important implications. Whether you’re indifferent or feel strongly about one group or the other, it says something about the nature Christianity. The Gospel and the Kingdom of God. In other words, all communities have lines that separate them from other ones. They have intrinsic ideas and structures (ordered or not) which define who they are.
This is why it’s not enough for me to be told “Just love Jesus”, “read your Bible” “go to Church.” It assumes already a certain idea of Jesus. It assumes already a certain way of reading the Bible. Not to mention a Bible (Catholics have more books in their Bible than Baptists, Mormons have more books than the Bible, and Islam says the Bible has been corrupted). And of course what I believe about the first two will determine which community (if any) that I participate in. Or the community I participate in will determine what I believe about the other two.
My upbringing has been non-denominational. But in reality, our beliefs were essentially Baptist with Charismatic flavours. Which meant that we belonged to the broader category of Protestantism. Churches of this kind had been the type that we attended. And when I got older and got to choose which local congregations that I personally wanted to attend, these were the kinds that I chose. Later on I got introduced to Reformed Theology, which I fully embraced for a number of years. All the while attending churches were such views were not the majority. Regardless,I was nevertheless a Protestant. My desire since youth had been to know God personally, know about Him and share the truth and good news of Christ with others. All this was done of course in the Protestant framework. This cannot be overstated. For everything I did in relation to living the Christian life and how I saw and related to God was done with a Protestant lens. It would also be a lie to say that I didn’t wrestle with internal assumptions and tensions that I saw in this framework for a long time. It wasn’t always obvious. But when Orthodoxy began to challenge them, much of what I had in the back of my head became more explicit. Many things I didn’t know how to make sense of given my framework,began to make sense in Orthodoxy. And often times, I would realise that certain teachings and ideas in Orthodoxy were what I implicitly held to anyways. Or didn’t know how to express. The more I desired to follow Jesus, study the faith and share it with others, the more I became aware of my own assumptions. It came to the point that I realised I could not really affirm some the major pillars of my Protestant framework. Over the past year, this has become ever clearer,with varying degrees of certainty. So when people would tell me to “Follow Jesus, read the Bible, go to church”, it really implied thattheir particular framework was corrector normative. So then by deviating, I was being weird. No longer following Christ but concerning myself with complicated issues that didn’t matter. And that’s fine. If their frameworks were correct,then that’s exactly what I would be doing. But I wasn’t willing to simply grant that this was true. How could I when I no longer believed it?
That’s something that I try and get across. I’m not interested in Eastern Orthodoxy because I want to focus on something other than Jesus. I’m not interested in Eastern Orthodoxy because I was bored with my simple Baptistic upbringing and wanted the extravagance of the Orthodox. Rather I want to become Eastern Orthodox because I love Jesus. And if Orthodoxy is true, then loving Jesus and becoming Orthodox were not different. And I didn’t believe in just any Jesus.Not the New Age, Mormon or Islamic Jesus. But the Jesus of historic Christianity (of the Nicean and Chalcedonian Creed). The one which both the Orthodox and Christians of my upbringing would implicitly or explicitly affirm. And one of the many reasons I’ve decided to go Orthodox, is because I found that certain teachings in my old framework seemed to contradict the Jesus they affirmed. And some of these teachings weren’t specific to my non-denominational background. But under girded much of the Protestant Tradition. While at the same time, I found Orthodox teaching to be more consistent with the doctrine of Christ. And when the Protestant and Orthodox faith agreed, it was one less reason to remain Protestant.
Jesus,the Bible and Church. As I said before, what one believes about the first two will determine which community (if any) that they participate in. Or the community one participates in will determine what they believe about the other two. I have not rejected Jesus or the Bible. But because I no longer held to the commitments of my community, it could have appeared as if I had. It is therefore because I want to follow Jesus, that what I now believe about Jesus and the Bible, is determining which community I want to participate in. What I believed about Jesus made me realise that certain beliefs within my current tradition were problematic. This included Martin Luther’s notion of Sola Fide. This in some Protestant circles would be the equivalent of denying Gospel itself. Around the same time, it became clear that I could no longer affirm what is likely the distinctive marker of Protestantism: Sola Scriptura. Even before encountering Orthodoxy, I realised that there were some issues with this doctrine.
But now, having realised that I no longer believed the two major pillars of the Protestant Tradition, I knew I couldn’t stay. I knew that following Jesus would mean I couldn’t remain in the Protestant Tradition. I want serve Christ. I need to be part of Christian Community. So two years later, I think that in order to do both, going Orthodox is my best option.
Do I have doubts? Sure, as much as anyone has when making big decisions. Am I nervous about my decision? Of course. Whatever I decide will have big ramifications for the rest of my life. But as the Apostles said to Christ “To whom shall we go?” (John 6:68). Not only do I not really see anywhere else for me personally to go, but this is where I now want to be. If Orthodoxy isn’t true, then Christianity in many ways doesn’t make sense to me. Sure I would still be a Christian. But a very confused one. At the same time I don’t see this decision to change as being primarily an intellectual matter. Nor something coming about by my efforts alone. I need to constantly depend on the Spirit work on life and lead me. And I thank God for where He has brought me. I couldn’t have imagined the doors that would have opened. The people He put in my path. The new way of life which embraces the totality of my human experience. Spirit, soul and body. The communion of the whole Church, of all the Saints from the beginning of time to the Heavenly Hosts. I feel like the kingdom is oozing into every area of my life. And that’s the way it ought to be.
I know that people are concerned about me. It only makes sense that given we believe different things, they would be. Which is why in closing, there a few things I wish to say in order try and put you somewhat at ease.
First, my primary goal is Christ. My loyalty is to Him. And no matter the hardship that follows, I can’t turn back from following where I think He’s leading. I’m by no means perfect. Or better than most (or anyone really). But if you doubt the direction I’m going, see my Christian walk. If I’m growing in sanctification then take it that I’m either going the right way or God’s grace has been particularly strong to preserve me in my errors. Either way, your prayers are much appreciated.
Finally, I would like to dispel any notion that I’m resentful or angry about my past. I thank God for the great upbringing both at home and in church that I’ve had. For the great friends, teachers and preachers that have been used one way or another to be blessings in my life (as well as giving the much needed rebuking that I’ve often deserved… which is a blessing… of course). We may not agree on all, but we do agree about much. I still see you all as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)