Your Online Cup of Tea
Becoming Orthodox was almost like learning another language. And trying to explain the new way of thinking to others has almost been like trying to translate foreign text. Which means it’s not enough to just the get the literal meaning a word across, but it must fit the context of the language you’re translating that into. Some of these “words” that are different to translate are Church and Sacraments. The understanding of what both of these mean in Orthodox and Evangelical circles are in my opinion miles apart. This is why both sides can sometimes hold opinions that are seen by the other as being offensive. Undermining their very foundations. I’ve had such an experience when I attended a meeting where a preacher spoke quite harshly about Orthodox Christians. Denying in fact that they were Christians at all.
Likewise I had caused offence (probably to many) but one brother in particular because of the gravity and high language such as “conversion” given to my switch from Protestantism to Orthodoxy. Per the Evangelical worldview, there are only different denominations. Not one single visible church, that can be called *the* Church. So to treat the switch as anything more than a change of denominations would almost be to deny that my previous group were Christian at all.
There are many assumptions at play on both sides, which make communicating difficult. The following was a lenghty response I wrote (publically) to an Evangelical Elder, who I very much respect. But with whom I very strong and differing opinions about what exactly is the nature of the faith. Of the the Church. It was prompted by a status I posted near the time of my reception. There I spoke about how I would be getting “re-baptised” as well as receiving Chrismation (reception of the Holy Spirit by anoiting of holy oil). Then at some point, somebody commented, asking what “sect” I was converting from. This coupled with what seemed like needless discussion on the specificity of the form required by the Orthodoxy in order for the baptism to be valid, brought the concerned Elder to speak about whether what I was doing was right. All of this was done publicly online, and I didn’t want my relationship with them to be sullied. So I wrote a long response in order to try and address concerns that they many others may have had.
The following contains both the elders comment and my answer, because I think it highlights some of the pitfalls involved when Orthodox and Evangelicals get into discussion. As well as the reason for why certain attitudes are prevalent amongst them. Hopefully it will be helpful to some who are trying to dialogue, or understand the differences in mindset. I don’t claim to be an expert or have all the answers. But for anyone crossing over, coming to terms with the new “culture” is inevitable and at times challenging. Explaining the differences too as I’ve written about elsewhere, is also quite difficult. But since many of my family and friends have not moved with me, having to explain is unavoidable. Which is what I hope this piece will help do.
Elder’s Comment: Did someone just ask you what sect you converted from? Are you therefore denouncing all that you were taught in the Lord by godly parents friends and teachers, and all their prayers? Are we no more than a sect? Something to ‘convert from’.? Are you embracing such arrogance and exclusivity ? Are you forsaking the fellowship of dozens of Christ loving and Scripture-believing disciples? This Is obviously more than a change of denomination in some people’s eyes. Are you exchanging the breadth of Christian fellowship you once experienced for a narrow ecclesiology (which is truly SECTarian??) where the big questions seem to be not about how to love and obey the Lord and walking grace, but about how many times one is sprinkled and other worthless controversies? Don’t be deluded brother. Wherever you worship keep HiM uppermost in all things and all your brothers and sisters in your heart and fellowship. Otherwise you are in danger of falling under Paul’s rebukes in Galatians and Colossians. I feel this warning is more important and appropriate than any congratulations. Peace and Grace brother
My Response: Thank you for voicing your concern. I want to preface what I say next with the fact that I have much respect for you. And all that you do. I also want what I’m saying to be seen not as one who simply wants to answer back. But as one speaking to someone who I know to far exceed me in maturity both in life and in faith. I also want to make it known that I do not see my fellow non-orthodox brothers and sisters as lesser or sub Christian. Rather Orthodoxy has broadened who I take to be my fellow believers. While in many respects it could be said that Protestants and Evangelicals in particular have tendency to see us and Catholics as primarily a mission field, where salvation if happening in their “churches” are but by the grace of God. Before too I speak about some of what you have mentioned there, I’ll quote from a previous post I had titled “A Letter to My Fellow Believers” [which is available to read here] to show what my heart is towards my past:
“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.
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.”
In regards to the notion of arrogance and exclusivity. A few assumptions are being made. To be fair, calling it narrow doesn’t really do much to demonstrate the falsity or veracity of it. Christ Himself said that the road to Heaven is narrow. And many people view Christianity, at least small “o” orthodox/historical Christianity as being narrow and exclusive in its ways. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Reformed Churches, which have their own criteria of what constitutes a *visible* *church* or even the bounds of orthodoxy, and the Gospel itself, are not called narrow for their views. Whilst we are. In fact there are those that would say that your position is narrow, but everyone draws the lines somewhere.
Second what you see as visible and what you see as church will depend on your ecclesiology and theology. And it is understandable coming from your position that my view is seen as far more narrow. But I’m not willing to grant that position simply because its wider in what it may call a true Church. I would argue that our position on the visible Church is historically grounded, and follows from our Christology, which influences then our view of the sacraments. We would argue too that scripture connects the two and that a problem in one, usually implies or reflects a problem in the other. Our sacraments are more than symbolic. Nor are they only slightly more than a symbol with a real spiritual marker, so that we can have a visible covenant, but in reality not all who partake are part of the “true church” but only those who have the true change in heart. Such that in both views of the sacrament, what is seen as the visible body, is the body of Christ in appearance, but can’t be said to be such in actuality. Which for us has a rather Docestic take to it. And the docetists likewise denied the true sacramentality of the gifts, due to believing Christs visible body to be a body in appearance only like a phantom. But the true Christ was spirit and not seen.
For us the sacraments, officiated by those who had their hands laid on them by the Apostles, and their successors as was the norm in scripture and history, when they offer the gifts are truly offering Christ himself, such that when we partake, we are truly becoming the body of Christ not in name only or by analogy, though in a mysterious way. Which is why it is important that one does not waste the true grace that they are receiving. And that one may be in it and yet fall receiving severe judgment. Salvation occurring on the level of nature, which is monergistic in that sense and objectively grace. But on the level of person requires human co-operation for the transformation of the soul, is why one is in the visible true Church de facto by participation in the sacraments. The sacraments are real because Christ is the beginning of the new Creation, where matter and spirit work as one as God intended. And Christ in offering us Himself is giving us a taste of that world to come in the here in and now.
We would argue too that given *this* understanding of the Church and how we are interpreting scripture, Christ guides His Church to in all truth by the Spirit who indwells it. And as the body cannot be separated from the body and live. And where the head directs, the body follows, so too individual ecclesial bodies may fall, but the bodies in unity with the other bishops as a whole will never fall into error such as to formally declare and uphold heresy as truth. For Christ being the head of the Church, and the Bishop of each gathering is the icon of Christ in their capacity to minister the gifts just as Christ did in the upper room. Through whom Christ works, to give his body and blood to His body the people who are in unity with their bishop and their bishops with each other. As such Christ through His icon, is giving his body and blood to those who are to become and remain in his body and blood. As Paul says that our partaking is in the body and blood of Christ and that we are one body because we partake of one bread. This is our understanding of the Church.
So those who are not in such a communion, since we argue this is the historic and biblical communion, cannot be said to be in that visible capital “C” Church. But that does not mean they are not fellow believers or cannot be saved. Or that God’s grace is not at work through them. As we often say in the Orthodox Church “We know where grace is but we do not know where it is not.” As such many times whilst we may speak about the formal ecclesiastical doctrine of the Church, our ecclesiology does not go so far as to exclude true relationship with God by those outside it. There are the normative means of grace but the Spirit blows where He wills. And praise God that He does. God is not a concept but a person to relate to. One can relate to God with even wrong ideas about Him, by His grace. Orthodoxy then, meaning right worship is about How God has revealed we relate to Him and understand Him in His fullness. So dogma isn’t about ticking the boxes but guarding worship. With that understanding it is possible to see how one can still relate to the divine persons of the Trinity by grace and still not understand clearly the doctrines which guard the proper way of approach. This means that those outside the visible Church can be in a saving relationship with Christ.
I personally would not have said sect, rather small “o” orthodox churches, though historically that language may be more generous (on all sides, Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed) Per orthodox theology, God is not idea, in that sense we may even be more wide in terms of who we call Christian or nominal, and even about who can be saved apart from positive mental assent to propositions, because salvation is participatory and about concrete conformity. And God’s grace is free to act outside normative means, which takes me to the issue of baptism.
Which brings me to what you had said about baptism and the forms. That we are making such the big things. Given our view of what Orthodoxy is, right worship, and given that we do not think God who wants worship in Spirit and in truth, has left the protection and discovery of such to man, in essentially man made institutions, gatherings and denomination, we would say that the specifics are not simply icing on the cake. We do not take a reductionist view of the faith, nor do we think that unless one has all things *perfect* God isn’t at work. But specifics matter and no one can read the Old Testament, with God’s many instructions on how to worship Him, and say that they do not. The Old Testament worship being a reflection of the worship in heaven is not scrapped of all its form because we are in the New Covenant. As the very liturgical book of Revelation depicts, or the language of Hebrews implies. Rather it has been transformed and received into its fullness. In that sense just as the Reformed historically are big on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), we similarly think God decides how He ought to be worshipped. And that this revelation is made most clear in the Church.
I should hope too that something as important as baptism should be done according to whatever standard of RPW each of us hold too. And it is not silly to discuss such as we are both well aware of the discussion about immersion or sprinkling, adult baptism and infant baptism, in Jesus name or in the name of the Trinity, which occur amongst Christians and which show up in the discussions between Baptists and Presbyterians.
And given how much one takes the sacraments to be truly concrete, it will affect how important the form is to be. If one took the extreme end of it being pure symbolism, then why not use grape juice? Why not use crackers? Or even fanta exotic (people have used worse). Why not just have anyone be able to administer it whenever they want? Etc etc. We all draw the line. And in a particularly sacramental worldview where the physical is not subordinate or less important the physical, but both work in synergy, the form matters very much so not just the grace/spirit. If of course it is more symbolic, with some measure of true grace given but nonetheless not as sacramental as Orthodox and Catholics, I can see why one could say “Well the important things has occurred and that’s that.” But if you believe that these are true means of grace and in unity work concretely as such then the form is important, and one ought to get it right. Not that God’s grace can’t work without such, but one takes care to follow the normative means.
In regards to the language of conversion and denominations. I would tend to agree with you on the former. I would qualify that by saying it probably depends on the individual. But I definitely agree that conversion is too strong of a word for me. Since I do not rubbish my past or see it as devoid of grace and truth. In scripture we see God give name changes when one enters a new stage of their relationship with Himself, not at all times but in quite a few. It is normal then for this reason (and for many others) that someone take a saint name upon entering the Church. I had recently put up a status about why I chose the name “Joshua” which speaks to my heart about all this, and I hope will clarify where I’m coming from, quote:
“I chose the name Joshua because that is the name given by my parents. Who chose it with Christian intent. And for a good reason. I also chose it because it means “Yahweh is my Salvation.” And He truly is and has been. I don’t know where I’d be without the Lord’s work in my life. I am by no means perfect, and I’m flawed in many ways, but He has never abandoned me. Keeping the name Joshua also shows continuity with my past. That I am not rejecting it but rather fulfilling it in Orthodoxy.”
So likewise given our view of the Church and formal authority, if Orthodoxy is the orthodoxy, right worship, then I am not merely switching denominations. The view of denominations while practical when speaking to people, is theologically incorrect from our stand point. And pretty much historic non Protestant stand point. And presupposes a less visible and sacramental notion of the Church, as well as Sola Scriptura worldview. Where while Scripture is seen as the sole divine material authority, all *final* formal authority rests in the individual and as such is ultimately human and up for revision. So all the groupings of people who follow certain interpretations are human denominations, just as their human interpretations.
So of course for one to speak of conversion between them smacks of arrogance, as to elevate what is human to what is divine. Which of course denies sola scriptura. But we do precisely that. And we do so with Christological implications as well, since given the notion of theosis and the incarnation, Christ lifts what is human to participate in the divine glory. This goes back to the Reformed views of the communication of properties too, which are taken to be given to the humanity of Christ in name only. But we feel that such would imply a rather Nestorian or Pelagian understanding of theology and the Body of Christ, Nestorian in that the Church is a functionally human institution which co-operates with grace but may not always follow grace, and pelagian in that theology becomes a completely human work or endeavour.
Third I’d actually deny what the supposed narrowness implies, which by now having laid down my position it should be clearer how we view the Church and its relation to those outside of it. It is not saying that those who are not Orthodox are not Christians, but that while they relate to Christ, they have an imperfect relationship and communion with His Visible Body. Just as it may have been possible for some to not be in communion with Peter and the Apostles but are we to say that none of them may have been saved? We view the Church as a continuation of the Apostolic Ministry (albeit Apostles made by men Gal 1:1, but men who pass on the gift of the Spirit for such to be ordained in the line of the Apostles by the laying of hands 1 Timothy 4:14), which one is free to deny by either saying it was lost or changed to one which functioned at a much lower level. Particularly in terms of authority. Which of course we deny. And given our participatory view of salvation, there is a much wider hope for those may not personally have come hear the name Jesus. The power of salvation of the Name being manifest in the verbal proclamation and mental propositions, but not reducible to it. As the term name for Hebraic thought and the ancients in general, referring to a true reality of the thing or one named.
This does not mean that the proclamation and understanding are not important. As they are a means of grace and protect the right worship, right saving relation that one is to have with God. But since the relation is key, one can depending on God’s mercy in that particular situation, relate to Him savingly. Otherwise if the right amount of assent to correct propositions was the final word on the matter then one wonders how many or who would be saved. And given each groups understanding of what the Gospel is or what the core truths of the faith are, those who do not belong are going to be missing to some degree or another the fullness of these cores. The Orthodox may have a narrower view of what the constitutes those who are part of the group with the correct cores, but perhaps a broader view than Evangelicals (using the term in our context, not willing to generalise everyone by that name) as to who can be in such a saving relation. Which again for me plays into much of how Orthodox and Catholic Christians view Evangelical Christians and vice versa. Particularly terms of missions to the other.
Having said all that, I want you to know that my entire journey has been about wanting to follow Jesus and keep Him at the centre of my life. Thus why I’ve gone for such a radical change, though it has certainly not been easy. My life has taken a new direction which will change completely what it could have been. What it’s going to look like. The entire trajectory about my role in certain Christian circles and what I could have by the grace of God become has changed. All to be part of a group which in my context is far smaller and scarce than the already small and scarce population of Evangelicals in Ireland. Never mind Northern Ireland. I didn’t do all this simply because of some theological and philosophical propositions that I assented to.
But because of real existential and sanctification issues. Because of the life of the Orthodox Church in its worship and sacramental worldview which I feel embraces the entirety of my human experience, soul and body, bringing it to God. Because of the teaching and tools available in the Church which God has used to reach out to me in ways that I needed. Had I continued how I was, with the various issues I was wrestling not just in theology but in life, who knows where I would have ended up? In what state I would have been? Not just for doctrines sake, but for lifes sake I am believing more and more that I *needed* this change. That in it I found the resolution to many things I had in my life and the back of my head, for many years all throughout my walk with the Lord since childhood. I will admit too that there are many more things to work out. And that I have many times been very arrogant about my journey and “knowledge”. But these were not due to Orthodoxy. These were deep character flaws of my own already. And I already see that Orthodoxy in ways has highlighted this, and zeroed in on this by the necessity of its teaching, setting up the path for healing in a way that for me personally is much needed.
And I wish to say that I have no animosity towards my fellow believer who were here before Orthodoxy. Even now as many will attest to, I have been in Evangelical circles and building friendships with them. And my Orthodoxy has led me also to reach out to my Catholic brothers and sisters in the faith, to enjoy their fellowship. Something that I would not have done before, and which theologically would have been much harder to accept, given my previous understanding of the Gospel and Justification and Idolatry. And I want it to be clear that I have no animosity or disdain towards you. I can’t. I have too much respect for you. And it would sadden me, and does sadden me to think that you would feel differently. I would not take it lightly if this meant you thought less of me, and were not too keen on my presence and friendship. And it has bothered me. I understand the need to be careful and humble as you are saying (though I fall far short). And I understand too the various worldview issues at play which are framing this discussion, knowing how I myself used to view these things (without wanting to claim to much that you see it the same way I did).
That is my heart behind all of this. And all I’ve said before is some of what I think about these important issues. I don’t what you to see everything I’ve said here to be condescending of pretentious. But I’ve taken the time to respond with such detail and such talk about how I feel, not for the sake of arguing or “being right”. But for the sake of being understood and for not burning this bridge. I really really really don’t want to. And I am ashamed about how I have conducted myself at many times in this journey. Which is why I’m on it. Because I am a terrible sinner, but I serve a mighty Saviour. Please forgive me for my offences. We will have strong and differing views, but I don’t wish disagreement to be seen as lack of cordiality or a sense of unity, albeit it depending on your worldviews, one that carries different meaning or weight. I pray that God would use any of this to help us both.
From one brother in Christ, to another dear brother in Christ.