When `the faithful' let you down, part 4

Following is the third in a series of letters responding to our forum started here in January, on how we overcome disappointment with the church and the difficulty in finding a "right church" once one has so disappointed us that we have to move on.

Dear Theophilus,

I have read the articles on finding the "right church" with some interest as I have recently gone through a major change in my church affiliation. About three years ago I wrote an article on the charismatic church which you graciously published.

At that time I was a member of the San Jose Vineyard Christian Fellowship and on my way to becoming a Vineyard pastor. Since that time our congregation, or a remnant of it, joined the Orthodox Church, the one usually associated with Greeks and Russians.

Initially l was very unhappy with the change. I was not comfortable. It was "not me." The services were not what I was accustomed to. The people had strange customs. The "culture" was foreign to my experience.

One of the things which has come clear to me in the last year is that all my concerns really did not matter that much. I had been picking churches which made me comfortable, assuming that I was the central figure in my religion.

What I had missed was the consideration that God had established a church, beginning with His Son and His Son's immediate followers. It behooved me to get to that church, if it were still around, and conform myself to it.

I still am not comfortable. But I am growing in holiness, which, I posit, is the raison d'etre for religion. What I am suggesting is that its continuous linkage with the work which Jesus initiated is far more important.

—John Heilman

Theophilus' reply

I'm very intrigued by the movement on the part of a growing number of evangelicals into Eastern Orthodoxy, and would like to know more about it.

Your letter is troublesome on a number of counts.

1. You seem to suggest that I set up "familiarity, comfort, taste and style" as criteria for picking a church. If you'll look at the context, I put several other criteria prior to those, orthodoxy or lack of orthodoxy being at the top of the list. (I left my childhood church, you might recall, because of its failure to require its members to believe in anything and don't split hairs here, I realize that there's a stage in all Christian growth where it's imprudent to "require" anything; a period of wooing rather than discipline.)

I also described some churches as antithetical to orthodox Christian faith, using San Francisco's Glide Memorial United Methodist as my example.

My reference to my "comfort level" as a criterion would be analogous to saying that faith healing and speaking in tongues would not be "comfortable" to Billy Graham they would not be "him," as we know him, but I think none would deny that he is an orthodox believer fully devoted to doing anything God asks of him.

So be it with me; I'm not comfortable with some churches or some practices not because I'm not open to them, but because in investigating them God hasn't led me into them.

Within orthodoxy, as defined by the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds (and not, as Bishop James Pike was wont to say, recited with fingers crossed, as kind of an Indian war chant, hoping against hope that there might be something to them), I believe that saying that any one church, or any one expression of the Holy Spirit, is the church, the true or right church, is analogous to saying that all of God's flowers reflect His creative diversity as long as they're tulips; the rest are the devil's.

2. You suggest that because of its historical line, Orthodoxy is somehow more orthodox than the other branches of Christianity. Please explain. Doesn't Paul tell us that we're all, in matters of faith, descended from Abraham? Wouldn't that (if we ignore some of the other that Paul says), suggest that Judaism is even more orthodox than Eastern Orthodoxy?

3. About the time I got your letter, I read another letter in the Mercury News from a local Orthodox clergyman, the only such public statement on a social issue I recall ever seeing. It was his contention, if I understood him correctly, that the Bible, which he described as time-bound, has no prophetic relevance to the times we live in.

This hardly sounds orthodox; more like the old mainline-apostate (if I may borrow a word C.S. Lewis used for it) higher criticism nonsense that's kicked around for a century and a half.

You might say he doesn't speak for all Orthodox Christians any more than Cecil Williams speaks for all Methodists. But doesn't that just prove that the real church is the invisible church, not any denomination, communion, or historical tradition, thereby arguing strongly against your point?

Or did I miss your point somewhere?

I can't continue this series indefinitely, but I would like to get some clarification on your meanings.

And speaking of the point, I'm still interested in how any of you have been let down by your faith community congregation, and how you may have coped with it. Although the correspondents thus far in this series have come from the three branches of Christianity, as always, the forum is open to all Times readers. Letters will be chosen for use based on relevance and contribution of new points, at the editor's discretion.

Published April 1994.

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© 1994, 1995 Jon Kennedy