A San Jose attorney's journey from evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy
In April this column published a letter from a former member of an evangelical church who, along with numerous other members of his congregation, broke off their affiliation with the evangelical- charismatic Vineyard Christian Fellowship to affiliate with a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.
In reply to his letter, I said that I'd like further insights into why evangelicals, not only in this local case, but in hundreds of instances across the United States, have been making such a radical transition.
The following letter, which was published originally in two parts and appears below in full, was written in response to that request. It was received some weeks after being written and more weeks were spent as it was discussed with the author, San Jose attorney Jeffrey Rickard.
May 18, 1994
Theophilus: The series of articles on finding the "right church" has been interesting to follow, particularly the last article and your response. In that you asked to learn more about evangelicals becoming Orthodox, I decided to sit down and share my own story.
I grew up as a preacher's kid in Los Gatos Christian Church and considered it my "church home" from 1959 until 1992. During that time I saw thousands of people come and go as the church grew from less than a hundred people to a mega-church of several thousand, spinning off a handful of sister churches in the process.
Our church was "nondenominational," Protestant, fundamentalist, conservative, and proud of it. Our motto was "doing Bible things the Bible way." Our historical roots stretched back a whopping 175 years or so to Alexander Campbell and the Church of Christ/Christian Church.
Our efforts were channeled into a multitude of activities ranging from sports leagues to enormous musical productions to 10k races to witnessing booths at the fair to "Christian aerobics" and on and on and on. Our successes were measured in ever increasing numbers of people attending the various events that made up a weekly church calendar. And we all learned that our church was built upon the solid Word of God, not a man, that what we were doing was ministry, not entertainment, and that through everything we were doing, people were being "saved."
Let me say here that I love the hundreds and even thousands of people that have in some way or another contributed to my Christian upbringing. Included in that sizable group are my parents and other family members, some in the ministry today. Though they probably don't know it, they challenged me in a number of ways to search for Truth.
I have a tremendous love and respect for my parents because I was taught to respect and love God and to live, though I am not always successful, in a manner that reflected Christ's influence on me. They also, unknowingly, pushed me in recent years to do some critical thinking about the Church and Christianity and their place in my own family's future.
I was a good Christian boy, in spite of my status as a preacher's kid. I faithfully attended Sunday School from childhood on, went to summer camps, sang in the choirs, went to Bible studies, and even "witnessed" once in a great while.
In 1966, at the age of 10, I "went forward" to publicly express my belief in Christ so that I could be baptized by immersion and actually "get saved." Being baptized was something that was expected of a good Christian boy like me who had reached the age of 10.
Presumably, I was old enough to know that even though I had never not believed in Christ, I had to "go forward" during the invitation, publicly acknowledge my status as a sinner and that I now "believed in Christ," and then get dunked with the choir and everyone at the church watching.
My understanding then was that doing this privately was not an option in that if I could not publicly profess my belief in Christ, how could I expect that God would acknowledge me when I stood before Him in heaven one day.
Even at age 10 I can remember wondering what happened to people who were not as fortunate as me to be able to "go forward" and then get baptized the next week. I distinctly remember thinking about the soldiers in Vietnam that year and wondering if, even though they may have earnestly called upon God in some foxhole, they were doomed to hell because they could not "go forward" and then get baptized like me.
I stayed active in our church through college, marriage, law school, and fatherhood. My interests were sports- and recreation-oriented and so I participated on "outreach" sports teams and led father-son backpack trips. In short, I outwardly went along with the program from childhood until my adult years. But inwardly I had real questions, concerns, and even doubts about much of my Christian upbringing. A lot of things just did not make sense, seemed contrary to the very scriptures I was told to rely upon for everything, and there was a sense of shallowness in everything I was exposed to. But I did not really question things for one main reason: since our church was growing, people were getting "saved," everyone seemed happy, and God must be blessing our church over others, I assumed that what I was experiencing was all there was for a Christian to experience. We must be doing things the right way; just look at all the evidence!
And then in 1988 much of the "success" began to unravel in what I now think was an inevitable response to my father's abrupt resignation following his admission of an affair some years before. The church began to slowly implode. Hundreds and then thousands of people left the church.
Staffing was reduced. Ministries were cut back or eliminated. The diminishing church membership began to divide and squabble over the future of the church and various decisions of leadership. The shepherds began to beat the sheep if complaints or criticisms were voiced.
Various commitments by the church leadership to my parents and our immediate family following the resignation were forgotten or abandoned. The inadequate pastoral care resulted in many hurt and wounded people.
An attempt to stop the hemorrhaging by hiring a young, energetic new pastor ultimately failed as he left the swamped ship after two years of trying to build something new and within weeks of publicly stating that he had "driven in his stake" because this was where God told him he was to stay and serve.
In short, 29 years of labor in the vineyard, by my parents and many of others, crashed and burned in a couple of years. What was thought to be a solid foundation proved to be quite shallow. God's hand of blessing was nowhere to be found.
The experience left me with a tremendous amount of disillusionment and suspicion about the religious framework I was raised in. How could it all unravel so easily if it was God that had blessed it and built it? How could He let it happen to His faithful in Los Gatos? If we were doing things right, why would the departure of one leader bring everything to a standstill when it was built on the Word of God, not the departing leader?
The period between 1988and 1992 was one of various highs and lows. The lows had to do with watching the collapse of the church I grew up in and the resulting impact on thousands of people, including my immediate family. The highs were the birth, in 1991,of my son, Ryan, and then my discovery, in 1992, of the Orthodox Church, the Church that would soon become my home.
In the summer of 1992 my wife, son, and I visited an Orthodox Church in Ben Lomond where my uncle is an Orthodox priest. While I had known for some time that he was a priest, I had no clue what his church was like, no understanding of what had led him from a position of leadership in Campus Crusade for Christ to the priesthood, no understanding of Orthodoxy, and no particular interest in Orthodoxy at that time.
It was a visit more out of curiosity and a desire for a change of scenery than anything else. I certainly did not know that the visit was a step in what was turning into a journey from evangelical Protestantism to the ancient Church.
That first visit was my first exposure to a liturgical form of worship, icons, incense, priests, the Eucharist, hundreds of people doing the sign of the cross at key points, and long periods of standing! It was unlike any church service I had ever been in before. The visit triggered a lot of questions which led to more and more questions in coming weeks and months.
Among the questions I wanted answers to were: What was the early Christian church like? How did they do things in those first two or three hundred years after Christ? How did they pray? How did they live? Were the early churches liturgical? Is a liturgical form of worship even scriptural?
Since the Bible as we have it today was not put together until well past 200 AD, what foundation was the first-century church built upon? How come I had never heard much, if anything, about the period of church history between the first and 16th centuries?
Were people getting "saved" during that time? How could they, since we have only known the "right way" of doing things for the last 175 years or so? Did the early churches have a spontaneous and folksy style like many do today?
Did the early church fathers worry about trying to make their church services "seeker friendly" and "relevant" like many of the megachurches and megachurch wanna-bes of today? Was communion a merely symbolic, casual, open, informal and tacked-on memorial part of the church service in the first century?
If there is only one Body of Christ, why on earth do we have hundreds of denominations today, all believing that they have the "right" interpretation of scripture?
Is our incredible history of church division and fragmentation scriptural? And how did the fragmentation of the church begin? Was the church always so fragmented? Is not the fragmentation a monumental public statement that Protestants really do not believe what they are saying about there being just one Body of Christ the Church?
What was Luther trying to reform, anyway? Why was I raised to believe that the other church-goers probably were not "saved" unless they were doing "Bible things the Bible way" just like we were doing? Just who was it that picked the books that make up our Bible? How do we know that they didn't make any mistakes when choosing what was in and what was out?
Is there any church today that at all resembles the early church? What about the icons and the incense? Where do they fit in? And what about Mary? Where does she fit into the picture?
How are we to interpret scriptures? By using other scriptures or by looking to our commentators in each generation? How do I know if the commentators in my generation are consistent with those from 200 or 600 or 1200 years ago? Can the Bible stand on its own without interpretation? Did the Bible give us the Church or did the Church give us the Bible?
Where does tradition fit in the history of the Church? And why do I have so many questions since I have lived most of my life in a church framework?!
From what I could see, and given what I had experienced, there was no way I could go back to the kind of church I grew up in. There had to be something out there that had roots reaching back earlier than Luther. Frankly, I wanted to know if anything existed that could trace its roots back to the early centuries after Christ. And if it did, was it still spiritually alive nearly two thousand years later? Did this Orthodox Church that my uncle the priest was part of represent what I was looking for?
That first visit to the Orthodox Church turned into several weeks of attendance and then participation in a series of introductory meetings about various facets of Orthodoxy. I knew within a short period of time that I had found the Church and that I needed to be part of it.
What sort of things did I find? I found that my questions had answers and that the answers were not at all what I would have expected.
When I was growing up we had a worship service every Sunday morning. It was generally made up of a few songs from a familiar collection of tunes, several prayers that were quite predictable(and generally offered by the same people each week), a rousing song by the choir, a good Bible-based sermon generally 45 minutes long, a communion service where we were supposed to meditate on Christ's death, an offering, and then announcements and a benediction, all accomplished so that we could hustle home for lunch and televised football.
And then, if you were one of the really committed, you would return for a Sunday evening service where things were more casual and the service somewhat abbreviated. I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that the sermons and music weren't good; they generally were. But as I look back on the hundreds of services I attended, it is clear that the gatherings were not worship services, but rather, something akin to Christian motivational meetings where we were each encouraged to live for Christ out in the real world during the coming week. Yes, we studied scripture; and yes, we prayed a lot; and yes, we sang the old hymns. But when it was boiled down to bare bones, I think it was mostly entertainment and a refuge from the real world for a few hours on Sunday.
I was stunned to learn that worship in the early Church was in a liturgical form. Justin Martyr wrote about it in about 150 AD. Even the New Testament itself provides evidence of liturgical forms of worship in the Church. It is fairly obvious that the church fathers did not concern themselves with devising "seeker friendly" services so that visitors would not be offended or made to feel bad if they were confronted with the need to repent. The early Church knew how to worship God. The Orthodox Church has, with an unbroken thread through the centuries, carried on with worshipping God.
What about interpretation of the scriptures? I grew up rejecting "dead tradition" and churches that used tradition in them. It was, I understood, heresy to add one word to the Bible and that using tradition to interpret scripture made those persons and churches doing so heretical.
The Roman Catholic Church was regularly bashed for elevating traditions to something akin to the scriptures themselves. And yet I was uncomfortable with the notion that the contemporary fundamentalist, evangelical, Protestant heroes of today like(Chuck) Swindoll, (John) MacArthur, (James) Dobson, (Chuck)Colson and others, had a lock on "right teaching." They simply interpret scriptures based on their limited experiences and studies.
Are we to look to their teachings in seeking to understand the scriptures? Or should we look to the teachings of a Church that literally traces itself to Christ and the Apostles and which has been largely unchanged for centuries?
I was shocked to learn that in all my years of Christian upbringing, I did not know that a Church existed that had been passing on the teachings of the earliest church fathers and that I could access such teachings today. I never even heard of the early Church fathers, let alone read their writings.
What about church government? My idea of a local church was an independent, congregational-led organization that answered to nobody except God. And depending on who you asked, God told either the church pastor or the board of elders or the congregation at large what to do.
The congregational vote was what was used to determine God's will for the church at key times and when key decisions needed to be made. At our church, eventually the congregation voted to do away with the congregational vote!
This was done because things were going so well that rather than risk some fractious group messing things up by forcing a vote on some issue, all power was put in the hands of the board of elders. And the elders in turn looked to the pastor for leading.
There was no hierarchy to turn to if the leadership went astray. Since we were "nondenominational" there wasn't even another church one could run to for help if things went of control at the leadership level. If a group or an individual did not like a decision, the pastor, the length of a sermon, the music, the length of the service or the hardness of the pew, the obvious solution was to leave. And if enough people left together, we called it a church split. And we Protestant, independent types were good at doing this. The huge number of denominations in existence today stand as a visible monument to our unsurpassed ability to fragmentize the Church.
I was not all that surprised to learn that the independent, congregational-vote form of church government was not even scriptural. The Church needs and has a hierarchy and it is unbroken all the way back to the apostles.
I found this extremely reassuring following the free wheeling way in which the leadership of my former church dealt with my father's resignation and various other crises that arose after his departure. The independent church we are used to in our country is a modern, post-reformation invention.
What about communion and baptism? Until my conversion to Orthodoxy, communion was the post-sermon part of the church service where we ate flat little pieces of unleavened bread, drank grape juice and meditated on Christ's death. For me it tended to be a time when I would daydream, kick my unsuspecting friend in the shins, and make faces at other kids who were also looking around.
Fortunately, as I matured, I stopped doing the looking and face-making. The whole thing was so symbolic that it meant little to me. As I look back on it I see a ritual or tradition not unlike those that we were taught was wrong and un-Christian.
My introduction to the Orthodox Church was also an introduction to sacraments. Communion was the eucharist, a time when the Orthodox Christians could partake in the mystery of Christ's glorified human nature and share in His Body and His Blood. It was not a symbol; it was a living experience.
Baptism as I grew up was an expected act when you reached the age of 10 or so. Baptism by immersion was required. It was somewhat frightening in that the water was cold, the choir and congregation all stared, and you were expected to audibly respond to a couple of questions before you got dunked.
I remember my baptism well. I remember thinking that the pressure to "go forward" was now off me and on someone else! Within the Orthodox Church baptism is a sacrament means by which we are joined into union with Christ. Christians can actually share the likeness of His death and His resurrection; it is not just a symbol of being "buried with Christ" like I had long thought of it.
While I have condensed and greatly simplified only a handful of the issues that I needed to work through before I could consider becoming Orthodox, they were the more important ones that I confronted. I knew that I could not go back to more of the same type of church experience I had come from and I refused to even seriously consider raising my son in the same type of church framework I was raised in.
I reached the point where I was, and am, convinced that this is the Church that God established and left for his apostles and their successors to nurture. The next step was quite easy to take. In February 1993, my wife, son, and I were chrismated into the Orthodox Church. It has been a life-changing journey and one that probably mystifies many of our friends from "the old days."
The richness, depth, beauty and fullness of Orthodoxy is not at all something that can be communicated in a letter. One must pursue it individually. The Church has been around for nearly 2,000 years and I would expect that it will be around for a long time to come. It waits for all believing Christians and will greet them with a "Welcome Home!" when they reach out for it.
Published August and September 1994.
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© 1994, 1995 Jon Kennedy