San Jose attorney describes his journey from evangelical roots to Orthodox `home'—part 2

Last month this column consisted of the first half of a letter from South San Jose attorney Jeffrey Rickard, describing his journey from his birth and young adulthood in a local evangelical church to conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, which claims to be the direct descendant of the church founded by Jesus Christ, His apostles and disciples, complete with its liturgical worship, sacraments, priesthood, and episcopacy.

In the past 15 to 20 years, thousands of American evangelicals, including many ministers, have made similar journeys. The process got its biggest push with a group of early leaders in the evangelical parachurch organization Campus Crusade for Christ, one of whom was Rickard's uncle, the Rev. Weldon Hardenbrook, now pastor of St. Peter's and St. Paul's Orthodox Church in Ben Lomond, Santa Cruz County.

More recently, a local congregation of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, led by the Rev. Charles Bell, converted as a whole, becoming St. Stephen's Orthodox Church in June 1993. That congregation, which Rickard has subsequently joined, continues to worship in the former Branham High School at Meridian and Branham Lane.

The conclusion of Rickard's letter follows, taking up where it was interrupted last month, in a series of questions Rickard was asking about his evangelical beliefs and the church in general. This writer's response and those of others who may want to join the forum will follow in coming months.

"Theo"

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 thousands 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 out 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 freewheeling 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.

Jeffrey Rickard

Published Sept. 1994.

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© 1994, 1995 Jon Kennedy