From West to East: An Evangelical Minister’s Discovery of the Orthodox Church

This is part 2 of my new series examining issues of ecclesiology, liturgical/sacramental worship practices, and the historical roots from which the branches of Christianity have grown. The response to part 1 was incredible–the article has been shared several thousand times on social media and reblogged in a few places. Readers have emailed me with stories of their journeys to liturgical traditions or to simply say, “Thank you for this; it has been weighing on my mind for quite some time as well.” I never would have imagined that my personal exploration of these matters would touch such a sensitive nerve in the faith community. 

In part 1, I offered a brief review of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals are Attracted to the Liturgical Churchwhich describes Robert Webber’s journey to Anglicanism several decades ago plus a few recent stories of others who have moved from Evangelicalism to the Anglican church. What I find helpful about this kind of memoir is that it allows me to examine the author’s motivations and rationale; it’s a more gentle (and often more thoughtful) introduction to a church than a scholarly apologetic (or polemic) would be. 

The next book on my growing list is Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter Gilquist. Prior to reading it I knew next to nothing about the Orthodox Church. Twenty years ago, I toured the Holy Lands with my dad, and the trip included stops at a couple of gorgeous Greek Orthodox churches. I remember the stunning, mysterious iconography and intricate tile mosaics, but as a teenager raised in the Southern Baptist church, the experience impacted me no differently than touring any other grandiose historical/religious site. (I didn’t begin to understand the distinctives of the different branches of Christendom until my mid-30’s, unfortunately.)

Gilquist’s story surprised me from its beginning. He opens with the account of his ordination, alongside 59 other men, into the diaconate and priesthood of the Orthodox Church back in 1987. The service also included the reception of over 200 laypersons. Virtually all of them, clergy included, had come from Evangelical Protestant denominations. Gilquist asks:

whatever would possess…Bible-believing, blood-bought, Gospel-preaching, Christ-centered, lifelong evangelical Protestants to come to embrace this Orthodox faith so enthusiastically? Is this a new form of religious rebellion? Have vital Spirit-filled Christian people somehow jumped the track to a staid and lifeless, crusty, sacral gloom? Worse yet, is this one of those subtle deceptions of the enemy? 

After this rather sensational introduction, Gilquist offers his personal account beginning with his time serving as a college evangelist for Campus Crusade for Christ back in the 1960’s. He began his ministry while he was a first-year seminary student at Dallas Theological Seminary, but was asked by Campus Crusade to move to Wheaton College. So, he transferred to Wheaton Graduate School and began a new campus ministry in the Chicago area. But the disquiet in his soul only grew. He says:

It was at Wheaton that I resumed the process of disenchantment with church. I had now been educated against anything with sacramental and liturgical overtones…There were a few ‘weirdos’ or ‘rebels’ at Wheaton who wore wire-rimmed glasses and tweed sport coats and opted for the Episcopal Church. Most of the rest of us leaned toward what had become a growing American phenomenon: the Bible church. I was drawn to the preaching and biblical exposition…There were times…I wanted a bit more dignity, or maybe majesty, in the Sunday morning services, but giving up more meaningful worship was the trade-off for the preaching of the Bible. 

From there, Gilquist chronicles years and years of increasing frustration with the status quo and how the Holy Spirit also moved in the hearts of his closest friends from his Campus Crusade ministry years–pastors of Evangelical Protestant congregations scattered around the US. What resulted was a council of sorts; each of them agreed to do independent investigation into church history, theology, and ecclesiology with the most objective eye possible. At a landmark meeting, one of the group members, Jack Sparks, articulated their mission this way: “Everybody claims to be the New Testament Church. The Catholics say they are; the Baptists say they are; the Church of Christ says it is–and nobody else is. We need to find out who’s right.” 

Says Gilquist:

our motivation was to be the best Christian people we could be, to be a twentieth-century expression of the first-century Church…we had agreed on the front end to do and be whatever we found that the New Testament church did and was, as we followed her through history. If we found we were wrong, we would change. We were committed to believe her doctrine, to enter into her worship, and to reflect her government as best we could discern it.

When they would convene in person to discuss their independent conclusions, they found that their searches were converging…on the Orthodox Church, much to their shock (and some dismay). 

Gilquist gives a key list of the early Church documents they examined and generally outlines their investigation into church history (loved this). Then, in part two, he spends five chapters evaluating Orthodox theology from a biblical perspective. I found this extremely helpful; I had some of my misconceptions about [scary] things like veneration of Saints (including Mary) and ritualistic worship corrected. Veneration is not worship. Extremely enlightening to me was coming to understand a very real distinction between “prayer to” and “worship of.” In the Orthodox Church, there is no such thing as a dead Christian. The Saints are Christians who led exemplary lives on earth and are now living in the presence of Christ. Orthodox Christians entreat the Saints to pray for them just as they would ask any other family member or close friend to pray for them. There is no idolatry going on; the Saints are not asked for anything other than intercessory prayer. 

Bottom line: I highly recommend Gilquist’s book and I have continued my exploration of the Orthodox Church through a few different routes, both written and in video format. I particularly like a video series on YouTube called Orthodoxy 101 Boot Camp by Father Barnabas Powell, a former Pentecostal preacher from the south who converted to Orthodox Christianity. Being a southern girl myself, I could totally relate to some of his anecdotes and church humor. 🙂 He tells quite a bit of his personal story in the first episode. I’m halfway through episode 3. I plan to read Fr. Thomas Hopko’s multi-color introductory book series, The Orthodox Faith.

In my next post, I will offer reflections on the book I’m currently reading, When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio. I have the very strong conviction that understanding the earliest history of the Church through its surviving documents is crucial in this type of exploration. Even though the writings of the earliest Church Fathers are not canonized as Scripture, they have much value. What happened right after the time of Paul? How were Christians worshiping in the corporate setting? What was their view on church polity? The standard Evangelical Protestant view seems to be that the baby Church basically left the ritualistic trappings of Judaism behind (“freedom from Law”) and that after the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church gradually went down a path of confusion and corruption (with small pockets of faithful Christians enduring) until things were “set right” by the Reformation. I’m finding out that this is not only an over-simplification, it is a distortion of the facts. Stay tuned.

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