A Convert to Orthodoxy Reconsiders Evangelicalism

If it's self-discipline you seek, Orthodoxy is definitely the tradition for you. The Orthodox Church has devised many ways to deny yourself and take up your cross-for example, by abstaining from meat and dairy products every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during long penitential seasons like Lent, Advent, and the Apostles' Fast. Married couples are encouraged to take it a step further, by abstaining from intercourse on these same fast days.
| 11 February 2009

Source: John Mark Ministries


Twenty years ago, Thomas Howard, the brother of devotional writer Elisabeth Elliot, wrote a book titled Evangelical Is Not Enough. His basic argument was that rituals don’t necessarily lead to dead religiosity. Instead, sacramental rites and liturgical rhythms can bring us closer to Christ. Howard was an Anglican at the time, and later became Roman Catholic.

I’ve been on a similar journey. I grew up Baptist, lost my fundamentalist faith, became interested in the ancient traditions of the church, attended a Lutheran parish for a time, and eventually wound up Eastern Orthodox.

Like Howard, I now stand on the opposite side of the liturgical fence from most evangelicals. But I’ve come to a different conclusion than “evangelical is not enough.”

Evangelical Principles

What is evangelicalism, anyhow? Evangelical seems to be an adjective more than a noun. Evangelicals tend not to identify much with their particular churches, preferring to be known as “mere Christians.” There are both evangelical Baptists and evangelical Episcopalians, though the Baptist and Episcopal churches are about as far apart as country music is from classical.

For all their diversity, evangelicals hold several principles in common. This list isn’t exhaustive, but here are some key emphases of evangelicals:

(1) Salvation is by faith alone, not works.

(2) The Bible is the standard for Christian doctrine and practice.

(3) Everyone needs a personal relationship with Jesus.

(4) “The church” means all Christians everywhere, and there is no “true” or “perfect” church this side of heaven.

When I became disillusioned with the Baptist faith, I eagerly drank up the writings of Catholic and Orthodox apologists (often former Protestants themselves) who challenged these four principles. I took up their arguments and shot off combative e-mails to my evangelical friends. Among other things, I argued that:

* Salvation by faith alone is not biblical. The only time the words justified, faith, and alone appear together in the Bible, it’s to say that “a man is justified by works, not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

* Sola scriptura (the idea that the Bible alone is our guide-not church tradition) isn’t found in the Bible, either. Since Scripture doesn’t interpret itself, we need an authoritative interpretive community to make sense of it.

* The evangelical focus on a “personal relationship” with Christ tends to obscure our corporate identity as members of the church. The New Testament writers don’t say anything about “asking Jesus into our hearts.” Instead, they tell us to repent and be baptized into the church.

* Jesus and the apostles founded a church, not a loose affiliation of freelance believers. The apostles laid hands on bishops to oversee this church, so as to keep the doctrine pure and prevent schism. This church must still be around today, because Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. I still believe this critique has merit. (So do many evangelicals, who realize that their core principles need some qualification.) But when I consider the four evangelical principles today, I see more to applaud than to disagree with.

Why the change?

It’s Not About Works

When I became Orthodox, I was tired of what I saw as evangelicalism’s “cheap grace.” I was ready for some discipline and hard work along the path of salvation.

If it’s self-discipline you seek, Orthodoxy is definitely the tradition for you. The Orthodox Church has devised many ways to deny yourself and take up your cross-for example, by abstaining from meat and dairy products every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during long penitential seasons like Lent, Advent, and the Apostles’ Fast. Married couples are encouraged to take it a step further, by abstaining from intercourse on these same fast days. (That’s not something Orthodox apologists like to broadcast. When I first heard it, I announced to a friend that I could never become Orthodox; later, I learned that few Orthodox follow this custom strictly.)

Faced with all this fasting, it’s easy to get obsessive. We joined a parish of mostly ex-Protestants who, like us, were eager to be good Orthodox. We looked down on those “ethnic Orthodox” who still eat their gyros and feta cheese during Lent. During church fellowship times, our conversations often centered on fasting (i.e., “What do I do if my parents offer me cheesecake on Friday?”). Fast-friendly recipes were eagerly exchanged, for everything from “Lenten pizza” (no cheese) to “Lenten chocolate cake” (tastes just like the real thing!).

One Sunday, a friend in the church confided to my wife, “Sometimes, I forget it’s all about Jesus.” That’s when it hit us-we’d forgotten that it’s all about Jesus, too. Most of the time, instead of overflowing with God’s love, I was just ticked off about not being able to eat a burger. Meanwhile, my wife was feeling guilty about eating dairy products, despite being a nursing mother.

In the process of healing from this legalism, we ended up finding a new church home-a Greek one. Now, we’re grateful for the relaxed attitude of our “cradle Orthodox” brothers and sisters. One of the first things our new priest said to us was, “Jesus looks at the heart-not the belly.” That doesn’t mean we should reject the spiritual disciplines of fasting and other “works,” he added, but we need to view them as gifts from God. If you try to grasp a spiritual gift before it’s given to you, you’ll crash and burn.

The Bible, the Standard

My wife and I like to joke that we became Orthodox because we wanted to belong to a church where we were the “liberals.” But for us, the core doctrines of the faith, such as the Virgin Birth or divinity of Christ, are not up for discussion.

Beyond the core doctrines, there is no definitive teaching on many issues of Christian life. When it comes to a disputed issue, you can find an Orthodox saint, monk, theologian, or priest to back up almost any argument. How do you know what’s right?

In the front of the Orthodox Study Bible (yes, there is such a thing), there is a section of quotes about Scripture from saints throughout the centuries. Here’s one from St. Nikon of Optina (20th century): “Read the Holy Gospel, be penetrated by its spirit, make it the rule of your life, your handbook; in every action and question of life, act according to the study of the Gospel. This is the only light of our life.”

When evaluating any notion about the Christian life, we always have to refer to the source-the Bible. In the case of fasting, we Orthodox could avoid a lot of problems by listening to Jesus’ words-“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean'” (Matt. 15:11).

In the Orthodox Church, no individual saint, bishop, or theologian is considered infallible. Even the greatest have taught things that were later rejected. To give just one example, St. Gregory of Nyssa was a great defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, but his ideas about universal salvation conflicted with Scripture, so they failed to enter the mainstream.

Tradition is not a separate, or superior, source of light from Scripture. It is a commentary on the Light, helping us adjust our eyes to its brilliance.

Christ, Our One Mediator

Many Protestant converts to Orthodoxy and Catholicism are looking for a “final authority” on all matters of faith and life. To them, discerning the truth for yourself sounds like relativism. They are anxious to hand over their consciences to an infallible judge.

This is truer of converts to Rome, who often criticize the Orthodox for lack of a single teaching authority. But some Orthodox cling to a cult-like obedience to their priest or spiritual father. I know of one Orthodox monk who told a follower, “If I tell you to dig a hole today, and then I tell you to fill it in tomorrow, you must obey me without questioning.”

In the right circumstances, obedience to authority can be an important discipline. In his letters, Paul certainly encourages us to obey our elders in the Lord. But Spirit-led obedience is joyful, not oppressive. God gifted us with free will for a reason. He doesn’t force obedience. Jesus woos us with the beauty of truth and righteousness, and he desires our free response to his love.

I can’t hand my free will over to a pope, priest, or spiritual father, even though these can be helpful guides. For example, I greatly admire Pope John Paul II’s teachings on marriage and sexuality, but I admire them for the beauty and truth I find there, not because I take them to be divine or infallible. I am responsible for my decisions, and I alone will answer for them.

All Part of ‘the Church’

Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox disagree about the exact identity of “the church.” But when the smoke clears, we all agree that everyone under the lordship of Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation, is somehow part of the church. That’s the important thing. Beyond that, I’d rather avoid judgments about who’s in and who’s out of the church.

I’m not arguing for relativism, but humility. Objective truth exists, but our human ability to discern it is limited. In fact, Truth is not a set of ideas-it’s a person. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” We only know Truth as much as we know Christ.

I’m a grateful member of the Orthodox Church, and I’m happy to talk about the glories of this path as well as the struggles. I believe that the “trappings” of Orthodoxy-icons, liturgies, rote prayers, and other things evangelicals often are suspicious of-can bring us closer to Christ. But when these things become ends in themselves-idols instead of icons-we need to step back and remember what, or who, it’s all about.

Instead of “evangelizing” my evangelical friends, I now hope to learn from them. Discussing differences is worthwhile, but it’s more important to encourage each other as we grow in Christ.

It took me a while, but I think I’ve finally learned what really matters. Liturgical is not enough, sacramental is not enough, Catholic is not enough, and Orthodox is not enough. Only Jesus is enough.

Sam Torode is the coauthor (with wife, Bethany) of Aflame: Ancient Wisdom on Marriage (Eerdmans, 2005).


Christianity Today. August 2005, Vol. 49, No. 8, Page 4


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