Why People Become Orthodox

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Now this is indeed a presumptious title for a post – as if there were only one reason that people convert to the Orthodox faith. There are certainly many reasons, nuanced by the various personalities that come. And do they ever come!

I was asked in Minneapolis, “What sort of Evangelism Events do you have at St. Anne?” I had to confess that other than making ourselves accessible and somewhat “convert friendly” our only method is, “We answer the phone.” (And without a secretary that is not always certain.)

I could also say in a manner that avoids the topic, that people come for a variety of reasons. This is true but indeed avoids much of the obvious.

Several things of note among the many converts we have at St. Anne:

1. They believe the Orthodox faith to be the truth.

This is the reason I have stated for my own conversion. After every conversation, argument, etc. After every article and book, the simple fact is that I believe the Orthodox faith, including its ecclesiology to be the truth. I am willing to defend my acceptance of that, but the only defence that matters is the one I shall have to give on Judgement Day, and I believe that I will sit before a judge who Himself is the head of the Orthodox Church. The serious question will be: “What have you done with the faith I gave you?”

2. We looked at the other “options” and found them wanting.

Many Orthodox converts have looked elsewhere first. Perhaps even hoping that elsewhere would answer their questions and supercede the necessity of becoming Orthodox. But I think for those who become Orthodox, elsewhere just did not do the trick. There is a neatness and tidiness, for instance, about Roman Catholic ecclesiology. In fact, I think it’s so tidy that it is man’s invention and not God’s. But you can argue with me about that some other time. I can hardly think of a situation in which God has been so tidy elsewhere. Why should it only be ecclesiology?

3. “Deep calls unto deep” (Psalm 42:7)

There is an indescribable element of the heart in Orthodoxy. Despite many of its obstacles, individuals find themselves drawn here as the only answer to the depths of their heart. Everything else is rationalized, modernized, clinicalized. Orthodoxy, almost because of its strange rationality is the only thing that answers that deeper call. This has certainly been true of my own journey.

4. The tidiness and the untidiness. There is a “tidiness” in Orthodox faith and belief, and yet that same security and assurance is coupled with an untidy approach (we call it “economia”) without which it would be impossible to know salvation (other than in a highly sterilized world of annulments and legal dispensations).

5. The saints. There are marvelous saints in many places and yet the lives and teachings of many of the Orthodox saints, including the ones of the past century, seem to say, “This is home, come here.”

6. God told me to do this. (No comment needed)

7. Are there other reasons? Send me a note and tell us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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126 responses to “Why People Become Orthodox”

  1. Rhonda Avatar

    Luis,

    I was not answering for Fr. Stephen & I clearly stated such. I was answering your limited parameters of “personal letter, the Bible or vision” as far as God communicating Himself, His will, to us.

    You mention brainwashing & I am glad. I have seen brainwashing & its horrible effects; I have had friends & family fall prey to heretical cults. I was 13 when the Jonestown massacre swept through the media headlines. Far too many such incidents have happened since & far more remain unknown to most.

    But for me what is even more sad & insidious is the brainwashing that is virtually unidentified, unknown &/or ignored, which Fr. Stephen & others have mentioned; the brainwashing that is hidden within our culture, both secular & religious (though nowdays there is not much difference)…the cult of Man is God & the resulting self-worship.

    That brainwashing has produced a churchless Christianity, a bodiless Body of Christ & now even a Christ-less Christianity. The Church, the Body of Christ, & even God have turned these very mystical realities into mere metaphysical, philosophical concepts to be bandied about & disected through logic & reason alone. Fr. Stephen elsewhere has written about this under a variety of headings: Christian Atheism, secular Christianity, Christian secularism…

    That brainwashing says that the Bible is the clear word of God that anyone & everyone is capable of correctly understanding for themselves. That brainwashing has mutilated Holy Scripture, reducing it from being “God’s word” to “my Bible”.

    The Holy Scriptures were written by the Church for the Church & are only properly understood within that context, that community. Remove the Church as was done under the Protestant Reformation, & Holy Scripture–the pinnacle of Orthodox Tradition for millenia–becomes a vain & empty idol, which it did in just 500 years, useful only for 2 things–either further abuse & brainwashing or continued logical & philosophical debate.

  2. Luis Avatar
    Luis

    Dino asked, “…answer my question on what denomination you are, I am very curious!”

    I try hard not to be of any denomination. God and Jesus tell us through the apostles Peter and Paul, that we must strive to be unified in mind (1 Pet. 3:8, Rom. 12:16, Phil. 2:2). Separating out into denominations does not encourage becoming one-minded, but multiple-minded. However, we are also told that there is value in divisions and factions (1 Cor. 11:18-19) in that truth might be recognized. So, there is a reason for denominations, but I aggressively avoid identifying with one.

  3. Rhonda Avatar

    Correction from:

    The Church, the Body of Christ, & even God have turned these very mystical realities into mere metaphysical, philosophical concepts to be bandied about & disected through logic & reason alone.

    Correct to:

    That brainwashing has taken the Church, the Body of Christ, & even God & have turned these very mystical realities into mere metaphysical, philosophical concepts to be bandied about & disected through logic & reason alone.

  4. Rhonda Avatar

    My apologies for the above error 🙁

  5. Luis Avatar
    Luis

    Sounds like you are saying traditions are primary and scripture is secondary. I think I’ll stick with sola scriptura.

  6. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Luis,
    but what denomination are you? I am very intigued.

  7. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Ooops! Sorry…. I only just saw your above answer Luis!

  8. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Or, I should say:

    The Orthodox Church is the Church in which Pascha is actually preserved as living Tradition.

  9. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Luis,
    Respectfully, It is Scripture, is it not, that warns against Sola Scriptura itself!?

    “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”(2 Peter 3:16)

    “Stand firm then, brothers and sisters, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” 2Thessalonians 2:15

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Luis, I am puzzled. The Orthodox Church is an incredible feast of Theophany of which the Holy Scripture is a central and immensely important part, the key. Yet you choose to partake of only that part of the feast and only after it has been ripped up and despoiled by those who do not understand it.

    You are engaging in a common rationalism of either/or when you oppose Holy Tradition and the Bible. The Bible is unknowable outside the Tradidion and the Tradition is meaningless without the Bible. The Bible is both part of Holy Tradition and its cornerstone. Neither has life without the living presence of the Holy Trinity in a community of belief, service and worship.

    As the Incarnation results in the hypostatic union of God and man (both/and) so it is with much else in the Christian life.

    Context is everything. As Fr. Stephen oft reminds us and Rhonda also mentions, the Holy Scripture’s proper context is the Church which gave it birth in the first place through the life of the Holy Spirit active in the Church.

    Holy Tradition is the entire deposit of that Life from Creation to the present moment given to God’s people through out the ages.

    Jesus Christ is fully man. IMO the “alone” doctrines are a futile attempt to remove man from the divine/human union to which we are called. They isolate man from the living community of faith to which we are called and which is our birthright. If one follows Jesus Christ alone, Faith alone, and Scripture alone, he is left alone.

    There is more in heaven and earth, Luis, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. I entreat you not to close down your heart and soul to the magnificently wonderous gift that is life within the Church. Even if you never come to the Church, raise up your eyes to heaven from whence cometh our help open to His grace in unpredictable and uncontrolable ways.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. John 6:53

  12. Luis Avatar
    Luis

    Mr. Stephen, I’m not so sure that the idea of taking “the clear word of God over anything man has to say” originated in the 1500s. Of course, I realize it is not new to me. I have no original thoughts. There seem to be some pretty clear directives from God about that: Deut. 4:2, 12:32, Prov. 30:6, Matt. 15:9, Col. 2:8, Rev. 22.18-19, and others.

    Yes, I know we all bring our experiences (“some sort of lens of interpretation”) to the word of God and that is part of the magnificence and power of it. It’s what makes it such a powerful lamp to MY feet and MY path, Psa. 119:105. Scripture makes sense in different ways to different people, but never should in contradictory ways. I’m glad you see a lot of unity of thought among “Protestants”. There is hope that such unity will prevail, but alas we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.

    Thank you for being concerned about whether I “go to Church.” I do and am thankful to God for making it important and possible.

    But you are wrong to think that I am a Protestant as that term is generally applied in our world. Certainly I protest against some things as the Protestants protested against some things, even as the Orthodox protested against some things, resulting in the Great Schism. So I am no more a Protestant than you or the Catholic Pope are.

  13. Luis Avatar
    Luis

    I am reading this blog because I did a search about why people become Orthodox, and I asked because in my mind, reason #6 begged for an explanation.

  14. Rhonda Avatar

    Luis,

    No such dichotomy (primary/secondary) exists within Orthodoxy regards Tradition & Holy Scripture. This is again Protestant thinking. While you may deny being a Protestant, your mindset & understanding definitely are formed & influenced by Protestant thought.

    Remember, the Church wrote the Bible, the Bible did not write the Church; thus the Bible is the book of the Church & for those in the Church. It was never meant to be understood or interpreted outside of that community.

    The Orthodox greatly revere Holy Scripture. The Gospels are kept on the altar. The Gospels & Epistles (the NT other than the Gospels) are read & taught every Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is actually comprised of 2 parts with the 1st commonly called the Liturgy of the Word in which Holy Scripture is read & taught to the faithful. Orthodox services are replete with Psalms, OT readings & Scriptural references. The Orthodox even ordains “Readers” who are gifted at reading the Holy Scriptures & songs of the Church.

    Holy Scripture is the pinnacle of Tradition & it is the result of Tradition. The canon of the books of Holy Scripture came from Tradition. Tradition determined which books were to be included in the canon as well as which books were not included. There is nothing in the living Tradition of the Church that conflicts with Holy Scripture. In turn, living Tradition is what provides us with a safety net around Holy Scripture regards interpretation & understanding.

    As stated previously, remove the Church–Tradition–& you remove that safety net. You end up with the old addage “And Judas hanged himself”…”Go thou & do likewise.

  15. Luis Avatar
    Luis

    Thank you, Michael, for such a thoughtful, loving and caring answer. I must say, it is inspiring. God bless you.

  16. Marjaana Avatar
    Marjaana

    Luis,

    This might sound simplistic, but

    Imagine there were a carpenter who made a beautiful piece of furniture with scrolls and inlays and compartments you would only find after examining the piece very carefully. He then taught 12 other people how to make that same piece of furniture. Then he went away. The people he had personally taught taught other people to make the same piece, by both showing how to make it and allowing them to practice doing it. After a while, people who had seen the piece started making copies, but often, for one reason or another didn’t get it quite right, made adjustments and errors. So the people taught by the original 12, and those taught directly by them, got together to write the instructions down and those instructions spread throughout the world in several different translations. At the same time they kept teaching others, by showing and doing, and those others showed others, who showed others, etc.

    Wouldn’t you rather have both the instructions AND the workshop rather than only the translated instructions?

    The ability to participate in the “workshop” is one of the many reasons I am Orthodox.

    Marjaana

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Marjaana, you hit on an essential part of the faith: it is handed on (traditioned) and even with great attention to detail the written instructions are not as complete as learning from a master. That is what making disciples is all about.

    It also reminds me of the missionaries in Alaska who brought Christ to the indigenous populations by listening to the stories and traditions of the people and then telling the in word and deed the rest of the story.

    The Church is a workshop. I’m still an apprentice but I value the opportunity to learn from those wiser, more practiced and more mature in the faith.

  18. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Separating out into denominations does not encourage becoming one-minded, but multiple-minded. However, we are also told that there is value in divisions and factions (1 Cor. 11:18-19) in that truth might be recognized. So, there is a reason for denominations, but I aggressively avoid identifying with one.

    Icons and the liturgy are the means by which Christ imparts his life into the world. This is never subject to private interpretation, rather it is the eternal revelation of the love of the divine persons manifest at Christ’s Pascha, which is in a classification of its own.

  19. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Luis, thanks for sticking with the conversation. I am one who meandered the whole spectrum of the Western Christian landscape (from “oasis” to “oasis”) nearly my whole life–for more than 45 years–before I “discovered” Orthodoxy. As an Evangelical, Bible-believing Christian, I wouldn’t have wanted to identify myself with any one denomination either, since my experience spanned from Methodist to Baptist and a couple in between during those four decades. I had even occasionally fellowshipped with some Roman Catholic brethren in a prayer and praise group setting. There were things I appreciated (and still appreciate) about every church I was a part of and I recognized (and still recognize) a kindred spirit in every sincere Christian who is seeking to follow Jesus Christ, regardless of their affiliation.

    Having discovered its riches rather late in life, I have often asked myself why God didn’t allow me to encounter Orthodoxy and become Orthodox in my youth! It seems to me I would have been able to avoid some wrong turns, some falls into sin, and some dead ends that way. The answer, I believe, is that God works out His plan in a way that doesn’t violate the free will of all His creatures, and He worked, and is working, in and through my life in a way He could not otherwise have done had I become Orthodox earlier. Also, when I was young, historical realities being what they are, the Orthodox Church in this country was much more limited than it is now. There were very few, if any, English-speaking congregations where I could have understood the Liturgy and come to understand the Orthodox faith. At the same time, there remains a good bit of Orthodoxy in the other Christian traditions (though I believe they lack the fullness), and God has always worked, and continues to work, within and in spite of the human limitations and realities of this fallen world.

  20. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Luis, the point is that in Christ, God becomes visible and therefore portrayable.

  21. Luis Avatar
    Luis

    Thank you, Karen, for sharing your story with me. I do find some things about Orthodoxy appealing. I am getting a better understanding about why people become Orthodox, though for me, there are such insurmountable road blocks to taking that path, that, short of a directive from God, I will never go there.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar
    fatherstephen

    Luis,
    I’m glad you turned out to be an honest conversation – sometimes I get comments here that are simply looking to attack. I’m sorry that I took your first comment in that manner.

    I also understand your last comment, “insurmountable road blocks.” At one point in my life that would have certainly be true for me. Orthodoxy is something of a history story. It’s the story of what happened to the original Church. It didn’t disappear, it didn’t change. It was faithful. It suffered great persecutions. It endured terrible challenges from heresies. It protected itself by answering the false teachings of the heretics. One action it took, was to “close the canon” of Scripture – to declare what books were received by the Church as authentic and reliable as Scripture. It also produced summaries of the faith, such as the Nicene Creed, which clearly stated things such as the doctrine of the Trinity.

    In time there came a split between the Orthodox and what today would be called the Roman Catholics. Orthodox said that the Pope had changed certain things about the faith that they could not accept (including his claims to a unique authority). That split came in 1054. But the Orthodox continued their Church life in the same manner they had always kept it. They endured new persecutions – this time by the growing power of the Muslims. Untold thousands upon thousands were martyred, outnumbering those killed by the Romans in the early years. But the Orthodox remained.

    In the West (the area of Western Europe governed by the Pope) there arose the Protestants – Catholic Christians who disagreed with certain teachings of the Catholic Church. Those groups were few to start with, but today number some 38,000. Still the Orthodox continued doing what they had always done. In the modern period and even greater peril arose – the Communists. Millions upon millions of Orthodox were martyred by the Communists who sought to completely destroy the Church. But communism fell and the Church began to recover. And it was the same Church it had always been.

    Looked at from outside – it looks very different from Catholicism. It looks very different from various Protestantisms. But what you are seeing, is the same Church that has existed from the beginning. It has endured persecution, both physical and intellectual. And yet it remains. If it seems foreign or different, it’s not because Orthodoxy has changed. Everything else has changed. Orthodoxy is what Christianity “looked” like (and still does among the Orthodox). Learning about Orthodoxy is not learning about something foreign – it’s learning about where you came from – where the faith came from and about those who have bravely preserved it for 2000 years.

    I was raised in a simple Baptist home in the Southern United States. Most of Orthodoxy would have frightened me when I was a child. But what I was taught was simply ignorant of the fullness of the Christian faith.

    I hope you’ll stick around and share in the conversation. Many of us made this journey because, in the end, it turned out to be home.

  23. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love the way you give synopses of history. Could you at some time write more about the schism between the Orthodox and the RC? (Or if you have already done so, direct me to the post.)I know I am not your only Catholic reader and it would be helpful to understand more how/why our churches became divided.

    I know you may want to refer me to a book but, frankly, I do not do well at reading lengthy historical accounts. (That is why I like your summaries!) For some reason, history in large doses makes me sleepy 🙂

  24. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Luis,

    An “insurmountable road block” (“the problem”) may well be a Transfiguration Mount (“the solution”) in disguise. Orthodoxy takes a another view of “directives”:

    As we have seen, the fact that man is in God’s image means among other things that he possesses free will. God wanted a son, not a slave […] Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy (synergeia) […] “We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God” (1 Cor. 3:9) […] The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with God require the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will. The supreme example of synergy is the Mother of God.

    [M]any brought up in the Augustinian tradition — particularly Calvinists — have viewed the Orthodox idea of ‘synergy’ with some suspicion. Does it not ascribe too much to man’s free will, and too little to God? Yet in reality the Orthodox teaching is very straightforward. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in” (Rev. 3:20). God knocks, but waits for man to open the door — He does not break it down.
    Excerpted from Met. Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church

    This post could easily have been titled Why Orthodox become People

  25. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Or rather, Why Orthodox become Persons

  26. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    Luis,

    Here’s a gem from the wellsprings of Met. Kallistos Ware:

    Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257:‘The Lord said, “I am truth.” He did not say, I am custom’ (The Opinions of the Birhops On the Baptizing of Heretics, 30). There is a difference between ‘Tradition’ and ‘traditions:’ many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental — pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the essential Christian message.

    The point being made here is that truth is incarnational and cannot be detached from the person of Jesus Christ, who is of course pre-eternally co-equal with both Father and Spirit, One God.

    Notwithstanding this, Tradition, though it indeed consists of holy “outward signs”, is lived within the delightful paradise (“garden”) of the womb of the Holy Virgin:

    True Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity; for true Orthodoxy can never rest satisfied with a barren ‘theology of repetition,’ which, parrot-like, repeats accepted formulae without striving to understand what lies behind them.

    To reduce anything to “denominationalism” is to substitute true personhood with something else:

    Not only non-Orthodox but many Orthodox writers have adopted this way of speaking, treating Scripture and Tradition as two different things, two distinct sources of the Christian faith. But in reality there is only one source, since Scripture exists within Tradition. To separate and contrast the two is to impoverish the idea of both alike.

    In brief: Tradition is encapsulated in the holy commandments to love God and neighbour. This is synergy.

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