(This is the continuation of the post “I Started Out Baptist…” which, together with this post, contain some reflections on the first two parts of Kärkkäinen’s Introduction to Ecclesiology. Please read the other post first and then come back here!)
My journey away from the faith was, in retrospect, largely due to an overwhelming feeling that I just could never measure up. I never doubted the efficacy of my salvation. There is a “once saved always saved” doctrine of assurance within the Baptist tradition that gave me confidence that nothing I could do would ever nullify my eternal resting place. However, I continued to sin despite my best efforts to the contrary. This was disobedience in the highest and called into question the depth of my love and gratitude for the savior who’d died for me. We called such bouts “backsliding” and they were usually combated by redoubling one’s efforts to be “in the word” and withdraw from “the world.”
When, in my estimation, I’d backslid in a significant way and was tormented by guilt for trampling on the sacrifice of Christ, I would rededicate my life to Christ. This was done in the same manner and through the same opportunity as conversion. At the end of a worship service (or during a revival) I would pray and beg God to forgive me and help me to come back to Him and be empowered live a life in service to Him. This was very similar to the “Sinners Prayer” yet there wasn’t an acceptance of Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I’d already done that once and once was enough. Rather, this was a plea for better discipleship grounded in obedience and gratitude to Christ’s sacrifice for my sins.
By the time I was in my early twenties I was convinced that I was not making any progress in my “walk” as a Christian. I was in a pattern of rededication, redoubling, failure, sin, guilt, then back to rededication. It was emotionally tiring and mentally defeating. I felt a failure. I was not living up to the standard of one who really was thankful for Christ’s sacrifice. So, I quit. My salvation secure, I decided to cut my losses, stop trying and failing, and give into my obviously sinful nature. I would still escape the fires of Hell, I just wouldn’t have as big a mansion in Heaven as others might.
Eventually I found that the alternative was no better. Though I could quash feelings of guilt for a time, I still found life wanting in purpose and direction. After years of wandering, I returned to the Baptist church to again rededicate my life to Christ. But I didn’t stay there long. In quick succession I traveled through Baptist and non-denominational churches, into Pentecostalism, and then to the Reformed faith. While serving in a Presbyterian church I had my first encounters with the Orthodox faith.Eastern Orthodox and John Zizioulas
Specifically, I had a series of experiences with clergy in the Antiochian Christian Archdiocese of North America, read several books by Frederica Mathewes-Green (her autobiographical account of her journey to faith, Facing East, was particularly influential), and was struck by the stark contrast between my Evangelical understanding of the nature and purpose of the church and the Christian life, and that of the Orthodox. As a Baptist, there was always an appeal to primitive Christianity. We believed that our emphasis on the gathering of believers, conversion, and baptism by immersion was a direct link back to the New Testament church. Yet in form the Baptist church shunned anything to do with the “historical” church, such as creeds and rites not made explicit in the pages of the New Testament, as unnecessary additions to “Biblical” faith (sometimes bordering on idolatrous additions). Kärkkäinen describes the ecclesiology of the Orthodox tradition as being “heavily imbued by pneumatology [whereas] Western theology in the main is built upon christological concepts rather than pneumatological” (Introduction to Ecclesiology Kindle location 150). It is Trinitarian in its focus. In fact, the activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be separated. All are necessary and coequal. Salvation is “not focused on guilt concepts and sin – as in the West – but focuses rather on a gradual growth in sanctification” (loc. 157). In contrast to the judicial outlook of salvation in my Evangelical upbringing, an Orthodox view of sin and salvation is one of healing and deliverance. I once heard Frederica talk of sin as a kind of cancer from which we need healing. Christ’s death to sin allows for our healing of the cancer of sin. The view of the church is as an icon of the Trinity. Rather than a gathering of believers, each of whom has made an individual decision to follow Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, the Orthodox church reflects the mystery of the mutuality and identity of the three-in-one. Each person of the Trinity is distinct, yet each indwells the other. In the same way, the church is made up of distinct individuals, yet each is beholden to the other so that,
“we know that when any of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He is saved in the Church, as a member of it and in union with all its other members.“17 The “spiritual way,” as the journey of the Christian is often called, presupposes that individuals come together and join in community. The journey is undertaken in fellowship with others, not in isolation. The Orthodox tradition is intensely conscious of the ecclesial character of all true Christians.18(locs. 182-83)
This brings us to the heart of his eucharistic theology. He conceives the eucharistic presence and appropriation of Christ in the closest possible correspondence to his pneumatically understood Christology: “To eat the body of Christ and to drink his blood means to participate in him who took upon himself the ‘multitude’ … in order to make of them a single body, his body.”15 In other words, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the body of the One (Christ) and the body of the many (the church) are identical.16 (locs. 1,023-24, emphasis in the original)
So, where does that leave me in my story? As I write this, I have no resolution. I exist in a kind of theological tension. Still nursing the wounds of an angry God who saves me more out of contractual obligation than love, I find myself reticent to place roots in any Free Church, not to mention Baptist, stream. While, on the other hand, there is a lot that is mysterious and attractive about the Orthodox, it remains uncomfortably foreign. Yet I have not lost hope!