…And Might End Up Orthodox

November 21, 2010 — 5 Comments

(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)

My experience as a Baptist revolved largely around the individual’s experience. Salvation occurred on an individual basis. One’s relationship with Christ was “personal.” The habits that led to spiritual formation were termed one’s “quiet time” – a mixture of solitary prayer and Scripture reading. Each person was said to have a specific, individual call which was often to some capacity of ministry or service to the local congregation. None of this is unique to Baptists, but they do place an unusually strong emphasis on the role of the individual in faith.

As a side note, I think this is why Baptists in particular, and Free Churches in general, have flourished in the US. The focus on individual advancement of one’s faith dovetails nicely with the American Dream. Just as sanctification occurs on an individual level, in large part due to individual discipleship habits (such as the quiet time mentioned above), so also material “sanctification” occurs as one is born into the world with nothing yet has the capacity to earn unlimited amounts of money through ambition, determination, and hard work.

At the heart of the Orthodox faith is the Eucharist. This is stands in contrast to Baptists, where conversion through the proclamation and hearing of the Word is the central focus, and the church is wherever believers are gathered. For the Orthodox the church is “wherever the Eucharist is” (loc. 196). The two traditions share the understanding that each local church is a true church, but for different reasons. For Baptists it is because individual believers are gathered and “wherever two or three are gathered, there also is Christ,” for the Orthodox it is because wherever the Eucharist is celebrated, the fullness of the Trinity is present.

On matters of autonomy, there are some differences. While each local Orthodox congregation is the true church, no one church is separable from the others. Each prayer, each liturgical recitation, each Eucharistic celebration happens in concert with other local congregations all over the earth as well as with those saints who are, even now, worshiping at the throne of God. “The church of God on earth is one” (loc. 213).

John Zizioulas, a leading Orthodox theologian and Kärkkäinen’s choice for further exploration, expands on the centrality of Eucharistic celebration. “There is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an ‘individual’ in itself. Communion is an ontological category; even God exists in communion” (locs. 993-94). Here Zizioulas is referring to the broader koinonia as “communion,” but does not hesitate to intrinsically tie in Eucharistic celebration with “communion.” All things tie together in the Eucharistic celebration:

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)

Hence the weekly gathering at an Orthodox church is called the Divine Liturgy which culminates not in a sermon (there is a homily along the way) but in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Another big difference is in ordination. In the Orthodox church, ordination is much bigger than affirming a divine call. It is not a transfer or recognition of authority. Rather it is a change in the relationship of the ordained to the rest of the community. He becomes “a person who is able to transcend his individuality and represent the whole congregation” (loc. 1,014). There is a sense in which those ordained to ministry are becoming more and more the servants of those in their care. Ordination is not for aspiration, but to servanthood.

And Now, the Big Finish
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!

I’ve been spending time recently reading the stories of other people who, like me, grew up Evangelical and have found themselves on the path to Orthodoxy. Some of their journeys are eerily similar to my own. While I’m not sure where I’ll end up, I’m comfortable that whatever path I choose is well trod. And I have others on the journey with me.

Anderson Campbell

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  • Jason Clark

    What a deep, wide and penetrating post, thank you.So many are moving either to towards Canterbury/Rome, or out of the Church altogether. You map out the angst so many feel Eddie. Is there a Tertium Quid, a third way or via media. To be anglo-catholic without converting to that, and within Evangelicalism?And history tells us there is nothing new about this path, it’s the one Evangelicals began on in 1730s :-) It’s our turn to find a way.

  • Anderson Campbell

    I have no idea. To take on the liturgical forms of the Eastern Orthodox without also taking seriously their episcopacy seems disingenuous to me. Isn’t that what a lot of the emergent movement has ended up doing? Light some candles, burn some incense, say some “ancient” prayers…I do love my “modern” worship music, though. I’ve often wondered what it would sound like to have some of the leading American worship singers put new music to the Divine Liturgy. That’s a church I could get behind.For me, though, there still exists the problem of “rootedness.”

  • Jason Clark

    HI Eddie,You certainly don't play at Eastern Orthodoxy.  The form of church and worship, is the form of worship for eternity.Having said that lots of Orthodox theology has enriched the larger church Catholic included. And Orthodox worship was at one time very modern and of it's time ;-)Being rooted in the Great Tradition, without having to go back to a form of Church from the 5th century is a challenge. The Church is traditioned and formless, rooted and missionally fluid.We are at one of those times when it's all changing, and it's normal to feel 'distended' eschatologically between the world and church. Jase

  • Russ Pierson

    A brilliant, incisive and characteristically autobiographical post, Eddie. Indeed, perhaps you’ve created a new category–”future-biographical!” I did not read your posts on Karkkainen prior to writing mine, and for that I am glad since we wind up in a similar–if not identical–place. I kept my post in a safe sort of “second person” … but then again, I’m real. ;-)

  • MIchael Hearn

    Wow, there is a tension most of us feel growing up in the Baptist faith of the tension created in us as it relates to sin and salvation. Many of the friends that I had growing up were “saved” four or five times because even though they made a profession of faith and believed it was eternal, they doubted why they would struggle with sin so much in their lives, and thought if they were saved they should not struggle with these things. The Baptist faith does a poor job of attending to these issues and creates an environment were this is common place. Although I do not feel comfortable with orthodox traditions, there are aspects of it I enjoy with the liturgies. The question for me is when is the tension I feel in the church great enough to counter the rootedness I have in order for me to change.Great job, as usual, fleshing out this vast topic.