Ryan McLaughlin writes a post about the Orthodox faith and why he as a former evangelical Christian converted to the Eastern Orthodox. In this post he speaks about doctrine and liturgy in the Orthodox faith. Ryan has the floor and will be happy to engage and answer any questions
“Tradition is not only kept by the church–it lives in the church–it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Orthodox conception of Tradition is not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past, but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present “
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
“Beauty will save the world”
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 NKJV
Okay the blog is getting back into business for 2016! I’m up to my eyeballs in a church situation in the East Coast and have spent a lot of the Christmas time reading, writing, researching and speaking to people involved. Its a disturbing situation involving domestic abuse, church discipline and the plurality of elders. When this all comes out I am anxious to hear Jonathan Leeman’s take on this situation of church discipline! I also have another discernment post which will launch Friday. In addition I am working on another John Piper post, and a couple of atheist posts. Plus there is some fodder at The Gospel Coalition. So while I continue to work on all that I want to turn over the page today to Ryan McLaughlin. I miss Ryan’s blog “Back of the World” and I asked him if he would be willing to write a post about his journey into the Orthodox faith. I’m aware of a couple of people who have left the evangelical Christian realm and gone to either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox faith. I thought it would be neat to hear and wanted to give him a platform today.
For those of you who don’t know Ryan was involved in C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries. I’m privileged to know him and when I had my mess with Andrew and Redeemer Arlington, he is one of the people that I consulted with in regards to Sovereign Grace culture. Ryan told his story of his experience leaving evangelicalism at Internet Monk and The Wartburg Watch. That explains his journey into Catholicism. In this post he’s going to explain why he converted to the Orthodox faith. By the way this is the first official guest post on this blog. I hope there are many others who can share or discuss their stories, faith crisis, or church experiences. I am very open to differing points of view. Ryan, I love you bro!
I’m honored that my friend, Eagle, asked me to write a little bit about my spiritual journey.
When I first started interacting with Eagle through the Internet Monk blog several years ago, I was in what many call the “post-evangelical wilderness.” That is to say, I had recently decided that I could no longer consider myself an evangelical, but I wasn’t sure what was next, or where I belonged.
I had been a part of Sovereign Grace Ministries during my college years, and had interned at an SGM church right after graduation. When I decided to leave that church (that’s a long story for another time), I went through what I call my Cartesian phase: I doubted everything that I could doubt about my Christian faith. I was pretty sure that I still believed in Jesus, but everything else was on the table.
And so I began to read: during my years in SGM, I hadn’t really read any Christian books that weren’t on the “approved list” of Reformed theology. So I decided to read as widely as I could…
And before I knew it, I was madly in love with Church history. I discovered that I knew next to nothing about the first 1,500 years of Christianity. Reading about the followers of Christ from the earliest centuries was thrilling: it felt like I was discovering classified information that had been hidden away in a secret archive. I’d been Christian my entire life, but I felt like I was discovering the Christian faith for the very first time.
About 7 ½ years after I left SGM, the journey into Church history culminated with my wife, my three children, and I being chrismated into the Orthodox Church. It was a bumpy journey, with brief detours in Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, but the deeper I got into history, the more I learned about patristic theology, and the more the Holy Spirit taught us through experience, we eventually realized that Orthodoxy was where we were being lead all along.
But I realize that I might have raised a couple of questions at this point: first, what is the Orthodox Church? Orthodoxy is the second largest branch of Christianity in the world, but it has a rather small presence in the United States, so I know that many folks reading this may have only heard of it in passing (if at all). Second, why would a former evangelical become Orthodox? It’s a good question, and one to which I hope to offer a very partial answer!
The reality is that I could write tens of thousands of words answering these questions and telling my story of becoming an Orthodox Christian. Please realize that anything I’m about to say is only a fraction of what I’d like to say! If you want to ask follow-up questions, please feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) . I’ve also got a list of resources at the end of this post for finding out more.
What is the Orthodox Church?
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul says:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
As I was diving deeper into Church history, one of the things that I discovered is that we have a pretty good idea of what the earliest Christians believed. We have extant writings from just decades after the close of the New Testament canon, whose authors include men who were very closely associated with the apostles themselves. Men such as Ignatius of Antioch (who died around 108 AD) and Clement of Rome (who died around 99 AD) made a huge impression on me as I discovered their theology for the first time.
Two things struck me as I read: first, these guys took the command of St. Paul to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” incredibly seriously. Second, what they stood firm on and held to looked mighty different from what I’d been taught as an evangelical!
Much of my journey through the “post-evangelical wilderness”, then, began to focus on the question of whether there was a church that was still today standing firm and holding fast to the traditions that the second, third, and fourth generations of Christians had received from the first.
I believe now that there is, and that that Church is the Orthodox Church.
Sometimes called the “Eastern Orthodox Church,” this is a Church that has existed for close to 2,000 years now. It is actually a communion of more than a dozen self-governing churches, some of which are mentioned in the New Testament itself (such as Antioch). If you have known anyone who was “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox”, they were members of one of the self-governing branches of the Orthodox Church—united by a common faith, but under different jurisdictions (and perhaps attending services in different languages).
Part of why you may not be that familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy is that for the last 550 years or so, much of the Orthodox world has suffered tremendous persecution. This happened first under the Ottoman Empire and subsequently under Communism. There are many Orthodox Christians still suffering for their faith today: many of the martyrs being killed in places like Iraq and Syria today are members of the Orthodox Church.
The various jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church are lead by groups of bishops (called “synods), but unlike the Roman Catholic Church, we don’t have a pope: that is to say, there’s no one man that can claim to be the head of Orthodoxy. We believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, and that He doesn’t need a vicar.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, we believe in Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist. We also believe in the intercession of saints, most especially Mary. We also pray for the dead. However, we have beliefs about these things that can be pretty radically different from what Catholics believe—for instance, although we pray for the dead we most definitely do not believe in purgatory—so it would be a mistake to think of Orthodoxy as being “Catholicism without a pope.”
Why Would a Former Evangelical Become Orthodox?
As I mentioned previously, one of the driving factors for me becoming Orthodox was history: after learning more and more about Church history over the course of 7+ years, I eventually became convinced that Orthodoxy can rightly claim to have followed St. Paul’s command to stand firm and hold fast to what the Apostles taught. That is to say, I believe Orthodoxy is true!
Orthodoxy has a lot, though, besides history that a former evangelical might find compelling.
For one thing, I think that Orthodox theology and doctrine offer a lot that would bring healing and fullness to a struggling evangelical. For instance, the Orthodox Church doesn’t teach penal substitutionary atonement. I cannot tell you how much of a difference that this has made in my Christian faith: it has completely changed the way I pray, the way I act, and the way I think.
Protestant churches typically teach that sin incurs God’s wrath, and that Christ’s death on the cross was where Christ took the punishment that was due to us. To quote the old hymn, so common in Reformed churches these days, “…till on that Cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” This doctrine involves a God who is incapable of forgiving us without some kind of appeasement, and it introduces some confusion into the Trinity itself: how does God punish God? How can one Person of the Divinity “pour out wrath” on another? (Naturally, I find it significant that the penal substitutionary model of the atonement finds basically no support in the writings of Christians prior to the Protestant Reformation some 1,500 or so years after Christ’s death).
The Orthodox Church, by contrast, teaches that Christ died on the Cross in order to “trample down death by death”, to use the words of our Easter hymn. By overcoming death through His Resurrection, Christ was able to pave the way for humanity to overcome death in His wake. Jesus’ crucifixion was a divine invasion of death, wherein our Lord and Master set free those being held captive.
St. Athanasius (who died in 373 AD) wrote in his book “On the Incarnation”:
“For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us…”
And elsewhere in the same book:
“through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.”
In my life as a Christian, I no longer think of the Cross as a place of wrath and punishment— where Jesus got “what I deserved”, to put it in terms that Neo-Calvinists might use, and a place where I find out just how odious I am to God without the proper sacrifice. Rather, it is the place of Christ’s most loving rescue, and it sets the stage for His harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday and His glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Good Friday is no longer about how awful I am, it’s about how wonderful Jesus Christ is.
I’ve chosen one doctrine to focus on in this section that has particularly impacted me. There are so many that I could have written about, though. I encourage you to take the time to read a good book about Orthodoxy if you’re interested!
I know that not everyone shares this opinion, but…I strongly dislike contemporary evangelical styles of worship.
I also think that a lot of people in my generation (surely not all) feel the same way that I do. I know way too many twenty- and thirty-somethings that frequent Anglican, Lutheran, and traditional Latin Catholic churches to think I’m alone in this one (to speak nothing of all the Orthodox converts I hang out with!)
Maybe it’s just that we’ve been marketed to our entire lives, and too much contemporary worship feels like marketing. Maybe it’s that we crave authenticity, and too much contemporary worship feels like a bad imitation of a rock concert. Or maybe it’s that we want something deeper, and we’re just sick of shallow lyrics that feel like they’re written for elementary school kids. Whatever the reason, there’s a strong and growing section of my generation that’s actively seeking out liturgical worship.
And the Orthodox Church has liturgy par excellence!
On the vast majority of Sundays throughout the year, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which has remained essentially unchanged since the 4th century, and which was itself an abridgement of a liturgy written by the apostle James. It’s a beautiful, elegant service that serves to focus the mind and heart on Jesus Christ and on the eternal realities of our faith. Its hymns and prayers have stood the test of time and continue to provide rich food for the soul today.
For anyone who is hungry for beautiful, authentic, ancient worship, an Orthodox parish is the place to be!
The richness of Orthodox spirituality has astounded me, and continues to make me want to draw closer to Christ.
From the profound (and yet simple) tradition of saying the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) to the sometimes-difficult sayings of the Desert Fathers, to uplifting Russian books like “The Way of the Pilgrim” and “Laurus”… when you explore the spiritual life of the Eastern Orthodox Church, you become an heir to centuries of wisdom from those who sought after Christ with their whole hearts.
And when you begin trying to take some of the advice you’re given, you’re immediately humbled. Take fasting for instance: fasting gets mentioned in the New Testament all the time, right? So you’d think that at some point in being a Christian my entire life I’d have made a serious attempt at this basic Christian practice, right? Wrong. The Orthodox Church has certain prescribed fasting periods during the year (Lent, for instance), and during each of those I have failed pretty miserably so far. It turns out that after three decades of following Christ, I can confidently tell you that I am a complete and utter beginner at living out my faith. But there’s grace! And as I am humbled through my feeble attempts to grow in the Church’s spiritual practices, I encounter my need for Jesus’ mercy, and that’s exactly where I need to be in order to grow!
And that, after all, is the point of being a Christian at all: growing in union with Christ Jesus our Lord!
There are so many things that I wanted to speak about here: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; icons; the saints; the details of my personal journey towards Orthodoxy… What I hope that I was able to do here is to give you the briefest of glimpses into why I personally became Orthodox, and to hopefully whet your appetite for finding out more about the Orthodox Church!
If you’re curios to learn more about the Orthodox Church and Orthodox theology, the absolute best way to become more acquainted is to visit a parish! Your best bet for finding a liturgy in English and meeting plenty of people that have gone from being Evangelical to Orthodox is to visit a parish affiliated with either the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America or the Orthodox Church in America. If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend reading this excellent article beforehand.
In addition to visiting, here are some resources that I’ve found helpful along the way:
The Orthodox Way and The Orthodox Church, both by Met. Kallistos Ware
For the Life of the World, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Entering the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
Journey to Orthodox
My Orthodox Faith
Ancient Faith Today by Kevin Allen
Speaking the Truth in Love by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko
Roads from Emmaus by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick