For most of my life, I’ve been a Southern Baptist. I was raised in evangelical, Southern Baptist churches and even attended Christian schools that were ministries of Baptist churches. So how did I end up deciding to go from one of the largest Protestant traditions in the world (I’ll touch on tradition and how it relates to Christianity later) to the Eastern Orthodox Church? Orthodoxy couldn’t be more foreign to me – it’s quite different from the decentralized, individualistic bent of Southern Baptist churches. It’s hierarchical, the theology is extremely different, and while the Orthodox Church is quickly growing in the US, it’s still largely dependent upon the Mother Churches of the “old country”. The Orthodox in America, while in full communion with one another, are divided administratively along ethnic lines because of the various waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe that came to the States over the years. Take all this (and more) into account, and Orthodoxy can be a little intimidating at first. Before I get to far along here, I want to say that while I’m no longer a Southern Baptist, I’ll always be thankful for the Baptists and especially the teachers and ministers who had a hand in teaching me the Bible and giving me a foundation in the Christian faith.
Like most people who are raised in Christian households, I began to question my faith and doubt began to creep in towards the end of my undergrad years. Especially during my last years in College Station, I struggled with disbelief and doubt. I went back and forth between agnosticism and belief until I eventually reached a point when I decided that I had to resolve the question one way or another. So I read. I read as much as I possibly could from atheists and agnostic writers to C.S. Lewis and the Bible. Over the next few months, my mind slowly began to settle down and I decided to get plugged back into a local church.
I settled on a Baptist church in College Station that was well known for the seriousness of its members. Feeling that I needed something more than a “re-dedication” of my life to Christ, I decided that the Baptism I had received as a boy (I was about 7 or 8, I think) was not valid because I hadn’t been a “true” believer at that point. I decided to get re-Baptized and I became active in the church after that. The next few months flew by as I decided where to go after my time in College Station was over. All the while, I still couldn’t help but sense that, even as I was more active in my Christian life than ever, I felt out of place at that church. I felt like something was missing or that I didn’t quite belong there. Shaking off these feelings, I decided to move back home to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex to attend Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
Perkins is a very… different… sort of theological education. I think it’s a wonderful place with wonderful people, but the style of theological education is a bit unconventional. Perkins makes it a point to stretch students to the breaking point in their faith. It’s a liberal arts style education where faculty members come from an incredibly broad range of viewpoints and some actively try to convince students to disbelieve key points of traditional Christian teaching (like the Virgin Birth or Resurrection). This is an institution where one can learn Methodist theology, Liberal Protestantism, Panentheism, Process theology, Feminist theology, Liberation theology, and even some traditional Evangelicalism. While the style of education may not be like most seminaries, there is a distinct advantage that Perkins offers – a Perkins education gives students the opportunity to discover what they believe and why. Each student is broken down and built back up. Unfortunately, some can’t handle it – people have lost their faith there and I’m sure there will be more who have to quit the seminary because they can’t believe anymore. The diversity of views at Perkins is great because students aren’t just exposed to the almost limitless versions of Protestantism, they also have the opportunity to learn about Roman Catholic theology and (until this year) Eastern Orthodox theology. What I learned from those two traditions would actually save my faith.
At orientation, the staff warned us. “You will be broken down. Everyone gets broken down. But we promise, if you stick with it, your faith will be stronger than ever and you will be able to think theologically.” That’s more or less the point that they hammered home over and over for the first year students when we arrived for orientation. But I felt confident that I would be the exception. I’ve gone to church all my life, I’ve studied the Bible, I went to Christian schools for most of my life and I knew a little theology. “I’ll be fine.” And then Perkins delivered. Between my Intro to Theology class and my New Testament class, my faith was shattered. I’d read and studied so much, but I hadn’t even dreamed of some of the stuff I was reading for these classes. It was a one-two punch. Those classes hit me hard and sent my head spinning.
In my New Testament class, the very core of my belief as a Southern Baptist – the doctrine of sola scriptura – was cut out from under me. I could no longer believe, not with any measure of seriousness, that the Bible is the perfect, infallible, inerrant Word of God – the source of divine revelation and authority for the Christian life. That, combined with some serious Process theology that put the very nature of God on trial, almost totally broke me. I was hanging by a thread. But there was one thing that kept me going….
That was my History of Christianity class. The professor, Dr. Valerie Karras, happened to be Greek Orthodox – the only Orthodox Christian member of the faculty. I consider that class to be a genuine instance of providence. If it weren’t for Dr. Karras’ Eastern perspective on Church history and theology, I am almost certain that I would not be a Christian. Learning about the Early Church, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Fathers of the Church kept me going. My wife will tell you that I was shaken up badly that first semester – and I knew I couldn’t be a Baptist any longer after that. So I pressed on with my studies.
Intrigued by this Eastern perspective on the history of Christianity, I took more classes from Professor Karras, learning more about Eastern Christianity, especially Orthodox Christian theology. I also had the opportunity, in my second year, to take some classes with Dr. William J. Abraham – a Methodist pastor and brilliant scholar who is the rock of theological conservatism at Perkins. Since Dr. Karras left, he’s one of the very few “unrepentant, unreconstructed supernaturalists” at Perkins. Professor Abraham, while a Methodist to the core, is very sympathetic to the Orthodox Church due to his familiarity with and high regard for the Fathers of the Church.
While I never officially joined the United Methodist Church, I felt much more at home there than I ever did in Baptist churches. I will always love John Wesley and Methodist theology. The Methodists are great people and, along with the Anglicans, have more in common with the Orthodox than any other Western tradition. I should note, however, that the Methodists and Anglicans have become more liberal over the years and their liberalism is putting some distance between themselves and the Orthodox.
So in my two years at Perkins, I had a wonderful and eventful ride. No matter how I resisted, though, I felt drawn more and more to the Orthodox Church. I had visited an Orthodox parish only once – St. Seraphim’s in Dallas – for a “field trip” of sorts for my Eastern Christianity class. The experience was almost too much to take in at once. The whole church was covered with icons – images of saints, prophets, Jesus Christ, St. Mary – the Mother of God, and scenes from the Bible. Candles were everywhere, especially surrounding a few icons where some people prayed and prostrated themselves before the icons. Incense filled the church and the entire liturgy was chanted or sung. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and I was unsure of what I was supposed to think. All I could really think about was what a beautiful service it was and how the sense of reverence and worship was easy to perceive. The organized chaos is an especially striking feature of Orthodox services. The liturgy itself is very formal and structured, but the people themselves are very free. Some sit, some stand, some pray in front of icons, some light candles, but everyone has a deep sense of respect and reverence for the worship; the liturgy, the Orthodox say, is celebrated by the entire Church in heaven and on earth. For at least a little while, we get a glimpse of heaven and worship alongside the saints and angels. Still trying to process everything, I decided shortly after that service that I would study as much about Orthodoxy as I could on my own and eventually visit an Orthodox parish by my house.
In studying and experiencing the Orthodox Church, I discovered what thousands of other American Protestants had already discovered – the Early Church, the Church of the New Testament, is still out there. It doesn’t have to be re-created. The moral, historical,and philosophical concerns I had over the years about the brand of Christianity that I saw as being prevalent in the West all found an answer in the Early Church. The Ancient Church has an unbroken history, expresses and embodies the fullness of the Christian faith, and is the Body of Christ that the gates of hell have never prevailed against. The Ancient Church is the Orthodox Church. That’s what I’ve discovered. That’s why I’ve chosen to look to the East and become Orthodox.