For some time now, I have found myself comfortable within the Anglican tradition, but I have still thought of myself (rightly or wrongly) as an Anglican with some Eastern Orthodox tendencies. And I have to confess that I have questioned and wrestled over whether or not the Eastern Orthodox church is the way to go. I’ve had wonderful professors who I possess great respect for from that tradition as well as friends and family who have joined the Orthodox church.
But the thing is, deep down I’m still a Protestant Christian, and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the Orthodox church. Here’s why:
1. Though I have tremendous respect for the early church fathers, and church tradition, and I advocate for Protestants to imbibe more of that, I still have Martin Luther’s words ringing in my head, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason…” I have to confess that these two sources are the final epistemological authorities for me. But in isolation? May it never be! The church fathers, early councils, creeds, traditions, and global Christian communities hopefully all (ought to) inform the way I think about God and God’s work in the world. But as we’ve seen from church history, abuses can happen, false teachings can happen, and when it does happen it seems to me we have to go back to Scripture and sanctified reason. Indeed, I’m confident that Christian thinkers throughout history have gotten some things wrong. How can we know this? Through Scripture and reason. (In fact, I would argue Christians today are in a better position to know some things about the world of Scripture than many of the ancient church fathers.) And more to it, this seems to be the attitude of the earliest Christians themselves. Of course the early Christians writers quoted the church fathers frequently, but when they quote Scripture it is in a distinctly different authoritative voice than when they quote a prior church father.
2. Christians should not forget the stories of our brothers and sisters who have gone and fought before us in the past. These women and men are wonderful examples to us of how to follow Christ. As Hebrews says, “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses let us run the race.” These saints of God made tremendous sacrifices and laid down their lives for God’s kingdom, and listening to their stories helps us in our transformation into the likeness of Jesus. But there’s no way I could pray to one of them. After all, as it goes on to say in Hebrews “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith.” The New Testament is full of Christological language that emphasizes the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ and his work above all others. Even if there is some distinction for Orthodox believers between praying to God versus praying to saints, they are still both words spoken to a mediating figure with the belief that that figure hears the prayers and is able to successfully mediate on your behalf. Asking someone who I think is close to God to pray for me is comforting whether that be a friend or a saint from the past. But if I am able to bring my prayers straight to Jesus the High Priest of Heaven, why would I need to ask a saint to pray for me? What could they do that Christ himself couldn’t? Furthermore, the practice of praying to the saints entails a commitment to a lot of metaphysical baggage. For example, praying to the saints is especially problematic if you think those who have physically died are asleep waiting to be resurrected. And even if one thinks the saints are currently conscious in some disembodied state, it seems to me highly speculative that they are aware of the on-goings of the physical world. And finally, the practice of Jesus himself and Jesus’ followers seems to be to pray to God.
3. I couldn’t bring myself to say that all other churches outside of the Orthodox church are apostate or broken away from the true communion. This seems to me to be a serious mistake. Differences between Christian branches? Sure. Serious disagreements over doctrinal issues? Of course. But do Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox Christians worship the same Lord Jesus, believe in the same Triune God the maker of Heaven and Earth? Have we been baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Then “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” I’m not ready to dismiss away the rest of the Church from faithfully participating in the body of Christ. (And in fairness, I would lodge this same criticism at Protestants who deny that non-Protestants are true believers or believe a “false gospel.”)
4. The fact that so many Orthodox churches are tied to ethnic and linguistic identities is a concern for me. When members of the worshiping community are reciting words in a language completely foreign and meaningless to them, I don’t doubt that it may sound beautiful and it honors those Christians of the past, but I fear it ends in empty ritualism. It seems to me that God has always been about the business of making Himself known to humanity in a down to earth way. God literally takes upon human form. Jesus opens up the scrolls of the Bible and explains it, he wants the words of God to be accessible and understandable to common ordinary people. To bind the gospel too tightly to particular cultural traditions does it a disservice.
5. Orthodox Christians frequently mention how the Protestant understanding of salvation is too cold and rigid, and only understood in legal terms. Orthodox Christians maintain that instead salvation is not a punctiliar moment but a life-long process about becoming like God, and being drawn up and in to the life of God. I have to confess that I’m really attracted to this way of thinking about salvation. It bothers me to no end when professing Christians think salvation begins and ends at saying a particular prayer, and after that it doesn’t matter how you act or that your life is merely saying “thank you” to God, and not about trying to improve oneself through conformity to the image of God. But I still can’t get around the frequent language of justification in the New Testament-a clearly forensic term…even if I can’t fully make sense of it. This seems to be a clear teaching of Paul’s so I have to deal with it. As NT scholar Michael Bird says “Justification is forensic: it refers to a status one has before God. A person who is justified is declared right or acquitted of wrong.”
6. One of the draws to the Orthodox Church is its historical rootedness. In fact, one of the things that I’ve had to wrestle with is my desire for church unity, and I wondered if that meant going back to the Orthodox church. The problem is even in the first thousand years, there were already several church schisms that were some times politically motivated. I hope the Spirit of God has been and is leading the Church. But clearly there have been occasions when it comes to which council or bishops gets recognized or considered heretical is because of political reasons. And I don’t know if the Orthodox church gives enough credit to the fallen human political systems at play in its own history. The Church may be authoritative, but it is not infallible. Hence the need for the unchanging Divine words of Scripture. As Jesus says, “Scripture cannot be broken.”
Those are some of my primary reasons that I could not join the Eastern Orthodox church.
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