In the stories I've heard from countless others, there are a few typical outcomes when someone comes face-to-face with the shortcomings of the tidy view of the Bible, the gospel theology, and the tensions with science that have come to characterize much of evangelical Christianity—that is, when they have serious doubts about what they believe and don't find the usual pat answers satisfactory, like me. A regrettably common one is that they reject their faith and stop believing much of anything, glad to have left behind the mess of contradictions and fairy tales that was their faith. They may become agnostics or softspoken atheists, or they may become more outspoken critics of their former faith, like Dan Barker. How many of these apostates might have kept their faith if they hadn't been taught a fragile version of it that couldn't survive contact with truth and ideas from outside the evangelical enclave?
Another outcome is that doubters join the post-conservative, post-evangelical (if not liberal) camp. They recognize the shortcomings of their conservative upbringing, but conclude that they are not (or don't have to be) essential to what it means to be evangelical. So they deplore what was deplorable about their old tradition, and seek to rehabilitate the rest. They believe there is still plenty of good in the evangelical tradition if you can get past some of the unfortunate mistakes about God, the Bible, and the church that have gotten woven into it by misguided theologians and pastors. Writers like Rachel Held Evans, Addie Zierman, Mike McHargue, Peter Enns, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell fall somewhere within this camp, at varying distances from what might be considered "orthodox evangelicalism". As I began to see beyond my own doubts, I began to identify with this group, thinking I was becoming one of them. By early 2014, I considered myself pretty much there; as I began my series of posts on the gospel, I sought to call out the false beliefs and preconceptions that had given rise to my doubts (and might be causing doubt in plenty of others!) and seek out a way to move past them to fuller, more authentic, more wholehearted belief.
Then God showed me the way, and the church, I was looking for—but not at all the one I expected.
The new directionThis was the genesis of the present, rebooted series, several months ago. As I was trying to figure out what I believed about the Bible, the Gospel, and truth itself (the usual), I was also in the midst of my master's program in theology at the University of Northwestern St. Paul. Specifically, I was taking my favorite course to date, on the history of the Church. For my final project, I was creating a curriculum for teaching a more abridged version of the course to a lay audience (if anyone wants a 8–16-session course on 2,000 years of church history, I'm open to suggestions on how to put it to use!).
Wanting to be comprehensive and aware of the possibility for a Protestant bias when studying other traditions (all our assigned texts were written from an Evangelical Protestant point of view), I ordered about $100 worth of church history books written from Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran-to-become-Orthodox, and secular-ish perspectives to help me with my studies. In keeping with my desire for unity in the Church, I sought to remove my Protestant blinders that led me to see me see Catholics and Orthodox as saint-worshipping, tradition-bound, ritualistic, hopelessly old-fashioned and wayward Christians and to try to actually understand them on their own terms, which I had realized was pretty important for handling conflicts in a Christlike way.
Through my ensuing studies, I realized many of them, like many Protestants, are not simply sheep following the false religion they grew up with and waiting to be be shown the evangelical light, but consider themselves heirs to a rich, two-thousand-year-old faith. Conscientious Catholics and Orthodox can give some good reasons why they haven't converted to Protestantism already (or why they converted from Protestantism), and for the first time I started trying to understand these reasons. Since I knew especially little about Orthodoxy, I dove into Timothy Ware's book The Orthodox Church eagerly, out of curiosity to know more about this forgotten (to me and many of my fellow evangelicals) part of Christianity. The more I read, the more fascinated I became by Orthodoxy's distinct way of approaching matters of faith. At some point, the realization hit me:
The Orthodox Church holds the answers I'd been blindly searching for about my faith and has been believing, praying, and living them since the first century.
What is the Orthodox Church?
The church that Jesus Christ founded. (In a spiritual sense, Orthodox believe the Church extends back through the Old Testament saints and patriarchs) It has preserved the teachings of Jesus, the practice and worship of the first-century church, and the fullness of the apostolic faith for almost two millennia. In his classic book The Orthodox Church (the definitive source for anyone looking to learn about it), Bishop Kallistos Ware explains (emphasis the author's):
Orthodoxy claims to be universal—not something exotic and oriental, but simple Christianity. Because of human failings and the accidents of history, the Orthodox Church has been largely restricted to certain geographical areas. Yet to the Orthodox themselves their Church is something more than a group of local bodies. The word 'Orthodoxy' has the double meaning of 'right belief' and 'right glory' (or 'right worship'). The Orthodox, therefore, make what may seem at first a surprising claim: their regard their Church as the Church which guards and teaches the true belief about God and which glorifies Him with right worship, as nothing less than the Church of Christ on earth.Due to a series of schisms, the Orthodox Church is largely unknown to most American Christians. The first schisms came in the fifth and sixth centuries as the Nestorian (Assyrian) Church of the East and the non-Chalcedonian (Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, etc.) churches rejected the Christological decisions of several ecumenical councils. The "Great Schism" with the western (i.e. Roman Catholic) church became decisive in 1054, centering around the Pope's claim to monarchical authority over all the other bishops and the west's unilateral addition of the filioque (a clause specifying that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father) to the Nicene Creed. While the western church experienced developments like Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, the Orthodox Church followed its own separate trajectory, thriving in the Byzantine Empire (until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks) and Russia, surviving even through persecutions virtually unknown in the western church since before Constantine. There are over 225 million Orthodox Christians around the world today, though they make up only a small minority in western countries. Unfortunately, in America the Orthodox Church is administratively (but not doctrinally) fragmented due to numerous national churches sending their own missions here with ties to their parent churches rather than each other, which can be confusing for inquirers like me.
At least to my Protestant eyes, the Orthodox Church seems much more similar to Catholicism. It has priests, bishops, and apostolic succession (but no pope); its worship is strictly liturgical (though it still uses the liturgy written in the fourth century by John Chrysostom and has never had reservations about translating it into the vernacular); it uses a biblical canon that includes books not accepted by Protestants (though its Old Testament canon is also slightly different from the Catholic Deuterocanon, and it uses the Greek Old Testament rather than the Hebrew). But on a deeper level, Catholicism is actually much closer to Protestantism than it is to Orthodoxy, reflecting the differences between eastern and western ways of thought that have existed since the early church as well as the intellectual developments that took place in the west. Again, Ware is very lucid about this (emphasis added):
...western Christians, whether Free Churchmen, Anglicans, or Roman Catholics, have a common background in the past. All alike (although they may not always care to admit it) have been profoundly influenced by the same events: by the Papal centralization and Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, by the Renaissance, by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. But behind members of the Orthodox Church—Greeks, Russians, and the rest—there lies a very different background. They have known no Middle Ages (in the western sense) and have undergone no Reformations or Counter-Reformations; they have only been affected in an oblique way by the cultural and religious upheaval which transformed western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Christians in the west, both Roman and Reformed, generally start by asking the same questions, although they may disagree about the answers. In Orthodoxy, however, it is not merely the answers that are different—the questions themselves are not the same as in the west.These developments in the western church, it turned out, were at the root of many of the parts of evangelicalism that gave me misgivings and doubts. The Orthodox Church, then, offered a vision of the Christian faith untainted by all the destabilizing movements and problematic cultural assumptions that had developed in the west. I could barely believe it. Like the man in Matthew 13:44, I felt like I had found a priceless treasure. Of course, there were some things that came out of left field like the veneration of icons/saints/Mary and infant baptism (I'll get to those later), but in a very real and compelling way it felt like the realization of my hopes and wishes for what Christianity could be. In one sense I feel drawn to the Orthodox Church for the same reason many Protestants choose a certain church, that I share its beliefs and vision of the Christian faith (to an amazing degree, considering how I arrived at them independently). But there is more than this; it's not a simple matter of preference. I am convinced that the Orthodox Church is the true (or, at least, the truest) church, and that it has preserved the fullest expression of the Christian faith. And because I believe that, I can't help but be drawn to it, regardless of my personal opinions.
The third optionThe first two typical outcomes of evangelical crises of doubt, nonbelief and post-evangelicalism, have in common the fact that they view evangelicalism as the most (or even only) viable representative form of Christianity out there. Apostates find it untenable and reject Christianity along with it; post-evangelicals would likely associate God preserving their faith with their remaining aligned with the gospel vision of evangelicalism, even as they seek to rework parts of it that they consider misguided. Again, this is what I thought I was doing and expected to keep doing for some time.
But as I investigated Orthodoxy further, it seemed that God was taking my journey of faith in an unforeseen direction. Rather than rejecting Christianity altogether or seeking to move further within evangelicalism and correct its mistakes, the real answer to my doubts was to move forward by looking back with a church that claims to be the representative of ancient Christianity in the modern world. I had discovered the third and least visible outcome of doubt: turning to an entirely different, older Christian tradition.
In the following few posts I'll unpack specifically how the Orthodox Church appeared to me as the answer to my doubts.