Why I Did Not Become Roman Catholic: A Sort of Response to Jason Stellman

I recently read former PCA pastor Jason Stellman‘s explanation for why he decided to head towards Rome.  As I read through his “I Fought the Church, and the Church Won” (which has subsequently been removed from the website that published it) I was struck by the absence of any mention of the Orthodox Church.  It is as if he had no awareness of the other major non-Protestant option—the Orthodox Church.

Rather than critique Stellman’s reasons for becoming Catholic, I will be describing a side story of my journey to Orthodoxy.  I did not default to Roman Catholicism simply because it was convenient, or because it was a readily accessible option, or because of the persuasive arguments presented by a brilliant convert to Catholicism. By God’s patience and gentle mercies, I slowly and carefully explored both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox possibilities. I took my time—seven years—to really understand them both, before committing myself to the Orthodox Church.

Early Encounters with Catholicism

Early on as an Evangelical I found myself caught up in the controversy over the baptism in the Spirit and the charismatic gifts.  I was uncomfortable with the extremes of Pentecostalism, but found much of the Evangelical anti-charismatic arguments unconvincing.  But when I read the literature from the Catholic charismatic renewal I found there a spiritual balance and theological sophistication lacking among Protestants.

As a curious and voracious reader I read spiritual classics like John of the Cross’ Ascent on Mt. Carmel, Augustine’s Confession, and St. Francis’ Little Flowers.   As my interest in Catholicism grew I began to look into the official teachings of the church, e.g., Documents of the Vatican II edited by Walter Abbott and John Hardon S.J.’s The Catholic Catechism.  While I found the literature interesting, I also found them alien and exotic.  It was like looking over a high wall and looking into a strange house next door.  I continued to be happy to remain an Evangelical.

The 70s and 80s were a time when divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism began to soften.  I found myself subscribing to both Christianity Today, the leading magazine for Evangelicals, and New Covenant, the flagship magazine for the Catholic charismatic renewal.  In New Covenant I found articles about personal conversion to Christ, life in the Spirit, and faithfulness to the church.  I found much to admire in the newly elected Pope John Paul II.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading his encyclical Dives in Misericordia Dei (Rich in Mercy) which I thought could have been written by an Evangelical theologian.

The 80s was also a time when John Michael Talbot, a former Evangelical musician turned Franciscan friar, released several albums that spanned the musical worlds of Evangelicalism and Catholicism.  These included his Light EternalThe Lord’s Supper, and Troubadour of the Lord.  The Lord’s Supper was the Catholic Mass set to contemporary folk music.  It highlighted the beauty and dignity of liturgical worship, something I rarely experienced as an Evangelical.  This was before the ancient-future worship movement emerged within Evangelical circles.

So why didn’t I become a Roman Catholic?  One reason was that I didn’t want to abandon friends in the Evangelical circles.  Another reason was my study of Mercersburg Theology which turned me into a Catholic and Reformed Evangelical.  I innocently and sincerely believed I could be rooted in the Reformed tradition while exploring the riches of the early Church and ancient liturgies.  With Mercersburg Theology I could enjoy the best of both worlds on my own terms.  This was a time of childlike innocence before I came to grips with radical and costly discipleship taught by the early Church.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

When I came to Gordon-Conwell in the early 1990s, the theological and spiritual currents running through Protestant Evangelicalism were already shifting in subtle and surprising ways.  In my first week at seminary I was surprised to see an icon of Christ hanging on a student’s door in Main Dorm.  Later I met a fellow seminarian who converted to Catholicism while at Gordon-Conwell!  Gary and I met for coffee to discuss his conversion.  When I asked him for his reasons for the supremacy and infallibility of Pope I found his answers less than compelling.

While at Gordon-Conwell I was deeply involved in the Evangelical renewal movement in the United Church of Christ.  Soon after I arrived at seminary I was invited to a meeting of UCC pastors.  I remember standing with the pastors and being slightly bewildered by the dark mutterings about some guy named Scott Hahn, apparently he did something terrible like becoming a Roman Catholic.  I have never met Scott Hahn but I am deeply indebted to him.  Once when I was wrestling with the doctrine sola scriptura, the question popped into my head: Did the Bible ever teach sola scriptura?  I couldn’t come up with a convincing answer which led to the question: So how did the leading Evangelical theologians deal with this?  A few days later I bought a tape by Scott Hahn and got my answer; none of the leading Evangelical theologians have been able to answer this question!  [See my blog posting on the biblical basis for Holy Tradition.]

Catholicism in Liberal Berkeley

After Gordon-Conwell, I headed to Berkeley to do doctoral studies in history of religions at the Graduate Theological Union.  I came to Berkeley a post-Evangelical open to change.  By then I had become weary of the fluidity and superficiality in Evangelical theology. During my first year, I found myself drawn to the rich liturgical tradition of Roman Catholicism.  This attraction to Roman Catholicism held my attention for a short while until I was providentially introduced to Eastern Orthodoxy.

In my first year, the candlelight Mass at the Newman Center was my regular place of worship.  It was a moving sight seeing the church filled with UC Berkeley students singing songs of worship in the soft glow of candles around the room.  It was also profoundly edifying to be at a church where the center of Sunday worship was the Lord’s Supper.

But I also found it a jarring and sometimes disturbing experience.  After becoming familiar with the pattern of worship, I noticed priests would drop parts of the Mass like the Nicene Creed and the Confiteor (the Prayer of Confession) which according to the official rubrics is not supposed to happen.  Keep in mind that the Mass is not just a Sunday ritual but a powerful means of shaping the faith and spirituality of the Catholic masses.  According to the theological principle of lex oranslex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith), the Mass forms the church in its faith and worship of God.  But here it seemed that the Mass had become a flexible tool that reflected the individual whims of priests.  In other words a have-it-your-way mentality among the Catholic clergy will eventually trickle down to the Catholics in the pews with devastating results.  And when the service was over, I was often surprised to hear announcements for upcoming meetings for the Gay-Lesbian fellowship.  I was coming face to face with the fact that real Catholicism was quite different from the official Catholicism I had been reading about.  Cafeteria style Catholicism was a very real and uncomfortable reality I had to face up to in Berkeley.

In my third year I rented a room at a Benedictine retreat house near the university.  The monks there frequently talked about the need to unite Protestants with Catholics, and how they offered Holy Communion to Protestants as a gesture of unity.  Once when I attended their service they gave me the opportunity to receive the Host but I declined.  The reason I declined was because I had read an article by Fr. Edward O’Connor who explained that receiving Holy Communion in the Mass meant two things: (1) that one accepted the Catholic dogma of Transubstantiation and (2) that one accepted the teaching authority of the Pope, that is, one was willing to come under the Pope.  My Catholic friends thought church unity easy to pull off, but I was very conscious of the big price tag attached to the Communion wafer.  [See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd edition) §1354, §1369, and §1374.]

In my second year in Berkeley, I discovered a tiny Bulgarian Orthodox Church that met across the street from the university.  For nearly two years I attended the Orthodox Liturgy.  It was good that the Liturgy was all in English.  Up till then I had found mixed language liturgies to be off putting and incomprehensible.  At Saints Kyril and Methodios I found myself drawn by the Liturgy.  After a long hard week of intense studying, I found it soothing and healing to stand during the Liturgy and let the ancient prayers flow over my soul.  It was a formative time for me spiritually.  I became immersed in the flow of the Liturgy and after a while became familiar with the pattern of the Liturgy.  There were no surprises like at the Newman Center.  I came away with two powerful impressions: (1) what I saw at this tiny Orthodox parish matched what I was reading and (2) Orthodoxy was capable of withstanding the liberal ethos of Berkeley.

From Post-Evangelical to Orthodoxy

I very much appreciate my time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Having studied there I can say that I know firsthand the best of Evangelical scholarship.  However, my time there was when fine hairline cracks began to appear in my Evangelical theology.   In time the tiny cracks became major fissures leading to a theological crisis especially over sola scriptura then sola fide.  Yet as my Protestant theology began to fall apart I found myself increasingly drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy instead of Roman Catholicism.  Below are some of my reasons:

  • There is no evidence of the Bishop of Rome as the supreme head and infallible magisterium in the early Church.  The current form of a supreme and infallible Pontiff is a recent innovation!
  • The Papacy’s autonomy from the ancient Pentarchy violates early Christian unity.  The Rome versus Constantinople frame falls flat in light of the fact that the other major patriarchates sided with Constantinople.
  • For all the elaborate rationales advanced by Catholics to justify the Filioque, it is an indisputable fact that the Papacy’s unilateral insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed runs contrary to the conciliarity intrinsic to the seven Ecumenical Councils.  Canon VII of the Council of Ephesus instructs:

When these things had been read, the holy Synod decreed that it is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different (ἑτέραν) Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa. (Source)

  • What we understand to be the Catholic Church is really the Medieval Catholic Church, a product of the Middle Ages and the Scholastic movement.  The doctrines of purgatory and indulgences are medieval innovations that have no basis in patristic theology.  This helped explain the gap between the Roman Catholic Church and the early Church.  It also helped me to view with sympathy Protestants as innocent victims of Rome’s willful aberrations.
  • The dogma of Transubstantiation is a doctrinal aberration that is at odds with the patristic consensus.
  • The Novus Ordo Mass (the Vatican II Mass) marks a major break in the Catholic Church’s liturgical continuity with the early Church.

In addition to the above theological issues were the practical issues based on what I mentioned earlier.  The liberal Catholicism in Berkeley was not a fluke but part of larger struggle taking place in Catholicism.  Ralph Martin’s A Crisis of Truth describes in some detail the attempt by priests, theologians, and laity to redefine the Catholic faith.  As an Evangelical in a liberal Protestant denomination, I did not want to go through that painful experience again.  I was also struck by the fact that while Catholicism claims to be one church, what I had seen pointed to a church that operated on two quite different parallel realities.

Protestants at the Crossroads

An Evangelical who finds himself in the midst of the rubble of a shattered Protestant theology needs to consider carefully what his options are.  There exist not one but two options.  The Church of Rome may claim to have been founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, but the same claim can be made by the Church of Antioch (see Acts 13:1 for Paul and Galatians 2:11 for Peter and Paul).  So while the Church of Rome may seem to be most obvious option there is another option. But there is another historically and biblically sound option the Church of Antioch, that is, the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The Church of Antioch can claim a chain of apostolic succession that is equally valid and older than Rome’s.  The early Councils did not assign the Bishop of Rome an authority greater than the other bishops.  Rome’s claim to supremacy over the other bishops and patriarchates is a later development and is at odds with the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

Two Peas in a Pod?

As the crisis in Evangelicalism intensifies, many Evangelicals will find themselves in a state of vertigo and confusion.  They must not make the mistake of thinking that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are two peas in a pod.  The two may look superficially similar but under the surface are profound differences.  One crucial difference is the way they do theology.  The Roman Catholic Church bases its theology on the infallible Pope.  The Pope is the monarch of the Catholic Church.  According to Catholic theology the Pope can unilaterally amend the Nicene Creed, order sweeping changes in the Sunday Mass, and issue dogmas — essential and non-negotiable doctrines binding on all members of the Catholic Church.

The theological method of Eastern Orthodoxy is based on Apostolic Tradition. Both clergy and laity have been entrusted with guarding and passing on Holy Tradition (II Thessalonians 2:15, II Timothy 2:2).  The Orthodox theological method is based on Christ’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13).  Unlike Catholicism which rests on one man (the Pope), Orthodoxy does theology collegially, that is, as a body working in unity.  In Acts 15 we read how the early Church came together and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit resolved a major theological crisis.  There was no evidence of a unilateral papal decree here!  Acts 15 provides the biblical basis for the Seven Ecumenical Councils, a key component of Orthodoxy.  It is important for Evangelicals to remember that they owe their core Christological and Trinitarian doctrines to the Ecumenical Councils.  The Bishop of Rome collaborated and supported these Councils.  He exercised authority with the Ecumenical Councils, not over them.  The theological unity of the early Church was conciliar, not papal.

One thing that struck me about Orthodoxy was the continuing relevance of the Seven Ecumenical Councils to current debates within Orthodoxy.  One example is Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon and the role of Patriarch of Constantinople with respect to the modern Orthodox diaspora.  When I read Roman Catholic literature the overall sense I got was that the Ecumenical Councils belonged to an earlier stage of development and that the Catholic Church had evolved to another level.  I sensed a subtle disconnect between the Catholic Church and the early Church.

Advice for the Lost: Retrace Your Steps

My advice to Protestants standing at the crossroads looking at the Catholic and Orthodox options is to do what people often do when they realize they are lost – retrace your steps.  Read the book of Acts, then the Apostolic Fathers and Eusebius’ Church History.  Study how Irenaeus of Lyons combated the heresy of Gnosticism.  Also study the Arian controversy and the making of the Nicene Creed.  Become familiar with the early Church before the Schism of 1054.  I also recommend they read the fourth century Catechetical Lectures by Patriarch Cyril of Jerusalem which describe the Holy Week services in Jerusalem.  When I read Cyril’s lectures I was struck by how much they can be used to describe the Holy Week services of Orthodoxy today.  I don’t think the contemporary Roman Catholic approach to Lent and Easter much resembles the liturgical celebrations of the early Church.

My advice to Protestants in the middle of a theological crisis is this: Don’t rush, take your time.  Carefully study the Church Fathers, learn the ancient liturgies, and unlearn the modern habits of thought which have entangled the minds so many Protestants and Evangelicals.  Then ask yourself which church today bears a closer resemblance to the early Church.

You Must Give Up Your Catholicism

A Protestant ran up eagerly to an Orthodox priest and asked: “Father, what must I do to become Orthodox?”  The priest answered: “You must give up your Roman Catholicism.”  That anecdote made a powerful impression on me for it illustrated how much Protestantism has in common with the Roman Catholic Church.  Protestantism has its origins as a reaction to medieval Catholicism.  This probably explains why modern day Protestants who seek to recover a historic and sacramental theology have started wearing Roman Catholic collars and white robes.  Many will incorporate the “ancient” Nicene Creed into their church services, not realizing that they are using the version that has been tampered with by the Pope.  The Nicene Creed endorsed by the Ecumenical Councils did not have the Filioque clause (“…and the Son”).  These small “c” catholic Protestants have unwittingly biased themselves towards Roman Catholicism.

If one wants to go beyond medieval Catholicism to the early Church Fathers one must study the Church prior to the Schism of 1054.  A Protestant who lays aside not only their Protestant innovations but also the accretions from medieval Catholicism will be able to accept Holy Tradition as given by Christ to his Apostles and which has been faithfully safeguarded by Eastern Orthodoxy for the past two millennia.  This is the Pearl of Great Price.  It is recommended that the reader read Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan’s excellent The Vindication of Tradition which explores the value of tradition for the Christian faith and his five-volume The Christian Tradition which is likely the best work on historical theology today.

The Tragedy of the Best Kept Secret in America

So, why did Jason Stellman make no mention of Orthodoxy?  Sadly, I believe that he has not taken the time needed to become acquainted with the Orthodox Church by attending her Liturgy (Sunday worship services), sitting down with her priests, talking things over with former Protestants who became Orthodox finding out from them how the wisdom of the ancient Church can be found in Orthodoxy today.

It is also a sad fact that many Americans have no awareness of Orthodoxy’s presence in America.  Much of this ignorance can be attributed to Orthodox Christians themselves.  We need to increase Orthodoxy’s public profile.  We need to go beyond ethnic festivals and ethnic parishes with Sunday services in incomprehensible languages.  We need Orthodox priests who like John Wesley have an evangelistic outlook:

I look on all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

Orthodoxy in America needs to take our candle out from under the bowl and put it on a lamp stand for all to see.

You – the Orthodox Church – are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. (Matthew 6:14-15 paraphrased).

We need bold visionary Orthodox hierarchs like Metropolitan Philip who proclaimed: Come home America!  His Eminence also rebuked the Orthodox for making “Orthodoxy the best kept secret in America” because of their laziness and their being “busy taking care of their hidden ethnic ghettos.”

It is time for Orthodoxy to stop being the hidden option for inquiring seekers.  People need to see the light of our faith and to find a welcoming hand of greeting at the doorsteps of our churches.

See also:

Michael Whelton’s journey from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Christian Information Center’s page “Orthodoxy and Western Christianity: For Roman Catholic.”

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30 thoughts on “Why I Did Not Become Roman Catholic: A Sort of Response to Jason Stellman

  1. “We need bold visionary Orthodox hierarchs like Metropolitan Philip who proclaimed: Come home America!  His Eminence also rebuked the Orthodox for making “Orthodoxy the best kept secret in America” because of their laziness and their being “busy taking care of their hidden ethnic ghettos.”

    It is time for Orthodoxy to stop being the hidden option for inquiring seekers.  People need to see the light of our faith and to find a welcoming hand of greeting at the doorsteps of our churches.”

    This is exactly what is preventing me from becoming Orthodox. I can’t send my family to the only local Orthodox Church when it’s mostly in Greek and we’re literally the only non-Greeks. I tried to talk myself into “getting over it” but there is no fellowship or Sunday school for adults and the kids are taught Greek hymns in Sunday school. Sigh, it is so frustrating and depressing to know the theology is correct but I have to become Greek to join a lack-luster parish that frustrates even the priest.

    I’ll have to remain as a continuing Anglican where at least it’s practically western rite Orthodoxy. Of course, I personally refrain from saying the Filioque but I’m still working on getting my priest on board.

    -frustrated Anglo-Orthodox

    • Where are you located? Perhaps we might be able to help you find another parish.

      Or, perhaps you could work together with the priest to build something new at the local parish. He might welcome it!

      Of course local parishes often must learn to be more accessible, but I suppose it also comes down to what’s worth the most to you.

      I’ve known of people who drive hours to get to any Orthodox church and also folks who have moved to be closer to Orthodoxy. I don’t know whether you’re ready for that, but if you become convinced that Orthodoxy is the true Church of Christ, what would you be willing to do to become part of it?

      I don’t mean my responses as a challenge to you but simply to offer something to think about.

    • I know how you feel brother. Though I’m greek by ethnicity, I was born and raised in Canada and I do remember my parish as a child was extremely Helenocentric. However the reason for that was because the parish was still in survival mode, just trying to stay alive with the few faithful that came from Greece.

      I can tell you that in time as the generation shifts to their children who don’t need to preserve themselves and as one convert at a time comes in, it does shift quick enough. My parish at this point does the services half in greek and half in english to reflect the demographic.

      It’s worth hanging in there because every non-greek makes a shift and trust me, the kids that are born and raised there would probably enjoy having the church step away from being a greek social club of their parents.

      I also know that working with the priest makes such a huge difference. I worked with my priest and that’s when the ball started to roll more.

    • The language barrier kept me out of Orthodoxy for nearly 15 years.

      The lesson I learned after I joined (a mostly English speaking parish) is that the best way to correct the “ethnicity” problem is for non-ethnic converts to join parishes and in that sense force them to change. If my current parish were not full of converts it would eventually revert back to Arabic. If I had been willing to be bold all those years ago and simply show and make noise about not knowing what was going on, not only might I have entered full communion sooner, but many very bad things in my life might not have happened.

      Speculation aside, I would agree with Fr. Andrew, perhaps you could contact the appropriate Antiochian (who are quite dedicated to English usage in general) diocese about the formation of a mission parish.

      • I couldn’t agree more! We converted 5 years ago, as Americans in Germany in a ROCOR Cathedral. Talk about feeling like a fish out of water! My humble advice: If you know it is right, do it anyway! It was tough, and frustrating on a number of levels, but we have no regrets. It is the Church; there you receive the Body and Blood of our Savior. Put your nose to the grind stone and try to learn the liturgy in whatever language. It is humbling, but looking back… it is what my heart needed. Don’t be afraid to join those ‘ethnic’ parishes. Cradle Orthodox need to know they have the faith that so many are thirsting for. We are at a Serbian parish now, and sometimes someone will speak to me in Serbian and I have to apologize that I don’t speak Serbian. They look puzzled that someone is Orthodox who is not from that ethnic background. It is the faith, not merely the ethnicity that draws us. So should it be for many cradle Orthodox. Cradles and converts have much to learn from each other!

    • I’d also have to recommend talking to your Antiochian diocese about starting a mission. There are probably others upset about the state of affairs in the Anglican communion (and the awkward position the continuing parishes are in), and the Antiochians have a decently large Western Rite contingent. Methinks it could be a relatively smooth transition into Orthodoxy…

      And as one who’s come out of ACNA, I cannot even begin to convey what a relief it was to finally end up in the Orthodox Church. Thank God there multiple parishes within 30 minutes of where I live, but I’d gladly drive many times that if that’s what it took….

    • I want to thank everyone for your kind words and outreach. They are water to my dry soul.

      The main barrier to becoming Orthodox is threefold for my family: education, salvation, and location.

      Education because i don’t have time to learn Greek and I can’t expect my children to do something their father can’t. Additionally, my wife and I feel that we will end up in the correct church but at the cost of not being able to learn Holy Scripture since it is viewed by the locals as a Protestant idea- this told to me by the members.

      Salvation is troubling us because any slightest hint that I believe there is such a thing as the wrath of God has brought forth anti-western tirades against us. I agree the Father does not want to torture anyone for their sins but our sins do incur wrath because God is holy and we are called to be holy. It as the same as putting paper next to a flame- it will burn not because the flame hates the paper but because the paper cannot handle the nature of fire. Likewise, I don’t see how it is wrong to say God’s wrath has mystically been removed/changed/ etc because Christ has given us the ability to become flame and experience the joy of union with the Trinity.

      Location is a factor sadly. I’ve dwelt on this one for a while and my family would still lack a Christian education in the faith and Christian fellowship because we could maybe make one service a week driving to a distant parish. But then we would never be able to partake in the weekly services and study groups.

      Right or wrong, God help me, I’ve remained a Continuing Anglican so my family will have Christian fellowship and education in an Anglican parish focused on the Undivided Church and 7 Ecumenical Councils. Perhaps my concerns are misplaced and I am making excuses, Lord have mercy if I am, but I wanted to share more of my background. Please challenge, educate, and even chastise if I’m wrong. Bless you Fr. Andrew for this blog and how it reaches out to us.

      • Seeker, I hope you can find a resolution to your dilemmas soon, and kudos for having in your heart a primary concern for your and your family’s spiritual health.

        Just gotta say, the idea of learning the Scriptures being “protestant” is pure bologne. Ignore them! Maybe they don’t read their liturgical calendar, but mine always has Gospel and Epistle reading that we are to read daily. We read and sing Scripture constantly in the Liturgy…. maybe some Greeks don’t realize that the Beatitudes sung at the beginning of the liturgy are actually part of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5? Not to mention all the Psalms. The primary issue there is always awareness, the heart being attuned to the Word of God, whether Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist whatever.

        God bless!

      • You shouldn’t have to learn a foreign language, especially a liturgical language no longer spoken, to become an Orthodox Christian. That kind of Rabid Ethnocentrism is the bane of the Church and makes me so angry!!! English should be the language of all Orthodox Churches on American soil. But unfortunately, the “ethnic club” attitude still persists to this day. I don’t know where you are, but you could check out the OCA or Antiochian Archdioceses’ websites for churches or missions in your area. Good luck!!!

    • You are not alone in feeling the way you do. In a few days — August 7 to 10 — there will be a Western Rite Vicariate conference in Shawnee, OK, sponsored by the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. I would recommend that you attend the conference if you can. Both the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia support Western Rite parishes.

      Robert

      • Truth to telll, I think that is a major mistake made by the Ants. To be Orthodox should mean Chrysostom, Basil, the eastern liturgies – Just as the Romans have an Eastern rite which had ignominious beginnings, (who should wake up and return home to the Orthodox Church)- why complicate things by having “western rite” Orthodox? Makes no sense.

        • I’m not sure you’re aware of the history of the Western Rite in the Antiochian Archdiocese. It wasn’t introduced as someone’s bright idea to “complicate” things. Rather, the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate was created in the process of re-receiving a group of parishes that had been founded as canonical Western Rite Orthodox parishes connected with the Syrian archbishop then serving under the Russian-American archdiocese. Those parishes were set adrift through a fairly complicated set of circumstances (too much to go into here!), and then through the personal friendship of their leader with an Antiochian priest received into the Antiochian Archdiocese some decades later, with the blessing of the Antiochian Patriarch.

          In any event, Church history is actually replete with such “complications”—ER parishes in Rome and WR parishes in Constantinople (among many other places) prior to the Great Schism. There was even a Benedictine monastery on Mt. Athos (Amalfion). And of course if one goes far enough back in Church history, it’s not just ER and WR, but rather multiple versions of each.

          The modern relative homogeneity of liturgics in both East and West is not characteristic of the whole of Christian history.

  2. Coincidentally, I was at Gordon College at the same time you [Robert] were at Gordon-Conwell. There really was something “in the air” on Cape Ann at that time. Despite all the buzz about The Vineyard and the growing popularity of worship bands, there also were a great many students who felt the gaping hole in Protestantism where the history of our faith was supposed to be, and were making serious efforts to learn how to fill it. In fact, it was the education in church history and hermeneutics that I received at Gordon, along with observing for four years what schism did to the way people treat each other, that prompted me to consider Orthodoxy.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t have a seminary education and so lacked Greek. In the days before Google, I was unable to find Orthodox churches in English in that area (although I am sure they exist). So I actually entered the Catholic Church in 1998, despite strong reservations about much of the doctrine and history of the institution, because I simply could no longer be Protestant and I knew if I didn’t join somewhere, I’d end up a nominal, lapsed Christian who wasted his life on all the wrong things.

    But I can’t imagine I’d ever have known about Orthodoxy or sought it out without the education I got at Gordon. I’m constantly amazed, as I meet people in my life, who want to talk about the faith, who simply have no sense of real church history and simply have no idea that we exist.

    The good news is that this all seems to be changing.

    • Jim John Marks,

      Nice to hear from a fellow Gordon-Conwell student! I like the way you described the atmosphere at the time. While I still hear good things about Gordon-Conwell, it sounds like it changed quite a bit. I recently met a recent GCTS graduate, who’s now an Anglican priest, who talked about the overarching metanarrative. I responded, Are you sure you went to the same seminary? :)

      Robert

  3. Outstanding piece! Thank you so very much for sharing this. I particularly liked this line: “before I came to grips with radical and costly discipleship taught by the early Church.”

    I believe that line resonated so much with me, due to the fact that one of the major flaws in current day Evangelicalism is the failure to come to grips with the radical and costly discipleship taught by the early Church. I see a lot of cheap grace and anti-nomianism on display in the E church. I write that as an Evangelical myself (albeit, one teetering on the brink…..)

  4. This has been really helpful. I have been engaged in similar discernment between the two, and I have to say that I share a lot of what you have said. Its funny how one can attend a type of seminary and end up in a different tradition.

  5. Thank you for these thoughts. I have been struggling between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, wavering between the two for quite a while now. I feel like I’m stuck permanently wavering between the two options. However, for many of the reasons you mentioned, I’ve been leaning more toward Orthodoxy recently. I think what happened is that my medieval studies caused me to fall in love with medieval Catholicism. If modern Catholicism were anything like medieval Catholicism, then my decision would be made. However, the difference seems vast. Orthodoxy doesn’t suffer from that problem.
    But mostly I also want to thank you for reminding me that it’s okay to take some time with this whole journey. I tend to want to hurry to the conclusion of things. It’s not just good to take time with these things, sometimes it’s also necessary.

  6. I live in Athens Greece and have been trying to convert from Catholicism for nearly two years, There is not one service in English, they expect you to learn Greek (I do speak some Greek), which happens to be useless in church as they use koine Greek, totally different language.

    Orthodoxy is correct in teaching but lives in the past and scared of moving forward.

    one priest here changed the liturgy to modern Greek and the Bishop forced him to change it back.

    they also have no idea what to do with converts, they think that Orthodoxy is for Greek / Russians only.

    So after 2 years I have almost given up, and I am thinking of going to the Melkite Catholic Church (Greek Catholic Church, Byzantine Rite)

    Same Orthodox faith, but is in communion with Rome

    • A few things here:

      1. I can empathize with the difficulty of being in a foreign country, but is it really reasonable to expect English worship in Athens? I would argue, of course, that it is reasonable to expect English in America, and I am happy to report that almost all Orthodox churches in the US do use at least some English. Many (like my own) use all English. Of course many still have a long way to go in this regard, and many are serving immigrant communities who really do need the use of some language other than English, so there is a balancing that a good many parishes have to figure out. It’s never easy.

      2. It is of course a complex internal issue to Greece regarding the type of Greek that they use in worship, but Koine Greek is not exactly totally foreign to a Demotiki Greek speaker. Further, almost everyone there has been hearing it all their lives, which is part of what conditions these issues for them. Things are even further complicated by the presence of Katharevousa (an archaized compromise between Koine and Demotiki) in a number of contexts in Greek public life for the past two centuries.

      3. I think that “Orthodoxy is correct in teaching but lives in the past and scared of moving forward” is really an over-generalization. I think about my own experience, especially my own parish, and I think if you were to say that to most of my parishioners, they would have no idea what you mean.

      4. The “they” who have no idea what to do with converts is not the “they” that is the Orthodox Church as a whole. That there are many converts is testament to that. For instance, in my archdiocese, more than 75% of the clergy are converts. Clearly, someone knows what to do with them.

      5. The various forms of Eastern Catholics (including the Melkites) are most assuredly not the same as the Orthodox but in communion with Rome. In order to be in communion with Rome, you have to submit to the Roman papacy and affirm all of Rome’s unique dogmas (e.g., papal infallibility, papal supremacy, the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, the Filioque, etc.). While there are of course Eastern Catholics who do not believe in these things, theirs is the same status as Latin Catholics who, for instance, don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—they are (whether they know it or not) in rebellion against their church. As such, it is wrong to convert to Roman Catholicism (even in its Eastern rites) unless you believe in all that Rome teaches.

      • Well, that’s the same reasoning that Greek immigrants to the US use – they expect the Liturgy to be in Greek – when the major language of the US is English. I find it arrogant beyond belief. And that applies to Slavonic or Romanian or Albanian or whatever.

    • John,

      I would have to disagree with your last statement: “Same Orthodox faith….” The similarities are on the surface but there are major differences underneath.

      Please listen to what Fr. Andrew has to say. May I suggest you find an Orthodox priest who can guide you in your journey to Orthodoxy? I think an Orthodox priest who grew up in America and is a convert to Orthodoxy should be able to understand where you are coming from. In the meantime please be patient and don’t be hasty.

      Robert

    • 15 years ago I was living just north of Boston, along the coast. Before you could “google” everything, finding a church meant the yellow and/or white page phone book.

      For all I know, there was an Orthodox church which conducted services in English in my area at the time, but I couldn’t find it. All I could find were Greek and Russian parishes which conducted in Greek or Russian.

      So, unable to remain Protestant any longer, instead of trusting God to help me find an English speaking Orthodox church, I became a Catholic. This was not a “next best thing” decision as I saw it at the time, but a grievous error. I won’t go into the sordid details of my life between then and when I found an English speaking Orthodox church, but more than enough happened which should have alerted me I was, as Fr. Andrew so accurately put it, in rebellion against the very church I had just joined.

      Genesis tells us that the reason God created us is to love us and so that we could live in love with him. This means that we need to trust him and depend on him.

      His church exists. We don’t need stop gap solutions. If Orthodoxy is what is on your heart, becoming a Melkite will prove to be a problem for you, over time. Constantinople is not in communion with Rome because Rome no longer practices the Orthodox faith. Any church which is on communion with Rome rather than Constantinople, is not going to be the same Orthodox faith as the church up the road which is in communion with Constantinople.

      Please don’t judge the English speaking Orthodox church based on your experiences in Greece. Greece has been Orthodox for two millennia. It seems pretty reasonable they wouldn’t have tons of experience with converts in Greece. There simply aren’t very many people who didn’t grow up within the church to convert into it! But Orthodoxy in the English speaking West is nothing like that. Yes, you find the occasional ethnic refuge type parish, but those parishes are dying. Their children grew up American (or British, or Canadian or whatever) and didn’t learn the mother tongue and because church was more about mom and dad getting to talk to their friends and drink coffee than it was about God, they stop going as soon as they’re old enough to choose. The parishes that are growing, and there are many of them which are, serve in English and have vibrant convert communities — because the future of Orthodoxy in America (for example) is Americans!

      I am curious what you mean by Orthodoxy being hesitant to “move forward”? Move forward to what? What does the contemporary culture have to offer Orthodoxy which Orthodoxy lacks? I genuinely cannot think of a single thing.

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  9. *Disclaimer: I am a Roman Catholic traditionalist converting to Orthodoxy.

    Having said that, I am often saddened when inquirers into the RCC start with V2, the new mass, the new theology and conclude that this is really Catholicism. It is not. If a protestant is trying to decide between the RCC or Orthodoxy they should seek out a Traditional Latin Mass and study the Catechism of the Council of Trent in order to have a clear picture between the two.

    Vatican II represents a different religion from what came before.

  10. I’m a former Evangelical who converted to the Catholic faith.

    I did in fact investigate the Orthodox churches prior to doing so and hold them in great respect. I hold in fact that only the tiniest sliver of deep dispute divides them from communion with Rome…along with a lot of hurt and history. But the Holy Spirit wants union more than we do: He will show us the way in His time.

    I felt compelled, as a matter of conscience and intellectual honesty, to enter communion with a bishop who was in communion with Rome, rather than Constantinople or Antioch. While I hold absolutely no animus towards those who opted differently — indeed I hold any person embracing the Fathers in respect and love — I nevertheless have my reasons to see the Chair of Peter as the “tent peg in a firm place which holds the house together.”

    So it is with respect and love that I offer some of those reasons:

    1. Catholicism in Berkley is not faithful to Catholicism. But then, Baptists in Chapel Hill, NC — I am thinking here of Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church where, last I heard, they were doing gay marriage ceremonies — are not faithful to Christianity as Baptists would articulate it.

    In my view, one expects weeds to be mixed in among the wheat, and if Jesus couldn’t pick twelve without winding up with a Judas Priest, then one doesn’t expect His Church to avoid unfaithful clergy in the ensuing millennia.

    It is, of course, a scandal to the faithful. But scandal doesn’t change what the truth is. IF the Catholic Church is what she claims, THEN a hundred Borgia popes, while scandalous and heartbreaking, aren’t relevant. The claims of the Catholic Church must therefore be evaluated on a different basis.

    2. Liturgy in the ignorant, unrooted, faithless, indifferentist West is also not faithful to the patrimony of real liturgy. The Novus Ordo can, of course, be conducted in a fashion full of the dignity and mystery of the ages: But fifty years of clergy in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe have been taught to do it the opposite way, full of bad vestments and treacly music. I’m a musician, in fact, and it has sometimes been a kind of penitential act for me to endure some of the music during Mass. It was not so much the failure of the skill of the musicians; it was the sentimentalist and therapeutic lyrical content and the bad melodies which violently ignored the natural stresses of the words.

    Still: This is not relevant to the claims of the Catholic Church. Liturgy has been done well before; now it is being done badly (or only done well rarely, or in other places). It will be done well again, in all likelihood. But none of the claims of the Catholic Church rest upon her laity or her clergy doing justice to the liturgy at all times and in all places.

    3. It actually IS relevant to the claims of the Catholic Church to see if she preaches what the Fathers preach. But there, I simply come to a different conclusion than you do: I think she does.

    There are, of course, items of Catholic theology which cannot be found in the Fathers; but this is not a difficulty provided they do not *contradict* the Fathers. I allow for development of doctrine, where “development of doctrine” is understood thusly: You can expect a body of human persons, over time, to logically draw true conclusions from an existing body of true premises, especially if the Holy Spirit is guarding them from error in order that the Church might remain “pillar and bulwark of the truth.” These true conclusions are then added to the existing body of true premises, and serve as the grounds for further conclusions later on, always under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Truth is like that.

    4. I do not see that an ecclesiology involving the pentarchy is sufficiently ancient to be considered the central unifying principle of Christ’s church. And without the Bishop of Rome, I do not see that the pentarchy currently is a functioning teaching authority. Heresies are perpetually reformulated and must be struck down anew; changing technology creates new questions of ethical concern. If the claims of the Catholic Church are correct, then there remains on earth a means by which the faithful may become certain that they know the correct answers to such issues. But if not, then the faithful can never say, “Constantinople has spoken; the matter is settled” — though I admit that “Constantinople” is a great deal better than “my own personal best guess at the meaning of the Bible, in consultation with teachers who, in my own hopefully-discerning estimation, seem to know what they’re talking about.”

    5. It seems to me that the role of the bishops in the Church is prophetic, priestly, and stewardly, because it is a participation in the authority of Christ as ultimate prophet (Word of God), ultimate (High) priest, and ultimate King (of the Universe). The terms “binding and loosing” were used in all three contexts in and before the first century, so it follows that the bishops bind and loose in all three fashions: As priests declaring (indeed, making) “clean and unclean”; as prophets declaring “true and false” and “permissible and impermissible”, and as stewards declaring disciplines for the faithful.

    But among stewards, there is always the steward who is “Head of House” (or “Chief Steward” or “Grand Vizier” or “Prime Minister”); what this steward binds, none of the others shall loose; and his distinctive regalia are the Keys of the House. Isaiah 22 is the famous passage for this kingdom structure in the House (dynasty) of David, but of course it was not confined to David’s kingdom. Like all the stewardly offices, this office is dynastic-not-individual, continuing to a successor when the occupant dies, and when the king is away on a journey or at war, the Chief Steward was the “father to those in Jerusalem” and a “tent peg driven in a secure place” to keep kingdom unity.

    That Christ conferred this office on particularly on Peter seems obvious to me; I find it difficult to imagine Matthew 16 and 18 as signifying anything other than the Chief Steward and the Other Stewards. It seems to me that the writings of the Fathers only fail to mention this when (a.) it is irrelevant, (b.) they’re taking it for granted, (c.) they’re in the process of slipping towards schism (e.g. Tertullian), or (d.) they’re concerned with pointing out that even the bishop of the most lowly far-flung province is still a bishop, and not a mere cipher.

    So to me, it is a matter of truth. I think the claims of the Catholic Church are true.

    So I bow to her authority.

    I don’t always like the experience of Catholicism as practiced in the United States. I’m fortunate to have a pretty good parish. But “pretty good” isn’t the same as “uniformly uplifting.” In doctrine and discipline, it’s faithful if sometimes less-than-rigorous. Liturgically and in fellowship, it’s regularly disappointing. But I guess my personal annoyance at the fallen-ness or inadequacies of my fellow parishoners, or of the facility, or of the music, is a sign of my own lack of saintliness. But I still don’t see that as relevant to the truth claims.

    At this point, someone may ask, “BUT, why should it be that Christ’s Church, if that is what the Catholic Church really is, would have all these problems? Don’t those problems demonstrate that something is wrong?”

    Yes, I think they do. There is a problem. But I do not think the reason for these problems is that the Catholic Church’s claims are false.

    I think that the problem is that the body of Christ is divided, and that what WOULD and SHOULD have been the strong liturgy-preserving, mysticism-experiencing, and monastic arm of the Catholic Church is absent; and the members who would have been there have instead naturally gravitated towards Eastern Orthodoxy. I think that what WOULD and SHOULD have been the strong passionate-preaching arm of the Catholic Church is absent; and the members who would have been there have naturally gravitated towards some of the Protestant Evangelical pastor-offices. I think that what WOULD and SHOULD have been the strong musical and artistic arm of the Catholic Church is absent; for the artists have drifted to churches where they could use their artistic gifts to create new music. I think that what WOULD and SHOULD have been the strong scripture-memorizing, lectio-divina arm of the Catholic Church is absent; for all of those folks gravitated towards joining Baptist Churches and becoming Sunday School teachers.

    And so on.

    In short, I think every Christian group other than the Catholic Church is really good at one or two things because those were the gifts those particular individuals were supposed to be bringing to the Catholic Church; and because birds of a feather flock together. I acknowledge the liturgical, mystical, and monastic glories of the Orthodox churches. I just wish they were shared with the whole body.

    Anyway, that is how the matter settled out, for me.

    I reiterate my respect and appreciation for all my Orthodox brothers. I did not write this post to indicate any disrespect. I do not expect to persuade anyone. I am not here to poach, and I did not submit this post to trash-talk or brag or complain or scold or anything of that sort, unfitting for conversation amongst brothers. Let us be like David and Jonathan, not Cain and Abel!

    But I felt that it would be good for me to offer my experience, here. Mine is but one voice. But I wanted readers of all of the other, heartfelt, honest, well-intentioned posters here to know that there are also heartfelt, honest, well-intentioned persons who saw the choice differently.

    With respect and fraternal affection,

    R.C.

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