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The Biggest Lesson I Learned from the Orthodox Church

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I was a member of the Orthodox Church for about four years. Thanks to my time there, I learned a vital lesson.

I began studying the Orthodox Church at university. McGill's religious studies department, with its associated theological colleges, were academically rigorous but mostly liberal and unsympathetic to Evangelical authors. When I wrote papers, I had to choose my topics wisely if I wanted to get good grades. McGill taught religious studies from a strongly historical perspective, so they had to include the “church fathers.” I didn’t want to write about Liberal, Feminist, or Queer theologians, so I often chose topics based on historical figures and debates. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Anabaptists, but I also often turned to the “church fathers.”

The more I studied those Patristic authors—Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Basil, the Gregories, Augustine, etc.—the more I respected their role in formulating the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Those were doctrines that I strongly believed in, but as a newer believer, had no idea where they came from. Baptists have very short historical memories!

In studying church history, I also faced the fact that the canon of Scripture and the “seven ecumenical councils” were formulated in the Greek-speaking Eastern part of the Roman Empire by what is now called the Orthodox Church. If I had any sense of church history at all, it was that the Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic church. I didn’t realize that the Pope, the bishop of Rome, had once belonged to the Orthodox Church and then effectively broke away from the other bishops.

During that time, a brilliant college friend converted to Orthodoxy and later became a monk. He gave me a copy of Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, as well as an Orthodox prayer book and encouraged me to investigate further. So I did. I lived not too far from The Sign of the Theotokos Orthodox Church in Montreal and visited occasionally. The liturgy was strange, completely different from the worship I was used to, and I didn’t particularly like it. But I continued to visit and to think about Orthodoxy.

In my final year, I wrote a major paper on St. Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was from Ephesus and was said to have been a disciple of the Apostle John who, according to tradition, ministered in Ephesus. Ignatius later became a bishop in Antioch, where followers of Jesus were first called Christian (Acts 11:26) and died a martyrs death in Rome. His letters are powerful. But the kind of Christianity evident in them seemed to be different from my Baptist church. Ignatius’ religion already seemed very liturgical, with processions, the centrality of the Eucharist, and strict divisions between deacons, priests, and bishops. Frankly, it sounded Orthodox. I contacted the book's editor, Andrew Louth, the Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University and asked whether I was understanding Ignatius correctly. Is that what the early church was like? Louth confirmed what I had gathered from Ignatius and told me that he himself had converted to Orthodoxy.

After graduating from McGill, I married Abby and moved to Amsterdam to do graduate work in theology at the Free University. I began writing about Peter Singer’s concept of personhood and learned that the very idea of a “person” grew out of debates over the Trinity. The Western intellectual tradition did not have a concept of “personhood” before those debates. That meant I had to immerse myself in researching the early church counsels, Trinitarian theology, and modern Orthodox theologians such as John Zizioulas. Once again, my studies pressed home to me that the Orthodox Church (not Evangelicals, nor Rome) had defined what it meant for God to be a person, for Christ to be fully human and fully divine, and for God to be one-in-three, the Trinity. That put me in a strange position. I affirmed the Trinity, and the deity of Christ, and had been taught to say that those doctrines as defined by those councils, distinguished Christianity from the cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And yet, from an Orthodox perspective, I was as much outside of their church as any Mormon. How could I appeal to the trustworthiness of a church that regarded me as a heretic? I felt like I was living off someone else’s legacy and authority. I trusted God to have used the Orthodox to correctly define the heart of Christianity (e.g., the deity of Christ and the Trinity), as well as the canon of Scripture itself, while not belonging to that same church. How was that not self-contradictory? In Amsterdam, I found an Orthodox service that met in the back of a bookstore, where I bought a copy of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Michael Pomazansky.

Abby and I moved from Amsterdam back to Dallas. Abby took a job as a travel nurse. She worked for an agency that placed her in hospitals that needed short-term help, often to replace a nurse that had just given birth. The agency would pay her and supply her with an apartment. The contracts were typically for three months. We moved often, and I continued studying the Trinity and the early church. I wanted to understand what the earliest church was like. My congregationalist, episcopal, and presbyterian friends all insisted their interpretation was the correct one. I didn’t think there was enough evidence in Scripture to decide the matter in a clear way. I began to think about how the evidence history can settle the debate. If the Bible isn’t clear on about how the church should meet and worship together, wouldn’t the evidence from the 2nd century, from Ignatius, Clement, and Polycarp, show how the apostles taught people to worship? And that evidence did seem to be clear. The worship was liturgical.

I also thought about archeology. If I visited Thessalonica, Corinth, Patmos, Crete, and other cities mentioned in the New Testament, what would I find? Orthodox churches, and the ruins of Orthodox churches, that had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, at least since Constantine.

It was all troubling. By that point I had been a Christian for a little over ten years—plenty of time to get stuck in my ways.

Abby took a travel nursing contract near Boston, because I was going to have to travel back and forth to Montreal to settle my immigration status. We like Boston a lot. It was a big city, but small enough to walk around, with good public transportation and amazing libraries. Abby liked where she worked (Brigham and Women’s), but as her three-month contract came up, the nursing agency could not find another opening in the area. They told us to get to move again, but we didn’t want to.

At the time, one of the things I had tried to understand was why the Orthodox pray to the saints and whether that was right. I only knew of that practice from growing up in a nominally Roman Catholic culture, where praying to the saints looked very much like a substitute for pagan religion. But the Orthodox explained to me that it was not like that at all. Instead, they ask the saints to pray for them just as we ask our friends to pray for us. After all, they are still very much alive, more alive than we are, in the presence of Jesus, and still a part of the church. The saints aren’t playing cards in heaven. We know from Revelation that the saints in heaven pray for those on earth. We also know that the prayer of a righteous person accomplishes much (James 5:16). It only makes sense to ask these brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us. Not asking them to pray showed we didn’t believe they were really alive in heaven or really part of the church.

That wasn’t the answer I expected, and I wasn’t entirely convinced, but it seemed plausible. Given Abby’s work situation, I thought I would try it out. I decided to go big and ask Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom the Orthodox venerate (without committing the idolatry of Roman Catholicism), to pray for Abby to get another contract at the hospital she was already at, so we could stay at the amazing apartment we were already in, and not have to move so soon. I would take it as a sign to consider Orthodoxy. I finished praying, we went out for a walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the agency called. The hospital not only renewed Abby’s contract but asked that she stay for another six months! Can you blame me for wondering, “Did Mary just answer our prayer???” I’ve never had a prayer answered so quickly and so precisely.

Of course, the skeptic in me said it was just a coincidence. Or maybe Jesus independently answered the prayers we had already sent up. But the timing (within a few hours!) was hard to ignore. The result was that I felt that I had to make a more concerted effort to investigate Orthodoxy and went looking for a congregation.

I somehow came across an unusual little “Western Rite” Orthodox church near Providence, Rhode Island, called St. Cuthbert’s Orthodox Church. Although it was part of the ultra-conservative Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (formed by Russian monarchists who fled the Bolshevik Revolution), St Cuthbert’s had a Benedictine background. I don’t know all the details, but their unusual history began when a Roman Catholic monastery separated from Rome as a result of disagreeing with the First Vatican Council. They were later welcomed into the Orthodox Church and blessed to continue using their traditional liturgy. One of the monks from that monastery, Father James Deschene, OSB (1943-2020), had started the church.

The congregation met in Fr. James’s somewhat cluttered home. He was short, rotund, and nearly blind. He was also very articulate and intelligent, having written a PhD on C. S. Lewis. But most of all, it seemed to me that he exuded gentleness and joy. I grew to love him and still think of him with great affection. The service (the Liturgy of Saint Gregory) was simple, humble, and held in his front room. The mixture of English and Latin made it much easier to follow than the Greek or Slavonic services I had attended elsewhere. Somehow, probably due to my experiences in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, it felt familiar.

The worship was reverent. There was no question about why we were there. Even though the words of the mass were mostly the same week after week (with very small variations), Fr. James spoke the words in such a heartfelt way that it never seemed repetitive. We confessed our sins, prayed for mercy, remembered Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, and read loads of Scripture, especially from the Psalms (which I loved). That surprised me. I was surprised to find that the Orthodox read far more Scripture during their service than any Evangelical church. It also made a difference to me to think that this worship—the very words we were saying—had been said by millions of Christians all around the world for over fifteen hundred years. With the icons on the walls, speaking to the heavenly existence of believers in all ages, who remain a part of the church, it felt like I was participating in something much bigger and older than me. (However, as inquirers, we could not partake of the Supper.)

Over several months I talked with Fr. James about Orthodoxy. Naturally, I asked him whether they believed in salvation by works, and he denied it, assuring me it was all of grace. I should have pressed him more on that and especially asked about eternal security. But I had received the same answer about works salvation from several other Orthodox people, took them for granted, and moved on to my other questions. For example, I asked whether I could be Orthodox and a premillennialist. One of the things that impressed me was how early church fathers such as Papias and Irenaeus believed Christ would reign on earth for a thousand years in a literal kingdom. Fr. James said that while the Orthodox Church condemned “chiliasm,” he thought premillennialism could be held as a “theologoumena,” i.e., a private opinion. I also asked whether I had to believe in transubstantiation, and he said no, that was a Roman Catholic doctrine. But I needed to believe the bread and wine were Christ’s body and blood in some sense—that Jesus was really present with us. I had lots of questions, and Fr. James had reasonable answers, and eventually, me and Abby were accepted as catechumens in the Orthodox Church.

However, in 2008, Fr. James moved to become the Abbott of a monastery in Hamilton, Ontario, and we suddenly had to find another Orthodox parish. He had suggested that Abby and I could move into his house, continue the services, and, with time, I might become the priest there. I don’t remember why we said no. Probably, everything was too new for me to consider that option, and Abby wasn’t fond of that area of Rhode Island. So we began attending a Bulgarian Orthodox church near Boston that had a bilingual service, a good sized bookstore, several Evangelical converts, and a Jewish priest.

I still kept up with Fr. James, who remained what the Orthodox call my “spiritual father.” Abby and I eventually drove to Ontario to transport Fr. James’ decrepit old cat and to be received by chrismation as full members of the Orthodox Church.

Life went on.

Abby’s contract came up. I believe she was offered a job at Brigham and Women’s, and I had a job at a local newspaper, but since real estate in Boston was so expensive, and we wanted to start a family, we decided to move elsewhere (a decision I regret). Abby took another contract in Baton Rouge, where we attended a small, storefront, English-language Orthodox Church led by a friendly Anglican convert and his wife. Louisianans are some of the friendliest people we ever met. But the humidity was oppressive, we lived in a violent neighborhood, and after hurricane Gustav tore the roof off our apartment, we decided to move to Dallas to be near family.

We settled into a ROCOR parish. Abby and I joined the choir and learned to sing the absolutely beautiful Russian choral music. Beauty is very important to Orthodoxy, especially to Russian Orthodoxy. In fact, the story is told that the pagan king, Vladimir the Great (958-1015), wanted to consolidate his empire, and sent envoys to investigate all the religions of the neighboring countries. They visited Jews, and Muslims, and Roman Catholics. But when they finally came to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the envoys were overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the worship, not knowing whether they were in heaven or on earth. When they returned with that judgment, Vladimir and the whole kingdom converted to Orthodoxy. You see that emphasis on beauty in all aspects of Orthodoxy, but especially in Russian Orthodox choral music. The drama. The emotion. The rich theology. All these years later, I can still say there’s no worship music more beautiful than that. However, the drawback is the music is so complex that the only people who can sing are those who have been trained in the choir. Everyone else has to just passively listen.

However, my experience in that church proved to be different than it had been with Fr. James. I began to see more of the “warts” in Orthodoxy. Of course, every church has warts. The only kind of people Jesus saves are sinners. But Orthodox Church bills itself as the “true church,” utterly different from every other, literally descended from the apostles, and continually guided by the Holy Spirit. And yet, I began to see more of the religious nominalism, the divorces, the superstitions, the mechanical going through of the motions of a cultural ritual, and widespread ignorance about Jesus and the Bible, even among the clergy (with some exceptions!). I became more aware of the in-fighting between Orthodox jurisdictions, both at home and abroad. I saw the criticisms directed at the Ecumenical Patriarch, as well as towards the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church (suspected of still being infiltrated by leftover KGB agents), and a longing among some Orthodox for unity with Rome. I also encountered highly liberal elements in Orthodoxy, as distasteful as anything I saw in Protestantism.

But most of all, week after week, I heard the priest at that church teach that there is no faith without goodness, no heaven without holiness, and no salvation without the effort to be good. It took over a year of hearing his preaching before it finally sunk in— “He’s teaching salvation by works!”

I know what you’re thinking. “What did you expect, Shawn? Of course, they believe that!”

I know, I know, except I had already asked several Orthodox priests and laypeople about salvation by works, and the answer was unanimous—they all denied it! “We’re not like Roman Catholics,” they insisted. “That’s an error that developed in the West,” they explained. “It’s all by grace. You can’t earn it!” They were absolutely consistent.

And yet, the priest in this church kept saying our salvation depended on doing and being good. And each week, going to church felt more and more oppressive.

Why did it take a year for his message to sink in?

Well, I’m not the smartest person there is. So there’s that problem.

But more than that, in my defense, three things made it more difficult to catch on.

First, the priest never preached a whole sermon explicitly affirming works salvation. I was forming my opinion based on the cumulative meaning of little exhortations, explanations, and warnings that were said along the way. I was putting the pieces together over many homilies.

Second, preachers should tell Christians they ought to live out their faith and be holy. A preacher should teach about good works in the context of spiritual growth. But it’s not always clear when someone is saying you need works to experience sanctification salvation (called theosis in Orthodoxy), as opposed to saying you must do works to be saved at all.

And third, when you’re dealing with a preacher without much formal theological education (as often happens in Orthodoxy), you learn not to expect precise statements. You expect people to say contradictory or unclear things, so you give them the benefit of the doubt.

I began to ask the priest whether he believed in salvation by works, and he denied it. (If you were to ask him today, he would still deny it.) But I wasn’t convinced. I quoted his sermons to him, and he said I misunderstood. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but the more sermons I heard, and the more we debated, the more convinced I became that he believed in hard-core works salvation without recognizing what he was saying.

I felt confused. Even betrayed. What had gone wrong? How could I have made such a serious mistake as to join the Orthodox Church if they were committed to works salvation? I know I’m dumb, but how could I be that dumb?

Then I came across an Orthodox blog that tried to reconcile the apparent contradiction between Paul and James over faith and works by distinguishing between different kinds of salvation by works. The author explained that the Orthodox Church denies that we are saved (1) by obeying the law of Moses; (2) by works done apart from faith; (3) by relying upon our works instead of Christ for salvation; and (4) by our good deeds outweighing our bad deeds. However, the author explained, as James taught, faith without works is dead, so you need some obedience to be saved, but that does not count as works salvation.

When I read that, it finally clicked and I understood what happened.

When I asked all those Orthodox people if they believed in salvation by works, they honestly denied it. They weren’t lying to me or trying to trick me. The problem was that there’s more than one version of works salvation. That error can take dozens of different forms, and it’s entirely possible for someone to deny one form of it (e.g., salvation by following Moses) while accepting another (e.g., we’re saved by a faith that works). And it's very possible for them to not even realize that what they’re teaching also counts as works salvation.

And that was the big lesson I learned from being in Orthodoxy: Just because someone loudly rejects one kind of salvation by works doesn’t guarantee that he believes in sola fide.

We met with our priest for one long, last, and stressful meeting, and Abby and I left the Orthodox Church for good. Works salvation was a deal breaker.

Were my years in Orthodoxy a waste? From my perspective, yes. God might know better, but I feel like I lost several years when I could have been serving Jesus in a more overt way. However, through that experience, I came to believe all the more in the danger of legalism and in the importance of clearly and repeatedly proclaiming that salvation truly is by grace, through faith, and totally apart from our works (Eph 2:8-9).

I still read Orthodox and Patristic authors. But now I have a better understanding of what the earliest church was like. I realize that being able to trace your worship to the 5th century is not the same as tracing it to the 1st. I’ve learned more about how traditions and beliefs changed over time, especially after Constantine. And I’m much more skeptical about claims of Holy Spirit-inspired “doctrinal development.”

However, I still wrestle with many of the questions that led me to Orthodoxy. For example, I don’t understand why the Holy Spirit would let the churches depart from the gospel so widely and so soon after the apostles (of course, that was already happening in Paul’s day in Galatia). I’m not proud that most Evangelicals, even PhD graduates of Evangelical seminaries, are basically ignorant of church history (is it because ignorance is bliss?). I recognize that many modern Evangelical church practices are no more Biblical than Orthodox ones. And I’m uncomfortable knowing that I’m in the extreme minority when it comes to believing in both sola fide and eternal security. And yet, Jesus and the apostles taught those doctrines, and I can’t depart from them. Jesus, not history, is the measure of true orthodoxy.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


2 comments on “The Biggest Lesson I Learned from the Orthodox Church”

  1. Hmm.An interesting journey.
    I would comment as follows:
    His unseen hand has guided you to where you are today ie free grace.
    My sheep hear my voice and I know them. You have heard the gospel and believed. l know them - the Sheppard will make sure you get the message. Think of the woman at the well. John said Jesus must needs go through Samaria.He had a date fixed before the foundation of the world.
    In summary election and free will are both taught in the new testament and we should not downplay one at the expense of the other.

  2. His Shawn,

    What an fascinating testimony of your journey within the Eastern Orthodox church. Thank you for sharing. Learned a few things for sure. I do admire and commend you for having such a teachable spirit and also for your open-mindedness to learn God's truths. Your vigorous search for new vistas to learn those truths is inspiring. It looks like you've come to a place where God has honored your diligent seeking. I believe that He has brought you there (in the FG family). Not that you've found all the answers you're looking for because that's something that will not be a reality in this life. However, we know that it will continue to be a journey of discovery through all of eternity when we're in God's presence, continuing to learn at Jesus' feet.

    Now as to why the Holy Spirit would allow the church to such a drastic departure and deviation from Jesus' and the apostle's teaching on the gospel of salvation within the 1st century? Here's my humble two cents take on it. Two reasons, 1) Man was not created (and saved) as an automaton. He has been given latitude by God to make choices on what paths he takes. Many took the wrong path and many still continue to do so today. 2) There exist (then and now), very strong opposition to the gospel from the enemy who is the god of this age. He distorts the truths of the gospel of salvation and blind man's eyes to it. Unfortunately many are swayed and buy in to his lies.

    Nevertheless, it is also a reality that there will always be a minority who would not depart from what the Lord Jesus and the apostles taught about eternal salvation. You hit on that point and I believe that is the key- standing firm and not departing from the truth. As you very well know, exhortations on not departing from God's truths and abiding in it is a common theme in Scripture.

    You and I and a small number of people who believe in the freeness of God's grace in salvation and its eternality, are living proof of that minority that has not departed. I too feel that uncomfortableness that you experience of being in that minority. But at the end of the day, I know I'm in good company. After all, the Lord Jesus Himself and John, Paul, Peter, James and the rest in that group (and many in the history of the church) were all in the minority as well.

    Thanks for your ministry Shawn. Keep on seeking for the answers, God will supply them!

    I continue to pray for you, Lucas, Kristah and the FGI family. I appreciate you all!

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