Reconsidering The Meaning Of Conversion

 

The latest issue of Christianity Today has an essay by Sam Torode, entitled It’s All About Jesus: A Convert to Orthodoxy Reconsiders Evangelicalism."

I should begin by saying that I am sure that Sam Torode means well, and is sincerely trying to grapple with the
Orthodox Faith and Ortho-praxis – so I don’t wish anything I am going to say as a criticism of him personally. However, given that his article was published in Christianity Today, there are a number of things he has stated that need a response.

Christianity Today, despite it’s rather broadly sounding title is an Evangelical magazine that only takes minimal note of what it going on in non-Evangelical Christianity. For example, when there was an article on how Christians in Serbia were dealing with the US bombing of their country, the article focused on the less than 1% of Serbians who are Protestants rather than on the much larger percentage of Serbians who are Orthodox. When they do talk about the Orthodox, they like to find Orthodox writers who affirm Evangelicalism, and take shots at Orthodoxy (which is why you often see articles by “
Orthodox expert” Bradley Nassif, for example).

I have been a subscriber to Christianity today for nearly 20 years, and I maintained my subscription after I converted to Orthodoxy because I wanted to keep up with what is going on in the Evangelical world, and also because I wanted to know what Evangelicals are saying about the Orthodox.

In this particular essay we have a convert to Orthodoxy who is reconsidering his previous Evangelicalism. The first question I had when reading this article was how long Sam Torode has been Orthodox? The article gives no indication, but after poking around on the internet, I was able to discover that
he and his wife converted to Orthodox in June of 2003… which means, given when I received the issue his article appeared in (which was mid-July, 2005), he probably had not been Orthodox a full two years before this article was written. I converted to Orthodoxy about 15 years ago.

In the early Church one generally had to be a catechumen for 3 years before they were baptized and admitted to communion. The reason for this is that it takes time to develop
an Orthodox Christian world view. It is even more difficult for someone coming from a heterodox background to develop an Orthodox Christian world view. I go into great detail as to why this is in a talk I gave entitled "Renewing the Mind: Acquiring an Orthodox outlook", and so rather than duplicate what I said there, I will refer the reader to that text, but in short, because Protestantism shares much of the same terminology as the Orthodoxy, but with slightly different meaning, Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy have to work harder than a convert from paganism would have to work to ensure that what they think they know about the faith is really Orthodox.

A similar phenonomen occurs when someone studies one style of Martial arts and then begins to study a very different style. A person off the street is more likely to learn the techniques of the new style the way that they are supposed to be done than someone who has a black belt in a different style, because they not only have to learn new things, they have to learn to not do them the way that they have already had drilled into their head.

Unfortunately, many converts to Orthodoxy are not told this, and so fail to grasp the need for them to approach Orthodoxy differently than they approached their former Protestantism. The results are often people who have only half converted to Orthodoxy, but think they already know what Orthodoxy is all about.

Not only does one need to understand the need for a change in world view, but one needs to allow the time for that change to occur. When I was a Protestant, I was an associate pastor, and was used to teaching and preaching to others about the faith. When I converted to Orthodoxy, I had to take the time to stop teaching others, and learn things I didn’t know… and unlearn things I thought I knew that were either completely wrong, or partly wrong. My priest made clear to me that this was a process that would take time, and so I had to get used being a “white-belt” again. The only subject that I felt competent to speak or write on at that time was why I became Orthodox… and even then, I would submit what I wrote to review by more deeply rooted Orthodox Christians than I. I didn’t so much as attempt to teach a children’s Sunday school class until I had been Orthodox for three years.

Now to some specific issues raised by Sam Torode in this essay:

1) Fasting and legalism:

Sam writes: “Faced with all this fasting, it’s easy to get obsessive. We joined a parish of mostly ex-Protestants who, like us, were eager to be good Orthodox. We looked down on those “ethnic Orthodox” who still eat their gyros and feta cheese during Lent. During church fellowship times, our conversations often centered on fasting…”

I don’t doubt that this was Sam Torode’s experience, but this is not the norm in the Orthodox Church. In my experience, it is only very recent converts who spend much of their time chatting about fasting. It doesn’t make for particularly engaging conversation, if done with any regularity. It is also true that it is a temptation for converts to look down on “cradle Orthodox” who are less fervent. However, this is a temptation that a parish priest should be actively fighting against if he wishes his converts to develop a healthy spirituality. First of all, judging others is something that the Scriptures and the Fathers focus on as a serious spiritual problem that one has to overcome.
Secondly, converts have much to learn from their “cradle Orthodox” brethren… even the less pious ones can often teach you things you wouldn’t learn from other converts. But obviously, one wants to emulate those cradle Orthodox that do manage to abstain from their feta cheese and gyros during lent.

One of the most beneficial (and trying) things my wife and I did after we converted was to move to an area where we joined a very Russian parish. It was difficult dealing with the language, and the cultural issues that we were confronted with, but we learned a great deal, and met some very pious people who had a great impact on us. For example, the choir director at this parish was a lady who was a Russian born in Harbin, China (which is where many Russians fled after the communists took over Russia), where she was raised in a very pious Russian exile community that came very close to re-creating the best features of pre-revolutionary Russian culture – until they again had to flee when the Communists took over China. She also worked in the administrative offices of
St. John of Shanghai, and so got to know a man who was an extraordinary saint. She was also very well educated, and spoke several languages fluently, including English (fortunately for us).

Just to give a small example of what it was like to be around her in that parish, I was singing with her at the kleros on the feast of the Dormition. Most of the hymns we were singing were in Slavonic… which was of course a challenge for me. At one point we sang a hymn in which I put the emphasis on the wrong words, and when she had the chance she did an on-the-fly translation of the hymn into English (which I knew was accurate, because I had the English text where I could see it), and she explained the meaning of that hymn in such pious terms that I was deeply moved – her point was to explain why certain words needed to be emphasized, but I was struck by the evident depth of her love for God and the beauty and theology of the services. She didn’t eat cheese on fasts days either, even though her health and age has long exempted her from an obligation to fast.

Mr. Torode also mentioned the tradition of married couples abstaining from sex during the fasts. He writes: “Married couples are encouraged to take [fasting] a step further, by abstaining from intercourse on these same fast days. That’s not something Orthodox apologists like to broadcast….”

One thing that I discovered when I became Orthodox was that there were many things in Scripture that I never realized where there, even though I had read them over and over again. This is something that perhaps has not yet revealed itself to Sam Torode, but this tradition is entirely based on Scripture – see
1st Corinthians 7:4-5. This is not something that is “broadcasted” because it is only done by mutual consent, and is a matter for the couple to discuss with each other and their spiritual fathers.

Sam Torode: “One Sunday, a friend in the church confided to my wife, “Sometimes, I forget it’s all about Jesus.” That’s when it hit us – we’d forgotten that it’s all about Jesus, too. Most of the time, instead of overflowing with God’s love, I was just ticked off about not being able to eat a burger.”

Fasting is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. This is clearly brought home each year in the Sundays of preparation for great lent. Most notably on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.


Fasting is something that the New Testament speaks about on a regular basis, however – though Protestants generally fail to even occasionally mention it. Coming from a Wesleyan background, I had some exposure to fasting. In fact, when I was a sophomore in High School, I began fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays because I had read that this was the practice of John Wesley… because the “early Church” fasted on these days. And in fact, this tradition is spoken of in
the Didache, which is considered by many scholars to be the oldest Christian text outside of the New Testament canon.

Yes, fasting can be misunderstood. It can become an end rather than a means to an end… but so can studying the Bible.

For more on fasting, see
this excerpt from the Lenten Triodion on the meaning and history of fasting.

2) How we should view Evangelicals:

Sam Torode writes near the end of his essay: “Instead of “evangelizing” my evangelical friends, I now hope to learn from them. Discussing differences is worthwhile, but it’s more important to encourage each other as we grow in Christ.” Sam sees this as being a question of “humility” rather than of truth.

This reflects a serious misunderstanding of what it means to be Orthodox… as well as what it means to be heterodox. Being Orthodox does not mean that we are better than anyone else. I have known many pious Protestants who I am sure will have an easier time of it on the day of judgment than I will. Being Orthodox gives us a greater responsibility because we have the fullness of the truth and all the grace that is only available through the Church. To whom much is given, much is required.

We do not judge Protestants, because that is a matter for God. However, we do have an obligation to speak the truth in love to those who are not Orthodox.

We can learn a lot from Protestants. Here’s something I learned from one years ago. I was in a discussion between several college students and a Nazarene Missionary to Korea. We had just heard a lecture that spoke of the light and grace that God has made available to those who have never heard the Gospel. One student asked why we would bother sending missionaries to non-Christian countries, because they have their own culture, and if they hear the Gospel that will only increase their responsibility on the day of judgment. Why not just leave them be, and let them be judged based on the light that they already have? The Missionary responded roughly thus: “You tell me that people can be saved without hearing the Gospel, and I accept that as a possibility… and likewise I can believe that a man might be able to sail a kayak across the Pacific Ocean… but if I am in an Ocean liner, I am going to encourage the guy in the kayak to get on board the Ocean liner.

Likewise, I personally am convinced that many Protestants will be saved, but I know that the boats that they have crafted for themselves are not as sure as the Ark of Salvation that is the Church. And so, it is not due to a lack of humility that I encourage them to get on board the Ark… because I didn’t build the Ark, and have nothing to boast about it in any case. I entered the Ark the same way that I am now encouraging my Protestant friends to enter. It would only be due to a supreme lack of love and gratitude to God that I would fail to do so.

For more on this issue see
"The Non-Orthodox", by Patrick Barnes, and "Will the Heterodox Be Saved?" by Metropolitan Philaret.