The Journey So Far (Part 1)

Why Orthodoxy?

Friends, family and spiritual mentors (also friends) will be puzzled and alarmed when I tell them of my examination of Orthodoxy and will ask (and some who know of my struggle have already asked) “Why Orthodoxy?”

The introduction to Orthodoxy came through my older brother and his wife. Some may think that I always give too much credence to my brother’s opinion on absolutely everything, but that is simply not true. When he/they went to the Lutheran denomination, and from there increasingly more and more obscure forms of Lutheranism that tried to get back to the root…I felt not the slightest temptation, not the least interest. I honor my brother in his search for truth, but I did not and could not follow him there. So why Orthodoxy, you ask? Surely Orthodoxy is even stranger, even more obscure, even more odd, and their claims even further from my very strict Protestant roots.

The Brethren

I was a very rebellious Plymouth Brethren, not outwardly, but inwardly. My questions were dismissed; I was stifled and tried desperately to submit to a teaching with which I did not agree in many aspects, and with a church whose practice was and is offensive to me in the way mercy is withheld from each other. Among the Brethren, behavior is strictly monitored, not outwardly, but it is the not- too-hidden secret of the Brethren that holiness is defined by meeting very narrow lifestyles, personality characteristics and behaviors. They also hold to some beliefs and practices I find…well…opinions, not necessarily truth.

They do not permit the display of the cross. Why, you ask? My understanding is that they have an aversion to the display of the cross as it was surpassed by the resurrection. Each time I have come across this peculiarity, I hear the verse in my head, “the preaching of the cross is foolishness to them who perish, but to those who believe it is the power of God.” Or how about this one: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross…”

Women are not permitted to speak–at all. I mean, not to request a certain hymn, or even to proffer a prayer request. Women must wear head coverings, even though the verse says, when she prays or prophesies, and for sure women are not going to pray or prophesy in a PB church. Brethren assemblies are closed, or variations on closed, not in the way that Orthodox or Catholics are closed, in that they withhold communion from those who have not been baptized or chrismated into the church. Some brethren assemblies are so closed you have to be invited to attend. Some make you sit in the foyer or lobby during service if you are not “accepted” (I’ll address that soon.) Some merely make you refrain from communion, although for some (considered liberal or “bad”) they allow it as a matter of conscience.

The manner in which you become “Accepted into Fellowship” is a secretive thing. I attended a Brethren assembly for years, until marrying and moving away, but was never “accepted”. I returned when we moved back several years later, and was never “accepted”. No one told me what I must do to become accepted or even admitted to me there was this special group. When you aren’t part of the group, no matter who thinks otherwise, you know it. Trust me on this one. Toward the end of my time with the Brethren, I came across a strange list while doing some work at the church. I puzzled over the names on the list—who was and was not included—and what the notations meant. Suddenly I became aware that this was IT, this was the list. This was the list of those who were “accepted.” I was right. I was not on this list. How to get on that list remained a mystery, something that irritated and bothered me then as it does now. How one joins a group should not be a great mystery. It wasn’t until I left the Brethren seven years ago that I learned the secret, at which point I no longer cared.

My faith, my world-view, my education, my politics, my science and my family were all influenced heavily by the Brethren. My beliefs about the way the church should operate were formed in large part by the Brethren. Fortunately I had other influences as well. Being an outsider in a group to which you wish to belong cannot help but influence you. Reading the Bible for myself influenced the questions I had. My own experience of God together with Scripture led me to ask questions the Brethren did not want to address. As far as they were concerned the matters were settled. Finished. Done. You were not to wrestle with these issues on your own or you were considered rebellious or ungodly. Smarter and wiser men had settled these matters and you should simple accept it blindly.

Having said all that, and leaving much out that would speak even less kindly of the Brethren, I want to say that I love the Brethren. I don’t like some of what they do, and I may disagree with them on many things, but I love them. Some things they have done, both to me and to others, breaks my heart, but I love them; so many of them are the dearest of Christens…the most precious of friends.

Leaving the Brethren

I left the Brethren the year I turned 40, which may be considered by some to be a mid-life crisis event, but in truth, I had escaped the Brethren several times, simply by moving away. I was unwilling to subject myself to the scrutiny of yet another Brethren assembly in a new location. The Brethren claim they are all independent, and in matters of finances and legal structure, they certainly are, but they have other ties that are amazingly tight. Letters of introduction follow you from place to place, and I have been told that the wording of these letters, despite sounding outwardly friendly, warm and complementary, contain messages that those in the know decipher easily, allowing one group to tell the next that this one is trouble, that one is not fully trusted…whatever. In this way, a person can never escape whatever the first group of elders thinks. If a group decides that your questions are rebellion, that your life isn’t pretty enough for them, if you don’t pretend to be sweeter than you are, kinder than you are, if you hang out with the wrong people, if you are not horrified by things/people that horrify them, if you feel called to ministries that they don’t wish to be involved in, or if your children have struggles (and they find out about it) well, their disapproval of you will follow you and you cannot live it down. And, heaven help you if you’ve struggled or fallen, you will never be allowed to outlive your worst moment.

The Non-denoms

There are other stories to tell, but suffice it to say that I’m so over the various denominations with varying degrees of legalism (and the false reasoning behind it), with those who believe that their politics are the divinely inspired (I used to be one of them, I do know this one.) I am not impressed by high church that looks down on the jeans and t-shirt crowd, nor am I thrilled with those who think either their poverty or their wealth is godly. I’m sick of phony, I’m sick of being expected to be phony. I happily reached the non-denoms. I want to be with folks who study scripture, who follow after God with their whole hearts and who don’t forget the loving charity toward fellow mankind. I don’t want to be where the homeless are reviled as if they have character flaws and deserve their plight (and thus are undeserving of our time, attention and charity) rather than people made in the image and likeness of God.
I long to see a charitable people, who are humble enough to love and help those who do not deserve it, as surely as I do not deserve the gracious mercy I have been given. I long to BE that person and strive toward that. I found plenty of humble among the non-denoms. I have wondered though whether we haven’t thrown away some of the best of the church along with the legalism. We have cast aside a sense of church history, thrown away solemnity, of occasion as it were. Easter is celebrated, now not even with an entire service. (Really? A single hour? An hour and a half? Is that too much to ask?) Now Easter, the very celebration of the resurrection of the Lamb of God, is fit into a service with some kind of series tie-in to the Struggles of Modern Society or something like that. I find myself hungry for more, longing for more.

Enter Orthodoxy

While I have been hungering for more and struggling to create some of the traditions of the church in my own life, my brother became Orthodox. !!!!! This is no small matter. The Orthodox don’t believe in the Rapture, they don’t believe in eternal, once-saved-always-saved, they kiss paintings, they have recreated the altar and a representation of the Holy of Holies in their churches, they act like Catholics, with their incense and confession, priests in robes…AND THEY CHANT. Uggg. They make claims that are outrageous! They claim to be the one, holy, apostolic church, with unbroken line of leaders and authority from the first Apostles. They use the Apocrypha. Did I mention the chanting? The art and style of churches, music, and décor is from the Byzantine period. Why? I don’t get it.
Orthodoxy was not introduced to me in a way that was attractive—in fact, I never even gave it much of a thought, except for being puzzled that my brother had gone this route. So why do I find myself thinking on it, studying it, considering its claims, troubled by it, both drawn and repelled by it? Ah, I’ll get to that.

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4 thoughts on “The Journey So Far (Part 1)

  1. I, like you, have some fond memories about certain people in the Plymouth Brethren movement; people who were more concerned with your spiritual welfare than with your outward appearance. But you are right; for most it was about maintaining an outward appearance of holiness. But this is not unique to the Plymouth Brethren, but is a natural response to the doctrine of election, as defined by John Calvin. You see, the elect are those whose names are written in the God’s book of life; you have to constantly prove to yourself and others that you are one of the elect. Sure you made a profession of faith, but was it enough? “By their fruits ye shall know them”, and so you are always trying to give evidence of a fruitful life. This is the source of the famous Protestant work ethic—the idea that prosperity is a sign of God’s favor. For most Protestants this is not formal dogma, but an informal cultural imperative.

    For me, the Protestant milieu ranged from overly emotional to severely intellectual. I was constantly chasing the next “mountaintop high” while being mired in the “slough of despond”. Could I really be one of the elect if I was so miserable? Where was this “peace that passeth understanding”, and if I wasn’t at peace, was I really one of the elect? So I tried to smile bigger, sing louder, learn more, and behave better. I can’t tell you how many altar calls I responded to, how many times I rededicated my life to Christ.

    It’s sad, but one of the biggest problems I had was in learning to pray.I say it’s sad, because Jesus taught his disciple’s to pray, but as a Protestant I was told that although we used that prayer as a model, we didn’t actually pray that exact prayer. We had other examples of prayers, such as Mary’s Magnificat, but we never prayed that one, or used it as an example. (That would have been letting a woman teach us.) Instead, we prayed “we just” prayers: Lord, we just want to thank you, praise you, ask you, etc.

    Being Lutheran was so different from that. It was formal, structured, and I didn’t have to ride an emotional roller coaster. It had an appreciation of beauty that was missing in the Protestant world; the service was beautiful, the hymns were beautiful, the churches were beautiful, the cycle of services was beautiful. It was not beauty meant to evoke an emotional response in me, but rather beauty because God is beautiful, and his house and his worship should reflect that beauty. Lutheranism is also highly intellectual; it has its own formal confession of faith, its own history, its own jargon. It’s intoxicating. But eventually, I found that not to be enough. Although the Lutheran church claims to be the true expression of the one, holy, and apostolic church, it appeared disconnected from anything that happened prior to 1517.

    I eventually found my way to the ancient church fathers, and found an expression of Christianity that was foreign to anything I’d yet been exposed to. This presented a great difficulty; either I and the church I belonged to was wrong, or the ancient church was wrong. The answer I’d been given as a Protestant—that the primitive church apostatized immediately following the apostolic era—didn’t make sense, either. Jesus says the gates of hell would never prevail against the church, and here we were arguing exactly the opposite. In fact, I remember hearing about the so-called “trail of blood”, which claimed to show that their had always been a righteous remnant throughout history, and that we were its true heirs. But this “trail of blood” turns out to have been through the ranks of heretics, with only certain individual doctrines plucked out of context and used to support an untenable thesis.

    So what was I to do? I either had to stay where I was, knowing that it wasn’t a faithful expression of the apostolic faith, or I had to become Orthodox, which seemed entirely alien to any system of faith and practice I’d been exposed to. And so I chose Orthodoxy.

    This was a terrible struggle, and a difficult decision. And I must say that although I’ve found the fullness of the faith, everything is not perfect. The Orthodox world can be complex, especially in America, where it appears to be a loosely linked grouping of ethnic churches. And Orthodox people are like everyone else, meaning they can make you angry, they can disappoint, and they can wound you. But I don’t go to church to meet with perfect people; I go to church because I am not perfect, but because I am being perfected (by the grace and with the help of God). And I go to church because it is there God comes to meet with me, in the same manner as God said about the tabernacle: There I will meet you (Ex 25:22), and there I will be your God (Ex 29:43-45). It is there that His body becomes bread indeed, and his blood becomes drink indeed; it is there I partake of the medicine of immortality, for the healing of soul and body. And I need so much healing; I have so much to repent for, and so much to be forgiven. Thanks be to God.

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    • Thanks. I’m working on the next one. This is harder than I thought it would be. It’s very difficult to write about allowing yourself to consider the unthinkable, to figure out why those things are unthinkable. It isn’t enough to examine the claims, you also have to face the resistance inside yourself and what that is about. You have to figure out what this thing is you fear. If it’s merely robes and incense and chanting, well those aren’t substance, but the issues I struggle with are deeper than that, and I can’t do this lightly. I can’t turn away from it lightly either, for if the claims are true, then I would be turning from the church in fullness to something less than, and that would be worse than a tragedy.

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  2. There’s an audio podcast in which an Orthodox priest briefly talks about the Brethren. It’s possible you might be interested in this talk.

    Scroll down to: “Dec 01, 2009 The Radical Reformation – Part 2”

    “In this episode, Fr. Andrew talks about the subsequent denominations that formed after the radical reformation including Mennonites, Amish, Baptists, Brethren, and the Churches of Christ.”

    http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/orthodoxyheterodoxy

    I have to admit: I don’t remember what it’s about. But there might be something there worth listening.

    Bless you!

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