Why do we see a growing number of evangelicals in the West converting to Eastern Orthodoxy (Francis Schaeffer’s son, for example)? Why do we see a mirror image overseas in predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries, where more and more convert to evangelical Christianity? Today I am interviewing a former Southern Baptist who has converted to Orthodoxy. Tomorrow I will be interviewing a former Eastern Orthodox believer who has become Baptist. On Friday, we will look at the parallels between the two accounts and hopefully better understand these two traditions, and why people are converting from one to the other.
Theron’s Story: Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy
Theron Mathis is an unassuming, soft-spoken man in his thirties with a winsome manner and a pleasant smile. His story begins in the buckle of the Bible belt. Both he and his wife grew up in a conservative Baptist churches, his wife’s being Landmarkist in theology (meaning it holds the belief that the Baptist Church is the only true church.) He attended college at Liberty University, a hub for Christianity that leans right both theologically and politically. He attended two Southern Baptist seminaries (Southeastern and Southern) in the late 1990’s, and at one point, felt called to be a Baptist preacher.
“What was the first thing that triggered your attraction to Orthodoxy?” I asked. Theron looks puzzled, as if he’s trying to recall what initially made him curious. After a few moments of silence, he answers: “Church history. Studying the patristics.” Frustrated by constant debates over the meaning of Scripture, Theron decided to look back into church history to see what the church looked like in the early centuries. As he read the church fathers, he realized, “the church back then looked different than the Baptist church I grew up in.” From there, Theron began wondering if that early church he saw in the fathers’ writings still existed anywhere.
Eventually, one central issue brought him to the doorstep of the Eastern Orthodox church. “The issue of authority,” he explains. “I felt I was flying by the seat of my pants as a Christian. I would read Scripture and come to conclusions myself. At some point, I felt I had to submit myself to some authority outside of myself.”
The issue of authority led Theron to question the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. “I felt like with sola scriptura, I was the authority.” Shortly thereafter, Theron came to see sola scriptura as deficient. “Once I reached that point, it was a fast track. That’s the house of cards. At that point, I had to find another authority.”
“Why Eastern Orthodoxy and not Catholicism?” I ask, wondering why he would choose the Orthodox church as his authority and not the Roman Catholic church. Theron tells me he couldn’t swallow the whole “pope thing,” especially papal infallibility. Nor could he stomach the arrogance of the Roman Catholic church in adjusting the Nicene Creed without the consent of the Eastern church. “The typical Orthodox apologetics,” he grins.
With the Eastern Orthodox Church as his new authority, Theron began accepting doctrines foreign to his Baptist background. “How hard was it to accept these doctrines?” I ask, beginning to read a list.
Praying to saints? Easier than expected, once he understood the Orthodox view of the saints interceding for us much like our friends on earth lift us up in prayer.
Mary? “A little tougher, because the phraseology in the liturgy sometimes made me think they were seeing her as something more than a simple intercessor. But I’ve been able reconcile that over time.”
Icons? Not tough at all. They are aids to worship, not items to be worshipped, yet Theron admits that there may possibly be misconceptions among Orthodox laypeople, especially outside the U.S.
The Eucharist becoming the actual body and blood of Christ? “That was pretty easy. Even apart from the Church, you could come to that conclusion from Scripture.”
Infant baptism was the biggest hurdle for Theron, due to his Baptist background and family traditions. In the end, he sees the Orthodox view as not too far from the covenantal view of some Reformed traditions. “The child is becoming a part of the church.”
But what about the most important doctrine – justification by faith? “If you ask an Orthodox person, everyone will say we are saved by grace,” he says categorically.
“But by grace alone?” I probe deeper.
“Yes, by grace alone. But we wouldn’t say through faith alone if we are defining faith as mere belief.” Theron recoils from the easy-believism of his early Baptist experience. “You prayed a prayer. Just the assent to belief gave you your ticket.” Theron compares his Orthodox doctrine with the evangelical belief of “lordship salvation.” He admits that the categories are different. The Orthodox do not see salvation in forensic, legal categories, but in medical terms.
Theron’s conversion to Orthodoxy was a struggle. His parents and in-laws were grieved by the family’s decision. He lost friends from seminary. But for Theron and his wife, there was no turning back. “I had embraced Orthodoxy,” he said.
“How do you view Baptists now?” I ask. “Are Baptists saved?”
Ironically, though Theron thought the Landmarkist position of his Baptist church laughable, he answers with a similar view regarding Orthodoxy. “We definitely consider ourselves the True church. We believe in apostolic succession.” He clarifies, “We believe there is salvation outside of the Eastern Orthodox church, but we have the fullness of the revelation.”
“How sure are you that you’ve made the right decision?” I ask.
Theron reponds quickly, “I would never turn back. I’m 100% sure, and the longer I’m Orthodox, the more certain I am about it.”
“But what about those who convert the other way?” I reply. “Orthodox becoming Baptists?”
Theron shrugs and looks surprised, “I think they didn’t have a good understanding of Orthodoxy.”
I begin sharing stories of Orthodox priests I knew in Romania who would threaten the children attending evangelical AWANA clubs, even vowing to “cut off their fingers.” When I ask his opinion regarding this persecution of Baptists, he looks surprised and calls the priests’ actions “exaggerated.” He refuses to condone such behavior, but at the same time, he sympathizes with their need to “defend” the faith. “They probably view Baptists like you and I would view Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. These are people coming to their country and ‘destroying the faith,’ so they will do anything possible to defend it. I can see where that mindset comes from.”
Though Theron is a convinced Orthodox believer, he does not try to convert his Baptist friends. He presents Eastern Orthodoxy and leaves it at that. But he does seek to convert nominal Christians or those who are not Christian at all.
“Though your liturgy is beautiful, isn’t it pretty much inaccessible to non-Christians?” I ask, wondering what it would be like for an unchurched person to enter an Eastern Orthodox church for the first time. Definitely not seeker sensitive. Theron questions my presupposition. “Who says the worship of the church is to be evangelistic?” He then points to early church history. “They wouldn’t let unbelievers in the worship service, or if they did, they asked them to leave mid-way through (before the Eucharist).”
Theron admits that the Orthodox church doesn’t reach as many unchurched people as they should, but then adds, ” I don’t know if any church in America does a great job reaching totally unchurched people.”
Why would an evangelical convert to Eastern Orthodoxy? Theron has two answers. The first is stability. “Within the evangelical world, you’re always looking for the new thing, you’re always reinventing the wheel. A lot of people are ready to get off that. So stability is a huge attraction for evangelicals who convert.”
The second reason is spirituality. “That’s what keeps me there. The church life throughout the year,” he says.
Our time is coming to an end. The biggest difference between Southern Baptists and Eastern Orthodox is the view of salvation. Theron admits that many laypeople in the Orthodox church believe that salvation is by good works. So, I press him again.
“Is salvation based on Christ’s work alone?”
Theron answers, “Oh yes! Without Christ, it’s impossible. He’s the one who opened the door!”
“But is there any other ground? Can I be accepted by God because of Christ and something I did?” I press further.
“Works are an expression of faith,” replies Theron. “The act of works is the act of putting on Christ. They’re opening yourself up so that God’s grace can transform you more into Christlikeness.”
Sensing we’re talking past one another, I put it another way, “When it comes down to it… when you’re looking to your justification before God and your acceptance before Him, does it eventually boil down to this: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’?”
“Yes,” says Theron. “Absolutely.”