Yesterday, I interviewed a former Southern Baptist who has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Today I am interviewing a former Eastern Orthodox believer who has become Baptist. Tomorrow, 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.
John’s Story: Why I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for Evangelicalism
John is a Romanian man in his late fifties who is no stranger to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was born into a family of Orthodox Christians, in a society where church and state often mix in unhealthy ways. Romanian Orthodoxy is the state religion, meaning that almost everyone born in Romania is already considered a member of the Orthodox church, regardless of devotion or belief.
John’s grandparents were faithful leaders in the Orthodox church. The Orthodox priest was one of the most important people in the village in which John grew up. John’s family was considered “devout” and “religious” by the priest and the rest of the community. Though the church building was just four houses down the street from his, John rarely attended. “I usually went to the midnight Easter vigil,” he recalls. “A few days before Easter, I would go confess my sins to the local priest. But this had no effect on me. When I walked out of a church service, I was the same as before.”
John was baptized into the church when he was six weeks old. Later, he and his wife were married in the Orthodox Church. As John tells me about these years, I sense he resents the past. It is clear that he sees his youth as a wasted part of his life, and he is upset that the priest never taught him the truth about God. “The priest never confronted us in our sins,” he says, with a mixture of grief and anger. “I didn’t have a Bible, but no one encouraged me to read one anyway.”
In his early twenties, John became active in the Communist party in Romania. One evening, he was on assignment to visit one of the Baptist churches and to see how many of the “repenters” (as they were derogatorily called) were present. He was also told to ask the Baptists questions about why they were attending churches other than the Orthodox Church. “I had no intention of converting to evangelicalism,” he says. “But when I heard the Word of God preached for the first time, and the concept of repentance and being ‘born again,’ I was touched. I realized that I had never truly repented of my sins. Here I would go to the Orthodox Church, cross myself, kiss an icon one moment and despise God the next. I realized that the Orthodox church was a societal organization that had taught me nothing.” So John decided to “follow Jesus” and turn away from his sinful past.
John’s family reacted harshly. His wife thought he had gone crazy. His parents told him he was bringing shame upon the whole family. The Communist party began to put pressure on him to give up his newfound faith and continue to be involved in their atheistic agenda.
The pressure from all sides to give up his new identity was overwhelming. “I would have caved had I not begun reading the Bible the Baptists had given me,” John says with a smile. “As I began reading Scripture, I understood Jesus to be the only way to God. I realized I did not need the Orthodox church or even a priest to be my mediator, for Jesus was the mediator between me and the Father.”
Though John does not use the term, it is clear from his testimony that he had acquired an unshakable belief in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. “I realized that the Bible was the authority, even over the Church. The Bible was true, and the Church with all its traditions and rituals was wrong.”
“How did you adjust to the different beliefs between the Baptist church and the Orthodox church,” I ask, looking over my list of differing views.
John explains how he quickly left behind former Orthodox doctrines that he had been taught in church. The intercession of the saints and Mary on behalf of Christians on earth was easily rejected. “That isn’t in the Bible,” he says, without further elaboration. Shortly thereafter, he rejected the Orthodox doctrine of infant baptism. “My baptism when I was 6 weeks old was not a true baptism. Scripture teaches that the one who believes is the one who should be baptized.”
John’s view of salvation changed dramatically as well. As he delved into Paul’s epistles, primarily to the Romans and Ephesians, John came to understand salvation as a gift from God through faith alone, not through good deeds. “My understanding had always been that to be saved, you had to do a certain amount of good works. Paul said we are dead in sins. So I began to ask myself, ‘How can a dead person do good works?'”
“Are you saying that the Orthodox Church preaches salvation by good works?” I ask. John nods in agreement. “That’s all I knew anyway.” He acknowledges that Orthodox doctrine might contradict Orthodox practice in some places, but for John, it’s in practice that one shows what is truly believed.
“How did your family get over their condemnation of your newfound faith?” I wonder aloud. John smiles and begins to get visibly excited. He tells me how his family could deny his new beliefs, but none could deny the visible change in his lifestyle. “I stopped getting drunk, stopped smoking, stopped cursing. I began reading my Bible, going to church, praying. I had been born again,” he says. Within months, his wife, parents, and even his 80-year-old grandmother who had been a mainstay of the village Orthodox church, had all converted, as a direct result of his testimony.
“How sure are you that you made the right decision?” I ask.
“I am totally sure, based on the authority of God’s Word alone,” he replies firmly, again appealing to the sola scriptura principle.
“What would you say if someone were to convert from evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy?” I challenge. John is visibly taken aback by the question. His response comes quickly. “In all my years, I’ve never heard of such a thing.” I begin to explain what it is like in other countries, where Eastern Orthodoxy is a minority and the evangelical tradition dominates. John admits he cannot conceive of Orthodoxy as a minority; neither can he come up with a reason why one would leave a “life-giving relationship with God for a ‘dead’ church.”
“But can there be true believers who decide to remain within the Orthodox church?” I ask, pointing to the Romanian renewal movement “Army of God” within the Orthodox Church that emphasized many of the same doctrines as evangelicalism. John shakes his head, sadly but firmly. “An Orthodox Christian that is truly born again would realize that the church is wrong and would turn to evangelicalism.” For John, coming to Christ and joining an evangelical church are two sides of the same coin.
Ironically, the very assumption John despises in the Orthodox Church (that there is no salvation outside the Orthodox Church) is the same assumption he has made regarding evangelicalism. “The Baptist church is the true Church that is following the teachings of Jesus and the apostles,” he affirms, though admitting the presence of believers in Pentecostal, Brethren, and other evangelical denominations.
“Do you seek to convert your Orthodox family and friends?” I ask, already somewhat expectant of what his answer will be.
“I have pleaded for the past thirty years with my Orthodox friends to come to Christ and know Him personally,” John says, with tears in his eyes. “My Orthodox friends confess Christ with their mouths, but they do not know Him in their hearts. I try to convert people, because I believe the Orthodox Church is wrong and is leading people astray.”
“What about pious Orthodox Christians? Those who do not live sinful lives? Those who remain faithful to the church and who trust in Christ for salvation?” I press him further.
“Religiosity does not mean salvation,” he replies. “People can be sincere and still be sincerely wrong. The Orthodox Church feeds on tradition, not on Scripture. If Orthodox believers would read Scripture without it being interpreted for them by the Church, they would discover the truth,” he adds.
John’s reliance on Scripture is evident. All throughout the interview, John has been backing up his statements with verses he has committed to memory. He rarely gives me an answer without a Scriptural reference or justification.
I thank John for his time, and then ask him to sum up the biggest difference between Orthodox Christians and Baptists. He pauses for a moment, looks at me intently, and says, “Baptists preach that ‘You must be born again.'”