I have recorded my peregrine spiritual journey elsewhere (see also here and here), so I will not attempt to recreate yet another account of my Orthodox journey. Rather, I want to simply speak to some of the things that Orthodoxy means to me, who am still as yet just outside the doors. I’ve expressed these ideas before, but I want to revisit them again today.
- The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of my search for the historic New Testament Church
I grew up in history-less churches. Intent as we were about restoring the beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church, we ignored the seventeen hundred years between the close of the New Testament era/first century and the rise of the Restoration Movement churches at the beginning of the nineteenth. We didn’t even pay too much attention to our own history. What was important was doctrine, interpreting the Bible correctly. History primarily served as a foil to prove our contention that we were correcting the errors of the historic Church.
Ironically, it was through a Church history class taught at one of my heritage churches’ Bible colleges, that I awoke to the supreme problem with this view: the notion that we could ever really know what the New Testament Church believed and practiced without consulting that New Testament Church. That is to say, the view that the New Testament Church was wholly contained in the New Testament did extreme violence to Jesus’ promise of the prevalence of the Church over the gates of hell and his promise to be with Her always till the end of the age. Contrary to the “Constantinian-apostasy” and “trail-of-blood” ecclesiastical history that I’d grown up with, the Church, I discovered in my class, did not, actually, apostasize after the last of the apostles died, nor during Constantine’s reign. Nor did Jesus’ promise fail. The Church has continued to this day. This, of course, was something I obviously had to believe if I wanted to believe myself part of that Church. But the full implications of it—that there was a flesh-and-blood group of people whose history and doctrine could be traced directly back to the Apostle Paul (such as the Church at Thessaloniki)—would take some time to sink in.
Still, to even acknowledge that there was a living, breathing New Testament Church in our day—and not just some doctrinal, theoretical construct built on particular interpretations of the Scriptures—led to the only logical question I could ask: Where is that Church?
That question led me, ultimately, to the Incarnation. Ecclesiology is Christology. If God himself thought it important to take on human history as intrinsic to the Person of the Son, if God did not think it too great a thing to wrap all his divinity in the weakness of human flesh and blood, then who was I to ignore the history, the flesh and blood reality, of the Church? I began to realize that the absence of personal history is the absence of real identity. I could not claim to be part of the Church if I cut off from my faith and practice the history that was essential to that Church. Then, like an adopted child seeking his origins, there was awakened in me a deep hunger for that real identity that could only be fulfilled by the Church that was not only doctrinally but, as importantly, historically connected to the New Testament Church. I began to realize that my identity as a “New Testament Christian” was a construct. It was an empty frame with only bits and pieces inside. That relative emptiness needed to be filled, that identity needed to be made real.
And like many adopted children, I found myself not disparaging or disrespecting my adopted mother, the Restoration Movement churches, but nonetheless dealing with the truth: my adopted mother had raised me well and given me great and lasting gifts. But my origins as a Christian must necessarily lie elsewhere. I needed to shift the incomplete picture of who I thought myself to be to the reality of what I needed to be: a child of Mother Church.
For most of my life, I was a Christian cut off from the rest of the Church. Our group of churches largely did not acknowledge other denominations since we viewed much of their doctrine and practice as not in conformity with the New Testament. This changed quite a bit as I became an adult and our churches began to cooperate more often and more widely with other church groups. But I was also cut off from the Church of history. There was this vast emptiness between myself and my churches and that New Testament Church we believed once existed in purity, and which purity we now sought to restore.
But such a church was still primarily a doctrine, an idea. We often referred to the New Testament as a “blueprint” for our faith and practice. The Church, in my understanding, was not so much a real, live entity as it was a propositional standard. This, of course, was precisely how we could “restore” it. Ideas can always be “restored.” This well-meant, if anemic, understanding of the Church served me well for much of my life. But it could not teach me to pray. It could not teach me how to live and to struggle. It could not in fact, live such prayer and such struggle for me. It could not lead me by example. It was, after all, an idea.
In my discovery of Mother Church, however, I have found not an idea, not a doctrine, but the warm maternal love of a home, the household of faith. Here there is a family related by blood. Over there is the “eccentric grandmother,” fool-for-Christ Xenia. There are the family doctors, Cosmas and Damian. There is the plucky Great Martyr Katherine. And there is the brilliant Confessor, Maximus. But there are plenty of children about, just like in a real home: the children martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, Lucy of Sicily, the Holy Innocents. And just like the homes we know, there is always Good Food about.
The restoration of my ecclesial maternal ties has not yet been completed. But I have met my Ecclesial Mother. And I am forever grateful to my adopted Restoration Movement mother who raised me to seek Her. I must now devote the rest of my life getting to know Her.
[Next: the fulfillment of doctrine.]