by Fr. John Dresko

Recently, in these pages, there has been a running discussion on the issue of converts in the Orthodox Church. It began with the publication of some reflections by Mitchell Bright of Hobart, Indiana, a convert to Orthodox Christianity through the former "Evangelical Orthodox Church" (now a parish of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese). His reflections were a response to criticism on the Internet (presumably by an Orthodox) that "the Church was being infiltrated by Christian Fundamentalists." His reflection ("If the Shoe Fits...", ONE, November 1996) was a combination of his love for the Church and criticism of some of the more glaring of the faults that he sees in Church life.

This led to a letter response by Fr. William DuBovik, of All Saints Church in Hartford, and the publication of an article by Fr. John Garvey (a convert) of St. Nicholas Church in Jamaica Estates, NY ("A Typology of Converts," ONE, January 1997). In addition, some good friends of this editor offered some personal thoughts and criticisms not for publication.

In many ways, of course, this is not a new controversy. St. Paul speaks at length in the early days of the Church about the controversy between the circumcised and the uncircumcised (or between the Jews and the Gentiles). The basic question was: is the Church given by Christ to everyone or just to Jews ("the chosen ones")? The same question rages today: is the Church given to everyone or just to "our people?" Paul's answer was simple and remains our answer today: the real Jew (or chosen one) is the one who is circumcised inwardly, and "real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God." (Rom. 2:29). Christ came to save everyone and everything. All are invited to participate in the life of the Kingdom seen in the Church.

Having said that, there are a few thoughts to offer about converts and cradle-born Orthodox and our Church life. Please keep in mind that these comments are made by a cradle-born Orthodox, who happens now to be a priest.

We don't always speak the same language. I lived in Texas for three years when I was an Air Force chaplain. One of the things that struck me was that I spoke English and native Texans spoke English, but it didn't sound like we were speaking the same language. My English was a little more reserved, a little more "textbook." A Texan's English was much more open and a little less confined to the "rules." But eventually, we understood each other. I even started to begin classes on base with "Hi! How y'all doin' today?"

I think the same phenomenon exists today when converts and cradle-born speak. Converts, especially those from a fundamentalist background, easily sprinkle Bible quotations and "praise the Lords" into their speech. Cradle-born Orthodox, however, don't speak in the same way. Biblical quotations, even when a daily part of life, are not easily thrown around by cradle-born.

The problem arises, however, when we don't realize that we each love the Church and want to be saved. Our language is different, but the goal is the same. The convert cannot assume that because the cradle-born doesn't speak liberally with biblical quotations that the desire to know and love God is not there. Likewise, just because a convert freely "praises God" and quotes Scripture does not make it a put down of the cradle-born. As a cradle-born Orthodox, it seems as if those who quote Scripture frequently do it to show their own knowledge and "closeness" to God (thereby implying, of course, that those of us not in the habit of speaking that way are not quite as close).

Mitchell Bright, in his article, falls into this trap. When speaking about parishioners who left "ethnic" parishes for his, he states that those people came to his parish because they needed to "experience 'zealous' Christianity." He wishes that every Orthodox parish was growing (like his), had a priest that challenged parishioners to acquire the Holy Spirit (like his), had a "Visitors Welcome" sign (like his), advertised services (like his), was filled to overflowing (like his).

He also states that those people came to his parish "because we love God." They notice the long line of people waiting for confession on Saturday evenings. They hear the joy and sincerity in the voices of the entire congregation singing. They see the way their parishioners love those around them who need food, or a ride, etc.

In a couple of paragraphs, Mr. Bright managed to state that the typical Orthodox parish was not zealous (at least about Christianity), was not growing, was not acquiring the Holy Spirit, did not welcome visitors, was not advertising services (thereby stating they did not want outsiders who were "thirsty"), was not filled to overflowing. Additionally, those other parishes lost people because they did not love God, did not care for their own souls by going to confession, had a choir (instead of congregational singing) which sang without joy or sincerity, and they did not love or care for those around them who needed love and care.

Is that what Mr. Bright intended to say? Probably not. Is that what came across? Undoubtedly. Is it right? Probably, at least in some places and to some extent (even where there are many converts). Is it the best way to speak to each other? Of course not. It sounds self-righteous and judgmental.

Our external life is so rich and beautiful that we often confuse it with the internal life in Christ. One of the great temptations in Orthodoxy is to confuse the externals for salvation in and of themselves. We all know a "Bob Smith" who discovers Orthodoxy. All of a sudden, Bob Smith is the Reader Athanasius (Smith), acolyte and sacristan of the Ultra-Martyr Asceticus church. He will dress in cassock at all times except for bathing and, possibly, sleeping. He will, of course, grow the requisite beard and long hair, tying his hair in a wonderful bun under the kamilavka that his pastor blessed him to wear.

Following further growth in Orthodoxy, he will study ancient chant so the services can be more authentic and rubrics so they can be served correctly. If the priest dares try some heretical innovation like Great Vespers on Saturday evening instead of All-Night Vigil, the bishop will be informed. He will do battle with the parish council to remove the heretical pews so worship can be "pure." Every single fast day will be observed, and all dairy products, fish and other forbidden foods will be removed from the diet. A pilgrimage to the "holy places" (usually monasteries) will be taken. Everyone who falls even a bit short in these externals will be soundly condemned. And after about ten years (probably less), Bob Smith will move on to another group, possibly not even Christian.

The "externals" can move from being the "means" to achieving salvation to the "ends" of salvation itself. After becoming Orthodox, the "externals" can often be used the same way previous faith could be used. Before, you only had to accept Jesus as your personal Savior to be saved. Now, you just have to be Orthodox and "do it" the right way. As long as we fast the right amount of time, say the right prayers, sing the right hymns (using the right melodies), stand in church, even "look" the right part, we will be saved. The problem with that, of course, is that Christ came to fulfill the law and free us from it. The rich externals of Orthodoxy (and they are many and beautiful) are but tools to help on the road to salvation. Christ himself said it was not what we put into our mouth that will condemn us, but what comes out of it. St. John Chrysostom asked his flock why they fasted from food while devouring each other. The fools-for-Christ were living examples of how absurd it is when people embrace the "letter" but not the "spirit" of the law.

On the other hand, it must also be said that there is a temptation among cradle-born Orthodox to be "ho-hum" and less than enthusiastic, even just lazy, about following the tenets and externals of the Faith. If one of the great temptations of Orthodoxy is to equate the externals with salvation, another great temptation is to simply dismiss externals as unimportant for our salvation. "God will not really care if we fast, if we serve liturgy carefully and lovingly, if we stand at all during worship and prayer, etc." As a priest, I am constantly dismayed and depressed to hear people say all the time, "When I was a kid, my parents made us follow every single fast day, etc. If they could see me now, would they be disappointed!" or, "I know my kids aren't Orthodox anymore, Father, but at least they baptized their baby in their local Lutheran church. We all worship the same God after all!" It seems at times as if we cradle-born Orthodox are careless and ignorant of the pearl of great price that we hold in our hand. And we certainly don't seem to act as if the Church is heaven on earth.

Converts will not save the Church ­ the Church will save them. There is a very scary trend in the Orthodox world today. Recent converts (traditional Orthodox canon law and spirituality would call them "neophytes") have a disproportionate voice in the Orthodox religious media and their voice is often less than charitable. Those voices come across loud and clear: "we have found the True Faith, and we are going to rescue it from those who have squandered it for the last 2,000 years." Their opinion is that the Orthodox Church is in such terrible shape that it is lucky they came along to save it. Publications like The Christian Activist, while seeming to provide a wide-spread vehicle for Orthodox thought and reflection, actually comes across more like a "right-wing" diatribe against the liberal movements corrupting our Church. Such movements which now seem to be corrupting the Church are things like working towards a modern language version of the Liturgy, discussing the Faith with those who are not Orthodox, etc.

The problem with that thinking (Has there ever been a time when the Church was not beset by problems? Ever a time when the Church was not populated with both the zealous and the lukewarm?) is that it ignores the lights and luminaries of the Church for the past 2,000 years that have preserved and handed down the faith. Such luminaries include famous ones like the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, people such as St. Innocent, St. Herman, St. Tikhon, St. Alexis, Bishop Raphael, Metropolitan Leonty, Archbishop Kiprian, Fr. Georges Florovsky, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Stanley Harakas, Serge Verhovskoy, Sophie Koulomzin, etc. But it also includes not so famous ones like the simple people of Russia who kept the Church alive through Communism despite threats, torture and death, the priests who handed the parishes down to us through the ages, the babushki and dedushki who kept their families Orthodox, etc.

Another problem with it is that it is easy to slam problems in the Church while not offering pastoral, loving solutions to them. Should the Church be "less ethnic?" In some places, yes. But how do you solve that? Do you simply go in and say, "I'm a convert and Irish. Your dependence on Russian (or Greek or Arabic, etc.) offends me and inhibits the faith. Stop it!" Our Church has come so far in the past forty years. It is light years ahead of the Church in 1957. But someone who has been Orthodox since 1994 cannot appreciate that or have the patience to grow at a slower pace. They have seen what Orthodoxy can be, and wonder why others don't. The fact is that this is the Church and these are the people we have been given. God has asked us to work to save all of them, not just the ones who have "seen" the fulness of the Faith and been converted. To fall into that type of thinking is as bad as all those who want to save the Church for "our people," whatever flavor of people that may be. Please remember that "American" is just as ethnic as "Russian!"

It would be infinitely more difficult for these converts to flood the existing churches and begin the transformation process patiently from within. It is much easier to establish a "mission" a couple of miles from existing parishes and composed of the "right" kind of believer, which will leech parishioners away and ultimately cripple the existing parishes. But which is actually more "missionary," to simply start a new parish where one already exists or to work for the repentance and growth of existing parishes?

The last problem with it is that we forget that it is God who established the Church, God who strengthens the Church, God who guides the Church, God who saves the Church. A true convert is one who repents of his sins and returns to God. To that length, the whole Church is to be composed of "converts."

The Church is not a sect. Finally, both newly-Chrismated converts and cradle-born Orthodox who continue to convert by their repentance must avoid turning the Church into a sect. There is a distinct and painfully shrill volume to much of the writing about Orthodoxy today. Lofty language condemning the "heretics" of this world (which in the vocabulary of this type of speaker means anyone who doesn't see the Faith exactly as I do) is commonplace in much of today's Orthodox writing and reflection.

It almost seems as if these speakers confuse loving, respectful, pastoral outreach to those who are not members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church with "aiding and comforting the enemy." To be sure, the bland, watery, politically correct "openness" which accepts everyone as exactly the same with no distinction of belief is unacceptable to an Orthodox Christian. But those who say we should not even engage in dialogue with other groups because we deny our Orthodoxy are just plain wrong.

I am not a big fan of the ecumenical movement. I do not participate in my local ecumenical group because they are far too concerned with politics and culture, even issuing their "position" on social issues and "endorsing" political candidates. I have attended a WCC gathering. My impression in most of these situations is that we are looked at as a curiosity. We display what we do and believe while others display what they do and believe .

I am not sure the dialogue actually accomplishes anything, as far as "concrete" accomplishments are concerned. I don't see multitudes of people or whole churches becoming Orthodox, for example. But perhaps those concrete accomplishments are not the point. Perhaps the point is simply being an Orthodox voice and witness in a world where everyone simply thinks anything goes. Perhaps it is just saying "that's not what Christ intended for the church and the world." Even if no one listens to us, as long as we don't corrupt our own Faith and don't lose our integrity, isn't that a reflection of Christ, who went to everyone, most of whom did not listen? Jesus Himself was condemned for eating and associating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and all sorts of "riff-raff." Didn't He still preach the Kingdom to them?

There are all sorts of reasons that people are not Orthodox. There are all sorts of reasons that people cannot be Orthodox. Sometimes the example of Orthodoxy that is presented to them is not a very good example. God knows those reasons. But no one can tell me that because someone is not Orthodox, they are going straight to hell (should Mother Teresa fear for her salvation?). And for sure, no one can tell me that someone who is not "Orthodox" enough for some people is going to hell. God will judge everyone including the Orthodox.

In my 18 years as a priest, I have instructed and Chrismated 20 people. Every single one of them is a complete joy to me. That they are Orthodox in every way is not a doubt in my mind. My cradle-born mind prays for more like them. But if we Orthodox are to truly begin to convert the world, we have to first love those in the world, no matter who they are. Perhaps newly-converted Orthodox need to recognize in their zeal for Orthodoxy that some people have to overcome a lifetime of thinking a certain way. That is not easy. And perhaps cradle-born Orthodox need to be a little less apathetic and careless with the Faith for which many people died in order to pass it down to us. When we "both" want to convert the world to the Church for the right reasons, God will bless and prosper those efforts.

Related articles from ONE:

A Typology of Converts, by Fr. John Garvey

A Comment on these issues, by Fr. William DuBovik

If the shoe fits..., by Mitchell Bright (original story)