Nyssa’s Conversion Story–Or, how I discovered Holy Orthodoxy–Part 1
(This is adapted/expanded from a letter I sent to the priest of the local Greek Orthodox Church in November 2006.)
I’ve been going through a long, tiresome spiritual journey, though from what I hear, there are many people who’ve been through at least as many denominations before coming to Orthodoxy.
I was raised in South Bend, Indiana as a Nazarene, a Holiness sect with the doctrine of total sanctification, but without the extremes of another Holiness sect, Pentecostalism.
Central Indiana and downwards had Nazarene churches with Pentecostal-like rules on what you could wear, makeup, hair, etc., but in other parts of the country, Nazarenes looked just like anybody else.
We just weren’t supposed to dance, drink alcohol, gamble, or go to movie theaters (though nobody restricted renting movies to watch at home).
We disagreed with the Pentecostals on speaking in tongues, though we agreed on sanctification/baptism with the Holy Spirit; we were more sedate and dignified in church, while Pentecostals did whatever they felt the Spirit moved them to do. In fact, the old folks in my Nazarene church tended to be the loudest and most active, occasionally raising a hand and saying, “Amen!”
Though I always believed, I asked my dad to lead me in the prayer to become saved when I was very small–probably between 4 and 6 years old. After that, I said the prayer a few more times, not understanding until I was a bit older that being “born again” was not the same as being sinless.
I went off to “Roanoke” College in rural Wisconsin in 1991. To my surprise, there were no Nazarene churches, and I had no car, so I went nowhere for about a month. (The college was out in the country.)
Then I found out there was a Nazarene house church in town, with a handful of people, and I now had a boyfriend with a car, so we started going. But after a while, the leaders of the church decided they couldn’t do this anymore; they weren’t preachers, and had other jobs, so they were tired. And I no longer had a boyfriend with a car.
I could only go to a church occasionally, whenever a friend could get a ride. I didn’t get to choose the church. I could have walked to the UCC church on the corner, but I didn’t feel comfortable with their beliefs or practices. For more details, see my college memoirs.
Once, I was taken to the Evangelical Free Church; it was similar in many ways to my own, except that it was “livelier.” I asked for church information, and it seemed to be much like the Nazarene Church, so I felt I found a church home–if only I could get there more often.
I got a new boyfriend who had a vehicle and was Catholic. We went to my church one week, his church the next. I was impressed by his church, which was like a Gothic cathedral, the walls covered in beautiful statues. It even had a pipe organ. I didn’t want to convert to Catholicism–which became an issue when we got engaged–but I wanted to keep going to that church along with my own.
I couldn’t convert to Catholicism: I felt it would betray everything I had been taught. My dad was staunchly anti-Catholic, of the mindset that during the Middle Ages, some Catholics may have said the Sinner’s Prayer and been saved, but most weren’t.
For a time, though it made me sad, I thought he was right; maybe around college-age, I realized that Catholics were saved, too. But I felt they had gone too far astray from biblical teachings, and I couldn’t possibly confess my sins to a priest, believe the Eucharist was truly Christ’s body, believe in Purgatory, or believe artificial birth control was a sin.
For my fiancé’s sake, however, I agreed to use natural family planning. However, this fiancé turned out to be very controlling, and that relationship ended. Again, for more details, see my college memoirs.
Though I tried to hold firm in my faith, college was also a time of immense spiritual testing; I often failed. I became more moderate, which I feel was a good thing, but I also made horrible mistakes regarding men.
I also fell into the Charismatic teachings of Pat Robertson, believing everything he and guests on The 700 Club said about getting “words of knowledge/wisdom” from God about what we’re supposed to be doing in our lives, something that’ll happen in the future, that sort of thing. It was more fortune-telling than true works of the Spirit, but I didn’t know this at the time, and fancied myself some sort of prophet.
These “words of knowledge” got me into trouble because I’d think I was meant to marry guys who broke up with me, and they never came back. I’d wait and wait; one turned Pagan, and the other was emotionally abusive. However, it took years before I stopped believing in the charismatic sign gifts. Once I did, I wanted nothing to do with Charismatic beliefs.
Another problem I had was not going to church every Sunday. This was not about lack of inclination, but lack of transportation, as I’ve mentioned before. So I got used to sleeping in on Sunday mornings.
In 1995 I finally met my husband, Cugan, a Lutheran (Missouri Synod). We agreed to marry (April 19, 1997) without either of us having to convert. We moved to a city in the next county.
I found another Nazarene house church, but it had only a few people. I didn’t want another house church that would probably die in a year or two! Within ten years or so, the church did, indeed, die out–and probably before then, when the pastor died.
Going from hubby’s Lutheran church to my church became tiring and we wanted to have children, so we agreed to start looking for a church which suited us both.
We thought we found such a church in an independent Bible church in 1996 or 1997. It had grape juice communion and familiar music, no strange hand-clapping or any of that stuff. We thought “independent” meant “ecumenical.”
However, we eventually discovered that neither “independent” nor “non-denominational” meant “ecumenical,” but rather that such churches were usually fundamentalist or evangelical. So there was no such thing as an ecumenical church in our city.
Around this time, I was also doing research into modern Catholic monasteries/convents for my book, Tojet. This led me to the book The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, which I probably bought around 1997, when the paperback came out. I was impressed by the spirituality of the monks, and thought that if I were Catholic and widowed, I might actually want to become a nun.
As for the church we were going to, it was very fundamentalist, with doctrines I could not agree with. One Sunday, the entire sermon was devoted to a presentation “proving” that evolution was wrong. Whether I agreed with that or not, I felt it had nothing to do with preaching the gospel, so did not belong in sermon time.
In one sermon, the preacher said that we weren’t to pray for people who weren’t Christians. He said that signs of the Holy Spirit, such as tongues and healings and prophecy, had stopped–which I disagreed with at the time.
(I later came to the conclusion that the signs had indeed stopped, the belief of the Evangelical Free Church. But then I learned, through studying Orthodoxy, that the signs have not stopped, but wax and wane with necessity–and do not exist in the same manner claimed by Pentecostals and Charismatics. So no, the Charismatics do not have it right, but neither do the cessationalists.)
Another Sunday, the preacher first told how the other churches in town had the wrong kind of worship, while this church had the right one. Then he went on to talk about women being subject to their husbands.
In my own hometown church, I recalled the pastor coming upon a passage about such matters, and saying that we had to realize the culture of those days was different from ours.
When I watched The 700 Club, they talked about submission, but it wasn’t the doormat kind where a woman had to obey her husband’s every whim no matter what.
In college, I began reading the writings of feminists, and that influenced my thinking as well.
So when the pastor of the independent church came to a passage on submission and said nothing about the different culture of Bible days–when he said wives need to submit–when I saw women in the church nodding their heads–I wanted to run out of that church and never look back.
Then I did a little investigating on the Internet, to find out what sort of church this was. I recalled the pastor saying they were associated with some sort of organization of independent churches.
This organization turned out to be the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (IFCA); what I found in their creed on this website scared me. You had to agree with things which were very fundamentalist, which I did not agree with. It was even more fundamentalist than the church I grew up in! The IFCA’s website is here.
Looking back on it now after years of theological research, I see even more reasons why we needed to leave that church, things which back then I did not recognize as heresy either because I grew up believing them, or because I did not know enough about theology:
It is Calvinist (total depravity and “once saved always saved”), dispensationalist, teaches the Rapture theory, and teaches that Catholics aren’t really “saved” unless are “born again” according to the IFCA understanding of the term. Getting too close to the Catholic church, such as in ecumenism, is seen as a bad thing.
Going through the IFCA by-laws reveals very strict rules of membership: You are not allowed to become a member if you drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, have married a divorcee, have remarried after a divorce, or are divorced.
Though at the time Cugan was comfortable in this church, if he knew all these things which I am now finding on the website and in the web archives of the IFCA magazine The Voice, he would not have wanted to stay there, either. So many things I have found over the years in fundamentalist sources about how a wife should behave–I don’t want to have anything to do with this.
But back to 2000. Now Cugan was okay with the church for himself, but didn’t want me to be uncomfortable. Also, he was Missouri Synod Lutheran, not Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. (Wisconsin Synod is fundamentalist. Missouri Synod is conservative, but far more moderate than Wisconsin Synod.)
We went to the local Evangelical Free church after that, I believe in 2000. I had thought about going to it before going to the Bible church, but we discovered the church’s address was a home, and I didn’t want to go through yet another house church. But now, it met in a middle school auditorium, and had about 200 members.
We were there for quite some time, even getting involved in different ministries. I began helping in the youth group, and loved it. I was happy being in this church.
Cugan had some trouble with the tithing talk and evangelical doctrines, and we were a bit uncomfortable around the hand-waving, but we felt we had found a home. I got used to the contemporary music, and began to like it.
With the independent church, I often had trouble getting out of bed on Sunday; with the Evangelical Free Church, I was encouraged to get back into the Sunday church habit. I didn’t want to miss a sermon.
Each year, the pastor and several of the teens and adults went to Russia to evangelize. They helped with a “church plant” there, or an Evangelical Free church which had been recently started by missionaries and was headed by Russians; they also helped with a church camp.
I didn’t know in those days that the Russian Orthodox Church feels like its toes are being stepped on by all these Protestant missionaries, that they want to rebuild their own church, which was persecuted by the Soviet authorities for so many decades.
I imagine the church that produced so many martyrs during Communism would be upset to hear what my pastor said in church one day after returning from a Russia Team trip: “I visited the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s not Christian. It’s full of idols and paganism.”
He used this as an example of how bleak the spiritual atmosphere supposedly is in Russia after Communism. This must have been in 2003 or 2004; even then, when I had no thought of becoming Orthodox, I knew what he said was wrong. I knew very little about Orthodoxy, but I did know that people in this Evangelical church sometimes judged other Christians wrongly.
Lutherans were not considered Christian unless they had a “born-again experience”; my husband was Lutheran, and resented that.
We had a boy in our youth group who was brought in by some of the teens and eventually had his own “born-again experience”; then we considered him a Christian. I knew nothing about his background, just what I had been told about his conversion.
When his parents resisted his going to our church and youth group, I thought maybe they were atheists or Pagans who hated Christians. To my shock, I heard they were Catholic.
I think I understood their resistance better after that, though being Protestant, I probably wondered why it would matter to them which church he went to or which youth group he attended. (These days, teens go wherever they like, not just to their own youth group activities.)
As for my husband Cugan resenting the attitude toward Lutherans: He never had a conversion experience, because he was raised in the faith and always believed it. How can you “convert” to a religion you’ve always been a part of?
What probably made it worse was that there was a former Lutheran in the congregation who felt he wasn’t a Christian until he converted to Evangelicalism. Once, this person gave me a book, meant for recent converts, to give to Cugan, because somehow he got the idea that Cugan had just had a “born-again experience.”
Another time, the usual sermons were put on hold while the congregation took a series of lessons on how to convert people. I believe it was the Contagious Christian series. (Some people left during this time, feeling the church had “lost its focus.” Cugan and I didn’t understand at the time.)
One Sunday, we were supposed to come up with a short conversion story, and tell it to the other people at our table (we met in a middle school, and used the cafeteria for this series). Cugan didn’t know what to say, and felt very uncomfortable.
Another thing making Cugan uncomfortable: the constant emphasis on going out and doing things, and people constantly “encouraging” him to join the Russia Team or the Cuba Team. He didn’t feel led to be a missionary, since he did not know those languages, did not like Russian food, and had trouble dealing with people.
He felt like the church members were seen as tools, rather than people who needed to be healed and built up themselves before trying to evangelize other people. (It’s a pity he didn’t want to become Orthodox, since the Orthodox view the Church as a hospital and your own salvation as foremost before evangelizing others.)
Sometime in 2001, I used several study Bibles–one of them the Oxford Study Bible–to read Revelations. To my surprise, premillennialism did not make as much sense as the historical or metaphorical interpretations. I began to lean towards amillennialism. Premillennialism was part of the Statement of Faith for the Evangelical Free Church.
Shortly after 9/11, the pastor said that most of the people who died that day had gone to Hell because they weren’t Christians. This pronouncement horrified me.
Even before this, I began wondering if people went to Hell when they–not because they rejected God, but because they believed truth and deity to be more present in their own religion than Christianity–weren’t Christians.
What about a Muslim woman who knew something about Christians, but was taught that Islam was correct and Christianity was for infidels, and went through her whole life–all its joys and sorrows–believing she was doing right? What about Pagans who were kind and loving? What about agnostics who just weren’t sure? What about atheists who didn’t reject God necessarily, but just didn’t believe one existed?
What about the Final Judgment, when Christ divided people based on how loving they were, rather than what religion they followed?
A former Baptist, who also struggled with the doctrines on Hell, documents his own issues on pages 11 to 14, here.
To become full members of the Evangelical Free Church, you had to sign a statement agreeing to all the points in the Statement of Faith. These were considered the essentials; on everything else, you could disagree. (This is the old Statement of Faith in effect back then; a new one was adopted as of June 2008, and then changed again in 2019.)
Cugan and I both, though we disagreed in which points, were not in full agreement with the Statement of Faith. Until Cugan could agree with everything, particularly the EFCA doctrine of baptism for believers only, he would not become a full member. If he didn’t, then I wouldn’t, either. So officially, he remained Lutheran and I remained Nazarene.
In 2002, some big tithers had left the church for various reasons, some disgruntled and some simply moving, leaving the church in financial straits. Once, there had been a building program, which the pastor disbanded due to disagreements between committee members; now, we started going from one building to another because we couldn’t afford our own.
The pastor began preaching heavily on tithing: It must be 10% gross, given to the church, with charitable donations coming afterwards, no matter what your financial situation, or else you just don’t have enough faith.
But we were heavily in debt from student loans and other things, and couldn’t give any more; the pressure was too much for Cugan, who paid most of the bills.
The pastor went on sabbatical and did a lot of reading and praying. When he came back, probably early in 2003, everything changed. The tithing talk still came up often, but now there was a new focus.
The pastor must have been reading a lot of books by John Piper and Rick Warren. He began preaching “Cat and Dog Theology,” which used the supremacy of God doctrine which Piper, a Calvinist, has been spreading in Evangelical circles. To us, this was strange doctrine, which we had never heard of before.
Coming from Calvinism, it says that every single thing God does is primarily driven by a passion for his own glory–even the Cross. (See page 1 of my theology pages for more information on the supremacy of God doctrine and Cat & Dog Theology.)
We knew this was wrong, that the main reason for the Cross and other things was love, though we had no materials besides the Bible to back us up. I mentioned the supremacy doctrine to my parents, who agreed that it was wrong.
We didn’t want to de-emphasize glory; we merely felt that this strange new theology was over-emphasizing glory at the expense of God’s love for us and everything else in the faith. All churches we ever attended said that Christ went to the Cross out of a passion for–love for us, our salvation.
Now this love for us, this salvation, seemed more like a side effect which just happened to go along with glorifying God. We could imagine giving God the glory, but could not imagine God primarily seeking glory for himself, like a warrior-king from Beowulf.
The image of the Loving Father was diminished, replaced by a deity that did not seem to care about fairness, justice or mercy, so long as he was glorified. Don’t grieve for the death of loved ones, don’t pray for their healing, because you don’t know what purpose God has for their suffering or even death. Don’t pray for your own needs.
Cats believe we’re saved from Hell; dogs go further, believing we’re saved for the glory of God (which figures greatly into the Calvinist predestination doctrine.) Some people are born to be killed for the glory of God.
Basically, this deity causes death and suffering so he can be glorified. (My theology page goes into more detail.) The doctrines about glory were pounded into our heads every week for months.
And yet the pastor seemed to wonder why we didn’t consider this a wonderful theology. We watched in disbelief as other members of the church embraced it and began teaching it to others.
Even now, members from that church propagate this doctrine, and Cat and Dog Theology has become quite popular in the American Church.
I do recall there was a lot of activity between our church and local Reformed churches, but in those days I did not know that “Reformed” meant “Calvinist,” or that our churches could actually be sharing doctrines. We did not know we were in a church that was becoming Calvinist, since I always thought that Evangelicals were by definition Arminian.
We did not know much about Calvinism, or that all the weirdness we were hearing came from it; all we knew about was the big Calvinist doctrine most people knew about, double predestination.
The pastor did once say that the Holy Spirit works on us to bring us to faith, that we don’t do it ourselves, which was a new doctrine to me, but didn’t set off any alarm bells.
When I mentioned this to a spiritual seeker, she said, paraphrasing, “So this means that if I don’t come to faith, it’s God’s decision? So why am I condemned for it?” I had no answer, because I didn’t know how to reconcile this with Arminian doctrine.
Nowadays, I could explain that God’s energies start working on us, every one of us, but we are responsible for working with them and responding. I didn’t realize that what the pastor had told us was a Calvinist doctrine, that in Calvinism we have no part at all in our salvation, that God brings us to faith because He chooses us.
John Piper believes this to be a wonderful doctrine, because God’s grace saved us with no regard to who we are; to those of us who are not Calvinist, however, it has terrible implications for those who do not come to faith because God did not choose them.
The pastor began complaining about churches with too many “programs.” This meant that, for us, all our programs were disbanded or put on hiatus. No more Sunday School; no more worship team; no more songs which seemed to be about our reaction to God rather than focusing on God.
We now had one worship leader with a guitar, while a PowerPoint setup showed nature pictures. Doing worship this way wasn’t “wrong,” since much of modern praise music is about “me” and how God meets “my” needs. But it was yet another way that the church was being entirely changed from what we were used to, so initially we balked.
In early 2003, the youth group was disbanded for lack of money to pay the youth pastor, and the youth pastor essentially fired. It was so distressing that at least one of the kids cried.
I had helped in the youth group for nearly 2 years, and it had become my life, possibly a calling. These were my friends. My weeks revolved around youth group and going to leader meetings. The youth pastor was my friend and gifted with his work; I loved the antics of the teenagers, especially two of the older boys who were also youth leaders.
The other youth and adult leaders and I tried to get the group back together, but with little success. The kids started going to other youth groups, and one even said, “I thought we didn’t have a youth group anymore.”
It was now early 2004, I’d had a baby, and with no youth group to take me out of the house, my social life was dead. It took me a long time to get over the loss of the youth group. I resented the pastor for firing the youth pastor. Fortunately, the youth pastor was provided for; he believed God wanted him to head a new ministry for young adults, which he did for the next several years at least.
A thriving Sunday School was one thing which first attracted me to this church. Now, there were fewer and fewer children, as parents began taking their kids to churches which had Sunday Schools for them.
The pastor also began doing what Rick Warren does in Purpose-Driven Life: taking scripture out of context to make points (“proof-texting”), heavily using The Message paraphrase, and using various translations–apparently the one which fit the point best.
Cugan wrote a letter to the pastor about the supremacy of God doctrine and some other things (the church was still losing members–gone from nearly 200 in 2000 and 2001 to about 40 or 50 in 2003), but felt ostracized after that. We felt driven out by wrong doctrine, and finally found the Presbyterian Church (USA) in June 2004.
We heard in the summer of 2005 that the E-Free church was dying, with so few members they didn’t know if they could get another pastor when that one left. Around that time, the ad for the church stopped appearing in the newspaper. In the 2007-2008 phone book, the church’s listing no longer appeared. The former youth pastor has now formed an “organic church” with his ministry for young adults.
So we could not have stayed even if we tried, because that church no longer exists. [Update 9/15/13: I recently discovered that it does still exist, though it hasn’t been listed in the newspaper for almost 10 years! Someone even wrote an online review which referred to them as “fanatics” and said “don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”]
[to be continued]