Nyssa’s Conversion Story–Or, how I discovered Holy Orthodoxy
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.)
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 this day, we’re still skittish at the words “glory” and “glorify,” afraid of encountering Calvinism again. Cugan feels the Evangelical-Free church was spiritually abusive, especially since it’s taken him a while to recover from it. Even when he’s in a church and hears the same songs the E-Free church began singing before it turned Calvinist, he fears that church will start going in the same direction the E-Free church did.
And yet, I’m glad we went through this experience, because without it I never would have had an inkling that American Evangelicalism is suffering from great sicknesses: Not only is there materialism and pop Christianity in the churches these days, but bad theology keeps going hither and thither.
Also, while I did not agree with much of Cat and Dog Theology, it did have some good points which influenced me. For example, the idea that we’re not supposed to base worship and other things on our own inclinations. I resisted this part at first, thinking that one’s favorite music can be powerful in church, but eventually it sank in. The results of this are below.
Also, I was influenced by the idea that praise and worship songs should not focus on what God does for “me,” and agreed that American Christianity was becoming far too focused on “me” in various ways.
By the way, on May 2, 2007, I discovered on the EFCA website that a new Statement of Faith was in the works. It went into far more detail than the vague 13 statements we were familiar with. According to page 13 of the third draft revision (no longer available on the Web), “Throughout this Statement, we affirm that God’s glory is the ultimate aim of all God’s works in creation, revelation, and salvation.”
This Calvinist theology was nowhere to be found in the original Statement of Faith; it was not mentioned in the New Member classes; we never heard it in the sermons until the pastor introduced Cat and Dog Theology. So, essentially, it seems like bait-and-switch.
Has the denomination changed its views in the past several years for whatever reason–reading John Piper, following Evangelical trends of bringing in Calvinism, resurrecting the Calvinism which I’ve discovered has influenced much of Evangelicalism, moving away from the Arminianism of the other side of Evangelicalism (Arminianism=free will)?
Or has the denomination always believed this way, but kept it under wraps for whatever reason? Supposedly, you could be Calvinist or Arminian in an Evangelical Free church, but the supremacy of God doctrine tilted it toward Calvinism.
In any case, if the old Statement of Faith had been as clear as the third draft revision of the new Statement of Faith, we never would have stayed in the Evangelical Free Church for so long. Rather, we were given to understand that outside of the 13 vague statements in our version, there was plenty of freedom. That would have meant freedom to reject the pastor’s supremacy of God doctrine.
The third draft revision of the Statement of Faith could have forbidden from full membership anyone who says this doctrine is unbiblical and against the traditions of the Church. There was no way we could stay in that church with a good conscience; this third draft revision confirms that.
The strange thing is that the revision says Christ is the center of theology/the Bible. Our E-Free pastor said that God’s glory was the center.
I did a lot of searching on the Presbyterian Church-USA website, which is full of information, and felt satisfied that it was a good denomination.
They did not appear to follow the supremacy of God doctrine, and had left traditional Calvinism far behind, especially double predestination. The local church is thriving, and has plenty of programs for children. Tithing is encouraged, but you’re not accused of a lack of faith if you can’t manage it.
The PCUSA allows considerable theological freedom among its members; I could be a conservative Calvinist, a liberal who believes homosexuality is perfectly okay with God, a universalist, or somewhere in the middle.
Since I was in the midst of theological searching, and no longer believed in inerrancy, premillennialism, or strict literalism in the first chapters of Genesis or in Revelations, this was a comfortable place to be. Cugan and I became members in April 2005, and felt we were finally home.
I discovered Cugan and I had an HTML website free with our Internet provider, and began tinkering with it. I posted a theology page as a reaction to things the E-Free preacher had taught, a way to deal with them, then began expanding it.
As I searched for theological webpages disputing the supremacy of God doctrine, they seemed to be sadly lacking, and I wondered if we were wrong. Then Cugan, being Lutheran, found a webpage by Lutheran writer Don Matzat that contrasted the theology of glory to the theology of the cross.
As it turned out, this did not deal with God’s passion for his own glory, but with man’s constant striving to be “good enough” for God, the Sinner’s Prayer, rededicating your life to God when you “fall away,” etc. My own Nazarene church fell under this kind of theology of glory.
In the first reading, I was offended that it said the teachings of Holiness churches were wrong. After a second reading, I was amazed at how much I needed to reexamine what I believed.
Then, while reading a paper on the Lutheran (MS) official website disputing premillennial dispensationalism, I discovered that dispensationalism, along with Calvinism, are sources for the doctrine that God does everything for his own glory. Lutheran theology disagrees vehemently with this, saying that everything is centered in the Cross.
Not only that, but I discovered the Nazarene church is premillennial dispensationalist, and that many of its teachings are wrong. This was quite a shock; I couldn’t tell which doctrines were correct and which were wrong anymore. I believe this was in the summer of 2005.
I kept searching around Lutheran websites, particularly http://www.lcms.org and the writings of Don Matzat, who was trying to return the Lutheran church to traditional Lutheran doctrines.
Since Lutherans and the PCUSA agree on single predestination, or the doctrine that believers are elected based on God’s choice because we are totally depraved and can’t possibly make a decision for Christ on our own, I studied this as well. I tried to convince myself of it.
(Traditional Calvinists believe in double predestination, or that believers are elected to be saved, while unbelievers are elected to be damned, based not on our decision but on God’s glory.)
Some of it made sense, but how can you have one set of people elected to be saved, without the rest being elected to be damned? I read the answers to this question, but just could not understand it. Still, I tried to stop being “Arminian,” or believing that we make a decision for Christ, because it wasn’t the theology of the PCUSA or the Lutheran Church.
The more I searched the Lutheran Church website, the works of Don Matzat, and blogs on various issues, the more convinced I became that evangelicalism was full of wrong doctrines–but I wasn’t sure what was correct doctrine.
Hubby and I tried reading Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, but it was full of prooftexting and wrong conclusions, so we couldn’t finish it.
I read most of the way through the Message Bible, which our E-Free pastor had recommended, but discovered it took far too many liberties with the original text.
The pastor of our new church occasionally asked the congregation to do motions to songs, but we didn’t, standing there motionless while the people around us did these motions. We’d had far too much of this at the E-Free church, especially when visiting song leaders told everyone to do “clap offerings.”
I began to see the problem with emotionalism in worship services, because I felt manipulated by song leaders.
Then one Saturday evening, probably in 2004 or 2005, I sang one too many silly songs in our new church’s contemporary service, and began to want to sing hymns again. For examples of these “silly songs,” see here (“Trading My Sorrows” by Darrell Evans) and here (“Every Move I Make,” which also has motions, by David Ruis). I posted about this on a Christian Goth web forum. Others there agreed that many modern praise choruses were awful.
I also didn’t like the invasion of Powerpoint into church services. I preferred looking down at a hymnbook–which usually had information on writers, original sources of tunes, dates, etc.–to lyrics being posted on a screen.
I looked up critiques on the Web of Purpose-Driven Life and praise music, to see if anybody agreed with me.
Many sites opened my eyes to the problem of bringing modern culture into the church, rather than influencing modern culture with the church. These may have been Calvinist and conservative Lutheran sites, where you can often find a backlash against the rise of “contemporary services” in the churches.
While I went to the Evangelical Free church, I loved Willow Creek type services, with bands and modern music. I wanted to see the day when Goth or metal music was sung in church.
But now I was beginning to see the man-centered nature of trying to bring your favorite styles of music into the church, where first and foremost you are to worship God with reverence.
I no longer wanted to be Evangelical, so becoming Presbyterian (moderate/liberal) was fine with me. I no longer agreed with Evangelical doctrines, such as the necessity of a “born again” experience for Christians who were born into the faith, the purely symbolic idea of the Eucharist and baptism, baptism being “wrong” for babies, or the literalist view of the End-Times.
I wanted nothing more to do with all the furor over Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, Halloween, public schools vs. homeschools, evolution, school prayer, etc. etc.
The strange thing was, I found out that Presbyterians could be Evangelical if they wanted to, and that my church was Evangelical without the fundamentalism. It was very confusing.
Still, the PCUSA was a very safe and comforting place to be. I had no reason to leave it, no reason to look elsewhere. My research into other theologies was mostly out of intellectual curiosity, as I also learned about Presbyterian theology.
I was on my way to becoming a liberal Presbyterian. I principally studied both Lutheran and Presbyterian theologies, since they both came from the Reformation and had similar ideas. I also had some questions about theology, things which I did not understand, trying to figure out which teachings from my upbringing were correct, according to the PCUSA.
The PCUSA does not teach the Nazarene, Fundamentalist or Evangelical version of Hell, a version which I had begun doubting. But what it does teach is unclear. I discovered that some people in the denomination are universalists, that it is allowed, so out of curiosity I began checking it out.
Universalist webpages described teachings of Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, claiming that the Early Church was originally universalist, but when Constantine made Christianity legal, paganism infused the church–leading to the demise of universalism. They also debated the use of the translation “eternal” for “aonion” or “ages of ages.” I didn’t know what to make of this.
Then, one day, some time in mid or late 2005, this guy Richard posted on a Goth Christian Web forum, listing the problems with Evangelicalism. We were on the same three Goth Christian forums. He was Greek Orthodox, a new convert. He wasn’t received very well by the other posters, but I had (thought I) left Evangelicalism by going to the PCUSA, so I was more receptive.
I knew very little about Greek Orthodoxy, so I asked Richard what GO believes on various doctrines I’d been pondering. He couldn’t answer everything, but his answers amazed me, especially one that said his priest told him that the meaning of “eternal” has never been dogmatically fixed. I was impressed by the ancientness of the Orthodox church, and that it still uses and understands the original Greek, not Latin translations.
Universalist writers described it, particularly its five ancient patriarchates and various Greek writers, such as Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. I’d been searching for information to confirm or deny the universalist version of church and doctrinal history, such as the idea that universalism was the original view of the Church, only changed when Constantine made Christianity legal and pagans supposedly poured into the Church.
If the Orthodox history matched with the universalist history, then I would know whether or not the universalist doctrine had a leg to stand on.
So I began checking into the Orthodox view of Hell, using websites Richard linked for me, and came across River of Fire by Alexandre Kalomiros in late 2005. It blew my mind. If you read it, you’ll understand why, after that, everything changed. As I sometimes describe it, on my way to becoming a universalist, I tripped over Orthodoxy and fell into the Apostolic Church.
I kept searching the Orthodox websites Richard gave me, such as for GOARCH, OCA, and Orthodox Info. Originally I just wanted to find out whether or not the universalists were right about Church history.
Instead, I found that the Orthodox version of history was a bit different, though it did indeed have the five patriarchates. Also, the Orthodox had better theology about Hell than the universalists, acknowledging that the wicked must be punished, but more loving than the fundamentalist doctrines I was used to.
They say that Hell is locked from the inside: Whether Hell is a literal fire or the metaphorical fire of the wicked soul’s response to God’s searching love, it is of our own making.
They don’t presume to say how God will judge non-Christians or Christians of other denominations. The Spirit works where he wills; He could even be the reason why some people who haven’t heard of Christ become Christlike, according to my priest.
The Orthodox point to the way Christ divided the sheep from the goats at the Final Judgment: The goats didn’t care about people, while the sheep did. They point to the words of Christ that some who called him Lord, will still be shut out of Heaven, because they did not do what He said.
(This may very well refer to those who follow outward forms of Christianity, such as not drinking or smoking, and talk “Christian,” but have no love in their hearts. For examples, see Rev. Trask on Dark Shadows or the “benefactor” of Lowood Hall in Jane Eyre.)
My dad had told me about the Harrowing of Hades, though he didn’t tell me the name for it; it always comforted me when thinking about the pagan generations who died before Christ.
Then Cugan told me that Lutherans don’t believe in it, and figured those generations would have been saved in exactly the same way as later ones, because the Cross was effective for the past as well as the future.
I didn’t know what to believe. Then I discovered that the Orthodox do believe in the Harrowing of Hades, and that was a great relief.
I also learned that the Orthodox do not believe in the single predestination of the Lutherans and moderate Calvinists, or the double predestination of the traditional Calvinists.
Rather, they believe in synergy, or God and man working together: It is not Pelagian, the heresy that man does everything on his own power, or Reformation doctrine, that man can do absolutely nothing while God does everything.
God predestines, but this is based on the choices He foresees us making, not on His own decision. Because He loves us, He lets us decide, and does not force us–just like ideal human love. This was another great relief.
The Orthodox and Catholics seemed to have similar interpretations of End-Times prophecies; it was not at all like the premillennial dispensationalism of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches. (For more information, see page 1.)
The more I searched, the more intrigued I became. I used to think the Orthodox were just Eastern Catholics who let their priests get married and had a Great Schism with the Pope in the Middle Ages.
Instead, studying the Orthodox Church became, for me, like an archaeologist coming across an island full of Stone Age people: the Early Church preserved throughout the ages, untouched by the various changes in Western Christianity.
I had issues with various doctrines–what Protestant doesn’t? Unfortunately, in the beginning I used Orthodoxy and Catholicism as tools to prove to those “fundies” on the message boards that even the ancient churches did not agree with their biblical literalism. It was a way to prove that the Evangelicals and Calvinists were wrong about literal creationism, the Rapture, God caring about reputation more than us, tithing, etc.
Orthodoxy and Catholicism did not agree with me on women’s ordination, birth control, homosexuality and other issues, so I was not looking at conversion in the beginning. (I still disagree with them on those issues.)
However, as time went on, and I read various articles on the Web and posts by Orthodox and Catholic Christians on message boards, Orthodoxy became more and more intriguing.
I began to wonder if the Orthodox claims were correct–Did it really have Apostolic Succession, or the Spirit passed from one bishop to another, a succession which was broken by the Protestant churches? Would I really “plug into” the current of the Holy Spirit by becoming Orthodox?
Was the Holy Spirit not absent from, but diminished in, the other churches? Was the Eucharist really the body and blood of Christ? Was women’s ordination truly not an issue of gender, but of the priest representing Christ, who in His earthly form was male?
Did the Early Church look more like Orthodoxy or Catholicism than like the Evangelical churches which claimed to imitate the Early Church? Was it truly desecration to cremate? Was it truly wrong to use birth control to prevent having children when you weren’t poor and had no medical reason to avoid childbirth?
Was homosexuality truly a sinful passion, not just “the way God made you,” but something to fight rather than embrace? Was singing contemporary music in church really a symptom of wanting what I want rather than what God wants in worship?
What I knew for sure was that dozens or even thousands of Protestant denominations and countless, competing doctrines had worn me out. I didn’t know who to believe. I wanted to find the doctrine and worship of the Ancient Church, the standard against which everything else must be compared.
[UPDATE: This was written in 2006. I had to admit, the theology for the pro-homosexual stances seemed poor, and article writers seemed to have no qualms about twisting and beating God and the Bible to fit their views. But by 2012, I had moved back to my 2005 beliefs that homosexuality, birth control, etc. are not sinful. I’m also not happy with the rule on cremation, because all these billions of people will fill up a lot of needed space if they’re not cremated. My views these days, both in religion and in politics, have become liberal–though not to the extremes I’ve seen at times, such as throwing out the Virgin birth and that sort of thing.]
I bought the Orthodox Study Bible (New Testament version) and began using the prayers in the back of the book. I began practicing the sign of the Cross.
I left Evangelical forums which opposed everything even remotely Catholic, and joined an Orthodox forum to learn more.
I became more and more dissatisfied with contemporary worship services, megachurch practices and Protestant doctrines of all types–Charismatic, Evangelical, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran.
I also learned that “River of Fire” is very controversial, though I e-mailed the guy who answers questions on the OCA site, and he said that the fires of Hell are metaphorical. I also found this in catechisms here and the Orthodox Europe site.
On this and other things, I have to agree with a Lutheran blogger who wrote that it’s hard to pin down what exactly the Orthodox believe on many things, because you’ll read one thing and somebody will say, “No, that’s not true Orthodoxy. Try this website instead.”
The more I study the Early Church Fathers and histories, the more convinced I become that the Orthodox faith has the pure faith of the Early Church–and that it’s the most loving of all denominations I’ve investigated.
With our local PCUSA church going into the megachurch “relevance” mindset, I just can’t stay there anymore. There’s a huge crack in the denomination, formed over some 25 years of arguing, and a recent denominational decision has started a split.
Our local church could get silly at times in the services, with skits or people dressed as clowns or silly little movies done by people in the church, and often used Hollywood movie clips on PowerPoint to demonstrate points. Usually the movie clips were not Christian, and had very little to do with the Bible.
Purpose-Driven Life and The Message Bible were praised and encouraged, but at the time I didn’t know where you could go to get away from such things. To my dismay, the church had done “Forty Days of Purpose” (based on Purpose-Driven Life) in 2003 or 2004, shortly before we began attending in June 2004.
Adult Sunday School classes were based on such things as “praying the movies” (something about using Hollywood movies to inspire prayer–I don’t understand it) and other theologically iffy subjects.
Once, a newcomer led a class on End-Times prophecy. The PCUSA is amillennialist, and the General Assembly once brought up a resolution for churches to make clear to their congregations that Left Behind books have poor theology.
However, I later heard from other church members that the class leader, who came from a fundamentalist background, taught the premillennial dispensationalism which is in the Left Behind books, rather than Presbyterian views on End-Times prophecy.
In September or October of 2006, when we were still going to the PCUSA church, the pastor announced that the 10:30 service would be “blended,” with contemporary and traditional worship. I thought it already was blended, since we sang contemporary fluff along with the hymns. But apparently, “blended” meant even more contemporary fluff and even fewer hymns.
I sang the songs along with everybody else, but I felt so–empty, strained. I feared the songs did not please God because they did not fit a “proper” worship service–maybe a youth group meeting, but not a worship service.
I had only just read in the Old Testament God’s prescription for worship: complete with beautifully crafted artwork, rich clothing, and ceremony, far more like a Catholic Mass or Orthodox Divine Liturgy.
And sometimes the theology of the songs seemed wrong. If you don’t know what these modern praise and worship songs are like, combine Evangelical theology, pop psychology, the motions of kids’ songs, trite lyrics, and formulaic, mass-produced pop music.
I looked over the books and class descriptions for adult Sunday School for the fall. The books were from Willow Creek and other Evangelical sources; the topics included something about laughing your way to a good marriage. Was this a Presbyterian church, or an Evangelical or non-denominational church in the tradition of Willow Creek and Saddleback?
Because of man-centered worship services, weight rooms, food courts, coffee shops, iffy theology and the fact that Purpose-Driven Life and Purpose-Driven Church were written by a megachurch pastor, I had a dim view of any church trying to imitate a megachurch.
One week, after the changes of fall 2006 in our PCUSA church, I had to stay home from church, indisposed as I often was in those days. Cugan came home with notes about a sermon based on some passage in the Old Testament. A new temple was being built and celebrated, but the old folks, who remembered the old temple, cried.
I saw it as the old folks being sad over the past and happy to see a new temple to replace what was lost. The pastor interpreted it as showing that people get upset when changes are made, but changes still need to be made.
When I was able to go to church, the pastor praised the concept of making worship more “relevant.”
Another Sunday, when I was indisposed again, I recalled the sermon was something interesting, though I forgot what exactly, and asked Cugan to take notes. It was, “What does it mean to be Reformed and Always Reforming?” (This is a catchphrase of the PCUSA.)
I thought this meant, the PCUSA struck out the horrid section in the Westminster Confession about unelect babies who die being eternally condemned. I thought it meant women being preachers. I thought it meant constantly examining the Scriptures to make sure nothing has been misunderstood. But apparently, now it means how you worship.
Cugan came home and reported some astonishing things. The pastor passed out copies of the article “Surviving the Rapids of Change?” by Herb Miller and Lyle E. Schaller. This article came from the January 2006 issue of The Parish Paper.
Following are the pertinent points of “Surviving the Rapids of Change?”:
1) Mainline congregations with traditional services are shrinking; various congregations with modern services are thriving.
2) The American culture has moved from Producer-Driven to Consumer-Driven; people go wherever the church meets their needs.
3) There has been a shift from inherited allegiance to personal choice. Children no longer stick with one job, one career, or their parents’ church.
4) The Baby Boomer culture is driving the modern worship/church trends. (Eh, so they’re the ones to blame?)
5) Thriving congregations replace the organ with a band, replace the hymnal with PowerPoint praise music, replace missionary spending with building a relationship with a sister church in Poland or Peru, replace adult Sunday School with peer-led relational groups, and double their worship attendance within five years. (By the way, all these fit my church.)
6) A church which doesn’t change despite a push for change from the younger generations, “continues its cherished traditions, with a gradual membership decline, a rising median-age of attendees, and a slide toward extinction in two or three decades.”
7) (The Conclusion.) “Four sentences summarize the whole scenario: First, millions of Americans born and reared in a producer-driven culture view the current wave of consumerism as somewhere between a) betrayal and b) proof that the Devil is alive and at work in this world.
“Second, the most effective way to reach the generations born after 1960 is to be sensitive and responsive to their concerns. Third, changes in procedures produce conflict. Fourth, church leaders choose between a) allowing their congregations to sink and disappear and b) thoughtfully negotiating the rapids of change.”
On the front of the article was a Friar-Tuck-like figure praying, “Not my father, nor my mother, but it’s me, O Lord…looking for a place where my needs will be met!”
The church was already thriving and growing rapidly before this new relevance kick, yet starting in September or October of 2006, it seemed that the main point of every sermon–no matter the topic–was, “We must become relevant or we will die. Relevance is a good thing!”
We also had a new worship leader. (By the way, his enunciation was so poor that I had to stifle a smile whenever he spoke or sang. Without the PowerPoint, I wouldn’t have a clue what he was singing.) On November 5, 2006, right before leading a song, he went on about how relevance is important and, “If it weren’t for [relevant services/music], I wouldn’t be here [a Christian] now.”
After a series of “Dream Sessions,” in which congregational groups gave their “dreams” for the church (we missed going for some reason I forget), a PowerPoint presentation showed the results of the brainstorming.
Some ideas were fine: parent groups, SERRV (fair trade) store. But there were also pictures of a pool, a weight room, a colisseum….I had to wonder if my church was trying to be a Willow Creek or Saddleback megachurch, with all sorts of fancy, expensive trappings that have nothing to do with the Gospel. (I talk about this here.)
Then there was a series of sermons on following the dreams God gives you–hardly theological meat.
Because of some trouble with a fired secretary and questions about how the church was run, we now had deacons to help keep the congregation informed about what was going on, and to take care of the big congregation (about 600 people). Our assigned deacon called and asked if we had any issues with the church, which they were doing with everybody.
Cugan wrote his own concerns in an e-mail: This church was starting to look a lot like the Evangelical Free Church, including the music, and Cugan was feeling wary, because he had felt spiritually abused by the Evangelical Free Church. There was a push to do things for the church without much emphasis on healing a person’s own wounds first. He feared that legalistic preaching on tithing would soon follow.
I thought the church was trying to be like the megachurches–not a good thing. I also mentioned the End-Times class, and wondered what our church would do if the PCUSA finally split. Some congregations had been going to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, but that was too Calvinist.
The liberal side was doing all sorts of outlandish things; we even had people who prayed to “Sophia” instead of “God the Father.” When Cugan saw our pastor wearing a strange symbol which looked like an ankh, we couldn’t tell if she was joining the Sophia people (who also incorporate practices from other religions), or if this was a form of cross we’d never seen before.
Around this time, we were asked to be deacons. That surprised me, considering what we had just written–and that neither of us had any sort of theological training. Cugan had too much going on, and I was just about ready to escape to the Orthodox Church, so we turned them down.
By now, I came to the conclusion that the Lutheran church was the closest to correct of all the Protestant denominations. Despite Luther’s shortcomings and coming up with new doctrines and basing doctrines on Augustine’s errors, I knew that the Catholic Church had allowed in all sorts of errors and corruptions which made the Reformation inevitable.
The other Protestant denominations seemed ever more schismatic; Lutherans kept many good things from Catholicism, while the other denominations kept coming up with all sorts of outlandish things, from the Puritans to the Charismatics. If you disagreed, you split and formed your own denomination or synod.
But from what I now knew about Orthodoxy’s claims, even Lutheranism had its doctrinal problems, many of which were based on the errors of Catholicism.
I wavered between becoming Orthodox, staying where I was or becoming Lutheran with Cugan. At first, Cugan promised to go with me wherever I decided to go. But I could tell he didn’t want to become Orthodox, so I released him from his promise.
For a long time, I figured I could be Presbyterian with Orthodox theology, because the PCUSA allows such a huge diversity of beliefs among its members. But what I heard in church kept grating more and more on my soul as I learned more and more about Orthodoxy.
And what about the liberal members? Though for a while I was about ready to be liberal myself, I had discovered the errors in their doctrines. (Some of them even wanted to ditch the creeds, the Virgin Birth, a literal interpretation of the Gospels, and other essentials of the faith. The Bible was more a tool to prove points by twisting it however you liked.)
But the liberal side continuously fights the conservative Presbyterians, always chipping away at the rules in the Book of Order until one day they make the PCUSA completely liberal–whether by changing the doctrines, or by chasing out the conservatives. (I’m not talking about political liberals; politics are another matter entirely.)
Then in November 2006, I read Bishop Kallistos Ware’s story of his conversion to Orthodoxy. His concerns with the Anglican church were the same as mine with the PCUSA–answering questions I had, such as, is it okay to stay where I am, and should I become Catholic rather than Orthodox?
By the time I stepped into an Orthodox church in November 2006, I was finally ready to submit myself to the teachings of the Holy Apostolic and Orthodox Church. I was exhausted.
The mere thought of going back to the PCUSA church the following Sunday, made my stomach twinge. I was looking for the oldest, purest doctrine and practice, something I could trust; I found it here. Here I also found holy worship, and a means to union with God.
Every day that passes, I feel more sure that Orthodoxy is the original faith of the Apostles–that I’ve finally found what I was looking for. And that’s why I entered the catechumenate of the Greek Orthodox Church on December 2, 2006, and joined the Church on January 10, 2009.
By the way–Cugan has gone back to the Lutheran church and is happy again, as well.
Why I feel that St. Gregory of Nyssa, my patron saint, also led me to the Orthodox Church:
First, “Nyssa” was one of my favorite characters on Dr. Who. In high school, I began using the name as one of my many handles on a local Dr. Who-based BBS, the Panoptic Net.
I also happened across an article on St. Gregory of Nyssa while looking through an old Collier’s encyclopedia at my house, as I often did, and was surprised to discover “Nyssa” was a real place name, and that a saint was attached to the name.
I used “Nyssa” after high school/college as my main handle on BBS’s and Internet forums. I also used it as my SCA name, though not officially because it was hard to document it to satisfy the heralds, even though I have found “Nyssa” is a real-life name that has been used in some cultures in a few variations–Scandinavian, Jewish, Greek.
I began looking into claims of universalists back in 2005 because some commentator in Presbyterians Today wrote that some people in the church are universalists.
I was intrigued, since for years I had been wondering if God truly would condemn, say, a religious Jew killed in the Holocaust, or a Muslim woman who was sweet and followed her religion and did her day-to-day stuff and took care of children just like I did, trusting that she would be saved.
Some people are truly evil and may not even want to change that, even if they have all eternity to do so.
But most people–Christians or not–are just trying to do the best they can with the knowledge they have.
In poking around universalist sites, I found St. Gregory of Nyssa and Origen most often referenced as universalists; I also checked out St. Gregory’s “On the Soul and Resurrection,” which was often cited.
One day, I began thinking it was time to join the church officially, after being an inquirer/catechumen for a couple of years. That same time, a guy at church asked me when I was going to join, which almost seemed like a sign from God that it was indeed time.
I was not paying attention to what day it was when, soon after, I picked a date, and told my priest that I would be chrismated as Gregoriana, with St. Gregory of Nyssa as my patron saint.
After everything had been decided, I discovered that I was to be chrismated on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s name day, which happened to fall on a Divine Liturgy day that year, which makes me think St. Gregory was guiding me to choose that particular date. It also gave yet another reason to think that St. Gregory had been guiding me all along to come to this church.
Update 3/25/14: I am still Orthodox, though my opinions on PCUSA theology have altered a bit: I have gone back to being more liberal on the homosexuality debate.
*Copyright Nyssa McCanmore, 2006-2018