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Moving East

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon every soul, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

When I became a Christian in 1980, I was living with a Roman Catholic family and attending a Jesuit high school. I attended Mass and religion classes, but on the whole I was underwhelmed by Christianity as it was presented. I was growing more and more hungry for God, but the religion I saw seemed more irrelevant and sentimental than genuine or powerful. So when I came to faith in Christ, I didn’t join any church at all. I’d seen church. Not interested.

It was over a year later that I was invited to a friend’s Evangelical church, and began attending regularly. Unlike the bored crowds I’d seen at Mass, these Pentecostals knew how to celebrate! I already knew how to enjoy a concert – dance to the music, wave your arms in the air, sing along, get lost in the good feeling – so I already knew how to join in a Pentecostal worship service. I loved it; here was a community characterized by enthusiasm and love for Christ, and motivated by concern for the souls of the world.

I worked with evangelistic teams in jails and street ministry, and later I moved to Washington State with the goal of training for overseas missionary work. That goal was never fulfilled, but I continued to be involved in ministry, visiting nursing homes, preaching and volunteering at the local rescue mission, and later teaching Sunday school and serving on the worship team. When I had the opportunity to attend Bible school, it seemed a natural next step.

In school we were encouraged to search the Scriptures and question everything until we found it in the Bible. Some of what I was taught I rejected; most I accepted. Every Protestant has to judge for himself what he will believe. If you’d asked, I’d have said my acceptance or rejection of any doctrine or practice was always based on the text of Scripture. What I would have meant was: based on the norms of evangelical interpretation of Scripture. After all, nobody can read without interpreting. The text of Scripture doesn’t interpret itself without our involvement. Otherwise no one would ever disagree on the meaning of “Eat My body, drink My blood” or “you must be born again.”

So I rejected notions like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and baptism as a sacrament — and for that matter the very idea of sacraments. I was taught that since the New Testament doesn’t specify the office of the episcopate as separate from the presbytery, then there’s no warrant for any kind of authority structure besides a board of elders or pastors. (The earliest Christians were all democratic, of course.)

While studying the history of Christianity, we examined the history recounted in the book of Acts and then spent a very brief time reading excerpts from the “Early Fathers” — the Christian writers from the first, second and third centuries. The brief passages we read were selected and presented without context, to convince us that the worship and beliefs of the earliest Christians were just like ours. After our quick visit with the early Fathers we fast-forwarded over the “dark ages” so as to concentrate on the Protestant Reformation.

I couldn’t have told you in detail what those early Fathers taught, but I could pin them down by name and century. The “To The Reader” preface in the 1611 King James Bible was full of quotes labeled “Irenaeus”, “Tertullian”, “Cyril of Jerusalem” – and now I had a little historical data to attach to each of those names. Sadly, though, we never spent much time reading those Fathers’ writings in context. What did stick with me from those summaries of the Fathers was the emphasis on being in Christ. The idea was planted in me that, if Christ united creation to Himself in His Incarnation, then our life’s goal must be to participate in His Life, like branches in the Vine, partaking of the divine nature, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I was sure that Christ must be able not only to save us from hell (sin’s consequence) but actually to save us from sin.

In Evangelical Protestantism there was certainly room for that belief — but there was no concrete “therefore do this” to work out that kind of a vision of salvation. Instead, we taught people to pray a prayer, “get saved”, and then go get other sinners saved.

Over time I saw churches buy into one program after another, designed to mobilize believers to share their faith, and to “disciple” the people who responded. But while I participated in many evangelistic events over the years — rallies, revivals, concerts, street evangelism — and saw a lot of genuine desire to bring people to Christ, I became dissatisfied with the proportionately small amount of time and effort that went into what was called “follow-up.” Even the name “follow-up” reveals the underlying assumption that the primary task has been accomplished when a nonbeliever makes a confession of faith in Christ. All that’s left (all!) is the lifetime task of uniting him to the people of God, teaching him who his Savior is, and instilling in him a whole new lifestyle. We believed the Great Commission was addressed to us, but all our effort seemed to be going into helping people start their Christian walk; we were much less successful in teaching Christians concrete, realistic ways to live out a life that increases in grace, wisdom, and holiness. I rarely ever heard any practical, useful teaching on just how to make war on the desires of the flesh so as not to be dragged away by lustful greed and crass American consumerism. Too often, new Christians were told little more than to “read your Bible and pray.” Hardly what Christ meant by “Go make disciples”!

When emphasis was given to accountability or concrete disciplines that might help a Christian persevere to the end and so be saved, there were often complaints that we were majoring on minors, getting distracted from evangelism, engaging in manipulation — and above all, that we were doing something different from standard Pentecostal practice.

Particularly frustrating was the fact that we had to invent or try out discipleship programs, since our independent-minded Protestant history had not provided us with any kind of historical disciplines. How, exactly, do we teach our new believers even basic disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, almsgiving, fasting, accountability or self-denial? What concrete, specific steps have been proven over time to develop these very basic disciplines? We hadn’t received anything like that from the early Church; outside of the Scriptures themselves, we lived as though nothing of the early Christian life had survived from those long-ago saints until today.

Our ideas of how to accomplish discipleship were all only decades old, because we really had no history. We zealously defended the faith of our fathers as we understood it, but our vision of “normal Christianity” really stretched back only about a hundred years.

In the mid 1990’s our church started a Vietnamese mission congregation. When they invited me to be their pastor, I took very seriously the responsibility to present the word of God as it is, not merely my beliefs about it; and I knew that God’s people need to worship Him acceptably. Beginning to realize the lack of historical depth or context to my Christianity, I began reading more widely, looking for wisdom and inspiration in the writings of the people who were the ancestors of our Pentecostal tradition: the great American and Welsh revivalists, the Salvation Army, the Keswick “deeper life” writers, the Pietists, the Puritans.

I visited friends’ churches — Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopal, and others. Those visits impressed me with how many very different things are called “worship”. This is when I began the study that I had no idea would eventually lead me to Orthodoxy — a study to answer the question: What exactly is worship? In the Reformation, the altar was moved from the center of attention and the pulpit took first place, reflecting a fundamental shift in the definition of worship – from personal participation in Christ, to hearing a preached sermon. And in our modern Pentecostal tradition, the pulpit could be dispensed with entirely, as the guitars and drums took center stage and music became the defining feature of what we called worship.

Amid all those changes of focus and shifting meanings of the word “worship”, I had to wonder how much of what we do in church today is just a reflection of our transient culture? How much is authentic? What is common to the church’s experience of worship through history? I didn’t want to invest time and prayer into something that would be meaningless in a generation, or irrelevant outside my cultural context.

One week, in a home study group, as we were reading through Acts, I taught on Acts 2:42-47. That passage affected me deeply — the church was just being the church and the Lord was adding to their numbers those who were being saved. People were encountering Christian fellowship and being drawn into it — and in that environment they were meeting Christ. Communal worship, prayer, and mutual submission were the methods they used to make disciples. And when they expanded outside Judea, they continued to make disciples, with this same culturally-alien, ethnic Jewish variety of synagogue liturgy. (This was not a user-friendly, seeker-sensitive church!)

As we studied the end of Acts chapter 2, I grew increasingly frustrated. I knew this kind of congregational life and devotion must be key to establishing authentic Christian fellowship — but the New Testament just does not give a divine blueprint for building the Church! Paul and Peter, James and Jude assume the Church is already established and needs only their specific corrections. I could see that we modern folks were missing the mark; I decided I had to go back and re-read the documents of the early church. I still remembered the names of those early Christian Fathers of the first and second century — surely in their writings I’d find insights I could apply to our congregation. Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple.

Like most Protestants I knew, I had been taught that the early Church was just like us …but then after the first few centuries, the church began to go all weird and liturgical and hierarchical. And then when Constantine legalized Christianity, that was the last nail in the coffin: The church became virtually extinct for the next 1200 years, till the Protestant Reformation. I figured that if my reading stayed way back in the Church’s first century or two, before the time serious corruption could set in, I should be able to read the comments of men who had been taught by the Apostles, who wrote to churches the Apostles had pastored. They should shed some light on how our democratic, charismatic, nonsacramental congregation could live out the kind of life described in the book of Acts. Right?

To put it mildly, these writers shocked me. After only a little reading — Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the Didache, for starters — it was evident that the early church, even in the late first century, practiced liturgical worship. To them this was the normal Christian life. I was unprepared for these second- and first-century writers to be discussing bishops and liturgy, and calling the “Eucharist” the body of Christ.

They didn’t just sit in a circle in their bluejeans and talk about Jesus; they practiced a liturgy they’d inherited from the synagogue, and they celebrated Communion – the Eucharist – gathered around a bishop and presbyters and deacons. By 150AD, Justin Martyr could describe the outline of the liturgy in order; and by the early 200’s Hippolytus wrote out the texts of the prayers everyone used. And the rest of the Christians around them thought this was nothing out of the ordinary! What these “early Christian Fathers” wrote was not refuted or destroyed, but rather preserved, copied, and distributed to the churches during the lifetime of the Apostles. Heretical writings were denounced and destroyed, but these writings were considered normal by Christians in John’s or Paul’s churches.

What did these early Christian Fathers have to say? Within a decade of John’s death, his disciple Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church of Philadelphia:

If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God… Be eager, therefore, to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for union with His blood; one sanctuary; as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants. So that, whatever you do, you do it in according to the will of God.

And a few years later, the Christian apologist Justin (later known as Justin Martyr) wrote regarding Christian worship:

And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto new birth, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but… we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

In fact, without exception, all the first- and second-century writers were starting to sound like they held an awfully “catholic” view of baptism, communion, and the church. Yet no one, even n the Protestant world, ever questioned the historicity of these ancient documents.

I read on from the earliest Fathers into the third and fourth centuries — Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil. Where was the break I was expecting? Where was the change from congregational democracy and unstructured charismatic worship, to liturgical, hierarchical religion? That change was nowhere to be found; instead, it looked more like the writers of the first and fourth centuries were all on the same page, all in the same Church. Of course there were variations of opinion, but all these ancient writers, from across the civilized world, shared the beliefs of those first-century teachers who’d written with the words of the Apostles still ringing in their ears. The writers after Constantine didn’t differ materially from those before; instead there was a real sense of harmony among all the ancient writers I read; and an increasing dissonance as I compared their ancient beliefs to what I was accustomed to preaching.

Virtually all my concepts of worship and church government were turning out to be modern innovations. Before 1500, who had ever heard of democratic church government? Symbolic crackers and grape juice? An invisible church independent of the original apostles? Baptism that doesn’t really do anything? Thousands of years and thousands of miles removed from the apostles who wrote Scripture, with Greek a foreign language at best, by the dim light of archaeology, speculation, and changing winds of scholarship, I was in no position to judge the interpretations and teachings of these earliest Christians, who had learned their doctrine directly from the apostles. I had to start letting them judge me.

I experimented with adding liturgical elements in our services; but the results were unsatisfying to say the least. The Vietnamese Christians knew how they were used to doing church, and while they’d humor me in my liturgical notions, they were not about to significantly change their practices at this late date. As I realized the centrality of the Eucharist in early Christianity, we emphasized Communion more, and I found myself preaching against doctrines I had taught not too many months before — and in increasing disagreement with the other teachers in the congregation.

I had always believed my job as a mission pastor was to work myself out of a job. I had already been working toward turning the Vietnamese mission over to Vietnamese leaders. So I was glad to hand over most of the task of preaching to the Vietnamese leaders. I didn’t have much choice; preaching had become terribly difficult. My “Thus Saith The Lord” had gone away, and I felt like a fraud. The doctrines I’d taught were internally consistent — but not faithful to what the earliest Christians believed.

It was especially disturbing, in attempting to preach the Gospel as the early Christians did, that the early Christians didn’t seem to believe that a “decision for Christ” was the same thing as “salvation.” They all taught that salvation was a lifelong process, not a transaction or a legal fiction, and “he who perseveres to the end will be saved.” I had long believed I had a message that would save the world; now after seeing the sadly temporary results of much of evangelical preaching and discipleship, I couldn’t preach a simplistic “Get saved” gospel any more. What was I supposed to invite people into? Ancient Christianity was all about the relationship of the member of the Church to Christ and His body; not about anybody’s “personal Savior.” Outsiders were invited to join the people of God, get aboard the ark, become a part of the body — not to individually “accept Christ” but to come and be accepted, healed, and sanctified in the community of believers.

Was there a place in the Assemblies of God for this kind of grace community to be found — or created? Could our congregation become a community I could invite someone to be immersed in and find the healing they need? I doubted it. Our modern Christianity was starting to look like something consisting primarily of words and ideas and unreal things that happen in a person’s head: Intellectual things like those derived from Bible study and sermon listening, or emotional things like born again experiences and charismatic events. Wasn’t there anything real, effectual, and tangible? Were justification, sanctification, and participation in the divine nature just concepts or “spiritual realities” unrelated to life as we live it, here and now? Nobody seemed to have an answer that they hadn’t just invented, or reconstructed out of Scriptural proof-texts pulled together in an attempt to guess what the apostles had meant. Unfortunately, the apostles were long dead and all we evangelicals had to work with was their letters.

About this time, I ran across a reference to “The Carpenter’s Company”, a Foursquare congregation that had converted en masse and become — get this — Eastern Orthodox. How bizarre! Aren’t the Orthodox just ethnic Catholics? What could possibly be attractive about that? I’d seen Catholicism, gone to Catholic school, lived with Catholic families… they may have started out with the Fathers, and kept some of the trappings of the original worship of the early Church, but their ever-evolving doctrines, military-style chain of command, and weird sentimental devotions didn’t look anything like the community Ignatius or Basil wrote about. Could these Foursquare folks have bought into a form of Catholicism? Following up on this incomprehensible conversion story provided a welcome distraction.

After reading a bit about Orthodoxy, I discovered that Orthodoxy and Catholicism are vastly different … and that these Orthodox people were way ahead of me! They had not only already thought of the ancient ideas I was trying on for size — they’d been working them out in detail, with all their implications, for a very long time. Suddenly my thinking didn’t seem so very “out there” at all; and evidently there were plenty of other Evangelicals coming to the same conclusions that Foursquare congregation did — and converting to Orthodoxy. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon lately for entire congregations to join the Orthodox Church. Congregations convert from a variety of backgrounds: Foursquare, Episcopal, Vineyard, and others. I even read about the “Evangelical Orthodox”, an entire Protestant denomination that joined the Orthodox Church in 1987.

These converts claimed they were finding in Orthodoxy a community devoted to the disciplines and worship of ancient Christianity — not by restoring or reinventing it, but by receiving it as it had been practiced since the days of Peter and Paul. (Quite a claim, if they could back it up!) As it turned out, outside of the Western Roman Empire, there were no “dark ages”, but an unbroken chain of literate, articulate theologians who never forgot their roots. As I read the Orthodox writers of the fifth, eighth, or twelfth centuries, I thought that they might be right — this was the same stream I’d been wading in while reading the early Fathers.

Discovering twentieth-century Orthodoxy was not entirely welcome. For all its warts I liked my denomination — there are some good men and women there, who sincerely love the Lord — and I loved the people I went to church with. I didn’t want to leave the church family I’d been part of for most of my Christian life. I made up my mind to incorporate the good parts of Orthodox spirituality into my life and stay what and where I was. Meanwhile, my curiosity got the best of me, I looked up an Orthodox church near me in Yakima, and took a Sunday off to go visit.

What can I say about Orthodox worship? It was reverent, intimate, repentant… alive with faith, strange yet oddly familiar. The liturgy had elements I recognized from the Catholic Mass and from popular “chant” CD’s, and it consisted mostly of praying a lot of Scripture. In fact they read and prayed more complete chapters of the Bible in a single service than I’d ever heard before in a church service. But what really struck me was how Jewish it was. The words of the prayers, the melodies the cantor used while chanting, the menorah up front — so many things reminded me of a synagogue service. (I already knew that Christian liturgy was adapted from first-century Jewish synagogue liturgy, but I hadn’t thought it would still be that way.) They hadn’t stopped offering prayers with incense; “Bow down” wasn’t a song lyric but a practical physical act; the women still wore head coverings; they still celebrated the body and blood of Christ — it seemed like they were out to practice all the verses I’d never highlighted in my Bible. This was very much not a modern American invention! I was hooked, and returned to visit Orthodox worship services again and again over the following months.

By contrast with the charismatic services I led every week, the Orthodox liturgies I attended were such a relief! There was no pressure to make every week fresh, unique and exciting. There’s not a lot of performance pressure on the cantor or clergy, because the whole church is the worship team. Personalities don’t affect the worship, and the prayers don’t depend on anyone’s subjective eloquence or how their week has gone. In the set form of the Liturgy was also, paradoxically, a sense of freedom I’d not experienced before: Because there are boundaries and the worshipers know what to expect, they are free to concentrate wholly on their common prayers. There’s no wondering what new thing the worship leader will ask us to do this week!

More important to me than the worship services was the fact that among Orthodox Christians, I’d found people who still practiced the same worship and disciplines described by Justin Martyr or Irenaeus or Hippolytus in the first or second century. They didn’t read a lot of Max Lucado or Dr. Dobson; instead they spent most of their time putting the earliest Christian writers’ advice into action. And I was vastly relieved to find out that they didn’t believe in purgatory, Mary as “co-redeemer”, indulgences, or infallible popes!

In mid 1998 I was introduced to an Orthodox church-planting team that had moved up from California to start an Orthodox community in Walla Walla. (These people were from the church that started out as the San Jose Vineyard and in the early 90′s wound up becoming St Stephen Orthodox Church.) They were doing all the things I promised myself I’d do if I ever was involved in starting another church. At the Vietnamese mission, we had started having services, and a church slowly coalesced and filled in the framework — but too many relationships were centered on the leaders. Before you start having services, you need to already be a church! There’s got to be a network of relationships and a common worship experience, a community, an environment where outsiders can come and encounter authentic fellowship and community. That’s what these church planters were doing. I began attending inquirers’ meetings in Walla Walla.

At the end of the year I found that I couldn’t remain in both worlds; I had to make a decision. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy.”

With mixed emotions, I resigned from ministry and membership in Calvary Assembly of God. It was painful to leave behind friends and family in Christ; but it was also a relief to at last be free to wholeheartedly participate in the historic faith and worship I’d been dabbling in for the previous two years. I moved to Walla Walla to join in the life of the Orthodox community there, and on August 14, 1999 I was received into the Orthodox Church.

When a person enters the Church, they often are given the name of some hero of the faith who has finished the race triumphantly. I’ve always been inordinately proud of my knowledge, so it’s appropriate that for a patron saint I felt moved to choose Silouan of Mt Athos. St Silouan, a simple monk and all but illiterate, was consulted by pilgrims who sought out his wisdom and teaching on humility, obedience, and love. His life challenged me so much that I specifically wanted him praying for me today.

So I became Orthodox. And lived happily ever after? Well. The jury’s still out on that. A few years isn’t long enough to make a serious dent in a lifetime’s immersion in Western thought and independent self-inventing religion. I do know that, for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced long-term consistency in prayer, and personal accountability on a deeper level than I’ve ever known.

And, incidentally, far from relaxing carefree in a new level of freedom from sin, I’ve become much more conscious of the rebellion, selfishness, and pride that underlie so much of my way of living and thinking. But (our culture’s pop psychology to the contrary) guilt is not a burden to be rolled away and ignored; guilt means we’ve sinned and have the opportunity to repent. Compunction is good news! The practical how-to of repentance and humility is the place where Orthodoxy begins to show up as something different from every religion I know.

It’s after having been exposed to Orthodox preaching and teaching for a little while that I’ve begin to realize that in my life I have heard (and preached!) far more sermons on what the text of Scripture meant, than on how, practically and concretely, to live a life that leads to experiencing salvation from sin here and now. It’s much more common in many churches to hear exposition on the Sermon on the Mount than to hear usable, practical counsel from that Sermon on how to live, now, in the Kingdom. I can’t count how many vague sermons I’ve heard on “living in the Spirit” which never included a shred of practical instruction on what to do. In two thousand years the Orthodox have had time to prove what works for training the spiritual athlete to run the race to win.

Asceticism for me has quit being a word to describe crazed masochists, and has become part of my personal vocabulary. In Greek, askesis refers to athletic disciplines — and that’s a very apt metaphor for a Christian life that denies our nation’s cult of immediate gratification and materialism. Instead of seeing fasting as a heroic way to impress God when I want something from Him, fasting has become a regular part of the normal Christian life. After all, Christ did say “They shall fast” and “When you fast” so self-denial is meant to be common to all Christians. When disciplines are received and obeyed they can lead to humility. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in self-will, where we independently decide what cross to carry, and we just feed our pride. It’s a challenge for me to submit to the wisdom of two millennia of Christians who Know What Works, instead of developing my own personal rule of prayer or devotion.

All that discipline, submission, and obedience is not the result of any desire to measure up to a standard that will make me acceptable to God. The fact is, we don’t need to measure up at all. God loves us as we are. Period. A friend of mine wrote in a recent letter:

Do we love Him? Fine, then: True Love doesn’t ask “what I need to do and how much I need to measure up.” True love simply does as much as it can, the max, and prays for the ability to do yet more. (“More Love to Thee, O Christ, More love to Thee!”)

What has surprised me in speaking with my Evangelical friends has been that often the Orthodox emphasis on active faith — obedience — comes across either as an attempt to earn God’s favor through works, or as “something extra”, something above and beyond what is needed for salvation. And that’s the biggest difference between the gospel I used to preach and the one I’m trying to live today. I’m not interested in identifying the minimum that’s “needed for salvation.” Given an infinite goal – transforming union with God – and given the foolishness, pride, and sin that still characterize me, I’m motivated to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

And what ever happened to that vision of an Acts 2:42 church? It might be surprising when you look at the surface of incense and icons and ancient melodies, but the kind of community described in Acts is happening here. The Lord is adding continually those who are being saved. People encounter members of our community socially, get exposed to our way of life and of relating to one another (humility, mutual submission, prayer) and they are drawn by God to join us. Some of us are former Evangelicals, pastors, elders, what-have-you. But a number of our inquirers and catechumens are post-Christians who got burned out on church a long time ago, or normal people who have little church background at all. Many of them have never before seen an atmosphere where absolutes are proclaimed, yet nobody points a finger — instead, we confess that we’re a bunch of hypocrites and sinners and we pray constantly for mercy and the grace of repentance.

I lean toward this vision not of evangelism but of community even more strongly as I’m painfully aware that I’m far from the godly example I’d like an unbeliever or non-Orthodox inquirer to encounter. No message is more credible than the messenger. I have a little credibility with the few people who know me well; they may or may not trust me when I tell them about the claims of Christ. But when they encounter a healthy community of faith, they see proof that Christ is among us.

Maybe it’s fitting that I started this piece speaking of my own individual experience but ended up talking about the Church. The promises and commands of Christ and the apostles are almost always in the plural. And while we can sin as individuals, we will be saved as members of Christ or not at all.

Philip Silouan Thompson

“We, unwise and with the meagerness of our intelligence, with God’s help have written this as a reminder to myself and to others of similar mind… If there is anything found here not pleasing to God and not helpful to souls because of my foolishness and ignorance, let it be not so, but may the will of God perfect it and make it well-pleasing. I ask pardon or beg that, if anyone should find anything else more practical and useful, then let him do it and we shall be glad and rewarded. If anyone should find from these writings some help, let him pray for me a sinner that I may obtain mercy before God.”   — St. Nil Sorsky

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