An American Pilgrimage to the Orthodox Church
by James M. Kushiner
I don’t remember when I first became aware that there are other than Roman Catholic or Protestant Christians. There are so many Catholics and so many Protestants in the United States that the Orthodox virtually are an invisible minority to many.
When I finally became aware of the Orthodox, I was not impressed. I heard about a local Greek Orthodox parish, where they mostly spoke Greek; I figured it was just an “immigrant” religion. The children and grandchildren of those Greeks, having been born and raised in America, would adopt American churchgoing habits, I thought, and become either Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Methodist, or perhaps even Roman Catholic through marriage.
Orthodoxy, I thought, belonged to Eastern Europe or, I later found out, parts of the Middle East and Asia, but was not indigenous to America and would never be embraced by native-born Americans. Orthodoxy was a religion of the “old country” but not for the New World.
It turned out that I was wrong, as an increasing number of Americans now are joining the Orthodox Church—and I joined it too. In June 1993 I and 48 other American-born English-speaking former Protestants and Catholics were received into the communion of the Holy Orthodox Church by the sacrament of chrismation at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero, Illinois.
All 49 of us then became All Saints Orthodox Mission, part of the Antiochian Christian Archdiocese of North America. We now have some 120 members in our parish on the northwest side of Chicago, and have 3 members who serve as missionaries overseas. We are no longer a mission, but simply All Saints Orthodox Church, and fully American.
Too Many Churches
Our journey to the Orthodox Church took a long time. I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant home. My father became a Christian—“gave his life to Christ”—at a Billy Graham Crusade in the 1950s. He went forward and made a profession of faith in Christ, and for as long as I can remember we attended church every Sunday and I was taught the Bible in Sunday School. We attended a Bible church, and later a Baptist Church.
When I was in high school, I made a profession of faith in Christ as well. I attended Christian youth retreats and Bible studies and was active in my church youth group. I read the writings of other Protestant Christians like C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer and found them very helpful.
While a freshman at the University of Michigan, a thoroughly secular school, unlike many students, I did not abandon my Christian faith, but joined with other Christian students in fellowship, Bible study, and prayer.
Through the influence of Protestant Bible study groups, including some that were part of what was called the “Jesus Movement” in the 1960s, I and other young people began to wonder to what extent the institutional churches had remained faithful to the true teachings of Christ and the New Testament. We were in this way very idealistic.
One of the things that troubled us most was the great number of Protestant denominations, divided from each other, disagreeing on how to interpret the New Testament. As a Baptist, I had been taught to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was in serious error, and that the Protestant Reformation had been necessary to correct the abuses of the Roman Church.
I did not question that interpretation, but I also saw that the churches derived from the Reformation were not united and did not say the same things about the Christian faith and had their own errors. Some said that Holy Communion was a sacrament of grace, others that it was merely a symbol. Some said children of Christian parents should be baptized, others that only adults should be. Some said the church should have bishops, others said presbyters, and others called them pastors. Some said each congregation should be entirely independent and not subject to any higher authority at all.
There were, and still are, of course, several points of agreement between various denominations, especially about Jesus: that He is Lord, He was born of a Virgin, was crucified, dead, and buried, and that He rose again on the third day. They agreed that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God—and that the Roman Catholic Church was wrong about salvation. But it’s hard to remain united around an identity that depends partly on what we were against: Rome. And so Protestantism kept dividing into more and more denominations.
A Private Decision?
With so many divisions and disagreement, how does a Christian decide which church to join? That was a question that we had to face as we became adults, got married, and started to raise families. Shouldn’t I just join the one with which I most agree? But Scripture itself says that the Bible is not a matter for my own personal interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), and there are some things “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16), so the Christian needs to look outside himself for the interpretation.
While I eventually understood that the Bible is not best interpreted privately, and that its meaning has been public and knowable by looking at the history of the Church, I at first joined in a somewhat private search for the True Church and true interpretation of the Bible. It was a quest for authentic Christianity. But I also was well aware that many denominations had split from one another by trying to claim authentic Christianity for themselves: they, and not the others, were teaching and practicing authentic Christianity. Who was right?
I said the search was somewhat private. It was not entirely individualistic, for I joined with other members of a local Bible study fellowship group in Chicago that eventually formed into a small local Christian congregation.
But where should we search? It took us a few years before we realized that Christian wisdom is best found by looking to past generations for guidance. And that’s when we discovered the writings of the early Church, writings that with which we were almost completely unfamiliar as Protestant Evangelicals.
It was through reading about the early Church martyrs and the writings of the Church fathers that we finally decided to join the Eastern Orthodox Church. I will deal with my experience within this small local congregation in some detail in order to explain why we decided to join the Orthodox Church.
A Journey With Questions
It took me about 20 years to make my way to the Orthodox Church, along with my wife and a number of others. We began our journey in Chicago in 1972 as a Protestant Evangelical “house fellowship” that attempted to do what we thought the early Church did. We wanted to be a “New Testament Church.”
We read Acts 2 and saw a pattern of daily fellowship and worship and attention to the study of scripture. So we met quite often and studied a lot, and prayed. In our youthful zeal we thought we could bypass all the denominational disagreements and just go back to the Bible to the way the apostles did things. We simply wanted to return to an ideal of primitive Christianity.
But even with our starting point being the Bible, we had to debate certain questions and make certain decisions, all based on our own reading and understanding of Holy Scripture. Were Baptists or Lutherans correct about baptizing infants? We struggled with this question for a long time and around 1980 finally decided that the baptism of children was what was done in the New Testament Church. Because of this decision, some left our fellowship.
What form of worship should we use on Sunday? Spontaneous or Formal liturgy? Were “the prayers” of Acts 2 a clue about fixed and formal prayers for worship, what some call “liturgy,” or was worship a free “Spirit-led” experience as Pentecostals claimed? We decided to worship liturgically, and some of our members didn’t agree with this decision either.
Since we (correctly) saw that Christians in the New Testament shared the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, it was natural to ask how this should be done. When we decided to use a common Communion cup and that worshippers should come forward to receive Communion rather than receive it sitting in their seats, some people left our congregation saying this was “too Catholic” for them.
Were Catholics correct about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or were Baptists correct about the Communion being only a symbol and nothing more—or were the Lutherans closer to the truth? We emphasized the Real Presence of Christ and embraced the idea of a priest leading the congregation in worship.
But we didn’t have any clergy ordained to the priesthood. We had to decide whether the “elders” of Presbyterians were the biblically correct form of church governance or were the “bishops” of the Episcopalians and Catholics and some Lutherans? In those churches, only bishops could ordain clergy to offer Holy Communion, and we didn’t have either clergy or bishops, but had to rely on conducting liturgy with those we deemed to be leaders of our congregation.
All of these questions, we thought, we should be able to answer completely from the pages of the Bible without reference to any other living (or dead) authority. But we were wrong.
Where Did We Get Our Bible?
After all, how do I know that the 27 books of the New Testament are the inspired Word of God? Who tells me its writings are inspired? Well, the Church and no one else.
So how did we come to make the decisions we made, even if they caused us to lose members of our fellowship? We naturally thought it also might help to find out what the Christians who lived right after the Bible believed and did. We found out that not only did they give us some of the answers we were seeking, but they also played an important role in giving us the New Testament in the first place.
There really is no such thing as just me and my Bible, because the Bible comes with an entire church and its history attached to it. Where did I get my Bible? First, I got it from translators. Second, I got it from Christians who copied the books and manuscripts from one generation to another. They passed on the texts and copied them from one church and monastery to another. Third, the texts that they copied were those texts that the earliest Christians had preserved—the writings of Paul, Peter, James, John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
We say that we get our Bible from the Church because it was the Church that told us what belongs in the Bible. There were many other Christian writings—the Epistles of Ignatius, Epistle of Clement, Gospel of Thomas, Shepherd of Hermas, The Protoevangelium of James, and so on—but after a few hundred years the Church meeting in a council agreed on a final list of accepted writings. These various writings were recognized as canonical, that is, authoritative for the life of the Church.
The Church of the Bible
Now if we trust the Church to tell us the contents of the Bible, why shouldn’t we trust that same Church to know how the Bible is to be interpreted when it comes to certain questions? The Church that tells us what belongs in the New Testament: what did it believe and practice about worship, sacraments, and so on?
It seemed wise, then, to consider what these early Christians thought about these other questions. So our little fellowship, our Bible study group started reading the writings of the early church writers, those who were taught by the apostles and their immediate followers.
At first we were surprised to find that there were available to us so many writings from the second and third and fourth-century Christians. We had no idea these writings even existed. When we read them, we saw that they give clear guidance on many of the questions we wanted to answer—and all this was coming from the same Christians who assured us of the contents of the New Testament.
We were surprised to find that some of the things that we earlier had rejected as Evangelical Protestants were actually part of the life and faith of the early Christians! And where could we find these things still practiced today? In the Orthodox Church.
Marks of the Biblical Church
In our study of the Bible, we saw that there are certain features of the New Testament Christian life that generally are not practiced in most of the Protestant churches from which we had come. It would be helpful to give a list of things that we saw in Holy Scripture, and found in the early Church, but are not found consistently at all among the Protestant and Evangelical communities.
Many denominations downplay this biblical truth or deny it outright, saying that the Bread and Wine are merely symbols that simply help us remember the Lord. But St. Paul is emphatic about Communion: “Whoever, therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. [He] eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Cor. 11:27–30)
Christ himself says, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:53–54)
The early Christians and Church fathers held a high view of the Eucharist: St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr of the early second century, called Communion the “medicine of immortality,” a view that we found in the Orthodox Church. Holy Communion was treated most seriously in the early Church, viewed as a mystery of the faith. The notion of being a “mere symbol” is a modern idea not found anywhere in the writings of the church fathers.
St. Paul, in relating the story of his conversion in Acts, says that Jesus sent him to Ananias in Damascus, who after three days, told Paul, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” (22:16). St. Peter wrote that “baptism… now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21) St. Paul speaks of baptism in Colossians as the “putting off of the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ,” a baptism in which we are “buried with Christ (2:12; cf. Rom. 6:1).
As to the baptism of children, there is nothing in the New Testament that would forbid this. Jesus’ invitation to bring even the infants to Him for blessing, and the baptism of entire households would seem to suggest infants were to be included. In fact, we see virtually no other practice in the early Church in the following centuries, and the Church that gave us our New Testament practiced this.
There are again very few churches that still practice this, but it is found right in the New Testament, with no reason given why it should ever be abandoned: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14–15).
To this day, priests of the Orthodox Church anoints the sick with the blessed oil, and it is considered a sacrament of Christ’s church, an extension of His healing ministry, just as in the New Testament. Why isn’t this done in most Protestant churches?
Few Protestant churches have anything like the confession of one’s sins and absolution. In Matthew 18 Christ assures us that the Church has authority to bind and to loose the sins of its members, meaning to forgive their sins. After his Resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) And, following the verses in James about anointing and the forgiveness of sins, “Therefore confess your sins to one another.” (5:16)
In the Orthodox Church, there is a lively sense of confession, something that is in evidence in the early Church as well. Regular confession of our sins to Christ, with the priest as a witness on behalf of the Church and as Christ’s representative on earth pronouncing the forgiveness that Christ gives—this was always part of the regular discipline of the early Church.
There is no question that in the New Testament the bishops and elders (presbyter from the Greek, from which we get our word priest) are envisioned as the normal governing authorities in the Church. Titus 1:7 mentions the qualifications for bishops, and there are numerous references to elders and bishops in the New Testament, as well as deacons.
Few Protestant churches are governed by bishops, and in many cases congregations are simply independent from any external oversight, something foreign to the early Church, which recognized the regular orders of deacon, priest, and bishop as continuing an apostolic practice for the good of the Body of Christ.
In the early Church, the bishops were understood as successors of the Apostles. They ordained the priests and deacons, and provided for the sacramental and teaching ministry of the Church. It became apparent to us that we needed to “regularize” our Eucharistic worship, and have a priest to lead us, a priest ordained by a bishop who stood in direct succession back to the apostles.
St. Paul, in what is an admittedly difficult chapter on marriage, concludes by saying that “he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (1 Cor. 7:38) Jesus says to his disciples, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only to those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Matt. 19:12)
These are hard sayings, but by taking into account what the early Church practiced, we see both a high view of marriage as a blessed sacrament (no divorce) and the monastic, celibate life for those for whom it is a calling. Consecrated celibacy is not a feature of the Protestant churches, but it was in the early Church and remains so today in the Orthodox Church (and Catholic Church)—with no diminution of the sanctity of marriage in the eyes of the Church. It is a calling within and for the sake of the Church.
While all churches do emphasize prayer, the Orthodox Church also embraces regular fasting days and seasons for her members. She does so in fulfillment of Christ’s own teaching about how to fast in Matthew 6:16–18, where He clearly expected fasting to be done. Christ says as much again in Matthew 9:14–15, when asked by the Pharisees why the disciples do not fast: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from the, and then they will fast.”
Prayer is formally emphasized by the Orthodox Church in its practice of praying the Hours, regular times of prayer throughout the day in remembrance of God’s saving acts, especially Christ’s offering of Himself upon the Cross and His saving death. Fasting is regularly practiced as community of faith during certain seasons, such as Lent and Advent.
Councils, Tradition & Mary
There were also several other features of the New Testament and early Church that to varying degrees are reflected in some non-Orthodox churches, but are worth mentioning here.
The leading of the church by council.
In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, we find the Church gathered to answer the difficult and divisive question of how Gentiles (non-Jews) are to be received into the Church. Must they be circumcised first? No, the apostles decided, after deliberating in council together. Paul and Barnabas came from their missionary work abroad to participate in this council, for its decision would have a direct bearing on their converts. Peter spoke as a leader at this council, and James the Lord’s brother summarized the decision of the apostles, saying that it seemed good to them “and to the Holy Spirit.
Ever since then, the Church has met in various local, regional, or ecumenical councils. In the Orthodox Church, there are seven major councils that are considered authoritative. The first two of these “Ecumenical Councils” of the bishops of the Church defended the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, and gave us the Nicene Creed which is recited in worship on Sundays in both the East and the West. This Nicene faith is essentially shared by all churches—Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, even Baptist, and so on, even if it is not recited in worship. The faith about Jesus is set forth there, a faith shared by all, and again, it is the same Church that confirmed for us the books of the Holy Scriptures.
But of all the churches, the Orthodox Church in particular looks to the seven ecumenical councils as the major authoritative gatherings of the Church.
The role of tradition in defining our understanding of the faith.
It should be clear that the Bible completely by itself cannot produce Christian unity and that the church as a whole down through the ages is necessary to not only confirmed the books of the Bible in the first place, but also help interpret it clearly when challenged by heresies, as so happened in the case of the Nicene Creed. This creed was pronounced in 325 and finalized in council in 381 against the teachings of Arius, who taught that Christ was not the eternal Son of God but was rather created by the Father, though being the highest of all creation. Arius’ teachings were influential and swayed many, for he often quoted Bible verses that many found hard to understand. But in the end the Church meeting in council declared Arius’ teaching to be in error and all churches follow the Nicene faith today.
This would seem to indicate the necessary role of the church and its “tradition”—which simply means what it faithfully “hands down” from the apostles generation after generation. The Orthodox Church has a very clear continuity in its teachings all the way back to the earliest centuries. We believe that the faith is “once for all delivered” and so one of the signs of authentic apostolic teaching is that it does not change over time.
Even in the New Testament it is clear that the churches were governed by the oral tradition of the apostles, for the New Testament and Gospels had not even been written yet: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15)
The veneration of the Mary.
Finally, many Protestants accuse the Orthodox of being unbiblical in their veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sometimes the Orthodox themselves might be vulnerable and confused by this accusation. But the most elementary examination of the New Testament shows us that the Orthodox have the correct and biblical view about Mary.
In the Bible, it is clear that a mark of biblical faith is a respect offered to the Mother of our Lord. Such respect is not given in most Protestant churches, and one could even say that sometimes the opposite is taught: to specifically avoid any sign of respect.
What does the Bible say? In Luke chapter 1, when Mary greeted the elder Elizabeth, it says that “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
What Elizabeth says is inspired by the Holy Spirit, so we should pay attention. She calls Mary blessed. More significantly, she inverts the normal social order in which the younger would always show deference to her elder by saying expressing herself to be honored by Mary’s visit.
And why is Mary honored this way by Elizabeth? Because she is “the mother of my Lord,” by which she means Jesus Christ, the child that Mary is carrying in her womb at the time of her visit. Also, John the Baptist, who is in the womb of Elizabeth, is said to leap for joy when the voice of Mary came to the ears of Elizabeth.
Finally, Mary praises God beginning in verse 46, and in her inspired song recorded in the inspired Gospel of Luke, she says “all generations will call me blessed.”
Therefore a sure mark of the Church that continues the tradition of the New Testament must be that it calls the Virgin Mary “blessed” and shows her honor (“veneration,” not “worship”) because she is, as the Holy Spirit said through Elizabeth, the mother of our Lord.
The Right Church?
These have been, then, some of the reasons from our reading of the Bible that led us to conclude that the Orthodox Church is the place where the Christian life as expressed in the New Testament is experienced in its fullness.
What about some of the other churches that have sacraments, worship liturgically, and have bishops that go back historically in succession to the early Church? We did look at these, but became increasingly dismayed by the growing theological liberalism and apostasy in branches of the Anglican churches (some of which ordain homosexuals) and Lutheranism. The Roman Catholic Church has the serious problem of the doctrine about the Papacy, and we found that this understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome was not evident in the early Church and became a source of division whenever the Bishop of Rome asserted it.
A sign of the authenticity of the Orthodox Church as the Church founded by Christ and his apostles was the fact that historically speaking, it is clear that the Orthodox Church does go back to the apostles in unbroken continuity. If someone were to ask a Christian of any one of number of denominations, “Who founded your church?” they might answer something like, Martin Luther, or John Welsey, or John Calvin, John Knox, Henry VIII, or even the name of a modern pastor or preacher. With the Orthodox Church it is clear than there is no one in history who founded it other than our Lord Jesus Christ, with his apostles.
Now just because the Orthodox Church is the true church founded by Christ doesn’t mean that it is without sin, that it doesn’t not suffer the pride and arrogance of men at times. But I came to understand as a Protestant that sin in a church was not enough reason to leave and join another church, for all churches have human faults.
Some Evangelical Protestants might criticize the Orthodox Church for not being as missionary-minded as other denominations, or for not emphasizing Bible study and such things. Yet we realized that it was most important to partake of Holy Communion offered in conjunction with a bishop who stood in direct continuity with the apostles. To also be in a church that honors all the New Testament practices, not just some of them while denying others, a church that holds to the sacraments of Communion, baptism, and healing and confession, to name just four.
At Home with the Saints
So in June 1993, our small community went to St. George Orthodox Church in Cicero to be received in the Orthodox Church by the sacrament of chrismation (we had all been baptized previously). When the priest blessed me with the oil of chrismation, the sacrament of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I felt a strong sense of the Holy Spirit among us, and upon me.
The congregation at St. George’s was almost entirely Arabic-speaking, but we felt entirely welcome and at home in the liturgy and worship with them, partaking in our first Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church. For members of the Orthodox Church today are found all over the world, on every continent, and even in America where Americans are joining the Orthodox increasing numbers.
What we found in the Orthodox Church was the fullness of the apostolic faith of the Bible. Why would I not want to join this Church and partake in all the fullness of grace that she offers in her rich tradition, her divine worship in which the meaning of Scripture is opened up and interpreted publicly for all the believers?
Becoming Orthodox, then, was the answer for me and many others to the very questions we asked beginning 20 years before. How could we find the true Church that is not divided? How could we embrace what the earliest Christians believed and practiced? How could we in the 20th and 21st centuries participate directly in the ministry of the apostles of Christ? Was there any modern church in which that same ministry was exercised, the same faith of the Bible proclaimed?
Yes, the Orthodox Church, even with her human faults, still carries on the tradition of the apostolic Church. By becoming Orthodox we came in to the full living fellowship of the apostles, saints, and martyrs of the church who throughout the ages have given witness to Jesus Christ, who is the same today, yesterday, and forever.
I have never regretted joining the Orthodox Church, not for one moment. Its rich spiritual treasures in the sacraments, the Divine Liturgy, the lives of the saints and martyrs, and the spiritual writings of the fathers have nourished me beyond anything I anticipated when we first joined. In the Orthodox Church I now have more deeply comprehended “with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
—James M. Kushiner is a member of All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, where he lives with his wife Patricia. They have six children and eight grandchildren. He is the executive editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.