Christian TraditionsConversion StoriesEastern OrthodoxJourneys of Faith

A Change in Perspective: One woman’s journey into Eastern Orthodoxy

When I was in 3rd grade, my parents discovered I needed glasses. We went to the eye doctors and I happily chose a pair with whimsical polka dots and a plastic lady bug glued to one side. Sadly, those glasses did not last long because every year I returned to the eye doctor for a stronger prescription (this probably had to do with the many hours I dedicated to reading text and musical notation). I wore a pair of glasses with purple swirls in 5th grade and a pearly pink pair in 7th grade. My sight did plateau at a certain point, however, and today I am thankful for contacts so I can avoid the heavy, thick glasses my poor eyesight would require. In a sense, my journey through various pairs of glasses can be compared to a different—and far more important—journey I have gone through in my life. Leading New Testament scholar N. T. Wright compares having a worldview to wearing a pair of glasses:  “We all live in our own context; we all see the world through our own spectacles . . . But sooner or later, it’s possible to take your spectacles off, clean them, maybe even adjust the lenses so that you can then see things more clearly.”1 A worldview is not what you look at but what you look through. Wright says that stepping away from the web of implicit narratives and cultural symbols called a worldview will at first be disorientating and uncomfortable because we have removed the lens through which we view the world. But with a bit of help, we can adjust them or get a new pair all together so that our vision can be put into even sharper focus.

SEEING THE GLASSES THAT WERE ALWAYS THERE

What Wright describes resonates with me because my life has been a long process of adjusting and readjusting my own worldview glasses, cleaning them at times, and sometimes completely taking them off and trading them in for ones that give me better vision. Today I stand as a catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox Church, ready to be chrismated in the near future. But my story really begins at a small Baptist church in rural Michigan. Growing up in this sincere and loving body of believers, I was taught that truth exclusively comes from the Bible and that an individual can discover right belief through a careful study of the Scriptures. I took this to heart and as a young person who was eager to love God and live my life right, I dove into studying the Bible as best I could. I was under the impression that whatever made the most sense to me when reading a Biblical passage is what that passage meant and I could tuck that belief into my heart and hold fast to it as absolute truth. However, I soon discovered that other people (even those within my same denomination) would read the very same passage and come to a different conclusion than myself. How did I know I was correct in my reading of Scripture? Maybe I was wrong. I realized I needed the experts on this and began consulting books, commentaries, and outside opinions to help me pin down the correct meaning behind each verse or passage. But to my dismay, scholars and teachers were just as varied in their opinions of what Scripture was teaching as lay people.

My searching intensified as I attended Bible College, worked in different Evangelical ministries, and attended other Protestant churches. I questioned and discussed with others the topics of baptism, speaking in tongues, covenant theology, dispensationalism, gender roles, the trinity, the filling of the holy spirit, communion, life after death, sanctification, homosexuality, evangelism, calvinism, and much more. I was looking for clarity on what the Bible taught but what I continued to encounter was confusion. There was not a consensus among Protestants on how we should “do church,” how we should worship, how we should live a moral life, or even how we become saved, even though we were all going earnestly to the Bible for our answers. The more I searched, the more adrift I felt. The problem I was facing was a problem of authority. I had been taught that all I needed to do was trust in the authority of the Bible and not put my trust in human authority. But the Bible is a book that must be read by man and interpreted by man. Sitting closed on a shelf without any human interaction, the Scriptures offer no authority. One must open it and read. I would argue that one must do even more than that. Judgment calls must be made about what words mean, what verses mean, how verses connect to form doctrines, how to reconcile seemingly-contradictory passages to fit those doctrines, and if a passage should be read literally or allegorical. I was given the advice that the Holy Spirit inside me would guide me to the answers but that still didn’t explain the immense amount of theological differences between Christians who all professed to have the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

I took a step back and noticed that everyone I knew was reading the Bible through their own unique worldview glasses, including myself. Our individual perspectives were influenced by books, sermons, conversations, experiences, and countless other aspects of our own personal journeys that had created our own unique perspective through which we viewed the world and interpreted the Scriptures. All of us had been drinking the water and breathing the air of at least one, but probably several, faith traditions and if we looked we would find the roots of our beliefs in the Magisterial Reformation, the Radical Reformation, the Holiness Movement, or the Anabaptist Movement. We said we received our beliefs from the Bible alone and our interpretation was the right one because it “made the most sense” but we were unaware of the pair of glasses that was contributing to our perspective and subsequent interpretation. I eventually decided that in real life there is no such thing as “Scripture Alone.”  In the end it always comes down to an authority outside of the Bible that determines what, indeed, the Bible is teaching.

SEEING THE PRESERVATION OF CHRIST’S TEACHING

N. T. Wright said that with a bit of help we can have the courage to adjust our worldview glasses or get a new pair all together. He is correct that I needed a more reliable pair of glasses and through a long string of experiences, encounters, and conversations, I was led by the hand of God to the door of the Orthodox Church. Here I was offered a new pair of glasses through which to view my Scriptures, my life, and my God. The first thing I noticed when I put on these glasses is a uniform belief system in the Orthodox Church that has remained quite consistent since the time of Christ 2,000 years ago. Initially I disbelieved this was possible but as I inquired further, I discovered that the Orthodox Church sees their mission as one of, not interpretation, but preservation of God’s truth. In her book, The Illumined Heart, Frederica Mathewes-Green explains how the teachings of the Orthodox Church were preserved from the time of the apostles to today: “Church leaders didn’t develop or edit the faith, but were like museum guards, responsible only to protect the treasure and pass it on intact.”2 When Jesus taught his disciples, they in turn taught others and passed down Christ’s teachings to the churches they started. The disciples spread Christ’s authoritative teaching through both written and verbal communication, which Paul acknowledges in II Thessalonians 2:15: “Brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”3 As a Protestant I was leery of the word “tradition,” but I began to understand that this simply describes a teaching that had been handed down from generation to generation.

As I stepped further into Orthodoxy, I learned that the Christians of the early church were prolific writers and many of them wrote about the teaching that was verbally delivered to them from the apostles of Christ (or disciples of the apostles) in a time when the Biblical books had not yet been circulated and the Canon had not yet been formed. While it is true that none of these ancient writings can be considered “inspired” like the Scriptures, they give us a picture of what Christians believed close to the time Jesus walked the earth. These authors reveal to us a Church that has truly been “the pillar and foundation of the truth,”4 as Paul says in I Timothy 3:15. This Church decided which books were inspired and therefore Scripture, and that decision was based largely upon what books lined up with preserved tradition. This Church spoke out against heresies that denied the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ, two teachings that are the very core of Christianity but are difficult to piece together from just a surface reading of Scripture alone (I realize now that I had always relied on the perspective of the historical church to see the deep oceans of Trinitarian theology and Christology that lie buried in the Scriptures). This Church fought for, defended, and died martyr’s deaths for the preservation of Christianity in our world. It dawned on me that when I had previously been crying out, “Scripture Alone!”, I was completely unaware that I was standing on the shoulders of giants—I would have had no Scriptures if it had not been for the church that preserved them. Indeed, Scripture can not be separated from this Church, for she is the context in which the New Testament was written, protected, and canonized. Some may wonder what church I keep referring to. Until the year 1,054 AD, there was only one Christian church, largely unified in doctrine, and that is the church I speak of. Since then we know the Church split between East and West and then the West later fragmented into thousands of pieces with the various Protestant Reformations. If we want to know what church today has not departed from the teachings and practices of Christ’s apostles and the faithful churches that followed, a study of early Christian writings will reveal a lot to us.

SEEING THE DEPTH OF LIFE IN CHRIST

I was intrigued by what I was seeing with the Orthodox glasses so I stepped further into this ancient church. What I next noticed was Jesus Christ, shining brighter than I had ever seen Him before. It is true that it took time for me to become aware of this Jesus because I was initially distracted by so many unfamiliar rituals and traditions around me. I saw priests wearing robes and long heavy necklaces with crosses. I saw creepy old paintings (called “icons”) in front of whom Orthodox Christians made the sign of the cross, or even kissed! I read unfamiliar words like “theosis” and “theotokos.” This was a strange new world to me and I was equally fascinated and repulsed by it. As I dared to keep the glasses on a little longer and open my eyes a little wider, I started to see Jesus Christ—the Jesus I had loved since childhood but here so ever-present—dazzling behind each of these unfamiliar aspects of Orthodoxy. In this worldview, Jesus Christ was like a pure golden thread woven through the tapestry of Orthodox life. My heart leapt as I realized that this is what I had been longing for, what I had been searching for, for so many years. In the countless journal entries where I asked “how in the world do I obey the greatest commandment and love God with all my heart, soul, and mind?” In the daily struggle with my sin where I desperately needed tools to deny myself and choose God. In my broken places where I knew I needed a healer but didn’t know how to find the medicine. Yes, to all these questions and longings Jesus Christ was always the answer! But through Orthodoxy I began to see a path before me that was leading ever-deeper into life in Christ and the wholeness He offers.  Here I saw the Son of God everywhere present and filling all things (Acts 17:28). Here I saw numerous practical tools to learn the path of self-denial so I might daily pick up my cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23).  Here I saw I was not running alone on this path but with a community of both living and departed saints (Heb.12:1-2). Here I saw a singular goal in life: union with my Creator and King (John 17:21). I looked around me and realized that everything in Orthodoxy is like spokes of a wheel, connected to the center: Love. The love that our triune God displays within the Trinity and that we are called to participate in is the center of all Orthodox teaching.

Today, I have finally found the authority I was looking for. Even though I still love and value the Holy Scriptures, I no longer claim “Scripture Alone” as my authority as the canon of Scripture was not created alone but within a Church and the Bible is not interpreted alone but within a worldview. I claim as my authority the God-man, Jesus Christ. The Church is the body of this Christ, and throughout the centuries the Orthodox Church has acted as his hands, feet, and voice to the world, shouting out the good news: that He has offered us true life, true love, and true salvation. Today I humbly put on the same spectacles that have been handed down by faithful Christians since the time of Christ because I believe this is the worldview of God’s own making.

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Sarah Carlson

Sarah Carlson

Sarah is a musician and piano teacher living in Southwest Michigan. If she could put together the perfect day for herself, she would fill it with quiet nature hikes, sad piano music, sun filtering through big windows that look towards the woods, bird watching, digging in the dirt to plant something, cooking ethnic food, and ending the day with a cup of tea and honey while reading C.S. Lewis. In 2010, she married Micah Carlson, the philosopher/poet she had been looking for all her life. They have three babies who, as Sarah likes to say, "have stepped into Narnia" which means they now live on the other side of the curtain where they experience the limitless world of God in a way we here only long to.

  • masoyama

    My Sister, I do not write this to you.

    Young brothers, try not to: write/input a response within 20 minutes of another’s posting; post without your wife, or a trusted brother/sister reading your post before you post it; post after 10:00 your local time; post while having had beer or other alcohol within the previous four hours. What you post is “forever.”

    I have been reading some of the responses, and wonder at why one would respond so quickly, seemingly with not much forethought.

    Many of you are so beautiful, but now some of you have made responses so indelicately. Not, necessarily to this post, but to the post post by brother George.

    God is so good; and He is with us!

  • Jason Ehlert

    Sarah thank you for sharing. I believe we see such divisions within the church today as Protestants that we forget about our Church History. We forget to read our brothers and sisters from the past. Who as you point preserved and carried Christ’s Churches traditions. I thank you for your words. It makes me think about how I tend to see others and myself end our “historical” reading at the reformation… I look forward to digging deeper and delving into the writings beyond the reformation now. To see what the Lord had for us, the Church. I’ll have to ask you or Micah for any book recommendations to give into.

    • Sarah Elizabeth

      Jason, I really appreciate your comment! I’ll think about a good book to recommend and get back to you. And if you ever wanted to come over and discuss further and learn together, our home is always open to you and Emily. 🙂

  • Pingback: Recommended Readings: February 14-20 | Pursuing Veritas()

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective with us Sarah! I enjoyed it.

  • Sarah, you write with excellent taste and a simple clarity that I can only aspire toward! I do hope that you will apply your skills to expound upon the thoughts in your last paragraph sometime. I came to the end and wondered if I had missed something. However, after the second reading, I realized you were making an argument for the body of Christ as an authority for your faith. Having followed a similar journey to your own, I find myself at a parallel but somewhat different conclusion that the spirit of Christ is a trustworthy authority. This could be one reason for the greater diversity of Christian expression found and accepted within the Charismatic perspective. From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, do you see these two as the same thing or is there a significant difference to consider?

    • Sarah Elizabeth

      Hi Charles. Thanks for reading my article and for your excellent question. I believe the Holy Spirit has led and guided the Church to preserve the faith that was established by Christ. So yes, I completely agree that the Holy Spirit is a trustworthy authority. (I am wondering what you mean by the “Spirit of Christ” however. Which person of the Trinity are you referring to?) But I would be more prone to emphaize the Holy Spirit leading the body of Christ as a whole as opposed to the leading of individuals. This is, partly, because I do not believe God desires Christ’s body to be divided, but to be unified. And also because we as people are called to live in love and community with each other, not independance and isolation. Additionally, when an individual is being spoken to by the Holy Spirit, we again face the problem of interpretation. There have been seasons in my past where I was eager to have every aspect of my life guided by the direction of the Holy Spirit but I continually found myself confusing the Holy Spirit’s voice with my own emotions. I would say, “God is not giving me a peace about this” and later I would realize it was my own fear and anxiety making me feel that way. Or “I feel led by the Holy Spirit to ___ because I have a peace about it ” but maybe I just had slept well that night and felt rested and interpreted it to be peace from God. I would love to hear your perspective on this because I do wonder how one can be confident it is the Holy Spirit speaking to them and then how to know one is interpretating His voice correcly. If I didn’t completely answer your question, let me know.

      • Sarah, Thank you for your thoughtful reply! One of the things that fascinates me about the orthodox tradition is the way in which it challenges the modern assumption of individualism. I think your reply to my comment reflects this notion by characterizing the Holy Spirit as directing the church as a whole rather than the church as individuals. I value the way in which the charismatic tradition encourages a diversity in individual practice of faith, but unity in love. At the same time, there is something noble about sacrificing a part of your individuality to take identify with a vast and ancient stream of Christian tradition. This, at least, how I see orthodox practice from the outside.

        When I used the term “Spirit of Christ” I was simply trying to make a direct comparison between the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ, but your question has made me wonder if there is actually a distinction between the two. I’ll have to explore that a bit more. For now, I wanted to offer my perspective on how a person can trust what they hear from the Holy Spirit. I would like to suggest that the Holy Spirit speaks through the voice of history, imagination, tradition, friends, prophecy, the Bible, etc. The problems that you describe above with hearing His voice, I think come largely from an over-reliance on any one of these methods at the expense of others. If God is unchanging then what a person believes she hears from the Holy Spirit in her imagination will probably not contradict what she hears from the reading of scripture or the tradition of the church.

        That said, God is also infinite and his nature is far beyond our understanding. Therefore, like in certain stories recorded in the Bible, I would not be surprised if what we hear from the Holy Spirit sometimes challenged our finite notions of who God is and how He wants us to live. For this reason, I would suggest that hearing the voice of God has more to do with pursuing a relationship with God than it does with getting the answer right the first time. Just like in a marriage, the more time you spend together, the better you become at knowing what He’s really trying to say.

        I would love to know if you have any more thoughts to add!

        • Sarah Elizabeth

          Thank you for your response, Charles. It is a pleasure to converse with you here and explore this topic further. Even though I do see the Holy Spirit leading the church as a whole, I do also fully believe in one having a relationship with God in that our life and worship is not simply going through the motions of what tradition dictates but every person has to decide for themselves to engage their own soul, mind, and heart in their pursuit and knowledge of God. And we do see throughout scripture and history God speaking to individuals and revealing the truth to them. I am curious what your thoughts are on further revelation after the time of Christ. Do you believe that the theology and practice of Christianity was delivered once and for all to his followers and disciples in the early church or do you believe that the faith is still being expanded upon and changing?
          I agree wholeheartedly that the Holy Spirit would not lead someone against Scripture or the church. It is good to have freedom within boundaries. But it is interesting for me to observe how people will draw the boundary lines in different places. When you speak of the diversity of practice within the Charismatic faith, what areas would you see as acceptable to see diversity and what areas would you see as unacceptable to see diversity? For example, I grew up in a fundamentalist church that interpreted Scripture in a way that resulted in everything being set in stone as right or wrong including music, dress, dating, doctrines. The boundary lines were very wide and everything within was set in stone. As I gradually left that mindset, I began to embrace a looser interpretation in that as long as one believed that Jesus was God and the Bible as true, everything else outside those boundaries was up for grabs. Now that I have submitted to the Orthodox interpretation, I set my “boundary lines” as the Creed, the Counsels, and the teachings that have been consistently upheld by Christians throughout the ages. Like you said, this isn’t about getting answers right, but about securing a context in which to live our life. And I have freedom outside of those lines where the Holy Spirit may guide me “individually.”

          • For a quick and unsatisfactory response to your last question about providing boundaries for the acceptance of diversity, I would propose that each person has to make a decision where to draw the line. From your own story, it appears that you had one line drawn for you by your first church, then you decided to move that line from what others believed to be the ‘correct’ location. After experimenting for awhile, you chose to submit to the boundary lines offered by the Orthodox church. You probably chose each of these at some point thinking it was a good boundary, and though it would be unlikely, you may choose to move that line again at some point in the future.

            Partly as a reaction to a very restricted experience of Christianity growing up, I still find it incredibly difficult to choose a clear boundary line and sometimes fear that I may be too open to a diverse range of beliefs and lifestyles. However, I am comforted by idea that “the One who calls is faithful…” Even when I don’t have the answers, I trust (perhaps too simplistically) in His love. Nevertheless, you have some great questions and I would like to explore these ideas further at some point.

  • Jacob

    Sarah, Great piece, thanks so much for sharing your journey!
    I have something of an ecclesiasiological question. You write, “Until the year 1,054 AD, there was only one Christian church, largely unified in doctrine, and that is the church I speak of.” I’m interested in your Orthodox perspective on non-Chalcedonian churches and/or Churches of the East (Nestorian congregations). Your comment seems to allow Catholicism some claim to historic orthodoxy (i.e., post 1054 there are at least “two” churches), so I’m wondering about those churches which are in line with Nicaea (and those which are functionally Chalcedonian, even if ancient politics suggested they weren’t). How does Orthodoxy view these groups?
    Again, thanks for writing! JJP

    • I’m not Sarah but I’ll offer my initial thoughts:

      We like to talk about “One Church.” Certainly, things in reality cannot be placed in so neat a category (especially with respect to history). However, it seems clear, to me at least, that communities adhering to heresies that were condemned, especially condemned by an ecumenical council, were no longer considered to be a part of the “One Church.” Hence, the distinction of One Church until 1054—of course, also, 1054 is only the formal date of the division between East and West (as you know better than I).

      There were certainly practicing “Christians” who were not considered by the little o orthodox church to be a part of the church. What with donatism, pneumatomachianism, apollinarianism, etc, etc. But as St. Cyprian says in Letter 72, the baptism (and sacraments in general) of these communities (schismatics) are not valid. He continues to say that there is no salvation outside of the (one) Church.

      I am not sure we have much of a problem with giving Catholicism some claim to ecclesiological legitimacy. In fact, I think the RC’s would say the same about the EOC.

      Not sure if that made sense. Let me know! Sorry for the ramble-like-comment.

    • Sarah Elizabeth

      Jacob, thanks so much for your questions! And Ben, I’m really glad you commented. I think both of you, and many others here, would be able to address these church history questions better than I and I could sit back and listen and learn from all of you. Jacob, I actually discussed that sentence with Micah for a bit when I was in the process of writing the article because I was unsure I wanted to keep it. I decided to let it stay and intentionally wrote “largely unified in doctrine,” instead of “completely unified in doctrine” because I knew there was the breaking off of the Oriental Orthodox Church (I believe that is partially what you are referring to?) and other aspects of disagreement. Unfortunately, there was not enough space to dive into the details of church history and so I made a generalization by acknowledging that Orthodox and Catholics were in full communion with each other before the schism and the Oriental Orthodox Church shared the majority of doctrine but used different language to explain “Theotokos” (I realize this is a huge simplification and reveals my lack of study on this specific schism). As far as my perspective on non-Chalcedonian churches or Nestorian congregations, haha… I really don’t know much about this at all. Maybe you should inform me so I can form a perspective. 🙂 Please don’t hesitate to correct anything I’ve said above as I am eager to learn more about church history.

  • Deanna Martin

    Dear Sarah,
    I am still working on reading your article, but I just finished reading your about me section, and I must say… you are a woman of great taste! 🙂

  • Beautifully articulated, thank you!

  • Benjamin Winter

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate your honesty about the strangeness of encountering a new (but very old!) tradition, and your emphasis on searching for authority in interpreting the Scriptures. In fact, this entire reflection fits well as a response to Jn 5:39 “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.”