CLS and Orthodoxy

I had a little late-afternoon e-mail exchange, which began laconically (for me) but ended a lot more intentionally. 

The Setup

Beginning in law school, I was for several decades a member of the Christian Legal Society. CLS is not a political organization, although it does get involved, generally as an amicus curiae, in religious freedom litigation. I used to boast that when CLS and the ACLU were opposed, we generally whipped the ACLU; we frequently were allies in religious freedom cases, though.

CLS also, more relevantly to my original purpose in joining, was a fellowship of, I thought, like-minded lawyers who, among other things, tried to work out the meaning of being a “Christian lawyer.” (The answer is not “someone who works for free if you come in wearing your faith on your sleeve,” by the way, though I’m still not sure just what the answer is.)

Almost from the beginning of my CLS involvement, though, I was a little uneasy. The style I saw in CLS materials (I never went to any big national meetings) was just so quintessentially Evangelical, and even upon my first exposure, I was already a Calvinist and, depending on my mood when I got up in the morning, maybe sorta kinda a rebel Evangelical who had rejected the “Late Great Planet Earth” and Scofield Reference Bible crap. That rejection made me a fringe Evangelical, or so I felt.

Then, after another 15 years or so, I found Orthodoxy, and CLS began to seem even more alien. Maybe 5 years ago, I dropped my membership. But I kept getting some e-mails.

Today’s Exchange

Today I got another, and responded by reminding them that:

I let my CLS membership lapse several years ago, having become aware that CLS’s Evangelical Protestant approach fits my Eastern Orthodox tradition even less than it fit my former Calvinist tradition. You may omit me from your e-mail lists if you like, as I assumed you would.

I quickly got a reply from the sender, who I’ll call Brad:

Just out of curiosity, what were the main things you disagree agree with CLS about as an Eastern Orthodox?

Well, “disagree” really isn’t the right word, but Friday-Tipsy was feeling a bit like procratinating to the detriment of Saturday-Tipsy (HT Doug Masson for that locution), and the question sounded sincere enough. So I responded:


That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. There’s nothing in the statement of faith I cannot affirm, though I would have preferred the Nicene Creed. It is more a matter of tone, and perhaps of logorrhea – too many words, too much talk, too little awe (or efforts to gin up awe that strike me as psychologically manipulative). In general, nothing other than the very highest of high Protestant liturgy even strikes me as worship any more; the rest comes across as entertainment that may have edifying moments if one’s lucky.

Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio has written, in “All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes,” something along the lines that the evangelical world is united more by Orthopathos, “right feeling,” than by orthodoxy (right worship or right doctrine, maybe). That orthopathos is manifested in common hymns and praise songs, though those songs shift over time (my young evangelical law partners have never heard of the great hymns of my youth – hymns of Wesleys, for instance, or “Holy, Holy, Holy” – and probably have never heard of John W. Peterson, our big gospel song writer). The lack of orthodoxy is manifested in innumerable denominations (and independent churches that can’t find anyone of like mind to affiliate with).

I became a Christian as a preschooler, and have continued unbroken. My journey is from Evangelical Covenant Church to Wheaton Academy through Wheaton College, then IVCF, then Calvinism starting in my late 20s and then, to my utter astonishment, to Orthodoxy as an epiphany in my late 40s. When I went to law school, I was a Calvinist, and so first encountered CLS. The style of CLS even then was a little bit alien to my equivocally Evangelical/Christian Reformed sensibilities.

But given my journey, I know how incomprehensible may be what I’ve just written. To begin to “get it,” you’d need to spend a month or more attending every available service in a liturgically active, English language Orthodox Church. But beware: you might want to stay after that.

I don’t think CLS could do it “better” from an Orthodox perspective. You may be very helpful to Evangelicals, Protestants generally, and post-Vatican II Catholics, but the reality is that Christendom is divided, and Orthodoxy is a thing very far apart in spirit from CLS, as you would discern if you attended even just a few services. I just don’t find CLS type materials edifying (and that’s partly because I’m a sinner who keeps critiquing it as I read – a bad habit that’s worse than just being “left cold”).

Thanks for asking.


Let me expand a bit on “given my journey, I know how incomprehensible may be what I’ve just written.”

Looking back, I’m astounded at the insularity of myself and my fellow Evangelicals. We really thought we were just basic, pure Christians, and that Catholics, Orthodox and others were funny deviations from basic, pure Christianity. It’s like growing up thinking that everyone from other parts of the country had funny accents (back before accents were quite so homogenized).

It was unthinkable to us that we were a distinctive and novel “flavor” of Christianity, unhistoric and only slightly older than the “cults” we decried for their novelty (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnessses, Christian Scientists and, often, Seventh Day Adventists), many of which grew out of the same 18th and early-19th century revivalism as did Evangelicalism itself.

How could we have missed our own history? Because it was our delusion that we’d thrown out all the erroneous accretions of the centuries and gone back to the font of the New Testament to restore the “pure” faith (does that sound like Joseph Smith to anyone else?).

And that’s why, unless Brad is one of the rare Evangelicals who’s a whole lot more perceptive than I was, my comments about the distinctive Evangelical flavor might be incomprehensible.

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4 thoughts on “CLS and Orthodoxy

  1. I have had such similar feelings as I continue to journey in Orthodoxy. I converted from a good Evangelical (Taylor University), having been a good fundamentalist Baptist, and in the years since my conversion I see how truly different we are.

    It is impossible to get other Christians to see that, or to see how their issues may not be the issues held by the rest of Christendom. And it is increasingly obvious how incredibly blessed I am to have found the True Church. I say that not out of triumphalism, but out of a (I hope) humble and grateful heart that knows what it has found and what it would be missing otherwise.

    Have a blessed Lent!

    1. A number of Wheaton Academy classmates went to Taylor, and kids from there probably still do, although the character of the Academy has changed (it was 40% boarders, 60% townies when I was there; now it’s all townies). So you’ve been in essentially the same tradition I was in – except for (judging from your photo) 35 years or so of changes that Evangelicals will either deny or try to turn into a virtue.
      “Unchanging” is good.

  2. This is one of those cases where I’m curious to know the “rest of the story” … what did Brad think of your email? will he respond? will he try to argue? will your testimony spark something in him?

    I do hope you’ll post some follow-up, if there is any… 🙂

    Appreciating your blogged thoughts and stories.

  3. Even before Bill M asked, I thought of doing followup.

    Brad replied:
    “Thanks for the email! I have never been to an Eastern Orthodox church, but would be curious what that church believes to be the gospel of the Bible…how a sinner becomes a Christian and God’s role or lack there of in that. Thanks!”

    I responded to Brad at moderate length:
    1. First things first: Orthodoxy is not “sola scriptura” Christianity and never has been. The Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. Now that we see the flowering of that Reformation doctrine – thousands of denominations that can’t agree on much beyond feelings – we feel vindicated, but it would be anachronistic to think that we initially rejected the doctrine for such reasons; the doctrine didn’t yet exist when we began. Really, the New Testament didn’t yet exist when we began, let alone in the hands of everybody, dirt cheap. I say that because I suspect that you want to compare our soteriology to your (private?) interpretation of scripture.
    2. Our only formal creed is the Nicene. We formulated it (when the Church was undivided) only because the Arian heresy required response. We prefer apophatic ways of speaking of “spiritual” things (, at least relative to the West. So I’m not holding out on you when I decline to give you a short, simple statement of our soteriology; we don’t have a short, simple statement so far as I know.
    3. I can say, though, that salvation is more than justification. Orthodox commonly mean by “salvation” what my Reformed teachers would have called “glorification.” Think of Peter’s reference to becoming “partakers of the divine nature.” In that sense, none of us is presently “saved,” and none of us can be positive of our ultimate salvation. “He who shall endure to the end shall be saved.” I am sure that if I’m not ultimately saved, it will be my own doing, not God’s, as He loves mankind and wills nobody’s damnation. (Yes, I have definitely rejected Calvinism.) I’m not eternally secure, but I’m not wracked with anxiety about God’s wish for me.
    4. As to sanctification, we believe in the necessity of synergistic cooperation with God. That has been an insuperable barrier to my Lutheran brother.
    5. Exploring Orthodoxy on the internet is generally not recommended, but that’s kind of the way I had to do it since my commitments as a Christian Reformed Elder wouldn’t allow me much time to go visiting services. I found one site, which is still around, helpful even though it can be strident at times. Here’s its collection of articles on salvation: They’ll probably frustrate you because they are Orthodox and thus tend apophatically toward saying what things are not rather than what they are. It can seem evasive, but I’d prefer the term “humble.” We’re speaking, after all, of things far beyond our comprehension (I almost redundantly said “comprehensive comprehension”).

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