My cyberfriend John, a Texan who blogs occasionally (and interestingly) and apparently is half a decade or so younger than I, embraced Orthodoxy at about the same age that I did. Ten years having passed, he published on Tuesday a “revisit [to] my initial exposure to Orthodoxy – the thing that attracted me to the Faith in the first place.”
Most Texas converts seem to come from Baptist or Church of Christ backgrounds. John was one of the latter:
For many people, the Churches of Christ are just another entrée in the broad smorgasbord of American evangelical Protestantism. Those readers who hail from Texas or Tennessee know differently, however. Like the Mormons, they are Restorationists and retain a unique self-perception. Churches of Christ believe in a pristine First-Century-New-Testament-Christianity that quickly apostatized after the death of the Apostle John. They neither identify with the Reformation nor believe they are connected with that movement in any way. The Reformers were moving in the right direction, mind you, but according to Churches of Christ did not go nearly far enough.
Their particular history began in early 19th century frontier America during the religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening. Alexander Campbell (and others) urged a return to New Testament simplicity, arguing that a sincere student of the Bible could know what God required by reading the “blueprint” of Scripture. One simply had to free their minds of all preconceived religious prejudices and look at the Scriptures objectively and rationally. Campbell believed he had done that very thing, and he and his followers concluded that they were the first to ever really and truly do that, hence the “restored” church. Other religionists who looked at Scripture and arrived at different conclusions were dismissed as insincere, still holding to the “traditions of men.” These early Restorers were eager to debate this point with others, though their self-serving and circular reasoning was a bit like arguing with Calvinists about predestination.
These “New Testament Christians” proudly claim to be neither Protestant nor Catholic, but simply “the church.” In fact, they are perhaps the most Protestant of any group, taking sola scriptura to all new levels ….
It’s surprising how tenacious this idea of “restoration” is in American Protestant religion (or at least in the Evangelicalism in which I was steeped from 1963 to roughly 1970 – high school and halfway through college – which largely exonerates my parents of anything more serious than naïvete about the religious ambience of the boarding school we collectively chose). What’s unique about the Churches of Christ is their denial that they’re Protestant and their extraordinary indifference to any history:
Two areas, however, continued to frustrate me. These days I can truly call myself a historian—I have the degree, I teach the classes, etc. But historical research has always been my passion. I studied our particular religious history in great detail. Where I now have a wall of Orthodox books, I once had a wall of Church of Christ volumes. I still have the complete works of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and Walter Scott (the evangelist, not the Scottish novelist.) I knew our history inside and out. I wrote my master’s thesis on the “Stoneite” wing of the Church of Christ in Texas, 1824-1865. But outside of an occasional professor at our Texas, Tennessee or Alabama colleges, there was absolutely no interest in our history—or really anyone else’s for that matter. I gave talks on the subject from time to time, and my congregation was polite, but uninterested. The attitude bordered on active disinterest. The reason is not hard to fathom. The Bible is the “blueprint” and the Church of Christ is the “restored” church built on that plan. This rendered history and the normal historical forces to be irrelevant, as at any time an individual could open their Bible and “restore” the church, regardless of their historical perspective (provided of course, they concluded as Campbell and his successors.) I always knew this to be inane. Writing these words makes this belief sound almost childish, but that was indeed the attitude. History was unnecessary to the church. I always knew better.
Churches of Christ imagines a 1st-Century church much along their own lines: small autonomous congregations, each ruled by a plurality of elders, under the guidance of Scripture. They hold that soon after 100 AD, the church started to apostatize in a big way–bishops, sacramental view of the Supper, infant baptism, etc. Churches of Christ do not hold that the church began to go astray with the decrees of Constantine. Rather, they believe that the rot had set long before, the Byzantine emperor’s actions only confirmed what was already in place. This is a pleasant enough story, but no more based in reality or real history than the fantasy of the [tribes invented by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon] created by their contemporary Restorationists.
To be deep in history is to cease being Protestant. The Churches of Christ, disdaining history entirely, fairly deserve John’s “the most Protestant” label. But while their disdain may be unexcelled, the Evangelicalism I was steeped in tried to excel it, and shared the notion that no later than the Emperor Constantine’s decree that Christianity be tolerated, things went down hill rapidly.
But history is not what drew John (or me, for that matter) to Orthodoxy initially. He loves travel, and traveled Bulgaria ten years ago:
Five hundred years of severe Ottoman domination precluded development of the castles and palaces that dot other parts of Europe. What Bulgaria does have, however, is monasteries–destroyed and re-built time and again over the centuries. Unless you are going to the Black Sea beaches, monastery hopping is what one does in Bulgaria. And so, that was our plan.
In various monasteries, he saw “something completely new – real, observable reverence,” “a truly Holy place,” “[s]imple and genuine hospitality” (from someone deterred neither by work needing done nor by a language barrier) and “a real community of Christians.”
I returned home to my life and routine. And while I did not forget these experiences, I was not yet launched off onto any new path. The trigger for that would come in a couple of months. And when it did, I had the context of my experience in Bulgarian Orthodoxy, characterized by reverence, holiness, hospitality and community.
Recently, I stumbled across an online survey for ex-members of the Churches of Christ. The pollsters were analyzing the reasons why this fellowship is failing to keep their own. (And in fairness, I have no doubt that there is a similar survey somewhere that addresses the former Orthodox.) Just for kicks, I took the survey. I remember one question in particular. The pollster asked what would induce me to return to the Churches of Christ. The question took me aback, and I realized that I was probably coming from a much different perspective than the average disgruntled ex-CoCer. I concluded then that the poll was pointless and the pollsters did not grasp the real problem. They were searching for ways to tweak or reform the church, to make it less objectionable to the dissatisfied. But they did not consider that the basic premise itself was misguided. For the Church of Christ did not do sola scriptura wrong. If anything, they carried it to at least one of its logical conclusions. I do not recall exactly how I answered the question, but I believe I said something about the Pearl of Great Price.
(Emphasis added) His blog has some beautiful pictures of places his visited. Don’t just take my word for his story.
Were I to stumble onto an online survey for former members of the Christian Reformed Church, in which I was an Elder before my conversion to Orthodoxy, the question “what would induce you to return” would be well-nigh unanswerable. It probably wouldn’t occur to me to say “The Pearl of Great Price,” but I might tauntingly play my conversion backward:
- Persuade me that Christ didn’t build one Church (or that the one He built was the CRC, or that the one Church is divided by design so that everyone can have a church that “suits them” even if it disagrees fundamentally with other churches that suit other folks).
- Persuading me that sola scriptura works just fine, and that those who conclude something other than Calvinism from scripture are insincere, tradition-bound or stupid.
I’m not holding my breath. I really cannot begin to imagine any reversion.
The only further Big Religious Change I can even imagine is that of a “little light going on” some day, illumining a path to Rome that I cannot (and really care not) to see now. I’m not holding my breath for that, either, but epiphanies are unpredictable.
For now, it seems to me that Orthodoxy, Rome and relativism are the three choices.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)