The explosive growth of the Orthodox Church in the United States has been fueled by converts. Mostly disaffected Protestants, they have brought new energy and enthusiasm to the church, but I have noticed that sometimes “my people” can disparage the traditions they came from.
I say “my people” because I am also a former Protestant. I attend a church that was once part of the EOC, so I am in no position to wag fingers at anyone. But I do want to point out a few reasons why we should not be so quick to make Protestant Christianity a foil for Orthodoxy.
- It is not very Orthodox. Though we have a long history of polemics against “schismatics,” we have a longer history of catholicity. I think this has a lot to do with our liturgy. We do not seek to purge the world from ourselves but to offer the world to God and receive it back renewed. This means that our Protestantism is not something to be condemned but to offer to God and receive back again as a gift. For a few years after I converted, I was bitter toward my former church, until I realized that the church I left was the church that first taught me how to be a Christian. I would not be Orthodox if I had not been Protestant first. Thanks be to God!
- It is not very nice. I have been thinking about this for a few reasons. One of them is that a Reformed friend of mine commented the other day that he often hears Orthodox types use the word “Protestant” for “bad.” This not a helpful start to a constructive conversation.
- It is very Protestant. I do not mean this to malign Protestantism (i.e. to do the very thing I say we should not do). My point is to say that we need to stop defining ourselves by what we are not, because otherwise we are doomed to repeat that which we oppose. One fact of the American religious experience is that churches have often competed with each other for members. This is what many Orthodox Christians seem to be doing today, plying all the skills they had acquired as Evangelicals to their new ecclesial milieu.
I do not think Orthodoxy is served by allowing itself to be paralyzed by the fear of becoming Protestant. It can keep us from having substantive conversations about important issues, such as the ordination of women or our stance toward LGBTQ individuals (which Orthodoxy has yet to address on its own terms). I understand the fear that some have that Orthodoxy might make the same “mistakes” (or something) of the traditions they had left behind. But one should not join the Orthodox Church because it is “better” than another church. A person who leave Protestantism because it is not perfect will leave Orthodoxy for the same reasons. Rather, the only thing that can sustain a lifelong commitment is love. One should join the church only because one falls in love with it, and love requires we have these conversations, because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).