I recall being deeply moved by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ recounting of his journey from Lutheranism into the Roman Catholic Church (“How I Became the Catholic I Was”). It is a move that not a few have made, with denominational provenance spanning most every Protestant confession. Though I journeyed in a different direction from that of Neuhaus, many of the sights along the way were quite similar.
Like him, however, neither do I wish for what follows to be an argument for my position, nor do I wish to engage those who have “cruelly, disdainfully, and despitefully” spoken against me, with little or no basis for their assertions (Psalm 31:20). The former I wish to avoid because I have embraced a way of life, not a set of dogmatic presuppositions, and everyone must be persuaded for himself or herself; and the latter because, as Jesus said, “they have received their reward” (Matt 6:5).
Instead, I wish to tell my story for the sake of my friends, for those who may be asking, with kindness: Why?
On 1 December 2013, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church by the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation. On that same day, my entire family received, for the first time as Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist—the constitutive gift of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Nevertheless, my journey began long before that most profound day, probably around the time I entered the Fort Wayne seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 2003.
At seminary, for the first time, I encountered the liturgy, rich in meaning and overflowing with the ability to bring order to my life. There, for the first time, I came to see that, by virtue of the Incarnation, all theology was principally Christology, and the sacraments were the source and summit of our very existence as humans. There, for the first time, I came to embrace the rigors of theological study, such that upon graduation, I immediately commenced doctoral work in that same discipline. I am grateful for those years, and I would not be who or where I am today without them.
But that institution did not embody the reality of Lutheranism (as a whole) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (in particular).
What struck me within weeks of my ordination was the reality that most parishes did not “do church” the way my parish did (not to mention some of the other theological and confessional aberrations and contradictions). And that was okay, or so the Synod said. In fact, that was encouraged. Unity was important, or so it seemed, but only in the essentials. While some very good pastors supported the understanding that Leitourgia Divina adiaphora non est, the general practice of the Synod conveyed a different reality. In short, it was left to every parish (governed by the voters’ assembly) to determine what it thought was best. In turn, some were liturgical. Others were more liturgical than many Roman Catholic parishes. Still others were middle-of-the-road. And many were indistinguishable from the local charismatic Protestant parish. What this discontinuity signified, however, was a break in communion. We did not have
“all things in common” (Acts 2:44).
In fact, in many instances, we had very little in common, save a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. Yet, even that was delineated by interpretation.
For some time, I was determined to put my head down and simply live faithfully in my own little corner of the LCMS world, doing what I had always done and doing it as best I could. Consequently, the parish grew, giving increased, and spiritual maturity flourished. But I quickly discovered that when one lives thusly, he eventually becomes his own church, his own president/bishop, his own synod, and, eventually, his own god. And that was a reality with which my conscience would not allow me to live. Admittedly, I am not so naïve to believe that, in Orthodoxy, such problems of continuity do not exist. However, I do know that, in Orthodoxy, no man is above the liturgy, for the liturgy is the very hermeneutic of continuity and principle of unity, and if the liturgy remains, the Church retains her koinonia, her communion.
The second, and equally significant, reason for my move was my children. I am in no way suggesting that they could not have grown into faithful Christians within the LCMS—many have and many will. Rather, I am suggesting that the best way to help children grow into faithful Christians is by giving them the food for the journey, the bread for the way: the Holy Eucharist. However, it is not just a novelty that Holy Orthodoxy gives the Eucharist to the baptized of all ages. Rather, it presupposes the very heart of our existence as humans—that it is only in Christ’s body and blood given to us that we are enabled to become fully human again.
Moreover, it is only when we are in the process of being restored to our intended humanity that God is glorified (Gloria Dei est vivens homo, as St. Irenaeus has said). Clearly, the arguments for and against the communion of all the baptized have been played out elsewhere, so there is no need to recreate them here. Rather, suffice it to say that I accept the clear witness of the Scriptures, the early Church and, for that matter, the Orthodox Church: that those baptized and chrismated are admitted to the Eucharist, precisely so that when they grow up, they never remember a day without it.
To that end, in discovering the great liturgical continuity, coupled with the emphasis on the sacramental life for those of all ages, there is one further reason for my reception into the Orthodox Church, but one that I could not have predicted before becoming a catechumen: In Orthodoxy, God is mercy. God is not an angry judge, nor is he wrathful. Rather, God is a Father, who is always and ever filled with that which he is: mercy. No need for belated commentary on various theories of the atonement, for no single theory accurately conveys the reality. Rather, I should only like to say that you can tell a lot about a church from its liturgy, as I have mentioned already. But, more specifically, for example, the word “mercy” appears 140 times in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
It is also significant that, in the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church, the singing of the kyrie actually sounds like a cry for help. Mercy is what drives Orthodoxy and, in particular, her many spiritual disciplines (e.g. fasting, frequent confession, penance, alms giving, prayer, etc.), not out of fear, but as a desire to be united fully with our Father again. Orthodoxy provides the means for healing our broken relationship and the mercy needed to silence our predetermined prodigal deal (“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him . . .” [Luke 15:19]).
Yes, our Father runs to us, precisely because he has always been waiting for us with a merciful heart.
There is more, yes, and with every passing day, as we begin to grow more fully into the Orthodox way, I recognize that reality. But my prayers remain with those who have yet to find their way home. For not only do I believe that the fullness of life is found in Holy Orthodoxy, but I also believe that, in a unique way, this is, in part, the life the Lutheran reformers were after (though the trajectory is markedly different with today’s Lutheran confessors).
It is not insignificant, in fact, that one of the first appeals for Lutheran support went from Germany to Constantinople. The Tübingen theologian, Jakob Andreae, penned the following as an attachment to the Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession, sent to Patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople:
I am sending you a little book that contains the main parts of our entire faith, so that Your Holiness may see what our religion is, and whether we agree with the teachings of the churches under the jurisdiction of Your Holiness; or whether perhaps, there might be something that is not in agreement (which I would not desire). I earnestly ask Your Holiness to receive it with the same good favor with which you have accepted my previous communications and, if it is not too much for your wise person, to kindly express your most favorable judgment concerning these articles, if God would grant that we think alike in Christ.
The hope of the Lutherans, in fact, was that the Orthodox Patriarch “count [them] worthy of [his] indulgence and receive [them] kindly into [his] paternal care.”
Indeed, therefore, from the earliest days of the Reformation, the Lutherans sought theological affirmation from the Orthodox Church (and not vice versa), in no small part because they viewed the Orthodox Church as holding unswervingly to the faith of the apostles. The Orthodox were, very simply, the Church.
And, so, in a most profound way, I have done what the earliest Lutherans had hoped to do. Finally, I have come home. But some are not home, at least not yet.
I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity and faithfulness of my friends who wish to remain Lutheran and, in fact, I commend them for that, because, although I have found my way home, I continue on the journey toward the telos for all Christians—unity with the one true God—a journey that my Lutheran brothers and sisters desire to share. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our eyes have been opened by the Lord to the truth of our human story, and we are all growing into our understanding of that story, into the fullness of who God created us to be: made in the image and striving for the likeness.
And so, we travel together still.
My only prayer, of course, is that my Lutheran traveling companions respect me for lifting the burden on my conscience and doing what I was persuaded by love to do. Indeed, that is what happened to me and my family: We fell in love. And, to steal an idea from Bonhoeffer, while I know that love will not sustain this marriage with Holy Orthodoxy, I am convinced beyond all doubt that my marriage to Holy Orthodoxy will sustain my love for her, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Why? Because “this is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.”