Thoughts on Orthodoxy
I first posted this message last February. In light of news received over the weekend that another Lutheran pastor has decided to leave Lutheranism for Orthodoxy, I thought it was both appropriate and important to post it again.
What I notice in reading discussions between Lutherans and recent converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, or those considering taking the plunge to swim the Bosporus, is how hard they strive to assure themselves that in leaving the Lutheran Confession and embracing Eastern Orthodoxy they are in fact either completing what they started to find in Lutheranism, or that they are discovering what Lutheranism leans toward, but does not fully embrace, or perhaps most honestly of all, they say that they have found the fullness of the Church that Lutheranism lacks.
In order to do accomplish this they must turn a blind eye and deaf
ear to the profound deficiencies in Eastern Orthodoxy. Ironically, and
sadly, they extend to Eastern Orthodoxy a charity that they have long
since abandoned toward Lutheranism. They are quick to pounce on any and
every either real, or imagined, problem in Lutheranism, while they seem
more than happy to ignore, or explain away, any such lack in Orthodoxy.
It is very much like new love, where a loved one’s faults, failings,
weaknesses and problems are unable to be seen, so enthusiastically and
fondly is the other person caught up in the joy and wonder of the new
relationship. Starry-eyed romanticism clouds the insight that sober,
more mature judgment brings. Ironically, those doing this are
constantly clamoring, "Don’t you know? You don’t realize that
Lutheranism has problems!" The "logic" here seems to be: If Lutheranism
has problems, then the Lutheran Confessions are wrong [the most honest
position], or, the Lutheran Church doesn’t actually exist [the most
self-deceiving position]; therefore, we need to find a different
confession, so we are headed East.
The sad thing is that recent converts to Orthodox are actively
seeking others to convert to their point of view. They especially seem
to target younger pastors, some of them converts themselves to
Lutheranism. They play off their frustrations with
realities of the Lutheran church today. They move in and work to
influence and turn a person’s mind toward Orthodoxy. They work to shake
confidence in the ground of faith: Christ and His Gospel and Gospel
Sacraments. They try to impress the impressionable by a show of
beautiful liturgy, a supposed "Great Tradition," and by claims to be
"really the church." And by convincing some that the problems in
Lutheranism are so vast, and so great, they lead some to believe that
the only possible response is to leave. But to accomplish this they
must embrace a see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil mindset
toward Orthodoxy. They do not really seem able to internalize the
contradiction of leaving one communion because of real, or perceived
ills, only to join another with more than its share of the same!
The converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, or those or considering it, don’t
seem as concerned about the great internal contradictions within
Orthodoxy, every bit as serious as there are within Lutheranism. I
recall for instance watching as the head of one of the Orthodox
communions in this country attended a service in the National Cathedral
in Washington, DC at which event there was worshiped Allah, the Jewish
god, and of course the Blessed and Most Holy Trinity was acknowledged.
The Gospel was explicitly ignored as a part of this service, and
thereby denied. I was assured that the Orthodox primate prayed in the
name of Christ. I was told he was bearing witness, etc. I was told that
in Eastern Orthodoxy there is discipline of errant clergy. And then I
wondered who might "discipline" this head of an Orthodox church in
America. I’ve learned that throughout the lands of Eastern Orthodoxy in
Russia and other places, for example, the sin of abortion is deplored
privately but they simply "don’t talk about it" much at all. But, we
are assured, this is not a doctrinal problem, it is a matter of
practice not conforming to doctrine. But wait a minute! Isn’t this
precisely what upsets them so about Lutheranism, as they regard it?
They tell us our practice doesn’t follow doctrine well enough. So,
that’s bad when it happens in Lutheranism, but it’s acceptable when it
happens in Orthodoxy. Why? Well, you will finally hear that all that
matters is that Orthodoxy has a historic liturgy and in that historic
liturgy this is where you find the wonderful doctrine, because, as we
are told, Orthdooxy is not an idea, it is a living reality as witnessed
in its liturgy. But…don’t look too closely at that liturgy, for you
will find any number of ant-Apostolic features, including admixture of
faith and works, prayers to saints, etc. Are you more than a little
puzzled? Join the club!
grant that in several respects Orthodoxy is a wonderful idea, but the
actual working out of it is lacking. In other words, Orthdoxy, in this
respect, is in the same boat Lutheranism is. Is Orthodoxy then a better
idea than the idea of Lutheranism? There are beautiful articulations of
the Gospel to be found and heard, but then again, there are horrendous
contradictions of the same in the practice of Orthodoxy. There are some
wonderful professors, pastors and pious laity, but then again, others
who simply don’t seem to have it all together. I reflect on the fact
that there are literally dozens of Orthodox churches, but there doesn’t
seem to be much unity among them, in fact, a degree of disunity that
must be a puzzlement to many. The idea of unity is wonderful, but I
don’t see it in actual practice to the extent some would have us
Some recent converts to Orthodoxy would have us believe that
Lutheranism believes the church is invisible, and therefore we
Lutherans are not as concerned about the reality of the church. But
this is either self-deceiving and self-justifying commentary, or
willful deception and distortion of what Lutheranism actually stands
for. The hiddeness of the church under cross, suffering, weakness,
shame and sin is not to say that the church is "invisible" but to
assert that the reality of the church is not located in the rites and
ceremonies that have no command of God and no institution by our Lord
Christ. There is not a scintilla of Biblical evidence by which one can
assert that the liturgical forms of Eastern Orthodoxy are in any way
essential to the Gospel itself, and by no means are these forms,
beautiful as they are, are in any way part and parcel of the faith once
handed over to the saints. That is a reality that is frustrating for
those anxious to locate the church’s reality in some other place other
than the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of the Sacraments.
For all the talk I hear telling us Lutherans that we have only an
idea, not a real church, I’m left wondering about the contrast between
Orthodoxy articulated in beautiful books, and advocated by converts,
and the actual working out of the same. I’m also struck by the naievete
of those who think that Orthodox churches made up predominantly of
converts from Western Evangelical, Lutheran, Anglican or other
Protestant churches, are in fact reflective of Orthodoxy as it is
actually found throughout the world. As for the authority of bishops,
I’m almost amused that some of our Orthodoxy leaning, or going, friends
praise the notion of the authority of bishops, yet seem willing to
dismiss the fact that there is in this world a church that does have
universal fellowship and authority flowing from one bishop. They want
an authoritative magisterium and bishop, but not this magisterium and
not this bishop. This church, they say, is merely a splinter group from
the "real" and "true" and "most ancient" church. I can’t help but
wonder why they are not more attracted to the chuch that has such unity
around one bishop: Roman Catholicism.
so, ironically, when some who have defected from Lutheranism
continually assert that Lutheranism does not exist because nowhere,
they claim, can one find practiced what they believe to be the proper
interpretation of the Book of Concord, I can’t help but smile at the
irony of the fact that at least we have a definitive collection of
Confessions to which one can point and say, "This is Lutheranism." Any
such attempt to point to definitive Orthodox confession of truth is
like trying to grab hold of jello, and besides, even before you do,
you’ll be told, "No, it’s not this jello, it’s this! Not the lime
jello, here, it’s the lemon jello." You think you can cite one
catechism, but you are told, no, that is not the right catechism. You
think you can cite one Orthodox father, teacher, bishop or monk, only
to be told, no, this one is the better one. You think you can quote
from one person’s book, only to be told, no, you really need to read
this book. And then it dawns on you that one aspect of Orthodoxy that
makes it relatively easy for those doubting Lutheranism, or those who
left, to find Orthdoxy a viable option is because one can find just
about whatever one is looking for in it. If you try to quote something
from any Orthodox text or book, you
are quickly told that, no, this is not really Orthodoxy. It really
matters not what source one quotes, there is always the rejoinder that
this is not a reliable source. Try to pin anything down very
specifically, and Orthodox folks will tell you, in very pious and
impressive ways, that Orthodoxy is the Faith of the Apostles and you’ll
find that to be quite a challenge. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it
again, trying actually to nail down what it is precisely that Orthodoxy
believes, teaches and confesses is as easy as herding cats.
Insteal of all this, let’s keep working on living up to what we confess as Lutherans! Now this is such a good idea! To
those no longer, have the stomach to stand their post on the walls of
our Lutheran Zion, then, to them, we simply must say, "Go peacefully
and may God bless and, what you must do, do quickly!"
Now, one more thing, please read the following e-mail my friends at the radio show Issues, etc. received
from an Orthodox Priest. In his defense of Orthdoxy, he admits that in
fact the great "unity" of Orthodoxy is no more, or less, just an "idea"
than what some criticize about Lutheranism. The church that he claims
"can not err" in fact does err, as he concedes, but he tells us they
are not "really Orthodox." Sound familiar? And finally, notice how he
says that they are united in the Faith that has not changed one bit
since the time of the Apostles. But nowhere in Apostolic Scripture do
we find any advocacy for some of the chief characteristics of
Orthodoxy: prayers to the saints, to Mary, veneration of icons, the
sacrifice of the Eucharistic, the epiclesis, etc. etc. etc.!! And I
mention only a few. I was informed that the letter writer is a member
of a "splinter group" in Orthodoxy, the implication being therefore
that his comments should be disregarded because of alleged immorality
in the leadership of that splinter group. Well, using that standard, we
could point to any number of scandals in Orthodoxy. For instance, in Greek Orthodoxy. And in the Holy Land. Apparently scandalous behavior may reach to the very heights of the Greek Orthodox Church. Apparently the Orthodox Church in America has its shares of woe as well. There is in fact a web site devoted to this issue. But wait, there’s more. One reads this:
THE ORTHODOX MESS IN AMERICA EXPLAINED
We all know the Orthodox Church here in North America is a mess. Our church is divided
into jurisdictional factions. Our bishops often do not lead. Our laity is often ignorant of
our faith. One scandal seems to follow another. The "language issue" and ethnic pride have
lost the Church several generations. What went wrong? What can be done?
And what are we to make of this sort of discussion?
How does this square with the holiness and purity that some would have
us believe of the Orthodox church? How does this square with those who
fault Lutherans for talking about a church hidden under weakness and
sin? Here is an excerpt from one of those whom I told is the person to
whom we should look for accurate discussions about Orthodox, Father
Referring to Orthodoxy’s "progressive surrender" to secularism, Father
Alexander names the clergy as "the first to accept and to propagate"
its alluring vision and philosophy. It was the clergy who capitulated to the
idea that an authentic expression of Orthodox life in America was an
impossibility. Given this conclusion the only way Orthodoxy could survive In
America was if it compromised virtually every aspect of its life. And though
this compromise may have been difficult at the start, it gradually became a way
of life – a way of survival – that continues even to the present. The "religious" corporation became the paradigm for
American parish life and remains so to this day. Thus, in retrospect, we need to
see that regardless of what can accurately be referred to as a renaissance of
parish life i.e. educated clergy, liturgical and eucharistic revival, Christian
education programs, outreach and missionary awareness a secular vision still
prevails in the local parish’s perception of itself. Here we encounter a great
paradox. On the one hand an attempt to restore Orthodox church life in the
parishes is underway. Yet, on the other hand, these same parishes with their
by-laws and statutes still retain and rely on a form of governance that is
uncanonical and therefore antithetical to the very renaissance they affirm to
desire and support. This paradox signifies that another dimension of the
spiritual problem is developing which will be more difficult to diagnose and
A recent blog discussion
features a comment by a person leaning East who asserts, "the LCMS is
an heretical communion since it not only permits but also promotes
false teaching according to its own doctrinal standard." OK, with that accusation
in mind, read this letter from an Orthodox priest who clearly admits
that this is precisely what is going on within Orthodoxy! Like I say,
Orthodox might, in some ways, be a great idea, but the reality is quite
another thing and so any such claims about Lutheranism are, finally, in
the final analysis, the pot calling the kettle black.
Dear Pastor Wilkens,
Have been listening to your discussions on the Orthodox Church. Of
particular interest was the latest with the former Orthodox priest.
His ("…Smith?") reason for apostasy was revealing.
He explained that the Orthodox placed great emphasis on unity, yet
were divided by the petty issue of the Calendar. He failed to make a
few distinctions. To be sure, the Calendar, and the date of Paschalion
inseperable from it, was produced by the Council of Nicea; hence,
very important. They are the signs of the Church’s historicity and
her external unity.
The Emperor Constantine urged the Council to give the Church a
peremanent and universal Calendar that would end the scandalous
situation in which, for example, part of the Church was feasting and
There was similar problem in the primitive Church between those
Christians who celebrated Easter (Pascha) on the 14th of Nissan (on
whatever day it fell during the week) and those, like the Roman Bishop,
who insisted on the first Sunday after the Jewish Passover. The former
finally capituated to the will of the universal Church. And there is
another instance: the Church of Ireland did not obey the decree of
Nicea until the 10th century.
Now, you may argue that there has never been "unity" in the Church,
or you may look for another reason to explain the Calendar dissensions.
We begin with defining "unity" as "unity" in the Faith, "the Faith
once delivered (or traditioned) to the saints" (Jude 3). The Orthodox
Faith has never changed. She believes now what she believed at the
time of the Apostles. She is the Church of the Apostles. That Faith is
infallible and immutable, for the Holy Spirit does not allow her to lie.
We can never boast that every member of the Church, every
Patriarch, bishop, every presbyter, deacon and laymen have complied
with the Will of the Spirit. The Orthodox Church has always had her
share of apostates, heretics and schismatics.
Do not think, incidentally, that the Calendar is the only problem.
Some Orthodox Churches have joined the ecumenical movement — "the
heresy of heresies," as one of our Bishops referred to it. They claim
to have enlisted in order in order to witness to the Faith. Initially,
perhaps, but not now. The canons have been violated seriously.
St Basil the Great (Canon 1) says that heretics and apostates are
not part of the Church, of her "unity." Although in a state terrible
sin, schismatics (such as the New Calendarist) are still part of her, a
rotten branch that will eventually fall from the tree.
They are guilty of breaking the external unity of the Church, which
has implications for ecclesiology and christology. The Orthodox Church
is the Body of Christ, and it is not the Will of the Lord that His Robe
But we non-ecumenist, Old Calendar Orthodox, separate from "brethren
that walk disorderly," according to the command of the Apostle. Yet,
what the Orthodox Faith remains available to all who seek the saving
truth. Of course, the seekers must find an Orthodox bishop who clings
to immaculate Faith of the Apostles and Fathers. There are many who use
the name "Orthodox" and there are many who are schismatics. Read the
holy Fathers on this serious offense.
I would never leave the Orthodox Church, because, as St Peter of
Damascus said, "The longer I live it, the more I know it is true."
Your "Rev Smith" seems a very intelligent and sincere man, but reasons
for his impetuous departure from Orthodoxy were not well thought out.
Neat, logical, to be sure, but wrong. If he had absorbed the wisdom of
the Fathers, he would not have made such a mistake.
Fr Michael Azkoul
St Catherine Greek Orthodox Church .