Evangelicals Who Journey East

Author: Rev. Ray Ryland


Rev. Ray Ryland

Sixteen years ago we read that a group of Evangelicals had formed a new denomination. The event was hardly newsworthy. For centuries new denominations have been appearing, at the rate of about five per week in recent years. What caught my eye was the name this new denomination took: the "Evangelical Orthodox Church."

My interest grew as I learned about their beliefs and practices. These were Evangelicals with some Catholic concerns. They had a liturgy and offered their people sacraments. They had bishops, even a synod of bishops. All or most of the men who organized the denomination appointed themselves bishops, and the leader became "presiding bishop."

For years I lost track of the EOC. I wondered how long it would take its members to realize that one cannot be Catholic unless one is in the Catholic Church. Then in 1987 I read that the EOC had come to a different realization: It merged into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.

In the following years I saw two or three articles by Peter Gillquist, original leader of the EOC, briefly summarizing the pilgrimage, and in 1989 appeared his book <Becoming Orthodox>, now in a revised edition (Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press, 1992). A companion volume, edited by Gillquist, is <Coming Home> (Conciliar Press, 1992). It is a collection of convert stories by former Protestants (all but one a clergyman), most of whom were associated with Gillquist in his journey to the Antiochian Church.

An Evangelical journalist, Frank Schaeffer, son of writer Francis Schaeffer, recently published a book about his entry into the Greek Orthodox Church: <Dancing Alone> (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994). Unlike Gillquist, Schaeffer tells little about how he became convinced he should enter the Greek Church, but he does say that twenty years ago he began to be aware of "the evident spiritual bankruptcy of Protestantism and the intensely secularized pluralistic culture it had produced."

He began to look for an alternative by reading the early Fathers and Church history. He decided he had to choose between "the Protestant world view" and "Holy Tradition." He chose "Holy Tradition" and entered the Greek Church.

Schaeffer does not reveal why he equated "Holy Tradition" (though the term is Eastern) with the Eastern Churches. Evidently he gave not a thought to Catholicism, except to dismiss it rather contemptuously. His dismissal takes the form of characterizing Catholicism in terms of current aberrations among some of its members.

In passing he refers to "many americanized [sic] Roman Catholic parishes," to generally "secularized American Roman Catholics," to "protestantized Roman Catholics," to "the increasingly chaotic Roman Church," to "modernized Roman Catholics," to "the post-Vatican II, modernized reductionism of today's Roman Catholics."

As I noted, Schaeffer says little about what drew him into the Greek Church, so in the this essay I will trace the road followed by Gillquist and his colleagues and then will look again at the anti-Catholicism which is characteristic of the Eastern Churches and their converts.

The Road East

Gillquist and his early associates worked for several years as staff members of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelistic movement aimed at college students. They began to realize that their efforts had slight enduring effects. The students who were led to make commitments to Christ "were like newborn babies being left on a doorstep somewhere to feed and care for themselves." The newly-evangelized were not being brought into the body of Christ, the Church. (This quotation and the following ones are taken from Becoming Orthodox.)

Gillquist and the others knew they were looking for "the New Testament Church," but they had never seen it in any of the churches known to them. They left Campus Crusade, and most took secular jobs to support their families. Each one started a "house church" in his own home, providing regular Sunday worship, occasional Holy Communion and baptism. These seekers realized that there are many claimants to the title "New Testament Church." One member said in exasperation, "Everybody claims to be the New Testament Church.... We need to find out who's right."

The inquirers believed they knew what "the New Testament Church" was at the beginning. One said, "As Evangelicals—Bible people—we know our way up to A.D. 95 or so, when the Apostle John finished writing the Revelation." They needed to find out where the New Testament Church went after 95, so they embarked on a systematic study of Church history, doctrine, and the history of worship. Everything they learned was to be tested by Scripture.

Their motivation was practical, not academic. They had promised their followers that "we would bring them into the historic mainstream of the New Testament faith." At the outset it was agreed "to do and be whatever we found that the New Testament Church did and was, as we followed her through history." In this venture Gillquist and his friends had a strong sense of uniqueness. "Few men in America or even the world, I suppose, were in a position to do the sort of work we were proposing. We were beholden to no one but the Lord and each other. We were small, free to move, and free to change. Available to adjust to what we would find, we were committed to uphold nobody's party line. We were unattached to any established Church." In other words, "All we wanted was Christ and his Church. Instead of judging history, we were inviting history to judge us."

As their study progressed, these non-liturgical Evangelicals discovered that the worship of the early Church was always liturgical. They learned that in the early Church the Eucharist (a term they began to use) was regarded both as "symbol and as substance"—but the man covering this field of study assured them the word "transubstantiation" came into use only centuries later.

Gillquist confessed great relief at not having to accept the Roman Church's view of transubstantiation. He said he often had criticized the doctrine as amounting to "better living through chemistry." (This quip, surely intended to be flippant, is on a par with Fundamentalists' ridicule of the Blessed Sacrament as "the death cookie" or "the cookie Christ.")

To their surprise, the study of Church history showed these investigators that the office of bishop was well established and universally recognized before the end of the first century. In light of this fact "the most interesting passage we came across" was Acts 15, the account of the Council of Jerusalem. Even though the apostle Peter was present, it was James, not Peter, who "rendered the final judgment" regarding Gentile Christians' observance of the Jewish law. James presided and made the decision because he was bishop of Jerusalem and therefore the authority in his "diocese" (my term).

This study of Church history introduced the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Nicene Creed. Among other things, the study of Nicaea showed "how councils in the Church are to work: when godly bishops, priests, deacons and people gather to discern the truth of God, the Holy Spirit will speak to them." This is the conciliar principle: "discerning God's will in consensus." Also they were introduced to "the other major councils in Church history." The first seven ecumenical councils, taken together, "complete the foundation of the Church's understanding of the apostolic deposit of the faith and serve as a safeguard of it."

In 1975 Gillquist and the others formed the New Covenant Apostolic Order and committed themselves to establishing churches that would reflect what they were learning. Four years later this NCAO became the Evangelical Orthodox Church. At this point in his story Gillquist sums up the situation of the Church at the end of the first millennium.

The Church's worship "had substantially the same shape from place to place. The doctrine was the same. The whole Church confessed one creed, the same in every place. . . . The government of the Church was recognizably one everywhere. And this one Church was Orthodox."

That sounds like the end of the journey: destination reached, journey finished. Clearly minds were made up. Yet Gillquist and the others insist that when they came to the eleventh-century fork in the road, they had to decide whether to go East or West. The two key issues were the papacy—"should one man, the Pope of Rome, be considered the universal head of the Church?"—and the Catholic Church's adding the word <filioque> ("and the Son") to the creed's statement about the procession of the Holy Spirit.

Predictably, the former Evangelicals argue that "the vast majority" of the bishops of the Church merely accepted Rome's "primacy of honor." This phrase is used by Easterners to designate their view of the role of Peter and his successors. They reject the claim that Peter's successors are heads of the universal Church. In making that claim and in adding the filioque, the papacy was "departing from the Orthodox doctrine of the Church" and thereby "perpetuating the separation of the Roman Church from the historic Orthodox Church, the New Testament Church."

In their discussion of the <filioque> question, the Gillquist group quotes John 15:26 (which for Easterners often seems to settle the dispute): "But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who <proceeds from the Father>, He will testify of Me" (Gillquist's emphasis). The problem, explains Gillquist, is that "the Pope of Rome unilaterally changed the universal creed of the Church without an ecumenical council."

They do not say it, perhaps they did not realize it, yet it is obvious that, long before the fork in the road was reached, Gillquist and his associates had decided which fork to take. Still, they speak of themselves as having had to make a choice at this stage of their journey.

Gillquist reminisces, "I can still somehow recall the physical feeling that I had as I said to my cohorts, `The East is right in resisting papal excesses, and they're right in rejecting the <filioque> clause.' And I drew a deep, new breath: `I guess that makes us . . . Orthodox.'"

All that remained, in the decade ahead, was to learn more about the Eastern Churches and to carry on negotiations that finally led to these one-time Campus Crusaders being received into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. Within that Church they constitute a distinct group called the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission.

These converts have brought all their Evangelical zeal with them. They have evangelized, organized new parishes, and established a publishing firm that produces a magazine and other apologetic materials.

In his foreword to Gillquist's <Becoming Orthodox>, Maximos Aghiorgoussis, Greek Orthodox bishop of Pittsburgh, pays tribute to "the `Evangelical Orthodox'" who "have resurrected the essential dimension of evangelism in the life of the Church for the Holy Orthodox!"

An Easy Pilgrimage

There is a marked contrast between these accounts of Evangelicals' journey to an Eastern Church and the stories told by converts to the Catholic Church.

To see this, look at Cardinal Newman's <Apologia Pro Vita Sua> or at recent collections of conversion stories, such as <Surprised by Truth>, <Spiritual Journeys>, <The New Catholics>, or Scott and Kimberly Hahn's <Rome Sweet Home>.

These pilgrimages to Rome were <arduous>. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, these converts struggled, most of them for years and often in great anguish of spirit and mind. As the truth of Catholicism began to dawn on them, all were surprised. Many were at first appalled at the thought of becoming Catholic, but all finally learned that the pearl of great price always brings unspeakable joy to those who find it and accept it.

Now back to Gillquist's book and the stories of other Evangelicals in <Coming Home>. The overwhelming impression one receives is that these pilgrimages were easy. There were difficulties in finding a place in the Eastern ecclesiastical structure, but the intellectual and spiritual aspects of the pilgrimage sound like a breeze.

Take the matter of "tradition." Gillquist recognized that Evangelicalism has "a tradition of being opposed to tradition." Eastern teaching about the necessity of "Holy Tradition" must have been a great obstacle. How did Gillquist overcome it? "I reached for my Bible concordance." He found passages which speak approvingly of tradition. So now "Holy Tradition" is in. It was as simple as that. Liturgical worship, as opposed to informal worship? Gillquist said, "I grabbed my Greek New Testament" and found in Acts 31:2 that the Greek word <leitourgounton> ["liturgizing"] occurs." So now liturgical worship poses no problems.

The use of images in worship? Another sore point for Evangelicals, but not to worry: Gillquist found in Exodus 26:1 that God commanded statues of cherubim to be made. Now icons are home safe. Even incense? Back to his Bible: Gillquist discovered incense in the Old Testament. No objection to incense now.

Calling priests "father," which is anathema to Evangelicals? Gillquist's concordance came to the rescue. He learned about the scriptural use of "father" to indicate spiritual parentage and nurture. No more objection to the term.

(At this point C. S. Lewis fans may recall the old professor in <The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe>. Often puzzled by the children's lack of logic in their thinking, he would ask himself, "Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?" Reading about Gillquist's easy resolution of all these difficulties causes one to wonder where his Bible and concordance had been all those Evangelical years. "What do they teach them in these [Evangelical] schools?")

Then came the big one: Mariology. Evangelicals react emotionally to the Church's Marian doctrines. Surely Eastern beliefs about Mary would be bitter pills for prospective converts to swallow. Not so. Gillquist went to his Bible again. He learned that Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived, that she is our model for the Christian life, that she is the Mother of God. We are to honor Mary and call her blessed. Gillquist found even more about Mary in his New Testament. Not only was she virgin when she conceived Jesus, but she remained a virgin ever after. He even found scriptural precedent (and, in the Fathers, strong tradition) for Mary's bodily assumption.

But he drew the line at the Immaculate Conception—too Roman. Apparently he believes the Virgin was not preserved from the stain of original sin, yet he declares that she "gave her flesh to the Son of God" who was without sin. He gives no hint as to how this could have been. Perhaps he would call it a "mystery," using a doctrinal fail-safe frequently found in Eastern theological writing.

Short Journey

Why were these pilgrimages so easy? There are two main reasons. The first: Gillquist believes he and his colleagues were free spirits when they began their search for "the New Testament Church." They were "committed to uphold nobody's party line" and were "unattached to any established Church."

He is wrong. The pilgrims had no denominational affiliation, but they were committed (evidently unconsciously) to upholding the <Protestant> "party line." They set out fully equipped with Protestant presuppositions about what Scripture teaches. Along the way those presuppositions were slightly expanded, but they never changed fundamentally.

At the outset the searchers assured one another, "As Evangelicals—Bible people—we know our way up to A.D. 95 or so." They never thought otherwise at any stage in their journey. They always understood the Church in the New Testament in Protestant terms.

There are repeated expressions of their confidence in their Protestant conception of the Church. Early in his narrative Gillquist speaks of "our zeal to discover New Testament Christianity" in some church or other. "The Church was the answer, but not any Church we had ever seen. It was the New Testament Church that we sought." The one thing they all had in common was "our desire to see the emergence of a true New Testament expression of Christianity." They knew from the beginning what "a true New Testament expression of Christianity" is.

Their perception of the Church remained normative throughout their journey. "The Church of the New Testament, the Church of Peter and Paul and the Apostles, the Orthodox Church . . . miraculously carries on today the same faith and life of the Church of the New Testament." See the logic? The "Orthodox Church" is <the> Church <because> it carries on the faith and life of the "New Testament Church." Thus the "New Testament Church" as understood by Gillquist and the others remains the criterion.

Gillquist returns to this theme in his epilogue, written six years after the group entered the Antiochian Church. He reminds his readers that, from the beginning, "To identify the Church of the first century in the pages of the New Testament posed no problem for us." The Protestant understanding remained intact throughout their journey.

<Becoming Orthodox> contains numerous reflections of this original and unchanged mind-set with regard to scriptural data. The discussion of authority in the Church ignores key passages, such as Matthew 16:13-19, Luke 22:31-32; John 21:15-17. (Eastern writers in general do not grapple with the "keys of the kingdom" passage and its rich Old Testament and ancient Middle Eastern background. If they mention it at all, they lump it in with "binding and loosing" powers given to all the apostles.)

Gillquist and his friends were surprised to learn that there were bishops in the first century. (That this was news to them should have alerted them to the possibility of other deficiencies in their confident knowledge of "the New Testament Church.") They say nothing about apostolic succession or about the divine origin of the Church. Their rationale for the office of bishop is pragmatic: "Someone always ends up being in charge."

In their study of Church history, "the most interesting passage we came across was Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem." Surely these "Bible people" had read the passage before. What made it "the most interesting passage" of all they read during their inquiry? The answer seems to be this. Their interpretation of the council, as we have seen, is the usual Protestant interpretation: Though Peter was present, James presided and made the decision. Now they see further reason for rejecting Catholic teaching about Peter. James was bishop of Jerusalem. According to Eastern teaching, James as bishop was subject to the authority of no other bishop. Here, then, is found further confirmation of the inquirers' Protestant belief.

Against the living magisterial voice of Peter's successors Gillquist and the others set the authority of ecumenical councils. Down to the eleventh century, "Christians looked to the great Ecumenical Councils as the guideposts for the interpretation of Scripture and for the formulation of what was to be believed."

Gillquist is wrong. Decrees or Tradition as such cannot interpret Scripture. Only <persons> can interpret Scripture. In all centuries of the Church, Christians have had to look to some<one> to <interpret> Tradition and <apply> that interpretation to understanding scriptural truth. (Read again Acts 8:26-39, especially verses 30 and 31, where the principle is clearly stated.)

All three of the books by Evangelical converts repeatedly refer to "Holy Tradition" as if it were a living entity able to express itself. The fact is that it remains an abstraction without a living spokesman. Nowhere in these books do we meet or hear of that spokesman. The lack is not the fault of these zealous converts. It is the fault of the Churches of the East, which long ago cut themselves off from the See of Peter and therefore from the living voice of Christ the Head of the Church.

So the pilgrimage was easy because the pilgrims had not far to travel. There is another reason.

Friendly Territory

From his newly-gained Eastern perspective, Gillquist made this comment about the Protestant churches. Though they were deeply divided, "All seemed to share a dislike for the Bishop of Rome and the practice of his Church." The observation is true, but its scope is far wider than Gillquist realizes. Dislike for the Bishop of Rome unites <all> non-Catholic Christians.

Writing in the last century, the French scholar Joseph de Maistre declared that "every non-Catholic church is `Protestant.'" The distinction often made between heretical groups (Protestants) and schismatic groups (Eastern Churches) is only verbal: "Every Christian who rejects <communion> with the Holy Father is a Protestant or soon will be."

De Maistre asks, why do Protestants never bother to write books attacking the Greek or the Russian or the Nestorian or the Syrian Churches, all of which hold many doctrines which Protestants despise? The Russian Church, for example, believes in the Real Presence, all seven Catholic sacraments, intercession of the saints, veneration of images, and so forth.

Though Protestantism abhors these doctrines, "if it encounters any of these in a church separated from Rome, it takes no offense at them. . . . Russia is separated from the Holy See—that is sufficient for it to be seen as a brother, a fellow Protestant." More succinctly, "All enemies of Rome are friends" (quoted by Hans Urs von Balthasar, <The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church> [Ignatius Press, 1986], 80-81).

De Maistre's observation accords with my own experience. The Russian Orthodox Seminary of St. Vladimir (now in Crestwood, New York) was housed for some years in Union Theological Seminary in New York City, when my wife and I were students there. The seminary had its own faculty, almost all laymen, headed by Fr. Georges Florovsky, the pre-eminent Eastern theologian of this century. We Protestant seminarians had no contact with the Russian faculty except occasionally to sit at table in the refectory with them. Fr. Florovsky was a very impressive figure, even though I knew nothing of his fame as a theologian. Many times I saw him striding through the halls, heavily bearded, in flowing black robes, with what we called his "headdress" making him appear to be at least seven feet tall.

Those Russians represented a different world to us Protestants. We had rudimentary knowledge of their beliefs, which we knew were quite different from ours. We recognized that we were separated from them by deep cultural and ethnic differences. Yet we felt comfortable in their presence. Indeed, we were glad they shared our accommodations. They were Christians, like ourselves. Best of all, they were not Roman. And so, deep down, we knew they were our allies.

At a climactic moment in their pilgrimage, Gillquist and his colleagues agreed that the East was right and Rome was wrong. They may have recognized their conclusion only then, but they had drawn it long before they began their journey. That is why their journey East was short and easy. "And then I drew a deep, new breath. `I guess that makes us . . . Orthodox.'"

The breath was not deep. And it certainly was not new.

Rev. Ray Ryland, a convert from the Episcopal Church, has taught at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of San Diego. He is now on the staff of Catholic Answers. This is the first in a series of articles on Orthodoxy he is preparing for "This Rock" magazine.

This article is reprinted from the April 1995 issue of <This Rock> magazine.