The Challenge of the True Orthodox in North America

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve" (

Romans 16:17-18).

My journey to the True Orthodox Church was neither quick, nor easy.  Raised as a Lutheran, I was committed to the ideals of Protestantism.  I remember in high school taking pride in the Lutheran faith for challenging the power of the papacy and empowering individual believers.  Our confirmation class nicknamed itself the “Original Rebels” in honor of Martin Luther’s place in Protestant history.  As an adult, I would seek out the Lutheran Church wherever I was living.  But with each move, I became more and more uncomfortable.  The high liturgical church of my childhood was less and less apparent.  At my last stop, praise bands and worship music services were the focus.  Women pastors were the norm, and congregations would pat themselves on the back if they hired one.  “Look how progressive we are,” they seemed to be saying.  Everything was about being relevant to the modern culture.  Sin was rarely discussed.  Hard lines were never drawn.  The Church had changed.

Finally, I stopped attending.  I investigated the house church movement.  I toyed with my own theology; after all, this is the American way—every individual can decide what he wants.  We are free to believe as we choose.  Why should church be any different, I reasoned?  But it wasn’t right in my soul.  My research led me to many sects that claimed to model ancient Christianity.  Most of them were less than 100 years old, and they were all different, so they couldn’t possibly be right.  In this time of earnest seeking, I happened upon the Orthodox Church.  As luck would have it, I discovered one just a few miles from my house.  So off I went.  It was a Western Rite parish and I was immediately drawn to it.  Here was the majesty of Liturgy.  As I studied (because as Westerners, this is what we do) I learned about the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, and the insistence on fidelity to the faith of the Apostles.  I was home, or so I thought.

As time passed, I would travel and visit other Orthodox parishes.  I discovered the Eastern Rite, and was drawn more and more to its mystery and beauty.  The faith was the same, but the liturgy was more appealing to me.  I also learned that the other churches in town considered my home parish to be “non-canonical.”  I didn’t understand exactly what that meant, only that it wasn’t good.  Between this concern over being labeled as irregular and my attraction to the Eastern Rite, I left my home parish and eventually helped start a mission of the OCA.  An autocephalous American Church, I thought, this is the promise of Orthodoxy!  Like my days as a Lutheran, I took pride in this.  So we worshiped and we struggled.  Despite my pride, small cracks began to appear in my mirror of certainty.  Why did a smaller mission get a full time priest just because someone bought a building?  Why were so many bishops being accused and retired?  Who were these activists on the Internet, with the knowledge and even participation of their parish priests, calling for the Church to re-examine its teaching on moral issues?  And why, if we held the true faith, were we so concerned with what other Christian sects thought of us?  When our mission was closed, after years without a regular priest, just two weeks before Pascha, it became apparent to me.  Money, influence and appearances predominated in this jurisdiction.  Other so-called canonical churches were outright hostile to our mission.  We were too close to their “territory.”  Was this Christian love?  Was this the unity of the Church?  I quit.

I certainly couldn’t return to the neighboring parishes that had sent our mission angry letters, or give myself to the spiritual guidance of the priest who cornered me one day and complained about e-mails to “his” parishioners, when they had asked to be placed on our mailing list.  I had no interest in ethnic parishes that boasted of using “some English” in their services.  So I read the hours and Typica at home, I prayed, and eventually I reached out to a bishop I had known through the Western Rite parish where I first discovered Orthodoxy.  He was now a part of the Genuine Orthodox Church of Greece.  So I had more studying to do.  What I found impressed me: small, real parish communities holding to the patristic faith.  Preservation of Orthodoxy was the paramount concern, and even appearances of ecumenical improprieties were to be avoided.  Suddenly, the question of whether this jurisdiction or that jurisdiction considered us “canonical” was unimportant.  Were we Orthodox?  Were we preserving the True Faith?  Were we struggling each day to live in our faith with humility and repentance?  This was everything that was never asked in the canonical parishes I had attended.

So I jumped in.  Being True Orthodox without a local community can be an isolating experience.  But after my year of home reader’s services, this was not a deterrent to me.  The Internet brings us closer together in ways not possible in the past.  But the Internet also can show the ugly side of True Orthodoxy  (I suspect this is true of all things in general.  Messages delivered without tone or context lack the nuance of face-to-face discussion).  It is not hard to find True Orthodox Internet resources quickly devolving into polemical criticisms of other True Orthodox jurisdictions and bishops.  It often seems that the focus of True Orthodoxy is in condemning the World Orthodox jurisdictions or even those other True Orthodox jurisdictions outside one’s own communion.  The online world of the True Orthodox struggles to maintain a focus on teaching the faith, calling the unchurched, and living a life of faith and repentance.  Sometimes, the discussions leave the reader asking, “What are they so angry about?”

Understand that I point this out not to judge or condemn.  Indeed, given the persecution of the various True Orthodox Churches from the World Orthodox and from secular governments, a reaction that states the need to justify or defend oneself and one’s position is natural.  Those who inflict abuse on the True Orthodox rarely seek to understand or explore the arguments they hear.  They are interested only in provoking a reaction and feeding the fire.  We may surely justify ourselves when we respond by reasoning that we are fighting the “cunning craftiness” and “winds of doctrine” tossed about by men who “lie in wait to deceive.” (Ephesians 4:14). We can certainly defend the need to constantly point out the flaws in World Orthodox doctrine and praxis as speaking the truth to those who are in delusion or under the direction of a deceiver.

However, what I am going to suggest, as one recently led to the True Orthodox Church, is that far too often it appears we are not speaking the truth in love.  I propose that for the True Orthodox Church in North America, we may better witness to the true faith by responding less frequently and less vociferously to the slings and arrows of those who would try to attack us.

Why do I believe this and why do I specifically qualify my belief geographically?  These are important questions, the answers to which are bound up in one another.  I will answer the question by posing some questions.  Which vineyard is ripe for the harvest?  Which vineyard may yield the greatest bounty for the Lord?  For the sake of brevity, let’s categorize those outside the Church into three groups: the World Orthodox, the heterodox Christians, and non-Christians.  Now let’s look at the size of each group. The World Orthodox are a tiny, almost statistically insignificant segment of the North American population.  The Antiochians, who boast of their robust mission and growth, are estimated at around 55,000 members.  The OCA, which stakes the claim of being an autocephalous American church, is estimated to have shrunk to barely 30,000 members.  Even the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S., with all its money and grandeur and its claim to preserve Hellenic culture as much as to preach the Gospel, numbers less than 500,000 members in the most generous counts.  In fact, there are more Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States than those who call themselves Orthodox Christians.  By comparison, there are approximately 150 million Protestants in the U.S.  There are another 60 million people who describe themselves as either non-Christian, atheist or agnostic.  This includes the sadly misguided but growing number of young adults who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”  In sum, in the United States, evangelizing the World Orthodox is like tending a flower pot rather than working the farm.   While we can certainly welcome and dialogue with any member of World Orthodoxy seeking the true faith, focusing on trying to convince them of their errors seems like a time and labor intensive task with little ultimate reward.

Consider what the Protestant, the fallen away and the unchurched are interested in: belief, community and mission.  They could scarcely understand, much less care about, the intense polemics often found in online discussions between the True Orthodox and the World Orthodox.  So, while I will always pray for the World Orthodox to return to the true faith, when it comes to them, I don’t really care what they think.

For the Protestant or unchurched, words like canonical, schismatic, heretical, jurisdiction and phrases like “in communion with the Patriarchates,” or “members of the Assembly of Bishops” have no meaning.  Zero.  They don’t want to hear about our fights with the World Orthodox.  They don’t need to hear about our fights with the World Orthodox.  What they need is to be catechized, brought to the true faith and made a member of the Body of Christ.  They need answers to their questions, such as “why are you on the Old Calendar?”  that don’t involve denunciations of Greek bishops who lived 100 years ago.  They need to see a Church that has a mission to evangelize the nations.  They need to experience a Church that, like the post-Apostolic Christians, lives its faith by a model of love for all.  They need to be drawn into and immersed in the ancient liturgical life of the Church in a community of humility, repentance and faith.

Trust me when I say that a properly catechized Protestant who comes to the True Orthodox Church will not be swayed by the words of an angry World Orthodox adherent.  If and when that attack comes, they will be clothed in the “whole armor of God . . . to stand against the wiles of the Devil.” (Ephesians 6:11).  Might we lose a few new members who discover that they are considered “uncanonical” or that they can’t commune at the local ROCOR parish?  That is possible.  But that is fear born of the passions that any faithful Orthodox Christian must fight against.   Frankly, if that is our greatest challenge, we will be doing well because for each convert who wavers, more will “stand firm in the faith.” (1 Corinthians 16:13).

For this reason, I strongly believe that the mission of the True Orthodox Church in North America is not to first convince the World Orthodox that we are right, but rather to evangelize the non-Orthodox and bring them into the Church.  This leads me to my greatest concern, which is the first impression that a seeker will find when they stumble upon the True Orthodox Church.  Particularly in areas where missions are not yet active, and even in those where they are, today’s culture seeks out information across the Internet more than any other venue.  Even 60% of senior citizens actively use the Internet.  Across all adults, the adoption rate exceeds 85%.  The Internet is a magnet for True Orthodox as well—but what impression do we leave?  A seeker, uninformed about Orthodoxy in general, and True Orthodoxy specifically, is presented with polemical sites, denunciations of heresies, condemnation of other True Orthodox jurisdictions and the like.  Even the websites of the various jurisdictions teem with talk of heresies and strongly worded letters to other Bishops, while failing to so much as reference the basic tenets of the Orthodox faith: the very faith we claim to preserve!

Where is the safe space for an inquirer to learn about Orthodoxy?  “You’re a heretic, but keep reading,” is an unlikely path to draw non-orthodox seekers into the Church.  Before you can defend the faith, you have to teach the faith, and I think that effort is sorely lacking in the True Orthodox online presence.  If we seek to grow the Church and bring the heterodox and the unchurched to the true faith, we need to take a long, hard look at what an inquirer will find when they go looking and how they will perceive that.

There are many fine polemicists in the service of the Church in North America.  I am not one of them.  Dr. Vladimir Moss, a precise and knowledgeable writer, recently commented on a Facebook group that “war has certainly been waged against the True Orthodox Church of Russia. As a loyal and convinced member of that Church, I defend her.”  He is right, and he does indeed!  But it isn’t the heterodox and unchurched waging war on the True Orthodox Church.  They, for the most part, don’t know it exists.  They are the collateral damage in our internet battles with the oppressive forces of the World Orthodox; yet they should be the very people we are seeking to convert.

It is sadly necessary for learned and faithful monks, bishops and laymen to defend the faith from the attacks of the World Orthodox.  However, it is also necessary for the Church to assure that in its defensive posture it does not become insular or wholly focused on defending itself such that our entire presence to the outside world appears to be a massive exercise in self-justification.

This may sound simplistic or maybe even naïve, but in the same way that NFTU and the Euphrosynos Café provide forums for the True Orthodox to communicate and discuss the actions of one another and the heresies of the World Orthodox, why can’t we create an online presence for those outside the Church to learn the Faith?  Why can’t mission priests, parish priests and lay leaders of Orthodox communities work together to share strategies and develop materials that reflect their experience of successfully evangelizing those who are not already Orthodox?  It is in the mission and the parish where the polemics cease and the faith is lived.  Jurisdictions like the Metropolia are leading the way in planting new missions which will provide that opportunity for evangelism.  We need more of that.  But we should also make sure we have a welcoming, educational presence online for those who do not have a local mission or are looking at what they should expect when they visit.  Unfortunately, much of what is online I think will dissuade readers from making the first visit, because it is not about the basics of the Faith, community or love—and that is a shame, because no conversation I have ever had in person or by phone with a True Orthodox believer has ever approached the tone present in our online interactions.  We need to change how we present ourselves to the population at large.

If the World Orthodox don’t like it, that is not our concern—let them call us names.  Let us stand firm in our faith.  What I care about is that each new person who walks in the door has the opportunity to learn the true faith that we live.  Let’s make sure we aren’t the ones slamming that door closed.

Reader Mark - July 2014

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