Kingdom People

November 8, 2006

Theron’s Story: Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy

Filed under: Eastern Orthodoxy — Trevin Wax @ 8:06 am

Why do we see a growing number of evangelicals in the West converting to Eastern Orthodoxy (Francis Schaeffer’s son, for example)? Why do we see a mirror image overseas in predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries, where more and more convert to evangelical Christianity? Today I am interviewing a former Southern Baptist who has converted to Orthodoxy. Tomorrow I will be interviewing a former Eastern Orthodox believer who has become Baptist. On Friday, we will look at the parallels between the two accounts and hopefully better understand these two traditions, and why people are converting from one to the other.

Theron’s Story: Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy

Theron Mathis is an unassuming, soft-spoken man in his thirties with a winsome manner and a pleasant smile. His story begins in the buckle of the Bible belt. Both he and his wife grew up in a conservative Baptist churches, his wife’s being Landmarkist in theology (meaning it holds the belief that the Baptist Church is the only true church.) He attended college at Liberty University, a hub for Christianity that leans right both theologically and politically. He attended two Southern Baptist seminaries (Southeastern and Southern) in the late 1990’s, and at one point, felt called to be a Baptist preacher.

“What was the first thing that triggered your attraction to Orthodoxy?” I asked. Theron looks puzzled, as if he’s trying to recall what initially made him curious. After a few moments of silence, he answers: “Church history. Studying the patristics.” Frustrated by constant debates over the meaning of Scripture, Theron decided to look back into church history to see what the church looked like in the early centuries. As he read the church fathers, he realized, “the church back then looked different than the Baptist church I grew up in.” From there, Theron began wondering if that early church he saw in the fathers’ writings still existed anywhere.

Eventually, one central issue brought him to the doorstep of the Eastern Orthodox church. “The issue of authority,” he explains. “I felt I was flying by the seat of my pants as a Christian. I would read Scripture and come to conclusions myself. At some point, I felt I had to submit myself to some authority outside of myself.”

The issue of authority led Theron to question the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. “I felt like with sola scriptura, I was the authority.” Shortly thereafter, Theron came to see sola scriptura as deficient. “Once I reached that point, it was a fast track. That’s the house of cards. At that point, I had to find another authority.”

“Why Eastern Orthodoxy and not Catholicism?” I ask, wondering why he would choose the Orthodox church as his authority and not the Roman Catholic church. Theron tells me he couldn’t swallow the whole “pope thing,” especially papal infallibility. Nor could he stomach the arrogance of the Roman Catholic church in adjusting the Nicene Creed without the consent of the Eastern church. “The typical Orthodox apologetics,” he grins.

With the Eastern Orthodox Church as his new authority, Theron began accepting doctrines foreign to his Baptist background. “How hard was it to accept these doctrines?” I ask, beginning to read a list.

Praying to saints? Easier than expected, once he understood the Orthodox view of the saints interceding for us much like our friends on earth lift us up in prayer.

Mary? “A little tougher, because the phraseology in the liturgy sometimes made me think they were seeing her as something more than a simple intercessor. But I’ve been able reconcile that over time.”

Icons? Not tough at all. They are aids to worship, not items to be worshipped, yet Theron admits that there may possibly be misconceptions among Orthodox laypeople, especially outside the U.S.

The Eucharist becoming the actual body and blood of Christ? “That was pretty easy. Even apart from the Church, you could come to that conclusion from Scripture.”

Infant baptism was the biggest hurdle for Theron, due to his Baptist background and family traditions. In the end, he sees the Orthodox view as not too far from the covenantal view of some Reformed traditions. “The child is becoming a part of the church.”

But what about the most important doctrine – justification by faith? “If you ask an Orthodox person, everyone will say we are saved by grace,” he says categorically.

“But by grace alone?” I probe deeper.

“Yes, by grace alone. But we wouldn’t say through faith alone if we are defining faith as mere belief.” Theron recoils from the easy-believism of his early Baptist experience. “You prayed a prayer. Just the assent to belief gave you your ticket.” Theron compares his Orthodox doctrine with the evangelical belief of “lordship salvation.” He admits that the categories are different. The Orthodox do not see salvation in forensic, legal categories, but in medical terms.

Theron’s conversion to Orthodoxy was a struggle. His parents and in-laws were grieved by the family’s decision. He lost friends from seminary. But for Theron and his wife, there was no turning back. “I had embraced Orthodoxy,” he said.

“How do you view Baptists now?” I ask. “Are Baptists saved?”

Ironically, though Theron thought the Landmarkist position of his Baptist church laughable, he answers with a similar view regarding Orthodoxy. “We definitely consider ourselves the True church. We believe in apostolic succession.” He clarifies, “We believe there is salvation outside of the Eastern Orthodox church, but we have the fullness of the revelation.”

“How sure are you that you’ve made the right decision?” I ask.

Theron reponds quickly, “I would never turn back. I’m 100% sure, and the longer I’m Orthodox, the more certain I am about it.”

“But what about those who convert the other way?” I reply. “Orthodox becoming Baptists?”

Theron shrugs and looks surprised, “I think they didn’t have a good understanding of Orthodoxy.”

I begin sharing stories of Orthodox priests I knew in Romania who would threaten the children attending evangelical AWANA clubs, even vowing to “cut off their fingers.” When I ask his opinion regarding this persecution of Baptists, he looks surprised and calls the priests’ actions “exaggerated.” He refuses to condone such behavior, but at the same time, he sympathizes with their need to “defend” the faith. “They probably view Baptists like you and I would view Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. These are people coming to their country and ‘destroying the faith,’ so they will do anything possible to defend it. I can see where that mindset comes from.”

Though Theron is a convinced Orthodox believer, he does not try to convert his Baptist friends. He presents Eastern Orthodoxy and leaves it at that. But he does seek to convert nominal Christians or those who are not Christian at all.

“Though your liturgy is beautiful, isn’t it pretty much inaccessible to non-Christians?” I ask, wondering what it would be like for an unchurched person to enter an Eastern Orthodox church for the first time. Definitely not seeker sensitive. Theron questions my presupposition. “Who says the worship of the church is to be evangelistic?” He then points to early church history. “They wouldn’t let unbelievers in the worship service, or if they did, they asked them to leave mid-way through (before the Eucharist).”

Theron admits that the Orthodox church doesn’t reach as many unchurched people as they should, but then adds, “ I don’t know if any church in America does a great job reaching totally unchurched people.”

Why would an evangelical convert to Eastern Orthodoxy? Theron has two answers. The first is stability. “Within the evangelical world, you’re always looking for the new thing, you’re always reinventing the wheel. A lot of people are ready to get off that. So stability is a huge attraction for evangelicals who convert.”

The second reason is spirituality. “That’s what keeps me there. The church life throughout the year,” he says.

Our time is coming to an end. The biggest difference between Southern Baptists and Eastern Orthodox is the view of salvation. Theron admits that many laypeople in the Orthodox church believe that salvation is by good works. So, I press him again.

“Is salvation based on Christ’s work alone?”

Theron answers, “Oh yes! Without Christ, it’s impossible. He’s the one who opened the door!”

“But is there any other ground? Can I be accepted by God because of Christ and something I did?” I press further.

“Works are an expression of faith,” replies Theron. “The act of works is the act of putting on Christ. They’re opening yourself up so that God’s grace can transform you more into Christlikeness.”

Sensing we’re talking past one another, I put it another way, “When it comes down to it… when you’re looking to your justification before God and your acceptance before Him, does it eventually boil down to this: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’?”

“Yes,” says Theron. “Absolutely.”

27 Comments »

  1. Trevin,

    This is a great interview that is enlightening in a lot of ways. I’d always thought that the evangelicals that were becoming Orthodox were some of the Emerging Church folks that really liked all the incense, candles, icons, and liturgy. It’s interesting to see someone converting who is knowledgable about both evangelicalism and Orthodoxy.

    James G.

    Comment by James — November 8, 2006 @ 8:12 pm

  2. Trevin was a gracious interviewer. He did a good job trying to summarize an hours conversation.

    If you are interested in researching more “convert” stories here are a couple books that do a pretty good job.

    Becoming Orthodox by Peter Gillquist

    Coming Home by Peter Gillquist

    Facing East by Frederica Matthewes-Green

    The Way by Clark Carlton (Clark was a student at SEBTS).

    Comment by Theron Mathis — November 8, 2006 @ 8:38 pm

  3. Thanks, Theron, for agreeing to do this interview. I forgot to mention two other books that provide great reading on the subject of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in general are:

    Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (one of the Counterpoints series by Zondervan)

    Evangelicalism and the Orthodox Church (put out by the Evangelical Alliance UK)

    Comment by trevinwax — November 9, 2006 @ 12:53 pm

  4. I’d be curious to know if Theron considered Lutheranisn-especially LC-MS (no praying to saints or Mary, no icons), or even Anglicanism (but NOT the Episcopal Church). Seems like either would be more appealing to an Evangelical than the Orthodox Church.

    Comment by Dave P — November 12, 2006 @ 8:11 pm

  5. Lutheranism was never an option for me, because I could not separate their approach to Christianity from any other Protestant group. At least in terms of their view of Sola Scriptura.

    As for Anglicanism, I did not consider it because they can claim some Apostolic continuity although it is a bit sketchy. Orthodoxy’s apostolic claims were much stronger.

    Comment by Theron Mathis — November 13, 2006 @ 10:46 am

  6. […] and Evangelicalism At his blog, Trevin Wax has a three-part series where he interviews Theron, a man who has left evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy, and John, who has left Eastern Orthodoxy […]

    Pingback by Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism « Truthseeker — February 24, 2007 @ 1:13 pm

  7. Having served with Theron as a lay youth leader i can attest to his sincerity in faith . I was raised Catholic and “got saved” over 20 yrs ago and now find my self leaning towards a more apostolic view of faith perhaps due to my roots as a Catholic . Consider me tired of the “next big thing” aka Ted Haggard etc….

    Comment by Surfeast — August 24, 2007 @ 6:40 pm

  8. […] Turning to Eastern Orthodoxy in The New Republic. Read my interview with one such […]

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  9. […] and Evangelicals Before you read this post, please take a look at my interviews with Theron and John. Theron has left evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy. John has left Eastern Orthodoxy for […]

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  11. […] Theron’s Story: Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy John’s Story: Why I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for Evangelicalism Sola Scriptura: The Dividing Line between the Orthodox and Evangelicals […]

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  12. […] First posted at Kingdom People […]

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  13. […] September 24, 2007 at 10:59 am | In Eastern Orthodox, Theology | Trevin Wax has posted an interview about a student who graduated from SBTS, and then converted to […]

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  14. well i can tell you exactly why Americans go EO and in more primitive countries leave the EO. In America, we pick everything apart and don’t just focus on Jesus. Jesus is the rock. Most Christians (including the EO) have lost sight of this and made other things their idols. Overseas, its life and death. People are thirsty for Jesus. There is no jesus in the OC. Here, most are thirsty for image, having their ears tickled. I never hear anyone say they went to the OC because they were thirsting for God. What I DO hear is that they were tired of “simplistic thinking”. TO those who do not know God, the gospel seems stupid, simple, not much to it. I have never met anyone solidly grounded in GOD who became EO. What I have seen is people who were very involved in protestant RELIGION and niggling about fine points of theology rather than falling in love with Jesus and resting totally in His arms. They probably do find deeper things to wrap their minds about in the OC but they are still just doing religion.

    Comment by Liz — April 24, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  15. Wow! to Liz although you will likely never see this… way to generalize a negative impression onto people you do not know. Personally all the converts to the Orthodox Church found themselves drawn there specifically because of a desire to grow closer to God that was evident in orthodoxy and extremely difficult in protestantism. people who are simply religious can be found anywhere it is true but do not judge a church by its least sincere members. there would be no beauty left anywhere. Look at the doctrine and the truly devoted to Christ and see where that leads you. Empty rhetoric may be convincing to people who are not willing to actually think for themselves but for those truly seeking truth how about discussing doctrine or real life examples. Just try telling me the martyrs and saints of the Orthodox Church did not know Christ is a way that vastly exceeds my present state. (And for the record I yet remain a protestant although it is becoming vastly more difficult to remain so as I learn more about the Orthodox Church teachings.)

    Comment by Dale — August 5, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  16. meant to say “all the orthodox converts I know…” and not all the orthodox converts.

    Comment by Dale — August 5, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  17. As a convert to Orthodox Christianity from Roman Catholicism, I have found that converts to Orthodox Christianity from other denominations tend to be very well versed in scripture and church history. In my particular Orthodox parish about half the parish are converts from other denominations and many of those converts were ministers and leaders in their former denominations.There is a reason for this.

    Anyone studying the early Christian Church usually realizes that Christ’s original Church is alive, well and growing in the United States. I am saddened when people look upon things like icons, reverence for the Theotokus (Virgin Mary), the Eucharist, etc. as something other than what they truly are.

    The challenge I offer most of these nay-sayers is to read John Chapter 6 and ask yourself why Christ allowed many of his followers to walk away rather than explain “these hard things.” Or to ask why people disrepsect the Theotokus by not honoring her as it is written in Luke and as Christ commandered on the cross? Also — how can one believe the Holy Bible is the sole authority when the Holy Bible itself states that it is not? Peter admonishes us to hold fast to the “traditoins” taught by the apostles whether by “word or epistle.”

    For many centuries the Orthodox Church did not exist on this American continent. It is a relative newcomer, but it is gently, quietly and lovingly beginning to make its presence known and felt. Anyone seeking the true Church, the original and first Christian Church is only kidding themselves by discounting the Orthodox Church.

    Comment by Mike — August 19, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  18. […] mistaken they claim dogmatic finality with the big three theologians.  (Theron could clarify if he is reading)  I say that because I thought about it when I was reading Sergius […]

    Pingback by Whiteheadian Witticisms: Why absolute finality for dogma is troublesome for truth’s sake | Homebrewed Christianity — August 24, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

  19. I assume that Liz’s comment is meant to be a joke: in fact, one convert’s written testimony (Matthew Gallatin) is titled “Thirsting for God…”.

    I was raised Protestant and am not Orthodox (yet), but I am deeply immersing myself in church history and the writings of the apostolic era. What I can say is that protestantism bears no resemblance to what was taught and practiced by the Apostolic Fathers.

    Comment by anon — September 15, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  20. […] orthodoxy, Protestant, Protestantism, theology, theron, West, Western An interview from Kingdom People: Why do we see a growing number of evangelicals in the West converting to Eastern Orthodoxy […]

    Pingback by Theron’s Story: Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy « The Bravery of Stillness — December 19, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  21. I’m interested in exploring Orthodoxy but there aren’t alot of churches in my area. I have looked into Roman Catholicism but I’m not sure I like the “magisterium” idea. I’ve visited an Anglo-Catholic Anglican church a few times. I really think Orthodox theology makes more sense, it’s generous in some ways, and yet it is also maximalist.

    I’ve interested in comparative religions for a few years, actually, after being irreligious since the second year of college and being burned out by lukewarm Methodism. I practiced Buddhism for a year, and I still am not sure Buddhism is the wrong religion, a great deal of it seems true. I’m actually very good at meditation and I also got into the religious side of Buddhism too- it is more of a private religion in some ways.

    Comment by Daedelus76 — December 25, 2008 @ 1:05 am

  22. […] Posts: Theron’s Story – Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy John’s Story – Why I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for Evangelicalism Book Review: The Narrated […]

    Pingback by Two Noteworthy Study Bibles « Kingdom People — January 14, 2009 @ 3:54 am

  23. To Daedelus76, Please do not give up your exploration of Orthodoxy. It is a treasure worth searching for! After 20 years as a Protestants, my husband and I unexpectedly “discovered” the Orthodox faith. My soul feels truly nourished for the first time ever. I do not wish to disparage the Protestant church at all, but if you feel the call to experience more, I encourage you to continue on this journey. Find an OCA (Orthodox Church in America) parish near by (or far, if you must!) You will be so thankful that you did! God bless you on this exciting journey!

    Comment by Genevieve — February 13, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  24. Based on Liz’s comment from last April, I can only presume she has never attended an Orthodox worship service (or, for that matter, read very deeply about Orthodoxy). Jesus is the central point of Orthodoxy and it is patently evident in her worship. Conforming people into the image of Christ is the purpose of the Church.

    Comment by Dcn. David — February 22, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

  25. What a interesting interview. I, too, am an Evangelical Protestant seriously considering converting to the Orthodox faith. One of the main reasons is that I long to be more intimate with Jesus Christ, both personally and in corporate worship. While evangelicals speak quite a bit about a personal relationship with Christ, I’m coming to realize that if one learns and embraces true Orthodox Christianity, a personal relationship with Christ is living and vibrant, and truly very “personal.”

    Comment by Darlene — March 16, 2009 @ 6:08 am

  26. […] Source: [Translate] English العربية български català česky dansk Deutsch ελληνική español eesti فارسی suomi français galego עברית […]

    Pingback by Why I Left Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy | Orthodox Christian Resource Center — July 13, 2009 @ 1:26 am

  27. […] Links Reading Assignment 2b August 26, 2009, 7:16 pm Filed under: Reading Assignments Theron’s Story […]

    Pingback by Reading Assignment 2b « Systematic Theology 1 — August 26, 2009 @ 7:16 pm


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