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Dancing Along. The Journey to the Orthodox Church

February 1995 | by Geoff Thomas

Frank Schaeffer, the only son of the late Francis Schaeffer, has become the most famous and militant convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. His new 300 page book, Dancing alone: the quest for Orthodox faith in the age of false religion, has just appeared (Holy Cross Press, Massachusetts, $20). In his foreword the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Boston says that the book will be ‘a missionary tool which could be used by the Orthodox Church to reach out to brethren who thirst for the eternal truths of the Orthodox Christian faith’ (p.xi).

Schaeffer says: ‘I began to write this book in mid 1988, two years later I converted to Orthodoxy, and I completed it in 1994. I am a novelist and film director, not a historian or theologian. I have no research staff. I am not a scholar. I offer this book merely as the record of a personal journey from Protestantism to the Orthodox Church’ (p.xiii).

There are 180,000,000 members to the Orthodox churches, which are a federation of a number of self governing groupings ruled by head bishops who are given the title ‘patriarch’. The four ancient patriarchates are at Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The other Orthodox churches are Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Greek, Cypriot, Albanian, etc. The major areas of distribution of Orthodox churches are in Eastern Europe in Russia and along the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. Emigrants have taken their faith to the USA.

What does the Orthodox Church believe?

The Orthodox Church was unaffected by the Reformation. It is Trinitarian, and strongly affirms the doctrine of the incarnation. Its services are liturgical and are all sung or chanted. Instrumental music is not used. Normally the worshippers stand during the services. Orthodox churches are fired with icons which are venerated by the congregation. The Orthodox Church is the largest and most powerful member of the World Council of Churches (which fact Frank Schaeffer does not approve of). Its central beliefs are virtually identical to those of Roman Catholicism except that it rejects papal infallibility. Its priests may marry but its bishops are chosen from the ranks of the celibate.

So the Orthodox churches are thoroughly sacerdotal, as is evidenced in Eusepbius Stephanou’s standard work Belief and practice in the Orthodox Church(1965): ‘Without the absolution of the priest there is no forgiveness of grave sins’ (p.39). ‘The priest who is chosen by Christ and elevated to the sacerdotal office is another Apostle, since his ordination can be traced back in an uninterrupted succession to one of the original Apostles’ (p.40). ‘The elements look like bread and wine. but they are no longer bread and wine after the priest consecrates them by invoking the Holy Spirit upon them. Before us we have the living glorified Body and Blood of Christ’ (p.44). ‘The priest alone is permitted to enter into the Sanctuary, because adhere the expiatory sacrifice of Christ is offered from his own hands’ (p.46). ‘There is no greater blessing f or a departed soul than being “remembered” at the Liturgy. The more often “remembrance” is made the greater the benefit which the departed soul experiences. There is no better way to express our devotion to a beloved one who has passed away than to give his name to the priest with the request that he remember it at the Divine Liturgy’ (p.87).

Orthodoxy’s hostility to evangelicalism

The Eastern Orthodox Church intimidates, like any sets, when it claims to be ‘the one and only Church that Christ founded … and the Custodian of Divine revelation, representing the final authority in the areas of religion, ethics and worship’ (p.9). So, ‘It can never err in matters of revealed truth. She is ultimately infallible’ (p.ll), and ‘Churches that have separated from the Orthodox Church do not possess the fullness of the Holy Spirit and thus cannot grant complete regeneration and sanctification to the human soul’ (p.10). The Orthodox Church is fiercely intolerant of evangelical churches. In Greece our fellow believers have suffered years of persecution (cp. cover story in the Evangelical Times, June 1994). Recently Patriarch Alexei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has spoken at a conference on ‘Christian Faith and Human Enmity’ saying how concerned the Orthodox Church was at the activities of ‘pseudo-religious groups’. Evangelical Christians everywhere in Eastern Europe are under immense pressure from the Orthodox Church. In Serbia evangelicals have faced open attack by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Along with threats to lives and property, such as the blasting and burning of churches in Marini and Prejedor a year ago, there is in the press a barrage of insults published denouncing evangelicals as ‘dangerous sectarians’ and ‘evil heretics’. In Rousse, Bulgaria, skinheads entering a church during a June service assaulted some of the 300 worshippers. The police turned up in an hour.

Frank Schaeffer has become thoroughly Orthodox. He writes: ‘How are we saved? Some Protestants will give a simplistic and incomplete answer to this question: “By believing that Christ died on the cross for us.” According to Holy Tradition, that answer is, at best, only partially correct. An answer more in keeping with Holy Tradition is simple but difficult: “By struggling to become like Christ … we must obey Him and imitate Him”‘ (Dancing alone, p.206). ‘The simplistic “born-again” formula for instant painless “salvation” is not only a misunderstanding; I believe it is a heresy’ (p.256). ‘Mary’s involuntary sacrifice, her communion with God through worship, her unselfish desire to involve herself in the fate of all human beings, earned her the unique title of “The undisputed Intercessor” and “Champion Leader”. And she has been the hope of the millions who have asked her to intercede for them’ (p.274).

The movement to Orthodoxy in England

In England there is a similar movement towards the Orthodox Church. The most well-known name associated with that is Michael Harper, the charismatic Anglican and founder of the former Fountain Trust. He is on the committee of a group called ‘Pilgrimage to Orthodoxy’ and is contemplating whether his own future lies there. He has had a deep dissatisfaction width the Church of England for fifteen years, questioning its authenticity because of its inability to deal with modernism. ‘What sort of church is it that cannot handle a bishop who does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?’ he asks. The Orthodox Church attracts people, he says, who are looking for their roots further than the Reformation. The liberal ecclesiastical hegemony in Europe, of which the ordination of women is just a token, has made conservatives very uneasy. There are now about ten churches in England who are considering going over to Orthodoxy.

Theonomic Orthodoxy

Reconstructionists have also jumped onto this bandwagon, building on their idiosyncratic reading of the Old Testament. ‘We need to go further in our appropriation of the ritualistic system of the Tabernacle,’ they say. ‘The ancient church drew its ideas of worship from the priestly and Temple approach,’ says James B. Jordan. And rather than view this development as its failure to grasp the implications of the finished work of Christ ritualistic theonomists celebrate it: ‘The performance of ritual acts to God’s glory, even without fully understanding them, is extremely important for Christians.’ says Jim Jordan. That an albeit tiny Calvinistic group should imbibe, under the influence of a few dynamic leaders, ideas that are diametrically opposed to the New Testament should set off some alarm bells.

Pushed too fast too soon

Frank Schaeffer once used to sit at that table in L’Abri and he heard the conversations as his father sought to help some people come away from sacerdotalism into the liberty of true Christianity. Now he has thrown that all aside motivated in part by his love for an aesthetic form of worship. One wonders was he pushed to the front too soon? When at Westminster Seminary the professor of Old Testament, Dr Edward J. Young, had visited Europe with his wife. They had called in at L’Abri for a day or two. There had been the meal around the table with the students, visitors and some of the workers. Then came the time for discussion, and fifteen-year old Frank took over, answering questions and defining the agenda, while the greatest Old Testament scholar in the world was not called upon to say a word, sitting at the table in silence. He said nothing about that foolishness, but his wife had felt the snub keenly.

Today there is a deep dissatisfaction with contemporary evangelicalism which, admittedly, is often a historical and characterized by superficial worship. How philistine and gullible has the British religious subculture become. But is the answer Orthodoxy? Does not that choice further underline the naive and anti-theological character of Christianity today? In Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing alone and in Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury trail one encounters the familiar primitivism and subjectivism seen in the charismatic movement – from which very emphases some of them are seeking to escape; but in this new Orthodox sacerdotalism it is married to an antiquarian eastern aestheticism.

The Reformation is ignored, or dismissed in some cavalier fashion. Frank Schaeffer writes in an extensive section about its errors: ‘The leaders of the so called Reformation began their process of reform with a desire to eradicate rampant corruption from the Latin Church. But then they and their followers went much further and opened the door to a permanent state of skepticism and even atheism that has been the hallmark of our inhumane individualistic Western culture ever since’ (p.82).

Schaeffer IV is urging us to leap over fifteen hundred years of church history to feast at the glowing scene of this idealized patristic church. The Early Fathers are treated as being supremely holy in spirituality, and infallible in the ministry and liturgies which they introduced into church life, but those other views of theirs on women, the family, monasticism and ethics are ignored. Augustine, the greatest of all the early church leaders, had no influence at all on the Eastern Church. ‘Meanwhile,’ says Dr Gillis Harp, a Canadian history professor in Nova Scotia, ‘those messy Reformation debates about justification, the nature of the ministry, or of the sacraments are glossed over. By all means, evangelicalism can benefit from some healthy self-criticism, but let it be historically informed, biblically-based, and scholarly, not simply driven by partisan agendas or romantic antiquarianism. Otherwise, we may be in danger of selling our birthright for a mess of potage.’