WHY WOULD A SOUTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER BECOME AN ORTHODOX PRIEST?
by Fr. John Maxwell
My Journey to Orthodoxy (Part One)
I was raised in a middle income family in Southern California. My father John was a hard working and well educated man. He was successful in a broad range of occupations, and this makes him a fascinating man with keen insight into people. He instilled in my brother and I honesty, frugality and a strong work ethic.
My mother Stella, was a compassionate and generous Christian woman. Raised in a Serbian home, she possessed that Eastern European trait of hospitality and concern for those in need. She was also a successful interior decorator. Mom was a real driving force behind my brother and I, to excel in all that we do.
Desiring to raise their children in one church, my parents compromised between my father's Presbyterian background and my mother's Orthodox background, with the Disciples of Christ Church. At the age of 5, after leaving church, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a minister one day. That desire never left me. I made a place dedicated for prayer in my bedroom, began reading the Bible, and getting involved in every area of Church life that I could. And at the age of 12 I was baptized, a profound experience in my life.
The founding pastor, Rev. McCallum, a former missionary in China, and his successor Rev. Darcy were highly influential in my life, as well as Sunday School teachers and other members of the Church. I had a deep love for this church and its people. Unfortunately, after a tragic automobile accident involving Rev. Darcy, the church located a new pastor, whose extreme liberal teachings and morals pushed me to look for another church. In my search I joined La Mirada Baptist Church.
At that time, I began working in a drapery factory. My boss, Mr. Larry Regher, brought me a book called "God's Smuggler" by Brother Andrew and a Good News for Modern Man Bible when I was laid up in the hospital following knee surgery. I was amazed at how real God was in Brother Andrew's life. I wondered why God wasn't more real in my life and in the life of many of the Christians I knew. I began to seek God with my whole heart.
During this time I would read an entire book in the Bible each day. I soon discovered that although I had never killed or committed adultery, I did have anger against my brother and had lusted in my heart. I also saw the love Jesus had for me, a sinner, and how God's rich mercy and forgiveness flowed from the Cross. This began for me a desire to live a life of repentance, to see myself as the chief of sinners, striving to judge no one, forgiving and loving everyone. I knew that this was impossible for me, but it is Christ in me who comes to change and empower my life and make me into the person he wants me to be. Christ became very real to me, and I began to see how He answers prayer. Moreover, I began to have the joy of seeing others come to know Christ and at times see people healed of various illnesses through prayer.
My experience at La Mirada Baptist Church turned out to be a sweet sorrow. There I become the Youth Director. The youth group grew and I grew very close to them through intense discipleship. At the same time I was actively involved with Campus Crusade for Christ at Cerritos College, eventually becoming the President of the Campus Club. It was also there I met my future wife, Debra. The daughter of an American Baptist minister, she has been a real source of joy and encouragement throughout our 23+ years of marriage. All of this was sweet.
The sorrow, however, drove me out of this Baptist Church. The minister was illegally taking money from the church and was in a power struggle to gain full control of the Church, which included verbally attacking me, whom he considered a threat to his little kingdom. I quietly left, not wanting to stir up strife. But in leaving I was without a church, and I was gun shy of organized religion and questioned if I really wanted to be a minister at all.
My wife and I began to attend large churches, so I could hide in the crowd and not become too involved. Sometimes we would go to Chuck Swindoll's Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, a dynamic teacher of the Bible. Other times we would attend Melodyland, a large charismatic church in Anaheim, where Walter Martin conducted classes on the cults, stressing "orthodox" Christianity. At the same time I attended Biola University a Christian private liberal arts college.
By this time I was distressed over the great divisions and confusion in Christianity. Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples by the love we have for one another. Unfortunately, the Christians in the apartment complex where I lived, went to different churches and hardly knew each other. How were our neighbors to see this love expressed when we were so divided? For this reason I started a home Bible Study group which would not conflict with peoples' denominational participation. And as a group we would do charitable and evangelistic work among our non-Christian neighbors.
This, however, was a band-aid solution to a gaping wound in Christendom. Everything in Christianity seemed so subjective. Pastors too often ran churches based on their personal feelings and inclinations. Often they were accountable to no one at all. Doctrinal teachings supposedly based on the Bible and guided by the Holy Spirit were often in great disparity. Everyone seemed to be their own pope, expertly interpreting the Bible for themselves. Denominations changed so much that their founders would not have recognized them. What was right and what was wrong? I agreed with Walter Martin's "small o" orthodoxy, but there was no authority outside the Bible to determine the right interpretation. The only way to deal with the cults seemed to be with more persuasive "biblical arguments" and to show them how they stand outside of "historic Christianity".
At that time I thought of the game, "gossip or telephone". In that game people sit in a circle and a secret is whispered. By the time you get to the end of the circle the message is distorted. I thought that I should do the same with Church History. So I began to study the writings of the early Fathers of the Church. Some of these people were made bishops by the Apostles themselves. Many of them were martyred for their faith.
While I was doing this study, I was attending Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. And in my third year of studies, I was ordained a Southern Baptist minister, and started a Baptist Church with two other Baptist ministers: Alan Waisanen and Peter Heckman. We had a motto, taken from St. Augustine: "In essentials unity, in doubtful things diversity, and in all things, charity." We were quite different from one another. Alan was the philosophical type who grew steadily uncomfortable with the sectarian mind-set of the local Southern Baptist Convention. He felt that their policy of not accepting the baptism of anyone who was not baptized a "Baptist" was too narrow. Peter on the other hand felt that their was something missing in Baptist worship. He introduced us to liturgical worship, patterned after that of the Lutheran Church. Neither Alan nor I were comfortable with this, but agreed to hold a "Lutheran style" communion service once a month. And in my study of the history of doctrine I discoverd that certain Baptist beliefs such as baptism being only an act done in obedience to Christ and a public testimony of what Christ has done in our lives, communion being viewed as a mere memorial, and the doctrine of the autonomy of the local Church, were not the views of historic Christianity. This challenged my baptistic presuppositions. Did the first 1500 years of Christianity go by and no one understood the Bible correctly, even though they were historically connected to the Apostles and from similar cultures? Was I, like the cults that Walter Martin challenged, also outside of historic Christianity? The burden of proof for changes in theology seemed to be on those who came up with novel doctrines, and not on the historic Church.
The three of us came to realize that we were no longer Baptists. At the same time, we did not want to start something new. God knows we have too many denominations today. (At the last United Nations count, 26,000 of them!) In our search for the seemingly "phantom" Church of the New Testament, we came across an Orthodox Church getting started in our neighboring city of La Habra. The priest, Fr. John Anderson, a former missionary in Liberia, Africa for 17 years, was a man of great personal piety and warmth. When I visited his church, I encountered the most profound worship experience in my life. Soon a relationship developed between us, and we began to share church facilities. I began to read everything I could on Orthodoxy, and found it to be one and the same with all that I read from the Fathers of the Church. Eventually, I realized that this is where I belonged. Christ did not come to bring division. This is symptomatic with the fall of man, not the redemption that is in Christ.. Christ unites all things in heaven and in earth in His Body, the Church. I had found the Church which Christ and the Apostles founded. I found a Church which did not add to the faith, like the Roman Church, or subtract from the faith like the Protestant Churches. I found a Church where morals and doctrine are unchanging. I found a Church where there was no room for self-appointed preachers, and where there was both accountability and conciliarity through the hierarchy of the Church. I found a Church that still believed in miracles but did not swing from chandeliers. I found a Church where the best of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism resides. I found a Church where the fullness of the faith, the full Gospel is preached and where each member is encouraged to practice this faith. I found the Church which has grown out of the blood of the martyrs. To my surprise and delight, both Peter and Alan (after much struggle), our families and some of our church members decided to become Orthodox as well.
I hope that this short summary of my journey will both strengthen and encourage you on your spiritual journey. Till we all come to the unity of the faith and in the perfect bond of peace, may God bless you in finding the New Testament Church.
From The Dawn
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America