Orthodoxy is a liturgical faith. And at the heart of that faith is a calling to be continually converted to Jesus Christ.
The Church year begins with the nativity or birth of Mary—the beginning of our salvation story in Christ, and Israel’s return from exile—and continues through the nativity of Jesus. Great Lent is the beginning of a journey towards illumination (through baptism and the Eucharist), culminating in God’s triumph over death and Satan, as well as Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Pentecost, or the descent of the Holy Spirit, is a feast to which we spend the rest of the year looking back—the ‘twentieth Sunday after Pentecost,’ for example. We are looking back to the moment we received the Grace of the Holy Spirit, a calling to spread the Gospel among the nations.
In this cyclical experience, a distinction between ‘convert’ and ‘cradle’ Christians is rendered moot. There are no cradle Christians, as we are born anew with each liturgical year. In reality, all Orthodox Christians are converts; we are always converting to Christ with deification and a perfect unity with God as our chief end (our ‘telos,’ per St. Maximos). Or as St. Augustine famously writes:
You have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
Even Saints who have shone like the sun (Matt. 13:43) in this present, evil age will lament in their ailing years, ‘I have only begun to repent.’
What the Donatist and other controversies in the early centuries of the Church teach is that proper Christology is at the heart of identifying (and eliminating) all errors of theological practice or belief. Contrary to Donatism, the mysteries of the Body of Christ are not dependent on the ‘holiness’ of clergy, nor is the essence of our Church somehow nullified by the presence of sinful men. The Donatists argued:
He who receives faith from the faithless receives not faith, but guilt.[1. St. Augustine of Hippo, Contra Petilian 1.2.3]
But thanks to St. Augustine and others, true Christology—and therefore, true humanity—prevailed. We know that the effectiveness of our mysteries depends on the love and power of God. This is why Orthodox clergy refer to themselves throughout the Divine Liturgy as “a sinner” and “unworthy,” even at the moment they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Going back to the ‘cradle’ and ‘convert’ distinction, there is also a defective Christology and even heresy in this false dichotomy.
It’s a real temptation to categorize others. While it might seem easier to understand people by doing so, what we are actually doing is negating their humanity—we are ignoring their personhood. In this life, our experiences and how we respond to them chiefly determines who we are. We have free will, after all. By reducing the Church to a division of ‘cradle’ and ‘convert’ Christians, we do violence to people created in the image of God—people who have a valuable, meaningful story.
Blaming any number of issues in the Church on the presence of either cradle or convert Christians is a form of Monergism. Closely related to both Monothelitism and Monoenergism—condemned as heresies by the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils—Monergism teaches that our salvation, from start to finish, is wholly dependent on the will of God. In other words, we are little more than automatons, living and breathing by the predetermined whims of God in eternity. We make no actual choices, and so free will is not a possibility. Even the damnation of those who reject Christ is due to God’s timeless determination, at least according to some forms of Monergism (the ‘Supralapsarian’ viewpoint).
The Church has rejected this heresy for centuries (e.g. at the Second Synod of Orange in the sixth century), teaching instead that while we are dependent on the prevenient and fulfilling Grace (or ‘energies’) of God—first experienced in Baptism—it is our duty to continue in that life, cooperating with his abiding Grace. We are not faceless robots, the result of an arbitrary will. We are precious individuals created in the loving image of God, called to be converted and transformed into his likeness.
So if someone fails to appropriate the life of God in the life of the Church, this is not because they are either a cradle or convert Christian—this is because they have freely chosen which path to take.
The Church cannot force salvation on anyone, and God refuses to do so. Why? Because he loves us as persons, as true images of himself. Forcing decisions on his creatures would devalue the unique image of Christ within us; it would devalue God himself.
For those who are born, baptized, and reared in the bosom of the Orthodox faith, if they refuse cooperation with God, they are no ‘better off’ than an unbeliever. Simply showing up for Liturgy doesn’t accomplish anything transformative, if our hearts are darkened and far from God. We must work together with that experience—an experience we have throughout each and every liturgical year—in order to be transformed within it. If someone laments, ‘I didn’t get anything out of that service,’ the problem is with that person’s will—not the Church.
Great Lent has always focused on preparing catechumens for illumination in Christ’s holy Church. We must recognize that we are all catechumens at the beginning of every new Lenten season. Our hymns and scriptural readings remind that we are in exile, only just beginning our journey back into his loving arms as prodigal sons—and this is true, in some sense, until the very Last Day. Like both Israel and their fulfillment in Christ, we must make our flight from Egypt.
There are no cradle Orthodox Christians; we are all converts. And this is because the entirety of our worshipping life in the Church is about being continually converted to Christ; being continually transformed into his likeness.
If we fail in this journey, it has nothing to do with when or how we began, but rather with how we finish. And how we finish is determined by our own free choice. It is determined by whether or not we choose to cooperate with God.