Conversions and Conversions: Romanians between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism

The following by guest author Mihai Oara is in response to the 2006 Gospel Coalition piece John’s Story: Why I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for Evangelicalism.

cum n-oi mai fi pribeagWhile in the United States we can see many conversions of Evangelicals to Orthodoxy, the situation is quite the reverse in traditional Orthodox countries. This phenomenon is relatively easy to explain in a purely mathematical way: if there are two disjoint groups, A and B, with 5% of members of each moving to the other group, and if A has many more members than B, then it is expected to see numerically more people going from A to B than from B to A. The movement from the large group to the small group is very noticeable, while the reverse trend barely registers.

Beyond this “mathematical” explanation, I would like to look at the actual conversions between Orthodox and Evangelicals in the country of Romania, where I was born and grew up as a Baptist. This is based here on personal observations and experiences, not on a scientific study. I believe that the key to understanding these conversions is in the motivation of the converts. The question here is not which theology is right, but why people prefer to choose one over the other.

My direct experience

To avoid a false claim of absolute objectivity, I will briefly relate my own experience and the experience of people close to me.

My mother was born Byzantine Catholic, as were most Romanians in Transylvania since 1700, when some Jesuit priests convinced Romanian Orthodox to recognize the jurisdiction of the Pope, while keeping their faith and traditions. The main argument was that by this conversion Romanians would receive equal rights with Hungarians and Germans – a promise that was not kept. After the Second World War, most Romanians in Transylvania returned to the Orthodox Church.

While going through a difficult period in her life, far from other family and friends, my mother encountered Baptists who invited her to their meetings and treated her very well. She converted shorty after I was born, which – as I see it now – gave me the blessing of still being baptized Orthodox as an infant. My mother remained a Baptist all her life, while I followed a more complex path. My father remained Orthodox for many years, but in the end, perhaps from solidarity with my mother, also converted to Baptist.

I was re-baptized as a “born-again” Baptist at the age of 20 and I remained an Evangelical until I was 45, when I returned to the Orthodoxy into which I had first been baptized. My immediate motivation (which was the same for my wife, until then a life-long Baptist) was the discovery of the incredible Orthodox heritage of spirituality and theology.

My wife’s mother related to me once how she converted from Orthodox to Evangelical. It was short and concise. She said that one day, when she was young, a lady showed her a text from the Old Testament that forbids the worship of images. That was it: she understood that the icons are idols and stopped entering Orthodox churches.

The conversion of my father in law, Aurel Popescu, was even more interesting. When he was 17, he stepped into an Evangelical church and heard a man preaching about salvation. He liked it a lot and thought he made a great discovery. What happened next is both amusing and revealing. He had a Religion class in the high school (it was in the late ’30s, before Communism) and he immediately told the priest who was teaching the class that he had found the true faith. The following dialog took place:

The Priest: “… and what is your new faith?”

Aurel: “I discovered that Christ died for my sins.”

The Priest: “But that is what we always believed!”

Aurel: “No, Father, I believe this really happened.”

The Priest: “I also believe it really happened.”

Aurel: “No, no, I REALLY believe.”

My father in law told us that as a result of the conflict with the priest, he was expelled from the school and had to graduate with private teachers. Later on, he joined an Evangelical church in Bucharest, which used to keep certain Orthodox traditions. He was expelled from it, when – having understood that the baptism of infants is not valid – he was secretly baptized again as an adult in yet another Evangelical church.

The typical Orthodox to Evangelical conversion in Romania

It is a custom that people who convert from Orthodox to Evangelical publicly give their testimony, so I have heard it many times in Romania and I can find some common patterns. To understand these patterns better, it is important to know that in traditional Orthodox countries there is a large majority of nominal Orthodox. They come to church services once or twice a year and almost never participate in the Church sacraments. Most conversions away from the Orthodox Church happen from this class of people.

In the most general case, the testimony goes like this:

“I grew up as an Orthodox, but I really did not know Jesus Christ. I used to drink, smoke and beat my wife. I was really disgusted with my life, until one day a Baptist friend invited me to an evangelistic service. There I heard the gospel for the first time in my life and I decided to give my life to Jesus. I talked with the Orthodox priest in our parish but he told me not to join a sect, because the salvation comes from kissing the icons and through good works. My family and friends thought I was crazy, but my life was completely changed and I decided to follow Christ in the baptismal water. In the new church I found real love and friendship and the pure Gospel, unadulterated by human traditions.”

While this is by far the typical conversion, there is a special class of more theologically educated people who left the Orthodox Church to become Evangelicals. Some of them had a significant impact and are quoted among Romanian evangelicals as the heroes of the true faith. Dumitru Cornilescu was an Orthodox monk who claimed that he became a Protestant when he translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek (although many may notice the similarity with Luther’s German translation and the abundance of biased passages). Another was Tudor Popescu, an Orthodox priest in Bucharest, who in the 1920s changed the liturgy to fit his newly found Protestant convictions and was later excommunicated. The Evangelicals claim that people like him were thrown out of the Orthodox Church because the Church could not stand their true faith in Jesus Christ. But such cases, while making a lot of waves, were extremely rare.

A more recent case is of another Orthodox priest, Ioan Florea. He claims that when he got his first parish, he was disgusted by the sinful life of his parishioners and asked the bishop to give him another parish. When he moved in the new city, there was no welcoming committee, but he was visited by the Baptists who invited him to their church and showed him a lot of attention. Later on, he wanted to practice the Baptist faith and way of worship inside his own parish, but the cruel bishop threw him out from the Church. He also claims that in all his four years in the Orthodox seminary he has never heard that Jesus died for our sins.

The case of this priest reminded me of an old Romanian joke. There are these two Jewish friends, who were devoted believers, all their lives. One of them, on his death bed, announces that he gave up his Jewish faith and joined the Communist party. “Why,” asks his friend, “after 80 years of holding the Jewish faith, you abandon it?” “Very simple,” answers the dying man, “better for one of theirs to die, than one of ours.” Paraphrasing him, I can say that it is better that Ioan Florea become Baptist.

The typical Evangelical to Orthodox conversion in Romania

As I have explained from the start, there are fewer such conversions, but they do happen.
I have already mentioned my own case. As a Romanian Baptist, I knew that the Orthodox practice a Christian faith “corrupted” by un-biblical human traditions. I do remember that once a Baptist minister, who was well educated, told me that the Orthodox theology is much more profound and rich than ours. My own pastor in Bucharest complained that while the Orthodox have a rich theology of the Church, ours was very weak and limited. Coming in contact with some Orthodox books in 1999, I perceived a paradox: I could not understand why Orthodoxy is so corrupted and at the same time holds such a treasure of profound spirituality. Trying to resolve this paradox I ended up by converting to Orthodox faith.

Here are two more examples of conversions to Orthodoxy from Evangelicalism in Romania:

Bogdan Mateciuc became a Baptist as a teenager. Disappointed by the multitude of trends and conflicts between various denominations and groups, he took a second look at the Orthodox faith. He started to discover, step by step, that the usual accusations against the Orthodox were false. At the same time, he started to attend the liturgy and to actually understand it. After a week at a monastery, he came back to the Orthodox Church in which he was once baptized as an infant.

David Hudson was a Baptist missionary in Romania, where he wanted to help improve the worship services. Almost as a professional interest he entered an Orthodox church, but the liturgy seemed very cryptic, until a friend who was an Orthodox priest explained it to him. He had a revelation: this is the worship he always searched and wanted. He converted to the Orthodox faith and later became a priest.

There are more cases like this, but they can be easily described by the same pattern: an Evangelical who searches for truth comes in contact with the Orthodox faith and after taking a second look discovers that it is not what he heard about it in his Evangelical community—not only that it is biblical, but it has aspects that were completely discarded by the Evangelicals: the continuity, the sacraments, the writings of the holy fathers, the theologians (ancient and modern), the traditions of prayer and fasting, and much more.

It is easy to perceive an asymmetry between the two directions of conversion. In most cases, the Orthodox to Evangelical convert is one who was a nominal Christian and knew very little about the church in which he formally belonged, and through some friend has an encounter with an Evangelical service, where he has an emotional experience. He discovers friendship and love and a sense of community which were previously lacking in his life.

The typical Evangelical to Orthodox convert is a knowledgeable and theologically literate Christian who searches for truth and the right Christian practice. He discovers the Orthodox faith, but is first stopped by all the accusations which he had heard in his own church. In Romania, the Evangelicals often define themselves in opposition to the Orthodox. “Unlike the Orthodox,” they say, “we do not believe in…” After a careful study of the issues, he finds out that the accusations are either false of superficial. Moreover, he discovers a huge body of tradition, practice and theology, which stands as an answer to his or her many old questions.

General trends

In the 1980s, Joseph Tson, a Romanian Baptist leader, started to travel through the United States and solicit funds for the future Evangelical crusade in Romania. He explained that Communism would fall and he wanted to initiate a massive assault through media, books and stadium crusades. He claimed that after the fall of Communism, the Orthodox Church would start losing ground. According to him, Orthodoxy was protected by the lack of information typical in a the totalitarian regime. Once the regime was gone and people came in contact with the truth residing in the West (mainly of American variety), they would drop the old faith like an old cloth and embrace the light coming from the West.

Communism fell, but his plans did not come to fruition. At the prompting of a new, young and enterprising pastor, his church in Oradea dismissed him. He continued to preach through the country, but his appeal subsided after the onslaught of new trends, worship fashions and theological emphases. Recently, he joined a newly formed Charismatic movement, for which he was promptly expelled from the Romanian Baptist Union. He had been a leader of the Baptists for many years, including the years of persecution under Communism.

The newly found freedom meant freedom for new leaders to start new currents and assert themselves in some new factions. Western Evangelical missionaries continue to come into the country to “bring Romania to Christ.” They are much like another missionary, who around 1900 wrote back to his board of missions that he did not encounter a single church in Bucharest (the hundreds of Orthodox churches apparently being invisible), reported that the Romanian people are deceived by false doctrines and need help. As a result, the Romanian Evangelicals are more and more Americanized. They receive everything that is good and bad in America. This also creates some conflicts between old-style conservative Baptists and the young ones, who desire something modern.

Is the Orthodox Church growing numerically in Romania? I do not think we can say this, for the simple reason that in Romania most people were counted as Orthodox anyway. What is happening, however, is that nominal Orthodox Christians are becoming more devout and starting to attend church services and participate in the sacraments. Every time I visited Romania I found churches full at the main services, sometimes with crowds overflowing outside. A lot of new churches and monasteries are being built, so many that I have recently read an article in a British newspaper which was complaining that while Romanians are among the poorest in the European Union, they paradoxically spend too much of their money on building churches.

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Mihai Oara was a young Romanian Baptist when he came to United States in 1980 as a political refugee. He converted to the Orthodox faith in 1999 and is a member of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has four grown children and works as Chief Technology Officer at a software company in Washington. He is also the author of Cum n-oi mai fi pribeag (“How not to be a wandering sheep”), published in Romanian.

22 comments:

  1. It’s sad that there are people who believe that Romania, Christian for centuries prior to Europeans invading the Americas, has no faith in Christ. The ignorance is remarkable but unfortunately quite common, and is such a tragedy.

    Thanks to the author for writing this piece. Although of note, there was a recent statement released by the Romanian Patriarchate that disputed the BBC report and reported that it was biased against the Church, as it contained information that came from a humanist organization (which was not reported to readers – imagine that!).

  2. How do you think the Orthodox in Romania could rejuvenate the nominal? The Orthodox certainly are not going to adopt evangelical style services, nor should they, but what can they do in their own countries to see that their people have a clear understanding of their faith so that when confronted with evangelicalism or pentecostalism they can navigate around it, or lead those in evangelicalism back into the Orthodox Church?

  3. Very interesting article!

    As a convert from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, I see a similar parallel with a different twist.

    It has seemed to me that Jewish converts to Evangelical Christianity are similar to the Orthodox Christians in Romania who convert to Evangelical Christianity. They are generally not very religious or well educated about their faith.

    Jewish converts from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity, as well as those who have been Evangelical for some time and then become Orthodox, seem to be more involved in their faith and better educated to begin with.

  4. I am not familiar with Romania or its history – all I know is that the Romanian Orthodox faithful I have met have been so strikingly humble, sweet, and pious. I think that catechism is so important, or “re-cathechism” as Fr. Theodore Paraskevopoulos says, for all of the faithful. If Orthodox do not explain the gospel and its application in our life (and also the reasons for our Orthodox practices), then non-Orthodox will be more than willing and happy to “explain” it all instead, drawing people away from the church. Whenever there is a gap left over, other people, groups, and forces will be vying to fill it in.

  5. Your article has got me thinking…

    Much as I’d like to pat myself on the back because converts to Orthodoxy are generally better educated prior to conversion than converts to Evangelicalism, I fear there may be a problem here. Why does it seem like nearly everybody who converts has a college degree or higher? How difficult is it for the less-educated to convert to Orthodoxy? Why is that?

    I know Orthodoxy is certainly compatible with a simple, uneducated life. It is perfectly normal for those who are born Orthodox and who receive little formal education to nonetheless prove to be strong, even saintly witnesses to the Gospel of Christ in their daily lives. Our faith is the not a faith of the elite but a faith of the common people. This is true at least in traditional Orthodox countries. But if a person is not raised in the faith, it seems highly uncommon for such a person to join the faith. This just doesn’t seem right, nor does not seem to be the case for Evangelicals and Pentecostals, who easily attract the uneducated. So why do *we* have this problem, and what can we do about it?

    1. Jeremy, that’s an insightful observation it seems to me. I suspect the education factors in here in part because there is so much in the way of historic Protestant propaganda and mythology about more “catholic” expressions of the faith that have to be overcome by the Evangelicals who have predominated American religious culture. (Hence the reason for this site). That was certainly the case for me, and I am not one who studied Church history and then became convinced of Orthodox faith. I became convinced of the core of the Orthodox understanding of the nature of our salvation in Christ and Final Judgment through the work of the Holy Spirit prior to discovering what Eastern Orthodoxy even was and felt increasingly out of place in my former Evangelical context. All the reading and study after finding out my convictions corresponded to a more Orthodox vision of the faith was just to clear away the obstacles created by my historical ignorance and the misinformation I’d taken for granted for most of my Protestant life.

      Perhaps even more of an obstacle than this Protestant mythology itself is the cultural expression(s) of faith so foreign to historic Orthodoxy that have resulted from it. I also spent several years of my childhood overseas in a culture not my own and, consequently, was able to do the cultural translation a little more readily than those Americans who have never had much exposure to other cultures. My husband falls into the non-intellectual Evangelical category and has never lived more than a couple towns away from where he grew up. He has never traveled outside the U.S. If he ever becomes Orthodox, it will only be because the people in the parish to which I belong (he attends with me every other week) do a better job of demonstrating love for God and others than those in his Evangelical church. I don’t see that happening for the near future even though I have a wonderful parish, thus any differences in current trends in my home and in the Evangelical culture more generally vis-a-vis Orthodoxy will have to come by the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Egypt had also experienced Western Missionaries trying to bring the Copts “to Christ”, this was in the late 1800s and early 1900s! Their ignorance was beyond words and created some problems with the Copts, mainly with the issue of divorce, as Copts who wanted to divorce converted to protestantism because Bishops did not allow it except for adultery. You’re article is dead-on though, most people who do convert from Orthodoxy to Protestantism mainly do so out of emotion and not theology!

  7. That is a lie… . I am a romanian and I know that there is not such a situation in my country, Romania. We are 87 percent orthodox. This articol is a manipulation; they just want to create a reality wich doesn’t exist in fact. Shame on them!… And, are they call themselfs christians? They want to bring the people to the Truth with lies?… Well, thats explains so much of what, and in who do they believe.

    Sorry, but we were, we are, and w’ill always be orthodoxes, or nothing. Forever, thanks to the Lord.

      1. Well, check your self, if you pleased. What means the first preposition? Would you like to explain me?…

        Thanks.

      2. Sorry, it is certainly my fault. Missundertood… . I just found the real ideea – wich is absolutelly right – of this articol:

        “(…) It is easy to perceive an asymmetry between the two directions of conversion. In most cases, the Orthodox to Evangelical convert is one who was a nominal Christian and knew very little about the church in which he formally belonged, and through some friend has an encounter with an Evangelical service, where he has an emotional experience. He discovers friendship and love and a sense of community which were previously lacking in his life.The typical Evangelical to Orthodox convert is a knowledgeable and theologically literate Christian who searches for truth and the right Christian practice. He discovers the Orthodox faith, but is first stopped by all the accusations which he had heard in his own church. In Romania, the Evangelicals often define themselves in opposition to the Orthodox. “Unlike the Orthodox,” they say, “we do not believe in…” After a careful study of the issues, he finds out that the accusations are either false of superficial. Moreover, he discovers a huge body of tradition, practice and theology, which stands as an answer to his or her many old questions…”.

        Sorry, again.

  8. he statement “After the Second World War, most [Byzantine Catholic] Romanians in Transylvania returned to the Orthodox Church” is misleading.

    The Byzantine Catholics from Transylvania, also known as Greek-Catholics, were forced by the communists in 1948 to become Orthodox. They did not do that willingly.

    The communists abolished the Romanian Greek-Catholic Church in 1948 and confiscated all of its properties: churches, parish houses, etc, and later gave the churches and parish houses to the Romanian Orthodox Church.

    The communists also forced the Greek-Catholics to become Orthodox, and who did not comply with this communist order was arrested and jailed. All the Greek-Catholic bishops, hundreds of priests and thousands of believers were arrested because they refused to join the Orthodox Church.

    There are plenty of documents that prove that the Orthodox Church in Romania supported and preached communism in churches.

    After the fall of communism, the Romanian Orthodox Church continues to refuse to return the Greek-Catholic churches confiscated in 1948.

    More details here: http://www.rogca.org

    1. The only alive greek-catholic people around this former-called Parishes are the graveyard.
      The ones still alive are the greek-catholics clergy hunting for the Romanian churches and properties.
      Meanwhile Romanian people crowd and suffocate in the Orthodox Churches, in their own country. Why? So that protestants could have a place for playing guitars, transforming the churches into bars and hotels, because of their falimentary faith? Like they do in the Western Europe?
      No , thanks! That would be an unjustice to God Himself!
      Greek-catholic faith was a compromised catholicism forced onto Romanian People, for aquirring a Romanian territory and its herritage, by force. That what its pursuing until today in a way or another. We have martyrs dying who layed their life for the protection of Orthodoxy in Transilvania, Banat and Maramures, we have pregnant mothers in 9th month who died there, children of all ages from Romanian majority who were killed for protecting their multimilenary land and bimilenary faith.
      And these above supeficial considerations and conversations of yours do not value anything. The Protestant and Catholic Clergy nowadays never sacrifaced anythyng and never knew and cared about the athrocities going on there for centuries, from 1200 until now, since the hungarian and german colonists came as dominators together with their catholic and protestant faiths ! And they always twisted arround the truth about the horror and killing carried out in Western Romania on Romanians! They simply tried to decimate the Romanians in the name of Catholic Faith! Jesuit killers! Inquisitors!
      In this situation it’s hard for me to belive any Romanians passing to Protestantism from Orthodoxy, for other reasons than superficiality, lack of education, lack of self conscience, lack of true experience in Orthodox Church, lack of caracter, blackmail!
      When you have lived like an Orthodox, you die an Orthodox! Everything else its poor and doesnt offer anything real, satisfactory to your heart!
      Its only right that Romanians will get their churches back! Which were theirs to begin with!

  9. Great article! As a Romanian now living in the US, married to an American Baptist now converted to Orthodoxy, I totally think that many more Romanians should read this article and take some time to think about its meaning. While growing up as an Orthodox in Romania, i took my faith and its doctrines for granted many times. Coming to America I have discovered the importance of what I have always had and never fully appreciated. And most of my understanding came from my husband`s own inquiry about Orthodoxy, during his conversion from Protestantism to Orthodoxy.

  10. As having lived my faith, since aged 10, in Romania, and upgraded from an Orthodox theological seminary, I would say that I agree partly with what the author of this post is saying, but he is too “indulgent” with other things. Let me explain, though 3 cases. I won’t take myself the conclusions.

    Case 1. In a village of ± 300 houses, before 1948 the whole village was Byzantine Catholic. After that, the whole village was in the Orthodox Church. Between 1990-2000, people were leaving their parish, converting to penticostalism, baptism, and Jehova’s Witnisses. In 1999, only 14 families were abiding in their Orthodox parish. The first who left were the church-goers.

    Case 2. In my 3rd year as a seminarian, I conducted a survey in a town parish, among 200 regular church-goers. Christologically, 98% of them were either Arian or adoptionist, were strongly Pelagian, and had a Zwinglian view of the Eucharist. None of them was a regular communicant (the frequence of them going to confession and, accessorily, to Communion, was once for 1-5 years).

    Case 3. In a large city, from 1990, the two congregations, the Orthodox and the Byzantine Catholic, were disputing over the church. Finally they agreed they would have two new churches. As of 2003, the new Orthodox church was attended merely by worker-class persons, devotion-centered sermons lasted 50 minutes, the ecteny or synapte after the Gospel lasted 40 minutes (the priests were reading aloud the diptychs-for-pay), and the church was neither heated, nor had it toilets, nor ramps for the physically challenged; and, maybe the most important thing, the parishionners used to confess and partake the Holy Communion only once a year. On the other side, the new Byzantine Catholic church was attended by intellectuals, the Christ-centered sermons lasted 15 minutes, no loud-voice diptychs; the church had heating, toilets, and ramps for the disabled. All the people used to go to confession and Communion every Sunday.

  11. This hits home to me! I was born in Romania and got adopted at 6 months by my Russian Orthodox parents. I was told growing up that Romanians are all Orthodox. When I was a teenager I started hearing stories about the Russian Baptists and what they thought about the Orthodox – mainly that they didn’t like us. I didn’t know the reason though. I thought most of it wasn’t true and didn’t care since I knew it would never affect me. In high school I had an aquaintant was Russian Baptist and when I told her I was Orthodox she looked uncomfortable. At the time I didn’t really get it. 6 months ago I met a Romanian Baptist through a Romanian language group on Facebook. We started chatting and all was fine until the issue of religion came up. She started attacking me and accused Orthodoxy as the cause of communism in Romania. I was so appalled! I then realized WHY the Protestants hate Orthodoxy! They equate the church to communism! I know there was communist “intervention” in the church – I’ve done a lot of reading, and I can to an extent understand why some Romanians stoked being orthodox. But you cannot say a religion is the cause of communism. Sadly the Americans bought into this absurd idea and use it as propaganda to “convert”. The Americans also live there and talk bad about the corruption and still equate it to Orthodoxy! It saddens and angers me! In California where I live the Romanian Baptists have a newspaper called “The Lamb”. I read it once and the very first article was about “Orthodox- Communism.” I’ve decided to stay away from Romanians in the US. I’ve never had problems with my Protestant friends and I don’t want to hate them all, but I’ve heard so much hate from them that I don’t know what to think. I hope the Americans will stop spreading America around the world and instead of taking slack about the world fix the problems here. Americans have no right to talk bad about corruption! I will stop now before I get carried away.

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