Recently I stood in my church’s crowded fellowship hall with my Styrofoam cup of coffee, savoring the genuine half-and-half on a non-fasting day and feeling content after another beautiful Divine Liturgy. Somehow this after-church mingling felt different than even the warmest times of fellowship in my Protestant days. But why?
Yes, the liturgy was beautiful, filled with deep truths and symbolism that will take me a lifetime to unpack. But something else was different. I just couldn’t place it.
Suddenly the realization hit me.
In eight years spent inside an Orthodox church, I have never once heard a theological debate.
Let me repeat that: not a single theological debate. In the context of my heterodox past, this reality is revolutionary and maybe just a little bit miraculous.
Lock any two Protestants in a room with their Styrofoam cups, and they will argue over the number, preferred form, and meaning of the sacraments. Every. Single. One.
They will also debate End Times theology, the inerrancy of Scripture, proper biblical interpretation, and an unending list of recent trends, such as praise songs versus hymns or the use of fog machines during the music portion of the service. (Note to my cradle Orthodox readers: I am not making up that last bit.)
Lock two Orthodox in a room, and they will argue church budget priorities, the odds of an autocephalous (independent and self-governing) American Orthodox Church within our generation, and traffic flow during coffee hour. They will not argue over praying in tongues or the benefits of adding a drum kit to the choir loft.
Heterodox Doctrines Divide
I remember a slogan that was popular in Protestant circles a while back: “Doctrine divides, but love unites.” The saying was an attempt to wave a flag of unity in a crowded field of multiple belief systems.
I understand the reasoning behind that perspective, because differing beliefs cause division on a regular basis in Protestant organizations. When teachings are based on individual interpretation of Scripture, the person with the most persuasive argument wins the day. And with enough allies, he or she takes control of the church.
In my own limited experience I have seen Protestant churches, schools, and ministries split and even disintegrate when new leadership introduced different teachings and practices. I have also seen churches continue to grow even though the structure of their services and the sermon content are unrecognizable from those of previous decades.
Ancient, Unchanging Doctrines Unite
A few years ago an Orthodox monk commented on the differing beliefs of various Christian congregations and asked a friend of mine a good question, his voice full of wonder: “Why are Protestants still arguing about things that were settled a thousand years ago?”
He had been blessed to grow up within the unity of the ancient Faith and couldn’t understand the ongoing controversies. He knew from experience that when doctrine is rooted in the apostolic teachings of the historic Church, passed down through the centuries, it does not divide—it unites us in Christ. Not only today, but with the faithful across all time.
We worship together as one in the Divine Liturgy, differing only in languages and local customs. We are united in a Eucharistic community where we partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and His real presence is celebrated without divergence of opinion over the bread and wine. The teachings, the books of the Bible, and the Creed that defines Christian belief were all settled in the first seven Ecumenical Councils.
In contrast, the Protestant Reformation couldn’t hold unity for even a generation before splintering. Even in modern times the teachings of many denominations have changed radically from one decade to the next. The family tree of Protestantism is full of doctrinal divorces with multiple branches of stepfamilies.
Yet even in the midst of these divisions, as an Evangelical I was taught the important concept of the Church as family—the body of Christ, united by Jesus as the Head. We spoke and sang of a unity that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, transcends our weaknesses and differences.
One popular song at youth meetings and interdenominational gatherings contained the lyrics, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord / and we pray that our unity may one day be restored.”
I find it interesting now that in the same sentence we declared both our oneness in Christ and our lack of unity.
Drinking My Java in Peace
Nowadays I drink my coffee in peace after the liturgy. I haven’t yet been accosted by a woman who thinks we should be singing in tongues, a man who wants to debate the concept of “once saved, always saved,” or someone pushing an innovative new method of discipleship from a popular preacher.
Of course, parish life is not all bliss; family life rarely is. In the first line of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Likewise, parishes are dysfunctional in their own sometimes ridiculous ways. Members come from various backgrounds, with differing personalities and levels of spiritual maturity. We misunderstand one another. We misjudge one another. We sometimes fail to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
But we are united, not divided, by Orthodoxy: in the Greek, “straight/sound doctrine.” If we don’t know the answer to a theological question, we don’t make one up; we can find it in writings that have been accepted by the Church everywhere and at all times.
I can pick up a translation of one of the Church Fathers without experiencing the shock of, “They actually believed that back then?” St. John Chrysostom’s sermons feel fresh and relevant today, almost as if the ink is still wet on the parchment. His fourth-century words harmonize with the seventh-century teachings of St. John of Damascus and with the twentieth-century homilies of St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco. Each of them taught and practiced the same Faith.
We may struggle with application and practice, we may struggle with each other, but the Truth is settled and unchanging. It unites us.
We are family, and we’re stuck with each other.