Perhaps you’re reading Walking an Ancient Path because you’re inquiring into Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Or maybe you’re a catechumen. Maybe you were recently baptized or chrismated, or you’re experiencing a renewal in your heart and mind of the Orthodox Faith that you’ve known since your infancy.
You’re excited. You’ve fallen in love with the ancient Church. You are grateful to God for the peace you’ve found, the beauty of the lives of the saints, and the Church’s historic tools for growing in Christ. (All together now! Prayer. Fasting. Almsgiving.) You want to share these precious things with your family and friends.
But they don’t want to hear it.
Some of them just aren’t interested. Others are actually angry. And if your loved ones are Christians, the situation can get complicated.
How do we navigate our relationships when the things that we treasure become sources of conflict? And how do we deal with the pain that these disagreements cause?
This situation can be especially tricky in a marriage, when one spouse is looking into Orthodoxy and the other is opposed. I know several people in my own parish, both men and women, who attend church alone. I won’t be focusing on this particular challenge today, because it’s a sensitive matter that should be approached with the guidance of a spiritual father.
Instead, we’ll be looking generally at dealing with friends and family who are less than enthused about the Orthodox Faith, although a lot of points apply to marriage.
I wish I had all the answers. I’ve talked with a lot of people who grapple with difficult relationships, and I hope that some of my thoughts can help. For relationships that are especially strained because of spiritual disagreements, it’s a good idea to talk to your priest about your struggles, trusting the Holy Spirit to give him insight and also receiving his prayers and spiritual covering.
In the meantime, let’s consider people’s various reactions when we tell them that we are Orthodox or on the path to Orthodoxy.
Common Responses to Your Orthodox Faith
When Rob and I had just begun traveling the Orthodox road, we ran a quick errand to Dollar Tree and saw a friend from our former nondenominational church. She’s a lovely woman, very intentional in her faith and devoted to Christ, and she asked us if we had found a new church.
“Yes!” we responded. “We’ve become Orthodox.” Her brow furrowed, and she asked, “Is that . . . Christian?”
She had immediately thought of Orthodox Judaism, and we realized that she was worried that we had rejected Jesus as Son of God and Messiah. We explained that we had become Orthodox Christians, and in the short conversation, she continued to look puzzled.
I don’t think it would have helped if I mentioned onion domes on churches in Russia or the blue domes of churches in Greece. Orthodoxy was not only foreign to her; it was a complete unknown.
A teacher from our younger children’s Christian school came to our chrismation service. He was intrigued, and he immediately categorized Orthodoxy as “high church.” This man held a Master’s of Divinity from a well-respected Protestant seminary, yet he lumped us in with liturgical denominations like Anglicans, Episcopalians, and some Lutherans.
These responses of confusion and misunderstanding are common, because Orthodoxy is still not well known.
This has been the most common response in my circle regarding my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. When I first joined the Church, many casual friends fell into the “confusion” category because I didn’t fit into their Protestant or Catholic buckets, and they didn’t have any additional containers for the Christian faith, except for maybe some well-known cults.
But the majority of close friends and family had absolutely no interest in this major shift in my family’s life. Our Orthodoxy was simply a bit of trivia, a new label that we carried. Most asked no follow-up questions except for some curiosity about my reasons for ordering the veggie burger on a Friday. This might be followed by a discussion about Orthodox fasting practices, but that’s it.
Religious affiliation isn’t important to many people. Some Christians take a positive attitude, stating some version of “As long as you love Jesus, that’s what’s important.” Others just don’t care.
Fear for Your Soul
Years ago my dear friend Lynn, who had recently returned to her Orthodox faith, was involved in a neighborhood Bible study. She and her husband were the only non-Protestants attending. Although they were increasingly uncomfortable with some of the group’s strident beliefs about baptism and other issues—none of which can be found in the Bible, by the way—the final straw came when Lynn received a call from a concerned fellow study member. The woman wanted to know if Lynn was saved, because another woman had called several people with concerns about Lynn’s salvation.
The gossip and the questioning of her faith were quite offensive, and Lynn and her husband left the group. Yet these people genuinely cared about the couple’s eternal destiny. In many heterodox Christian circles, actual Orthodox beliefs and the history behind them are unimportant. What is important is that an Orthodox Christian disagrees with certain teachings and, as a consequence, he or she is clearly not saved.
In a situation like this, there is no seeking of truth, no openness, no genuine discussion. Even if Lynn, newly returned to the Church, had been equipped to defend elements of the Faith, I doubt she would have been heard.
I’m reminded of a delightful story that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware told at a conference at Seattle Pacific University, a prominent Evangelical school in Washington state. Once when he was riding on a train, a passenger across the aisle had asked him, “Are you saved?” Laughter rolled through the auditorium, and His Eminence then spoke about the meaning of salvation and repentance. The answer he gave to the question, “Are you saved?” was, “I trust that by God’s grace I am being saved.” (You can find his 10-minute talk on YouTube here.)
I am fortunate that I have not experienced anger or opposition to Orthodoxy—to my face, anyway. But several of my friends have major struggles in their family relationships because of their faith.
At meals with the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and assorted cousins, one family of Orthodox converts didn’t dare to cross themselves during the pre-dinner prayer. Their Reformed relatives would go ballistic. (Let’s pause a moment and consider the irony of professing Christians being offended by the sign of the cross. This is really an expression of anti-Catholicism rather than opposition to the cross itself. We can thank the Puritan settlers of America for removing this powerful weapon from the Protestant prayer arsenal.)
Back to the Orthodox family surrounded by Calvinists. Rather than start an appetite-destroying dinner debate by crossing themselves, this couple and their children came up with an ingenious solution: they made the sign of the cross with their eyes, not their hands, after the dinner prayer. They glanced up, down, right, then left, honoring their Orthodox faith while avoiding unnecessary hostility.
Some people might accuse them of compromising their faith. I say those people don’t have to deal with relatives like that.
Mary’s family is convinced that she is going to hell for leaving her Roman Catholic faith. Thanksgiving is a holiday that she dreads every year.
George was ambushed by his Protestant sister at a small family gathering—clearly a planned confrontation. While his parents looked on in silence, his sister accused George of heresy, of abandoning Christ to join an error-filled church, and who knows what else. She probably threw in a charge of idolatry. Unfortunately, this particular situation with extended family has become so toxic that the relationship is severed, possibly irreparably. George currently has no contact with his sister.
Another young acquaintance of mine faces ongoing criticism and condemnation from her Protestant family for joining the “cult” of the Orthodox Church. Interestingly, the common denominator in these three examples of hostility is that the non-Orthodox family members all hold to some version of Calvinist theology and attend Reformed churches. This is not a coincidence. This is a topic that is too big for this blog post, but suffice it to say that core Calvinist doctrines repudiate some basic teachings of Orthodox Christianity. And it is even more interesting that these critics, whose belief system is 500 years old, often refer to the ancient Orthodox Church as a cult.
But for our purposes here, the truly important common denominator I’ve noticed among heterodox Christians who oppose Orthodoxy is this: in most cases, they are completely ignorant of the Church’s actual teachings. They see icons and assume idolatry. They see bishops and assume papal infallibility. They see the prominence of the Theotokos in our iconography and assume Mary worship.
Relating with such people is enormously frustrating. They will not pick up a book, they will not listen to a podcast, and they will not even spend a few minutes on a basic Google search of the history and teachings of the Orthodox Church.
Others have read about the Church, but only through the lens of her critics. They are armed with arguments but have not read any actual Orthodox materials.
I admit that I am mystified that people can be proudly ignorant of the things they condemn. But was I any different? I learned about the existence of Orthodox Christianity more than 30 years ago, and I have vague memories of objecting with “Yeah, but . . .” when someone on the radio was describing confession and other practices. We all see things through a filter, and I was no different.
But a lot of negative responses to Orthodoxy aren’t really a question of knowledge versus ignorance. Often, a lot of emotion is mixed in. Let’s look at some reasons for these negative responses, and . . . let’s also take a more difficult look inward at our own responses to others’ responses.
Reasons for Our Loved Ones’ Negativity toward Orthodoxy
1. We Orthodox Can Be Really Annoying.
This is especially true for recent converts. In discovering the Church that Jesus established, in our newfound love for unchanging truth and the beauty of Orthodox worship, we can become pushy and obsessed with convincing others to become Orthodox. Our attitudes can contain the ugly odor of triumphalism. We’re eager to drag people, kicking and screaming, into the Church.
In our zeal, we can forget that Jesus would never do that. The Holy Spirit draws; He doesn’t push. And God has his own timetable. For some reason He doesn’t consult us.
And those of us who are cradle Orthodox can be a little . . . well, smug. Cliquish. It’s easy to look on, bewildered, at the smorgasbord of Protestant beliefs and practices and feel quite happy that we don’t have to deal with any of that mess, thank you very much. And instead of being annoyingly pushy about the Faith like those former Evangelicals in our parish, maybe we don’t share our faith at all.
We may come from a big, fat Greek Orthodox family, or a Ukrainian one, where everybody is at least nominally Orthodox. But we live in a diverse country. Our neighbors water our plants and feed the cat when we’re out of town, and they’ve seen our weird icon corner. And our coworkers are shocked that we want to take a vacation day for Holy Friday, especially because it’s on the wrong day, all out of sync with Western churches.
So, we can share our faith aggressively or not at all, with all kinds of justifications for our behavior. But lack of concern for others in matters of faith is not love. Pushiness is not love. Maybe the people we know respond negatively to us because of our attitudes, not because of Orthodoxy itself.
One piece of advice we could all live by is simple: Just don’t be a jerk.
Of course, Jesus said it better and stated it positively: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).
The second reason why our loved once might react negatively to Orthodoxy is. . .
2. The Possibility of Being Wrong Is Threatening.
I have known several converts who experienced a dark night of the soul before becoming Orthodox. I’m one of them. These are people who had lived their lives as faithful Christians from non-Orthodox backgrounds: Southern Baptist elders, nondenominational Sunday School teachers, former missionaries, and Anglican priests. After a period of studying, inner wrestling, and perhaps an introductory class, they become convinced that the Orthodox Church is the Church that Jesus established.
This realization should bring with it the joy of homecoming, but instead it can bring a terrible sense of loss. We realize that we have defended and taught doctrines that were not true. We have prayed according to a skewed, juridical understanding of God. Worst of all, we can think, “I’ve wasted my life.”
For me, I grieved the fact that Rob and I were not able to raise our children in the Orthodox Faith.
The enemy of our souls has great fun with this sort of religious regret. That whole “wasted life” idea is simply not true. I will never forget the words of Fr. John at my first Intro to Orthodoxy class at an OCA parish. He said, “The Orthodox Church celebrates everything that God has done in your life so far. But . . . there’s more.”
His statement acknowledged God’s continual presence in our lives, no matter where we’ve been. And as we press onward in our life in Christ, over time we see that God uses everything. We see how He prepared us, and how our worst trials led us to Him. Even if we abandoned the Faith for a season, or for many years, He mysteriously brings fruit from our faithlessness.
But when dealing with difficult loved ones in the here and now, we tend to forget our own dark nights of wrestling. We’ve traveled a long way in our thoughts and in our hearts, and we forget our own starting points. Then, in our amnesia, we wonder why our committed Catholic or Assemblies of God friends and family get so defensive about their beliefs.
I met a dear man, Gerry, early in our Orthodox journey. He had been an elder in his Protestant church and left in disgust when leadership removed the cross from the sanctuary in order to be more “seeker-friendly.” I don’t remember exactly how he encountered Orthodoxy, but like me, he was drawn by the sacredness of the worship, which had been missing in his past.
He was a strong Calvinist who knew how to defend his belief system, and his readings of the Church Fathers began chipping away at teachings he had always held, including the nature of God and the meaning of salvation. Finally, a lot of things he thought he knew crumbled into dust.
It felt like a death, and it was. It was a good death that led to renewed life in Christ, but the pain was real.
We need to remember people like Gerry when we encounter skepticism and opposition. We need to remember our own struggles and questions. Nobody wants to be told that they are wrong about God in any area, especially when they have been diligent and faithful.
It’s also important to remember that nobody is completely wrong about everything. Those of us from heterodox Christian backgrounds already know the Trinity; Jesus’ Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection; the love of God; and other foundational truths. Becoming Orthodox did not require us to scrape our house of faith to the foundations and build something completely new; instead, it involved rethinking, revising, and discarding some aspects of our beliefs.
But God has been at work in our lives and continues to work. God has also been at work in the lives of those of us who were raised in a different religion or none at all. And He continues to work.
Let’s be gentle with others, and with ourselves.
You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other… Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil. — St. Seraphim of Sarov
The third reason for negative responses to Orthodoxy applies especially to those from heterodox Christian backgrounds:
3. Committed Christians Care about Others’ Salvation.
For those who leave a different Christian group for Orthodox Christianity, the people from our previous community may fear for our salvation. And for those from a non-Christian background who become Orthodox, the Christians around you also fear for your salvation, because they believe that you’ve been sucked into a hotbed of superstition and suspiciously Catholic-looking worship.
The key word here is fear. The heart behind the attacks on your faith can be well-meaning, based in genuine concern. And that concern can be mixed with being offended at your rejection of their deeply held beliefs. Some respond in anger; others, knowing that attacking you is wrong, will treat you politely but definitely as someone who is other.
How do we respond to these various kinds of opposition? Here are a few tips, which are simply ways to “do unto others”—to treat our critics as we ourselves want to be treated.
Tips for Responding to Others’ Negativity
Try to discern what people are really objecting to in terms of your faith. As I mentioned earlier, some people assume that your faith is an Eastern European version of Catholicism. That’s what I thought for years, and as a convert, it’s important for me to remember my own past ignorance. I should also humbly remember that I am still ignorant about many things.
Hopefully you can provide some answers and clarifications, if the other person is willing to hear you out in return. Empathetic listening can go a long way toward building bridges instead of walls.
2. Engage in respectful dialogue if possible.
Orthodox converts from Evangelical backgrounds know the importance of evangelism—sometimes even the kind that tramples others’ free will and treats them as projects. So, we can easily fall into the attitude of, “I need to convince this person of the truth.” We can then engage in a monologue about the seven Ecumenical Councils that nobody wants to hear, forgetting the wisdom of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:7: “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”
Convincing someone that Orthodox Christianity is the fullness of the Faith is not necessarily our job. Understanding this can be difficult for those of us trained in the form of evangelism that is intent on “closing the deal” and leading someone to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” God, in His grace, can and will use us to share our faith with others. The rest is the work of the Holy Spirit, “who gives the increase.”
Sometimes we need to learn our Faith better in order to share. Especially for people in their 40s and older who are cradle Orthodox, you grew up in the Church at a time when very few materials were available in English. You were first- or second-generation Russian or Greek or Serbian. From what you could see, the Orthodox Church was for your people and a few other nationalities, and some form of Western Christianity was available for everyone else.
I would have felt that way too if I had grown up with the Divine Liturgy in another language. And if someone had asked me about the Faith, I probably would have given them a few details but categorized that person as “other” and the Orthodox Church as “not for you, unless you marry into one of our families.”
But the gospel is for everyone, along with the fullness of the Church that Jesus established. So it’s important to answer questions and objections with openness and respect. As St. Peter writes in his first letter, “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (3:15).
The word “respect” is important here. So be careful about the tone of your conversations about the Church, and give heed to this next tip:
3. Avoid arguments.
St. Amphilochios Makris of Patmos wrote,
Do not be afraid because of your Orthodoxy; because as an Orthodox Christian in the West, you will often be isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians. Be neither defensive nor aggressive; simply be yourself.
This is good advice, but it can be difficult to put into practice. Let’s be honest: some of us love to argue. And at other times, a respectful dialogue can turn into an argument.
When I say “argument,” I’m not limiting the definition to people yelling at each other. Sometimes it’s a matter of two people pressing their points, throwing around quotations from Christian leaders of the past and proof texts from Scripture. We push each others’ buttons and let our words run riot.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve gotten involved in such arguments. Because of my personality, these debates tend not to go far; I try to find common ground then move to a different topic. But whenever I have gotten into debates over once-saved-always-saved or the authority of the Scriptures or the role of the Virgin Mary, those exchanges have never produced good fruit. Never. And they’re exhausting.
When someone’s goal—my own or the person’s in front of me—is merely to defend something, at least one heart is in the wrong place. Rather than honoring Christ in our actions and seeking the truth together in humility, we put up walls and close ourselves off.
When words get heated or defenses go up, there are times when we need to remember Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”
We need to be really careful when considering this verse. We should never pridefully consider ourselves better or wiser than others, or look at another person, created in the image of God, as a dog or a pig. Instead, we should pray silently for wisdom in our relationships and be careful about the things we share, because some people are not ready to hear.
For example, I personally know two people whose family members have been healed by the prayers of St. John Maximovitch, who died in 1966. The saint actually visited one of them in the hospital, more than 20 years after his death. Because of my love for St. John, whenever I visit my daughter and son-in-law in San Francisco, I always take an Uber to the Holy Virgin Cathedral to venerate his relics, pick up a few vials of oil for my parish from the vigil lamps at his tomb, and attend a Divine Liturgy if I have time.
I hold St. John close to my heart, yet I have never shared these things with some of my dear Protestant friends. The main reason is this: I know that they would not understand that these stories are genuine spiritual pearls, and I am worried about the possibility of irreverent and dismissive words directed toward a precious saint, the Virgin Mary, and the practice of veneration.
By keeping my mouth shut I’m not really protecting myself, and God certainly doesn’t need my protection. Saint John and the Virgin Mary are not damaged by the dishonor of others. I’m protecting my friends, who truly love Christ and are Protestant to the bone, from uttering false and flippant words about holy things that they do not understand, at least right now.
Yet I have other Protestant friends who would be quite interested in what I have to share, and they would be open to conversations about incorrupt relics or the prayers of the saints.
In short, I’m trying to handle my pearls carefully. And even as I write these words I realize that I should be praying for a time when my friends and I can share these treasures together.
4. Check Your Heart.
Whenever I’m frustrated with opposition or criticism regarding Orthodox Christianity, I need to pause and get real with myself. Why am I angered or hurt or annoyed?
I tell myself that I’m frustrated that people don’t care about historic Christianity. They don’t care about the radical changes in theology and practice in their own congregations over the years, much less throughout Western Christendom, both Protestant and Catholic, over the past 500 years.
Really? Is that really why I’m upset?
Questions of truth are important, but they don’t drive my emotional responses.
When friends are indifferent about my years of spiritual struggle and study, when they show no interest in my embrace of the Orthodox Church, I feel disrespected. I feel dismissed. My pride is wounded.
When loved ones attack or ridicule the precious teachings and practices of the Church (“Smells and bells,” anyone?), I feel angry. Do they really think their pop-concert-and-a-lecture church service is an expression of true Christianity? They don’t know or care about what the saints and martyrs have always believed. What’s important to me is of no consequence to them, and I feel angry because I’m hurt that they don’t share my reverence for holy things. This is another form of pride, because at base my anger is really about my feelings of rejection.
When my non-Orthodox Christian friends worry about my salvation, I’m offended. Some of them will be kind to me because they’re praying for me and trying to be Christlike toward me and my erroneous theology. And I’m being kind and, I hope, Christlike toward them for the same reason. It’s maddening! And I’m frustrated and offended because they should think better of me. This also is my pride at work.
Hmmm. Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?
Yes, we care about truth. We care about the apostolic faith of the ancient Church. But we don’t like being dismissed, disrespected, or patronized, because it’s demeaning.
My pride drives my emotional responses far more than I’m willing to admit. I think about our perfect Lord on trial before His Crucifixion. He was without sin, and He was mocked, interrogated, slandered, spat upon, and tortured. Yet He remained silent. He did not argue or defend Himself.
And I realize that I have a long way to go before I can humble myself and love others as He did.
This leads to the final, and most important, bit of advice.
5. Above all, love God and others.
This is the first and greatest commandment.
In order to test yourself, whether you love your neighbour in accordance with the Gospel, pay attention to yourself at the time when others offend you… If you remain calm on such occasions, are not filled with the spirit of enmity, hatred, impatience—if you continue to love these persons as much as previously, before their offences or negligence, then you do love your neighbour in accordance with the Gospel. — St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p.324
My love for others should not be affected in one way or another by their opinions of me and of my beliefs. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Paul writes in Romans 5:8. We can listen, engage in respectful dialogue, and avoid arguments, but if our hearts are filled with resentment, superiority, or contempt, we have accomplished nothing.
As St. Paul famously wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” Whether or not we say any words at all, God calls us to love the person He has placed in front of us.
Sometimes we must learn to love from a distance. Earlier I wrote about George, whose sister will corner him and start a religious argument whenever they are in the same room together. But even in their prolonged separation, he can still pray for her.
We should pray the same things for our critics and for ourselves: That our eyes would be open to the truth, including the truth about the state of our hearts. That we would walk in humility together, understanding that none of us is omniscient. None of has all the answers.
And most of all, we should pray that in Christ, our words and actions would be guided by His love for others.
The next blog post of Walking an Ancient Path will be published a few days before Holy Week begins. I will devote the time to a basic—very basic—introduction to iconography, with special attention to the icon of the Crucifixion. Thanks, Taylor, for the suggestion! I hope you can join me.