Fascinating article in the New Republic this week about a number of evangelical Christians who have embraced Eastern Orthodoxy. I’ve read a fair amount of coverage about prominent evangelicals crossing the Tiber, but this is the first feature length article I’ve seen about evangelicals embracing Orthodoxy.
The story focuses on Wilbur Ellsworth, a former pastor of First Baptist Church in Wheaton, IL, a town that some wryly refer to as the evangelical Vatican because of the presence of Wheaton College. Ellsworth found himself in increasing conflict with congregation members who embraced the “church growth” movement. After he left the congregation in 2000, he began a spiritual journey that ended him with him entering the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
While the AOC is smaller than the other major Orthodox churches in the United States, it appears to have a particular attraction for evangelicals:
Ellsworth’s story is hardly unique. Most of the approximately 150 members of the Orthodox parish he now leads are former evangelicals themselves. Even Ellsworth’s transition from evangelical minister to Orthodox priest is not uncommon. Of the more than 250 parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, some 60 percent are led by convert priests, most of whom are from evangelical backgrounds. And, according to Bradley Nassif, a professor at North Park University and the leading academic expert on Evangelical- Orthodox dialogue, the Antiochian Archdiocese has seen over 150 percent church growth in the last 20 years, approximately 75 percent of which is attributable to converts.
The article provides some interesting recent history of the AOC in the United States, where a large influx of former evangelicals in the mid-1980s (including the writer Frederica Matthews-Greene) appears to have kickstarted the denomination’s recent growth. As an aside, there is at least one amusing (but understandable) theological misstep in the article, which suggests that Western Christians “relegate the Holy Spirit to a lesser place than God the Father and God the Son.” That may often be true as a matter of piety, but certainly not as a matter of doctrine. On the whole, though, it’s an engaging read.