Over the years (and, interestingly, starting around the time I was ordained), I’ve been attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I admire its ancient character and the beauty of its liturgy, churches, and icons. I consider the Jesus Prayer as one of the Church’s greatest gifts for the Christian journey. I routinely recommend Bishop Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way as one of the best, most readable and succinct introductions to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. Plus, my brother converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, receiving chrismation back in 2005. Orthodoxy is now "in the family" (so to speak), so this is not a merely intellectual or academic deal for me.
And yet, in spite of all that I find admirable and attractive about Orthodoxy, I have no desire to renounce Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church for it. There are many reasons why (some of which include disagreements when it comes to the ordination of women and points in moral theology). But perhaps the overriding one is that I continue to believe that, at its best, Anglicanism is the purest form of the catholic faith in the West, and that the essentials laid down in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral are more than adequate.
All of this may, in part, explain why an essay I recently came across caught my eye. Entitled “Why I Am Not Orthodox,” it’s written by Protestant evangelical theologian Daniel B. Clendenin. In addition to many other teaching positions, Clendenin spent four years as a visiting professor at Moscow State University. He’s published many books and articles, including Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective 2nd Edition (Baker House, 2004). In “Why I Am Not Orthodox,” Clendenin writes about the uniqueness of Eastern Orthodoxy in its history and theology. And he compares and contrasts evangelical Protestant theology with Orthodoxy, explaining why – in spite of what he knows about Orthodoxy and its claim to be the one true Church – he remains “committed to key distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition.”
Even for those of us who do not subscribe to Protestant evangelicalism wholesale, it’s a fascinating essay. Below are a few excerpts.
… what Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have often sought is not only a conscious continuity with the historic, apostolic past, but also a richer experience of God's majesty and mystery through a more liturgical worship setting. These are worthy pursuits that can be fulfilled in the Orthodox Church. But about this pursuit we can make several observations.
Liturgically, the Orthodox ethos of a formal worship setting will attract some Christians, but to many other vibrant movements within evangelicalism it will have little if any appeal. One thinks, for example, of those committed to full ministerial status for women, the centrality of lay ministry and spiritual gifts, charismatically inclined groups, seeker-sensitive churches attempting to reach baby boomers or Generation X'ers with novel worship formats, and so on. Evangelicals focused on social ethics may also find little comradeship in Orthodoxy, as there is nothing in Orthodoxy comparable to the body of Catholic social teaching, for instance. These Protestant movements, important in their own right, are liturgical light years from Orthodoxy.
… Protestants like Thomas Oden, Donald Bloesch, and others have shown that one need not join Orthodoxy to immerse oneself in the patristic past with joy, gratitude, and a sense of accountability to that "great cloud of witnesses" of the last two millennia. Oden, for example, who delights in referring to his theological method as "paleo-orthodox," is now working on a comprehensive patristic commentary on the whole Bible to be published by InterVarsity Press. Thumb through Calvin's Institutes or a volume of John Wesley's Works and you will see our Protestant forebears thoroughly engaged with patristic tradition. As with liturgy, conversion to Orthodoxy is hardly a prerequisite for a renewed engagement with apostolic tradition.
Theologically, just what is at stake in the differences between Protestant and Orthodox theology? In fact, much of what is basic to Christianity: the nature, sources, and interpretation of God's revelation to us, the meaning of the church and its sacraments, the doctrines of sin and salvation, and even how one enters the kingdom of God. On these points evangelical and Orthodox thinking diverge in significant ways.
To be Eastern Orthodox is, above all, to stake a bold and unapologetic theological claim as the one true church of Christ on earth, which alone has guarded right belief and true worship in absolute identity and unbroken succession with the apostolic church. It is precisely this exclusivistic assertion that some Protestant converts, in search of the "true, New Testament Church" have found so beguiling. Inherent in this claim, of course, is the charge that both Catholics and Protestants have lapsed from the true faith into error, if not outright heresy.
One can find people who interpret this ecclesiological exclusivity more leniently; in fact, some would argue that the best Orthodox scholars—George Florovsky and John Meyendorff, to name two—would allow for such leniency. But the claim to be Christ's one, true church remains the clear Orthodox position. This should trouble evangelicals (as well as other Protestants), especially when it is combined with the Orthodox idea of who constitutes the church and how one enters the church.
Is the church made up of those who have been "regenerated" by infant baptism in an Orthodox church institution, or by those who have experienced new birth and been justified by grace through faith? True, Luther and some other Protestants have not viewed baptismal regeneration and justification by faith as mutually exclusive. But whether a non-Orthodox person can even be saved is an open question in Orthodox ecclesiology. Over coffee one day I asked an Orthodox priest whether I, as a Protestant theologian, might be considered a true Christian. His response: "I don't know."
There are many basic beliefs that Orthodoxy and evangelicalism hold in common: the inspiration of Scripture; the two natures of Christ, the finality and uniqueness of Christ's death on the cross, the resurrection, and our future hope of eternal life. It is no small thing for us to hold in common all the early, Christian creeds.
Moreover, evangelicals have some important lessons to learn from Orthodoxy. For example, it is understandable that evangelicals feel that the Orthodox doctrine of the church is too "high." But perhaps our theology of the church is too "low," much lower than our Protestant forebears would have it. In the opening pages of Book IV of Calvin's Institutes, for example, Calvin refers twice to the famous words of Cyprian (d. 258)—so Catholic-sounding to our ears—that "you cannot have God as your Father without the Church as your Mother" (IV.1.1, 4).
Or again, it is one thing to guard the doctrine of sola scriptura, but quite another to ignore or disdain two thousand years of tradition; surely there is a dangerous arrogance in imagining that we do not need to listen to the wealth of biblical wisdom from the patristic writers.
Put another way, we must invoke the spirit of irenic disagreement in the formula: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." The genius of this principle is that it allows us to disagree with other believers, even vehemently so, yet in an edifying fashion with a degree of theological modesty and a perspective that seeks a deeper consensus within the bounds of true faith.
But this really begs another question: "Essential" for what? Do we mean essential for salvation? For church membership? For employment at a seminary? For taking Communion together? Essential for clergy to pray together, to talk, and to encourage one another in Christ? When we realize that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle or a matter of conscience, then we are freed to engage fully people with whom we actually have profound differences without compromising our own theological commitments.
Read it all.
 This article first appeared in January 6, 1997 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188.