Embracing the tension
But transitioning into Eastern Orthodoxy was anything but easy, especially since they came from five generations of Baptists. The couple described it as an identity crisis of sorts. And for Stephanie, that she would question it was not so much a rejection of her spiritual heritage as it was learning to let go of the one thing she felt 100% positive about for most of her life.
"I never stopped trusting that God's mercy was enough to cover me, but for I while I felt like I was so lost," she said.
The couple did explore Catholicism but the papacy was a deal-breaker.
What made a big difference for them was going all the way back through history and tracing the historical line back to the Apostles and finding out, through the various councils, that the Orthodox trusted the Holy Spirit to unite them all even though many of them had varying opinions.
The East-West Schism, also known as The Great Schism, happened in 1054 and the Eastern Orthodox see the Catholics as having been broken off from the Church. The Catholics say the opposite, that the Orthodox broke away from them.
This historically significant split was set in motion on July 16, 1054, when Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius was excommunicated. Seen as the turning point amid tensions that had been brewing for years between the Roman church based in Rome and the Byzantine church based in what is now Istanbul, the conflict arose from a complicated array of political issues and religious discord.
Among the disagreements between them was whether or not it was permissible to use unleavened bread during Communion, conflict over the exact language in the Nicene creed, and whether clerics should be required to be celibate.
"What sold us seeing how God has kept it united even amidst some of the worst persecutions and iconoclasm," Stephanie said.
Joel added, "Just the fact that it's still so close to the same worship, … the fundamental aspect of the sacramental life of the church is the same as it was back then in the first century."
Another paradigm shift that occurred within them as they continued their journey was they discovered that following Jesus was not only an intellectual learning process but that life in Christ is about embracing the holy mysteries and the taking of the body and blood of Christ every week.
The Dunns have seen the transformation extend to their eight children.
"Seeing it with my kids … we had felt convicted to keep them in church with us since we had them, but in evangelical churches they want you to dump your kids off in a separate space because the sermon is for your spiritual development and the kids might distract you," she said.
"But I didn't see that in the Bible. We love that kids are full members of the church. I've had so many tears watching our kids, one by one, take the Eucharist and to see it at work in their lives."
What about evangelism?
A critique that evangelicals often offer of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is what they see as an overemphasis on sacramental life and a lessened focus on sharing the Gospel.
"It's a legit concern," Joel said, "but it's not like they don't do it at all. But it's not the focal point."
Many Eastern Orthodox outreach missions, he said, look like aid situations, such as helping the sick, poor and incarcerated.
"The main focus of walk toward theosis is that you are responsible for your soul and I think a lot of us spend a lot more time inwardly trying to deal with our own sins and passions."
In other words, evangelism happens, but it looks different.
It's more of a "go meet the person where they are and if a conversation comes up about God then by all means, keep going,” he explained.
But the animating idea behind the Orthodox life is "if you are at peace yourself and you are living the way you should be living and you are in community with other people, your very life will transform everybody around you."
"And you can't really adequately witness to somebody if you don't know them,” he noted.
Asked what they wished evangelicals would understand about Eastern Orthodoxy, Stephanie pointed to where the original church is found.
"For me, it boils down to ‘where is the true church? Which one is it?’ We can't all be right. If we all disagree on interpretations of the Scripture … there's so much disunity," she said.
God revealed Himself to us in the form of Christ but the problem is that with all these different denominations, especially within evangelicalism, it mostly rests on Sola Scriptura and lacks tradition, she noted.
"Tradition is what gave us Scripture. Scripture is part of Holy Tradition; it's not the whole of it. That's not all that the Apostles taught. We want to know ‘what else did they teach?’ When Christ revealed Himself to us, He also showed us how He wanted to be worshiped and it looked a lot like Jewish worship."
"When we look at the Old Testament as Christians, everything is interpreted through Christ rather than going back and trying to read it as though it just comes first and then comes the New Testament."
Joel added, "I think the concern for ‘where is the church’ is out of concern for ‘where is the fullness of Christ exhibited?’ Where does that exist? Because I don't want just part of Christ. I want all of it that I can get because I need it because of how broken I am."
The Orthodox Church would say that it knows where the church is but it does not know where it isn't.
"We are fully confident there will be so many saints, recognized glorified saints that were not Orthodox," Stephanie said.
"When I was an evangelical, I had some of my most beautiful intimate moments with Christ. And in some ways, being in this tradition, I don't want to say set me back but I feel like I have a more intimate relationship with Christ Himself in some ways because He was all that I had and what He chose to help to reveal to me of Himself through the Scripture. Now, He has given me this treasure chest of tools and resources and people who can show me."
Joel chimed in, "I want everybody else to have the fullness of the access to all of the repository of Christianity that we have in the Orthodox Church."
"I long for mentors who show me how to be a mom, how to be a wife,” said Stephanie. “Now I've got dozens of saints that I love and can learn from.”
For Stephanie, she said she had “a lot of those puzzle pieces together” as an evangelical. “But I didn't have the full image of who Christ really is.”
“And He is revealed to us by His saints, the sacraments, the monastic community. All of it together is what gives us the whole,” she said.
"Our doctrine is intact, our teaching is intact. They are there for us to latch onto and we do that but we each can go off too. But the beauty of it for me is that despite all of it those historical massive issues, it amazes me that we still hold to the same tradition as the earliest Christians."
Along with an overemphasis on the sacraments, evangelicals also reject the Orthodox Church's exclusionary claim to be the one true apostolic church, how it prioritizes the writings of the Church fathers, its authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures, and how it venerates Mary.
Today, Joel asks evangelicals to "give Mary a chance."
Asked to expound on what he means by "give her a chance,” he elaborated: "Revere her in a way you haven't before because she provided the Savior."
"And there is a reason that she has been venerated since the beginning of the church and I don't fully understand her role and it's uncomfortable to ask for her intercessions at times, but at the same time, she is the one praying and interceding on behalf of all of us to her Son. And it is through her prayers that most of us come to know Him."
"I grew up my whole just thinking that Mary was just some random chick that just happened to be there at the right time and right place and it's just not so. The history of the church has put her in a place where she should be and if evangelicals could give her a chance, it might open up their world to her."
Stephanie interjected, "Our salvation is not possible without her. And He chose to make it that way."
Joel continued, "And we say in the Liturgy, 'Theotokos (Mother of God) save us’ … If you don't understand that during the Liturgy, we transcend space-time as we know it. We're telling her, ‘Accept what the angel is telling you, accept this child because it is through Him that we shall all be saved.'
"And don't be so literal about everything. Everything is not literal. God didn't set it up that way. We're not computer programs, we're people."
Orthodoxy is daily lived repentance to the glory of God, the Dunns emphasized.
"The most transformative aspect of this whole thing for me has been to see suffering not as something that God — I used to think 'why does God allow this, I did all these things right, this stuff keeps happening, I can't handle it.’ And then you hear of other people who have horrible thing after horrible thing happen,” Stephanie said.
But within Orthodoxy, suffering is seen as a tool, she explained.
"And it actually is sometimes seen as God's mercy, which sounds really harsh and hard to accept but once you're in it and you just do, you start seeing the fruits and you see how embracing the sorrow alongside the happiness and the joy, it'll start to heal you somehow from the inside out in a way that nothing else can."
During their evangelical years, they interpreted suffering as: “God could step in but He didn't, why not? He did step in over there for that person. Why won't He step in over here? Did I do something wrong?"
Put simply, the focus was much more egocentric.
"With this, it's the sorrow and the suffering associated with our cross that we carry,” Joel said. “And we, like Christ, we go down to Hades and have to defeat death ourselves with His help. And then we face resurrection ourselves. To me, it makes sense of the chaos and horrible stuff we experience here on earth.
"But it gives it a sense of hope on the other side."