Why this evangelical couple became Eastern Orthodox (part 1)
Editor’s note: This two-part series explores why some evangelicals have chosen to convert to other branches of Christianity, namely Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Read part 2 here.
Evangelicalism was not enough for Joel and Stephanie Dunn, though they come from several generations of Baptists.
And in desperate pursuit of God, they wound up amid candles, incense, beautifully-painted wooden icons, and Divine Liturgy — in the communion of saints whose lives they now say have provided the medicine for their sin-sick souls.
Though Orthodox Christians comprise only 0.5% of the United States population, many of them relatively recent immigrants, some believers in Jesus have found their way into Orthodoxy after experiencing profound dissatisfaction with various forms of modern Christianity. And while many in the contemporary West have abandoned the Christian faith entirely, which The Christian Post explored in a multi-part series last year, others have traveled a more ancient path.
For the Dunns, things came to a head in 2016 when they realized that their current faith tradition, Southern Baptist, was inadequate. They were received into the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2018. Having been in the church for over a year, they were catechized for about that long in an Antiochan parish in northern California, a parish reportedly "bursting" with new converts from Protestantism. The Dunns have since relocated to Texas.
Joel is an attorney and Stephanie a full-time mom with a background in social work.
In the evangelical circles that Joel grew up in, discussing deeply personal matters openly was not encouraged, which proved particularly dysfunctional as he battled a persistent addiction.
"The wheels fell off of our whole life,” Joel explained in an interview with The Christian Post.
Stephanie recalled, ”I just couldn't handle it anymore. I fell into this complete despondence, vacillating between anger and total despair."
Her father, who had been doing all kinds of research into church history, was a big fan of Hank Hanegraaff, better known as the evangelical "Bible Answer Man.” The famous apologist shocked many when he announced in 2017 that he was received into the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In a 2018 interview, Hanegraaff said his first foray into Eastern Christianity, particularly the doctrine of theosis, came in an unconventional way — studying in China and examining the ministry of Watchman Nee, who died in a communist prison camp in 1972.
"In the West, there's a sense of snarling logicality. It's all about debating and defining and defending. In the East, so much is left in the realm of mystery," Hanegraaff said at the time.
"Orthodoxy is not transactional. It's not 'I say a prayer, and now I have a card that gets me out of Hell and gets me into Heaven.' But rather it is being brought into the church life. And in the church life, you can be transformed through the graces that are presented within the spiritual gymnasium that is the church," he said.
In one episode of his popular radio program, Hannegraaff interviewed Frederica Mathewes-Green, an author who covered various topics, including ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith.
Not knowing much about the history and unaware of both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic claims about being the original church, Joel said, "We were so far removed from anything traditional.”
The couple started reading Mathewes-Green's book, Welcome to the Orthodox Church, and listened to podcasts where she explained "this thing we've never heard of."
Mathewes-Green's book resonated deeply with them.
"I had come to the bottom, face-to-face with the depravity of myself and realized that nothing that the churches that I'd ever been a part of, that there was nothing there to help me through it other than pray harder and have faith," Joel said.
"Well, what does that mean? I can pray as hard as I want but I'll end up saying the same four sentences I always say. And I know the Spirit intercedes for me in groans that can't be described in words … but that's not good enough. There's got to be more than that. There has to be more tools."
The Orthodox Church had the tools, they soon discovered, and not only were they helpful resources but they helped create saints. They work because people practice these spiritual disciplines and over time, they become more like God.
In Orthodoxy, this transformative process is called theosis, the chief aim of which is union with God.
"As an evangelical, I always had this mindset, and it may have just been me and not what other people teach, but the idea was that I could remove whatever it was about me and put Jesus in there,” Joel said. “But Orthodoxy flips that around. God doesn't want to remove you from yourself and have Jesus there in place of that; He wants to heal you from all that is wrong with you so you can be who He created you to be.”
Stephanie added, "What really struck me about the Eastern Orthodox Church is in the story of the Good Samaritan. The church is seen as the hospital. Christ is the Good Shepherd. He comes along and picks me up, wounded from sin and my passions and brings me to the hospital for the soul, the church."
A deeper understanding of the sacraments also deepened their faith. In their evangelical life, they bandied about the word "sacrament" but it was merely symbolic, not truly a mystery.
But it was learning about the sacrament of confession as practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church that sealed the deal.
While they were exploring Eastern Christianity they recalled going to an evangelical church one morning and the pastor happened to preach on confession and they found his advice sad, in that he was urging people to find someone trustworthy and safe they could confess to. But finding safe people was hard, particularly because they had moved so much, making it difficult to build meaningful relationships that lasted. But in the Orthodox Church, it is set up for everyone as part of its DNA.
"Why would we not just do it the way the Apostles set it up?" Joel said he remembered thinking as he came to this realization.
What sold them on the Orthodox view of confession over the Roman Catholic view was that the priest is there with you during the rite but they stand before an icon of Christ and confess directly to Christ. The priest is there as a witness and at the end, he lays a stole on the head of the one confessing and says an absolution prayer, making clear that no one can forgive sins but God alone.
To Joel, that seemed more "clean" and made more sense than confession to another human being who ostensibly represents Christ, as is practiced by Roman Catholics.
They could also no longer go with the lack of aesthetics. While in the evangelical church listening to a pastor on stage giving a lecture, they realized there was nothing on the stage to indicate who they were there to worship.
"We might as well have been in a TedTalk," Joel said. "We were there to worship God but there were no crosses, nothing there. To me, that was the big kicker. Because I realized as I had been looking into all this [Orthodoxy] stuff that I am misusing the image of God in people."
Though he wasn't a particularly musical or artsy person, something about icons clicked and he felt that he needed them in his life.
"I didn't know why I just had this sense that this is the key to reorienting my entire mind."
The couple went to a vespers service (evening prayer service) for their first foray into Orthodoxy and were overcome by the candles, incense and atmosphere.
"Whatever this is, this is what we need," he said at the time.
Orthodox Christians understand icons to be windows into Heaven, pictures of the indwelling Christ in people. Such understanding shifted Joel's perception of the other people that were around him every day, to start seeing them as living icons of Christ. Gaining that understanding and living it out proved transformative.
Shifting theological paradigms
In addition to being drawn toward confession and the aesthetic elements, Joel and Stephanie read On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, a patristic work written in the 4th century and considered a foundational text for all students of Christian theology. The Egyptian church father, who is known as the chief defender of Trinitarianism against the Arian heresies, explores what really happened in the Garden of Eden and with the fall of humanity.
Previously, when Joel had looked at his faith, he did so through more of a legal lens.
"But when God said to Adam and Eve, 'Don't do this or you shall surely die,’ He was not making a rule so much as He was stating a fact — that if you walk away from life, what you will find is death. And once humanity starts walking away from life and starts down the road of destruction and what was God supposed to do, the pinnacle of His creation. What was He supposed to do? Let them all kill themselves or rescue them?" Joel explained.
"What is the salvation story actually telling us? That we walked away from God, that we died because we lost the source of life and instead of God allowing us to destroy ourselves He sent His Son in the flesh so that He could save humanity."
The Dunns came to believe, particularly given the heavy emphasis on the Incarnation, that the faith traditions they grew up in were largely Gnostic, that the spiritual realm didn't really ever intersect with reality.
"Orthodoxy is not like that. Every service incorporates all five of your senses. It incorporates your body. You're standing up, sitting down. You're smelling incense. You're singing and hearing bells," Joel said.
During the Divine Liturgy where Eucharist is served, they came to believe they were in this sense of timelessness where they are with the church in Heaven and there have been accounts of seeing angels and Christ come in on the throne.
"The sense of being surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, the icons do so much to remind us of much of that, that we are surrounded by these people and that we can ask for their intercession," Stephanie said.