Christianity is a calling to become like Jesus Christ. It is a calling to live up to our namesake as ‘Christians.’
As St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the apostle John, writes:
It is fitting, then, not only to be called ‘Christians,’ but to be so in reality.
Our faith has been reduced by many today to ‘Christ plus nothing’ or other, similar slogans. But this presumes we know who Christ is, why He came to earth, why we should worship Him, what He accomplished, and what He hopes for us to accomplish through Him. In many ways, there is no theology more complicated than ‘Christ plus nothing,’ as it doesn’t tell us anything of value at all. It begs more questions than it answers, and many find this reductionism unfulfilling, rejecting the faith. Not knowing deeper alternatives, they look for fulfillment elsewhere.
On the other end of the spectrum is a Christianity so obsessed with knowledge, one might think postgraduate studies is required for admittance. In these churches, the ultimate measuring stick for the Christian faith is human knowledge: books read, debates won, and lectures attended. When people leave, the adherents assume ‘They didn’t understand our beliefs’ or ‘They should have read more books.’ For them, the only reason a person would leave is a lack of knowledge. Spirituality doesn’t matter all that much, nor does—for some, at least—obedience to the Lord’s commandments. If our faith is the sum total of human knowledge, then children, invalids, and those of an advanced age or mental degeneration are not welcome—and of course, this directly contradicts the Gospel.
If Christianity is reduced to each individual’s experience—abstracted from and irrespective of the communal life of the Church—it is little more than self-centered chaos. It certainly doesn’t resemble the ministry of the apostles and their successors in the first century, nor in the writings of the early Church fathers. It doesn’t resemble the life and death of martyrs, willing to give up every comfort, assurance, and hope in this life for the sake of the next.
We are all on our own journeys of faith, but the goal and how that goal is reached are the same for everyone—no matter where or how we begin.
For those raised in the Church, the experience is mystagogy or a life of ‘going deeper,’ maturing in their faith. For those who convert later in life, a certain amount of study, learning, and experience is to be expected. In both cases, the idea of ‘conversion’ is one that continues throughout our lives. Conversion is not a single moment in time, but rather a continual renewal in the Spirit. And in both journeys, obedience to Christ’s commandments is not only expected, but also required.
Contrary to popular opinion today, Christian obedience is not absent or apart from Grace. It is a transformation through one’s experience and acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This obedience is not an obedience of our own personal precepts or convictions, but is rather an obedience to the life of God as taught, shared, and experienced in the life of the Church. Rather than an ambiguous belief in ‘Christ alone,’ we are carefully guided into a real, personal, and intimate communion with God, being conformed into his likeness.
Conversion to the Orthodox Christian faith is not a series of autonomous choices or individual convictions—it’s a radical calling to faithful obedience. Obedience in a world that largely says ‘do whatever you wish’ and ‘whatever works for you.’ Those converting from other forms of Christianity (or no religion at all) are not making a ‘choice’ based on the best facts available, but are rather exercising spiritual obedience; obedience to the very Body of Christ, the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” Embracing Holy Tradition is an embrace of Christ himself, who is the personification of Truth. Embracing the apostolic Church is an embrace of something beyond human understanding, and is unlike any other ‘conversion’ one might experience in this life.
If we water-down the Christian faith to simple phrases or misleading promises, we are not actually calling people to faith. Instead, we are leading millions of people astray—people who were never promised a Cross, and who are certainly not interested in taking one on. Our faith doesn’t have to be so complicated that only the educated elite can understand, but it also shouldn’t be reduced to anything less than a loving submission to the Body of Christ—a relationship with both Christ and one another.
When we confess a belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” we are not confessing a belief in our own personal preferences, scholarship, or convictions. Instead, we are confessing a belief in fathers, mothers, and martyrs gone before us to their rest; a belief in a Lord who endured the suffering and humiliation of a Cross, so that we might handle suffering alongside him. And in that suffering, we find true life and resurrection in him.
Certainly, there is an immense depth to the Orthodox faith. Surrounded by beauty and overwhelmed in our senses, it’s easy to get distracted. We can even wrongly believe that these holy and wonderful things—the sacred art, hymnography, incense, candles, vigil lamps, processions, and vestments—are the sum total of our faith.
But we shouldn’t let this overwhelm us or lead us astray from the simplicity of our faith. In the midst of this seemingly complex and intricate experience, the Orthodox Church presents the simplest form of Christianity there is: faithful obedience to Christ, lived out in his Spirit-filled Body. There is no simpler way to live the Christian life than to be at rest in him.