This question is posed from the point of view of (mostly Protestant) inquirers into Orthodoxy. For them, a major issue with regard to drawing near to the Holy Church is that of how to assess their prior Christian experience. This much needed personal assessment can become the source of great anguish! But the anguish is not all that necessary, since our Faith teaches us to see the Church differently than Protestant sectarians. Frequently, these sectarians, mostly of the fundamentalist type, were taught by precept and by example to distrust others who were not of their group. This exclusivist vision can create great psychological barriers to these former sectarians as they make their way to Orthodoxy. The following is a reply which I offered to one of these inquirers. The language has been changed a bit to hide the identity of that precious and God-loving soul. Read on, and comment, if you like:
I am grateful to the Lord for sending my way such people as you and your family, and so many others who clearly have a heart for God. May this wonderful grace ever continue, despite my many sins and failings!
As for your reflection on our meeting, let me make a few observations. I ask you carefully to weigh what I write here. When we Orthodox confess our faith in the Church, it is in a direct sequence with our faith in the Holy Spirit. Notice how this is set forth in the Symbol of Faith (the Creed): “I believe… in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father, and Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church…” So, profession of belief in the Church is quite dependent upon faith in God the Holy Spirit. As we like to say, along with St Leo, “no one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.”
Our confession of faith in the oneness of the Church, however, and in distinct difference from what you have expressed in your email, does not set up for us Orthodox a frame of mind of exclusivity. The Church is not shut off from the world, rather she is the manifestation of the crucified life of Christ in the world. The Church is the highest form of Christian presence–the very Body of Christ revealed–in the world. So, of course, there will be many believers in Christ who will come to this holy faith through the outpouring of God’s grace in the world. Remember that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). The “world” seems pretty inclusive to me. You will notice, also, that Jesus shortly thereafter says to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would “be with you and in you”–this is different than how the Spirit works in the world.
God is free, and acts freely! I would be very disturbed if anyone under my catechesis came to the conclusion that he had to deny his Christian experience of faith prior to entry into the full communion with Christ in His Church. This is not our teaching, so I wish to place great stress on this. Someone, expressing our ecclesiology very succinctly, has said, *The Church knows where she IS, but she does not know where she is NOT.* Fr Georges Florovsky, a great early 20th century European Orthodox theologian, said “It is impossible to state or discern the true limits of the Church simply by canonical signs or marks” (in his essay, “The Boundaries of the Church” in Ecumenism I: a Doctrinal Approach, Vol XIII of The Collected Works of Fr G. Florovsky, ). Florovsky also cites St Augustine of antiquity, “in quibusdam rebus nobiscum sunt” (my translation, “in certain matters, they (the sectarians) are with us”). I could share many other wonderful sayings of the Fathers about this. Let this one suffice: “We seek not conquest, but the return of brethren, the separation from whom is tearing us” (St Gregory of Nazianzus, also in Florovsky). Notice that St Gregory calls them “brethren”! This is why we do not baptize every new convert from Protestantism: the very fact that we see in their (prior Protestant-administered) baptism the Church’s very baptism should indicate the seriousness of this point.
Perhaps we are trying too hard to convert you. For that I offer my humble request for forgiveness. I become very animated and energized about all of the wonderful glories of our holy Church, and I forget the struggle of others who are having to deal with their own backgrounds. Take your time; ask more questions. Do not worry about holding up your family. There is no rush. Your family can wait, it will do them all good. Our bishop JOSEPH has said, “Time is our best friend”!