HERE, the WELS to Orthodox story doesn't really tell the whole story, or even most of it. Which is to say, by the time we became WELS Lutherans, my wife and I were probably 90% Orthodox already, though many of our fellow Lutherans, particularly in that WELS parish, were not even close to that number. The purpose of this post is to detail our conversion over 10 years ago to Lutheranism and how the 10 years that followed ultimately led us to Orthodoxy. While I have touched on the former very briefly HERE, what follows is a fuller explanation of that conversion and how it ultimately led us to the Orthodox Church.
My wife and I were both raised Southern Baptist. We were married in a small Baptist Church in Bremen, Georgia, the same one in which I was raised. We were both nominally Baptist at best -- we essentially went to Church on rare occasion and did not particularly pay attention to what our Church taught. You could say we were "Baptist by birth" but not really by doctrine. This was especially true when it came to such things as moderate drinking or listening to certain secular music. But it was what we knew, and it was where we were raised, and so we stayed Baptist for a time. While I was in law school, we attended a large Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and two things really bothered us. First, we seemed to only hear about what a great person the Pastor was -- liquor had never passed his lips (yes, that exact phrase was actually used from the pulpit), he didn't go out on the gambling boats, etc. Second, related to the first, we kept hearing how we just had to believe more and we too could eradicate terrible sins such as moderate drinking and recreational but non habitual gambling from our lives. It wasn't long before we became tired of hearing this week in and week out, and we quit going to Church altogether. It turns out Church with a bunch of Law and not much Gospel is not very edifying for sinners. Especially when the "Law" in question is made up out of pietist wholecloth.
This was not how we were raised, mind you. There are plenty of Baptist Churches out there that will speak the Gospel in some sense or another. The Church my parents attend is a good example of this. It is a non-sacramental Gospel. It lacks historicity and Patristic understandings of salvation. But at the very minimum you will usually get an acknowledgement that the Pastor and parishioners are sinners in need of salvation. The alter call is for people to not only dedicate their lives to Christ, but in fact to confess their sinfulness and need for the Savior. We just never got that where we attended.
After I graduated law school and began practicing law, a friend of mine went with me to New Orleans for the SHOT show. This is a firearms trade show, and my friend and I knew each other from the shooting community. He was a Lutheran pastor. We talked about Church while we were there, but on the way back he asked some hard questions. He was also a former Baptist, so he knew the language. We discussed infant baptism, the Lord's Supper, and all the other typical areas of distinction between Lutherans and Baptists, but two stuck out to me particularly. First, he asked me if I was a good person. I told him I try to be. He asked how often I went to Church, whether I truly loved God and kept His Commandments, etc. I had to confess I did not do any of these things nearly well enough to please God. Then, second, he told me about John Chapter 20, where Jesus said "receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Then he absolved me. I had been told I was forgiven before. But that day, I believed it.
We ended up at a fine LCMS parish just around the corner from our house, and the Pastor literally lived in our neighborhood. I attended a Vespers service, and to be honest I was creeped out at first. The people were nice, but everyone chanted the service a capella, and the music was weird and medieval. But then they dove right into a Bible study (it was kind of a hybrid Vespers where we sang the first part of Vespers, had a Bible study, then sang the end of Vespers). I spoke to the Pastor for a long time that night, then went home and told my wife about it. She wanted to go the following Sunday.
Sunday was a different story. The Liturgy hooked us from the get go. There was an organ, and a choir, and the building was full, and the loudest people there were the ones who could sing. It was amazing. Very early in the service was a corporate confession of sins. The entire congregation spoke a general confession, and the Pastor faced the altar saying it with us. Then he turned around and pronounced the Absolution. I looked at my wife and we nodded. Here was a place for sinners like us. The Liturgy itself was beautiful, if still a bit off putting -- keep in mind we were raised on the very "Protestant light" worship style we eventually came to dislike. But the real key was how much Scripture there was in the service. It seemed as if every single portion of the Liturgy was pulled directly from the Scriptures, and then when you'd had enough of that, there were readings -- 3 of them -- and a sermon that focused on the readings! We began attending a Sunday School class on the Liturgy, and we attended Wednesday night Vespers and began to learn the Lutheran Confessions and the Scriptures that were so richly cited therein. We attended that Church for nearly 5 years before deciding we needed to move closer to family.
When we arrived in Georgia, we began attending an LCMS Church near our home. That parish used TLH as the hymnal, so it was by appearance more traditional than the one we came from (which used Lutheran Worship at the time). But our very first meeting with the Pastor raised red flags. We were told they were trying out contemporary worship there. My wife and I probably did not react as charitably as we should have. We had left this type of freestyle worship to become Lutheran. And we had been taught, rightly I still believe, that Lutherans maintain the historic forms of the Western Mass. But this Pastor had determined, for whatever reason, that guitar based, upbeat songs should be used, and began incorporating them in the Liturgy more and more frequently. This, in and of itself, is not so bad, but the songs used a more lightweight Protestant theology -- a lot about us and what we do, and very little about Jesus and what He has done. I once remarked to him that this use went against the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (as we pray, so we believe), and he said "I don't believe that (lex orandi, lex credendi) is true." This came to a head when he started a Liturgy shortly after Easter with a "hymn" called "Let Our Hearts Burn Within Us." The LCMS has blessedly removed it from their website, but you can listen to it HERE. Suffice it to say, it was sappy, emotion-driven and hardly weighty in theology. It reminded me of the quote by Hank Hill "you're not making Christianity better, you're making rock and roll worse!" It was the embodiment of everything we thought was wrong with where this parish was headed. We never went back to that Church. It shut its doors a couple of years later after declining attendance took its toll. I'm convinced to this day that they had a vibrant Lutheran Church that they turned into a generic evangelical Protestant Church, and in the process ran off all the Lutherans. And as I've said a million times, Lutherans are horrible at doing evangelical style worship. It's like watching a polka band cover a hip hop song. It just doesn't work.
So from there, we joined a great WELS parish, and made a ton of good friends and generally had a very nice time. But there were gnawing issues. We missed the higher view of the Liturgy at our old parish, and we didn't like the fact that the Sacrament was only offered every other week, and never on Christmas or Easter or any other time visitors were likely to be present. The lectionary was sometimes eschewed, and more often when it was not, the sermon text was not from the day's readings, so we were getting a lot of sermons that did not deal with the readings of the day even when those readings were used. The piety of that parish was somewhat more "low Church" than what we were used to, so our oldest daughter fell out of the habit of making the sign of the cross and paying attention during the Liturgy. We still said our nightly prayers, but beyond that there was very little real catechesis going on that they couldn't get at a local Methodist or Baptist Church. A large part of that is my fault -- I was not particularly excited about the more Protestantized nature of the parish and did not take great pleasure in teaching my kids a historic catholic faith that wasn't really reflected outwardly in that parish. So I didn't. I take full responsibility for that. Another issue was that my wife no longer wanted to go to Church. Whereas I was content to "just go" and receive the Sacraments, she was concerned about herself and our children and how the lack of a strong piety and historic catholicity were affecting her and them. Eventually, she prompted me to look elsewhere.
She wanted another Lutheran parish. Unfortunately, pickins' are slim in these parts, and we had exhausted the best we had. If this parish where we loved the Pastor and had a lot of good friends who loved us and our children, and which was conservative and not too "evangelical" in style -- if this wasn't what we were looking for, any other Lutheran parish in the area was realistically going to be less so. I began considering our options and I saw three: Roman Catholicism, High Church Anglicanism, or Orthodoxy. High Church Anglicanism wasn't a real option. There were no parishes near us that fit that bill. That left two, and while as Lutherans, Rome was not as good an option as Orthodoxy, in the end there was an Antiochian Orthodox Church near our home, so we visited there first out of sheer convenience.
The rest, as they say, is history. We saw in that parish exactly the living, dynamic, historic, Gospel-centered Sacramental faith being lived out by the parishioners that caused us to become Lutheran to begin with. While no one would enter our parish and confuse it with a Lutheran parish, I have to say that the similarities are far greater than the differences. And the differences have turned out to be great blessings.