Fr. Seraphim Bell
Things have been shaking at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in San Jose, California. Worship here has taken on a whole new dimension.
As pastor, I still prepare for worship by focusing my heart through private prayer. But no longer do I conclude those prayers by tuning my guitar and rehearsing the “praise band” before the service. Instead of donning jeans, tennis shoes, and a sport shirt I now put on flowing white liturgical vestments. I’m not trying to come off as “one of the guys” any more.
Instead, I am conscious of the dignity of my ordination into the priesthood, and my calling to serve as the image of Christ in the midst of the people of God.
In place of a bare stage at the front of an auditorium, our building, filled with fragrant incense, is adorned with candles, an altar, and the serene presence of holy icons reminding us that we are about to ascend to heaven and join with the Church triumphant in worshiping our risen Lord. Soon I will proclaim the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and we will begin the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church as it has been celebrated throughout the centuries.
How does a former Vineyard pastor, accustomed until very recently to free-flowing charismatic worship and a laid-back California lifestyle, find himself in this seemingly strange and foreign land of Orthodox Christianity? To answer, let me go back a few years and explain the unique chain of events leading up to this surprising transformation.
It was autumn of 1992. The Vineyard congregation which I had helped establish in San Jose in 1990 had been blessed with rapid growth. In less than three years, the Church had grown from nonexistence to a membership of over three hundred souls. Never in my fourteen previous years of ministry in the Presbyterian Church had I experienced such dramatic congregational growth.
Unexpectedly, however, a new and subtle change had begun to take place. After three good years, we were slowly but undeniably beginning to lose momentum. Even worse, we sensed an uncomfortable loss of focus and direction. Instead of moving ahead in our development with clear goals in view, we were now beginning to drift backward, unsure which direction to take. Something was clearly going wrong. But what?
We determined to find and correct the problem at all costs. Searching for God’s will, our congregation entered into a forty day period of prayer and fasting, asking fervently that God would show His direction for our Church.
Not long into the fast, a seemingly unrelated series of events took place. First, a friend and colleague in ministry began investigating, of all things, the Orthodox Faith and sharing his discoveries with mutual friends in the Presbyterian Church. Next, Frank Schaeffer, a recent convert to Orthodoxy himself, came to speak in our area. One of our Church members attended the meeting. He later told me of the meeting and began asking questions I was not prepared to answer.
For reasons unknown to me at the time the issue of Orthodoxy had arisen, and it was obviously not going to go away of its own accord. I set out on a course of study, intending to convince my friends and the members of my congregation that whatever God was trying to say to us as a Church, the Orthodox Church had nothing to do with it. I started with my own list of objections, and looked for support to back up my claims.
To my great surprise, as I began reading various books on the history and theology of Orthodoxy, I found that none of my objections really held up under close scrutiny. They were based on faulty preconceptions on my part (the Orthodox didn’t really believe what I thought they believed), and on personal misunderstandings which seemed to evaporate as I studied and researched further.
Rather quickly, a startling thought arose in my mind. Could it be that these questions about Orthodoxy were more than unrelated diversions pulling me away from the central goal of my prayer and fasting? Could the issues arising over the past weeks, and my subsequent research, be God’s way of leading me towards something I would never l have discovered on my own?
Conversations with Orthodox priests in my area only served to confirm this suspicion and to heighten my discomfort. In truth, none of this was “good news” to me. Although intuitively, at an inner level, I sensed God’s leading, at the level of my intellect I simply could not accept what seemed to be happening. At times I grew excited about where I believed God was taking us. At other times I thought I must be going crazy.
The disjunction between the spiritual and intellectual became so acute within me that it actually resulted in a physical illness which lasted for over six weeks. Nevertheless I continued to pray and to study. In the process, I reflected upon the previous sixteen years of my ministry – the highs and the lows – and tried to put everything into clearer perspective as I learned and studied about a Church which had been in existence without interruption since the time of the apostles.
The Beauty of Worship
My move from the Presbyterian Church to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in 1989 had brought with it a time of genuine excitement in worship. I loved joining together with others to sing the contemporary Christian songs of the Vineyard. With hands lifted up and eyes closed we worshiped the Lord with all our hearts. The carefree informality of the services was refreshing. But after a time, many of us began to ask, “Isn’t there more to worship than simply singing good contemporary Christian songs?”
The moment I first entered the sanctuary of an Orthodox Church I knew I had found that something more. I smelled the incense immediately and I thought of the bowls of incense mentioned in the book of Revelation. I saw the icons and knew that I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and was a part of the One Church in heaven and on earth.
As the deacon led the people in the litany of intercessory prayers, the priest chanted prayers and petitions, and the congregation sang their responses, I experienced a fullness in worship that was clearly lacking in our Vineyard services. I felt that, rather than calling on God to come down and do something “charismatic,” we were being lifted into heaven by the Spirit in order to join the heavenly worship of our High Priest Jesus Christ, surrounded by all the saints who had gone on before us to their rest.
During the month of December, 1992, I had attended many services at a beautiful Orthodox Church in my area. Returning to our Vineyard services I found them to be barren and lacking by comparison. It was as if we had been eating one single item from a ten-course meal, never tasting any of the other entrees and never experiencing the fullness of the banquet that God had prepared for us.
A Sacramental World
A major disappointment for me in the Vineyard was the lack of sacramental theology and life.
From the very beginning our congregation had participated in frequent Communion, eventually celebrating the Eucharist every Lord’s Day. However, the Vineyard movement itself was generally anti-sacramental.
I often wondered why this was the case, when the Bible so clearly teaches that to the eye of faith, the grace of God is manifested in and conveyed by matter. The bush burns in the flame of God, but is not consumed. The mantle of Elijah falls on Elisha and bestows a double anointing upon him. A dead man falls on the bones of Elisha and God’s power is conveyed through the bones to restore the man to life. The healing power of God is bestowed through the laying on of hands; through handkerchiefs and aprons; through the hem of a garment; through bread and wine. This isn’t superstition, it’s biblical reality! And it is what the Orthodox Church calls sacrament Orthodoxy teaches that God has sanctified matter and His creation bears His grace.
In much of my previous Christian experience, faith had too often been reduced to little more than making a decision for Christ. After that decision, the Christian life was simply a matter of learning a set of doctrines. There was no real concept of the sacramental dimension of life. Take the Lord’s Supper for example. Most Churches I am familiar with seldom serve Communion, and even when they do, it is merely seen as the commemoration of a past historical event. Entirely absent from such observances is any sense of true participation in the sacramental life of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16).
Clearly, in the understanding of Christians throughout the early period of the Christian Faith, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, was not viewed as a mere historical commemoration, but as a true participation in the life of Christ. Early Christians believed that there is grace and power in this action and lived out this belief in their lives. The Eucharist is sacramental. It can give life or take it (I Corinthians 11:29-30). So great was the faith of early Christians in its sacramental power that the Church Fathers spoke of the Body and Blood of Christ as the “medicine of immortality.”
As I read and studied these matters, I began to find that Orthodoxy has maintained the early Church’s biblical and historical understanding concerning the sacramentally of life for almost two thousand years.
One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
Although I was never quite able to put my finger on why, a certain uneasiness haunted me throughout my time with the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. As I now began to read about the two-thousand-year history of Orthodoxy, the cause for this uneasiness suddenly came into focus. Whatever good things might be said about the Vineyard, and there are many, it is a modern phenomenon, with almost no historical precedent. In fact, the movement itself is little more than a dozen years old.
I suppose it should not be surprising, then, that the Vineyard movement has almost no sense of historical continuity – no sense of belonging to the Church in its historical expression. The Presbyterian Church had at least maintained some sense of this historical expression of the Church although, unfortunately, the point of reference was all too often a Church in sixteenth century Geneva rather than in first century Palestine.
I began to reflect upon the serious consequences this lack of historical connection has had for modern Protestantism. Having slipped away from the moorings of historic Christianity, a tragic number of groups are now disappearing into the fog of modernism and “relevancy.” Many Reformation Churches have strayed so far into novelty they would be all but unrecognizable to their original founders, Luther, Calvin, and Knox. There is a growing need for a new Reformation, even a “Radical Reformation,” only four hundred years into the Protestant movement!
Although there have been dark and trying times in her past, the Orthodox Church has managed to maintain the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) without addition and without deletion for nearly 2,000 years. This is the Church that gave us the formulation of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. This is the Church that gave us the canon of Scripture, the Bible. This is the Church that began in New Testament times and has remained in existence for two millennia.
As I read about Orthodoxy, I discovered that with such a wealth of spirit-guided history in her past, the Orthodox Church does not attempt to redefine herself every time some liberal scholar writes a new book. She doesn’t seek to accommodate herself blindly to society’s periodic changes in morality, nor does she seek to be “politically correct.” When problems arise in the Church and they do now even as they did in the early Church of the New Testament no one seeks to solve those problems by starting a new Church or by conjuring up some revolutionary new movement. Orthodoxy recognizes that the only lasting solution to such problems is to be found within the context of the time-tested beliefs of the historic Faith.
The Ministry of Righteousness That Exceeds in Glory
During my tenure in the Presbyterian Church I became discouraged with the lack of a standard of righteousness among many of the clergy. The Church refused to take a strong stance against abortion, and continually backed liberal causes on the world scene. The group, Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns, is an official body of the Presbyterian Church which every year lobbies for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In fact, there is tolerance of ordained clergy who live in openly homosexual relationships. None of this is surprising when one considers that a great number of Presbyterian clergy, theologians, and church officials deny the historic Christian doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, and inspiration of the Scriptures.
It was largely for these reasons, and with a sense of excitement and relief, that I affiliated with the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. The liberal theology I had encountered in much of the Presbyterian Church was absent from this new movement of congregations with evangelical and charismatic convictions . Instead I discovered spiritual power and a vibrant worship which was refreshing and renewing. My experience with the Vineyard was wonderful. I learned much and I thank God for it.
Sadly, however, I was soon to find that, while avoiding some of the pitfalls of the mainline denominations, the Vineyard came with its own set of problems. Yes, the liberal theology was gone, but there was little or no solid biblical theology to replace it. Most of the Vineyard pastors are without training. What passes for expository preaching is merely commentary on spiritual experiences. Clearly, without a grounding in sound theology, there is nothing to keep these men from straying into the dangerous error of prideful independence and speculation.
Because of this fact, I watched sadly as leader after leader fell into sin and was disqualified from the ministry. When I first joined the Vineyard, John Wimber, the leader of the movement, was bemoaning the lack of holiness in the movement in general. Nevertheless, in our three years with the Vineyard we observed that his call to holiness was roundly rejected in favor of what is called “power ministry.”
Why does the Vineyard fail to produce genuine godliness? I now believe it is because there is no model, no paradigm, no context for producing godly character. The “spirituality” of the Vineyard movement as I experienced it is just a laid-back Southern California cockiness. Often the model presented at conferences and on Sunday mornings conveys the message that there is more value in being “contemporary and cool” than in being godly.
I found this to be especially discouraging in view of the fact that many people came into the Vineyard hoping to escape from a situation in which their leaders were holding to “a form of godliness but denying its power” (II Timothy 3:5). Mainline denominations were cheating people out of the fullness of their faith by denying the power of God and seeming to care little about godliness. Tragically, however, Vineyard and other charismatic groups sought to compensate for this lack by boldly proclaiming the power of God, but in the process abandoning any form of godliness. Saint Paul doesn’t want us to have either one without the other. One without the other simply leads to corruption.
By contrast I found in the historic Orthodox Church a realization that we are called to a “ministry of righteousness [which] exceeds… in glory” (II Corinthians 3:9). Although often falling short of this calling, Orthodox Christians live with the knowledge that we are called to be united with Christ in a living communion and through this communion to become like Him, to be transformed into His image.
The Orthodox Church doesn’t just have a doctrine of righteousness, but provides a “form of godliness” by means of the sanctification of life and of time through worship and the sacraments. This is a Church that produces saints in every age men and women who exhibit the image of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Rest of the Story
Obviously, my investigation into Orthodoxy accomplished something quite different from what I originally set out to do. When it was over, I stood convinced beyond all doubt that the Orthodox Faith was in fact correct, and that God was indeed calling me and my congregation to enter into this One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
On June 12, 1993, our Vineyard congregation was received into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, and became Saint Stephen Orthodox Church. I was ordained to the priesthood at the hands of His Grace, Bishop ANTOUN, on Sunday, June 13th — All Saints Day! With the blessing of Metropolitan PHILIP, we have taken the name Saint Stephen for our Church because of the nature of our calling in San Jose and the greater Santa Clara Valley. Like the first deacon, we are called to serve the people. And like the first martyr, we, too, will have to die to our own desires, our own agendas, and the things of the world in order to help others in this “Silicon Valley” to find true life in Christ.
The journey to Orthodoxy has not been an easy one. It has come with trial and tribulation. However, as the psalmist says, “We went through fire and through water; but You brought us out to rich fulfillment” (Psalm 66:12). My congregation and I have experienced a sense of the fullness of Christ’s Church that we had never known before. We give thanks to God for His grace in leading us home – and we unhesitatingly invite other evangelicals and charismatics to join us.
Fr. Seraphim Bell received his B.A.from Oral Roberts University, and his Ph.D. from Aberdeen University in Scotland. He was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood on June 13, 1993. Since 1998 he has been rector of Saint Silouan Orthodox Church in Walla Walla, Washington.