ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Searching for its future, a Hillsboro congregation is finding a home with the most ancient of Christian churches.
Known most recently as Hillsboro Christian Fellowship, the congregation of around 50 adults and children officially became catechumens, or learners, in the Orthodox Church, the oldest church body in Christendom with a lineage of leadership that is documented all the way back to the apostles of Jesus himself.
A special service held at their meetinghouse at Third and Washington streets Wednesday evening-attended also by several members of the Orthodox hierarchy and led by Bishop Basil of St. George Cathedral in Wichita-marked the beginning of the first Orthodox congregation in Marion County and one of the few in the entire state.
It also marked the conclusion, in one sense, of an intense search the congregation has pursued over the past two years to find and embrace the most authentic expression of the church of Jesus-a search that took the group into unexpected spiritual territory, according to its leader, John Baize.
He and his wife, Cindy, came to Hillsboro in September 1999 to be the pastoral couple of the congregation, which was non-denominational at the time.
“We came to Hillsboro with the idea that we would more or less traditionally pastor the church,” said Baize, who has a degree from a Mennonite Brethren seminary and has been the pastor of several churches in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.
But the Baizes said that even before coming to Hillsboro, they had been on a personal search for “the true church,” especially in the expression of evangelism and discipleship.
In an effort to help the small congregation find theological unity for the basis of its future, the Baizes initiated a congregational study of church history, assuming the search would lead the group back to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, which began in the 16th century as the radical wing of the Reformation. Its intent was to recapture the dynamics of the first-century Christian church.
“We began to study Judaism, since that is the soil from which the church sprang,” Baize said. “We began asking a number of questions, such as: ‘Whatever happened to those Jewish traditions? Why isn’t the church more Jewish than it is, given its roots?'”
About that same time, Baize began reading a book by Peter E. Gillquist titled, “Becoming Orthodox.” The book details the pilgrimage Gillquist and several leaders at Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical parachurch organization, undertook to find answers to their questions about the church.
The book suggested, among other things, that the Reformation was primarily a reactionary movement against the Roman Catholic Church and was rooted as much in Enlightenment humanism as in authentic spiritual renewal.
“What I found from that was that Anabaptism itself was a product of a polluted stream that had also lost its objectivity and had become, really, a child of the Enlightenment of the Renaissance,” Baize said.
“That disturbed me a great deal because I wanted our search for the true church to be a pure search, without any defilements from philosophy and those kinds of influences,” he added.
Intrigued, Baize said he continued to read more about Orthodoxy.
“I discovered that for 1,500 years, the church knew only one expression of worship and one expression of what it meant to be saved,” he said.
As part of the group study, Baize began to introduce the rest of the congregation to Orthodoxy. Interested, the group invited Gillquist to speak at their church, which he did last November.
“He articulated his pilgrimage to Orthodoxy and was able to answer our questions,” Baize said. “We were very curious how this had all transpired.”
Baize said what most convinced the group that the Orthodox Church was, in fact, the authentic church of the New Testament was to understand the final canonization of Scripture-the process of deciding which writings to include in the Bible -was not accomplished until almost 400 A.D.
“So what happened, we asked, to all the other decisions and realities that were in place that allowed the church to successfully expand throughout the world?” Baize said.
“To think that the church fell into error before Scripture was formed would cast grave doubt on the correctness of Scripture itself,” he added.
“We had to believe there was validity in what they had done if we believed the Holy Spirit guided them in the process. Then, it would seem very inconsistent to think the Holy Spirit had not guided them in the main aspects of their life.
“If you come to that understanding, you have to go in one of two directions-either accept or reject it.”
The group formally decided in early December to move in the direction of becoming Orthodox.
Said Cindy: “When they saw the truth that, as Protestants, we have not been told, they asked, ‘What do we do now? What are the next steps? This is truth. We cannot go back.'”
The decision to move forward has required a radical shift in the way the congregation has expressed its faith in the past. The group has traditionally enjoyed a more free-flowing, charismatic worship style, but Orthodox worship is strictly liturgical. To the casual onlooker, it resembles a blend of Jewish and Catholic traditions. At each service, Scripture is read, psalms are sung, prayers are offered, and the Eucharist is celebrated.
“As we came to understand this (order of worship), we began to realize how self-motivated our worship had been-how it was designed more for our benefit, for what made us feel good,” Baize said. “Nowhere does God say, ‘You can worship me however you want.’ God always has directed how worship should take place, even in the earliest account of Cain and Abel.”
Orthodox expression is significantly different in many ways from what Protestants practice.
For instance, members kiss the hand of their priests, who dress in long black vestments. Worshipers also kiss icons as they enter the church, stand during the entire service, and cross themselves whenever the Trinity or icons are invoked. Burning of incense is also part of the service.
Beyond the service itself, women cover their heads when they pray and all members fast from dairy and meet products every Wednesday and Friday and sometimes for weeks at a time during “high feasts.”
Changes such as these were difficult at first for the local group.
“As Protestants, you just don’t do that,” said Cindy Baize. “It’s one thing to shake the pastor’s hand, but in Orthodoxy one thing you will see more than anything else is reverence and respect. It’s out of respect that you kiss the priest’s hand.”
Conforming to those traditions is a constant lesson in humility, the Baizes said.
“That’s one of the things Orthodoxy nails me on-how self-centered I really am,” John said. “The teaching of Orthodoxy concerning the fall of Adam is that the biggest consequence of the fall of Adam is that we were infused with passions.
“That’s something I heard very little serious teaching about anywhere else. In Orthodoxy, the No. 1 issue is that we confront our passions and, though the grace of God, they are defeated in our lives and thereby we become the image of God.”
Transition to a new expression of faith takes time-something the Orthodox Church has intentionally built into the process, the Baizes said. Traditionally, it takes one or two years-or more-for an individual to be fully accepted.
“There’s no arm-twisting,” John said. “They don’t want a person to make a decision based on somebody’s charisma. They want the Holy Spirit to draw the person to the faith because it’s not something you just get up and decided to do one day.”
In fact, Baize said, Orthodox Church practices will not appeal to the majority of Americans, who live in a culture that centers on pleasure and self-gratification.
“It’s not appealing from the standpoint of, ‘I think that looks kind of cool,’ and, ‘I’d kind of like to do something like that,'” he said. “It is a church and it is a fearful thing. But as fearful as it is to become Orthodox, it’s more fearful not to. If this is God’s revelation and this is the way we are to worship him, then it must be a fearful thing.”
As official learners in the Orthodox Church, the local congregation-now temporarily called the Hillsboro Orthodox Christian Fellowship-is only at its first step toward full acceptance. As the congregation reaches prescribed levels of growth, it will be considered by the bishop first as a mission and then as a full-fledged parish.
Baize, meanwhile, will be taking correspondence courses to become an Orthodox priest. For now, though, he will lead services that have been designed by the bishop as being appropriate for Baize’s progress in the process.
Though Orthodoxy represents itself as the authentic church of Christ, the Baizes said the church does not claim to be the only beneficiaries of God’s salvation.
“They have a statement that says, ‘We don’t say where God isn’t, but we know where God is,'” Cindy Baize said.
Added John: “The Spirit of God is everywhere in the world, and the response a person makes-whether they are in the Orthodox Church or not-is between them and God. We can’t fully say if I’m saved, or if you are.
“Augustine said it is the God-
seeker who is saved,” Baize added. “Whenever we stop seeking, we are in danger.”