“The Iconoclasts,” Jason Zengerle’s New Republic report on evangelicals who have become Eastern Orthodox, is a largely commendable effort to let a few of these converts speak for themselves, but it presents an overly political picture of evangelicalism.
Based on Zengerle’s reporting, readers could easily decide that most evangelicals are anti-intellectual, believe God’s truth may be found only in their local congregation (so much for the National Association of Evangelicals) and hear their pastors inveigh regularly, from the pulpit, about Culture War hobby horses. The evangelicalism Zengerle describes sounds foreign to me (and I’ve identified with evangelicalism for roughly 30 years, since I first heard of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and its publishing arm).
Billy Sunday, whom Zengerle cites as proof that “The evangelical church has a long history of anti-intellectualism,” died nearly two decades before evangelicalism began taking shape in America, in large part as a response to the anti-intellectualism and separationism that evangelicals found in the era’s fundamentalist churches. Two other caveats on the article: Eastern Orthodox priests celebrate the Divine Liturgy, not the Mass; and Orthodox believers do not draw an icon but write it.
When he’s not pigeonholing evangelicals, Zengerle does a good job of describing the pilgrimages of former Baptist pastor Wilbur Ellsworth and of Peter Gillquist (pictured), a former leader of Campus Crusade for Christ, who was received into Antiochian Orthodoxy 20 years ago and who now is the head of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
One breaking point for Ellsworth, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Ill., also would be a point of tension for many evangelicals who realize that Marie Barnett’s “Breathe” (to pick but one example) is thin gruel as contemporary songwriting, much less as hymnody:
… Ellsworth increasingly found himself fighting with congregants about the way worship was being done. “They wanted to replace our organ with a drum set and do similar things that boiled down not to doctrine, but to personal preference,” he explains. “I said, That’s not going to happen as long as I’m here.’” It didn’t. In 2000, after 13 years as the pastor of First Baptist, Ellsworth was forced out.
Being forced out of First Baptist Church helped lead Ellsworth to Eastern Orthodoxy, to becoming an Orthodox priest and to leading Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in the neighboring suburb of Warrenville.
Readers of The New Republic might be surprised at how many evangelicals — at least those of us who support the new ecumenism — rejoice with Ellsworth, even while not joining him in the Eastern Orthodox communion.