‘Becoming Orthodox’: Peter Gillquist and the Evangelical Journey into Orthodoxy

As part of my foray into Orthodoxy, I read the late Father Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith. The book deals with Gillquist’s role in the development and creation of the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC) in 1979 and ends with the EOC’s admission into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in 1987. Gillquist’s narrative is energetically written, perhaps a bit too much in places, and covers an impressive amount of ground in under 180 pages. It spoke directly to my experience and concerns as a former Evangelical Protestant who was deeply attracted to, but still partially wary of, the Orthodox faith.

Prior to his journey into Orthodoxy, Gillquist had established an impressive Evangelical pedigree. After studying as a graduate student at the Dallas Theological Seminary and Wheaton College in Illinois, Gillquist assumed a leadership role in Campus Crusade for Christ. He and several other leaders in Campus Crusade eventually left the organization to found non-denominational churches throughout the United States. In 1975, Gillquist served on the Overview Committee for Thomas Nelson’s 1982 New King James Version translation of the Bible. It was during his time on the Overview Committee that Gillquist and his former colleagues from Campus Crusade began to study Orthodox Christianity. This led them to establish the EOC, which was not affiliated with any Orthodox jurisdiction in North America and which melded Orthodox worship and belief with an Evangelical emphasis on proselytization.

The first third of Becoming Orthodox is a spiritual autobiography of Gillquist. Baptized as an infant in the Lutheran Church, Gillquist gravitated toward Evangelical Christianity during his college years. He became active in Campus Crusade during this time, with particular investment in evangelical outreach to college students. Eventually Gillquist and some of his Campus Crusade colleagues detected a spiritual deficiency in their lives: although they obsessed over the Great Commission, they had nowhere to mature as Christians, no church that focused on the spiritual development of Christians beyond the point of salvation. They set out to build such a church.

The final third of the book deals with the dramatic entrance of Gillquist, his colleagues, and their two thousand-plus congregants into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. It’s quite a tale, involving a caravan of delegates from Gillquist’s churches traveling to Constantinople, where they were spurned by the Ecumenical Patriarch (several Greek bishops opposed letting a group of two thousand Christians, who were already a functioning denomination on their own, colonize the Orthodox Church in North America with, the bishops assumed, Protestant ideas). The current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, then a bishop, makes an appearance; he and Metropolitan Chrysostomos gave the men a friendly reception. Eventually the two thousand Christians were welcomed into the Antiochian jurisdiction, and Gillquist spends many pages waxing rhapsodic about their beautiful chrismation and ordination services (the men who had already been serving as pastors and bishops in Gillquist’s church were generously ordained in the Antiochian Church). The controversies that accompanied the creation of the EOC are largely glossed over in the book.

The most exciting part of Becoming Orthodox is the middle third, which concerns Gillquist and his friends’ gradual discovery of Orthodoxy. These scenes take place in the mid-1970s. Around that time, and in the spirit of Protestant sectarianism, Gillquist and a cadre of other leaders from Campus Crusade formed their own group of churches, which, they said, would commit to the beliefs and practices of the New Testament church. This desire to get back to A.D. 50 is eye-rollingly familiar to anyone who grew up Evangelical. Every non-denominational, charismatic, or otherwise loosely structured Protestant church believes that they are confessing the beliefs and practicing the worship of first-century Christians. Unlike many in such churches, however, Gillquist and his friends did their research. They decided to investigate the New Testament and other historical sources from the first and second centuries to discover what, precisely, the beliefs and practices of the Early Church were. Having divided the task of research among themselves, these would-be church founders met in early 1975 to share their findings. What they discovered surprised them.

They were shocked, for instance, to learn that the word “liturgy” appears in the Scriptures (Acts 13:2, where the word leitourgounton, which is frequently translated as “ministering,” refers specifically to the liturgy). They found references to a Holy Tradition beyond the Scriptures (particularly in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6). Their foray into non-Biblical Christian sources revealed that, in the words of Gillquist’s friend Jack Sparks, “Christian worship was liturgical from the start.” They discovered allusions to highly structured, eucharistic worship as far back as A.D. 70 (28-29). They found references to bishops and apostolic authority as early as A.D. 67 (“A.D. 67 is Bible times!” one of the men exclaimed) (33). Suddenly the repeated New Testament references to episcopen, which is literally rendered “bishopric” or “episcopate” but is frequently translated in Protestant Bibles as “leadership,” “charge,” or “office,” seemed to assume a new meaning. Liturgy, eucharist, sacraments, councils, episcopal authority: this was not the kind of church they had in mind when they left Campus Crusade.

Gillquist and his comrades immediately had concerns about their findings, particularly concerning liturgy: wouldn’t liturgical worship “lead to spiritual death and loss of vitality”? (30) But they couldn’t argue with the record, both Biblical and historical.

This new knowledge led Jack Sparks to examine a gap in his knowledge of church history, a gap that many thoughtful Evangelical Christians have confronted in their own spiritual journeys:

As Protestants, we know our way back to A.D. 1517 and the Reformation. As Evangelicals—Bible people—we know our way up to A.D. 95 or so, when the Apostle John finished writing the Revelation. It’s time we fill the gap in between. (23)

“How long did the Church remain true to Christ?” asked Jon Braun, one of Sparks and Gillquist’s colleagues. “In all honesty, I was taught that the minute the Apostle John drew his last breath, the Church began to head downhill. Is that really right? And if it isn’t, then where and when did the Church go wrong?”

What they discovered, in concert with their new knowledge of New Testament worship and belief, was that the true Church had always existed, that the history of Christianity was not one of perpetual backslide between John at Patmos and Luther at Wittenberg. The group began to study the Holy Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils and the creeds, the 1054 schism, and the development of Eastern Orthodoxy in the centuries since then. When they studied the two issues at the heart of the Great Schism, the papacy and the filioque, they concluded that the Orthodox Church was on the right side of the debates. Gillquist was stunned: “I guess that makes us…Orthodox” (49).

Despite being updated in 2009, Becoming Orthodox is quite dated—and it probably felt dated when it originally appeared in 1989. Gillquist, who was born in 1938, makes references to Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk. His notion of typical Evangelicalism is Billy Graham revivals and the Jesus Movement of the 1960s. When he and his congregants were chrismated into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1987, they had already been on the path to Orthodoxy for over a decade. Consequently, they missed out on those developments in Evangelicalism that would define American Christianity for us who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s: the sudden rightward lurch during the Jimmy Carter years, the rise of televangelism, the Moral Majority and the politicization of faith during the Reagan years, the prosperity gospels of the booming 1990s and early 2000s, the spread of pro-life activism, the cult of the family and the homeschool movement, the rallying around George W. Bush and the War on Terror, &c. None of these phenomena factor into Gillquist’s account of Evangelicalism, and the result is that his account feels somewhat quaint and old-fashioned.

It’s remarkable, then, how much his critique of Evangelicalism in the 1960s holds up. Becoming Orthodox includes all the well-known criticisms of American Christianity: its glitzy worship, its superficial homilies, its emphasis on the individual over the community of the church, its lack of roots and depth, &c. The book also notes what is praiseworthy about Evangelicalism: its reverence toward Scripture, its emphasis on a living, breathing relationship with God, and how it so successfully stresses the importance of the Great Commission. Gillquist was also not deluded about the shortcomings of Orthodoxy: the oversized role that ethnic identity plays in many Orthodox churches, for instance. Several Greek bishops were reluctant to welcome the EOC into the Orthodox Church because they feared that 2,000 Anglo-Saxon Protestants might de-Hellenize it.

The admission of the EOC produced more legitimate controversies, too. The question of married bishops was raised. The fact that they had developed so many Orthodox practices without the oversight of legitimate Orthodox authorities led to numerous “pidgin” beliefs and practices: part-Orthodox, part-Evangelical. I would not recommend Becoming Orthodox to anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals of Orthodox Christianity. I would, however, strongly recommend the book to any Evangelical who is curious about the journey from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, or wants to understand Orthodoxy in Evangelical terms. Gillquist goes step-by-step through the different elements of Orthodox faith that strike many Evangelicals as superstitious at best, potentially sacrilegious at worst: the reverence for Mary, the sign of the cross, the icons, the incense, &c. This is a book I would gladly share with any of my Evangelical friends, and to those Ortho-curious Evangelicals out there, I can only say: read it!

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