the ‘becoming’ of ‘conversion’

The conversation that has been taking place over the last couple of days on this journal regarding the Orthodox, Roman, Protestant (and emergent) churches has me thinking about conversion.  Each tradition has its rite(s) of initiation.  What North American Evangelicals mean when they say “conversion” is significantly different from what South American Catholics might mean.  Western evangelicalism has often looked our understanding of conversion as the hallmark of faith, (Kierkegaard certainly nudged us in the direction of such individual piety).


Our Western Evangelical praxis of conversion bears a striking resemblance to the goals of modern scientism.  When a convincing-enough case is made the person or persons on the loosing side of the debate will come on over the winning side; they will convert: changing their allegiance, thought patterns and ways.   


The Apostle Paul’s
Damascus Road encounter with Christ is often cited in support of such conversions.  Does anyone else find it odd, that given Paul’s radical encounter with Christ that we don’t see Paul encouraging the churches to whom he wrote to convert their friends, family and neighbors?  There is very little emphasis placed on trying to convince anyone who doesn’t name Christ of anything.  Why? 


My revivalist missionary heritage has taken Christ’s final words before his ascension as our mission (often called the great commission).  The familiar words (at least to me) say:

“I have been given complete authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  The Gospel according to Matthew 28:18b-20


The Great Commission begins with Christ’s declaration that “complete authority” has been given to him in the way Matthew records these words it is indicates that Christ is extending his very authority to his followers: “all authority . . . therefore go and make.”  It seems important to sit with Christ’s use of authority.  The writer to the Hebrews claims that Christ is the exact representation of God – so much so that to see Jesus the Christ is to see God.  Jesus’ authority was his presence. 


When writing to the church of Philippi, Paul stressed that because Jesus was God he didn’t consider equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself of all his rights, (English translations have often read “although he was God” – “although” can be translated “because”, and more and more NT scholars are arguing this case), this passage of Scripture is known as the Kenosis passage.  It stresses the self-emptying of God, as a demonstration of Divine love, manifest in the movement toward reconciliatory relationality through incarnation.  At least from Kenosis passage authority is something like, loving presence which self-empties in the movement toward “us.”  If we were to look at Christ’s “self-emptying” use of authority our understanding of the great commission might be informed maybe even transformed.   Our “going” and “making” could like more like Christ’s “going” and “making.”


How did Christ “go” and “make”?  What did conversion look like for his immediate followers? 


peace, dwight

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  1. I like the words initiation and conversion.

    Both are needed aspects of human existence.

    Rituals and acknowledgments of becoming adults (as well as commitments to raising our children well) by the community ground us together and are vital.

    Christ operated in a context where there was already an established (I believe this is not anachronistic) rituals of adulthood and child dedication/initiation. (Bat/r Mitzvah and circumcision) and did not seem interested in changing these.

    The repentant baptism seemed much more John, his cousin‘s, deal than Christ‘s. Maybe Jesus was thinking more in terms of stuff he did do – like offering living water and bathing, making clean.

    I think that there are exhortations toward these things and less toward proselytization. OTOH Paul and Peter were proselytyzers.

    Jesus nevered held swords to people‘s necks if they refused to worhsip him either – which is how yours and my ancestors (at least some of them) were likely converted.

  2. great question/post dwight. particularly:

    "the self-emptying of God, as a demonstration of Divine love, manifest in the movement toward reconciliatory relationality through incarnation."

    when you say ‘demonstration‘, i think you are on to something. wasn‘t conversion a result of revelation? ie, Christ revealed Himself and in response, people gave themselves to Him, and began to follow Him… whether to the women at the tomb, or his disciples in the upper room, or to the two on the road to Emmaeus, or to Paul on the road to Damascus… in each case, Christ revealed Himself, and each responded accordingly.

    further, that work of revelation was clearly passed on to the Church… i mean, that is what Pentecost was. the outpouring of the Spirit… in the context of community. as the Apostles spoke and/or healed by the power of the Spirit, people then began to form community around that revelation.

    we have Revelation at the Annunciation, at the Nativity, at the Baptism, and the Transfiguration, at the Resurrection, at the Ascension, and at Pentecost… and by Pentecost, the Church begins… the Church then becomes that act of Revelation. ie, "all men will know that I have come from the Father by how you love one another…" and there was certainly the proclamation of the Word… but that too was revelatory, and not isolated from relationship. meaning, in the early Church, converts came to Christ because they both heard the Word, and encountered transfigured people.

    Revelation that leads to Restoration.

    as you surely know, we Orthodox see conversion as dynamic… never a mere one-time transaction. (in fact, this Great Lent is itself considered a season of ongoing conversion.)

    Salvation itself is necessarily dynamic… salvation IS in fact, to use your phrase, "reconciliatory relationality" with God… and that reconciliation and relationship is dynamic.. ongoing… alive. in this way, salvation IS our relationship with God. as we say… "i was saved, i am being saved, and i will be saved".

    now check this. conversion is also deeply connected to the community, to the Church. we would say that God does not save individuals, but He saves His Church… the community.

    how we express this is through Sacrament… meaning: a Sacrament "is a passage that reveals and restores the Kingdom of God"…(Fr Schmemann).

    there are of course in the Church 7 formal sacraments (ie, baptism, Eucharist, annointing the sick marriage, etc…) but we do not limit the Sacraments. in fact, we would say that the Church herself is sacrament… ie, she is in a passage of revelation and restoration.
    further, we too are to live our lives as sacrament… to live in the passage of ‘revelation and restoration‘ in the Kingdom of God.

    as you‘ve put beautiful words to what we‘re converted to (ie, restorative relationality)…. i also think it is important to distinguish what it is we are converted-from.

    so maybe we‘d need to talk about the doctrine of Original Sin. straight up, the Orthodox reject that doctrine. our understanding of sin is that it is always personal and specific and actual and always relational… the metaphor being that sin is a disease, a sickness unto death. sin is never merely behavioral… it is existential, spiritual, relational. sin destroys relationality… fragments relationships into isolated individual units.

    one way to get at it is to juxtapose Eve with Mary. this is over simplified, but you could say that Eve/Adam ate of the fruit as an act of self-dependancy and self-sufficiency, distinct-from and therefore rupturing their inherently dependant relationship with God. sin as sulf-suffiency that fragments and destroys relationship. as they are banished from the garden with a curse… it is abundantly clear that their relationship with God has been utterly fractured.

    enter Mary. in an act of self-surrender, self-emptying, she participates in the incarnation of God, an icon/image of salvation… an icon/image of placing the human race BACK into surrendered, self-emptying dependance with God. restoring relationship in the most dramatic fashion:

    from exile from the garden to the incarnation itself. exile incarnation.
    self-sufficienty self-surrender.
    eve mary.

    (so fascinating that at the two pinnacle moments in history, women are the central players. remember don hudson‘s teaching on women as the pinnacle of creation?). at any rate, not only are two women central figures, but also: eating.

    juxtapose eating in the OT garden with the NT Eucharist. the *sacrament* (the revelation and restoration) of the Eucharist is a taking-in of God Himself. physical union. of course, in this way communion is never a mere representation of something that happened way back when. it is not merely "about" something that happened in the past. it is always present-tense.

    and it is not that in the act of restoring us to Himself He gives us a new garden… instead, He gives us Himself (take and eat MY body, and MY blood).

    the image of *conversion* here is actual and physical union with God. because what is food? food is a part of the world. when we eat, we take the world in and make life from it. so what is Eucharist? we take in God, and life is restored and revealed! and in this sense, we declare again our dependance on God.

    so ALL this to say: conversion is Eucharistic.

    now that is of course the orthodox perspective. can you say more about your own?

    how do your thoughts on conversion differ from what you were originally thought?

    even more… i‘d be curious about how your thoughts on conversion becomes more than thoughts… but actual *encounter*!

    i love this conversation.

  3. Sky,

    wow. I had not fully connected eating in the garden and eating Eucharist before.

    Would you think of the Eucharist as fruit from the tree of life? That would fit with the announcement not of the Kingdom coming but the Kingdom come that God through incarnation was inviting us back into the garden.


  4. Sky,

    wow. I had not fully connected eating in the garden and eating Eucharist before.

    Would you think of the Eucharist as fruit from the tree of life? That would fit with the announcement not of the Kingdom coming but the Kingdom come that God through incarnation was inviting us back into the garden.


  5. I think of the fruit from the tree of life as a contrast to the Eucharist. In other words, Adam and Eve were looking for "content-only knowledge" – non-relational knowledge. But the Eucharist is "relationship" – with God and with others.

    We are called to make disciples. Not to "convert" and not to "disciple". But conversion and discipling are part of the making of a disciple. Initially, a sinner is converted, and the next step is "recovery". For example, an alcoholic gives up drinking. But he is still a "dry drunk", he needs discipling to outgrow the habits and learned behavior of alcoholism. He‘s at the "milk" stage. At some point, he reaches a stage where he is able to "feed himself meat". He is a disciple, he is discipling himself, other Christians are no longer "making" a disciple. A (possibly) more accurate term for this stage is "faith formation"?

    If we are called to "make disciples", then the sacraments are tools for that mission. Therefore, the Eucharist needs to be used to encourage the making of disciples. "Closed" communion seems to interfere with that?

  6. mike,

    yes, the Sacraments are means towards healing. absolutely. but like marriage, if you wish to make love, you marry first. making love is not the means towards marriage, it is the end and fulfillment.

    if you wish to partake of the Sacraments, you enter the community. and there is a rite of entering… baptism. that rite ITSELF is a sacrament… a passage revealing and restoring.

  7. Mike,

    I think that the contrast that you are making is between the tree of knowledge and the Eucharist and not the tree of life (which they were ejected from the garden to prevent them from eating after eating of the tree of knowledge). A possible allusion would be Jesus‘ reference to living water talking to the woman at the well in John 4.

    I mostly agree with the content-only assertion, except that the fruit was instrumental in becoming more like God and so perhaps knowing God. (To the extent that I embrace the doctrine of original sin – I find it in the anti-relational hiding and blaming when God returns and not in possibly increasing relationship move of eating the fruit, albeit disobedience.) My relationships generally are not that much affected by obedience – in fact disobedience may often strengthen relationship more than obedience.


  8. Jeff – you are right, I have the trees confused.

    Sky – I see the need for preparation and knowledge for any sacrament, particularly \"one-time\" sacraments (Baptism, Marriage,…). But for multiple-time sacraments – like communion – much less scrutiny and examination is warranted.

    People who don\‘t belong don\‘t belive. They have to belong before they will believe. I would agree the sacraments require a degree of reverence and respect (which most newbies have) and a full \"knowledge\" can come with time. The objective is to \"make disciples\", and part of that process is to learn by doing.

    In this time frame, with the vast majority of the 360,000 Protestant churches being closed communities (by human nature, not by design) and the increasing overt bigotry (like banning McLaren), entering the community is mostly a decision by the community, not by the entrant. Having the sacraments accessable to those who want to become part of the communty honors relationships and makes the sacraments more holy, not less.

  9. I‘m thoroughly delighted in this current conversation, it‘s like an ongoing salvific experience in and of itself!

    Is it fair to say then, given the "dynamic" Orthodox view of conversion one can propose that Dwight‘s "self-emptying of God" is a concrete, ongoing demonstration of Divine Love? What I mean is…indeed events like Good Friday and Easter are key, but it seems like we have grounds to anticipate this ongoing "saving", just as we read and re-tell the stories from the past of communities being saved again and again. A blessed surprise to say the least.

    In light of this, does this nullify even the question of "what happens to you when you die"? Is the question, then irrelevent? It‘s my view that, indeed, we ought not worry about the question of one‘s eternal status (in the pragmatics of ministry anyway)…coming from a relational perspective, as soon as we approach a person with an "I‘m ‘in‘ and it looks like (given your visible lifestyle) you‘re ‘out‘ attitude" we spit in the face of the other person. We‘ve just made them a "project" to be finished instead of basking in the glory of a mutual, dynamic, vivid, relationship…through which the Holy Spirit is allowed free reign.

    The discussion of "original sin" intrigues me as well. Many in the evangelical church (my current church home) think it‘s a no-brainer. However, the nuance of the Orthodox perspective intrigues me. In this part of the conversation, I can‘t help but think of the Gen. 3 account when Adam and Eve make garments out of plants but God chooses to make for them garments out of animal skins (perhaps a reason why God rejected Cain‘s offering in the following chapter, but that‘s another conversation). Yahweh is the first to "kill" a living creature. Perhaps the focus ought to be on the unique actions God takes to preserve this "reconciliatory relationality"…feel free to poke holes.


  10. mike, i think it would be helpful to distinguish the lineage of our arguments. i am affirming the practice and consciousness of the church (east and west) for over 1800 years… from the apostles until present. you are affirming a practice that has grown out of american protestantism. given that fact, there are many other connected issues that influence both of our affirmations. ie, if you reject the lineage and consciousness and history, then there are a wide variety of things that you will also reject. conversely, in terms of relationjship to the Church, i would largely take great care (and in many cases would reject) the ‘seemingly‘ american/western ethos that champions the rights, entitlements, and hermeneutic of the individual. the ‘dont tread on me‘ ethos.

    as an evangelical, i went to a catholic parish for almost 10 years (as well as an ‘emergent type church sun eves). i regularly took communion at this catholic church given a "don‘t ask don‘t tell" policy, thinking that my personal/indivual relationship with Christ triumphed everything else. i was, with hindsight, oblivious to my arrogance.

    mike, when you say that the Sacrament of Eucharist doesn‘t need to involve scrutiny and examination, i can hardly disagree more. in fact, there are times when even those of us in the church will voluntarily NOT partake, BECAUSE of the scrutiny and examination we bring to our own lives. there are seasons when it is good to refrain. we fast from the night before Eucharist. it is a profoundly holy encounter.

    i think, too, part of our distance on this issue comes from how we understand Eucharist itself. in the protestant faith, it seems largely to be a memorial act. a ritual that is essentially "about" something in the past (ie, the historical death and resurrection of Christ). it is that ‘about-ness‘ that we would reject. the Eucharist is an encounter with Christ Himself. Eucharist is not ‘about‘ the breaking and spilling of Christ‘s body and blood, instead it IS His body and blood. the encounter is in the moment… because there is no ‘about-ness‘.

    also, it is a false accusation to say that because communion in apostolic churches is ‘closed‘ necessarily means that they therefore ‘exclude‘ in the political/social sense you seem to refer to. however, while the church is catholic (an adjective meaning ‘universal‘), she IS also – in a certain sense – exclusionary. meaning, it is an opt-in exclusion. meaning, you are free to take communion in the orthodox faith, join the orthodox community. you are free to partake of communion in a catholic church, join the catholic community. to say that your individual rights/entitlements are greater than the community is to deny the rite itself, because the encounter of Eucharist is never merely an individual experience… it is a PERSONAL experience (ie, between persons)… but it is inherently communal, as you surrender to the community of the Trinity WITH THE COMMUNITY OF THE FAITHFUL.

    Christ does not save individuals… he saves His Church.

  11. ed,interesting comments. two things.

    1. TIME
    part of what you are referring to, i think, is a different understanding of the trajectory and understanding of time itself. in the orthodox church, we would say that IN the kingdom of God time is fulfilled past, present, future. in this way, during our divine liturgy, there is actually a part in the service where we say, paraphrasing:

    ‘we thank You for that which has already come to pass, Your death, resurrection, ascention into heaven, and Your second coming‘.

    notice: we are thanking God for His 2nd Coming, "that has already come to pass". this is because the liturgy itself is an ascension into the Kingdom of God… with the pinnacle of the liturgy being communion with Christ Himself at His table.

    what i am saying is that in the Orthodox Church, eschatology is never merely deferred… it is both NOW and STILL TO COME. with a harmony between the now and the still to come. this may be too technical/theological a point… but let me perhaps be even less helpful by saying that all of this is a mystery. the word sacrament essentially MEANS mystery. you‘re not going to find libraries filled with systematic treatises parsing this out. instead, it is a direct living part of the consciousness of an orthodox christian.

    the doctine of OS was developed by st augustine (who took the phrase from tertullian). augustine didn‘t speak or write greek, and his writing weren‘t translated into greek until i think the 14th century… when the churches in the east first encountered his doctrine of OS, they rejected it immediately. the doctine was later developed even further with medieval/Roman juridicial metaphors.

    in the East, the context for sin is always relational, not juridicial. thus the whole development of atonement theology, appeasing the wrath of God, transaction salvation based on the sinners prayer… is just alien.

    quoting from:

    "Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christianity never held that guilt is inherited, and began repudiating this idea once they learned of it. They teach that we inherit a corrupted or damaged human nature in which the tendency to do bad is greater, but that each person is only guilty of their own sins. By participating in the life of the church, each person‘s human nature is healed and it becomes easier to do good; at the same time, the Christian becomes more acutely aware of his or her shortcomings. Eastern Orthodox theologians believe that Adam and Eve began to choose separation from God when they chose independence and took fruit for themselves, rather than allow God to continue to feed them and remain dependent on Him. The expulsion from the Garden was not a legal consequence, but to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life and immortalizing their sin. As Christians partake of the Eucharist and eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, they return to dependence on God and experience a gradual healing of the relationship between God and humanity. The ultimate goal is theosis or divinization, an even closer union with God and closer likeness to God than existed in the Garden of Eden."

    if you want an extended discourse on OS, read:

  12. This is great stuff, Sky, and others!

    The only thing that would make it better would be a few bottles of Guiness!

    It would be great to hold this conversation in person.

  13. I\‘m all for Guinness!