How to Become Orthodox
by Timothy Copple
I get asked frequently what are the steps to enter the Orthodox Church. Does one need to be baptized? What classes will I need to attend? And so on. So I decided it would be best to write an article on this subject, since there is so much interest in how we approach this.
First, it is important to realize the role of Tradition in the Church. Why, because what Tradition is, at its heart, is the discipleship mode of communicating the faith that Jesus started when, instead of writing a book, he gathered around him twelve men who He poured out His life into. Notice I said not teachings. He didn't have classes, but he taught them how to live through the experiences as well as the teachings, most often in the parable form.
The reason I bring this up is because so often in our society when we think of becoming a part of something, we think in terms of maybe going through some classes, and then at the end some ceremony that makes one part of the Church. While there may be some format that resembles such a series of events, it is inaccurate to then think that there is then a step 1, a step 2, a step 3, and then you're in. In reality, coming into the Orthodox Church is a personal experience. No one conversion is like another. No one person needs exactly the same format. As Jesus tailored His message to the person, so Orthodoxy doesn't have a "one size fits all" approach to what is needed for each person to become Orthodox. Rather, it is a discipleship, a passing down of Tradition, of how the soul is healed in Christ, and the life that fosters that healing in the person.
It is also a misunderstanding that becoming Orthodox means you're "in," and so having checked off that box, you can focus on other things in your life. No, Orthodoxy is if anything, a way of life. It is a commitment to Christ Himself to follow Him.
Most of the Church Fathers put baptism and entering the Church as analogous to getting married to Christ. It is that much of a commitment. Even more if one compares it to today's standards of what it means to be married. It is the means whereby we become one with God, though Jesus, as he prayed we would be in John 17. We aren't just learning about God, we are growing into unity with Him.
With the above understanding, here are the general steps or stages one will go through in entering the Orthodox Church.
The first thing a person needs to do to enter the Orthodox Church is to find a parish and let a priest know of your interest and desire in this regard. What if there is no Orthodox Church in reasonable driving distance where you live? Then locate the closest ones, and contact the priest there. He will be able to give you guidance, maybe even make the trip to visit you. In any event, this requires personal contact. It can't be done without that one-on-one discipleship in the Tradition of the Church.
In most parishes, the priest will have what are called "catechumen classes." A catechumen is one who is a learner, seeking to enter the Church. The time period for these varied at different times in the history of the Church. In St. John Chrysostom day, they would start about a week before baptism, but the classes would continue well on past baptism, often for a good year or two. Back in those days, there were some things they didn't discuss until one had entered the Church, and the concept was also present that once in, there had to be a period of discipleship that guided the new Christian in learning the Christian life.
Today, the time period tends to be longer prior to baptism. In our culture where there are so many beliefs about Christianity, some good, some not, many inquirers need to work through those before they can say with confidence, "Yes, I want to be married to Christ as an Orthodox Christian." Just as one will first date a potential marriage partner, and at some point you decide you want to get married, so there is a proposal, acceptance, and then another period of being "engaged," or what traditionally would have been a betrothal (some differences, but we won't get into that here), then after a period of time, the couple would get married. So too the inquirer, catechumen, and then entry into the Church correspond to those periods. Indeed, there are prayers many priest will pray to make one a catechumen. Like my wife and I, we were engaged to be married a year and a half before the event took place. It varies between couples. So these periods of inquirer and catechumen can vary in length as well, depending on the individual situation, where the person is coming from, what needs to be unlearned as well as learned, and so forth.
It should be clear that no one set of classes can substitute for this discipleship process by a priest. No Internet program, articles, or podcast can take the place of the one-on-one training of a priest or other Orthodox person blessed to help guide others into the faith. So the first step is to find that Orthodox community where one can gain that type of guidance and help in becoming Orthodox.
At a time agreed upon by the person and the parish priest, possibly with input from the bishop if needed, the person inquiring into Orthodox would become "betrothed" by becoming a catechumen. And again, when both you and the priest felt the time was right, you would enter the Orthodox Church fully, and continue to grow from there.
As one approaches entry into the Church, there are usually two people that are selected, either by the priest or with his help and approval. One will be the catechumen's sponsor or godparent. This is a person already in the Church who will do two things: vouch for you as you enter Orthodox by standing by your side and guiding you through the process, and continue to act as a mentor and helper as well as praying regularly for you. Again, this is part of the discipleship process. We have on our site a good article by Sub-deacon Thomas Wilson on the subject of being a godparent.
One will usually decide on a patron saint as well. Many people already have names associated with saints of the Church. It is best if this is true, to pick one from them. But with the guidance of your priest, you can pick a different saint from your given birth name. But if your given name is the same as saints in the Church, it will simplify things to keep it the same. This is an area where your priest will be of help in your selection.
One of the big questions I receive from inquirers is on whether they're former baptism will suffice or will they need to be baptized when coming into the Church.
Without getting into the heated debates, let me say that this is an area of some contention in Orthodoxy. You will find some that claim everyone has to be baptized. In other places, they won't let you be baptized if you have a former baptism that meets their requirements. The bottom line is that what will be required depends upon the parish in which you chose to enter Orthodoxy through.
With that said, there is much agreement on the following. One, most agree that there are times and circumstances that would justify being brought into the Church using the catechumen's former baptism. Most of the disagreements revolve around when those circumstances would justify it, rather than the validity of being brought in that way, and in some cases, the theology behind it. There are some more "radical" groups who would say one can never be brought in without baptism, as there are on the other side saying that few, if any, should be brought in that way if they have had a "Christian" baptism.
It is not my purpose here to get into the theological debates about these, only to give you, the inquirer, a heads up that they are out there, and why the answer to this question depends a lot on which parish you enter into Orthodoxy by. That said, there is near universal agreement that if one is brought into the Church without a baptism, going through Christmation (being sealed with the Holy Spirit by oil sanctified and reserved for this purpose), that one is Orthodox and will be able to take the Eucharist in the various parishes in communion with each other, no matter the jurisdiction. Aside from some "radical" groups, one's Orthodoxy would not generally be questioned, even by those who may feel that you should have been brought in via baptism.
This would be a subject for further discussion with one's priest. He can guide you to an understanding of what is needed in your specific situation in conformity with the bishop's requirements in that regard, again, going back to what we've said before. The priest takes on the responsibility to guide you to the fullness of the faith. Allow him to do that.
At this point, the priest will set a date for your entry into the Church. There are plenty of text and resources you can find that will detail out the order of that service. It is a joyful time, as much if not more so than any marriage made on earth. For not only do we rejoice, the Scriptures tell us that the angels rejoice as well. This article is oriented to giving you a basic understanding of what needs to happen to arrive at this point. I pray that it has aided people in that goal.
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