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Are There Many Christian Churches, or Is the True Church One?

An Interview with a Former Protestant Missionary

Peter Jackson—a former Protestant missionary and the translator of several books of Holy Scripture into the language of the Kogi people of Colombia, presently a student at Holy Trinity Spiritual Seminary—tells of his road to Orthodoxy. This is an Interview conducted with him on the pages of Pravoslavnaya Rus' [Orthodox Rus'] by R. Sholkov.

RS: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

PJ: I was an Evangelical Protestant from birth. My family attended Baptist and Presbyterian churches, and my parents were firm believers in [the concept of] the "invisible Church," i.e., [the belief] that there has never been a single church on earth which could call herself the one True Church; i.e., [a church] possessing the fulness of the Truth [Isstina]. All that was necessary was "to believe in Christ" and to attend that church which was "convenient." But I could never understand why there were so many different so-called churches, all of which considered themselves to be Bible-based?

When I was 12 years old, our community was visited by some preachers who were doing missionary work in Colombia and translating the Bible for the Indians. Because I had always been interested in languages, I was attracted to this work. I was astonished [to learn] that there are thousands of languages in the world into which the Bible has not yet been translated. I began to study Greek and Hebrew, in order to prepare myself for working in translating the Bible into such languages; and, at the university, I studied linguistics. Later, I joined the Protestant Mission of Bible translators (Wycliffe Bible Translators), in order to obtain a more detailed education.

When I was in training at Wycliffe, I became acquainted with my future wife, Styliana; now we have two sons, Nicholas and Benjamin. Styliana's parents were missionaries in Colombia, when she was yet 5 years old. They preached among the semi-savage Kogi tribe. Her parents were very happy to receive our (my wife's and mine) support in this missionary work. They had no time for translations; hence, after our arrival, I began to study both Spanish (which is spoken in Colombia) and the language of the Kogi people, and to translate the New Testament and the book of Genesis into their language. I was also forced to create an orthography for the Kogi, as they had never had a written language.

RS: How did you find out about Orthodoxy?

PJ: Being a missionary, I understood much. The Evangelicals repeat, over and over, that they all have the same identical faith; but each denomination has its own system of belief. Thus, I saw that the missionaries in Colombia pretended to sympathize with the Roman Catholics; but that behind their backs, they hated each other. Each denomination taught in accordance with its own belief-system, but would say, at the same time, that all Protestants nonetheless believe one and the same thing. I began to think deeply about this—how could we teach the tribes a single faith? when one group would become Baptists, another—Lutherans, a third—Pentecostals. I discovered that each Bible translator, willy-nilly, would translate it in accordance with his own denomination's world-view. They would say that this "will help the Indians to understand [the Bible] better." But which translation of the Bible was the correct one? How could we proclaim catholicity [sobornost']? Where was the Church in all this?

Likewise, while I was translating the Bible from the Greek, I noticed that its meaning was distinct from the English and Spanish translations. The Western teaching concerning predestination (Calvinism), which always used to trouble me, did not exist in the Greek Bible. But the English and Spanish translators, willy-nilly, would introduce slight changes into the meaning of the text, in order to imbue the texts with a western and even a Calvinist meaning. I likewise noticed that the other major Protestant doctrines simply could not be Biblical; chiliasm, for example, or the justification of believers by faith alone, although Protestants explain that these doctrines of theirs are allegedly Bible-based!

I began to study Church history, in order to find out precisely whence these heresies originated, and what the early Church actually taught. Protestants, on the other hand, teach that, after the Apostles, God ceased all activity, as it were, for fourteen centuries.

RS: And how did your spouse, who had grown up in a family of confirmed Protestants react to the road along which you had begun to travel?

PJ: She always supported me; even, as it were, nudged me along! When we were wed, we promised each other that we would always seek accord in all controversial issues that might arise. The Truth [Istina] is one, and we always discuss all questions until we reach an accord. What we cannot agree about is the teaching concerning the Church. Styliana was likewise brought up with the idea of an "invisible Church," but rejected it. She believed firmly that the Church must be somewhere. It was precisely she who inspired me to find out whether Calvinism has any basis in the Bible. When I discovered that the distorted concept of predestination existed only in the West, and that the Holy Fathers of the East teach about synergy (i.e., the mutually-reciprocal bond between the Divine and human wills), my wife asked me:

"Well, what about the Greek Church, then? Perhaps it contains the Truth [Istina]?"

My response was the following:

"Which Greek Church? Are you speaking of the Orthodox Church?"

I knew nothing about Orthodoxy, but I had been brought up with the understanding that Orthodoxy is as pernicious as [Roman] Catholicism—even worse, in fact. Thus, I expressed no further interest in the idea.

In the meantime, we were approaching ever closer to Orthodoxy! When we were invited to preach at meetings, I would speak about fasting and the doctrine of synergy. But people did not like what I had to say. I tried to be a proper Protestant and base my teachings upon the Bible, but people would say:

"We don't care that you can support your words with the Bible, this is still not our doctrine." It was apparent that, despite Protestantism's stand against Church Tradition, they had created their own tradition. We finally figured out that we were no longer Protestants. But we were also not [Roman] Catholics. So what were we? Where was our faith?

When we returned to America for vacation, my wife purchased a used book for 10 cents, entitled "The Orthodox Church." I immediately read it and was struck by lightning, as it were. I did not know about the seven Œcumenical Councils and about former apostasies. Now, I read about theosis and hesychasm, about St. Gregory Palamas and the Venerable Serafim of Sarov. This was a new world! But, in reality, it was not new, but distinctively unique [samobytnyi]; this was the Apostolic Faith. The Truth [Istina] had turned out to be there, where we had not expected to find It—but [where] It had always waited for us. We understood that Christ had truly built His Church, having said to Peter: "upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her" (Matt. 16: 18). We believed in this as in a verity, even when our families and friends stood opposed to our beliefs.

RS: When did you become Orthodox?

PJ: Only after our return to Colombia did we decide to become Orthodox. But we could not find an Orthodox parish; there was only a tiny Greek community there, but without a priest. A year later, we finally met a priest from Venezuela, and he agreed to baptize us. A month later, he returned with a bishop from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who invited us to move to Argentina, where he would have prepared me for the priesthood. But the newspapers at that time were filled with stories about the meetings between the Œcumenical Patriarch and the Pope of Rome.

RS: What did you know about ecumenism and modernism in "official Orthodoxy"?

PJ: We had already read about the participation of the "official Orthodox Churches" in the "World Council of Churches," but our Orthodox friends in America (all of them, from "officially-Orthodox Churches") sought to convince us that there is no false teaching or heresy involved in this; and that, by participating in the WCC, the Orthodox can enlighten the heterodox [inovernyie]. Nevertheless, this meeting between the Œcumenical Patriarch and the Pope of Rome troubled us; as did the news that the Antiochian Patriarchate had established de facto communion with the Monophysites. I wrote a letter about this to our bishop.

We were shocked by his reply. He railed abusively [vyrugal] at us for our doubting the Patriarch and said that he was sorry that we had been "deceived by fanatics," that is, by the True Orthodox. But we didn't even know a single True Orthodox person, and we had never heard of them. We were simply opposed to ecumenism, because it rejects the "uniqueness" [yedinstvennost'] of Holy Orthodoxy, and thereby contradicts the Œcumenical Councils. Worse yet, the bishop informed us that the Œcumenical Patriarch had not only wanted to enter into communion with the Monophysites and the [Roman] Catholics, but even with all the monotheistic faiths. This was no longer Orthodoxy! I have saved this letter, in order to show it to my "Orthodox" ecumenist-friends. Ecumenism-modernism is not simply a temporary tendency [veyaniye] that will soon vanish. It is the greatest peril of our times.

RS: How did you happen to meet True Orthodox Christians, and how did this affect your life?

PJ: I was already sending off letters to various Orthodox jurisdictions, in order that they might help me create an Orthodox parish in Colombia. Soon after our baptism, we received letters from Bishop Ilarion [Hilarion] and Fr. Luke; both of them were from ROCOR. Both the one and the other treated us with Christian love, and also suggested to us that we should find out about ecumenism in greater detail. Vladyka Ilarion did not say anything bad against that bishop from the PC, but stated that the Holy Spirit was guiding us onto the right path. When we had finished thoroughly studying [izuchili] the literature of ROCOR and the other True Orthodox jurisdictions, we saw clearly the distinction between their spirituality and the pseudo-spirituality [lzhedukhovnost'] of the "Orthodox" modernists. Thus, we decided to join ROCOR.

RS: Now you are studying at Holy Trinity Seminary. What are your plans for the future?

PJ: Despite the fact that there have long-since been Orthodox temples in Latin America, we were amazed by the fact that there is not a single one in Colombia, although Orthodox [Christians] do live there. Likewise, many of our friends and acquaintances in Colombia are interested in Orthodoxy. This is a [Roman] Catholic country, but the Protestants have drawn many to themselves. The majority of [Roman] Catholics would never have converted to Protestantism, had they not noticed that their church is moving ever-farther-away from the Truth [Istina]. People tell us that they want to find that original Faith which [once] existed among the ancient Saints. Thus, we think that Colombia, like all of Latin America, is a great harvest, which is awaiting its workers.

RS: What would you like to say to our non-Orthodox readers?

PJ: We are disappointed by the fact that at such a time as Orthodoxy is being reborn in Rus', many false teachings are appearing and polluting Russia. God is one, the Church is one, and the Truth [Istina] is one. I would advise the non-Orthodox readers to study thoroughly [izuchit'] the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Not a single other church or faith can call itself the true Church. Do not depart from Orthodoxy because you see some people in it of little faith. You must not abandon the Truth [Istina] on account of sinful man. Sinners are everywhere, but true Saints are only [to be found] in Orthodoxy. Do not be afraid to ask questions and to seek the Truth [Istina]. Then you will be able to say with us:

"We see the true Light; we have found the true Faith."

+ + +

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (St. Paul [The Epistle to the Galatians, Ch. I, vv. 8-9])

Translated by G. Spruksts from the Russian text in PR, No. 8, 1997, pp. 11-12, 14.