118: My Conversion From Islam To Orthodox Christianity - Part 2
Kevin Allen · May 29, 2009
Anthony Alai, ex-Evangelical apologist, minister and convert from Islam discusses his ministry to Muslims and the journey that led him from Evangelicalism to the door of the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church (Antiochian) in this fascinating and inspiring conclusion.
Kevin Allen: This is Part II of my conversation with Muslim convert to Christianity, Anthony Alai. In Part I we discussed Anthony’s fascinating and inspiring story of how he came to believe the claims of Christ and came to see Christianity as an even higher religious standard than Islam. In Part II, this addition, we will be discussing the road that led him through evangelicalism and to the door of the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church through which he, his wife, and daughter entered a year ago.
Anthony Alai, I am very pleased to have you back for this exciting Part II.
Anthony Alai: Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: I do not think we need to review. People will listen to the first part and go from that part to this.
After you became a Christian, you really began proselytizing your faith quite publicly to Muslims, family and not, after your conversion experience.
Anthony: Yes. There were not too many Muslims around where I was living in Southern Georgia, but my dad was definitely an immediate concern of mine, because I wanted to make sure that he would come to know the Lord as I had. Before that, since I was a very young child, I had been taught that no Muslim ever becomes a Christian, that in all the hundreds of years of Islam there had never been one Muslim who had come to Christ. So I thought I was the only Muslim that had ever come to Christ in about 1300-1400 years.
I wanted to bring my dad to the faith, and we had some family members that I would try to introduce to the faith, and really, I was trying to find ways to reach other Muslims, but I did not know how. At one point, I think my fervent zeal for the gospel probably resulted in my dad getting offended at me trying to present the gospel to him, so that he ended up asking me to leave. I grabbed my Bible and trusted my Father in heaven and went to a snake-filled woods, and trusted God to protect me, in fear, but in trust. And the Lord provided, and I made it through that, and after three months, I finally moved out of that.
Kevin: When you actually began engaging your faith with Muslims, were you concerned for your physical safety? Did you receive death threats?
Anthony: I did, but the only faith that I knew was the faith that I had read in the scriptures, and that is where we read of our first martyr, St. Stephen, and his death, and St. Paul, all the beatings that he took, and all the apostles. So for me, it was already given, when I became a Christian, that Christ had told me that if I was going to follow him, a son shall go against a father, a daughter against a mother, and your closest relationships will be broken as you choose me above the world.
I did get some threats. Thankfully, none of them materialized. The most important threat was, I thought, that the day after I became a Christian I would have already been killed, and I wasn’t. For many years, I would avoid standing in front of dark windows, trying to avoid an assassin’s bullet, not that I am afraid of being a martyr, but more for the sake of the gospel, that I could walk away so that I would have the opportunity to share God’s love with more Muslims before they met the Lord.
Kevin: As you and I spoke, Anthony Alai, it seems to me that you were fairly aggressive about your evangelism. I know that you have talked to hundreds of Muslims, their leaders, and their guides. Talk a little bit about that, where it happened, how it happened, some of the anecdotes that occurred.
Anthony: One thing I should say is that I understand that by the world’s standards it might look aggressive, but by the scriptural standard, it just looked normal. That was just the normal Christian life, as far as I understood it. And from the little bit that I knew of church history, that was just the way that Christians lived. They preached the gospel and they did not look back.
The first time that I did preach to a large group of Muslims it was to about 150 Muslims that Intervarsity Christian Fellowship brought together. Their leaders and their guides came in, and as I started sharing the faith with them and sharing with them from the Koran how to see Christianity and how we do not have to be enemies, but we can be friends, and how the true faith of Abraham includes faith in Christ.
At that point, I had all the leaders gather around me in a circle, and they started bombarding me with questions. They were obviously very upset, because many Muslims for the first time were considering following Christ and not seeing Islam and Christianity as having to be divided, but rather that they could find fulfillment in Christ.
Thankfully, and amazingly, these same leaders, not only did not attack me, but a few days later I caught up with them in the library. They hid a book under the table as I walked over, and I asked them, “What is the book you have?” They very hesitantly pulled out the book and I saw it was a Bible. They were all reading through the Bible, and I was very thankful, because it was the scriptures that had first introduced me to the reality of Christ.
Kevin: You mentioned something interesting when we spoke last night, and that is, that the Muslim leaders and apologists that you encountered tended to use heretical views about the Trinity, like those from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as a way to argue against the Holy Trinity. Is that right?
Anthony: It seemed to me that every time I heard a leading Muslim scholar debate a Christian, they would quote scriptures, but they would always quote it from the same materials that I had read from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are not Christians, but they call themselves Christians, or also, from some of the Mormon materials out there.
Over and over I noticed that the Muslims were looking to these guys as their leaders, and they thought these guys had read the scriptures because they could quote the scriptures so much, not realizing that the verses they were quoting were all out of context. You could find it, but if you looked at the context, it was always contradictory to what they were trying to get across. That was definitely something I ran across with a lot of Muslim leaders, and yes, they were being influenced by the cults.
Kevin: So what would you do? Would you go into Muslim mosques or prayer rooms on a regular basis and start engaging?
Anthony: I did. I didn’t know any better. I just walked in, assuming if I was going to die, I would die, but at least I was preaching the gospel. I would walk into the Muslim prayer rooms and sit down very quietly, gently, lovingly, and open dialogues of faith. I wasn’t preaching loudly or anything, I just would start asking questions, and asking them about their faith, and letting them know about the faith in Christ and the true faith of Abraham, and what I call the true path of Islam, If we think of the word Islam as meaning “submissive to God,” if I am going to submit to God, I am going to submit to God in Christ.
I would share the faith with them, whether it was in their mosques, or their prayer rooms, or anywhere that I met them. And many of them were kind enough to ask me for one-on-one time so that I could read the scriptures with them and share the faith.
Kevin: Is this fact correct? Please correct me if it is not, and also put some perspective on it. Would it be fair to say that the majority of people who are converting to Islam in this country are African-American?
Anthony: It seems there definitely is a large number that are becoming Muslim by name because of some racist arguments that are being made, yes.
Kevin: What is drawing the African-American community, such as it is being drawn, we do not want to overstate that? Certainly, the majority of African-Americans in this country are Christian. But those who are not, and are drawn to Islam, what is it that is drawing them? Is it simply the fact that Christianity is being purported to be the white man’s gospel? Or is it something deeper or different?
Anthony: What you just said is true. I remember a Christian friend of mine on campus who went to one of these gatherings. I could see that he was visibly shaken afterward. I asked him, “What was shared with you that you were so shaken?” He shared with me that they presented Christianity as the white man’s religion. They started twisting history and almost looking at Christianity as if it began in America, rather than that we were called Christians in Antioch first, or we were Christians in Jerusalem. There are not too many German-looking white guys in those lands normally.
They really just start with slavery, and they forget to mention that many of the slave-sellers were actually Muslims who were selling their Muslim property to the white man, the Westerner who was grabbing the slaves. So that probably was why many would really be shaken.
Kevin: So you became a full-time campus minister, missionary, with International Students, and so on, and what did your ministry entail? Was it strictly to Muslims or to everyone on the campus?
Anthony: It was primarily focused on Muslims, but then I found a great need within the Christian community, and I was put on volunteer staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, so I would hold Bible studies with Christians, and I would help guide them, even as they were being bombarded by atheist professors on a regular basis, and since I had immersed myself in a lot of the apologetic materials out there, I would really try to help them along in their faith, as well as reach out to Muslims.
In fact, along this line, if I can share an interesting story, I met a Sufi Muslim leader one time who was a “Christian” who had converted, who really knew nothing about Christian faith, but he presented himself as though he did. As I was talking with him, and befriended him, a Black Muslim leader was about to come in, and I asked him, “What is this about Black Muslims?” He said, “There is no such thing as a Black Muslim, because in Islam there is not supposed to be black or white.”
I said, “If the Black Muslims are not real Muslims, then why do you allow them to preach what they do?” He said, “It’s okay. Let them think they are Muslim. Even if they are deceived into a wrong form of Islam, we will give it 8-10 years of them coming into the faith, and then later on we will show them true Islam.”
At that moment, the Black Muslim leader came in, and right after he said this, I was shocked to find that as soon as the Black Muslim leader came in and said, “Assalamu alaikum,” he embraced him, and kissed him, and also said, “Assalamu alaikum,” and he acted as if that Muslim was a fellow brother, no big deal, when he had just seconds ago told me how that guy was not a Muslim and had denounced him.
Kevin: Yes, I think the record states that Malcolm X came to the conclusion that what is called the Nation of Islam, “Black Muslims,” is not true Islam, and he later left Elijah Muhammad, and people believe he was subsequently assassinated because of that apostasy. That is really interesting.
What were you into, Anthony Alai? Where did your journey take you? What sort of immersion, in which writings, and which church where you going to, and what was your theological world-view, during that period of time?
Anthony: First, I read the scriptures on a regular basis. By this time I had completed reading the scriptures from cover to cover about 14 times, and many of the books of the Bible probably 50-100 times. On top of that, I owned about 15,000 pounds of evangelical writings. I was immersed in the writings of Francis Schaefer, Josh McDowell, and a host of other Bible scholars, many of them from Dallas Seminary.
I was very impressed with the Dallas Seminary writings. I loved Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology, about eight volumes, I think. Many of his writings on the Holy Trinity really helped me to understand the Holy Trinity deeper than ever before. There probably was not a popular Christian book that I was not reading.
I would attend churches from nondenominational to Baptist, to Pentecostal, to Presbyterian. It didn’t matter. For me, Christian was Christian, because I saw Jesus’ John 17 prayer as the Church undivided, and I could not understand why the Church was divided. In fact, at one point, I was so frustrated by the fact that the Church was either Baptist or Pentecostal, that I prayed, “God, why don’t you give me a Baptecostal church?”
Within a very short time, a day or two, I found a church that was kind of Baptecostal. They believed in the gifts of the spirit, but yet they were very Baptist in all the other theology, and they actually had Dallas Seminary theology books as their main source.
Kevin: Naturally, that doesn’t surprise me. Keep going, yes.
Anthony: From there, after a while of ministering, I sensed a call to Bible college. I ended up going to Bible college and seminary for about one semester. Then I had some financial issues and I could not continue, but the professors told me, “Don’t worry about it, because we have special sessions here about four times a day, and you can attend all of them free with our dean and our professors, and ask any questions you have.”
So I would go for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks afterward, with the professors, and spend a lot of time asking questions and listening to them preach the gospel, and various other books of the Bible, as well as deeply immersing myself in the writings of those who were considered very trustworthy, from Matthew Henry commentaries, to Kenneth Reeves and A.T. Robertson, J. Campbell Morgan, Charles Spurgeon. You name it, I was deep into it and reading, just trying to make sure that I was not following a false gospel and only following the true gospel.
I would read Charles Hodges’ materials. The Calvinist materials seemed to be off, to me, at times, although they have many great blessings, but whenever they got into five-point Calvinism, I had a very hard time trying to coordinate that with what the scriptures actually said, and how it contradicted them. The other part they spoke about of giving glory to God, and looking for His grace, and living a holy life, and living a life in which what you did at work, as well as what you did in church, was meant to be sacred. There was no differentiation in the Christian life, one versus the other.
Kevin: You started a nonprofit ministry, as I recall, to reach students and start taking your college student groups to outreaches to secular campuses in the Baltimore area, and you continued, yet, to minister and to evangelize in the mosques. How were you being received when you went into these mosques? In a violent way? How did that work?
Anthony: At that time, when I went into the mosques, they were very inviting to me, because they thought, “Great, here is some fresh blood to convert,” because I had learned by that time not to let them immediately know that I was a Muslim convert, because then they would think of me as worse than a pig, and would close the door. By just simply being innocent, not sharing with them what I knew, I would bring other Bible school students and we would go into the mosque and start getting to understand how they evangelize. As they evangelized us, we began to dialogue with them about the faith.
I would also go to college campuses, from Johns Hopkins University, to Thompson State, Peabody Conservatory, anywhere God opened for us and our volunteers to share the gospel. And I would preach the Bible on a daily basis. Most of the time I would spend probably 8-10 hours a day reading the scriptures and the commentaries to have a daily Bible study for about an hour for our students and our volunteers.
Kevin: You recount an interesting story about confronting, if you will, an Imam in one of the mosques during their teaching time after prayers, when you started asking some questions. Can you tell our listeners about that?
Anthony: Yes. I had gone into a mosque. We had been there for a while and they had shown us all their videos from Ahmed Deedat and their main apologists. We were sitting around after their prayer time and they had opened the floor to questions. At one point I asked a question about being born again and what it meant to Muslims. To my shock and surprise, the Imam of the mosque asked almost the exact same question that Nicodemus had asked in John 3. He asked, “How can a man be born again? Is he going to enter the womb one more time?” I was just floored, and I said, “If you don’t mind, what I just heard you ask was written 2000 years ago.”
Kevin: What a lead, right?
Anthony: (laughter) I asked his permission, and I went to my coat, in which I had a pocket Bible, and from the Bible I showed him how Jesus had answered the same, exact question that Nicodemus had asked. Then I was amazed that after I read Jesus’ answer to him, he asked the next question, which was exactly what Nicodemus asked, so I showed him again. I said, “Here is what Nicodemus asked,” I showed him and the rest of the group in print, “and here is how Jesus answered it.”
It was quite a miracle as we saw him verbatim saying what was in scripture, and getting the direct answer from Jesus, as he had spoken to Nicodemus. It was such a miraculous intervention that they felt very threatened, because at that time many of them were beginning to get shaken as they saw this miracle unfold.
A few of them started physically forcing me toward the door, and started saying that I was a CIA spy and if I ever came back there they were going to kill me, and they were going to make sure that everybody knew that I was a CIA spy, because the CIA is hated by everybody. I wanted to make sure that the women that were with me were safe so I went and got them and we left, and I prayed for those at the mosque and shook off the dust and moved on.
Kevin: During this period of time you met your wife, Susan, and you were also asked to become ordained as a pastor at a large mega-church in that area?
Anthony: Yes. As I continued to read the scriptures and teach the scriptures, I was blessed that, one day, Susan opened her home for us to have a Bible study there for all the students. We got to know each other, and we formed the deepest friendship that I had ever had in all my life. I started struggling because, being a Muslim convert, I thought I should never marry because that would put my family in danger, and no woman should be subjected to such a life.
But I sensed a deep call to develop a relationship with her, so we continued to spend hours in the hallways, talking with one another, in pure friendship. She had actually begun to get an experience in her heart that maybe I was the one that God had brought in for her life, and she had prayed to God and sensed in her life that she should show no interest whatsoever, and allow God to work in my heart, and that seemed to be perfect for what I needed.
As I struggled through that, continuing to get to know one another, at one point I decided I was going to go to a seminar that was being held for Bible teachers for about a week, and I was not going to mention a word, I was just going to go listen to the preachers preaching, and as they spoke, I was going to open my heart. If God willed it for me to have Susan as my wife, then I would come back to her, and if not, I would move on.
The Lord was moving in my heart so strongly, so many convictions, so many truths that I should come back and ask her, and I did. She was actually floored because she had never shown any interest and had never tried to throw any hints in that direction. She had given no indication of how her heart was leading her. I also shared with her, “While you are thinking of this, I just want you to know something that you have to know. One day you will come back home, and my head will be on the ground, and I will be gone. If you are going to marry me, you have to know this is a possibility.”
She was shocked, and almost decided not to follow through, but she went in prayer, and in prayer she felt that God led her to realize that I could be in the most peaceful city in the world, in total safety, and my life could be gone, or I could be in the middle of a major war, and if God wanted me to live, I would live. One’s life and death is really in the hands of God. She came back and embraced our marriage, and we joined one another and we have been honeymooning for about 18 years.
Kevin: That is so wonderful. How did you get from there, Anthony Alai, to Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado?
Anthony: My wife graduated from Johns Hopkins in classical piano and we really didn’t feel comfortable being in Baltimore. We were listening to Focus On The Family a lot, and they had just moved from California to Colorado Springs, and that was also the headquarters of ISI, International Students, Inc. I liked it when I was there, and we packed our bags and got in our car to go to Colorado Springs.
We didn’t really have anything to call financial backing of any kind, but God provided. We applied at Focus on the Family, and they accepted us, and I worked there for about two years, ministering to people who called in, whether they had questions on some of the broadcasts, or they needed some materials, or whether there was some special event. Then from there I moved to their technical department, helping them there.
Kevin: Would you consider yourself, at this part of your journey and your spiritual experience, a happy evangelical? Or were there some of the concerns that you later experienced starting to crop up at this point?
Anthony: Oh, I was very happy. All I knew was that you were either Bible-believing or you weren’t. You were either a Christian, or you weren’t, and any other groups, or churches, were either liberal, or nonbelieving. I had some fantastic, great experiences at Calvary Chapel churches with the most loving, humble people you can imagine on earth, and with many of the Christians that I met, we had some awesome friendships and great fellowships.
Kevin: Was your ministry with, and to, ex-Muslims, a continuing ministry during this period?
Anthony: It was, except that at one point, when I was working full-time in technology, I was amazed that God opened doors for us to minister to Muslims, but more as friends. I began just making great friends with them. Many of the Muslims I met were just cultural Muslims. They were not following Islam the way I had. We began to spend a lot of time together and loving each other. I also met some ex-Muslims and joined some of their churches and later on I found that there were actually 17 different Persian, or Iranian, churches that were made of ex-Muslims. It was 17 years after I had been in the faith, that I finally met my first Muslim convert, and I realized I was not the only one.
Kevin: You were starting to practice what has come to be known as relationship evangelism, in which you do it just by becoming friends with, and close to, an individual, and sharing your life with them.
You had such a fascinating journey to that point, you were a committed Evangelical, very involved in ministry. How in the world were you introduced to the Eastern Orthodox faith? Tell us.
Anthony: Some friends at Focus on the Family put up some posters. Francis Schaefer was coming to town to speak. I had read almost all of his father’s writings, and when I heard he was coming to town, I immediately went to listen to him. He spoke about the faith of the early church, and writings of the early church that we have today, that I had not heard about in all my Evangelical readings, or Bible college seminary.
I had never been introduced to these except very small mentions of them as though they were just sentences here and there that confirmed the Bible. But I didn’t realize that we had whole sermons and we had great messages defending the faith, in a way that interpreted the Bible correctly, and Frank Schaefer spoke of that. That is when I got introduced to Orthodoxy.
Kevin: In fact some of the earliest apologetics against, specifically, Muslims, come out of St. John of Damascus.
Anthony: That is right.
Kevin: Some of the earliest responses to Islam that came from somebody who was there during that period of time. Was that your first introduction, Anthony Alai, to Orthodoxy?
Anthony: Yes, the only Orthodox I knew were Orthodox Jews that I had met on campus.
Kevin: Hopefully, we are changing that a little bit, but unfortunately, the word Orthodox still tends to represent Judaism to a lot of people. What happened after that? You visited an Orthodox church? What was that experience like?
Anthony: To give some background to this, I had read about every Chic tract there is out there, and every anti-Roman Catholic message in many books, so when I walked into an Orthodox church I started seeing some similarities between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic practice. It was quite shocking. I went to two services, and after the second service I took off. I said, “I don’t get this. You have Mary here, and making signs of the cross. It all looks a lot like Roman Catholicism.” So I took off.
Kevin: You had mentioned to me that in Schaefer’s lecture, he did explain how the Orthodox do not agree with papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas of the Roman Catholic church and the purgatorial teachings are different. In fact, we would consider them, to some extent, particularly on purgatory, to be heretical. Even with that background, you still had that gut-level anti-Catholic response?
Anthony: That’s right, yes. Unfortunately, that was just the way I was taught in my Evangelical time.
Kevin: I think a lot of people listening will resonate with that. But yet, you were moved by liturgical worship. What happened? Was it a positive thing?
Anthony: Up to that point, most of the evangelical hymns that I enjoyed the most were more pop, modern, and kind of soft rock, or Maranatha. I love Maranatha praise music. So when I went into an Orthodox church, one thing that I remember was for the first time understanding the blessings of the more ancient hymns from a Protestant perspective 200-300 years ago. I started realizing how those hymns have come in the church, because from the original church we had more liturgical worship and the Puritans and the reformers were actually following that, and that is why they have that form of worship in their church.
I visited an Anglican church and an Episcopal church. Unfortunately, at the Anglican church that I went to, one of the elders started telling me how untrustworthy the Bible is and how many errors there are in the Bible, and I thought that couldn’t be right, and I moved on. I went to an Episcopal church and I saw a woman priest/preacher, and I knew that was wrong, and clearly against scriptures. So the experience wasn’t positive on that side and I just had to start finding more Bible-believing churches.
Kevin: When did you visit an Orthodox church again?
Anthony: Not for about eight years.
Kevin: And how did you, and why did you, go back to an Orthodox church?
Anthony: It really happened because of a book written by J.I. Packer, Michael Horton, and Brad Nassif, and other authors, as well. The book is called, Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. I went to a Christian family bookstore where I found this book. There had always been gnawing, in the back of my mind, unanswered questions from the early church writings.
When I had read Chuck Swindoll’s writings and other ministers, I didn’t get very good answers, so I was hoping that with such great scholars like Michael Horton and J.I. Packer, I would definitely get good answers why evangelicalism is right and Orthodoxy has a problem. But the more I read into it, the more I started finding some very surprising realities about the original Protestant church, and also about the ancient church, and I started digging deeper into the faith.
Kevin: What kind of surprises?
Anthony: For example, looking at the scriptures, themselves. In Luke 1, I remember for the first time, though for some reason I had never seen it there, even though I had read it many times, when Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she sees Mary coming before her, she cries out with a loud voice, saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She was so humbled by the fact that the mother of her God was before her.
In all my evangelical teachings, I had not seen this expounded this way. In fact, if we had a woman filled with the Holy Spirit get up and cry out, saying, “I am not worthy to stand before the mother of my God,” meaning Mary, they would think this is a Catholic heretic, and they’d better get her out of there. But there it is, right in the scriptures, in Luke, chapter 1.
As I looked at the reformers, I also noticed that what I had been taught, that baptismal regeneration was considered heretical, was actually taught and practiced by Martin Luther and many of the other Lutherans, that they really believed in the grace of salvation through Baptism by water and the Spirit. That was shocking, because most of my Baptist teaching said that baptism is just an outward sign, that there is no effect at all, whereas, the founder of Bible-believing, sola scriptura, sola fede, Martin Luther, was telling us that baptism is a lot more. There is a grace, a foundation in it.
In reading Romans 6, it was so clear. If I read it, literally, it was clearly showing that there is a grace of salvation in our baptism by water and the Spirit, whereas before that, I had always read it through the eyes of commentaries.
Also, the presence of Christ in the holy cup, in the Eucharist. Martin Luther, and the Lutherans still to this day, practiced a very real presence of Christ and believed it, even as sola scriptura believers. Somewhere along the line we had lost it, and it seemed like we had gone away, even from our reform doctrine. We just walked away from it, not even realizing what had caused us to think that the Bible contradicted the holy doctrines that the church had had from the first century until today.
I did start reading Eusebius’ earliest church history that I had not known existed, and I was amazed that right after the Book of Acts, the one book that we have that tells us what happened after the Book of Acts until Constantine’s time is Eusebius and his church history. I was moved, in the first ten pages, glorifying Christ, and I almost felt like one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, being shown Christ in the Old Testament. I was awed, and floored, and blessed, by just how the Christians had remained faithful for many, many, many years, and the stories of all the martyrs and the believers.
Kevin: Yes, I think Eusebius is a really pivotal book for many of us that made this journey. You continued attending evangelical churches but had struggles. What were some of them?
Anthony: The struggles that I had sometimes had to do with what was being taught from the pulpit, because by that point, I had given up on Jesus coming back in 1988. I used to be exposed to a lot of strong pre-tribulation rapture theories about the scriptures. I was taught this from Dallas Seminary. In fact, you could not attend Dallas Seminary unless you signed a statement that you believed this.
I used to teach that this was the only way to see the scripture, that there was no other way, and I had my verses that I would quote to people. When Jesus didn’t come back in 1988, which was one generation after Israel had been formed in 1948, which had been prophesied by Hal Lindsay, and many of the other top Evangelicals, I began to question that. Whenever I would hear a very heavy emphasis on pre-tribulation rapture from the pulpit, I would struggle. I couldn’t continue to attend that church.
I started finding a-millenial churches, which believed like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and most of the original Protestants. There are actually reform churches, like Presbyterian Church of America, which teach an a-millenial belief, rather than a pre-tribulation belief. I started looking more for those churches, but in those churches sometimes I found my struggle was with the five-point Calvinist teaching, and there were just too many scriptures that contradicted that, so I was in a dilemma and not sure which way to go.
I did read some of Jaroslav Pelikan, a great Lutheran church historian, who later became Orthodox in the last ten years of his life.
I also remember finding an early Christian writing, The Teachings of the Apostles, the Didache. It was written sometime after 50 A.D. It talked about how the Christians practiced their faith in the early church, that they fasted twice a week. Unlike the Jews that fasted on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they did it on Wednesdays and Fridays, so I started fasting Wednesdays and Fridays, because I wanted to be like a first-century Christian.
It talked about how they baptized. They baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the forms of baptism. It made me laugh because when I read books that were becoming popular around then, like The Da Vinci Code, which said that we couldn’t find the Father, Son and Holy Spirit anywhere in the early church, and I could see it clearly right there. It helped strengthen my faith to find all these wonderful early Christian writings from Polycarp and Clement writing to the Corinthian church.
I wish more of our Evangelical brethren would start realizing that we have been taught a form of doctrine that is a new tradition. Our teachers are teaching what they have been taught, and have gone on, but we have been influenced by forces outside of scripture, and we do not realize that we have wonderful early Christian writings from trusted apostles and their direct disciples, that have helped us to know and understand the scripture in its original intent. In America, we talk about the United States, always wanting to interpret it according to its original intent, and yet when we look at scripture we do not look at original intent, many times.
In fact, one of my Presbyterian pastors shared with me why he left the Baptists. He said he was in a Baptist seminary and the teacher started expounding on the scriptures that seemed to be contradicting what Peter had written. So he asked him, “Why does what you are saying contradict what Peter writes?” The Baptist professor said, “Because I know more than Peter. We now know more than Peter did at that time.” So at that point, he had to walk away from that form of Christianity also.
Kevin: Speaking of the early Christian writings and the early church fathers, this was a huge influence for you, right?
Anthony: Yes, it was very big, because then I knew that I had actually been privately interpreting the scriptures and preaching according to the teaching of the last 200 years, that had been more influenced by an Anabaptist movement that wanted to throw out the Trinity, wanted to throw out the Creed, wanted to throw out everything and just say, “Me and the Bible alone.” This had resulted in 25,000 denominations, more divided than ever, clearly, going against the scriptural mandate from Christ, which was in John 17, telling us to be one, as the Father and the Son are one.
As I was reading the church history writings, I was finding that in almost the first 1000 years, we were one, theologically, across the globe, among true Christians. Anyone who did not agree, across the globe, with the same theology, was considered outside of the Christian faith, and heretical. What happened after 1000 years that has caused us to be divided and caused us to walk away from our unity that we had in the faith? I longed for that. All my years of Evangicalism I had always longed for this unity, and some said it could not be regained, but it had been kept, so why couldn’t it be kept again?
In the Orthodox Church, I find, theologically, we definitely keep that across all Orthodox, you might say branches. Whether you go to Jerusalem or Antioch, or Russia, we have had the same theology for 2000 years, nothing has changed.
Kevin: It is interesting, you almost have to use this idea of a different Christianity back against the evangelicals, in the sense that they will say, “We don’t recognize your Christianity in Evangelicalism,” and you almost have to ask, “Well, what does that tell you?” What does that tell you since we were here from the beginning? Who has it right and who has it wrong?
One of the things that interested me, and I have heard this from other people, too, is that the whole idea of the canonization of the Bible not happening until the late fourth century had a big effect on your thinking? How did it?
Anthony: When I had read Josh McDowell, and other apologetic writings, I had gotten the false impression that we have the list of the books of the Bible exactly like we have today, from the very early church. But when I started looking for it, one day an Orthodox writer online said that we do not have any list prior to the late 4th century writings of St. Athanasius, giving us a list that matches our current Bible. I said, “This cannot be right.”
I wrote to many scholars, asked many Christian sources, I searched, and I looked at every list. Either the lists were missing a few books of the Bible, or they had other books that were not in our current Bible. I had believed at that time that the church had apostasized sometime in the late 4th century, as we had been taught as Baptists. All these people who were supposed to be pagans— Athanasius, the golden-mouthed preacher John Chrysostom, and Basil—gave the first list of the Bible that we agree with today, and how can we say these guys are pagans, and yet accept the scriptures that they had confirmed for us in that time?
This was a big moment, because I used to think that in the 1st century all these Baptist, Bible-believing Christians were walking around with their Bibles, and the preacher would get up and preach from the Bible. I did not know that there wasn’t a united canon, and that the church had continued in the faith, united, even without having a canon, because they had the teachings of the apostles and those the apostles trusted, guiding them and guarding them in the faith, and keeping them from heresy.
Kevin: What and when did you decide you were going to start attending Orthodox liturgy again? Was it at this point that we are discussing?
Anthony: Yes, it was around this point that I attended a local church and I found a wonderful theologian named Dr. Ahman Tribosy (?). He was having a Bible study and he had written several books for the Orthodox in Arabic. As I started attending his Bible study and going to worship services, my first experience was more or less still saying, “Okay, this looks fine, I am beginning to see why, logically, this is true, but emotionally, I cannot accept that this is the way the church worshipped.”
Whenever I saw them making the sign of the cross, I found that to be still some kind of paganism. But it was around this time that I also found an amazing writing, a biography, of St. Anthony, and in it, he spoke of making the sign of the cross, as one way of simply identifying with Christ and the cross, and also for the demons to not bother us, or if he was battling demons in a great spiritual warfare, as a great prayer warrior.
What was troubling me, logically, was that if Constantine, 70 years later, or other late 4th century writers, had introduced the sign of the cross and paganism into Christianity, why was I finding in documents from 250-270 A.D. that this was common practice in the church already?
One other breaking point for me was when I finally made the sign of the cross. It was very hard, but realizing, as John Chrysostom had said, that with the sign of the cross we are fulfilling what we believe, that we believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are believing God and Jesus as both God and man, and we are saying, “Lord, sanctify my mind and heart and put me on the right with the sheep, and not on the left with the goats.” I said to myself that every time I am doing this, I am actually identifying with Christ and I am identifying and fulfilling what our apostle Paul had written in I Corinthians 1. “I seek to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.”
Kevin: Coming from your background, and having been, by this point, very much formed, as you had been, and very educated in theology and apologetics, and as you pointed out, Anabaptist-influenced Evangelicalism, what were the primary issues that you struggled with most, and when and why did you decide to become Orthodox?
Anthony: The issues I mentioned earlier were very big. For me to accept that, actually, there is a sacrament of grace, there is grace and salvation in baptism, there is grace in the presence of Christ…
Kevin: Not just faith alone.
Anthony: And also that Mary was to be honored in the church. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches were the only ones I knew who would honor Mary as the scripture had done in Luke 1.
I also remember that I found another surprise. When the Bible was being translated to English, and although I know that some of these translators were very beautiful Bible-believing preachers, still somehow the glasses of their Evangelical tradition were on, so whenever they would find the word paradosis in a positive light, they would translate it as teaching or doctrine. Whenever they saw it in a negative light, they would translate it as tradition. So whenever I was reading the English Bible, it was giving me the wrong idea about tradition.
There is holy tradition, and there is man-made tradition, and the holy tradition was what Christians had practiced from the beginning, which helped guide them to make sure that they understood the scripture and the faith correctly, and according to our apostle’s teachings, and according to what Christ, himself had taught. Man-made traditions were those traditions that were against Christ’s Word, against Christ’s Spirit. Tradition, as a whole, is not wrong, it is just that we have to read the Bible in the original Greek to know that, and we have to fix our modern Bibles so that they do not give the wrong impression to those reading it, thinking that this is true.
Kevin: Yes, that is one of the reasons why I recommend the new Orthodox Study Bible. Even though it is not perfect, even the editors would agree with that, they have straightened out some of those glaring errors.
We are starting to close, but I want to make sure we cover one point that I think is important here, in the spirit of openness. You were sort of moving toward becoming Orthodox, but you still struggled with what you called contradictions within Orthodoxy, and I am not afraid to put those out there. Tell us what some of those struggles and contradictions, as you saw them, were.
Anthony: It was almost similar to when I was, as a Muslim, looking at the Bible, and seeing the contradictions among those who call themselves Christians. Those who call themselves Orthodox were telling me that true Orthodoxy was certain forms of legalism. They were focusing on whether men should be taking communion before women. They were magnifying some small things and focusing on whether you wear long sleeves at church or short sleeves at church, or what background you were from.
Many times I had heard from people that had gone to Orthodox churches, that if you were not of that ethnic group, or if you were not Greek, for instance, you may not be welcome in a Greek church. It became an ethnic thing. Many of the Orthodox that I met, their lives were not necessarily in tune with the scriptures. They didn’t know the scriptures. They didn’t know their own Orthodox theology. As I was learning about Orthodoxy, our teacher said to me, “You know more about Orthodoxy than most of us Orthodox,” I asked, “But how can that be? You guys are born in this. You guys are raised in this.” That was one of the tough parts.
I would read about the Orthodox around the world who would only take communion perhaps two to three times a year, rather than on a regular basis, as had been spoken of in scripture and in Orthodox tradition, and how many of them were presenting such a negative testimony of Orthodoxy, that many of the people who were raised Orthodox were becoming Evangelical, because they did not know their own faith, including Brad Nassif, by the way. He was raised Orthodox and he left and became Evangelical, and that is when he first discovered the true Orthodox gospel and then he had to study deeper and come back to the faith.
Kevin: I think, in the spirit of openness and candor, we have to agree, I have heard great theologians, many of them cradle, and many of them Greek, though we are not picking on any jurisdiction or ethnic group, who say that there are ethnic issues. Orthodox can be legalistic in orientation, and there is, to some extent, a lack of personal knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Those are true things I think that we come across. That does not mean that it is not the Church, it does not mean that it is not Orthodoxy, it just means that these are issues that Evangelicals looking in will very likely come across at some point.
Obviously, you worked through some of those issues. When you decided to move forward in your catechism and your journey, were all of these issues that you dealt with resolved? How did you work through them?
Anthony: No, not at all. If anything, I still had a lot of questions, but I knew that if I waited to answer all of my questions, I might be waiting all my life until I get before the presence of the Lord, and he will answer all my questions. So I said, “Let me not wait that long.” I wanted to make sure that what I had learned was true, and was the original Christian faith. From what I knew of the original Christian faith, and what I had read, and the more I read, the more it was confirming what I was being taught in Orthodox theology.
I couldn’t find it anywhere else, and I was looking. I went to liberal churches, I went to Lutheran churches, I went to Episcopal churches. I was looking for any other form of Christianity that would be more like the early church. I went to Roman Catholic churches, as well, and really, Orthodoxy was the only one that I could find that was the closest to the early church practice, faith and theology. I said, “I know enough to know that this is the only church that is still practicing what has been taught, so I am going to enter it so that inside the Church I can receive, through the grace of baptism, and the grace of Chrismation, the Holy Spirit, and be inside of the body of Christ to see if a deeper understanding of some of these areas will come to me as I grow in the faith.” And I decided to move over.
Kevin: As we are wrapping up, and it has been just an absolutely fascinating two-part series, what did you find in Orthodoxy that was similar, or dissimilar, from your Evangelical understandings?
Anthony: What I would say is that in Orthodoxy we find a pre-denominational church. If you look in Orthodoxy, you can find a grace of baptism taught in theology, and a grace of the presence of Christ, just as it was taught by Martin Luther. You can find the glory given to God, as was taught by John Calvin. You will find, as John Wesley taught, the free will of man, and the necessity of being faithful to the end. And as with the Baptists, you will find a great exaltation of the Word of God. You will find the Word of God considered very highly.
You will not find denominations within the Orthodox church. You will find the original church of Antioch, or the church of Jerusalem, and you will find the same one church that is one across the globe. In entering Orthodoxy, I simply fulfilled my evangelical calling. It was not a separation, it was mostly just a deepening of my faith and following the early church’s teaching and that which was most faithful to the teachings of the early Christians.
Kevin: I won’t dare add one word, other than to say, Anthony Alai, it has been absolutely a pleasure to have you. Thank you very much for spending the time. You did a lot of preparation work to prepare for this, organizing your thoughts and getting me on the right page. Thank you very, very much for being my guest on The Illumined Heart on Ancient Faith Radio.
Anthony: Thank you for the blessing, Kevin. God bless.