In association with the Russian SPAS (Savior) TV channel, Pravoslavie.Ru has begun publishing a series of remarkable stories about our contemporaries who embraced the true faith after following various false teachings.
Priest George Maximov: Hello. You are watching My Path to God. This program is about people whose path to Orthodoxy was challenging and who, in order to become Orthodox, had to change their lives drastically, give up many things and re-consider their ways. We will talk to our guests about things that motivate such people and give them strength.
Today our guest is Artem Valeryevich Grigoryan, a specialist on sectarianism from St. Petersburg. Prior to conversion to Orthodoxy, he was a long-standing member of the organization that is often considered one of the most dangerous among contemporary sects.
Artem Valeryevich, could you please tell us how it all started? Were you raised in a family of believers?
Artem Grigoryan: The search for some kind of supreme truth started fairly early for me and you can say that I was raised in a family that was always interested in something spiritual. Surely, everybody remembers the breakup of the Soviet Union, the time when many ideas and values came crashing down. That time, early 1990-ies, is characterized by mass interest in various spiritual practices, as people tried to find answers to urgent questions about their lives and set things straight. Being inquisitive, my parents were also into various eastern practices, such as Krishnaism, Roerichism and some mystic meditative practices. These were very popular at the time. However, despite such interests, my parents, as people raised in our culture, still considered themselves to be Orthodox Christians and occasionally we would go to church, pray and light candles. Of course, this can't be called conscientious spiritual life, but my childhood memories were always associated with some kind of soul searching, which is probably fairly unusual for children. For example, I clearly remember that when I was 6 years old, there was an accident and I was run over by a KAMAZ truck, but miraculously survived. This tragedy intensified the spiritual quest for our family. I remember that when I was in a cast with weights attached, I thought about God, the meaning of life and the causes of suffering, and discussed these issues with my parents.
This atmosphere of spiritual pursuit surrounded our family. My parents tried to find answers to their questions, but unfortunately in early 1990-ies the Church often could not give the people what they were looking for. As a result, the answers were found elsewhere. In 1996, after an attempt at following the church-based way of life, which failed as a result of a close acquaintance with one pseudo-elder who was practicing exorcisms, my parents met Jehovah’s Witnesses, smiling people who said that they were willing to spend their time and efforts to answer my parents’ questions. That is how we got closely involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses and stepped onto that path. I was 11 at the time.
Father George: I see, the initial appeal was what sometimes is called “bombardment with love”, i.e. each person who comes in is met by somebody who smiles and says: “I'm so happy that you came”… What happened next? What led to your staying in this organization?
A. Grigoryan: That’s right. A person can become a full-fledged Jehovah's Witness only if he or she starts attending meetings and so-called congresses. Congresses are huge events that are attended by many communities of a certain region. Based on the missionary experience, Jehovah’s Witnesses know that if a person who studies the Bible with them does not come to the meeting, then such person probably won’t become a Jehovah’s Witness and there is no sense in wasting any time on him. The Congresses produce an incredible effect: you see a huge stadium filled with tens of thousands of smiling, beautiful and well-dressed people. You are surrounded by absolute cleanliness, order, warm feelings, kisses and love. All of this makes a tremendous impression.I thought about it a lot, trying to analyze my ways and the ways of my family and people I knew, both Jehovah’s Witnesses and those who quit. In most cases, it is the same scenario: people fall in love with the organization and its members. The belief system is indeed secondary. It is well absorbed by the mind of the person who is already in love with the organization. When a person falls in love, he or she is surrounded by enormous attention and care. Sometimes they can even provide financial support or help find employment. The person falls in love and then he or she is ready to embrace various ideas. That is when a very delicate process of indoctrination begins. It is a training course based on a special handbook. The course is a major topic-based breakdown of the Bible. Naturally, it contains very denominational interpretation that is at times quite strange, far-fetched and artificial, but it all is easy to absorb because the person is already in love with the organization.
Father George: However, such attention cannot be shown for an extended period and cannot be as intense as when the person initially joined?
A. Grigoryan: Of course. After a while this attention subsides. Once a person receives the “baptism” and becomes a full-fledged member of the organization, it is now this person’s turn to show the same attention to newcomers as was initially extended to him or her. This is how this person becomes a part of this huge mechanism.
Father George: How much time did you spend with Jehovah’s Witnesses?
A. Grigoryan: Approximately 15 years.
Father George: That’s a considerable amount of time. Yet you quit this organization that became, one can say, your new family where you had many acquaintances and friends and where everything was familiar and comfortable. What made you continue your quest? You not only continued it but came back to where you, although formally, came from. I ask this because I know that many people who joined Jehovah’s Witnesses or other Protestant [sects] have a certain inhibition. Although they are connected to Orthodoxy only through baptism and know practically nothing about the meaning of Orthodox faith, they are not interested in Orthodoxy because they are sure that they have already been Orthodox, went to church, blessed Easter cakes, etc. In your case, what was it that helped you overcome this prejudice?
A. Grigoryan: It was a very long and painful process that took several years. Before returning to the Church, I had to quit the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It should be noted that in 2005 I was employed in the main Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which is considered a very privileged position. In fact, for many Jehovah’s Witnesses working at the main Administrative Center is the ultimate dream. The center is located in the Solnechnoye village near St. Petersburg. I worked there for 4.5 years. Actually, if it weren’t for working in this center, I’d probably still be a Jehovah’s Witness.
Father George: Why is that?
A. Grigoryan: Because while working there I discovered many problems that existed in the organization. I was 20 then, so I was in quite an adolescent and romantic state of mind. I was at the heart of the organization, a place that employs the most respected people, who directly manage the organization here in Russia. This is a like a town unto itself,inhabited by about 300 people, the elite of the organization. They are together 24 hours a day. Staying there exposed a different side of the organization to me. I saw with my own eyes that all weaknesses, passions, psychological and spiritual illnesses that people had before joining the organization were still there. I realized that there was no spiritual transformation. I also saw that indeed nothing human is alien to the elite, including hypocrisy, deception, anger, gossip, alcoholism and many other things. This made me look at the organization a bit more objectively.
Secondly, while working in the Administrative Center, I had access to a very interesting library that had a section dedicated to various religions. Nobody was interested in it, except for the translators who worked with various materials and needed to know the terminology. That section had many very interesting books by Orthodox authors of early 20th century. For example, there were books by N.N. Glubovsky and various professors of Kiev, Kazan and Moscow Ecclesiastical Academies. There were also three volumes of the Explanatory Bible by A.P. Lopukhin. I saw serious Orthodox literature for the first time in my life. I was amazed, because, as you can imagine, people in all such pseudo-Christian organizations have a very low opinion of Orthodox faith and theology.
Father George: I'm afraid they’ll remove these books from their library after watching our program (laughs).
A. Grigoryan: Maybe they already did. So, I took these books and started reading them out of pure curiosity. The more I read, the more I was amazed at how profound, interesting and convincing these books were. The books covered various topics. I was always interested in Bible Studies and really missed it while being with Jehovah’s Witnesses because they cover these issues in a very superficial way. They have a very primitive and shallow understanding. These books, however, were a real goldmine of information, and I was amazed that they were written in late 19th century. Jehovah’s Witnesses forgot all their books that were written not only in late 19th century but even those that were written 40 years ago. They do not read them. I wondered—how could this be? These books are so ancient and yet so interesting! That was probably when I broke one of the major stereotypes—thinking that spiritual life and true theology in general are not possible outside of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organization. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to think that way. That is when I started searching. I allowed myself to think independently and tried to find the answers.
The key factor was, of course, my reading the book by Raymond Franz, former member of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses. This was a legendary, amazing personality—a person who devoted 60 years of his life to serving the organization, ten of which he was a member of the Governing Body, that is, he was one of the “anointed ones”, who actually decided what 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses would believe. Raymond Franz wrote a book called Crisis of Conscience  in 1980 and later he wrote another one called In Search of Christian Freedom . I broke what is probably the most important taboo of any authoritarian system—the taboo on reading information provided by former members of the organization. I read this book in fear—Can you imagine, being at the very heart of the organization and reading the book whose name Jehovah’s Witnesses are not even allowed to mention. I closed the door, lowered the blinds and read. I remember how shocked I was by what I read—what I felt might be even compared to being sick. It was something… I shivered and felt as if my temperature was rising. I read and understood that every line in the book was destroying the world I lived in since I was 11. On the one hand, I was incredibly happy because I understood the truth, but on the other hand, I was afraid to answer the question “How do I live from now on?” This book played a key role in my leaving the organization, which took me several years. Surely, leaving the organization was very difficult for my wife, too, as she had been a member since she was 6.
Father George: Did you meet her in the organization?
A.Grigoryan: Yes, we met in the organization, got married and even worked together in this Administrative Center. My whole family—my parents and brothers, are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and our lives, both my wife's and mine, were connected with this organization. I understood that our resignation would bring our world down. That was exactly what happened because Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to communicate with people who left the organization—those who were excluded for any violations, let alone those who quit for ideological reasons. I am one of those so-called apostates—they are not allowed to talk to me or even say hello to me when they see me in the street.
Father George: There was probably some transitional period when they tried to persuade you and make you change your mind? You and your wife probably experienced a fair amount of pressuring.
A. Grigoryan: Of course. First of all, my parents, as sincerely believing people, made a lot of efforts. Can you imagine, from their point of view, their son was leaving the ark of salvation? As you know, Jehovah’s Witnesses are expecting Armageddon any day now and, in their minds, leaving the organization was a sure equivalent to destruction—a total destruction that comes with Armageddon. So, of course, they tried to reason with me in every possible way. This was an emotional, rather than an intellectual approach. My friends and acquaintances talked to me, but unfortunately, they did not hear what I was saying. This was hardly a surprise, I guess. Before leaving the organization, I wrote several letters to the Governing Body in the United States. They did not want to mail those letters when I was in the Administrative Center. The letters were about the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a denominational Bible of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Father George: Couldn’t you mail them yourself?
A. Grigoryan: As a member of Bethel , I wanted to send this letter though inner channels rather than by regular mail to ensure that maximum attention was paid to this letter. I sent the second and third letters myself after leaving the Administrative Center.
Father George: What did you write in those letters?
A. Grigoryan: They contained a review of the contradictions and mistakes of the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses. In particular, they were about obvious discrepancies with the Greek original of the New Testament. I worked on some translation solutions because they obviously differed from the Greek text. That was what I wrote about. The letter was six pages, written in English. They did not want to mail that letter. I was even told right away that this letter was laced with distrust towards the “faithful slave”. They asked me: “How can you be so distrusting?” But I truly wanted to understand because there were no answers to these questions. In the end, I got the response. This response unequivocally made me sure that nobody in this organization needed a search for the truth. In other words, some antiquated dogma, no matter how absurd, was more important than searching for the truth.
Father George: Can you tell us briefly what they answered?
A.Grigoryan: It was just a runaround. They wrote: “Brother Grigoryan, we would surely like to praise you for your efforts in gaining the insight into God’s Word, but, you know, you should wait and not run ahead of the organization. When Jehovah deems it necessary, he will shed more light. A discreet and faithful slave in Brooklyn will provide some clarifications. If not, please carry on and hold on tighter to the organization.” There were no answers. I had a list of very specific questions, but none of them were answered. As a result, some time later my wife and I wrote a letter of resignation from the organization. We sent it to all our friends and acquaintances—I had many ties with Jehovah’s Witnesses in CIS countries, such as Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. We sent it to everybody, and then there was a meeting with the elders of my group. They tried to talk me into changing my mind and in the end disfellowed us based on this letter. It was all over for us now.
Father George: Many of those who took the same path and left a similar organization, not necessarily Jehovah’s Witnesses, go through a withdrawal. After they quit, it is psychologically very difficult for them. Their world has indeed been destroyed. What helped you at this stage?
A. Grigoryan: I'm afraid to even imagine what would have happened if my wife had decided to stay in the organization. I know of such situations. I have many acquaintances who left the organization while their spouses stayed. I know that this made their lives difficult and in some cases led to divorce and breakup of the family. In other cases, this resulted in the family having no children, as the party that stayed in the organization deliberately decided not to have children. Of course, my wife and I supported each other, but the realization that I was now free also helped. I was free and could now dedicate sufficient time to learn and study various aspects of the Scripture. I understood that now I had an incredibly wide choice of options, in terms of studying the Scripture. This idea that I could freely, without any restrictions study the Bible really inspired me. It took me several years just to re-visit all my previous perceptions, starting from the very beginning, the Book of Genesis and to the end. I was very excited and for several years I was in a non-denominational Christianity phase.
Father George: Just yesterday, I read a story of one American, a former Jehovah's Witness. His grandparents and parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so he was a third generation Jehovah’s Witness. He said that the first thing that made him quit the organization was reading the English translation in the King James Bible. Probably not everybody knows that Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible that is significantly biased to suit the belief system of this organization. So, for this American, it was a revelation to learn that the text of the Bible was actually quite different. And this canonical, classical translation that is close to our synodal translation became a bridge for him that eventually led him to Orthodoxy. What happened in your case? How did your long search lead you to Orthodoxy?
A. Grigoryan: First of all, I realized that the Scripture in fact is not self-explanatory or self-sufficient as stated by sola scriptura, the classic Protestant thesis. The more I tried to understand the Scripture, the more interpretations I encountered. This concerned not only various ways of interpreting the text, but also hermeneutical approaches and exegetical methods. I understood that the issue of textology itself is essential. In other words, which interpretations of texts are more authentic and more ancient?
I understood that the Scripture cannot be understood outside of a living tradition
This interest in Bible Studies made me realize that in the grand scheme of things a specific denominational tradition in fact determined what should be considered as the Bible. I learned that there are so-called non-canonical books that from ancient times were included in the Scripture. In the Protestant world, they are rejected as apocrypha. I learned that there were various textological foundations for the Old Testament, such as Masoretic texts and Septuagint. All of this led to the realization that the Scripture in fact couldn’t be understood outside of this tradition, a living tradition, under which this text was written for the first time and finalized. This motivated me to search for original sources. I realized that this general Protestant idea of seeing what you believe in while reading the Bible, was actually invalid. Everybody says: “We do not put any meaning into it, we just extract the meaning that lies on the surface”. I understood that this was an illusion. This doesn’t work. In fact, the text and understanding of the text are not one and the same thing.
When I realized that, I started thinking: What criteria can I use to understand how these texts were interpreted in the 1st century in the apostolic communities? This led me to ancient Christianity. I remember going to “Slovo” store and buying a collection of works by Apostolic Fathers. This is an amazing book, that in terms of authority and ancientness, the Church considers to be next to the New Testament. I took a marker and started highlighting the parts that impressed me. These are incredible pearls of ancient legacy—Didache, the works of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch…
Father George: Those were the people who saw the Christ's apostles with their own eyes and learned from them.
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that after the apostles' deaths there was a total apostasy, there was no truth. This is a very theomachist theory!
A. Grigoryan: That was what amazed me the most, because as you know Jehovah’s Witnesses have a theory that after the apostles’ deaths there was a total apostasy, that is in the 2nd century there was no truth anymore. This theory always seemed very strange to me, because it makes the apostles out to be poor teachers, implying that they could not form communities and teach in such a way that after their deaths their followers would remain faithful to their ideas. At some point, I simply realized that this was a very theomachist theory.
Father George: If such a community could not be formed by any of the twelve apostles, then it questions the God, who selected the apostles.
A. Grigoryan: Yes, this would mean a total failure of Christ. It would be the failure of God, if the work of God breaks down right after the apostles’ deaths. It would mean that the power of the Gospel was in the apostles themselves and when they died, everything broke down. I thought that this theory was very artificial. That is why I was so amazed when I realized that I was reading the works of those who had known the apostles personally and were ordained by them. When I read all these works, I saw that traditional Christianity was in fact the Christianity of the Apostolic Fathers. Confession of the Divinity of Christ, praying to Jesus, diocese, Eucharist, that is the way it is understood in Orthodoxy, and the idea of the afterlife reward. All of these things are rejected by Jehovah’s Witnesses and are considered later developments that were introduced almost in the 4th century. And here we see all this at the turn of the 1st century and in the beginning of the 2nd century. This was the most important step toward studying Orthodoxy.
Father George: I can imagine that after fifteen years with Jehovah's Witnesses, even though you quit and broke off any ties with the past, you retained some ideas, habits and expectations that did not match the reality you faced by converting to Orthodoxy. You probably had to re-train yourself and get accustomed to new things, and some things might have seemed strange while others seemed to be missing. Maybe you can say a few words about it? How was the transition from intellectual belief in the Orthodox Church being founded by apostles to actual practice of the Orthodox life? What did you find difficult?
This is an interesting and important question. There is a lot to tell. Can you imagine, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not even allowed to enter the Orthodox churches? These churches are considered to be all but pagan temples, so you can’t even set your foot in it. In the period when I intellectually came to Orthodoxy, I was passing by the church that was near our home and I wanted to go in simply to talk to the priest, I really needed it both emotionally and spiritually. One day I pulled myself together and walked into the church. The first thing I saw was a candle stand with a woman behind it. “May I speak with the priest”, I asked. The woman answered quite rudely: “What do you need? Why do you want to see the priest? What is unclear to you?” I said: “I need to talk, my story is fairly complex.” She replied: “What complex story? Have you been baptized at least?” I said “Yes.” I was indeed baptized when I was a child. She asked me if I was wearing the cross. I said “No”. This simply infuriated her and she said: “If you’re not wearing the cross, God won’t see you.” As I already knew many things about Orthodoxy, I asked her: “What tradition of the Apostolic Fathers do you base that statement on? Do you know that the apostles did not wear crosses, but God still saw them?” Then she said angrily: “So now you want to argue with me!” Anyway, it was quite a scene, so I hurried away from the church. That was my first contact, but in fact it was Providential. My true return to the Church happened through a real community that had a half-year catechesis, communication between parishioners outside of services, and Bible studies. This played an important role because I saw the real Orthodoxy, where people did not just light candles, but lived real Eucharistic lives. They knew and loved each other, had meals together and studied the Scripture together. This, of course, impressed me. That is why I am sure that the real Orthodox mission of helping people in various sects is possible only if we can offer such people an alternative. A better alternative. Later when I was helping people to quit their organizations and follow the church-based way of life, I saw many times that none of the intellectual arguments worked.
Often people who argue with sectarians wonder why their arguments fail. We provide convincing theological, exegetic, historical and simply logical arguments, but they don’t work. This doesn’t work because these people were not originally convinced by arguments, and that is why the arguments cannot convince them otherwise. They were convinced by something else. That is why I think that we first need to simply show such people Christian life first and discuss conceptual ideas later.
Father George: It is very important to know that you can find this life in the Orthodox Church now. Maybe not every church can have such a community life as you mentioned, but in terms of richness of spiritual life, ascetic practices and personal development in faith and love, Orthodoxy can and does offer a lot to amaze former Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants. Thank you for your story and for coming and telling us about your spiritual journey. May God make the people that were dear to you while you were in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization also find their path to true faith, to Orthodoxy. God help you!
A. Grigoryan: Thank you very much.
Father George: Dear viewers, you can send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always happy to read them. God help you. I wish everyone to find their path to God in this life.