By these terms, cradle Orthodox and convert, we mean, on the one hand, someone who is born into an Orthodox family and is baptized as an infant, and on the other hand, someone who converts to the Orthodox Faith from some other religion or from none. As far as the Orthodox Church is concerned, the answer to the question is that there is no difference. They are both members of the Holy Orthodox Faith and have the opportunity to grow toward theosis and salvation through a sacramental life of faith. Each of these individuals has positive and negative possibilities for their spiritual lives, arising from their life situations.
On the positive side, cradle Orthodox have the wonderful opportunity of growing up in the Orthodox life and faith from their earliest years. They have the opportunity to partake in the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ Himself, each week throughout their lives. They can also be blessed with other sacraments of the faith, such as Holy Confession and Holy Unction, regularly. They live in a community of Faith where they may find a spouse one day and participate in the Sacrament toof Holy Matrimony. They also can witness some of the community being ordained to the Holy Priesthood or tonsured as Monastics. They can also experience the support of the entire Orthodox family when a loved one falls asleep in the Lord and is provided an Orthodox funeral. Throughout their lives they are in an environment where they can learn and grow spiritually to become mature Orthodox Christians.
On the negative side, cradle Orthodox may be raised in a very nominal home, where the Faith is not practiced or even talked about. They can think of themselves as Orthodox because they show up at Church on Pascha and Christmas, but know very, very little of what it means to be a practicing Orthodox Christian. Cradle Orthodox may be raised in a home where they go to Church most Sundays, but it has become more of a “club” to which they belong, without ever learning about their Faith. They may enjoy their friends and family, but not enter into an Orthodox life. Because of this, they can sometimes resent the “converts” or “seekers” who come to the Church and may actually discourage visitors from the pursuit of Orthodoxy. Some cradle Orthodox may even fall away from the Faith when they become teenagers or while in college. Some may return later when they marry, but some end up becoming converts to a different religion because they never really knew what Orthodox believe. Others may continue to go to Church, but never have a hunger to learn more about their Faith.
On the positive side, some converts may become Orthodox because they have studied the Faith and have come to believe with all their hearts that the Orthodox Church is indeed the very Church that Christ started on this earth. They may bring a hunger and a zeal for the Faith that is infectious to many others in their Church. They may be excited to serve the Lord and His Church in any way they can. Converts often recognize the need to support the Church with both their time and their finances. Some of them also bring a love of the Holy Scriptures and of the writings of the Early Fathers to the Church. Converts may also share their Orthodox Faith with others and help them eventually to become members of the Faith as well. Because this is a conscious decision they have made, often they are very committed to living and growing in their faith.
On the negative side, some “converts” may become Orthodox for the sake of marrying an Orthodox person. They may have no desire to learn about, or practice, the Faith. They may simply want to get married. They may not be seen much around the Church until their children need baptism or someone needs a funeral. Some “converts” may become overzealous, taking on a legalistic, “super-Orthodox” approach to the Faith. They may fast, pray, and attend Church better than anyone, and become judgmental of those who are not following the Faith as they do. They may come to Orthodoxy but not leave behind their previous religious beliefs. They may become argumentative and divisive within the Church. Some have even left Orthodoxy and taken others with them to some other religion. Some other “converts” may come to Orthodoxy because they love the services, but when their Faith is tested by someone or something, they leave because they were never really convinced that this is the Church that Jesus started on this earth.
Despite these differences in opportunities and temptations, the Church does not view cradle Orthodox and converts as spiritually different. In that case, why should members of the Church see a difference? Being Orthodox Christians in good standing with the Church and practicing the Faith to the best of their abilities are what is really important. The date of baptism or chrismation is simply the starting line to the glorious race that God has called us to run with perseverance:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
It is the finish line that all of us should be concerned about. With that in mind, perhaps we should drop the term convert and simply view each other as brothers and sisters, helping each other on the path to salvation. In the case of the individual, at what point should the term convert be dropped: one year, ten years, thirty years, at his or her funeral? Perhaps it should be dropped when he or she comes up out of the baptismal waters or Holy Chrism is applied. At that point, they are Orthodox believers, entirely members of the household of Faith!