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ព័ត៌មាននិងរឿងផ្សេងៗ

Orthodox Mission in Evangelical Perspective

 

Mark Oxbrow

Mark holds degrees in Theoretical Physics and Theology, is an ordained Anglican, and served as Europe Director, then Assistant General Secretary, of Church Mission Society, later founding the mission network Faith2Share. He currently directs the Guided Research Programme at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Research interests include Orthodox theology, Islam, and Ethiopia.

 

 

Mission Round Table 19:1 (Jan-Apr 2024): 12-18
To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 19:1.

In the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, BBC TV produced a documentary that included a brief conversation in a ruined Ukrainian Orthodox church between an earnest young American short-term missionary and an elderly Orthodox believer who was lying on his back restoring the mural of the Pantocrator[1] in the roof of the ruined church. The evident commitment to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Ukraine, so recently released from Communist oppression, was inspiring, but as the conversation continued, what was even more moving was the grace with which the older man shared his deep faith that had carried him through years of atheistic oppression. Conversion took place that afternoon, but perhaps not the conversion that the leaders of this mission trip had been expecting. At the end of this brief report, the camera caught the tears in the eyes of a young man who had discovered a whole new meaning to Christian discipleship amongst the dusty rubble of an Orthodox church.

In this article, I hope to explore the nature of Orthodox faith and mission and to ask to what degree Evangelicals can embrace this as a genuine expression of Christ-centred faith. To put it more bluntly, are Orthodox Christians true believers or is their faith heretical, and is Orthodox mission anything more than nationalistic proselytism?[2] We cannot deny that in several countries, mainly in Europe, Evangelicals have suffered badly at the hands of the Orthodox Church which has often claimed an hegemony over religious affairs in their nation. At the same time, simple Orthodox believers have been greatly hurt by Evangelical missions that have regarded them as legitimate “targets” for aggressive evangelism, as “unreached” people groups in need of salvation. Persecution has been two-way and hurts have persisted in many of these communities for many generations. Perhaps now is the time to listen more carefully to each other, to re-examine our assumptions and prejudices and ask whether there might be a new way forward in fraternal mission. This article will propose that—in the light of increasing secularisation, materialism, and individualism in many of the contexts where we minister—Evangelical and Orthodox Christians need each other as we work together to present humanity with a convincing witness to the divine Kingdom to which all daughters and sons of God are called.

But first we must deal with some preliminary questions. Who are the Orthodox? What do they believe? Are the differences between Evangelical and Orthodox believers fundamental to Christian truth or are they more historical, cultural, and related to choices in modes of discipleship? And most critically, in our missions community, is Orthodox mission a genuine expression of the missio Dei and perhaps an expression that can complement and enhance our own Evangelical witness?

Who are the Orthodox?

In the 1970s, I spent three years in one of the better Evangelical Anglican theological schools in the UK and left to begin my ministry as an Anglican minister with absolutely no understanding of what, or who, Orthodox Christians were other than the (erroneous) fact that they worshipped icons. It took the fall of the Berlin wall, a request that I serve as Europe Director for the Church Mission Society (CMS), and some long nights of reading[3] to change all that. Despite decades of ecumenical encounter, as was vividly demonstrated at the Lausanne II Congress in Cape Town in 2010, many Evangelical leaders and congregation members remain woefully ignorant about the history, beliefs, and daily discipleship of their Orthodox sisters and brothers. This is not normally their fault—there are very significant barriers to overcome. The first is language. Most Orthodox believers speak Russian, Romanian, Amharic, Greek, Serbian, or Albanian, whereas most Evangelicals speak Spanish, English, Swahili, French, Korean, and a swath of other languages. For this reason, contemporary Orthodox theology, discipleship literature, TV programmes, and conference opportunities are not readily accessible to Evangelicals. While the language barrier also exists between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals or between Korean Evangelicals and those from Nigeria, the Orthodox/Evangelical language barrier is much more pronounced.

The second barrier is cultural. As Evangelicals, we are often blind to the degree to which our faith expression is tied to our culture, be that American, Malaysian, or Nigerian. As mission workers, we are trained and have some expertise in crossing cultures, but the vast majority of missionaries are engaged in cultures that have been significantly influenced by Western Enlightenment thinking, either directly or through centuries of colonial influence. (One important exception here would be China together with some Chinese diaspora communities, which suggests that OMF missionaries may have important insights to bring to working with “pre-Enlightenment” cultures like those of the Orthodox world.) It is important to understand that most Orthodox believers have been born into Slavic, Middle Eastern, or North African cultures that have not been shaped by the Enlightenment or, in the case of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have been radically reshaped by Communism. We think differently.

The third barrier is that of ecclesial history. Whether we are aware of it or not, evangelical theology is deeply shaped by the Protestant Reformation. Our worship, our discipleship practices, our witness and mission are radically shaped by that sixteenth-century revolution in theology. None of the Orthodox churches have been through the Reformation. Whether that is a bad or a good thing is beyond the point at this stage in our discussion, but it does make communicating theologically that much more challenging.

So, getting back to basics: who are the Orthodox?[4] The first thing to be clear about is that, rather like Evangelicals, they are a family of churches who recognise a common root but have developed slightly different beliefs and Christian lifestyles. As with Evangelicals, there are even some Orthodox whom other Orthodox do not regard as being Orthodox! The common root is the apostolic church of New Testament times and every Orthodox Church believes that its leaders (bishops, priests, etc.) are linked back to that early church through apostolic succession—the ordination of leaders by other leaders in a chain stretching back around two thousand years to the first apostles. For most of the first Christian millennium, there was no “Orthodox” Church, just the Church—united in ministry and faith and constantly struggling to gain a deeper understanding of God’s purposes amongst his people, the nature of God, the meaning of Christ’s presence in Palestine, the significance of his resurrection, and much more. It is only after the Great Schism of 1054 CE that we can begin to talk of an Orthodox Church (or Churches) as distinct from Roman Catholics and those of other Christian traditions. This does not mean that all Orthodox Christians were believing the same things, but they made a much better job of holding together their theological diversity in functional unity than Evangelicals have done more recently.[5]

The most significant division within the Orthodox family occurred at the Council of Chalcedon[6] in 451 CE after a long debate about the two natures of Christ—human and divine—and how these are held together. The definition produced at the Council stated

We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.

This theological debate has resulted in two major sub-families of Orthodox Churches: the Eastern Orthodox (dyophysite, two-nature or Chalcedonian Churches) and the Oriental Orthodox (miaphysite, one-nature or Pre-Chalcedonian churches). The more significant members of these two families are shown in the table below.

Eastern Orthodox (Chalcedonian) Oriental Orthodox (Pre-Chalcedonian)
Russian Orthodox Ethiopian Orthodox
Romanian Orthodox Coptic Church of Egypt
Greek Orthodox Eritrean Orthodox
Serbian Orthodox Syrian Orthodox
Georgian Orthodox Church Armenian Orthodox
Albanian Orthodox Church Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
Ecumenical Patriarchate (Turkey) Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch

 

There is much debate today about the reasons for this split. Some scholars hold that it was primarily a theological dispute exacerbated by the fact that the major proponents were using primarily Greek philosophical concepts that were not fully understood or used by theologians from the East, while others maintain that there were significant geopolitical factors at play as well as cultural issues.[7] Subsequent history has pulled these two sub-families further apart as one had to face the rise of Islam and the other the power of Catholicism and, more recently, persecution under Communism.[8]

The separation between churches within the two sub-families—it would not be correct to call this division or split—is largely a result of ethnic or national difference and tells us something about how Orthodox faith is tied to a person’s whole identity, including their language and nationality. We see this most clearly in places like the USA or UK where Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, and Serbia Orthodox communities live alongside each other, using their national languages and preserving their cultures, whilst at the same time the Orthodox Church in America[9] has emerged to serve a new generation of Orthodox believers and converts who feel more American than Greek or Albanian. All of these “national” churches (within a sub-family) share the same doctrine and even the same liturgy.

Sadly, politics continues to play their part in church separations as we have seen during the recent animosity between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church over the recognition of Orthodox bodies in Ukraine. This is not our concern in this article, but it does draw our attention to a major danger for both Orthodox and Evangelical churches. Saint Paul calls us to pray for the rulers of our nations, and there is a long and good tradition of Christians being concerned for the welfare of their nation, its governance, and people, but when this strays over the line into Christian Nationalism, we run into real dangers. This is true whether we are thinking of Russian Orthodox support for the Russian imperial aspirations of Vladimir Putin,[10] American Evangelical support for a right-wing “America first” agenda,[11] or even an unquestioning Zionist support for the secular nation of Israel. Orthodox believers readily accept that nationalism is one of the greater dangers for their church.

The two-thousand-year historical perspective of Orthodox Christians—who still use forms of worship developed by some of our greatest theologians, such as John Chrysostom (347–407 CE)—naturally gives them a particular way of looking at Evangelicals whose church traditions, theology, and forms of worship have only evolved over the past two centuries or less. Orthodox Christians, understandably, regard themselves as the “original” Christians and Evangelicals (alongside Catholics, Lutherans, and others) as “those who left, but are welcome to return” to the true Church. Though older attitudes persist, there is a contemporary shift amongst some Orthodox writers towards regarding our different ecclesial histories as parallel developments that may now be complementary in an enriching way.[12]

We must now move on from historical considerations to an examination of those factors that might draw us together in mission in an increasingly secularised world.

The Evangelical faith of the Orthodox Church

In the Foreword to the recently published book by Bradley Nassif, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church, Professor Andrew Lough writes, “Perhaps what impresses me most about the book is the note of urgency: in fundamental ways Orthodox and Evangelicals need one another and Professor Nassif is concerned to show us ways in which we can fulfil this need of each other through listening to one another through mutual encounter.[13] This need for one another had been a growing conviction in my own life during the 1990s and through the early years of the twenty-first century, but matters came to a head, for me and other Evangelical leaders, during the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town in 2010. In one particular plenary session, with over four thousand Evangelicals present alongside just a handful of “observers” from Orthodox, Catholic, and mainline Protestant Churches, a comprehensive survey of “unreached peoples” around the world was presented. It soon became clear that this category of “unreached” included, for the presenter, all of the Orthodox communities from Chicago to Moscow and Addis Ababa to Kerala. Leaving the plenary hall in dismay, a small number of Evangelicals met around the coffee machines with Orthodox leaders who were equally upset, and so began what today has become the Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative (LOI), to which Bradley Nassif was an early contributor. Sixteen international consultations[14] and numerous robust conversations later, this initiative of Orthodox and Evangelical leaders, including leaders from mission movements, such as The Navigators, SIM, CMS, Cru, SIL-Wycliffe, and the Bible Societies, has begun to open windows of understanding, repentance, and reconciliation.[15]

Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative members consult at the 2022 global consultation in Salzburg hosted by the Syriac Orthodox Church. Source: Mark Oxbrow.

In the early stages of the LOI, it became clear that Orthodox leaders, who have been in formal theological dialogue with the Catholic Church and so-called mainline Protestant denominations through gatherings of the World Council of Churches and its regional equivalents, had begun to discover that they actually had more in common theologically with Evangelicals than with the increasingly liberal, traditional non-Orthodox denominations. An early manifestation of this theological alignment was observed in the 1990s when the European Charismatic Consultation of 1988[16] attracted Pentecostal Christians, those amongst Catholics, Anglicans, Lutheran, and others who had been influenced by the Charismatic Renewal[17] of the preceding decades as well as Orthodox Christians, particularly from the Middle East. It is to four aspects of this emerging theological alignment that we now turn.

Lausanne-Orthodox Initiative members at evening prayers in the Syriac Orthodox Church in Salzburg during the 2022 Salzburg Consultation. Source: Lausanne Movement.

1. A biblical faith

Evangelicals love their Bibles, or at least that is what we claim. However, it is not totally impossible, in contemporary Europe at least, to find oneself attending an Evangelical worship service in which not one sentence of Scripture is read, even during the sermon. In contrast, Bradley Nassif reminds us that:

Paul Evdokimov observes that the [Orthodox] Divine Liturgy contains ninety-eight quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New Testament. Fr Alexander Schmemann estimates that “more than half of all liturgical texts are biblical.” In these texts the Bible is used in three distinct ways: a) direct readings or hymns taken from the Bible itself, b) biblical words and phrases used throughout liturgical petitions, c) use of biblical images, symbols or expressions (typologies) when making theological statements.[18]

The Orthodox faith is deeply rooted in Scripture.

The question arises as to the relationship between Scripture and the Tradition of the Church or, more specifically, the teaching of the Church Fathers and Mothers to whom Orthodox Christians often turn. Despite the ways in which Orthodox Christians treasure the writings of these early theologians, they are never in doubt that the Bible has primacy. In 1972, one of the great Orthodox teachers of the twentieth century wrote an introduction to his book on Scripture that could just as easily have come from an Evangelical pen. He writes:

Christian ministers are not supposed to preach their private opinions, at least from the pulpit. Ministers are commissioned and ordained in the church precisely to preach the Word of God. They are given some fixed terms of reference – namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ – and they are committed to this sole and perennial message. They are expected to propagate and to sustain “the faith which was once delivered to the saints.” Of course, the Word of God must be preached “efficiently”. That is, it should always be so presented as to carry conviction and command the allegiance of every new generation and every particular group. … But, above all, the identity of the message must be preserved.[19]

In later chapters of his book, Florovsky stresses the role of the church (corporate) as interpreter of Scripture, the dangers of “individual interpretation” that is not weighed and received by the whole church, and the importance of a dialogue of interpretation across time (i.e., with the early Fathers and Mothers of the church) and distance (i.e., across contemporary cultures and linguistic communities).

In symbolic ways also, the Bible and, in particular, the Gospels are valued and given great honour, sometimes in stark contrast to the tatty Bibles that Evangelicals may use to prop up a cup of coffee or support a digital projector! The Orthodox Gospels are often encased in a jewel-encrusted binding, held high in liturgical procession, kissed, and kept in a place of honour. (I well remember working with a Romanian Orthodox team preparing Alpha course videos for use in their context and the horror that was expressed when Nicky Gumbel dropped his Bible to the floor to free up both hands for some gesture!)

Traditions of biblical interpretation differ between Evangelical and Orthodox communities and, to a degree, reflect the absence of Enlightenment and Reformation influences within Orthodoxy alluded to earlier. John Breck explains the principles of patristic hermeneutics by saying that:

biblical scholars of the fourth-century exegetical school of Antioch held that the events of Scripture contain a “double sense,” both literal and spiritual. … the literal sense [refers] to the “intention of the Biblical author.” This means the message the writer himself perceived through the inspirational activity of the Spirit and sought to communicate to his readers. The spiritual sense, on the other hand, referred to the Word which God speaks through the written text in each present moment, each new generation, of the Church’s life. Yet … firmly rooted in the events of history.[20]

Such an approach to receiving the Word of God, it will be noted, is far removed from the liberal critical hermeneutics of European theology in the twentieth century, but much closer to the Pentecostal—especially Majority World—and arguably postmodern communities, with whom many Evangelicals relate today.

The significance of the Bible for Orthodox Christians is also signalled by their very significant contemporary commitment to Bible translation and the work of the Bible Societies internationally.

2. Alive to the Holy Spirit

The second aspect of theological alignment that we should note relates to the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Mention was earlier made of the involvement of Orthodox leaders in the charismatic movements of the last century, but with the rise of global Pentecostalism, this alignment takes on even greater significance.[21]

Orthodoxy is well known for its strong adherence to rich trinitarian theology that gives equal space to the three Persons of the Trinity, thus avoiding the pitfalls of narrow Theistic or Christo-centric theologies. In fact, a better way of expressing this might be to say that Orthodox theology is indeed Christ-centric but also Spirit-centred and centred on the Creator and their perichoresis—mutual indwelling. The Spirit of God has a major part to play in the life of every Orthodox believer, not only in worship and private devotion but in every aspect of daily life. In his study of “Spiritual Experience in Orthodoxy and the Pentecostal Concept of the Works of the Holy Spirit,” Ullrich R. Kleinhempel writes:

Pentecostal and Orthodox experience of the Holy Spirit is based on an agreement in cosmology, which does not reject the supernatural as “mythological” or “pre-enlightened”, but accepts it in accordance with the common Christian experience of all ages as a dimension of the action and experience of the Holy Spirit. There is thus a distinctness of the Holy Spirit in the form of experience, based on the notion of the procession of the Holy Spirit in Orthodox theology, and likewise, though on a different doctrinal basis, in Pentecostalism. It is not symmetry in dogma but in spiritual experience and liturgical practice.[22]

Also central to Orthodox faith is a mysticism born out of an apophatic[23] faith which humbly accepts that “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). The spiritual world is largely unseen but is very real and is experienced as “powers and authorities,” as the exercise of spiritual gifts, as dreams and revelations, as the overpowering presence of the Holy Spirit of God. In contrast to the “realism”, rationalism, and secularist-influenced pragmatism of some Christian traditions, this is a point at which Orthodox Christians and a growing number of Pentecostal Evangelicals find themselves in existential harmony if not doctrinal agreement. Kleinhempel concludes his study with the following encouraging, and indeed, missional, statement.

The two Churches [Orthodox and Pentecostal] are an unlikely pair for comparison, with little reason for amicable dialogue at local levels, where they are fierce competitors, yet close at heart to each other on vital issues of the Holy Spirit and His work and presence, which sets them apart from other Churches on the international level. Seeing however that the experiential approach common to both is essential in the crisis of secularisation, which is critically threatening Christianity in its established homelands, as it provides the experiential validity that is primarily convincing in an age of doubt, there is a challenge, in response to the task of common witness of the Christian faith in our age, to enter into a critical comparison of doctrine and practice.[24]

And, one might add, exploration of partnered missional witness.

3. A call to holy living

As alluded to above, in contemporary missional contexts, the lived expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ is an essential and powerful witness to a doubting world. Sadly, the witness that contemporary secular society more often observes is that of a church engrossed in internal conflict; struggling to make sense of societal issues, such as medical ethics, the use of AI, and gender self-identification; and failing in matters of sexual misconduct and corruption. In response, there is a call for holy living that comes both from Evangelical (especially in the Majority World) and Orthodox communities. In these areas, the two very different communities find common though not necessarily solid ground.

On New Year’s Eve, 1923, the Romanian Orthodox priest Iosif Trifa was reflecting on his eleven years of village ministry. He writes:

I was thinking with sorrow about the vanity of the past eleven years of shouting in the desert without a trace of fruit. It was late at night. Under the window of my house, just then, passed a boisterous group of drunkards. This only increased my sorrow. I fell on my knees crying and praying to the Lord to help me in the year that lay ahead to labour with more success. In that night, the Spirit of the Lord inspired me with the idea of a revolution. … With this beginning came what developed into the movement “Oastea Domnului”.[25]

Through this Wesley-like conversion, Trifa established what was to become a large renewal movement within the Romanian Orthodox Church during the Communist period, based on four “evangelical” principles. These were: (1) the centrality of the Person of Christ, (2) regular personal study of the Scriptures, (3) lay leadership within the church, and (4) the living of a moral and selfless life. It was the last of these that was to have a major impact on the survival of the Orthodox Church in Romania during forty years of communist rule when the public proclamation of faith and, in later years, religious teaching and worship were prohibited and thousands died in prisons for their faith. The outstanding lives of the members of Oastea Domnului—literally “the Lord’s Army”—nurtured faith and drew tens of thousands into the underground community of faith. Trifa himself was excommunicated (by an Orthodox hierarchy in the grips of communism) in 1936, died in 1938, and had his excommunication lifted in 1990, two years after the end of communist rule.

This story has been told at length here as it is unlikely that many Evangelicals are aware of it. It parallels not only the ministry of John Wesley but the numerous Evangelicals whose holy living had drawn far more people towards Christ than any sermon. In his study of the first three centuries of the (united) Christian Church in north Africa, Alan Kreider reminds us that there was no organised evangelism, nor mission agencies or movements, and little public verbal expression of the gospel, but rather it was the quality of the lives lived by ordinary Christians that led to the growth of the Church. He writes:

In the mid-second century, Justin began his First Apology by stating his aim: “It is for us, therefore, to offer to all the opportunity of inspecting our life and teachings.” … a century later the great intellectual Origen agreed: at the beginning of his apology Contra Celsum, he states that Christ “makes his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts.”[26]

Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians alike know the call of God to holy living, and despite many failures, can experience the conversion of life that gives birth to a true witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. The witness of worship, word and life

The fourth and final aspect of theological alignment between Evangelical and Orthodox Christians is not always so obvious but, nevertheless, very real. In fact, while the commitment that both communities have to mission has often led to conflict and misunderstanding, I wish to suggest here that it can also lead to an enriched understanding of the divine invitation to participate in the missio Dei for both churches. The key to understanding the alignment to which I refer here comes from Revelation 7:9–12 (NIV).

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

The passage starts with the primary motivation for Evangelical mission—seen in the pre-occupation of some Evangelical missions with numbers—that of the gathering in of multitudes from every culture and context to stand under the reign of the Lamb of God—and ends with the primary motivation for Orthodox mission—the eternal worship of God “for ever and ever” (even longer than a three-hour Patriarchal liturgy!). But how do we bring these primary motivations into conversation?

James Stamoolis, the former Executive Director of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship writes:

The bringing together of [the biblical themes of], agape and glory, emphasizes again the central themes of Orthodox theology. Around these themes the Orthodox theological framework is constructed. These are the characteristics of Orthodox theology that form the focal point for Orthodox worship. It is not at all strange, then, that they also form the focal point of Orthodox missiology. For the love of God and the glory of God come together in the redemption of individuals. God, who is the God of love, loves and works towards their redemption. The redeemed in turn praise God for his purpose in redemption and thus spread further abroad the glory of God.[27]

Is there not something here that Evangelical Christians can embrace? Stamoolis goes on to stress the fact that the redemption of humanity is only one part of the redemptive purposes of God and that “the whole of creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own … the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!” (Rom 8:19–21, J. B. Phillips translation[28]). Here, we see why Orthodox Christians, led by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew, have often been quicker to embrace a creation care agenda than many Evangelicals—it is for the glory of God and intimately connected with our own redemption.

Also speaking of mission motivation, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, himself a former Orthodox missionary to Kenya, writes:

It is not simply obedience, duty or altruism. It is an inner necessity, “Necessity is laid upon me”, said St Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9.16). All other motives are aspects of this need, derivative motives. Mission is an inner necessity (i) for the faithful and (ii) for the Church. If they refuse it, they do not merely omit a duty, they deny themselves.[29]

In his chapter “The rationale and goal of mission,” Edward Rommen[30] develops this concept of mission as an “inner necessity” by drawing on Orthodox soteriology and the understanding that the restoration of the image of God in each Christian brings with it the missional nature of God so that it becomes a part of our very nature to reach out for the embrace of the triune God and at the same time to reach out with the embrace of God to all of humanity and creation who are cut off from that embrace.[31]

As we reflect on the Orthodox theology of mission, it becomes clear why that mission, in practice, often comes in three streams: (1) the invitational mission of a liturgy that points to the glory of God (worship), (2) the proclamational mission of preaching, teaching, and evangelism (word), and (3) the Christ-reflecting mission of holy lives lived in the world and for the world (life).

A history of Orthodox mission is beyond the scope of this article, but interested readers can find the stories of the early nineteenth-century Altai mission in Russia led by Macarius Gloukharev; the conversion of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska by Bishop Innocent in the same period; the work of Nicholas Kassatkin in Japan towards the end of that century; and missions to China (Innocent Figourovsky) and Korea (Chrysanthe Scetkovskij) in the early years of the twentieth century vividly described in Stamoolis’ Eastern Orthodox Theology Today.[32] Stamoolis also describes the mission of the Greek Orthodox Church in Africa, but a fuller description of this remarkable twentieth-century church planting mission can be found in Archbishop Anastasios’ own In Africa: Orthodox Christian Witness and Service.[33]

Evangelical orthodoxy and orthodox evangelicalism

This article has sought to challenge perceptions, to encourage enquiry, and to awaken a possibility that there is an Orthodoxy that is, in a true sense, evangelical and an Evangelicalism that is both biblically and spiritually orthodox and that there may be a conversation to be pursued between the two. Nassif quotes Lev Gillet, long known simply as “a monk of the Eastern Church,” who wrote:

There can be noticed all through Orthodox history the existence of a spirituality which one might call “evangelical”. This spirituality takes care to identify Christian life neither with the rigorous asceticism of the Desert, nor with ritual worship; it lays stress on the spirit and virtues of the Gospel, on the necessity of following Christ, on charity towards the poor and afflicted.[34]

In like manner, many Evangelicals today are awakening to the fact that the “Early Church”, whose primal fervour for the gospel, the salvation of humanity, and the return of Christ that they seek to emulate, is none other than the Orthodox Church in its pre-schism state. As noted at the start of this article, there is much history, cultural divide, and philosophical divergence to climb over, but, as those called to mission, surely that is our vocation and skill: to learn new languages, new cultures; to listen and to learn; and, in so doing, to discover in the stranger the God we seek to serve.

 


 

[1] The painting of Christ as “ruler of all the universe” is often found on the ceiling above the altar in an Orthodox Church.

[2] On the challenging issue of nationalism and Orthodoxy, see Davor Džalto, “Nationalism, Statism, and Orthodoxy,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 57, no. 3–4 (2013): 503–23. For a longer treatment of this issue in Europe, see Lucian N. Leustean, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

[3] One of the key texts I read at that stage was James J. Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today (Minneapolis: Light and Life, 1986). James served as Theological Consultant to the World Evangelical Alliance and as Theological Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students and comes from Greek Orthodox heritage. The book has a foreword by John Meyendorff, one of the leading Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century.

[4] For a good introduction to the family of Orthodox Churches, see John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[5] See for example Andrew Louth’s study of the diversity of belief within the context of structural unity in the church of the fourth century. Andrew Louth, “Unity and Diversity in the Church of the Fourth Century,” Studies in Church History 32 (1996): 1–17.

[6] See Richard Price, “The Council of Chalcedon (451): A Narrative,” in Chalcedon in Context: Church Councils 400–700, ed. Richard Price and Mary Whitby (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 70–91.

[7] On the political aspects of Chalcedon and the separation of churches that followed, see, for example, Wolf Liebeschuetz, “Theological and Political Aspects of the Council of Chalcedon,” Scripta Classica Israelica 36 (2017): 105–121, and on the challenges of the use of Greek philosophical language, see Stephen W. Need, “Language, Metaphor, and Chalcedon: A Case of Theological Double Vision,” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 2 (April 1995): 237–55.

[8] Whilst we honour the Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic martyrs of recent years, it is worth recalling that the brunt of persecution against Christians, at least in the last two centuries, but also before this, has been borne by Orthodox Christians living in Islamic and Communist contexts.

[9] See https://oca.org (accessed 9 November 2023).

[10] All analysis of the relationship between President Putin and Patriarch Kirill is, at the time of writing, provisional and written from a particular perspective, but a useful example of such analysis can be found in Marcin Skadanowski and Cezary Smuniewski, “The Secularism of Putin’s Russia and Patriarch Kirill’s Church: The Russian Model of State-Church Relations and its Social Reception,” Religions 14, no. 1 (2023): 119. https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/14/1/119 (accessed 19 December 2023).

[11] See, for example, Michele F. Margolis, “Who Wants to Make America Great Again? Understanding Evangelical Support for Donald Trump,” Politics and Religion 13, no. 1 (March 2020): 89–118.

[12] See, for example, John A. Jillions, “Orthodox Christianity in the West: The Ecumenical Challenge,” in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, ed. Mary B. Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 276–290.

[13] Andrew Lough, “Foreword,” in Bradley Nassif, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2021), 12. Italics original.

[14] The LOI website (www.loimission.net) contains reports and papers from most of these consultations.

[15] As a direct result of the work of LOI, in 2024, a significant group of senior Orthodox leaders from around the world have been invited to attend the fourth Lausanne Congress in Seoul, South Korea in September, not as “observers” this time but as “guests” of the Executive Director.

[16] See the brief description in Peter Hocken, “The Contribution of the Charismatic Movement to Christian Unity,” in Pentecostal Theology and Ecumenical Theology, ed. Peter Hocken, Tony L. Richie, and Christopher A. Stephenson (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 43–64.

[17] See for example, Joshua R. Ziefle, “The Charismatic Renewal: History, Diversity, Complexity,” in Handbook of Global Contemporary Christianity: Movements, Institutions, and Allegiance, ed. Stephen Hunt (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 123–45.

[18] Nassif, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church, 40.

[19] Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Orthodox View, 2nd ed. (Claymont, DE: Thomas Nelson, 2019), 1.

[20] John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 37.

[21] For a comprehensive study of this global phenomenon, see Michael Wilkinson, ed., Brill’s Encyclopedia of Global Pentecostalism (Leiden: Brill, 2021) and Donald E. Miller, Kimon H. Sargeant, and Richard Flory, eds., Spirit and Power: The Growth and Global Impact of Pentecostalism (Oxford: Oxford Academic, 2013).

[22] Ullrich Relebogilwe Kleinhempel, “Spiritual Experience in Orthodoxy and the Pentecostal Concept of the Works of the Holy Spirit: A Comparative Study,” Essay presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the doctoral dissertation on “The Role of the Body in the Thought of St. Gregory Palamas” at the UNESCO Chair of Interreligious and Intercultural Studies, University of Bucharest, 5–6, https://publikationen.uni-tuebingen.de/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10900/98373/Kleinhempel_007.pdf (accessed 24 February 2024).

[23] Apophatic theology (sometimes unhelpfully called negative theology) is an approach to theology which begins with the assumption that God will always remain partially unknown by his creation; that until the resurrection we will only, as Paul reminds us, see “through a glass darkly,” so that the totality of God, and aspects of his works will remain a mystery. Such theology often begins by saying what God is not and then feels its way towards what God is. Kataphatic theology, its opposite, begins by stating what God is, “God is love,” for example. Both approaches to early Christian theology can be identified amongst New Testament writers.

[24] Kleinhempel, “Spiritual Experience in Orthodoxy and the Pentecostal Concept of the Works of the Holy Spirit,” 85–86.

[25] Iosif Trifa, Ce este Oastea Domnului? (Sibiu, Romania: Editura si tiparul Tipografiei Oastea Dumnului, 1934), 231. Romanian text translated by Mark Oxbrow.

[26] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 94.

[27] Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today, 50–51.

[28] J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960).

[29] Anastasios Yannoulatos, “The Purpose and Motive of Mission,” International Review of Mission 54, no. 215 (July 1965): 281–97, 293.

[30] Edward Rommen, Into All the World: An Orthodox Theology of Mission (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2017), 177–208.

[31] In his discussion of soteriology in this chapter, Rommen explores the Orthodox concepts of deification, or theosis, and the restoration of the image of God in creation, a topic which is beyond the purposes of this article but which deserves careful exploration by Evangelicals who speak rather of Sanctification. A useful treatment of this topic can be found in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2004).

[32] Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today, 24–43.

[33] Anastasios Yannoulatos, In Africa: Orthodox Christian Witness and Service (Boston, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2015).

[34] A Monk of the Eastern Church, Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 4–5, quoted in Nassif, The Evangelical Theology of the Orthodox Church, 71.

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