Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is the incarnational Gospel present in the life of the parish in Eastern Orthodoxy?

Over the last few days I have been reading the stories of a number of Protestant pastors, teachers, and leaders that have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I have a post coming up with some of their stories, because immediately we ask, "Why?" What caused them to not merely see the flaws in their own area and work for change and growth, but feel that they needed to completely move into Eastern Orthodoxy?" I find their stories fascinating.

While I was looking into those stories I read two fantastic articles by Bradley Nassif, who has the very interesting role of being Eastern Orthodox and being a professor at an evangelical school - North Park University in Chicago. He's written about Orthodoxy in Christianity Today, and reading that article in '07 was one of the first things that piqued my interest.

One thing I deeply appreciate about Nassif is that he is honest about the needs and flaws within Orthodoxy. As someone on the outside looking in, I wonder about these things all the time. Why do some Orthodox and Catholic churches seem spiritually dead, despite the richness of their liturgy? Why are Orthodoxy churches so often about nationalism rather than the Gospel? Why are so many believers almost completely undiscipled, to the extent that their children come to the Protestant church and say they've never heard the gospel before? I have found deep community, discipleship, accountability, and transformation in the Protestant Church - why do I often find this missing in Catholic and Orthodox churches? I now know this is not at all true of many Orthodox or Catholic churches or families, but it certainly can be a problem. Thus I really appreciated Nassif's strong words to his own Orthodox church in his article in Christianity Today,  "Will the 21st Be the Orthodox Century?"

I suggest that the Great Tradition of our Great Church cuts both ways, and we ourselves are judged by it! Even if the gospel is formally a part of the life of the Orthodox church, as we believe, that does not mean our people have understood and appropriated its message. "Catholicity" (i.e., "the whole and adequate" expression of the faith) must be discerned and applied if the church is to be spiritually viable in today's world...

More and more Orthodox, as they study the Great Tradition, are admitting that our leaders and laity don't have a mature grasp of their own faith. They recognize that the church isn't free from ethnocentrism or religious bigotry, that it hasn't contextualized its faith and liturgy in the modern world, and that it hasn't figured out how to relate to unchurched people in North America (its converts consist mostly of disillusioned believers from other Christian traditions). More and more Orthodox, as they explore the early church afresh, see that there are parts of its ancient liturgies that seem to have no biblical justification and that we cannot simply regard the Reformation and the last millennium in the West as nothing more than a sideshow.

To be sure, there are countless cases of people whose spiritual lives are flourishing in vibrant Orthodox communities. Still, the most urgent need in world Orthodoxy is the need to engage in an aggressive "internal mission" of spiritual renewal and rededication of our priests and people to Jesus Christ. I know from experience that it's possible to be "religious, but lost." That's why all of us Orthodox—bishops, priests, and people—need to make the gospel crystal clear and absolutely central in our lives and in our parishes. We must constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the church. Naturally, if this happens, it will lead to a revival within Orthodoxy, which will cause the church to blossom in unprecedented ways.
Nassif wrote another article that I perhaps liked even better, called  "Reclaiming the Gospel".

We all know that the Orthodox Church possesses a very rich and beautiful theological inheritance. Few would dispute the architectural wonder of our cathedrals, the artistic beauty of our iconography, or the inspirational impact of our ancient hymns and liturgical services. Our theological literature from the past continues to define the meaning of the word orthodoxy for those who have lost their way in the contemporary maze of theological liberalism, cultic religion, or postmodernism. We Orthodox have done better than all others at "not changing the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).....

Still, it is quite obvious from the weak participation in our liturgical services and in the personal lives of some members, that Orthodoxy is often failing to meet the spiritual needs of our people -- in America as well as the motherlands of Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Parishioners are coming and going in and out of church with little visible change in their lives. In short, they do not know the core content of the gospel or how to integrate its meaning into their everyday lives. I realize these are sad things to say, but a correct diagnosis precedes the proper cure....

So, in the end, if we Orthodox wish to possess a truly incarnational, trinitarian faith, we will constantly need to recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the Church. Failure to keep the gospel central will constitute an experiential denial of our own faith. We must stop our religious addiction to "Orthodoxy" and its "differences" with the West. We need rather to recover the evangelical dimensions of our total Church life. The liturgy itself exhorts us to that end. The four Gospels are the only books that sit upon the very center of the altar because in them alone do we hear the Good News -- all else in the Church is commentary. It is the Bible which guides and judges the Church, not the other way around. Thus, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, whose name our liturgy bears, "The lack of Scriptural knowledge is the source of all evils in the Church." I fear that many converts are coming to the Church through a revolving door, quietly leaving because their lives and families are not being sufficiently fed. Only a gospel-transformation will make the Orthodox Church healthy enough to sustain the lives of parishioners who seek spiritual nourishment in our communities.


Young Mom said...

Very interesting. I think alot of the knowledge of the gospel comes from our parents. So we really need to equip parents to teach their children. With the event of Christian Schools, to many parents will assume that their children "hear that in church and school" instead of engaging their children in discussions about their faith.

Troy said...

Very interesting!

I just learned that 2 friends from high school who'd grown up baptist have since joined the Orthodox church. I'd love to talk to them about it, go to church with them when I next see them.

Bradley Nassif is a hilarious name in ways: very English and very Levant (as would be Nigel Habash or Reginald Chamoun). Ok it's not that funny but I just like it.

s-p said...

I really like Brad Nassif's stuff. I too am a "Bible banging Protestant turned Orthodox" and it is way too easy for both sides to compare their best to the other's worst. I've seen boths best and worst. You pick your Church, you pick your struggles, really. There are challenges on both fronts and the amount of pixels glowing and ink spilled criticizing what it takes to either get a mega-church out of marketing Jesus with narcissistic appeals or to get a "Greeky-Greek" Orthodox Church to welcome a non-Greek visitor just means we are all human and depending on the culture and structure and history of our communities means we've attracted and taught and encultured our people into a certain mindset that the Gospel must encounter at some radical level for that community and those individual people who have gotten comfortable within it. If anything the long standing, entrenched "ethnic Orthodox Church's resistance to the Gospel" should be held up as a mirror to the Evangelicals who don't know what it means to have 1700 years of history and tradition, but are setting up and enculturating the Gospel according to a mindset and a philosophy and a peculiar Western American culture that is different but results in congregations that are really no different in terms of becoming more enamored with the culture of the Church than how it comes to bear on the true spiritual transformation of the people within it. Just because we are free-wheeling doesn't mean our wheels aren't cut out of the same molds and we don't get attached to them. Every Church/denomination and individual has a peculiar weakness and blind spots and it takes prophetic people willing to bear the burden of preaching to them, and even more, BEING what we are called to be by the Gospel within that community.

Kacie said...

Yeah Troy, I'd love to hear their stories too!

S-P - I appreciate your balanced perspective. What you're saying dovetails well with a post on the Jesus Creed blog yesterday (Scot McKnight is a professor at North Park with Nassif) about the damage done when we incessantly criticize the church.

I think I am at the point where I understand and can come to peace with the flaws I see in ALL denominations/churches within broad orthodoxy. It is for this reason that my husband says - why should we leave a flawed church for another flawed church? Shouldn't we instead stay where we are and continue to teach and disciple and hopefully help to heal what is broken?

And... I agree with him. But the claims of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism say that though they may be flawed, they are the true church that you SHOULD join. I wrestle with that.

Fr. Christian Mathis said...

I can only approach this from my own experience that would include growing up Catholic, but with a family full of various protestant traditions. It seems to me that many times we modern Americans approach religion from the perspective of the relativism that surrounds our culture, that is to say whatever works for me is fine and whatever works for you is also fine. I'm not sure if that is the proper way to look at things our life of faith.

I appreciate s-p's thoughts on culture. It is true that we sometimes criticize churches that allow too much "nationalism" or "culture" to invade, but miss that every group does this to some extent. I first realized this when attending a seminary in Chicago that was very international in scope. We had students from five continents and as a result celebrated the liturgy in multiple languages with cultural differences each time. I recall with joy celebrating not only in English, but Spanish, Polish, French, Vietnamese, Ibo, Chinese, Swahili, Latin, Tagalog, and probably several others. Over time I began to try sorting out the things that remained the same no matter what language or culture was expressed. It didn't take long to see that very few things were exactly the same. The things that differed were cultural. When I looked at it from this vantage point, it allowed me for the first time to see that much of what I took to be neutral in the liturgy, was actually my own American culture creeping in.

In thinking about your statement about wrestling with why make a move to another flawed church, I must say I can understand the struggle. I think I would make a distinction between flawed beliefs and flawed believers. There are many things practiced in my own tradition by our members (myself included) that would not jive with the actual teachings of the church. This is the result mainly of sin.

Anyway, thank you for the post and the opportunity to wrestle with you on this topic. I too like Nassif!

s-p said...

Hi Kacie, I wrestled for literally years over whether or not to convert to the Orthodox Church for the same reason you are struggling with. I think the thing that finally tipped it for me was coming to terms with the idea that it wasn't so much about how relatively flawed one place or another is, but "does dogma matter?" when it comes to the healing of the human person. It was a long struggle to get my head out of "theology" and arguing bullet points about this or that nuance of systematic theology. Until "Truth" became personal in the Incarnate God whose life I share sacramentally and by participation ecclesially in the life of the historic Church, and not just something to argue conceptually about I really saw no need to convert... it was just exchanging one set of propositions for another and I could hang out with just about anyone or group if all of them were as seeking and struggling as I was anyway. Maybe its because of how long I took to darken the door of an Orthodox Church, but I've never thought or told anyone "You SHOULD join..." (Like I told the priest who catechized me, "I've already been a member of "the one true church" three times already, I'm not impressed with the claim.") In my mind until someone comes to the place where they see the Orthodox Church as a place they can engage the spiritual life in a way that is not accessible or available anywhere else in both praxis and dogma, then there is no point to changing. I would tell someone to stay a good Protestant Christian rather than become a tentative, unconvinced, marginal, dissatisfied and doubting Orthodox one. "The one true Church" does not mean "the only, nor the best, Christians". :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Kacie - "I have found deep community, discipleship, accountability, and transformation in the Protestant Church - why do I often find this missing in Catholic and Orthodox churches?"

Sorry to narrow in onto one point. But, I hadn't realized that you had started visiting Orthodox & Catholic churches. We must be careful not to judge by what we read about, but what we experience. I find that all churches are different. There can be "dead" Baptist or Lutheran churches just as easily as Orthodox or Catholic ones. For me it boiled down to exactly what s-p said: It's about the doctrine and practices of that particular tradition and uniting myself with the Living and Ancient church and all her saints. When I entered the church there was a scandal going on at the national level. But, I didn't care, I no longer wanted to be floating around on a dingy I wanted to enter the Ark of Salvation. I was looking at the bigger picture. I knew the boat would right itself (as it has). I had to ask myself, in the storm of life do I want to be in the Ark or on a dingy? There's a saying "Church would be great if it wasn't for all those people." So true. We're all flawed and trying to work out our salvation.

I like Prof. Nassif too - he speaks words we all need to take to heart.

Kacie said...

Well, I have visited Catholic churches throughout my life - much of my extended family and I have attended with them.

Orthodox, you are right, I have only visited once or twice. I shouldn't have phrased it that way, as if I have experienced it. Instead, I speak to what Orthodox and former Orthodox have told me. I have a number of friends who grew up in or currently live in Russia, Turkey, Romania, etc... places where Orthodoxy holds strong. And then in Chicago, the various Orthodox churches are very nationalistic and even an Orthodox man who spoke about his conversion advised us to avoid most of them.

So... I speak to what I've been told. As I said in there, I now know that these broad brush strokes are certainly NOT true of all Orthodox or Catholics, just as much as a broad picture of the faults of Protestants can't be true of all Protestants.

That is why Nassif's challenges give me hope. He recognizes the flaws, recognizes that they matter, and then calls for renewal. There is hope in that.

GretchenJoanna said...

I felt much as Debd did, before I converted. I had for 15 years been researching and exploring what might be The Church. It seemed obvious that God's grace was present in many places, as I became familiar especially with the Anglican and Orthodox churches. But I myself, knowing only a vague entity called "The Church Universal," felt that I was "everywhere and no where." Now I am Home, and it doesn't mean that the people around me are themselves any more grace-filled than where I came from. But I am in the church that has continued from the beginning, and contains such a treasure store of life and practice, I will never come close to the bottom of it.
One man put it this way, and please forgive the major reduction: The Protestants have the Bible, the Catholics have the Pope, and the Orthodox have The Holy Spirit.