Russian Orthodox and Russian Pentecostals: Comparisons and Contrasts

Jonathan C. Frazier

Fundamental Differences

Western treatments of Eastern Christianity generally acknowledge differences in Eastern and Western mindset and worldview as critical components to mutual understanding (or misunderstanding as the case may be). For example, legal scholar John Witte, Jr., quoting Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, identifies the heart of East-West differences as a reflection of the “shadow of the Enlightenment” that erodes Western civilization. This shadow creates an environment in which “intelligent, well-intentioned people sincerely [believe] that the wonders of science could replace the miracles of faith.”1 Witte’s further explanation of the tensions that result from divergent worldviews is particularly meaningful as it relates to the Orthodox accusation that Western missionaries in Russia are guilty of proselytizing.

Theologian Donald Fairbairn suggests several fundamental ways in which differences shape the East-West discussion. First, one must recognize that Western Christianity focuses on the individual while Eastern Christianity tends to emphasize the group. For the Eastern mindset, which emphasizes corporate responsibility and individual connection to the whole, the Western notion of individual rights proves to be irrelevant.

This contrast of the individual and the group serves as an important distinction between East and West. For Russian Pentecostals individual opinion often gets buried underneath a type of “group think” that permeates Pentecostal church culture. On occasion, Western missionaries, when dealing with church leadership, believe that allowing individual expression of various points of view builds consensus. Only later do they discover that, in reality, the group had previously formed a “consensus” around the view or opinion of one strong, individual leader. While members of the group may actually disagree, their unanimous submission to the “will of the group” (that is, its leader) is more important than an expression of disunity (even though their opposing view may actually lead to better solutions). A form of “pressured conformity” emerges rather than genuine consensus—an outcome made possible because of the underlying mindset that emphasizes the corporate nature of individual roles.

Second, Western Christianity typically views Scripture through a legal perspective while Eastern Christianity maintains an orientation that is “more personal and mystical, more concerned with participation in divine life.”2 As Fairbairn illustrates:

The ancient Romans were among history’s greatest lawyers, and the Latin legal expertise bequeathed to the Western Church a mindset that understands biblical words such as “justification” in terms of legal status, guilt and innocence. In contrast, the Greek mind has long been fascinated with the quest of the soul to gain union with God, and this mystical bent has helped to shape Orthodoxy’s view of Christian life as a pilgrimage leading from death to life.3

This fundamental difference is especially noteworthy in the cross-cultural teaching context. The pedagogical methodology utilized in the classroom often reflects an indirect expression of the Western-legal and Eastern-pilgrimage tension. Westerners often come to the classroom prepared to systematically engage the subject material with outlines, charts, and other teaching tools that clearly delineate propositional truths in an informative (Easterners may say impersonal) manner. Very often, Eastern students must adapt the way in which they digest the material and adjust their thinking in order to understand the Western, information-oriented teaching style.

Third, the West orients itself to reality through a text or the written word while the East is “more pictorial and image-oriented in its approach to reality.”4 A manifestation of this phenomenon is apparent in simple, but not insignificant ways. Fairbairn writes:

If one asks a typical Western Christian what the expression “Word of God” refers to, that person will probably answer, “Scripture.” When asked the same question, an Orthodox person is much more likely to answer, “Christ.” The incarnate Christ, the visible representation of God, the image of the invisible Father, is the one who the Orthodox celebrate in their churches full of icons and other visible images.5

The way in which Russian Pentecostals typically preach illustrates the Eastern emphasis on imagery. Unlike their Western counterparts who, by and large, have adopted the typically Western propositional style of preaching, Russian Pentecostal preachers generally rely on storytelling and illustrations to convey biblical truth. While they may not worship in cathedrals surrounded by visible symbols and images of the gospel in the form of frescoes or icons, Russian Pentecostals use image-laden word pictures, allegories, and elaborate stories to communicate and illustrate their message. Clearly, Russian Pentecostals place a strong emphasis on illustration in the communication and transmission of the gospel due to the image-orientation rooted in the Eastern mindset.

Distinctives of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Western Christianity are further revealed in their respective usage of the most basic of theological terms: orthodox.6 From the original Greek, orthodox is a combination of orthos (meaning straight, right, correct, upright, or proper) and doxa (meaning opinion, glory, worship, or praise).7 For Westerners, the term orthodox usually is defined as right doctrine or right opinion. Therefore, one may speak of errant points of view as unorthodox. In contrast, the term for Eastern Christianity usually is defined as right praise or proper glory that leads to right worship.

Westerners lean toward doctrinal exactitude while Eastern Orthodoxy focuses on an attitude of worship that gives proper glory to God. For the Orthodox, then, the liturgy—the ultimate act of right worship—provides the fullest means by which one may experience God. Fr. Kallistos Ware’s comment on the liturgy provides essential insight:

The Orthodox approach to religion is fundamentally a liturgical approach, which understands doctrine in the context of divine worship. It is no coincidence that the word Orthodoxy should signify alike right belief and right worship, for the two things are inseparable.8

“Those who wish to know about Orthodoxy,” Ware admonishes, “should not so much read books . . . [but rather] attend the liturgy. As Christ said to Andrew, ‘Come and see’” (John 1:39).9

Common Ground

For many Westerners, the challenge of getting past the obvious differences in order to discover some common ground is daunting. However, a careful examination of the differences between the worldview and mindset of Eastern and Western Christianity ultimately serves to clarify the intellectual and theological milieu in which Russian Pentecostalism exists.

Edmund J. Rybarczyk, in Beyond Salvation: Eastern Orthodoxy and Classical Pentecostalism on Becoming Like Christ, suggests several characteristics that apply to both Pentecostal and Orthodox believers.

Neither answers to the pope in Rome. Second, both Traditions allow and encourage ministers/priests to marry and have children….Third, both perceive themselves to be the great defenders of pneumatology….Fourth, . . . both are theologically conservative….Both believe that Jesus Christ is God’s only means of salvation and that he was born of the virgin Mary; both argue that the Christian canon is inspired of the Holy Spirit, and both maintain a Nicene-Constantinopolitan understanding of Christology (that Jesus was fully human and fully divine) and the Trinity (three persons in one being).10

These features illustrate basic points of compatibility between the two traditions.

Missionaries need to shift their focus from comparisons between East and West (Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism) to comparisons between East and East (Orthodoxy and Russian Pentecostals). Ultimately, the more one understands the mindset of the Eastern Orthodox context, the more one understands Russian Pentecostals. Three theological motifs in the Orthodox context markedly influence the Russian Pentecostal Church: the significance of experience, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of evangelism.

The Significance of Experience

Appearances can be deceiving. For the uninformed, the liturgy, the premiere mode of worship for the Orthodox, appears dark and mysterious. Services, led by robed priests set off from the congregation by screened partitions, accompanied by the wafting smell of incense, and chanted in a strange, unknown language, seem confusing, discomfiting, and completely foreign. The unfamiliar religious trappings feel cold and impersonal, but also, in some mystical way, sacred. Even the architecture, with its prescribed use of space, painted frescoes, candles, and icons, creates an atmosphere that charges the senses so that the observer, according to the Orthodox perspective, may be transformed into a participant and experience the genuine presence of God.

Edmund Rybarczyk correctly asserts that for both Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostals, “Christianity is—indeed life is—comprised of experience.”11 The visceral, experiential knowledge of God that comes from a personal connection with Christ determines the significance and meaning of life rather than the theological constructs and arguments that inspire the intellect. “The experiential realm—accurately defined as the mystical realm because it incorporates ineffable and mysterious elements—is affirmed by both traditions, but there are distinctions.” In the end, “both are emphatic that to be a Christian is to experience Christ and his Holy Spirit—not only at conversion, but throughout one’s Christian life—in the deepest recesses of one’s being.”12

The Role of the Holy Spirit

In the Orthodox context, the integral role of the Holy Spirit throughout one’s Christian life cannot be overstated. Theologically, pneumatology simply permeates every discussion within the Orthodox Tradition. Veli-Matti Karkkainen describes pneumatology as “one of the most distinctive characteristics of Eastern theology.”13 In a manner comparable to the accusation that Pentecostals maintain too strong an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Eastern Orthodox theology has been accused of being “pneumatocentric,” that is, having an “excessive concern with the person and work of the Spirit at the expense of the incarnate Word.”14

“The Orthodox,” Rybarczyk articulates, “discuss their doctrine of Christian transformation as a process involving theosis.”15 The term theosis, translated into English as “deification,” simply refers to the “transformation of believers into the likeness of God.”16 Rybarczyk explains United to Christ in Orthodox water baptism,…he or she does not become god but, in keeping with Scriptural teaching, is renewed in Christ’s image. [For] Orthodox, salvation involves organic union, not just forensic pardon.17

The role of the Holy Spirit in deification and in sacramental worship carries both individual and corporate implications. The individual’s participation in the corporate reality of the liturgy signifies an active role of the Holy Spirit who draws all humanity to Christ in the midst of community. Orthodox see the Holy Spirit as inextricably linked to the salvation process which is characterized by the sanctification of the Christ-image-bearing human being in community, beginning with baptism and culminating in theosis.

The Nature of Evangelism

In reference to the famous mission of Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, missiologist James Stamoolis points out several characteristics as being “regularly cited as the key elements in authentic Eastern Orthodox missions.” First, Orthodox missions emphasize the use of the vernacular, or the common language of the people in the liturgy, along with the translation of Scripture into common languages. Second, the use of indigenous clergy serves as a characteristic feature. Their theological training centers focus not so much on formal study, but rather “on a proper grasp of the essentials of the faith and, most of all, the liturgy.” A third element is the emphasis on the establishment of local churches that eventually become self-governing.18

The liturgy represents another characteristic feature of the Orthodox understanding of mission. The Church itself becomes an agent in the evangelistic mission of the church. Ultimately, evangelism in Orthodoxy centers more on calling the community together in worship than going out as witnesses in the world.

Summary and Analysis

Clearly, fundamental differences exist between the worldview and mindset of Eastern and Western Christianity. For the Western missionary, an exploration of the Orthodox vision of life is analogous to the cross-cultural imperative to seriously and personally engage the host culture. In other words, an accurate awareness of the fundamental differences between East and West enhances the missionary’s ministry effectiveness as he or she interacts with and engages the culture. With regard to Western missionaries working with Russian Pentecostals, a corollary axiom may be that the more one understands the mindset of the Eastern Orthodox context, the more one understands Russian Pentecostals. While Russian Pentecostals certainly adhere to many core values compatible with Western Pentecostal points of view, a completely Eastern orientation remains the underlying, fundamental view of reality. In a word, Russian Pentecostals and the Orthodox Church display notable similarities.

Like Orthodox, Russian Pentecostals share an orientation toward the experiential reality of God who is active in this world, in this life. While Orthodox relate Christian experience to the life-long process of salvation with the ultimate goal of theosis, Russian Pentecostals recognize salvation as a one-time event followed by a progressive work of sanctification throughout the Christian life. In each case, the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in the outworking of becoming Christ-like in the truest and fullest sense. The Holy Spirit empowers Russian Pentecostals for witness and life.

An atmosphere of community also has a prominent place among Russian Pentecostals as well as Russian Orthodox. The intense Russian Pentecostal focus on community has, in some ways, marginalized them and resulted in introversion in their fellowship and religious experience. Church growth and evangelism often center around familial ties and conversion of non-believing loved ones and close acquaintances who are invited to attend a church service or Bible study. Finally, like Orthodox, who view the liturgy as the ultimate means and expression of the gospel story, Russian Pentecostals likewise tend to view evangelism as a “calling in,” rather than a “going out.”

Thus, theological motifs in the Orthodox context have influenced Russian Pentecostals. Worldview, theological approaches, the significance of experience, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the nature of evangelism are all inextricably linked. Best viewed as an organic whole, these issues interact with and influence Russian Pentecostals who live out their Christian existence in the Orthodox context. ◆


1. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Washington Post, 25 October 1997, H12, quoted in John Witte, Jr. and Michael Bourdeaux, Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia, The New War for Souls (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 20.

2. Donald Fairbairn, Eastern Orthodoxy through Western Eyes (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 6. See also Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, “The Churches of the East,” Appendix A in Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004).

3. Fairbairn, Eastern Orthodoxy, 5-8.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 7.

6. For example, see Bradley Nassif, James J. Stamoolis et al., Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 15; John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), vii. See also James R. Payton Jr., Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 15; John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian

Orthodox Churches (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), vii. See also James R. Payton Jr., Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2007), 57-58.

7. Translations for orthos and doxa are suggested in Stamoolis, Binns, and Payton, Three Views. A variety is included here for completeness.

8. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin, 1993), 266. The quote is attributed to George Every, The Byzantine Patriarchate (London; S.P.C.K., 1947), ix. See also Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, “The Earthly Heaven” in Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, 2nd ed., ed by Daniel B. Clendenin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 13.

9. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 266.

10. Edmund J. Rybarczyk, Beyond Salvation: Eastern Orthodoxy and Classical Pentecostalism on Becoming Like Christ (Bletchley, Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004), 5-6.

11. Ibid., 6.

12. Ibid., 9.

13. Veli-Matti Karkkainen, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 32.

14. Staley M. Burgess, The Holy Spirit: Eastern Christian Traditions (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 1.

15. Rybarczyk, Beyond Salvation, 17.

16. Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharmalov, eds., Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology (Eugene. OR: Pickwick Publications, 2006), 1. An excellent account of the historical and theological development of theosis can be seen in Michael J. Christensen

and Jeffery A. Wittung, eds., Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).

17. Rybarczyk, Beyond Salvation, 17.

18. James J. Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today (MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis, 1986), 21-22.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Jonathan C. Frazier, “Preparing for Service: A Resource for Western Missionaries Working with Russian Pentecostals,” D.Min. dissertation, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2009.

Jonathan C. Frazier has been a missionary serving with Assemblies of God World Missions in the former Soviet Union—Russia, Belarus, and Latvia—since 1995.