Living With Differences
"Chaos growing out of tyranny will not endure," wrote Father Alexander Menn. "No matter how long the darkness, the night cannot be endless. God's Word teaches us to believe in the victory of light." His words, published in Sovetskaya kultura shortly before his murder in September 1990, read as sadly ironic. In Russia today, new tyranny may spring from social collapse, despair, and dissension fueled by calls for a return to communism, rising crime rates, and corruption. Russia's chaos seeps into every level of society, all too often sowing antagonism and discord between Orthodox and Protestant.
I gained greater respect for Father Menn on a recent trip to Russia as I came to understand the inspiration and instruction he had provided to significant segments of the Orthodox and Protestant populations. People I met spoke less of his creed than of the spiritual heartbeat of his Christian life.
In Russia, I saw examples of the best and worst faces of both Protestants and Orthodox. I met deeply committed Protestants who work with new converts raised as atheists. But I also heard foreign Protestants speak of their ministries in Moscow, Russia, in terms that just as easily could have fit Moscow, Idaho. I heard Russian Orthodox leaders denounce Protestant activity as a CIA-inspired foreign invasion. And I also met other Orthodox believers who respect Protestants and appreciate their help in the work of building new country out of the rubble of Soviet Communism. The tensions and doctrinal differences between Orthodox and Protestants will not vanish. But followers of these two traditions may learn from one another if each stops viewing the other as an enemy, focusing instead on serving the spiritually lost and needy.
The most effective long-term Protestants will be those who take the time to study the culture of the people to whom they minister. And while studying Orthodoxy should occupy Western missionaries intent on lasting ministry, Orthodox would be better off to foreswear state-church aspirations in favor of tolerance for other faiths in their midst.
A Western evangelical missionary to Greece I met several months ago has spent more time in police stations, courtrooms, and prisons in that country than any Western worker to a Communist country of whom I am aware. Problems do not stem from not understanding Greek Orthodoxy--he does understand. Rather, his work as a Protestant in an officially Orthodox nation spells trouble. He does not preach repentance from Orthodoxy, but calls people to turn from sin and unbelief, and to put faith in Christ. No matter how orthodox his message, he is not Orthodox, and therefore subject to an array of difficulties.
I sincerely hope that Greece's officially restrictive practices will not serve as a pattern in former Communist countries that previously granted the Orthodox state-church status. Protestants who truly want to help both individuals and societies must act with sensitivity, but also must not ignore the very real differences between Orthodox and evangelical Christianity. Let us know our differences, confess them, and live side by side.
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© 1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report