Eastern Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals: What Sets Them Both Apart From Western Evangelicals
With all the troubling evidence of growing enmity between Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Christians in post-Soviet societies, it might be worth noting a surprising number of similarities between the two confessions that usually go unnoticed. [Differences, always more readily apparent, were highlighted in the East-West Church & Ministry Report 1 (Summer 1993) in "For Christian Understanding, Ignorance Is Not Bliss," pp. 5-7.] In this instance I do not have in mind the widely recognized common ground of Scripture, the Trinity, Christ as fully God and fully man, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Nicene Creed, as important and profound as these bedrocks of Christian faith are. Rather, I have in mind common characteristics of Slavic Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals (especially Evangelical Christians-Baptists and Pentecostals) that appear to set both apart from much of Western Christendom, especially Western Evangelicalism.
First, Slavic Christianity, in both its Orthodox and Evangelical expressions, strongly emphasizes God's awesomeness, majesty, and holiness. God's perfection and purity contrast sharply with human sinfulness, the chasm being so great as to prompt Slavic Orthodox to infinitely plead, "Gospodi pomilui (Lord, have mercy)," and to lead Slavic Evangelicals, often throughout life, to feel less than full assurance that their sins have been forgiven. Whereas Western Evangelicals sing "What a friend we have in Jesus," Slavic Christians more often see their Maker as Master and Judge (Pantokrator), with fear of punishment frequently outweighing the love of God as a motivating force. In the East this reverence and respectfulness is seen in both Orthodox and Evangelical insistence upon standing or kneeling for prayer and in the shared requirement for women's headcoverings in worship. Slavic Christians' fear of the Lord and the weight of their suffering through untold centuries may also help explain why to Western ears the Divine Liturgy and much of Slavic Evangelical hymnody sound somber, haunting, melancholic, even dirge-like.
On the average, Christians of all confessions in the West, more commonly than in the East, stress the understanding of God over the mystery of God. In contrast, Eastern Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals, in Don Fairbairn's terms, "are reluctant to describe God too completely," seeing that as beyond human capacity.
It also strikes me that Eastern Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals have a more sacramental understanding of faith than is typical for Western Evangelicals. This goes without saying as regards Orthodox, but appears to be true for Slavic Evangelicals as well. The latter are more likely to see baptism as the completion of salvation than are many of their Western counterparts. Feast days receive greater attention in the East, among Evangelicals as well as Orthodox. Likewise, Communion in the East is more central in worship than is often the case among Western Evangelicals. Again, the point is obvious in the case of Orthodox, but holds true for Slavic Evangelicals who, a week prior to Communion, regularly focus worship services upon the importance of the forthcoming celebration of the Last Supper. Slavic Evangelicals take great care with the elements, seeing that the host is completely consumed. And despite being teetotalers, they typically employ wine in Communion. In addition, Eastern Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals, far more regularly than Western Evangelicals, reserve to ordained clergy the serving of the elements. Again in the East, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and Evangelical Communion both are seen as mysteries, with only modest attempts by Slavic believers to explain or define what actually happens to the elements, compared to voluminous theologizing on the subject by Western Catholics and Protestants.
A strong sacramental emphasis in worship generally accentuates the role of priest or pastor, thereby placing limitations on laity. Such is the case with Slavic Evangelicals as well as with Eastern Orthodox. Given the strong leadership typically exercised by Slavic Evangelical pastors, as well as by Orthodox priests (when the state does not interfere), it is not surprising that Western Evangelicals sometimes read Eastern church leadership styles as authoritarian, controlling, and contradictory to the Reformation's priesthood of all believers. That apostolic succession legitimizes clergy is a given in Eastern Orthodoxy. But the laying on of hands in the act of ordination is a moment of great sanctity for Slavic Evangelicals as well, more so on the average than is the case with Western Evangelicals. Interestingly, the Russian Evangelical Christian denomination's deemphasis upon ordination (via early Plymouth Brethren influence) did not prevail over Baptists' stress upon the laying on of hands when the two churches merged in 1944.
In the same authoritative vein, the role of women in church life is more one of passivity and resignation in the East than in the West. In Western churches, even where women have remained subordinate in theory, they often have managed to exercise substantive leadership roles in practice: for example, in the temperance movement and in missionary endeavors.
In general, Slavic Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals have had less experience with, and less appreciation for, the exercise of individual initiative, compared to Western Christians. For example, Orthodox and Evangelicals in the East are more likely than Western Christians to frown upon direct clergy participation in politics, and have less of a tradition of prophetic challenges to sweeping social evils in their midst.
Finally, Slavic Evangelicals, unlike many of their Western counterparts, but like their fellow Orthodox Slavs, hold tenaciously to belief in their free will to accept or reject God's gift of salvation. Following the Evangelical Christian-Baptist merger of 1944, the former's Arminianism prevailed over the latter's Calvinism. In addition, Slavic Pentecostals from the outset have been Arminian in their theology. Thus today a large majority of Slavic Evangelicals have free will in common with Eastern Orthodox, in contrast to Western Evangelical church and parachurch missions which frequently are Calvinistic, at least as regards eternal security. Given this background, one can more readily comprehend what appears baffling to many Westerners--that, for example, Evangelical Christians-Baptists in the former Soviet Union have more in common theologically with freewill Nazarenes than with most U.S. Southern Baptists. East-West, Arminian-Calvinist tensions receive very little press, but almost certainly will loom larger in time--unless Orthodox and nationalist pressures effectively curtail Western Evangelical missions in the East.
The differing outlooks of Eastern and Western Christendom confound more traditional Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant confessional distinctions and in some ways place Eastern Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals in closer proximity than most would imagine. Delineating East-West Christian distinctions hopefully will aid in alleviating--or at least in comprehending--the cultural and theological tensions increasingly evident in East-West Evangelical partnerships.
One could also hope that recognizing the psychological and cultural common ground shared by Slavic Orthodox and Slavic Evangelicals might be a first step in reducing the longstanding hostility between the two, now much in evidence. Before the collapse of Soviet power Orthodox in the East had little experience with overlapping, competitive jurisdictions such as has plagued Orthodoxy in the West. Likewise, only since glasnost have post-Soviet Evangelicals had to deal with pronounced fragmentation, so characteristic of Western Protestantism. More so than with Western Christians, it seems to me that Slavic Orthodox and Evangelicals are stunned by this spectre of increased disunity within their own traditions. In the East will Orthodox territorialism and Evangelical triumphalism prevail? And will Orthodox and Evangelical mutual anathemas persist? Both abhor the disunity within their traditions. Might that, plus hopefully a growing realization of the damage to witness caused by mutual recriminations, be a first step toward greater civility among Christians emerging from the ultimate incivility of Communism's coerced "utopia"?
The editor wishes to express his appreciation for helpful editorial critiques from Yvonne Bedford-Adamski, Anita Deyneka, Don Fairbairn, Kent Hill, Robert Mulholland, James Stamoolis, Wil Triggs, and Robert Webber.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies