Preparation: Attitudes and Understanding
Perhaps the most important way Westerners can prepare for work in Eastern Europe is by asking questions about attitudes and goals. Are we going to the East to build Christ's kingdom or simply to expand our denomination or group? Do we overtly or subconsciously believe that true faith is to be found only among Protestants? I have known Western Protestants in Russia who have seen people come to Christ, have spent years discipling them, and then have been devastated when those young disciples ultimately chose to be part of the Orthodox Church.
It is true that many people who have an affiliation with Orthodoxy are not genuine Christians, and even worse, that some are convinced that they are genuine Christians simply because they are from an Orthodox country. Perhaps God will be pleased to grant Western Christians the joy of helping such people come to know Christ truly. Some may find their home in Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. But Orthodoxy at its best does preach Christ and can provide a place for believers to grow. We should not consider it necessarily a tragedy if people with whom we work go to or remain in Orthodox communions.
Thus I suggest that we take a larger view of God's action to build His kingdom than many of us are accustomed to take. Without minimizing the significance of our differences with the Orthodox, and certainly without ignoring the dangerous distortions of the gospel which are present in popular Orthodoxy, we can still recognize that God does not work merely through Protestantism; He can and does also work through the Orthodox Church. It may be that Easterners who gain exposure to the best of Western Christianity through contact with Protestant Christian workers will be the very ones who help to bring about a revitalization of popular Orthodoxy.
A second way Westerners can prepare for ministry in Eastern Europe is by learning the religion, culture, and artistic and literary heritage of the region. This is important for Protestants working in the East for two reasons. First, we are often far too quick to dismiss the great cultural heritage of Eastern Europe in ways which give offense. In fact, it is the cavalier dismissal of Russian culture by Western Christians that leads to some of the angrier reactions of Russians toward us.
Another reason it is important to learn the cultural heritage of Eastern Europe is that much of this heritage is Christian. In the case of Russia, for example, early fifteenth century iconographer Andrei Rublev was an artistic genius and we can acknowledge this even though we may not agree that icons are an appropriate part of Christian worship. Also, Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of the nineteenth century's greatest novelists, was a man of deep spiritual insight. And we can acknowledge this in spite of the fact that his novels include elements of popular Orthodox piety with which we disagree. In light of this, Western Christian workers need to learn Orthodoxy and its influence on the life of the people with whom we work, and we need to be willing to express an appreciation for the ways in which that influence has been positive, even as we admit that we do not agree with it completely.
The Public Presence of Western Christians in the East
As a result of East Europeans' fear of secrecy and their confusion of Protestantism with cults, it is especially important that missionaries be publicly open about who we are and what we are doing. East Europeans are likely to assume that we are from the most radical of secretive cults if we are unwilling to identify ourselves. One of the first things I recommend to my Russian and Ukrainian Protestant students is that they contact Orthodox leaders in the area where they will be working. If, as is likely, local leadership will not have enough sympathy with our emphases for any religious cooperation to be possible, it still may be possible to do charitable work together. At the very least, if we take the initiative to make contact with Orthodox leaders we demonstrate respect.
Discussing Christianity in an Orthodox Environment
1. The Unique Authority of Scripture
Even in cases when Orthodox theology's attention to witnesses besides Scripture does lead it astray from biblical truth, we will accomplish little by insisting on the authority of the Bible alone in Christian life. Such an insistence will be flatly incomprehensible to people who are unused to thinking in terms of juridical authority. Instead, we would do well to follow an Eastern approach to the evaluation of issues on which we think Orthodoxy has departed from Scripture. Eastern theology holds that a particular witness is true if it is accepted as being consistent with other witnesses to the Church's life. No Orthodox person would deny that Scripture is one of the main witnesses (if not the main witness) to this life. Accordingly, even from an Eastern perspective, we have the right to compare other expressions of tradition with the expression which we know the best, the Bible. If we are willing to join our Eastern friends in looking carefully at other Orthodox sources in comparison to the witness of Scripture, we will demonstrate our own allegiance to Scripture in a way which will be comprehensible to them. Moreover, we will also show a willingness to take the ideas of Orthodoxy seriously, rather than dismissing them a priori because we believe they are founded on non-authoritative sources instead of on the Bible.
2. The Substitutionary Atonement
Another prominent aspect of Western Christian thought is our emphasis on Christ's death in our place, as He took on Himself the punishment we deserved for our sins. As we prepare to discuss the work of Christ with East Europeans, we need to remember two things. First, substitution is not the only aspect of Christ's atoning work as described in the New Testament, even though we are convinced it is the most prominent emphasis. The classic idea of victory over death and the devil comes directly from Hebrews 2:14 and is also present in passages such as I Corinthians 15:54-57 and Colossians 2:13-15. As we teach about the work of Christ, we should emphasize this aspect of the atonement as well as the substitutionary aspect. Furthermore, it is important that we not give the impression that we believe the atonement exempts Christians from all suffering. Orthodoxy regards such an idea as the bedrock of Western "easy believism" and caricatures our faith as implying, "Christ has borne my cross so that I can go to heaven without having to bear a cross myself." This is not what we mean, but it is all too easy for Orthodox to hear us as saying this. Thus we need to stress that believers are not exempt from suffering in this world and that Christ is our companion in the suffering which we undergo.
3. Justification by Faith
When we approach this issue, we come to what Protestants are convinced is the very heart of the gospel. The Orthodox stress on life as a journey to the kingdom tends toward an idea that people are saved only at the end of the process of theosis. This is not what Orthodoxy at its best intends. Mature Orthodox theology does stress that we become God's children at the beginning of faith, and therefore that Christian life is in part a response to what God has already done in saving us. The best of Orthodoxy does agree with our emphasis on justification by faith, although Eastern theologians do not use that phrase to express the idea. However there are two things which make it difficult for people from Orthodox backgrounds to hear us accurately when we talk about justification. First, when we describe justification using legal definitions, when we speak of a change in our status before God or of imputed righteousness, we will be incomprehensible to people who do not possess our Western legal mindset. Second, Easterners who are well-versed in Orthodox polemics will have heard that justification by faith is a Protestant idea and therefore a heresy. If we use the phrase "justification by faith" itself, we will sometimes accomplish nothing except ending the conversation.
Therefore, as we discuss this crucial issue, we need to remember that the phrase "justification by faith" occurs only in Romans and Galatians, whereas the idea which the phrase signifies is expressed in other ways in the rest of the New Testament. We can use other words to convey this crucial idea, and I think the best vocabulary to use is that of acceptance. Does God's acceptance of people as His children come at the beginning of faith? Do we as believers begin to share in fellowship with the Trinity from the beginning? Or does this acceptance (as well as the communion which flows from it) await the completion of sanctification, the accomplishment of union with God? Mature Orthodoxy answers these questions with the emphatic assertion, "At the Beginning." But Orthodoxy's stress of life as a journey often leads people toward the idea that God accepts us only at the completion of that journey. If people have only a vague understanding of Orthodox doctrine, they are likely to have a sense that they need to perfect themselves in order to have communion with God.
For those who are not believers but who have a strong spiritual hunger, the emphasis on salvation as theosis can lead to a great deal of guilt and frustration over their seeming inability to perfect themselves enough to gain union and fellowship with God. What such people need to hear more than anything else is that God is ready to accept them into fellowship with Himself now, even though they are not perfect. God's acceptance does not need to wait until the completion of a long process of sanctification or deification. Instead, through His Son Jesus Christ, God has already accomplished all that He requires in order to accept people. It remains simply to be united to Christ by faith in order to begin experiencing now the joy of fellowship with Him. This acceptance, which begins at the inception of faith, is the basis for pursuing a life of Christ-likeness.
We also will need to stress that God's acceptance accompanies personal faith in Christ, not citizenship in a nation which has uniquely received God's favor. When we encounter the sentiments associated with religious nationalism, we need to recognize that it is neither necessary nor productive to downplay national consciousness. Instead, we can affirm that national hopes and dreams are important to God.
At the same time, it is crucial for us to make clear that some of the conclusions drawn from nationalistic sentiment are wrong. Perhaps an appropriate way to do this is to emphasize that while a nation's dreams are important to God, He does not care for any single country alone. This was the lesson which God taught Jonah, as the prophet sought to restrict God's love only to Israel. In contrast to Jonah, God loved even the people of Nineveh, the capital of Israel's most hated enemy, Assyria. By emphasizing the universality of God's love, perhaps we can begin to jar people out of spiritual complacency based on national heritage, so that they will recognize their own need to turn to Christ in faith.
It is this message of God's acceptance which we as Christian workers can bring to Eastern Europe. In order to make sure that it is genuinely heard, we will need to correct both the idea that such acceptance awaits the completion of sanctification and the belief that it comes automatically to people of a certain nation.
Don Fairbairn is professor of theology at Erskine Seminary, Due West, SC.
Excerpts printed with permission from Don Fairbairn, Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, forthcoming).
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