What Orthodox Christians Can Learn From Evangelical Christians
Most of my life and work over the past 30 years has been devoted to understanding God's truth as it has been known in the Eastern and Western Christian traditions. Few Orthodox seem willing to admit that much can be learned from the Christian West. The tendency is simply to lump all Protestant traditions together into one great sea of undifferentiated darkness! What I wish to do here is to offer personal reflections on what we Orthodox can learn from contemporary Evangelical Christians. While I remain convinced that the Orthodox Church preserves the fullness of God's truth, I am equally persuaded that we have not made that truth meaningful and accessible to our own church members and those who peer inside our windows, both Christians and non-Christians. The following are simply reflections shared from the heart rather than a formal technical analysis of our agreements and differences.
A Lament Over Weak Participation in Liturgy
The Orthodox Church throughout the world 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 Orthodox Christianity is often failing to meet the spiritual needs of our people. 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 these are the spiritual realities that harm our lives and weaken our witness to the world.
"Are Our People Evangelized or Sacramentalized?"
Without a doubt, the greatest lesson the Orthodox can learn from Evangelicals is the need for making the gospel much clearer and more central to the totality of our church life. Evangelicals know what the basic gospel is and how relevant it can be to everyday life. I am not saying that all Evangelicals do that, but so many of them have, that they have been collectively identified as the historical phenomenon known as "the Evangelical movement." The most powerful characteristic of the movement is its grasp on the gospel and its power to transform lives. Is this to say that Evangelicals possess the gospel and Orthodox do not? By no means! What I'm saying is that Orthodox possess it in a formal way but we are not translating it in a relevant, life-changing way. The clarity of the gospel is not intentionally made central to our liturgical services and everyday lives. This is not to say sermons are not preached. They are, and often are eloquent. But very often what priests preach are not the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and His call to total commitment and what that means to everyday life and liturgy. Our leaders wrongly assume everybody knows about that subject. Instead of Christ-centered messages we hear sermons dealing with moral values, social issues, financial giving, the environment, or the need for more church attendance. In effect, the authentic gospel is replaced with a social gospel or a liturgical gospel (as if simply "going to church" is all that is needed). I often wonder, "Are our people really evangelized, or are they simply sacramentalized?" True sacramental preaching makes the gospel central to every liturgical act and every liturgical season of fasting and prayer. Without the centrality of the gospel we end up imposing on our people the evil of religious formalism and barren ritualism. It is, in effect, not a true Orthodoxy but a false Orthodoxy. Consequently, the most important thing that the Orthodox can learn from Evangelicals is not taking for granted that everyone in church is converted and has no need to hear the basic gospel message. The message of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus must be self- consciously applied to the entire sacramental life of the church. Christ-centered preaching and Christ-centered worship must be faithfully performed by our priests, bishops, and patriarchs if they wish to truly worship God in "spirit and in truth" (John 4).
Focusing on the Centrality of Christ
Consider this single proposition: if the centrality of Christ and His kingdom is faithfully applied, then every evil in the church has the opportunity to be cured because Christ is the cure for all evil. If the gospel is made clearer and more central to all we do in the church, we will truly be Orthodox in reality and not in name only. I am not trying to be simplistic or reductionistic; on the contrary, I am seeking to be faithful to the maximalist vision of the faith of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things, and the cure for all our sins and weaknesses. Evangelicals have a much stronger empirical grasp of this truth than do Orthodox. Formally, in its liturgy, sacraments, iconography, hymnography, spirituality, and theological literature, the Orthodox Church is extremely Christ-centered; in practice, however, it is not. Consequently, Evangelicals can help Orthodox learn from what they do right and recover what is within our own tradition.
Be that as it may, numerous consequences result from self- consciously making the gospel clearer and more central to the life of the Orthodox Church, as Evangelicals have done in their churches. The single word that summarizes it all is "contextualize." Once the gospel is made visible in all the church's sacraments and liturgical actions, then its preaching, worship, missions, and education will reflect that Christ-centeredness. For example, worship services will be more meaningful because the priest shows how Christ is related to different sacraments. The Divine Liturgy will not focus on the Eucharist "per se," but on Christ in the liturgy of the Word and in the liturgy of the sacrament, two complementary aspects of the Sunday liturgy. Christian education will not simply be about learning the symbolic meaning of the priests' vestments, church architecture, etc., but on how Jesus Chris and the Holy Trinity are the primary focus of those vestments and artistic expressions of theology. The church's missionary work will not simply seek to "plant churches" but to "convert sinners" to personalfaith in Christ through repentance, faith, and baptism. Finally, in the church's preaching, the gospel of Jesus Christ will be applied to the marketplace of business, school, and family life. There is a dire need to show people how the gospel, the church, and the world relate to each other through living "the liturgy after the liturgy," as one Orthodox scholar put it.
Making the Gospel Clearer and More Central to Life
Orthodox might learn much more from Evangelicals, but if making the gospel clearer and more central to all aspects of the church's life is heeded, then all else will come into proper focus. Christ will be made central to our Bible reading, our worship, our preaching, our sacraments, our spirituality, our education, and our missions. The Orthodox Church has such a long history and rich theology that it is easy for us to lose sight of the forest for the trees. If we are willing to learn anything from Evangelicals, it is the simplicity of their message and grasp of its far-reaching consequences for everyday life. Evangelicals can teach us to consciously enthrone Jesus Christ as the living head of our church, not just in our liturgies but in our hearts as well. If we Orthodox wish to possess a truly incarnational, trinitarian faith then we will need to constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the church. Failure to do so constitutes an experiential denial of our own Orthodox faith. Even if we Orthodox find Evangelicals theologically deficient in a number of areas, Evangelicals can rightly find us existentially deficient in the practical outworking of our faith. Perhaps if we humble ourselves before our Evangelical brethren we will learn the true meaning of our own faith and in the process bring them with us into the fullness of the life of the church.
Bradley Nassif, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Antiochian House of Studies, Balamand University (Deir El-Balamand, El-Koura, Lebanon, and Cliffside Park, NJ), and founder of the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.
Bradly Nassif, "What Orthodox Christians Can Learn From Evangelical Christians," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Spring 2003), 3.
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