Relevance of the Gospel in an Orthodox World
The word “Orthodox” means
“holding correct opinions; in harmony with what is
authoritatively established, approved, and conventional”.
Orthodox churches comprise those that accepted decisions of first
seven church Councils and relate to the Ecumenical Patriarch of
Constantinople. They are separate from the Catholic communion
because of a split between the eastern and western branches of the
organized church. In spite of the name, few adherents of Orthodox
traditions whom I have met really understood the Gospel. God loves
all Orthodox members and wants them to come into his family through
saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Bells, smells, candles and questions
in the early morning quiet the only
sound I heard was shuffling feet as a line of children, some as young
as four or five, slowly made their way up the nave toward the altar.
Several old women, dressed in black, sat in the front seats. Dozens
of candles, some more than 30 centimetres long were poked into an
enormous tray full of sand. As the flames flickered they added to
the eeriness of the place. A bell rang and echoed in the ceiling. A
priest emerged from a panel behind the altar. With a nod to the boys
he began to intone words I could not understand, an ancient rite.
From time to time he picked up a censer and waved it back and forth
in front of the worshippers and the sweet smell of incense drifted
through the building. Then he put down the censer and picked up a
small icon depicting the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. This
duopoly is common in orthodox tradition. Mary dominates the scene
with “her boy” resting in her arms. There were other
images of Jesus on the walls; along with brightly coloured figures I
had been told were the original apostles and assortment of saints.
The most impressive was Saint George sitting on a horse, slaying the
Dragon, the Devil. After the priest tenderly kissed the icon the
children approached and kissed it in turn, moving on to allow those
behind to perform the same service. Then, without warning, the
ceremony was over and the children filed out into the sunshine. Back
to school, back to “normal” life. I stepped outside,
blinking. What was that all about? What do those who participated
think they were really doing?
have several icons of my own, bought as works of art. Two of them
were painted in a monastery in Greece and the woman who sold them
showed me the certificate that proved they were copied in a monastery
under license from the church. No cheap substitutes here. Two
others were fashioned in a monastery high up in the hills of Cyprus,
from where it is possible to look out over the shore of nearby
predominantly Muslim Syria and pluralist Lebanon. (Monotheist Islam
cannot tolerate the adoration of Mary, or any other Christian figure
for that matter, which they interpret as idolatry.) One is a replica
of an early painting housed in the Kykos Monastery, near the grave of
former Archbishop Makarios (elected bishop of Kition in 1948 and
archbishop of Cyprus in 1950, Makarios was the first president of
Cyprus). My remaining icon was painted in Russia in the seventeenth
century and smuggled into the orthodox community in Syria, where I
acquired it. Orthodoxy is replete with icons.
did this all come about?
Before the 400s, a single Christian
church existed. The followers of Jesus had been promoted from a
persecuted minority to purveyors of the religion of the State
following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Christianity
was now “acceptable”. Throughout the Christian world
each nationality expressed faith via its language and liturgy and, at
times, its own theology. Gradually, cultural, geographic, political
and religious differences led to separate churches in the East Roman
Empire. Beginning in the 400s, Eastern churches began to drift from
the authority of Rome. In 476,
barbarian forces led by the
Germanic general Odoacer deposed the last emperor of the West Roman
Empire. Many historians use this date to mark the end of the old
Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages.
The collapse of the West half of the
Roman Empire meant no single power had political control there and
then barbarians (Arians or non-Christians) ruled. Beginning with
Pope Gregory the Great in 590, the church set out to create a
Christian world. Its instruments were the papacy and monasticism.
In the 800s, Photius, patriarch of Constantinople, had a dispute with
the Popes about authority over Eastern Christians. In the 1000s, a
further dispute emerged between Rome and the patriarch of
Constantinople, Michael Cerularius. Each church claimed the other
was interfering in its affairs. Serious splits led to a deep rift
between the Eastern churches that employed the Byzantine rite and the
Western church that followed the Latin rite and acknowledged the
primacy of the Pope. The real disaster occurred during the Fourth
Crusade, when mercenaries who called themselves a Christian army laid
siege to the city of Constantinople for economic reasons. The city
was sacked and fatally weakened, so much so that it was powerless to
withstand further onslaughts and finally fell to Turkish forces in
1453, thus opening the way for Muslim armies to spread across Eastern
Europe. The city was renamed Istanbul and the ancient church of Holy
Wisdom (Hagia Sofia) was turned into a mosque and today serves as a
museum. Several of the original icons in the church were allowed to
remain in situ. When Pope John Paul II made an historic trip to
Greece more than four hundred years later, many in the Orthodox
community welcomed to visit; here was an opportunity for two arms of
Christendom to be reconciled. However, many thousands were offended
and publicly protested the treatment of the Eastern Church by Rome
half a millennium ago. Feelings continue to run deep.
its history, Orthodox tradition has splintered along national lines,
mainly Greek, Russian, Georgian, Romanian, Serbian, Macedonian,
Bulgarian, Albanian and Syrian. This multiplicity is reflected in
Orthodox communities around the world. Orthodox churches originally
used Greek while the Catholic Church in West used Latin. Altogether,
there are about 200 million Orthodox adherents. Some blocs have
strong links with nationalist movements and in the Russian
Federation, Yugoslavia and elsewhere have been instrumental in
banning the spread of the Gospel by evangelical churches and
missionaries. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was severely repressed
by the Soviets because it functioned as a vehicle for nationalism.
In the former USSR most children were still “baptised”
under Communist rule; which explains the resilience of the Orthodox
Church, and the way it has reasserted its power since the demise of
the Soviet Union.
priests I have met, including the Iraqi-born Patriarch of the
Assyrian Church of Antioch and the East, believe their church is a
remnant of the original church (Acts 11:19) in the city of that name.
The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts
11:26). Today the city of Antarkia is situated inside Turkey and the
Patriarchate is based in Damascus and Sidnaiya, Syria, where I first
got to know senior members of this old denomination. In some parts
of Syria adherents still speak Aramaic. It is fascinating to hear
people speak a language they claim has not greatly altered since the
days of Jesus. No wonder they feel strongly about other
denominations. Over several meetings I got to know the Patriarch and
senior members of his staff. I do not understand his rituals, and
frankly I question their efficacy in terms of revealed Biblical
teaching, but I know he trusts Jesus Christ for his salvation.
Instead of getting hung up about rites and sacerdotal outfits, I
rejoiced to be able to pray with these people and talk about our
common faith in the Living Christ and the hope He gives us in a world
that is often at odds with faith in God. (He also made me painfully
aware of the grim future facing the church in Iraq, should that
country ever become an Islamic republic.)
is it all relevant?
is a feature of Orthodox churches, but is it all necessary? I pout
this question to people I met in Cyprus. The church of Panayia Toiu
Araka is one of the most important churches on the island of Cyprus.
It stands near the village of Lagoiudhere. It was built in the
twelfth century and has withstood the vicissitudes or serial
occupancies of the island by competing empires. The church is
covered by a large dome with twelve narrow windows and ancient (but
seriously damaged) frescoes. After sitting through a service in the
church one day I went to a nearby restaurant where I found several
dozen men (no women) playing cards and talking, drinking and smoking.
I asked them how often they went to the church. “Almost
never” was the common refrain. If I need to see the priest I
go. Otherwise I’m just not interested. This church is for old
people”. I was perplexed and pressed the point. “So,
why is the church so important in the local community?” I
pressed. A group of men gathered around and talked animatedly. One
man told me he had been baptized in the church, his father before him
and his father before him, and so on. He would be buried from the
church. He had been baptized and a baby and hoped he would go to
heaven. “I’m not sure, I hope so”. Another friend
told me he and his wife had been to see the priest when they could
have no children. Whatever the priest did must have worked, because
the man now had two small sons. The relevance of the church to this
group of men related to tradition, personal problems and an insurance
for the future. However, they did not regularly attend; only for
baptisms, weddings and funerals. One man told me he had been made
god-father for the daughter of a friend. However, as far as
spiritual guidance was concerned, this was a job for the church. The
shell of a minaret nearby reminded me that this part of the island
was once under Muslim control.
The Church of Saint Lazarus in central
Larnaca is an impressive building with amazing icons and a long
history. I visited the church a number of times. It is situated on
the site of a 9th
century church and houses what is claimed to be the tomb of Lazarus,
a close friend of Jesus, who raised him from the dead after a fatal
illness (the full account is found in John Chapter 11). Orthodox
Christians believe Lazarus travelled as far as Cyprus, served the
church and eventually died there. The tomb is in a crypt underneath
the building. Whether or not the Lazarus of the New Testament is
really entombed in this place (there is no Biblical record), local
people believe it to be the case. To non-Orthodox visitors the tomb
and icons in the church suggest a level of hagiography (saint
worship) that eclipses other elements of the faith. On a superficial
level, it seems worshippers are content to visit and pay homage to an
icon, believing this is enough to save them.
our Orthodox friends to Christ
can adherents of Orthodox churches come to a living relationship with
Jesus Christ, if they do not already know Him? Let me make the
following suggestions (not necessarily in order of priority).
On a structural level, don’t
attack the Orthodox Church per se – that only awakens
hostility. Don’t get hung up on externals, such as rites,
priestly outfits and ethnic histories. Don’t tell them the way
to God is by leaving their tradition, which is often linked to their
personal identity and family connections and national background.
On a level of personal belief, focus
on what they do believe, especially about Jesus and the supernatural.
You will find they are already pre-evangelised. Orthodox men and
women have no trouble believing in God, the virgin birth, the
miracles and resurrection of Jesus, the Second Coming, the power of
prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit, Satan and angels, aspects of
Christianity that members of liberal churches often struggle to
accept. All too often the locus of faith is the church building,
faith is not perceived as a personal, daily lifestyle choice. God
may be found at the altar but not in the kitchen. Focus on
relationship with God, repentance and forgiveness of sins, the
mediatorship of Jesus Christ and encourage them to pray to God
through Jesus according to Scripture (1 Timothy 2:5).
Orthodox friends will study your
lifestyle. If you want to have an effective impact, know the truth
about baptism, salvation, communion (and where to find appropriate
Biblical Scriptural support for what you believe). Show them they
can have assurance of sins forgiven and a certainty of salvation.
Emphasize the “once for all” nature of the death of
Christ (Hebrews 9:25, 26; 10:10-12; Romans 6:8). Stress the need for
them to repent personally for sin and be born again by faith, not
works (Romans 4:1-5, 21-25; 5:1). Share positively – they will
not fall into mortal sin by trusting Christ for salvation.
Every Orthodox priest I have ever met
has been a genuine believer in Jesus and we have often shared
fellowship, meals and prayer as brothers in Christ. However, the
Gospel is relevant to all
Orthodox adherents, not just the professionals.
Let’s make Jesus the basis of
relationships of hope with Orthodox people everywhere we go.