by Dr. Bradley Nassif
Most of my life’s work over the past fifty-one years has been devoted to understanding God’s truth as it has been known in the Orthodox tradition. I completed four advanced degrees in New Testament, European History, Orthodox pastoral studies, and my doctoral work in patristics under the late Fr. John Meyendorff. I’ve been an invited speaker at prestigious conferences around the world, done television documentaries, taught at leading seminaries, and published widely. All this, however, means absolutely nothing if I do not keep the Person of Christ at the very center of my life and thought. Without Him, I am an ignorant theologian -a big zero!
The same is true for our Orthodox churches in America and abroad. I am convinced that the Orthodox Church preserves the fullness of God’s truth, but I am equally persuaded that we have not made that truth meaningful and accessible to our own Church members. The most urgent need in the Orthodox world today is the need for an aggressive “internal mission” of (re)converting our people to Jesus Christ. The gospel of Christ and our life in Him need to be reclaimed as the very centerpiece of Church life.
A Lament Over Unchanged Lives
We all know that the Orthodox Church 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 Orthodoxy is often failing to meet the spiritual needs of our people — in America as well as the motherlands of Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. 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 a correct diagnosis precedes the proper cure.
Are Our People Evangelized or Sacramentalized?
What I’m saying is that contemporary Orthodoxy possesses the gospel 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. Formally, in its liturgy, sacraments, iconography, hymnography, spirituality, and theological literature, the Orthodox Church is extremely Christ-centered; in practice, however, it is not. Just because the gospel is formally in the life of the Church does not mean that Orthodox parishioners have understood and appropriated its message! Our bishops and priests need to make the gospel crystal clear and absolutely central in our parishes.
This is not to say sermons are not preached. They are, and are often 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 -all inseparably related to the gospel, but not to be confused with the Good News itself. 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. Bishops and priests must not take for granted that everyone in the Church is converted and has no need to hear the basic gospel message. The life-changing message of the forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ must be deliberately applied to the entire sacramental life of the Church. Christ-centered preaching and Christ-centered worship must be faithfully performed by our priests and bishops if they wish to worship God truly in “spirit and in truth” (John 4).
Focus on the Centrality of “Christ,” not the Centrality of “Orthodoxy”
Outside of Orthodoxy, have you noticed how the healthiest Christian communities around today are the ones who preach Christ, not their own denomination? They speak of Jesus, not their “Baptist,” “Methodist” or “Pentecostal” identities. Yet, all we seem to hear from our pulpits is “Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy!” We are obsessed with self-definition through negation. It is a sick religious addiction. We often shore up our identity as Orthodox by constantly contrasting ourselves with Evangelicals or Catholics. I wish we would talk more about Christian faith, and less about “Orthodoxy.”
As a theologian, I know full well that differences do matter and that it is important for our parishioners to be aware of them. But we must not let our religious environment dictate the emphases of our spiritual lives. I wonder how many priests and people can go a full year without talking about how “different” they are from one of their Protestant or Catholic brethren? Our sister churches in the Patriarchate of Antioch throughout the Middle East seem to do a much better job at this than we do in America. They have learned to live peacefully with their fellow non-Orthodox Christians and Muslims without constantly resorting to the fundamentalism of an Orthodox jihad! Today, however, we in America get bent out of shape if the priest wants to invite a non-Orthodox speaker or encourage Bible studies with fellow conservative Christians. Yet priests do it frequently in the Middle East.
Consider this single proposition: 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.
Be that as it may, numerous consequences result from self-consciously making the gospel clearer and more central to our Church life. Once Jesus, in His trinitarian relations, is proclaimed in all the Church’s sacraments and liturgical actions, then the Church’s preaching, worship, missions, and education will reflect that Christ-centeredness. For example:
- Worship services will be more meaningful because the priest shows how Christ heals us through the different sacraments.
- The Divine Liturgy will not focus on the Eucharist “per se,” [sic] but on Christin the liturgy of the Word and in the liturgy of the sacrament, two inseparable aspects of the Sunday liturgy.
- Christian education will not simply be about learning the symbolic meaning of the priest’s vestments, Church architecture, etc., but about the Bible itself and how Jesus Christ 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 personal faith in Christ through repentance, faith, and baptism. Moreover, its internal mission to parishioners who are Orthodox in name only may, for the first time, lead people into a saving relationship with Christ through rededicating their lives to the Lord as a renewal of their baptism.
- Finally, in the Church’s preaching, the gospel of Jesus Christ will be applied to the marketplace of business, school, social, and family life.
Quite simply, we need to recover the evangelical dimensions of our Church’s faith (see my chapter, “The Evangelical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church” in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, ed. James Stamoolis, Zondervan, 2004). We need to make the pulpit agree with the altar. Strange as it may sound, the Church’s preaching needs to become more Eucharistic. Why? Because the Eucharist proclaims the gospel! It “proclaims the Lord’s death, until He comes.” The death, resurrection and second coming of Christ are the very core of the Good News.
Be Clear About the Gospel and Make it the Core of Your Life and Ministry
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. But we must never lose sight of the simplicity of the gospel and its far-reaching consequences for everyday life. That is why I am so concerned to relate the Church’s faith to the work-a-day-world of the common Christian. I have offered weekend seminars at churches on “Desert Spirituality for City Folk” in an attempt to translate the principles of monastic life (not their lifestyle) to the spiritual disciplines of the average Christian (fasting, prayer, meditation, Bible reading). I also teach a college course titled “Selling with Soul!” for helping Christian businessmen integrate their faith in the marketplace. I believe that the same sort of thing can be done in all our parishes if we keep our eyes on the cultural relevance of the gospel.
So, in the end, if we Orthodox wish to possess a truly incarnational, trinitarian faith, we will constantly need to recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the Church. Failure to keep the gospel central will constitute an experiential denial of our own faith. We must stop our religious addiction to “Orthodoxy” and its “differences” with the West. We need rather to recover the evangelical dimensions of our total Church life. The liturgy itself exhorts us to that end. The four Gospels are the only books that sit upon the very center of the altar because in them alone do we hear the Good News — all else in the Church is commentary. It is the Bible which guides and judges the Church, not the other way around. Thus, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, whose name our liturgy bears,
“The lack of Scriptural knowledge is the source of all evils in the Church.”
I fear that many converts are coming to the Church through a revolving door, quietly leaving because their lives and families are not being sufficiently fed. Only a gospel-transformation will make the Orthodox Church healthy enough to sustain the lives of parishioners who seek spiritual nourishment in our communities.
Bradley Nassif, Ph.D. is from St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Wichita, KS and Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church, Warrenville, IL. He is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, North Park University (Chicago); editor of New Perspectives on Historical Theology: Essays in (Eerdmans, 1996); and author of the forthcoming Westminster Handbook to Eastern Orthodox Theology(Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.