In the days following Orthodox Christianity’s celebration of Easter on April 28, I read an interesting and honest commentary by Andrey Shirin suggesting 5 things Protestant churches can learn from Orthodoxy. In the spirit of ecumenism, I was moved to respond with my equally honest list of 5 things Orthodox Christians can learn from Protestants.
While it may seem like we are on opposite ends of the Christian spectrum, we are many times surprised by how much we have in common. In this season of resurrection, it becomes easier to remember and focus on what really makes a Christian a Christian. We are filled with joy at the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and triumphant victory over death.
Prioritizing open dialogue and mutual respect in the future will help us realize Christ’s ultimate prayer for unity “that they may be one just as we are one” (John 17:22). With that hope in mind, here’s my list:
1. Keeping it simple
All Christian groups are susceptible to legalizing the Christian faith or worship practices. As an Orthodox Christian, I deeply value that our tradition has handed down thousands of years’ worth of symbolic rituals intended to help us focus our attention on Christ and his saving sacrifice. Things like vestments, hymnology, incense, candles, icons and prescribed prayers were handed down to constantly keep our bodies and minds on the Holy Trinity. In the Old Testament, God was very meticulous with how He wanted Israel to worship Him. Further, we know that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) and that “God is not the author of disorder but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
“A more Protestant-like dedication to studying and applying the Bible while using Orthodox resources would immensely benefit the Orthodox church and the lives of Orthodox Christians.”
However, having all of these beautiful symbols and reminders makes it easier for a very small minority to legalize Orthodox worship and salvation. While Christ did give us a new set of commandments and guidelines for worship and attaining salvation, a small group of the Orthodox take a very Pharisaic approach to the law; this ends up turning off many of the rest of us while making religion hard and confusing.
While deciding what traditions and forms of worship are necessary is a difficult and often controversial discussion, Protestantism took a fresh approach that was able to refocus on what was really important. If the Orthodox took a similar approach, it would be easier for those who are struggling with the notion of salvation to have peace of mind and be able to focus on the basics that lead to salvation and unity with God.
To clarify, I am not claiming that tradition is evil or irrelevant just because some have misused it. Christ told the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), showing that there was a correct way and wrong way to practice the Sabbath, tradition and the law. I am just pointing out that we can learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters how to keep things simple enough while focusing primarily on our relationship with God and others.
2. Commitment to the centrality of Scripture
Following the first point, many Protestants will claim that the Orthodox and Catholic churches lack in reading and understanding the Bible. This perception is not fully accurate. Many Orthodox churches hold weekly Bible studies, Scripture is read at every service, our Church Fathers from the early centuries of Christianity wrote thousands of volumes of commentary on Scripture, and almost everything we do can be traced back to biblical passages.
However, it pains me to say that behind this stereotype is a sliver of truth. While most Orthodox memorize, highlight, and understand the Bible in their everyday lives, some assume that they can replace the Bible with liturgical worship and extra-biblical reading. This point is not fought for hard enough, and the emphasis on making sure these things complement Bible reading instead of replacing it seems too apparent at times to make.
While the Bible is not our only source, it is by far the primary and main source of God’s word in our lives, and nothing can replace it. A more Protestant-like dedication to studying and applying the Bible while using Orthodox resources would immensely benefit the Orthodox church and the lives of Orthodox Christians.
3. Hospitality and approachability
I hate to keep clarifying, but I want to reiterate how this point does not by any means apply to all Orthodox churches. Many Orthodox Christians view their spiritual lives as a constant and serious battle (which it can be), but some of us sometimes forget that our most powerful weapon in such a battle is love, because “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). We can be so focused on our prayer rules and our personal relationships with God, that we forget that He commanded us to love others precisely to grow closer to Him.
We put on a stern face, close our eyes in services and scold anyone who opens their mouth inside a church building. While the liturgy demands a certain kind of reverence and respect, it should not be at the expense of the primary commandment of love.
This sternness or strictness can lead many to feel unwelcome or judged, even without being spoken to. While things like the truth and church attendance should not be contingent on how people make you feel inside a church building, and while a stern glance should not be enough to make you question your whole faith, expressing love towards others, instead of containing it and only expressing it towards God, would help make Orthodox churches not only physically beautiful, but also even more spiritually beautiful.
This sense of hospitality and approachability is found in most Protestant churches. If any one of us were to walk into one, we would immediately feel welcomed and loved. Again, many Orthodox churches do a fantastic job with this and the purpose of going to church is not to “feel good” while drawing attention away from the worship of God. However, being loving and approachable should be true for our lives at all times outside the church, while also maintaining our attention and reverence for what happens inside the church building.
4. Priority on evangelizing
As Orthodox churches are found in almost every culture around the world, it is apparent that our spiritual ancestors were a lot more adept at preaching and evangelizing than we are. It is evident that we have fallen short of this standard today as there is still a large portion of the population that has no idea what Orthodox Christianity is.
“If everyone understood that before taking communion you have to be in communion with each other, we would value a sense of community so much more.”
Some of this can be attributed to societal circumstances. As a Coptic Orthodox Christian, it is easy for me to see why we have become apathetic in reaching out to others. Our history involves things like getting our tongues cut off if we spoke in our original Coptic dialect during initial Muslim occupation in Egypt. It would be hard, coming from this type of situation, to immediately be open to preaching and reaching out to our local communities.
However, some Orthodox churches have no excuse to remain constrained. One of Christ’s last and most important commandments was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). It is unacceptable to ignore this commandment on the grounds that you may be hyper-concentrated on your own salvation. Loving God is not an excuse to neglect those around you and their salvation.
Again, there are many Orthodox mission churches that are dedicated to evangelizing and spreading the work of salvation. But assigning this job to only a few parishes should not be how we fulfill this commandment. Many of our Protestant neighbors make this a priority in their daily lives. They preach with their loving actions and invite friends and family to services and Bible studies. More Orthodox Christians should make this a personal priority as well, not just the task of a few parishes.
5. Spirit of community
There is a small group of Orthodox believers who admirably make the effort to come to church every Sunday morning to take communion no matter what they may be feeling towards their fellow congregants or even the priest. They understand that there is something special available in being at church and participating in the Eucharist. However, some treat church like a drive-thru, where they can stop by for a few minutes, take communion, get their Holy Spirit fix and immediately head back home to catch up on sleep.
People may choose to do this in response to the lack of hospitality they feel at church and they may insist on not staying around for post-church coffee or meals to prove a point. However, there doesn’t seem to be enough people advocating to include those who are subject to such feelings. If everyone understood that before taking communion you have to be in communion with each other, we would value a sense of community so much more.
Of course, those who stick around are more likely to build a family-like relationship with the rest of the church. But wanting more people to be involved in this family and in church and communal life seems like something that, in general, Protestant churches are more focused on. We know this is what Christ and his disciples strived for. This lifestyle and the inclusion of all Christians is found in the early church in Acts, where “they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:4).
In short, most of these issues found among only a small percentage of Orthodox Christians and churches can be traced back to one of two primary factors: abusing tradition or neglecting communal love. An increased focus on these two areas of concern will allow for a closer relationship not only between Orthodox believers, but between Orthodox and sister Protestant churches.