“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
One of the primary duties of a Christian is to make disciples of others. More importantly the Church, however we may understand it, is a missionary church and charged with spreading the Gospel to the whole world. This duty is one of the most important, if not THE most important role of the Church. While apostolics like myself may argue that sacraments give evangelizing a good run for the top, we all agree that this mission is important. In this article I wish to look at why Orthodox has room to improve in reaching out, why Protestants are so darn good at the Great Commission, and why Catholicism tends toward the middle of Christ’s mission to spread the Gospel.
My interest begins with a discussion I had with Rowan and Lewis on the drive back from the 2019 Morning Walk March for Life trip. While driving back we began to talk about evangelizing, and why the Orthodox Church needs improvement in this department. Since that conversation I have begun to come up with a theory that traditions (even some theological dogmas) and evangelizing often come into conflict with one another. For instance, by promising a self-help religion with no commitments, one finds easy followers. On the other hand, trying to spread every aspect of your theological beliefs, insisting on circumcision, liturgy in Aramaic, the bible in the language it was written, would be off-putting and push people away from Christ. From these thoughts, I created created a rough spectrum on which we can place each of the three major Christian branches and outline the important reasons for finding the ideal approach to evangelizing.
Let’s start with Protestantism. One of the hallmarks of Protestant Churches is that they can start anywhere with relative ease. A sole missionary, from any background, needs only a bible in order to bring people to Christ. While there is a variety within Protestant churches and how they approach evangelism, as a whole Protestants are extremely adaptable. In minimizing the impact of tradition and significance of hierarchy, Protestants can go to any nation and adapt the message of Christ to the language and culture of the people.
On the converse side, the lack of tradition leaves Protestants relatively ungrounded. Moral issues like abortion and contraception, along with theological issues like the sacraments and their efficacy, splinter Protestants. In their worst form this leads some Protestant denominations to preach doctrine antithetical to scripture and the Gospel. The lack of historic tradition ungrounds protestants, leading to many Church leaders sending mixed messages as each leader reads the bible as they see fit .
For us Catholics our traditions can act as a limiting factor. Catholicism is rooted in the Parish, where Christians can build themselves up as a community in Christ – connected to a global Church. The Magisterium of the Church, her councils, and scripture all work together to ensure a doctrine where the Gospel message will remain uncorrupted (or at least consistent from a non-Catholic perspective). Yet the Church also has investigated and spent centuries trying to separate those traditions given to us by Christ from those we have created ourselves. Thus big ‘T’ traditions like the Eucharist, Baptism, and Apostalic Succession separate from little ‘t’ traditions like Latin Mass, celibate priests, and scholasticism. This balance has led to great success among many Catholic missionaries throughout the Church’s history, but with a greater tendency than Protestantism to become a cultural religion.
Now we come to Orthodoxy, which prompted the writing of this article in the first place. On that drive back we talked about what Orthodoxy excels at. Namely, Orthodoxy has preserved the Divine Liturgy (what Catholics call the Mass) in its beautiful form for over a thousand years. While some changes have taken place, compared with that of Roman Catholicism the liturgy of the East seems near eternal. There is no denying that the chanting, incense, and singing of the Orthodox liturgy captures something that only the extraordinary form of the Mass has a chance of standing up to. Orthodoxy is cautious to change its small ‘t’ traditions, and this leads to a Church that tends to not straddle the fence with respect to heresy.
With all that said, the conservative nature of the Orthodox Church does lead to some serious issues concerning evangelizing. The Orthodox Church has a much more narrow Overton window with respect to what doctrines can be discussed, a window made more blurry by a lack of desire to engage with reason when discussing things divine. While this has, arguably, played a huge role in preserving tradition, it also has led to an Orthodox Church that tends towards ethnic centrism that divides the different patriarchies.
Such a close identification of a Church with its nationalities makes evangelism difficult, since the relative adaptability of Protestants and Catholics to different cultures is not as easy an option for the Orthodox. Imagine trying to bring every tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church to an island people who have never heard of Christ before. The line between bringing Christ and bringing Russian influence to these people becomes heavily blurred, polluting the message of the Gospel with national politics. While Protestants and Catholics are not immune from this cultural evangelism, the Orthodox Church experiences it in a very acute way. Combined with a lower emphasis on a culture of evangelism overall, we might be able to see why the Orthodox Church’s share of Christianity has shrunk in the past century while Catholic and Protestant influence has grown.
More important than the numbers though, Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, has a tendency to become cultural and lose the Christian clamor for spreading the good news. A spirit of evangelism must be sought both within the Orthodox Church as well as from Orthodox Christians to the non-Christian world. Part of this spirit is the ability to shed those traditions which are cultural and focus on the message of the Gospel, as it is seen in both scripture and the traditions Christ handed down to us. Don’t take it from me. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 Paul writes:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Paul’s verse should not only trouble Orthodox Christians but all Christians who find their identity in anything other than Christ. It is a temptation to think of ourselves in terms of politics, nationality, or community ahead of who we are as God’s adoptive children. Yet that is who we are made to be through Christ’s actions in coming down to be human and dying for us.
This Article is part of a series of articles where I look to expand on my research concerning Catholic-Orthodox relations. In this series I write on both what I have learned from reading Orthodox priests and theologians and what I think Catholicism can offer in return. Other articles: