Evangelical Christians and the Orthodox Church

Recently Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that the Orthodox Church is closer to Islam than to Catholicism . I hope that not all Orthodox Christians think so, and that they did not delegate the right to identify them to the prime minister of their country (not the Church!). And what do Evangelicals think about other confessions? Are Orthodox Christians closer to them than atheists, whom more historical confessions are always accusing them of sympathizing with?

Common ground

I decided to speak for myself, and name a few things that both Evangelical and Orthodox Christians in Ukraine have in common:

Communalism, unity, collective identity as a way of life and understanding of the church (the universality of the historical church is correlated with Protestants’ invisible church; individual beginnings and local traditions are always second to “brotherhood” or the Church as a collective authority).

Mysticism, devoutness in antithesis to witchcraft and profanation (No one will throw the Bible on the floor or into a crowd).

Brotherhood, asceticism, forms of monastic commitment (Ukrainian Baptists are very close to European Anabaptists, known for their asocial way of life. Anabaptist theologian Thomas Finger thinks that “Anabaptism can be seen as a sixteenth- century expression of an ascetic impulse originating in Eastern cenobitic monasticism.” ).

Anthropology and ontology are more important than jurisprudence.

Submission and humility, developed by the Church under pressure from the government.

Intense eschatological consciousness.

A “miraculous” understanding of grace (grace is understood as a life- transforming energy, and not a mechanical or legal action).

An emphasis on faithfulness to the apostolic patristical tradition (a widespread feeling that the era of the Church Fathers has ended and now we must simply re-read them and preserve their legacy).

The idea of the local church (national and cultural particularities of individual churches; the temporary nature of the church’s existence in the world).

Theocentrism, as opposed to ecclesiocentrism (unity is possible in God, not in the visible catholic church; spiritual unity in God covers the truth of its implementation and its social manifestations).

An accent on a conservative understanding of faith (an emphasis on a return to, a restoration of true faith, getting rid of heresy and wrong teaching, where the main thing is preservation, not growth and development).

Polyphony of faith, perception of the diversity within orthodoxy (in Christianity differences emerged not in distinguishing between orthodoxy and heresy, but among different views on orthodoxy).

Respect for history and traditions (when responding to new challenges of the times, it is preferable to preserve unharmed that, which has already been discovered and addressed by Church Fathers and councils).

Confronting questions led to dialogue

You may come across resentment of Protestants’ supposed lack of respect for traditions, their lack of knowledge of the Church Fathers, their “non-historicity,” “lack of love” towards the Orthodox church, etc. I agree that the apostolic patristic tradition is not part of the Baptist Church’s vocabulary. But that is de facto the foundation of the Baptist legacy. It’s just that for Protestants, what is most important is the “apostolic” portion of the apostolic patristic tradition— they claim to have reconstructed the apostolic church, often ignoring the Church Fathers. And for the Orthodox Church, the Church Fathers are almost more important than the apostles as systematizers and classical voicers of teaching. But all of this is one tradition, which modern Christians want to return to through differing readings of the same material.

Ignorance of their roots can be met with not only among Protestants, but at the lowest level of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, where it is even more widespread than among Protestants. A village priest will be genuinely surprised if you ask him a few clarifying questions about Athanasius. Therefore ignorance on the common level is characteristic of all confessions.

Pavel Rogozhin’s anti-Orthodox book Where This All Came From is not read much in Protestant circles any more—anti-Orthodoxy among Protestants should not be exaggerated (there is a lot more xenophobia from the other side). However criticism of “folk Orthodoxy” (and not Church Fathers) is fully reasonable.

Interestingly, I first became acquainted with historical church texts while reading a copy of the Bulletin of Truth (a magazine published by unregistered underground Baptists during the USSR) from the 1970s, which contained fragments of the writings of John Chrysostom and Saint Augustine. Today it is Baptist students that defend dissertations on patristics. The interest of students at Western seminaries and colleges in patristics is widespread and genuine. But they seek there not the roots of Russian Orthodoxy, but the roots of Christianity. Going back to the source—that is the fundamental theological aim of Evangelical churches. The fact that not all heads of churches are held accountable for their personal theological identity is another matter.

Therefore for Evangelicals, Orthodoxy is closer than the post-Christian thinking of the West or its “new atheism,” but is complemented by individuality, a presumption of freedom, creativity and novelty, which Western thinking has expressed in secular form. What makes the Evangelical worldview unique is that it brings together the immutable truths of Eastern Christian traditions with Protestant experience of growth and the reformed traditions of the West. Worldwide Orthodoxy and Evangelical Protestantism are part of one big history of a united Church. But they have no relation to “Putin-style Orthodoxy,” which is a completely different story.

Orthodox and Protestant Christianity has Shared Roots and Shared Problems

Shared History
The Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches have a shared past, which includes both the experience of past church unity, and a rich jointly-created theological legacy.

Both Orthodox and Protestant Christians frequently make references to the ancient nature of Orthodox Christianity and the youth of Protestantism. But in reality, while Protestantism became an independent confession in the 16th century, it did not evolve out of thin air, but traveled the same path together with the Catholic Church, which had been one church until then. The canon, Church Fathers, councils—these are achievements of a united Church, not yet divided into East and West. The first millennium of Church history—from Pentecost to the schism in 1054 AD—is shared by all.

In public disputes Orthodox apologists try to claim for themselves parts of history that belong to all Christians. It’s strange that seemingly serious Orthodox theologians call the Church Fathers their own, knowing full well that Orthodox Christianity did not exist as an independent confession at the time. It is even stranger that Evangelical Christians sometimes agree to this privatization and confess to a later birth and a lack of involvement in medieval history. It’s possible that this acquiescence is another instance of the well-known neglect of history which has become a negative distinctive of Protestantism. Or it’s possible that a modest admission of its minority status before the historically influential churches is a conscious rejection of argument with the more privileged confessions.

One way or the other, the millennium that was most important for the future development of Christianity, during which a foundational orthodoxy, the main theological schools of thought, and the unity and diversity of the Church were formed, is shared by all major confessions.
The Church Fathers can be considered not only Orthodox, but also Catholic and Evangelical. These are all good words, applicable to the Church, and reflecting various aspects of her. But when these words become the property of particular confessions, they divide and isolate that which they are meant to unite.

Not only is the past shared, but also the present and the future. To the degree that the Orthodox and Evangelical churches recognize their membership in a single worldwide Church, they should consider shared not just the first millennium of Church history, but all following centuries as well. God is Lord of all history, and His intellectual work did not stop with the Church Fathers. That which was revealed to Byzantine theologians and Western scholars was meant not just for their benefit, but for the whole Church. The main theses of the Reformation were addressed to the whole Pax Christi—not just Protestants. All of history, in which first one church, then another, serves the rest, fulfilling their unique missions and using the gifts given them for the enrichment of all, should be considered shared. Such a view of history reveals a holistic panorama, where everyone has their own special spot, and that spot does not encompass the whole. The Church Fathers, who are so treasured by the Orthodox scholars; the scholarship which Catholics are rightly proud of; and Reformation theology, on which Protestants “stand, and cannot do otherwise,” are all part of one history. In other words there are always forerunners and successors, whom we should be grateful to. But it does not stop with that. In the opinion of a majority of theologians, the next paradigm will be an ecumenical paradigm, in which the participation of the three major churches will not take the form of changing eras and parallel traditions, but of a shared table and common fellowship. Thereby historical precedence is unimportant and culminates in serving one another and the world.

Shared Cultural Context
The Orthodox and Protestant churches live side by side in the same nations and cultures. Their cultural context transforms both Orthodox Christianity and Protestantism into unique national spiritual cultures.

It would be simpler if each church had its own accompanying culture. But while churches are different, a society’s spiritual culture is one, composite, complex. If a church understands the importance of the cultural factor, it willingly engages in contextualization of its internal principles.

In countries of political Orthodoxy one often hears of their “Orthodox culture.” Equating Orthodox culture (the culture of the church) with the culture of the entire nation is not just an intellectual error, but a dangerous theological-political doctrine. A nation’s culture is influenced by religion, but it also includes other components, the importance of which can vary at different periods.

Culture is independent of religion. I don’t wish to act as an apologist for secular culture, but I would like to note that the autonomy of culture is a constructive and conciliating factor in polyreligious societies. Christians who have lived in countries with a non-Christian majority can appreciate the autonomy of culture. On the contrary, it is more difficult to come to terms with autonomy for those who live in Christian areas, and seek to create a single religious standard of socio-cultural life for all of society. Either we recognize the well-known autonomy of culture and the right of various confessions to form their own sub-cultures, or we hand our culture over to one of them, thereby discriminating against the rest, and limiting the cultural potential of “unofficial,” “non-historical” churches. A majority of our nations are polyreligious, and their cultures have been influenced by a variety of faiths. A view of culture as of a heterogenic sphere will help reveal not only the socio-cultural possibilities of various confessions, but will also direct them in a constructive direction, instead of in defense of their “canonical territory” against “outside” influences.

Shared Problems
We will focus on the two main problems shared by the Orthodox and Protestant churches. An old and unresolved problem is related to the syncretistic nature of “Orthodox” spirituality. “Rus was baptized, but not enlightened.” The idea of a Holy Rus is a myth. In reality it contains elements of complex syncretistic paganism, ritualism, and Sovietism. This presents a challenge to the Church, which needs to be addressed through Christian teaching.

A new global problem is aggressive Islamization. This challenges Christian unity, and when faced with it our differences no longer seem so insurmountable. Is it not strange that the enemies of Christianity see it as united, while to Orthodox Christians a Baptist is worse than a non-Christian?

A shared history and culture create a foundation, experience, and a precedent for unity in diversity to be renewed again and again, especially in the face of shared problems, which can’t be solved independently.