East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1993, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

For Christian Understanding, Ignorance is Not Bliss

Mark Elliott

"When we say 'the Church' we always mean the Orthodox Church and no other," reported one respondent in a mid-1980s poll conducted in the Soviet Union by Russian emigre Eugene Grosman.  "It has been established by Christ, and has had no deviations, neither left nor right.  All the rest are false churches or sects that went astray."  In the same survey Russian Evangelicals typically voiced opinions just as intolerant, dismissing Orthodoxy as "a dead Church" with "drunkards" for priests.  "They know how to cross themselves, and nothing else....Worshipping those icons, lighting the candles, praying for the dead, it's all idolatry."1  In the Russian Empire and in the Soviet era most Protestants and Orthodox rarely moved beyond negative stereotypical images of each other.  Unfortunately, ongoing mutual ignorance fuels increasing religious conflict in the former East Bloc.  Furthermore, the more Western believers engage in ministry in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, the harder they find it to muster civility in their dealings with other Christian confessions.  These days, the mutual tolerance and respect among Western Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, built up painfully over centuries, frequently evaporates in a flash in the cauldron of ethnic and confessional strife now raging from the Balkans to the Baltics to Siberia.

Most Western Protestants give little if any thought to Orthodoxy, not out of hostility, but out of ignorance.  In the United States, approximately three million Orthodox equal better-known Mormons numerically, but have a marginal impact upon American society.  Some U.S. Orthodox fear that nominalism may explain much of their invisibility.2  Whatever the cause,  Orthodoxy's comparatively low western profile does appear to illustrate the maxim, "out of sight, out of mind."

Evangelicals' misreading of Orthodoxy stems at least in part from a lack of understanding.  For years I have been struck by the abundance of contemporary Orthodox literature in the West concerning Protestantism, in contrast to the scarcity of contemporary evangelical perspectives on Orthodoxy.  Perhaps the fact that Orthodoxy in the West has had to contend with a far larger Protestant presence explains its attention to what sets it apart from Reformation churches.3  In contrast, Protestants have focused attention on Orthodoxy only sporadically.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Protestants, from the sixteenth century on, have had little contact with, or understanding of, Eastern Orthodoxy.  Underscoring the point, a 1991 handbook of United States higher education reproduced outlines of 16 courses treating Christian-Marxist relations, 17 on liberation theology, but less than a half dozen with a major focus on Orthodoxy.9

In the post World War II period the most significant exception to the rule of minimal Protestant-Orthodox interaction has been their encounter in the ecumenical movement.  However, Orthodox ecumenical activity rarely has involved significant numbers of evangelical Christians.  Nevertheless, the latter still owe heartfelt appreciation to the Orthodox serving in the National Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, and the World Council of Churches, for their steadfast and often lonely championing of basic Christian beliefs.  Interestingly, unlike Protestantism and Catholicism, Orthodoxy has never produced a faction that takes a skeptical view of the veracity of Scripture or questions the divinity, miracles, or resurrection of Jesus Christ or challenges historic Christian social teachings, such as the inadmissability of a homosexual lifestyle.10  If the Achilles heel of Orthodoxy, historically, has been its tendency to align itself with, or capitulate to, secular power, its strength has been its tenacious preservation of the faith once received.11  A church could do worse.  On a personal note, as an Evangelical Christian, I have been deeply moved by warm spiritual fellowship with Orthodox Christians.  In point of fact, evangelical Christians actually have more in common theologically with Orthodox believers than with liberal Protestants.

Still, Eastern Orthodox and evangelical Christians frequently do find themselves in disagreement.  Where conflict stems from ignorance, careful study and genuine listening offer considerable hope.  To be sure, Orthodoxy often succumbs to triumphalism, that is, defining one's own communion as the divinely-designated Christian church, but that position does not distinguish it from a fair number of evangelical churches which manifest the same spiritual self-assurance.  Instead, a conflicting understanding of divine grace, which bridges the chasm between God's holiness and man's sinfulness, most clearly sets Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism at odds.  While for Evangelicals, Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture, reconciles heaven and earth, in Orthodoxy other mediators appear to supplement Christ's saving grace.

Peter Kuzmic of Osijek, Croatia, argues that from an evangelical perspective, liberal Christianity detracts from Christ by subtraction, while Orthodox Christianity detracts from Christ by addition.12

Each point mentioned above, and many other Evangelical-Orthodox distinctives, deserve careful investigation by evangelical theologians--in strength and at length.  Fortunately, recent evidence suggests an encouraging increase in evangelical interest in Orthodoxy.  Three promising evangelical studies of the Eastern Church are underway.13  "Partakers of the Divine Nature," an excellent study by Rev. Don Fairbairn of Light of the Gospel Seminary, Donetsk, Ukraine, and Turning Over A New Leaf:  Protestant Missions and the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, ed. by David P. Teague, offer more immediate assistance.14  Every candidate for ministry in the former East Bloc would do well to read at least the first, but preferably both, of these insightful evangelical critiques of Orthodoxy.  Practically speaking, evangelical Christians, working in increasing numbers in historically Orthodox lands, cannot begin to comprehend the cultural context without committing themselves to labor-intensive study of both the common ground and the distinct differences between the two confessions.

In 1980 at the General Assembly of the World Evangelical Fellowship in Hoddesdon, England, disagreements over Reformation church relations with the church of Rome led to the formation of a working group to study the issue.  Out of that process emerged Roman Catholicism:  A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective, edited by Paul G. Schrotenboer.  This thoughtful analysis clearly summarizes shared beliefs and, without rancor, what appear to be the insoluble differences between evangelical and Catholic understandings of faith and practice.15  Exactly the same steps desperately need to be taken to outline more fully where Evangelicals and Orthodox can and cannot make common cause.  Might some evangelical cooperative body accept this challenge?16  We could pray that as a result, love would more fully abound, strife and insensitivity rooted in ignorance would diminish, and all those who claim the name of Christ would, at the very least, be able to disagree agreeably.  The alternative to a better evangelical grasp of Orthodoxy, and vice versa, is frightening to contemplate.  If Evangelicals and Orthodox do not become better acquainted and make earnest efforts to defuse tensions in the old East Bloc, we can expect not only more grievous misunderstandings, but bloodshed, both in the Balkans and well beyond.  Petitions to the Savior for peace among Christians of different traditions must be accompanied by goodwill derived from mind-stretching and soul-searching study. 

  1.  "A Contribution to Protestant-Orthodox Dialogue in Russia," unpublished paper, Wheaton College Graduate School, Fall 1986, 7 and 9.
  2. "Favorite Faiths," The Orthodox Church 29 (April/May 1993), 6.
  3. Several readily available, annotated Orthodox  resource catalogs offer a remarkable variety of popular and scholarly Eastern Church critiques of Protestant faith:  Light and Life Publishing Company, 4818 Park Glen Rd., Minneapolis, MN 55416, tel:  612-925-3888, fax:  612-925-3918; St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary Press, 575 Scarsdale Rd., Crestwood, NY 10707, tel:  914-961-8313, fax:  914-961-5456; and Icon and Book Service, 1217 Quincy St. NE, Washington, DC 20017, tel:  202-526-6061; fax:  202-526-3316.  As a sampler, the New York-based Holy Trinity Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad distributes English editions of Greek and Russian polemical attacks on Protestants:  Apostolis Makrakis, An Orthodox-Protestant Dialogue (Chicago, IL:  The Orthodox Christian Education Society, 1949); Kyril Zaits, Missionary Conversations with Protestant Sectarians (Jordanville, NY:  Holy Trinity Monastery, 1973).  Father Peter Gilquist, a Campus Crusade convert to the Eastern Church, pens equally aggressive, if more polished, Orthodox apologetics:  Becoming Orthodox, a Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith (Brentwood, TN:  Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1989); Making America Orthodox (Brookline, MA:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1985); Coming Home:  Why Protestant Clergy Are Becoming Orthodox (Mount Hermon, CA:  Conciliar Press, 1992).  In contrast, Father Anthony Ugolnik's The Illuminating Icon introduces Orthodoxy to Western Protestants thoughtfully and unabrassively (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1989).
  4. Archbishop Methodios Fouyas, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism (Brookline, MA:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1984, c 1972), 36.
  5. Ibid., 35-36; George A. Hadjiantoniou, Protestant Patriarch:  The Life of Cyril Lukaris, 1572-1638, Patriarch of Constantinople (Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press, 1961; Kallistos Ware, "Cyril I," The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 4 (New York:  Macmillan, 1987), 189-91.
  6. Ted Campbell, John Wesley and Christian Antiquity (Nashville, TN:  Kingswood Books, 1991);  Randy Maddox, "John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy:  Influences, Convergences, and Differences," Asbury Theological Journal 45 (Fall, 1990), 29-53; Howard Snyder, "John Wesley and Macarius the Egyptian," The Asbury Theological Journal 45 (Fall, 1990), 55-60.
  7. John Meyendorff and Robert Tobias, Salvation in Christ:  A Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Press, 1992); E. C. Miller, Toward a Fuller Vision:  Orthodoxy and the Anglican Experience (Wilton, CT:  Morehouse Barlow Co., 1984).
  8. Valuable examples would include Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1974); and James J. Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 1986).
  9. Rom Maczka and Mark Elliott, eds., Christian-Marxist Studies in United States Higher Education: A Handbook of Syllabi (Wheaton, IL: Institute for East-West Christian Studies, 1991).
  10. The few instances of Orthodox theological liberalism only serve to underscore the rarity of the phenomenon.  Paul Valliere, "Theological Liberalism and Church Reform in Imperial Russia" in Church, Nation and State in Russia and Ukraine, ed. by Geoffrey A. Hosking (London: Macmillan, 1991), 108-29.  Also, what sometimes has passed for "clerical liberalism" has "proved more clerical than liberal": Gregory Freeze, The Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia, Crisis, Reform, Counter-Reform (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1983), 389.
  11. In the conciliar world Protestants, for the sake of unity, have been willing to overlook what they perceive as Orthodoxy's fundamentalist-like theological immobility.  At the same time, Orthodox, for the sake of ecumenical recognition, have been willing to overlook mainline Protestant theological modernism, and for the sake of survival, assumed they had to support Kremlin foreign policy and the myth of Soviet religious liberty.  Thomas C. Oden, Two Worlds, Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 167-68; Hans Hebly, The Russians and the World Council of Churches (Belfast: Christian Journals, 1978), 135-38; Kent Hill, "The Orthodox Church and a Pluralistic Society" in Russian Pluralism: Now Irreversible?, ed. by Uri Ra'anan, Keith Armes, and Kate Martin (New York: St. Martin's, 1992), 168.
  12. Dr. Kuzmic is the president of Biblijslav Teoloski Institut, D. Tucovica 32, pp. 370, 54103 Osijek, Croatia.
  13. Dan Clendenin, "Eastern Orthodoxy: A Western Perspective," Baker Books, forthcoming; Paul Negrut, "The Development of the Concept of Authority in the Romanian Orthodox and Evangelical Churches," Ph.D. dissertation, London Bible College, forthcoming; and George Hancock-Stefan, "The Impact of Reformation on the Romanian People: 1517-1642," Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, forthcoming.
  14. The Institute for East-West Christian Studies has permission to distribute Fairbairn's 76-page unpublished paper for the cost of photocopy, postage, and handling: $8.00 (U.S. and Canada, 1st class), $10.00 (Europe, printed-matter airmail); and an 18-page summary for $3.00 (U.S. and Canada, 1st class), $4.00 (Europe, printed-matter airmail).  Interserve, 325 Kennington Rd., London SE11 4QH, England, and Middle East Media, Box 359, Lynnwood, WA 98046, jointly published the 1992 second edition of Turning Over a Leaf.  Less helpful are two pamphlets:  Across the Divide, ed. by R. T. Beckurth et al.  (Basingstoke, England: Lyttleton Press, 1977), because it focuses primarily on Evangelical-Catholic issues; and Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among the Orthodox, ed. by Apostolos D. Bliates (Wheaton, IL:  Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1980), because it attempts too much in 43 pages:  history, demographics, theology, and apologetics.
  15. Paul G. Schrotenboer, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1989), 8-10.
  16. Possibilities include the World Evangelical Fellowship, the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization, and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.  IFES hosted a consultation on Orthodoxy in London 29 June-2 July 1993. Second, the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, headed by Dr. Bradley Nassif of the Antiochian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church, strives to improve relations between the two traditions.  (See Calendar for September 1993.)  Finally, a small group of Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals met in Stuttgart, Germany, in mid-February 1993, in part to discuss common objections to theological trends evident at the 1992 Canberra World Council of Churches meeting.  (Letter of Bradley Nassif to friends of the SSEOE, 5 April 1993; and Ecumenical Press Service, 06-20 March 1993, "Eastern Orthodox, evangelical Protestants meet.")

News Notes on Orthodoxy
The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) appointed a Greek Orthodox missionary and ecumenical worker, Anastasios, as exarch of Albania in September 1991. He was enthroned as Archbishop of the Albanian Orthodox Church in August 1992. In April 1993, the Vatican appointed Fr. Rrok Mirdita as Archbishop of Tirana. He formerly served an Albanian Catholic Parish in the Bronx, New York. Born   in southern Yugoslavia, he emigrated to the United States in 1973. One draft of a new freedom of conscience law calls for native Albanian leadership of religious communities, a potential problem not only for Orthodox and Catholics, but for Protestants and Muslims as well.

One World, no. 183 (March 1993), 20; National and International Religion Report (22 March 1993), 1.

Bulgaria today suffers from perhaps the most serious Orthodox division in the former East Bloc, outside Ukraine. In May 1992 the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) government, through its Religious Affairs Board, dethroned Patriarch Maxim and ruled against the existing Bulgarian Orthodox Holy Synod in favor of a new synod headed by former dissident Father Hristofer Subev.  According to News Network International, "There are bishops who have reportedly been highly compromised by the communists on both sides of the schism."

Janice Broun, "Bulgaria's Orthodox Seminaries Seek Renewal," News Network International, News Analysis, 25 November 1992, 35. See also One World, no. 183 (March 1983), 20-21.

International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), founded in 1992, assists Orthodox Churches worldwide in providing disaster relief and economic and social assistance. Offices in Moscow and Belgrade currently distribute food, medicines, and other aid. Contact:

Mark Elliott, "For Christian Understanding, Ignorance is Not Bliss," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 1 (Summer 1993), 5-6.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1993 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

East-West Church & Ministry Report | Contents | Search back issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe