Are Orthodox Christians Imploding Before The Great Commission?

The Orthodox Church has a venerable tradition of evangelism.  In many sectors of Western Christianity, it is largely unknown, despite its great success.  After all, Orthodox Christianity reached Alaska somehow and Christianity has existed in Eastern Europe and Asia since times before that.  Often, one looks to the work begun by Ss. Cyril and Methodios, putting the Gospel into the language of the Slavic peoples, but it was there before that.  There are, of course, complications in any narrative, especially when one realizes past societies did not share all of our values, but all in all, Orthodoxy was spread and spread well.  In some situations, it even spread through the work of Orthodox clergy and monastics finding creative ways to integrate with the local cultures (though flat out imperialism also occurred).

Unfortunately, in today’s era, we have additional complications.  Indeed, if one looks around the world, one might suspect our current narrative runs something along the lines of implosion.  I dare say such a suspicion would not be so far from the truth.  Here are some current examples:

The link above shows that ethnocentricism is alive and well (ROCOR exists to serve Russians abroad) and also shows that a good number of bishops do not want unity–they do not want to restructure dioceses, which would be required for administrative unity to happen.  Why is this important?  Well, because Orthodoxy has a LOT of problems and a lot of issues to address:  we haven’t yet fully come to terms with modernity, we duplicate institutions (like seminaries), we are very inefficient in our current diocesan structure, etc.  These might seem like minor problems to some people, but once one starts to think on the ripple effects, one realizes they are not minor at all and they do impact the mission of spreading the message of God’s love and holiness as his will for humanity.  Furthermore, I must say, it is sinful not to work together with your brother and sister in Christ to your utmost ability.  And yet, we Orthodox fall well short of that.  We definitely are missing the mark.

Or, take this:

One might wonder how this affects the great commission.  Isn’t this just internal debate about whether to dialogue with Rome?  Well, it is internal debate, but one that also affects whether we are about the Great Commission.  Internet chatter in support of Moscow has been rather sectarian, from what I’ve seen.  I won’t link to such discussions or call out anyone.  That’s not fair, but my read of it is that it has been sectarian.  It comes from some basic mistakes:  primacy is wrong (no, sorry, it’s not–just abusive forms of it); primacy led Rome into heresy (again, no, it did not–theological differences between Eastern and Western Christianity arose from factors other than Rome’s bishop being considered “first among equals” and this is a slippery slope fallacy if I ever heard one anyhow).  Sectarian infighting diverges energy best spent engaging the world around us.  Dialoguing with Rome is important and in light of the decreased Christian presence in Europe, getting Rome and Orthodoxy on the same page is not a bad thing and can help in spreading the Gospel.

But those are not all.  Take an honest look at Orthodoxy in many places across America.  There are some areas where we were once strong but have dwindled in size–significantly so.  We tend to emphasize the influx of converts in the 1980s and 1990s and my own recent book highlighted the importance of converts to Orthodoxy.  (  Despite this, in many parishes we have maybe 20-30 people showing up trying to maintain large physical structures.  Many a time, it is possible to see pictures of hierarchical liturgies, where the bishop visits and there seems to be as many attending clergy as there are people “in the pews”!  This is a problem and the longer Orthodoxy denies this, the more it will continue to implode.

Of course, this is not all.  We have priests who do not take advantage of the gifts of their flocks.  The priest does not need to be the one teaching every adult education lesson.  Nor does he even have to give every single sermon.  Many of our parishes have very talented, gifted teachers and speakers, who are committed to Christ.  Yet, in far too many parishes, you wouldn’t know that.  We also like to pride ourselves on our Orthodoxy, and poo poo the moral failings of some of our hierarchy and clergy (unless it makes the news and then we’re forced to bend over backwards to explain it away).  That is to say, we still fear transparency and accountability (but this is part of fearing modernity).

Ultimately, all of this overlaps and works together for a “perfect storm.”  It is difficult to produce strong social outreach and ministry if jurisdictions are spending $ duplicating efforts.  It is difficult to engage the poor neighborhoods around our parishes (at least the ones that didn’t flee to the suburbs) when we focus on trying to look as much like an imagined 17th c. Russian Cathedral or 12th c. Hagia Sophia as we can.  It is difficult to have the time and money and energy engaging non-Orthodox and creating relationships and alliances if we’re committed to fighting over whether we should even engage them.  it is difficult to unite if we prefer to turn blind eyes to serious moral misdeeds amongst our clergy and hierarchy.

Is the future necessarily bleak?  Do Orthodox just all want to implode?  I don’t think so.  I think there are bright spots, such as FOCUS (social outreach we do) or various theologians critiquing the the superficial anti-Westernism that often passes for theological profundity in Orthodox circles (sadly).  There are also some very committed priests who realize being a priest is not just about wearing fancy vestments and imitating a picture of an imagined past.  Rather, they are pastors, who seek to facilitate the gifts of their flocks and do work on the ground.  Many are selfless, subsidizing their local parishes by working full time or part time jobs themselves (or having wives who do).

Moreover, non-Orthodox churches have similar problems.  I am not saying Orthodox are the worst in all these categories.  We very well may be, but that’s not my point.  My point is that we have these problems, we have this implosion, going on.  Frankly, I think the first step we need to do is own up to them.  Do an AA sort of thing:  “Hi, we are Orthodox, and we’re more messed up then we have even admitted to this point.”  That’s step one.  It also fits with the Great Commission.  Many potential converts come to our parishes with their own views of an imagined, glorious past, with rose colored glasses clouded with incense.  One of the best things we could do for them, would be to adopt honesty and discuss the beauty of the Orthodox faith in the midst of the sinfulness of Orthodoxy institutionalized.

24 Responses

  1. Erik

    If ROCOR states its purpose is to serve Russian émigrés, why would there need to be Moscow Patriarchate parishes here in the US?

    1. That’s a good question. It is one thing to say how this happened historically. It is another to continue existing within such a dysfunction. We are not doing ourselves much help, that’s for sure.

    2. HV Observer

      I think the time-line looks like this:

      1917 – the Bolshivek Revolution
      1928 (or so) – Emigre Russians form ROCOR and form parishes around the world, except for the USSR, and does not recognize the Communist-controlled Moscow Patriarchate. But there are pre-existing parishes, in the US and elsewhere, that do recognize the Patriarch in Moscow.
      1970 – The Patriarchate grants autocephaly to most of its parishes in the USA, founding the OCA. However, about two dozen or so parishes don’t want to join OCA; they want to continue the links with Moscow. These become the “Patriarchal Parishes.”
      So between 1970 and the fall of the USSR, you had ROCOR, OCA, and Patriarchal Parishes. And now you’re trying to get things reorganized — it’s confusion!

      1. Assuming they’re really trying and want to. I hope you’re right, but the time to make a move was when ROCOR reunited with Moscow. I think the bishops benefit too much from the current system, creating a situation where some do want administrative unity, I believe, but many do not, or at least not all that much. This dysfunction is not helping us any. It’s hurting us. How much is hard to say, I admit, but it’s not a positive thing.

        That said, I’m thankful for your outline. Don’t know why I didn’t think of that in response to Erik. Thank you!

  2. Dan

    The reaction of ROCOR is not surprising since they are reacting to the ethnocentrism of the EP. The tragedy in all of this is that if the EP had been truley committed to the Great Commision, he would not be insisting on his bishops chairing the Episcopal Assemblies (or wild imaginations such as an exclusive right to grant autocephaly, or creative interpretations of canons to claim world dominance, etc…). Rather he would insist on each region autonomously organizing itself as it sees fit for the benefit of that region, without his interferance, and with the goal being self governing regions idependant of all old world churches. But instead what we have is a thinly veiled attempt at a power grab and I’m glad some jurisdictions had the courage to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

    I would agree that our multi-juridictional situation is unttenable, but at the same time a full capitulation to the EP, which imagines itself a neo-papacy, would mean a schism within the Church. If the EP could approach this process with humility, then I would agree with you that ROCOR is out of line. Anything short of this can only be viewed from the reality that the EP is still a captive church and therefor it’s actions cannot always be trusted.

    1. Dan, thank you for this comment. You raise another angle to this. I don’t dispute that there may be ethnocentrism in Istanbul as well, but I also think we Orthodox do need to come to terms with 1) primacy as something that is Orthodox, for it is, even though not the “infallible” Vatican I type, and 2) the jurisdictions in North America have proven themselves unwilling to unite. So, I’m not opposed to the EP taking the lead. Personally, I think it’d have been better if Ligonier had turned out differently, akin to Moscow received its own autocephaly, but under current circumstances, someone had to take the lead. Also, the power grab aspect is something that may be true but I’m not sure it can be proven and, if we’re going to go down that road, then we need to also throw into the mix the fact that other “Mother Churches” in the Old World are not willing to let go of their jurisdictions in the New World. Also, it seems a lot less ethnocentric to tell all the groups to come together than to say “we’re here to serve a particular ethnicity or genealogical lines, which is what we see stated explicitly here. Furthermore, if getting an autonomous Church in North America under the EP would mean a schism, then it simply proves consistent with my point all the more–there is a sectarianism in Orthodoxy right now that is dangerous.

    1. Thank you, Andrew. I just hope more people will be willing to start stating such things and having serious conversations about this. We all need to be involved in this.

  3. Rick Evans

    This plain vanilla Latin Rite Catholic does not want to see the Orthodox Church implode. I don’t want to see infighting over rites and doctrine in my own church either. I certainly abhor the Middle East violence being perpetrated against both of our great apostolic churches as well as the Oriental Orthodox and Church of the East faithful. Those hierarchies that have maintained episcopal and sacramental validity for over two millennia have a lot to be proud of. What they cannot be admired for is denying Our Lord and Savior to each other not only in the Holy Eucharist but also in our attitudes, cutting remarks and triumphal posturing. We can’t just worship Our Lord, we have to actually be Jesus to each other and everyone else. Our Protestant brothers and sisters should also be supported by us for their dedication to scripture and their steadfast love of The Lord. We can be one with each other by dedicating ourselves to being Him to everyone, especially each other, every moment of every day. If we want to dig for heresy among other of His followers, how on earth are we going to convince violent Muslims and others that they should follow our example of Christian love and peace?

  4. John

    The reason ROCOR doesn’t want unity right now is because of statments made like this:

    or this:

    More examples can be cited. No jurisdiction is free of people who have problems. But no jurisdiction should tolerate those who preach the heresy that a sin is not a sin… especially when they are clergy. The fact is, a few too many Bishops in the OCA are willing to tolerate pro-homosexual propaganda from clergy and laity within. They are real obstacles to unity.

    It seems to me most Americans are too impatient to wait. “We’re Americans! We need our own American church!” Let’s not forget the Russians were under the EP for around 600 years with Russian bishops needing to know Greek. I think we also need more monasteries before we talk about a united church in the Americas. Monasticism is the ideal Christian life. Without it we have no safeguard against heresy.

    1. That’s not what the bishops said. That is another issue, and one perhaps worth discussing. I don’t think being pastoral to people would be the issue. Nor has the OCA somehow claimed confession of sexual struggles is unnecessary. You’re bringing up a red herring.

  5. Add this Roman Catholic who doesn’t want to see your church implode. I want to see a reunion of our Rites. We are so close theologically, it’s a shame we had to split. God bless the Orthodox Churches. If I couldn’t be Catholic for some reason I would be Orthodox.

  6. StephenD

    I remember how hopeful we were at Ligonier only to have those hopes dashed when Met.Phillip did not bring the Antiochians into the OCA and the Phanar told Archbishop Iakovos of Blessed memory to retire…I think now its ego and , more basely, money for the Ancient Patriarchs..America may be the Wild West of Orthodoxy but we have the money !

    1. Yeah, it is too bad ligonier didn’t turn out differently. I don’t think all bishops have too big of an ego, but I suspect you are right that some key ones do (though I can’t prove it). I do think there are certainly other agendas at play even if ego is not such an issue. ROCOR admitting to ethnocentrism is one example. I think change is generally uncomfortable too. I also agree that there is pressure for money to be sent to the Old World to prop it up. Of course, some in the Old World need it more than others. RUssia has some real wealth. The Phanar, on the other hand, needs Greek American money to keep its presence on the global radar. It’s all a perfect storm, I suppose.

  7. Kirby

    Great post. You mentioned: “various theologians critiquing the the superficial anti-Westernism that often passes for theological profundity in Orthodox circles.”

    I would like to read more from these theologians, do you have their names?

    1. Sure, read the book Orthodox Constructions that I noted in the West. In general, there are now a group of us seeking to address a false sense of Orthodox triumphalism but also to get at the deeper theological and historical issues at play. Those of us who are Orthodox are committed to our Church, but we believe we are also called to engage the other and to do so with love, humility, and therefore openness. Simply dismissing the West is not ultimately helpful, not even to our own Church.

  8. Jeff

    It seems to me that our Russian friends are not yet ready to have serious discussions about unity between East and West (to state the obvious). My question is – does this represent a true “veto” on meaningful dialog with the rest of the East? Or put another way, would the Russian’s refusal to engage prevent the rest of the East from coming into some sort of ecclesiastical union with the West if the theological issues could be worked through?

    The Great Schism is one of the saddest events in all of human history. I pray that we may one day engage the world as one.

    1. Practically speaking, at this point in time, yes, it does present such a veto. It is true that there are Eastern Catholics, so small groups have gone into union with Rome but that very union (its basis and the way in which Rome has handled it) are not ideal. Would it be possible that at some time in the future the Orthodox within the “Constantinopolitan sphere” (if you will) would establish reunion while those within the Moscovite sphere would not? Well, sure, anything’s possible, but it’s not likely anytime soon from what I see. What we should be hoping for, instead, is that those of us willing to further the dialogue do so, and that we work to shape the hearts and minds of other Orthodox. As I noted in my posts, we need to change many of our clergy, so that we eliminate simplistically broad brushes of “the West” during sermons and we need to reshape our seminary curricula so that they include readings of 1) modern theology and philosophy and church history and 2) writings that are self-critical and self reflective.

  9. Ryan

    The actual statement from Moscow did not say anything to the effect of a blanket statement “primacy is wrong.” What IS wrong are some of the claims coming from the Phanar, such as the claim that the EP has final say on determining a local church’s autocephaly, or that the Americas, Western Europe, and Asia automatically fall under the EP’s jurisdiction. Such claims are either canonically baseless, or assume an archaic and irrelevant Byzantine scheme of imperial and barbarian lands.

    1. Well, there is the issue of timing and such. Moscow and Instanbul are doing their dance and primacy has been raised as an issue in all of it. That said, I agree with you that Istanbul often uses Canon 28 from Chalcedon in a manner that is anachronistic and misleading.

  10. Geoff

    Don’t all these competing jurisdictions falsify or at least complicate Eastern Orthodoxy’s claim to being the universal church?

    I’m coming from a Reformed Protestant point of view fyi.

    1. Good question, Geoff. I do not think it falsifies our claims, because in order to do that, “universal church” would have to, by necessity, include administrative unity within any geographical area outside of typical geographical boundaries of established patriarchates, etc. Church administration can (and has) varied throughout church history.

      That said, I do think it complicates the claim inasmuch as it looks to outsiders as though we are not united in faith and worship. I also think it complicates the claim inasmuch as it perpetuates Orthodox infighting at times (largely conceived). It also complicates things inasmuch as duplicating efforts across jurisdictions impedes outreach and social ministry that one expects from the Body of Christ.

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