Reflections on The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the World Today
by Nathan Hoppe
I will make comments on three areas of concern. In the first I will suggest a major theme which has been virtually ignored, with specific wording that could be included. I will also comment on two more general areas in which I think the document could be improved.
1. The central mission of the church, to obey Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations, is missing from this document. Many other important aspects of the church’s mission are highlighted but this one command of Christ seems to be willfully ignored. We cannot say it is forgotten because it has been so often emphasized in the last 50 years.
Point 3 in the message of the primates in 2008 reads as follows:
Inspired by the teaching and the work of the Apostle Paul, we underscore first and foremost, the importance of the duty of Mission for the life of the Church, and in particular for the ministry of us all, in accordance with the final commandment of the Lord: “you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The evangelization of God’s people, but also of those who do not believe in Christ, constitutes the supreme duty of the Church. This duty must not be fulfilled in an aggressive manner, or by various forms of proselytism, but with love, humility and respect for the identity of each individual and the cultural particularity of each people. All Orthodox Churches must contribute to this missionary effort, respecting the canonical order.[i]
I think it is essential that this or a statement like it be included in the document.
The following passage from the writings of Archbishop Anastasios also conveys a message which is essential and should be affirmed by the Council.
Mission is an inner necessity (a) for the faithful and (b) for the Church. If they refuse it, they not only omit a duty, they deny themselves.
The Christian who is “incorporated” into Christ and who really lives in Him cannot think, feel, will, act or see the world in a different way from Christ. It is impossible for him to limit his horizon to his parish, his town, his nation, the so-called “Christian” world; it is impossible for him to be indifferent to the millions who still live as “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world…”
The missionary believes that for every human being there is no treasure more precious than the truth that was revealed by the word of God. Therefore, he feels that the people who suffer injustice most in our time are those who have been deprived of the Word, not because they themselves refuse to listen, but for the simple reason that those who have known it for centuries have not been interested in passing it on.[ii]
Almost 2000 years after Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations nearly a third of the world has never adequately heard the gospel. Only a very small percentage of the world adheres to the fullness of the gospel in the Orthodox tradition. Yet, Orthodox churches invest only a very tiny percentage of their resources in order to take the gospel to those who have not heard. Many Orthodox will even say that it is not Orthodox to proclaim the gospel to those outside the Orthodox Church. A clear message from the Council is needed.
The text also does not adequately address the challenge and opportunities for transmitting the Orthodox faith from one generation to the next and for Christian formation in the 21st century. It seems to me that issues like the mass defection from the church in many traditionally Orthodox countries should be in some way addressed. Is it okay that only about 2% of the population in some traditionally Orthodox countries attends liturgy regularly? What guidance can The Great and Holy Counsel give us as we seek to address this challenge?
2. It is unclear to what audience the text is directed either in particular paragraphs or as a whole. It is difficult to tell whether it is meant to give a call to action to the faithful, direction to the leadership or apology to the world. As a result, it ends up doing none of these well. I would suggest that the text be restructured in order to address this problem.
While some parts of the text seem like they could have been written by a bureaucratic organization with little or no religious character, others are heavily dependent on theological vocabulary and sources that will not communicate well to non-theologians. Passages like the long list of evil things in the world par. 2.2 do not add anything significant to the document while creating a negative spirit in the text.
3. The literary quality and clarity of expression in the current English text could be improved a great deal. I do not know if this is a problem of translation or the underlying Greek text. I think that it is very important that the English text be of the highest quality because it is the text that will be used most widely in reporting on the Council in the public media.
Among the problematic expressions is the one in paragraph 2 of the first page regarding the Eucharist. While it is possible for the Orthodox reader to understand what is meant the actual expressions are open to a very different interpretation. This is only one example of the numerous cumbersome, unclear and misleading passages in the English text which could be greatly improved. Without greater clarity of expression in the text the decisions of the Council will lead to confusion rather than clear direction and vision.
Nathan Hoppe, PhD, has served as a missionary in Albania for 18 years working under the direction of Archbishop Anastasios and sent by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). He is a professor of Patrology at the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy in St. Vlash, Durrës.