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:: Wednesday, July 02, 2003 ::

How Not to Convert the Orthodox: Part One

A disturbing handbook from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on how to convert the Orthodox in Russia has bounced around the Internet ever since its publication in 2001. I recently ran across it again and decided I'd take another look at it.

The history portion, while painfully inadequate and highly simplistic, is almost half-way decent. However things get murkier toward the end of the essay. Try these two little items on for size and see if they fit:

1) "Grace is received through a variety of magical, ritualistic methods."

2) "Orthodoxy believes it to be the goal of obtaining deification without justification."

These are just two examples from the handbook of how ignorant and flat out false statements make ecumenical dialogue difficult. Have you ever wondered why the Orthodox are wary of western groups in their country? This handbook is a great example. It would be the equivalent of an Orthodox person stating "all Protestants worship their Bibles." Both of the quotes from the manual are so far off the mark, and betray their own faulty theology in so many ways, the only word that can describe it is breathtaking.

I have many friends who are Protestant missionaries. I know they love the Lord. So I say the following in love, but it must be said with urgency: Please, I beg you, before you go off to "convert the heathen" do some *serious* research into what the local populace *actually* believes and practices. Here are some suggestions:

Look deeply into their history, theology, and spirituality. Visit an Orthodox Church more than once before you get on a plane for Russia (or Serbia, or Greece, etc). Talk with an Orthodox priest about how best to minister to the needs of people living in an Orthodox country. At the very least, talk with someone who is an Orthodox Christian about their faith and confirm that what you study in a handbook corresponds to reality.

You can never understand the local people and their religion until you have become one of them. You should never attempt to be a missionary until you have been truly integrated into their vision and way of life. You certainly won't win them over to your point of view with a few pages of mediocre history under your belt and a plethora of straw man arguments.

Does this mean that superstition and heresy doesn't exist in some of the local piety? Does it mean that the local Orthodox person may not be woefully ignorant of both the Scriptures and Church history? Of course not. But it bothers me to no end to see western Christians assuming that they have the answers for a nation crushed for a generation by a totalitarian regime. We have no idea what it's like to suffer and we have no idea what it means to be an Orthodox Christian under persecution. One wonders how long our Protestant faith would hold up under the horrors of the Gulag?

A few weeks ago, there was some discussion on blogs4god about Orthodoxy and evangelism. It would behoove western missionaries to study the Orthodox perspective of the missionary life. It will give them a much wider and holistic vision of what their ministry should look like.

St. Innocent and St. Herman are perfect examples of what true evangelism should look like...and they were right here in America. They lived with the Alaskan tribes for years, in quite humility and service. They lived out true Christian lives of piety and love, always willing to teach and guide those who came to them. They were uncompromising in the Faith, but never hostile or pushy.

Can you imagine either of these great missionary saints crafting a "Handbook on the Aleut Religion" before they had ever even set foot in Alaska? Can you imagine them thinking that a crash course in "Native American Spirituality" would suffice for true and intimate knowledge of both the people and their theology?

Neither can I.

A bit of good news about this handbook to follow in Part Two, as well as some parting thoughts...

Update: James posts his thoughts about several other false statements from the handbook.

Update 2: John's last couple of posts feature some great quotes by St. Theophan as he gives advice to his spiritual children who came in contact with non-Orthodox preachers and missionaries.

:: Karl :: 11:49:00 AM [Link] ::

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