Evangelicals and Orthodox: Crossing Paths and Crossing Swords

Mark Elliott


Common Ground

1. Doctrinal Conservatism

Both Orthodoxy and evangelicalism are conservative in holding to the apostolic presentation of Jesus Christ and the giving of the Spirit and the birth of the church in the New Testament. Both hold to the historicity of the apostolic record.

2. Scripture

Undergirding this shared set of credal convictions is a shared high view of Scripture as inspired by God.

3. God

Both Orthodox and evangelicals confess God to be the creator and sustainer of the world…. [Both believe] the cosmos gains its life and meaning only from its divine Creator.

4. Eschatology

Both communities believe in the life of the world to come as one which involves bodily resurrection. And for both communities, the reappearing of Christ as Lord and King is a fundamental belief.

5. The Church and Its Mission

Evangelicalism is notoriously weak in ecclesiology, and has generally shrunk from speaking of the church as a divine entity…. Yet evangelicalism shares with Orthodoxy the conviction that salvation is received in human experience and is inseparable from incorporation into Christian community…. Evangelicals have from time to time been so immersed in parachurch evangelism [that] … the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) has become separated from the church. Orthodox, by contrast, often appear to have placed more emphasis on maintaining a Christian civic order and culture, although they have a missionary heritage rich with inspiration for contemporary missiology. For them mission has for long periods been a matter of enduring persecution and martyrdom, and they often have seen their church as given a divine vocation to suffer.

6. Christian Experience

Orthodox may envisage [the Christian experience of the Spirit] … more in sacramental and ecclesial terms, but they would agree with evangelicals that men and women are called to experience regeneration, rebirth into participation in the life of God himself, through the Holy Spirit…. Thus Orthodoxy and evangelicalism both maintain, more strongly than present-day historic Western church traditions, a sense of access by the Spirit into a transcendent realm of experience…. Both Orthodox and evangelicals have also been readier than most other traditions to recognize the reality of miracles worked by the power of God in the ongoing experience of his people.

7. Ethics

Orthodox and evangelicals share considerable common ground on significant contemporary ethical issues, notably those of ecology, sexual ethics, and bioethics. In the realm of personal ethics, Orthodox and evangelicals share a belief in the divine ordering of marriage and the family, and concur in refusing to recognize homosexual practice as acceptable in the sight of God.


Orthodox and evangelicals are committed to a Christianity that holds uncompromisingly to God’s self-revelation in Israel and supremely in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, to which the inspired Scriptures bear wholly truthful witness. This revelation attests a divine rescue mission in which God himself came to save his own creation mired in sin and death.

Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox Differences

1. Church and Movement

One could say that Orthodoxy is a church (or confession) while evangelicalism is a constituency (or movement). This contrast points up a problem which complicates relationships between the two: Orthodox are more used to relating to institutions and their self-understanding includes the aspect of belonging to a united and visible church tradition, whereas there is no body which can speak authoritatively for the whole of evangelicalism…. Because of the emphasis on individual faith, some evangelicals have a very under-developed sense of the significance of the church. This contrasts with Orthodox reverence for the church and their reluctance to criticize it.

2. Scripture and Tradition

In comparing these two faith families [one notes] … evangelical championing of freedom for each individual to engage directly with the text of Scripture, as over against Orthodox emphasis on reading the text within the context of Tradition and together with all the faithful…. Following the Reformers’ insistence on «Scripture alone,» evangelicals hold the Bible as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. Orthodox also see Scripture as authoritative but also speak in terms of the authority of the Tradition of the church, of which Scripture is a part. Whereas evangelicals would insist that the individual conscience must be subject ultimately to Scripture, even when this results in conflict with churchly tradition, Orthodox hold that Scripture can only be understood aright from within the framework of that tradition…. [In contrast,] the sixteenth-century Reformation makes most evangelicals more sharply aware of the fallibility and corruptibility of the church.

3. Evangelism and Proselytism

[Orthodox faith] … has a long history and due recognition of this is especially important. The Orthodox have struggled for existence alongside alien forces, whether militant Islam, Communism, or the materialism that has succeeded the downfall of Marxist ideology.

Part of the story has also been the record of the Roman Catholic Church through its promotion of Uniatism. From the twelfth century onwards the Vatican has allowed a number of communities in Eastern Europe to retain their own Eastern liturgical practices, canon law, and … married priests, on the one condition of accepting the primacy of the Pope…. [This policy] has been seen by the Orthodox … as a major way of proselytizing not just individuals but whole communities. It is against this background that Protestant missionary endeavors have to be judged. If Roman Catholicism has exploited the vulnerability of Orthodoxy in the past, then [Western] Protestant missionaries are seen [by many Orthodox] as continuing in that tradition, with their unequal access to technological power and educational privilege and the lavish promises sometimes made to potential converts.

On the other hand, evangelical groups in predominantly Orthodox countries point to state, and sometimes church, slander of their good name and even overt persecution. Well-documented incidents of evangelicals being threatened by mobs which have received encouragement from local Orthodox clerics, of evangelical churches and prayer houses being destroyed, and of evangelical groups being denied permission to register as legal entities, lead many Western evangelicals to take a sharply critical attitude towards Orthodoxy.

With stress laid on conflict and disagreement, there are very real difficulties in perceiving Tradition in church history as reflecting the work of the Holy Spirit. Whilst evangelical missionaries can never surrender to Orthodox any idea of exclusive operation within given «canonical» territories, they may be able to agree not to disturb the faith of the faithful who are regular in their attendance at the liturgy, and concentrate instead on unbelievers and those who have lapsed from regular participation in church life.

4. Worship and Spirituality

Differences of practice … include the contrast between the evangelical use of the vernacular and Orthodox deployment [in some jurisdictions] of an ancient ecclesiastical language no longer in common use. (In the light of the older Orthodox tradition of translating the Scriptures and the liturgy into local languages this has been described as a «blatant contradiction» by the Orthodox missiologist Ion Bria.)… The evangelical pattern may seem very didactic, while the Orthodox, although deploying much Scriptural language … focus more on symbol and action. Evangelical worship often climaxes in a verbal presentation of the gospel; Orthodox worship tends to lead into apprehension of mystery, heightened perhaps by the use of color, chanting, and incense.

5. Conversion, Salvation, and Deification

Areas of difference may be expressed in a series of questions:

Is Christianity more a matter of individual decision or of community-based faith expression?

Is conversion to be seen as a single event or a continuing process?

How does justification relate to sanctification—and how can both be related to Orthodox language of deification?

Does Charles Wesley’s plea in one of his hymns—«Change my nature into thine»—suggest that there could be convergence of understanding? Reflection on 2 Peter 1:4 would seem to lead in a similar direction, for the apostle writes, «[Christ] has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature.» The language of deification was used by Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, although it is not as prominent in their thinking as it is in Orthodox theology.

6. Sacramental Theology and Liturgy

Since the eighteenth century many evangelicals have seen ecclesiology as a secondary issue, and there has often been a corresponding lack of emphasis on the sacraments. By contrast, Orthodox see the sacraments as essential nourishing of the believer with the grace needed to tread the way of salvation…. A substantial proportion of evangelical eucharistic theology tends to be memorialist: a dramatic re-presentation in symbolic action of the death and resurrection of Jesus…. By contrast, the Orthodox believe the actual body and blood of Christ to be present in consecrated bread and wine…. Orthodoxy has generally resisted any attempt to define how it happens. But mystery is what the Liturgy is all about…. Whilst to many evangelicals the form of the Liturgy may seem very strange, many of the emphases of the service are Trinitarian, Christocentric, and biblical.

7. Theological Method

Evangelicals have always stressed the importance of God’s revelation as propositional in nature. Consequently their message emphasizes what can be known about God. Although they acknowledge the impossibility of knowing everything about God, they would nevertheless affirm that because he has revealed himself to humankind in the events of salvation history … and in Scripture … men and women can have a knowledge of God which, though partial, is still true…. Orthodox speak of two ways of doing theology, kataphatic and apophatic. The first emphasizes what can be known; the second what cannot be known. We must declare what we know of God, but in the end we must balance this with the recognition that God is so far beyond human comprehension that it is easier to say what (or who) God is not…. The experience of God is one which passes understanding; ultimately, knowing God is not a matter of intellectual comprehension, but of experiential union through prayer and contemplation.

Next Steps

Clearly these are weighty matters and discussions will require both a willingness to speak honestly and a readiness to listen humbly to the views of others. Careful interpretation is also needed in view of the different theological languages that we speak. Dialogue which papers over cracks is limited in what it can achieve; it is better to seek to learn from one another, repentant for past misunderstanding, and committed to obeying the Spirit of Truth who will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).

Guidelines for Orthodox-Evangelical Discussions

Recognize Common Ground and Differences That Remain

We encourage our respective constituencies to recognize and affirm those truths which we have in common…. We believe that contact between evangelical and Orthodox communities has considerable potential, not least because encountering another tradition stimulates us to reflect critically and appreciatively on our own theology and sense of identity. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that deep theological differences remain between the evangelical and Orthodox communities, notably in the area of our understandings of salvation, of the church, and of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

Steer Dialogues Clear of Compromised «Ecumenism»

There is a need for clarification of what is meant by «ecumenism.» Many on both sides regard it as a pejorative term and are suspicious of any activity … thus designated. Behind this may lie concerns about matters such as political manipulation or doctrinal and ethical compromise, or else a lack of experience of, or interest in, contact with believers of other Christian traditions. A distinction needs to be made between the kind of contact envisaged here, between communities which «confess Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures,» and [those which deny] … the uniqueness of Jesus Christ by an acceptance of all religions as paths to salvation.

Accept the Necessity for Rigorous Study

In establishing an appropriate methodology for continuing conversations, it should be recognized that in order to appeal to evangelicalism, Orthodox must engage in rigorous study of the Scriptures, while evangelicals must steep themselves in the teaching of the Fathers and the early councils if they are to present a case that Orthodox will find acceptable. [Also,] further joint study of the Scriptures is urgently needed and active steps should be taken to make this a reality.

The creeds and definitions of the early centuries have shaped the belief of all Christian traditions, Protestant and Catholic as well as Orthodox. Since … the early Fathers have been appealed to by Protestants as well as Orthodox and may fairly be regarded as the possession of the whole church, East and West, we believe that joint study of their writings is needed. This could be a fruitful way of establishing common doctrinal foundations. In such a context, it will be possible to examine the fundamental issues of belief raised by the Filioque clause in the Western form of the Nicene Creed.

Encourage Conversations, High and Low

We recommend that contact between evangelicalism and the Orthodox Churches in the United Kingdom be continued at the highest levels possible. Some form of officially sponsored conversation would be potentially the most fruitful…. Contact at the local level is also desirable. We recognize the need for leaders to encourage the evangelical and Orthodox traditions to change their perceptions of each other at this level, and notably to challenge the widespread belief that all members of the other tradition may be dismissed out of hand as «unsaved» or «heretics.» To that end, we suggest that members of each community seek out local representatives or congregations of the other, develop personal relationships, and if possible attend their services…. Our encounter must be with evangelicalism and Orthodoxy as … lived out in practice, not merely with one another’s liturgical books and theological writings.

Work for Mutual Understanding

We are aware that in certain areas of the world there are considerable tensions between evangelicals and Orthodox. We pray for a greater level of mutual understanding between the two communities, and to that end we encourage those working in such situations actively to seek out and build relationships with their counterparts as far as possible. Such contact is particularly vital at the local level. Much work is urgently required for the healing of wounds caused by past insensitivity and ignorance on both sides. This will include open acknowledgement of those injustices and hurts that each side believes it has suffered at the hands of the other, with a view to seeking resolution and reconciliation.

Evangelical churches that send out missionaries should formulate a mission policy that recognizes the importance of informed understanding of the local religious context, and of seeking to establish good relationships with local Christians and churches of all traditions. For this to be done, there is a need for widespread dissemination of relevant information…. We encourage denominations and mission agencies with an interest in work in Orthodox countries to set up forums for discussion and assessment of possible mission strategies…. We suggest that theological courses in each constituency include some element of introduction to the other’s history, beliefs, and practices.

All the above must take into account that evangelicals and Orthodox are already encountering each other daily, especially in Eastern Europe…. What we will be able to do will be constrained or facilitated by the climate which our dialogue (or lack of it) helps to create. All the talking … is to serve the aim of knowing Christ better ourselves and making him known more faithfully to a world which needs him.

Editor’s Note: This issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report calls attention to perhaps the best two sources in print giving a balanced, evangelical Christian understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy: Evangelicalism and the Orthodox Church, produced by the British Evangelical Alliance; and Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes, by Don Fairbairn. Both studies are highly recommended.


East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Fall 2001), 1-4.

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