Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Mission and Proselytism: An Orthodox Understanding

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Mission and Proselytism: An Orthodox Understanding

Article excerpt

I have been requested to provide an Orthodox understanding to the burning issue of proselytism within the ecumenical movement, and its relation to the Christian imperative of mission. All these, in view of today's outburst of missionary and/or proselytizing activities from various Christian quarters, with or without real and authentic evangelistic awareness.

As I always do on similar ecumenical occasions,(1) I will begin with a few preliminary remarks:

1. With all due respect to the proposed scheme - which is absolutely legitimate from the methodological point of view and because of the historical circumstances - I do not intend to widen the diversity that already exists among World Council of Churches (WCC) member churches with regard to the theological concept of mission which, as I will try to show later, is the real cause of the still unresolved problem of proselytism within Christianity of our time, more precisely within the WCC. I propose, therefore, not to expound a strictly "confessional" (i.e., Orthodox) point of view, but what I consider, out of my ecclesial (i.e., liturgical) and evangelistic (i.e., martyria) experience the understanding of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" - in other words, the ecclesially and ecumenically "Orthodox" approach to mission and proselytism - should be.

2. The views, therefore, that are expressed in this paper do not and cannot claim to be the (i.e., official) Orthodox understanding. On the contrary, I have recently been quite critical of it,(2) but it is a personal criticism. This is quite obvious for both historical and theological reasons. For the former, because of the various secular contexts within which Orthodox eucharistic communities scattered around the world (established/metropolitan churches - diaspora and/or western Orthodox churches - new/missionary churches - suffered during past generations, because of lack of liberty, "traditional" Orthodox churches) bear their witness and make their special approaches to mission. For the latter, because in our eastern tradition, by far the more consistent in the Trinitarian (i.e., pneumatological) understanding of the church, we firmly believe in the diversity of the charismata of the Holy Spirit.

3. My approach to the subject will be neither strictly historical, nor purely confessional, but theological and ecumenical (i.e., critical, and sometimes even self-critical).(3) After all, the real function of "theology" is to be the critical conscience of the church. In addition, I propose not to refer in detail to the various agreed ecumenical statements on proselytism, the various arguments of both sides,(4) and the various legitimate and justified complaints by the Orthodox Church, the most affected in the last two centuries by this caricature of authentic evangelism.(5)

4. Orthodoxy needs to reaffirm its commitment to ecumenism, if it expects in present circumstances a lasting solution to this most painful issue of proselytism. I stress this, because it is a widespread conviction that nowadays ecumenism has entered into a delicate and crucial stage, with the signs of a decline clearly evident. The tragic events we experienced since the great changes in Europe with churches not in solidarity with, but fighting or undermining, one another; and with nations and peoples not desiring to live peacefully with the "others," but wishing to "cleanse" them - are just a few indications that the titanic ecumenical efforts of the past definitely need reorientation.

The Orthodox Church, which, with the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has played so important a role in the ecumenical efforts of the past, and whose participation in the WCC, the main forum of the multilateral ecumenical dialogue, is so vital, is faced today with a number of problems. On the one hand, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the results of the ecumenical dialogue so far, and a dangerous shift towards "Orthodox" fundamentalism, especially in countries of eastern Europe, but also in the Middle East (cf. …

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