Theological Reflections on the Missionary Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church

By Kozhuharov, Valentin | International Review of Mission, July-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Theological Reflections on the Missionary Activity of the Russian Orthodox Church


Kozhuharov, Valentin, International Review of Mission


Mission is not the primary endeavour of the Orthodox Christian Church. Indeed, it has hardly been a primary task at all in her history. Of course, there were Orthodox missions in the past but they may seem secondary in the various ecclesiastical activities of the church, with her most important role being that of forming a eucharistic community. This task, viz. to build the eucharistic parish and teach the people of God, has always been at the centre of the liturgical and ecclesiastical life of the believers. Today, when we see the fulfilment of this primary task in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and when we call it "a mission", we do not presume that the church has undertaken something new or innovative to interest the people of the 21st century. Rather, it is the same church's catechetical and eucharistic activity that has been carried out for twenty centuries.

Then, to reflect theologically on what has been carried out by the church means to describe her practical activities in terms of the teaching of the church and her theology. It could be said that this is the more reliable way of theological reflection, i.e. from the church's practice to theological generalization, instead of defining where in the practice of the church the general theological considerations have been applied.

Three main sources give us the understanding of the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church: a concept adopted in 1995; a report at an Archbishops' Council in 2004; another missiological concept adopted in 2005 (1). Ten years lie between the first and the second concepts of mission, and the report between them joins the two principal documents in an indissoluble bond of theological understanding and practical application of the Orthodox mission. In reading and analyzing the documents, one can discern what enormous and fruitful activity has been achieved, and what type of theological foundation gives the theoretical ground of this activity.

I. Characteristics of the Orthodox mission

To define what Christian mission is or should be, we need first to contemplate what the Christian teaching is, and only then to elaborate the theological grounds of mission. "For the Orthodox, the Church is 'heaven on earth', it is the given by God and is the institution through which Christians can seek salvation and redemption. Therefore, the main meaning of the Church lies in its eschatological nature" (2). The next statement that Schmemann made in his essay about the Orthodox mission seems even more unexpected: "The Eucharist is the mission of the Church," (3) Is this statement too bold or relevant to mission at all? Let us examine what this means in describing the missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church in the last ten years by focusing on the three main types of missionary description: the purpose (goal) of mission; the forms and approaches to mission; the main directions of missionary activity.

a. The purpose of mission

Christian missiologists have always tried to describe Christian mission in terms of the teaching of the church. Different theologians and missionary researchers gave their preference to one or another goal of mission, and to put one as the most important and others as supporting the first. So, we can find such goals as the conversion of the nations, church planting and then the glorification and manifestation of divine grace (Gisbertus Voetius), the glory of God and evangelism (Newbigin), and koinonia, diakonia and kerygma (Johannes Hoekendijk). The changes, however, that took place in the last century or so required also changed attitudes in the approach to Christian mission. It was found that no gospel could be well accepted and rooted if you did not first help the people to whom you were going to do your mission, in their everyday struggle and problems. These were people mostly in the developing countries that needed development and help. Thousands and thousands of specialists were sent to serve in such countries, e. …

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