Your Online Cup of Tea
As I’m nearing a decision to join the Orthodox Church, two issues have bothered me for quite a while: Evangelism and Nominalism. Why does there seem to be so many Nominal Christians? How does evangelism look like in a Orthodox context? In fact how does Evangelism look like in a sacramental context? It’s slightly different than a more Evangelical approach. Which is Baptist in nature. There it seems that much of spirituality is confined to the mind. Baptism is seen as a representation or sign of an inner reality that has already taken place. Which one can only take it if a conscious decision to accept Christ has been made. Here, the Lord’s Supper is for people to remember what Christ did. The bread and wine have no intrinsic sanctifying spiritual reality. But only serve as a token for an external teaching and reminder. So why should infants partake? And so on. The closest tangible thing to being Divine are the scriptures themselves. And since it works primarily through mental faculties, salvation also comes primarily by them. Thus, there are no salvific sacraments that need to be taken either once or regularly. Rather one is told quite often to believe certain things, say a prayer and then they are declared saved. Or in another fashion, they are told to believe certain things/trust in Jesus and repent of their sins. And if they truly do so, they’ll know they’re saved. Sacramental baptism which initiates one in to the body, is now replaced by either a prayer or conversion experience.
This seems to make evangelism much easier for the Evangelicals than it does the more sacramental churches. Due to the fact that salvation is depicted as instant and personal. Plus the individual retains a more substantial amount of autonomy. Since at the very least, they are to follow the Bible, while other people’s interpretations are at best strong opinions. This is due to the two pillars of the Reformation. The first being an immediate transaction that takes place at the moment of faith. The believer is credited all of Christ’s righteousness and thus able to stand free from condemnation before God. Because Christ had already been credited with their guilt and condemned in their place. Salvation is seen as something to “get” at some point. Thus a greater emphasis on it having taken place in the past. A one time, forensic event, with the rest of the Christian life being but an outworking of this moment. A moment involving nothing or no one other than the individual and Christ. This is the doctrine of “Sola Fide.”
The second being the idea that scripture alone is the only infallible rule of faith. However, the scriptures must be interpreted. Thus no external authority can give a normative/binding interpretation or rule of faith. Leaving the conscious of the individual, subject only to what they personally are convinced of as being in compliance with scripture. The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura.”
Contrast this to the Orthodox Church. Salvation is not seen primarily as instantaneous. Christ is not one considered guilty and condemned by being made liable for the crimes of others. Rather Christ is the remedy to the corruptions of sin in the soul, and it’s result of death in the body. Salvation then is for one’s entire human nature to be glorified like Christ’s (both material and immaterial). By partaking of the divine life. Bodily resurrection will happen in an instant. But the soul must be conformed to mirror Christ over time. This only comes by one’s willing co-operation with God’s grace, the inner working of God. The normal means of receiving grace will then be in the Church. Especially via the sacraments. Thus salvation is *process* intrinsically tied up with the Church, as the locus and normative setting of God’s saving power. Initial faith in Jesus followed by baptism is but the beginning of a life long process. A beginning which means little if one quits before the end. Much like someone who gives up making a cake halfway, is not better off simply because they started. This emphasis then, on salvation being future **and** conditional, repudiates the doctrine of Sola Fide. Not to mention that since you can’t baptize yourself, and baptism is the sacrament of initiation, the very beginning of your salvation process is not simply “You and Jesus.” Rather Christ is working, through the active participation of members his body, to birth individuals into His family. Here the term “spiritual Father’s” takes on a whole new meaning than the purely relational sense. Of course to be fair, in Sola Fide there is the parallel of Christ working through the individual to bring the saving message. But this could just as easily occur without the personal agent present. While again, baptism cannot. Thus from the outset there a necessarily intrinsic self giving and humble dependency created. To which we arrive at the second pillar of the Reformation; Sola Scriptura.
In Orthodoxy, Scripture is not seen as the *only* infallible rule of faith. Rather the Church, from which God revealed what counts as scripture, is inspired and led by the same God to rightly interpret scripture and preserve the faith. Thus repudiating Sola Scriptura. We see now that salvation and the Church become intrinsically connected. Requiring a commitment and loss of autonomy over one’s life from the moment of conversion. Which naturally (or culturally) speaking is “harder to package and sell”. Especially in sound bites. Rather it calls for one to come and live in the sacramental life of the Church until death. With the first step being a death to one’s own living for self in Baptism. One then loses their autonomy is not only to Christ. But to other members of the Church who are entrusted by God to keep charge over his flock.
At the very least, even if one does not believe that Baptism regenerates, it is still commanded that a believer must partake. Our calling people to faith in Jesus can’t exclude Baptism as a must, regardless of what we believe it does.
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
So then when we evangelize, what do we tell people is the purpose of Baptism? How do we incorporate the the call to be baptized in our declaration of the good news? Well, I don’t wish to prescribe a method. Nor would I say I’m perfect (this being a very new idea idea to myself). But I think there is something that can be done to give us a more consistent and sacramental mindset when evangelizing:
Recognizing what God is saying to us in Baptism about the material world.
1) God’s power in baptism is a foretaste of our future bodily resurrection. Salvation is not escape from the body. Our physicality is not less important or subordinate. We are only ourselves, when our body and souls flourish. This ought not be taken for granted. Often times in the Hellenistic culture in which Christianity found itself, the material world was seen as subordinate or evil. With salvation being a return to pure spirit. Baptism tells us that God is just as interested in our bodies as he is our souls. That our physicality isn’t a shell or accidental to our identity (with the “real you” being immaterial), but an indispensable part of it. And our Saviour isn’t ethereal and inaccessible either. But God became flesh and blood. He really walked this earth. This is shown by the fact that he died and was buried. Baptism is the picture of his burial. And it truly unites us to him, taking part in his own death. So that just as He was raised back to life, so too we are brought back to life in our souls now, from under the water. And we demonstrate a hope in our future bodily resurrection then, at Christ’s second coming. Baptism teaches that God now shares with us a physicality He will never shed off. And from the moment of his ascension, a human being now sits at the highest throne of heaven forever. Baptism says that the material world is good and that the soul and body work as one in the worship of a God who took on flesh. This co-existence of matter and spirit is then key to the next thing that Baptism does.
2) God’s power in baptism gives a foretaste of creation’s future redemption. So often salvation is depicted as having a better afterlife. As being primarily concerned with the realm of the spirit. “If you don’t want to go to hell or rather if you want to be saved and go to Heaven when you die, here is what you need to do”, is often the context of countless Gospel presentations. There comes about a mindset of “we are trying to get out of here and take as many people with us as we can.” But that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is about God’s kingdom breaking into history, consummating in the redemption of all creation. About the recreation of this fallen and broken world, not just at the end, but continually. His kingdom may not have borders, but it’s no less real. God already own’s the world and everyone in it. But He wants their hearts. And he will progressively bring about his kingdom as man cultivates the world and makes it a mirror of heaven on earth.
This mission involves culture and bringing God’s love and presence to the world. Cultivation and rulership was God’s intent for Mankind in the beginning. And this process [there’s that word again] which was halted when the first Adam fell, is started back up again by the Second Adam; Jesus Christ. But the future world won’t just be this natural creation running smoothly. It will be matter defied by God’s power and presence (known in Orthooxy as the uncreated energies of God). In other words, God’s glory will literally fill all creation. The physical and spiritual realities will merge, each retaining its fundamental identity, but operating together in a new way. The sacraments of the Church are thus this new future reality, being brought forward and manifest into the present. Because Christ is the beginning of this new creation, this new humanity. So being untited to Christ in baptism and being renewed by partaking of his flesh and blood in the Eucharist, we are participating in this new creation reality. And are by virtue of this mystical union, one with Christ, and one with each other. And thus one body. Baptism, is where a physical element is used by God to bring about a spiritual good, because in the future, nature and spirit will always work as one.
This also hast he implication that all who remain in communion, by partaking in the sacraments constitute the visible church. What one has to keep in mind is the idea that Church is the Body of Christ. How the second Person of the Trinity related to His body at the incarnation reflects how he relates to the Church as his Body now. For Paul too it seems that the unity of the church, the Eucharist, the Church as Christ’s Body and the nature of Christ’s physical body to all be consistent with one another. They all reflect each other and what is said about one, is true about the other in a significant way.
“What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas ”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13 NIV)
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17 NIV)”
The Orthodox hold that the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is visible. The idea is that Christ established his Church in such a fashion that it can be known and recognised without divine revelation. Since Christ’s body itself was knoweable and recogniseable to both his enemies and his friends.
The opposite to this would be to say that the true Church is invisible. What this would mean is that while the local congregation can be called church, only God knows which of those members actually belong to “the Church.” The Church is a spiritual component with no physical element. It may be present with the visible local congregation, but it is not the local congregation. Or it could be that everyone there is the Church, but there is no way of knowing. The Church is synonymous with “true believers” and can have no room to include anyone else. For only a true believer would be a participant in the spiritual reality. No longer is divine power mediated through matter, but the physical is bypassed completely. The sacraments are a completely subjective, and are only for those with faith. And since we can’t see people’s hearts, we can’t know who has faith and to whom the sacraments are speaking to. And hence we can’t know where the Church is or who is in it. The problem is, that this Ecclessiology reflects the Christology of Doecetism. Not the incarnation.
Docetism was a heresy which came up pretty early in Church history. Doecetism was a branch of Gnostic philosophy. Gnosticism taught that the material world was evil or worthless, and only the spiritual was valuable. Salvation then was freedom from the physical. One needed to be part of the few who received the secret knowledge needed in order to be saved. In fact, that it was where the word Gnostic comes from, the Greek for knowledge, “Gnosis.” Salvation is by the mind, to escape the body. Now think, if you were trying to mesh Gnosticism with Christianity, what would be one of your biggest problems? The incarnation of course. How could the divine take on human flesh? Matter is evil or worthless, not fitting of the divine! So then, it must be that Christ didn’t really incarnate. He didn’t have a physical body, what was visible only looked like a body wasn’t. One can say that “this is Christ” but it isn’t really. The reality of Christ is purely spiritual. That is the heresy of Docetism.
If Christology and Ecclessiology are related, and if Docetism is correct, then what would the Ecclessiology look like? –> The local Church looks like the body of Christ but it isn’t really. One may call it the Body, but the reality of the Church is purely spiritual. What is visible is a toke which represents the spiritual presence.
Given these gnostic tendencies, it is no wonder historically, many non-sacramental Churches demphasise grand Cathedrals or aesthetics in their local congregations. Why? Because what really matters isn’t matter. Creating a faith which bypasses the physical and goes straight to the spirit. As long as they have the Word, the physical setting is irrelevant or not important.
This connection of Gnosticism with the denial of sacraments was present in the early Church, as Ignatius a student of the Apostle John and third Bishop of Antioch wrote “Take note of those who hold heterodox [speaking of the Doecetists] opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).”
In fact it has long been held that John wrote his first Epistle in order to counter these gnostic heresies that were spreading. Look how he opens it up:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1-2 NIV)”
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (1 John 4:1-3 NIV).”
It wouldn’t get very far as a Christian heresy if it denied that Jesus existed. Rather it denied an aspect of his incarnation, namely that it actually happened. It was an incomplete Christology. What then does it say if ones Ecclessiology seems to resonate with an incomplete Christology?
There is a legitimate concern that a sacramental theology encourages people to have a nominal faith. “After all, if I take part in the liturgy and sacraments, I’m all good?” “I was baptized as a baby so I’m going to heaven right?” This is more a deficiency in either the teaching received, or how the receiver interprets it. Orthodoxy is synergistic and requires the co-operation of its adherents. More than just going through the motions while at the same time ignoring the teachings of the faith. I know how discouraging it can be to see nominalism take root. In Ireland a great number of people are Catholic in name only. Every year, thousands have their holy communion or confirmation, not knowing or caring for what it’s about. Evangelicals then come and confront the nominalism, and God uses it to bring people to a true living faith in Him. Which is good. However nominalism is just as much a problem when any faith becomes dominant in a certain area. Even Protestantism historically in Europe or America. That doesn’t mean the Churches aren’t somewhat responsible, but nominalism doesn’t falsify the belief. In Orthodoxy, grace is given and provided to all whom come. But what one does with it is another question. Scripture also gives warnings about those who receive grace and squander it. The problem isn’t that Orthodoxy or Catholicism are more “traditional” and “ritualistic”, the problem is simply human nature. Nominalism will always occur as the church gets bigger, but we want the church bigger not smaller. A kingdom culture. God isn’t escaping the world but redeeming it. Wider church influence is the goal but it brings difficult challenges of its own.
And sure, one’s “modern” congregation/denomination may be vibrant, biblical (according to their standards). For now. But with no external normative power, can you keep it that way in 50 years? Can you make sure that your great grand children will be taught the same doctrines as yourself? That’s the problem with the Protestant notion of Semper Reformanda. Due to sola scriptura, no teaching can be seen as normative or binding unless the individual comes to agree with it. And yet if one deviates from the accepted norm, even under the name of Semper Reformanda (always reforming), they are said to go into heresy or compromising the Gospel. The Federal Vision controversy comes to mind.
Jesus himself said there would be good and bad, true and false in the Church. The parable of the sower has three out of four soils being bad. Could we even dream of a 1/4 faithful? The parable of the harvest has both weath and tares growing up together. Only being sorted out at the end. The Day of Judgement. It does worry me about being in a nominal congregation. However, it is also also an opportunity to serve and be light to those around you. Calling them to be faithful to the teachings of the church. The mission field can be amongst our own too.
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end (Hebrews 3:12-14).”
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that there was ever some Christian golden age. One only needs to read the epistles or Christ’s letters to the seven Churches to see otherwise. Just read Church history. It’s messy and many times, downs right ugly. But what else would we expect, since the Church is a hospital of sinners? Aren’t we the one’s our Great Physician came to save?
The thing is that in a more modern, non-sacramental Churches, nominals in order to be convincing need to at very least “talk the talk.” Or be active in Church activities in order to be seen as members of the church. Giving an “our nominals look better than your nominals” situation. Plus it is far more likely that in a small congregation of a non mainstream faith, its adherents would be devout. So of course an Evangelical on fire for God, in a small congregation, living in a primarily Catholic or Orthoox country will think they posses more of the true light compared to the others. It doesn’t help that Evangelicalism has inherited a bad taste and suspicion towards sacraments and “tradition” from the Reformation. Making relationships awkward, as Catholics and Orthodox Christians are themselves viewed by many as a mission field. But even nominals in Evangelical settings have ways of assuring themselves of salvation while taking the back seat. “I said a prayer when I was eight.” “I go to Church on Sunday. ” “I read my Bible and pay tithes. ” “I pray all the time. I don’t even need to go to Church.”
On the other hand, the way Orthodoxy views outsiders has a different tone. Those not part of the visible church and yet receptive to God’s grace are Christians but not part of the visible undivided body. They are connected to the visible body but not in communion with it. The Church does not judge or comment on their status other than say that God’s grace can work outside normative means. So are they connected to Christ? Yes as individuals. They may be in congregations that are grace filled. But that *association* does not constitute a second body. It is a human organisation of grace filled members (think of Christians getting together to start a business, God may bless and work through you but the permanence and protection from corruption is not promised to your organisation). As opposed to the visible Church which is a divine institution, guaranteed never to fail as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). This idea of how those outside the Church relate to it, as well as Orthodoxy’s sacramentalism, is rooted in Christology. And in the importance of making the distinction between nature and person.
We see scripture tell us that Christ is they cause, sustainer and end (telos/design) of all things (Colossians 1:16-20). And the end which all things were to find in Christ was determined by God to be incarnational (Ephesians 1:9-11).
So Orthodoxy teaches that creation and all of mankind is redeemed precisely by Christ becoming man and by virtue of creation being united to Christ, in this union of the Logos with human nature. In other words, all creation is connected the body of Christ. That is how all mankind is rescued from death and brought to the final resurrection.
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23 NIV)”
Paul is saying that in Adam all people die, in Christ all are raised, but then he goes on to emphasise the salvation of the Church. Because salvation takes parts on two levels, on the level of nature, and on the level of person. All are raised by the work of Christ and given immortality (their nature is preserved). But not all synergetically co-operate with the grace now available to them, bringing their person in right relationship to God (personal salvation).
Everyone is in a sense united to Christ’s body. Otherwise they would not be preserved. And yet Christ still offers us His body to partake of in the Eucharist. And his glorified human body is still a visible and real body. So the question of salvation here is now about ones personal orientation to God. Which requires synergetic response and co-operation with grace. The fullness of which is concentrated in the Church. Christ’s body.
Now, translate this over to Ecclessiology. The Church is visible and united. With Her are found the means of grace; given in baptism, the word and general sacramental life, by which one is transformed and aided in their transformation to become like Christ. Those outside the visible manifestation still participate in the grace available to it when they conform to the truth therein. Such as affirming the deity of Christ and his death and resurrection. They are still being orientated towards God. And that’s what he wants, the personal salvation of the individual. What about the sacraments performed outside the Church? We can only say that grace is truly given in those sacraments done by the Church. But God is not bound and can extend that same grace somewhere other than when it’s concentrated. And in a sense, all participate in the grace of God to a degree via union to Christ’s body. But we cannot presume on the degree to which it is occurring. Other than in the normative setting of the Church. So not being part of the visible body doesn’t necessitate that God won’t grant grace and re-orientate those outside to Himself. But safety is found in the Church and it is there that the normal means of grace are guaranteed. Eg, a child raised in a faithful home has more exposure God’s grace and truth in a way that one born outside a family of faith may not have. Doesn’t mean that the other child receives no grace and truth, but there is a real difference.
Think of it as Bible interpretation. Just because one may not be part of the visible Church, doesn’t mean that they will never conclude the same things as the Church. But they are not guaranteed from error. To the degree that their interpretation is in conformity to the Churches, they are correct. God may still protect them given the truth they do have, but there is no certain normativity. And some theological errors could lead one away from God and ultimately to perdition.
To the degree that one conforms to the visible body, they are safe, even if not actually part of it. So it is a matter of caution that one remain in the Church. God is after the heart.
The visible body is the were salvation on the level of nature is concentrated. But whether in or out, salvation on the level of person is required. But is facilitated by being in the Church. When salvation is seen as more relational than, through the juridical lens where things are more black and white, these issues for the most part disappear. Hence why even if I become Orthodox, I will consider true believers (those personally oriented to God) as my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Last but not least, Baptism and the sacraments don’t discourage faith and the mind. Just the opposite. Liturgy challenges me not to believe my eyes. To believe that there is more going on that I can’t see. That I’m engaging with a powerful spiritual reality, partaking in the heavenly worship of God, surrounded by myriads of Saints and Angels. At the same time one is assured that while they may struggle with doubt and sin, those same sacraments bring with them the cure. So there is both an objective partaking and subjective benefit for those who take it seriously. And the beauty of it all is that one need not be a great intellectual or have much learning and understanding in order for the liturgy to be meaningful. All that is required is child like faith that Christ is present and inviting them to Himself. This is why children are not separated in from the adults in a Orthodox liturgy. And often times they are free to move about, mimicking when they want or playing when they want. Because as fellow baptized members, they too participate in the divine life. And Christ’s sanctifying presence is there with them too in the service. Theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. And God’s family contains people from every stage of life.
This is the wholistic Gospel of the Kingdom, that a sacramental and Baptismal evangelism should be oriented towards.
“He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men. Therefore he passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying those who are of that age . . . [so that] he might be the perfect teacher in all things, perfect not only in respect to the setting forth of truth, perfect also in respect to relative age” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]).
St. John Chrysostom
“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).