THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN NORTH AMERICA: MISSION AND EVANGELISM

by Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) of New York and North America

 

Your Eminence, my Beloved Brothers in Christ,

I was indeed delighted when the venerable Chairman of SCOBA, His Eminence, Archbishop IAKOVOS, asked me to deliver at this first Orthodox Episcopal Conference in North America, a paper on "Mission and Evangelism," a topic which is significant to Orthodox Christianity in this hemisphere. The Biblical text which I chose for this paper is Matthew 28:18 "And Jesus came and said to them 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age'."

Our Lord, Himself, was indeed the Missionary par excellence. In Matthew 4:23, we read: "And He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people." And in the "fullness of time,"1 the "Word became flesh"2 and entered time on a mission of salvation. He was sent by the Father to make us "partakers of the Divine Nature."3 In John 20:21, Christ said: "As the Father has sent me even so I send you." The Church, which is the extension of Christ in time and space, is sent by Christ to missionize and evangelize. Evangelism means to preach the Gospel. "Woe unto me if I do not preach,"4 said St. Paul. After the birth of the Church on Pentecost Day, the apostles and early Christians went about the Oikomene, the known world at that time, preaching the Gospel and missionizing, despite their persecution and the monumental difficulties which they had to face. Although the Church was born in Jerusalem, Antioch became the greatest center for missionary activities. It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.5 For more details on the role which Antioch played in evangelism, I recommend the "History of the Church of Antioch" by Chrisostomos Pappathopoulos, Professor of history at Athens University.6

There are many stories about the missionary travels of the apostles.7 It is clear, however, that Christianity did not spread throughout the entire Roman Empire until after the Edict of Milan. The Pax Romana presented what Michael Green8 describes as both opportunities and difficulties for Evangelism. Some of the opportunities were:

(a) Peace and unity

(b) Philosophical hunger

(c) Religious dissatisfaction

Some of the difficulties were:

(a) The cultural offensiveness of the Gospel, i.e., the Jewish communities and their Gentile adherents openly affronted by the central language of the Gospel: God's incarnation and death.

(b) Political considerations, i.e., the Christian unwillingness to participate in the state cult of the emperor was seen as political treason9 and the closed nature of the Christian gatherings, likewise led to charges of cannibalism.

After 313 A.D. circumstances changed radically, and organized missionary enterprises became normal. Metropolitan Anastasios divides the history of Byzantine missions into two major periods:

(1) The fourth to the sixth centuries witness the Christianization of the empire and its immediate peripheries.

(2) The ninth to the eleventh centuries. Byzantium's "classic" outreach into the Balkans and Russia.

 

THE FIRST GREAT MISSIONARY PERIOD

The post-Constantinian emperors concentrated on removing all vestiges of paganism from the empire. By this time, the urban centers of Spain, Southern Gaul, Germany, Italy, Macedonia, Greece, Central Asia Minor and the Black Sea Region, greater Syria, lower Egypt and Africa had all received the Christian witnesses, as had Armenia, the Arab Peninsula10 and India outside the empire boundaries.

In Palestine, at the close of the fourth century, St. Hilarion mobilized some two thousand monks to preach the Gospel to the inhabitants, many of them nomadic Bedouins, not easily reached. He used his monasteries in Gaza as a missionary center, and it became the norm of the Church for monks to have a larger portion of the responsibility for missions."11

Both in Antioch as a Presbyter, and in Constantinople as Patriarch, St. John Chrysostom was an outspoken and enthusiastic supporter of mission.

In 380/381, Emperor Theodosius outlawed heathen sacrifices and mission became extended to the hinterlands. Emperor Justinian (527-565) was instrumental in many ways in spreading Christianity outside the boundaries of the empire. He even directed that missions be dispatched into the Berber region of North Africa. Georgia had become familiar with the Gospel through the life of faith and complete virtue of a Cappadocian captive, St. Nina.

The non-Chalcedonian churches made tremendous missionary strides, especially at the hand of Jacob Baradeus, who wandered all his life from Egypt to Euphrates preaching and founding churches. It is significant here to note that the non-Chalcedonian missionaries had reached India and China.

 

THE SECOND GREAT MISSIONARY PERIOD: THE NINTH TO THE ELEVENTH CENTURY

In 862, the Moravian ruler, Rathislave, approached Emperor Michael, III about receiving Slavic speaking Greek missionaries to enlighten his people. War broke out between the Byzantine Army and Boris of Bulgaria. "Boris capitulated, abandoned the Franks and promised to accept the Byzantine form of Christianity."12 Boris was baptized in 864, taking the name Michael in honor of his Imperial Godfather. A missionary company of bishops and priests, aided by Archbishop Joseph, was dispatched to Bulgaria. They were accompanied by a corps of architects, painters and other artisans needed to build and adorn churches.

Under Boris' son, Symeon, Greek theological books were translated into the vernacular Slavic. Further north in Moravia, mission work was proceeding well under Prince Rotslav who wrote to Emperor Michael III, "Our people have renounced paganism and are observing the Christian law, but we do not have a teacher to explain to us the true Christian faith in our own language in order that other nations even, seeing this, may emulate us. Send us therefore, Master, such a bishop and teacher, because from you emanates always, the good law.13

The Moravians were not immediately granted a bishop,14 but they received two remarkable evangelists, SS. Cyril and Methodius. The two brothers were raised in Thessalonika, a region with a large minority concentration of Slavs, whose dialogue they learned from childhood. The two brothers were highly educated in theology, philosophy and they mastered the Greek, Hebrew and Syriac languages.

In 863, Cyril invented an alphabet perfectly suited for the phonology of the old Slavic language and began the task of translating the scriptures and liturgy. "The body of literature in Slavonic, including the Bible and the liturgy, played an important role in the Christianization of Russia. The influence of SS. Cyril and Methodius far outlasted their own efforts. It is no wonder that they are commemorated in the Liturgy as 'equal to the apostles,' evangelists of the Slavonians.'15

I would like to emphasize here that the genius of Cyril and Methodius lies in the fact that they did not impose the Greek language on the Slavs. They used the vernacular for worship, and taught converts to praise God in their own language. The second distinct element of the Slavic mission was the use of indigenous clergy. Instead of imposing foreign clergy on the Slavs, converts were to care for the spiritual needs of the people. I wish that the Patriarchate of Jerusalem would learn from Cyril and Methodius this valuable lesson before it is too late.

The emphasis on indigenization led to the third element which is selfhood of the Church. Orthodox Canon Law permits the establishment of local churches, but there has not always been agreement between the Mother Church and the Mission Church over when self-government is granted. Unfortunately, this problem continues to disturb the peace of the Church until today.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a dark night settled on the mission of the Orthodox Churches of Byzantium. The Lord, however, works in mysterious ways. The light which was extinguished in Byzantium, continues to shine brightly through the deep spirituality and missionary zeal of the Russian Church. Missions were established in Northern Russia, and Alaska was missionized in 1794. The Nineteenth Century was called "the Great Century of Russian Orthodox Missions."16 Missions were established in Japan, Korea and China. In all their missions, the Russian missionaries followed the example of Cyril and Methodius.

I have presented this historical survey on Orthodox Mission and Evangelism in order to re-emphasize that Mission and Evangelism is not, by any means, a protestant idea. Long before the Reformation, Orthodox missionaries preached the Gospel to hundreds of millions of people. "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and the uttermost ends of the earth."17 The Church, therefore, is divinely sent to the nations that She might be "the universal sacrament of salvation." She, in obedience to the command of Her Founder, and because it is demanded by Her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men. The apostles followed the footsteps of Christ, "preached the word of truth and begot churches." It is the duty of their successors to carry on this work so that "the word of the Lord may spread and triumph," and the "Kingdom of God proclaimed and renewed throughout the whole world."18 It is obvious then that the Church on earth is, by its very nature, missionary. Missionary activity is nothing else, and nothing less than the manifestation of God's plan, its epiphany and realization in the world and in history.

Reflecting on the theme of this paper which is "Mission and Evangelism" Matthew 28:16-20, we find that our Lord told us clearly and plainly that He received "all power on heaven and on earth," and because of that power over the universe, He can initiate a universal mission. He commanded us, through his disciples, to do three things:

(a) Make disciples,

(b) To baptize,

(c) To teach.

To make disciples is the first part of the divine command, In Matthew 10:6, He told his disciples to go only to the people of Israel. The mission is now to the whole world; the Gentiles are now included. The eleven apostles are to make disciples of all nations; the Jews are not excluded but they no longer enjoy a privileged status as the chosen people. Christ died for all men. The process begins with the proclamation of the Gospel, "Make disciples." The process continues with baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Although the Church may have initially baptized in the name of Jesus, by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, the Trinitarian formula had already been in use.19 Matthew conceives of baptism as incorporation into the life of God and of His church. It is no longer circumcision that makes a person a member of the Church of God, but it is baptism. As the process continues, Jesus sent his apostles to "teach," and they are instructed to teach man to "observe all things I have commanded you." It is Jesus, Himself, who is the norm of all truth and all morality. It is what He has commanded that must be taught. The ministry of "Word" and "Sacrament" of the Church is rooted in this sacramental mission given to the apostles. This very ministry of Word and Sacrament is what distinguishes Orthodox Christianity from superficial evangelism which has already severed all connections with the historic Church. Mission and Evangelism, therefore, in the Church is not a matter of choice. It is a Divine command. Jesus did not say "make disciples if you want," or "please baptize and teach if you wish." He said "Go" and the disciples obeyed and became fishers of men.

St. John Chrysostom said: "For not to one, or two or three cities shall you preach, says Christ, but to the whole world. You will traverse hand and sea, the inhabited country and the desert, preaching to princes and tribes alike, to philosophers and orators saying everything openly and with boldness of speech."20

This divine lesson transcends time and space. We cannot just seek the comfort of a past period in our history and freeze there in it. Nor can we remain with a geographic area like Byzantium or Russia. The Lord's command was to go to all nations, and He promised that He will be with us until the end of time. This means that the missionary work of the Church did not end in the Eleventh century Byzantium or the Nineteenth century Russia. Furthermore, this means that Mission and Evangelism must continue until the end of time: the Parousia. "And I will be with you always."21 As He was with Peter and Paul and Cyril and Methodius, He will be with us at this very moment if we obey His command.

My dear Brothers in Christ,

The Church is not a museum for historical nostalgia. Nor is the Church an archeological site from the time of Justinian. The Church is indeed the living body of Christ. She is dynamic and always permeated by the power of the Holy Spirit who descended on the disciples like a mighty wind. The Church must live with the conviction that She is always sent. Therefore, we must "go" and never stop until the end of time. As we prepare to face the challenges of a new century, we Orthodox of North America must ask ourselves: "To whom are we sent?"

If the Lord has commanded the Church to make disciples of all nations, He must have meant this nation, too. Consequently, Orthodoxy has a mission to this country. We do have a special ministry to those who came from Greece, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. But, we also have a special mission to all the people of North America and they are men and women of every race and people on earth. Looking at the religious scene in North America today, you would think that we are living in a post-Christian era. Some American and Canadian Christians no longer believe in the virgin birth. They say that the Virgin Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Some do not believe in the Resurrection of Christ. A so-called Christian Bishop claims that St. Paul was a homosexual. Some denominations are marrying people of the same gender. If you pray in an ecumenical gathering, you must not mention the name of Jesus Christ; let alone the Triune God. Some Christian denominations no longer baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but rather in the name of the "Creator and Redeemer." Many Christians believe that religion is a private matter and everything is relative. Thus the absolute truth does not exist, and the Good News which was preached by our Lord was, perhaps, good for His time, but not ours. Do we have an Orthodox response to this spiritual decadence? Of course we do; only if we put our house in order -only if we could create one strong and well financed Department of Mission and Evangelism. We need missionaries and evangelists who know this country, its language, its history, its ethos, its problems. and its religions. In summary, we need Orthodox missionaries who know how to communicate with North America. "For these reasons, communication of the Gospel in a foreign culture can no longer be a superficial presentation of biblical Christianity. Instead, it must be a careful, thoughtful and precise cross-cultural communication which speaks in such a way that the biblical Gospel is understood within the culture and native framework of thought."22

This year, we are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the evangelization of Alaska, and next year the Antiochian Archdiocese will he celebrating the Centennial of Antiochian Orthodoxy in North America. These are significant occasions for us to reflect on the past, meditate on the present, and focus on the future.

Ten years ago in Worcester, Massachusetts, in a message which I delivered to the Orthodox on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, entitled "Orthodoxy in America: Success and Failure," I said: "We have a tremendous opportunity in this land to dream dreams and see visions, only if we can put our house in order. Where in the whole world today can you find seven million free Orthodox, except in North America? We are no longer a church of immigrants; the first Orthodox Liturgy was celebrated on this continent before the American Revolution … We have contributed much to the success of this country in the fields of medicine, science, technology, government, education, art, entertainment and business. We proudly consider ourselves American — except when we go to Church. We suddenly become Greeks, Russians, Arabs, etc. … Despite our rootedness in the American soil, we are still divided into so many jurisdictions, contrary to our Orthodox ecclesiology and canon law which forbids the multiplicity of Orthodox jurisdictions in the same territory.

Individually, we have done much for ourselves … collectively, however, we have not been able to rise above our ethnicity and work together with one mind and one accord to bring America to Orthodoxy. Why should we have fifteen departments of Christian Education, Media Relations, Sacred Music, Youth Ministry. etc.? Where is our spiritual and moral impact on this nation? Why is it that every time there is a moral issue to be discussed, a Protestant, a Roman Catholic and a Jew are invited for such discussions? How can we explain our Orthodox absence even to our own people? … We cannot be agents of change in full obedience to the truth unless we transcend ethnicism and establish a new Orthodox reality in North America … The mission of the Church is not to be subservient to any kind of nationalism. The mission of the Church is the salvation of souls — all souls. 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are one in Christ Jesus'."23

Yes, we can missionize and evangelize North America, only if we unite. We pray that the mother churches will realize, soon, that we are no longer little children and that the Preparatory Commission for the Great Synod will stop discussing the "diaspora" in "absentia.

My dear Brothers,

North America is searching for the New Testament Church. North America is searching for the Church which was born on Pentecost Day. North America is ready and waiting for us, but are we ready for North America?

Finally, I would like to conclude with these words from the Perfect Missionary, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. "Do not say, 'there are yet four months then comes the harvest.' I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together." (John 4:35-36)

NOTES

1. Galatians 4:4.

2. John 1:14.

3. 2 Peter 1:4.

4. 1 Corinthians 9:16.

5. Acts 11:21.

6. This volume was written in Greek and was translated into Arabic by Bishop Estephanos Haddad.

7. Egypt was evangelized by St. Mark (Aziz S. Atiya). A History of Eastern Christianity, second ed., Millwoork, NY reprint 1980. Armenia by Saints Thaddaeus and Bartholomew, Ibid. "Scythia" between the Caspian & Black Sea, by St. Andrew. South India, by St. Thomas, Ibid. Proconsular Asia (Mysia. Lydia and Cosia) by St. John the Evangelist. Arabia. Asia Minor. Macedonia. Italy & Spain by St. Paul. He is claimed by every region as their Evangelist.

8. EVANGELISM IN THE EARLY CHURCH Pgs. 13-47.

9. Paul D. Garrett, Memo to Metropolitan PHILIP, Pg. 5.

10. Atiya writes: 'In 225, a Bishopric was in existence at Beth Katraye, the country of Qatar in Southeast Arabia, opposite the island of Bahrain. Christianity had found its way to the tribes of Himyar, Ghassan, Taghlib. Tannukh and Quda'a, long before Islam.' Ibid.

11. James J. Stamoolis, EASTERN ORTHODOX MISSION, THEOLOGY TODAY.

12. Francis Dvornik, BYZANTINE MISSIONS AMONG THE SLAVS, SS. CYRIL & METHODIUS, Pgs. 126-27.

13. Quoted by Dvornik, pg. 73. Ibid.

14. Methodius refused the Episcopal dignity following his return from the Khazar mission preferring to return to a monastery. Dvornik, pg. 104, Ibid.

15. James J. Stamoolis, EASTERN ORTHODOX MISSION, THEOLOGY TODAY. Pg. 21.

16. Stamoolis, pg. 25-49.

17. Acts 1:8.

18. Decree on the Church's Missionary Activities. Vatican 11 . 7. December. 1965.

19. John P. Meier, Michael Glazeer, Inc. Wilmington, DE, pg. 371.

20. Chrysostom on Matthew 10:23.

21. Matthew 25:20.

22. COMMON ROOTS, A CALL TO EVANGELICAL MINISTRY, by Robert E. Webber. Pg. 170.

23. METROPOLITAN PHILIP, HIS LIFE AND DREAMS, Thomas Nelson Publishing. Nashville, Pgs. 282-55.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
January 1985
pp. 4-9

PUBLICATIONS BY ORI

Keep up with the latest news and stay in touch with ORI