Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

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My Visit to St. George Orthodox Church

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I wrote this blog over a year ago. Originally it was one of a three part series about different churches I had visited and was intended to be a comparison. However, much has changed since then and bringing this blog off the shelf seemed like a good way to introduce my next post.

When an friend (ex-Mennonite) invited me to attend an Orthodox baptismal service a couple years ago I had no reason to refuse. One of his college professors was the priest who would be performing the rites and had invited him to witness the event. So we met on a cool crisp October morning for the trek to St George’s, an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA.

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself to be an unorthodox guy and at one point probably wouldn’t have set foot in a liturgical church having pre-judged it as stuffy, stifling, etc. I was completely committed to my Mennonite ideals and had no intention of changing church affiliation. My visit was a nice opportunity for a different perspective and nothing more.

First Impressions: The building exterior had a foreign and very non-western appearance to my eyes. It could actually be confused with a mosque. On top of the building in a place one might expect a pointy steeple was a golden “onion” dome.

Inside there were three main rooms, a fellowship hall on the end where we entered, a sanctuary in the middle and then a kind of inner sanctum. There were paintings (or “icons”) of an ancient style were depicting various saints, Mary and Jesus on the walls.

We met Father Anthony, a man with glasses and a gray beard, and were warmly received by him before he went about his duties.

We had arrived a bit early and waited a few minutes for the service to begin. Soon we were worshiping as Christians had for thousands of years. Fr. Anthony leading out melodically “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” and the congregation giving their musical response.

The words of the liturgy were rich with meaning, the gowns, regalia, ancient rituals, intricate ceremonies and incense burning had my mind whirling about the origination of these practices. Surprisingly, as one typically a cynic of formalities, I was oddly at peace in this service.

The Message: Be On Guard Against Spiritual Pride. (That isn’t the official title to the sermon, but it is what the message was about.) The text came from the Gospel of St Luke:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

This exuberant moment for the disciples was met with the sobriety of Jesus. While listening to this passage being spoken I had a flashback that made the message especially profound.

My mind went to a vision I had during a spiritual high point a year before where I was on a ladder, having climbed far up into the clouds, and the perspective I had gained was exhilarating. However, the lofty height also made me fearful. I was afraid I would lose my grip, slip and fall. Which is what happened, I was discouraged and feeling that bitter taste of defeat.

The message spoke to me. I repented my attitude of the last while and marveled at how this text and message could reach my own heart so directly.

The Good: I was surprised. I really enjoyed the service and especially the fellowship afterwards. Fr Anthony possessed a wealth of knowledge about church history and articulated Orthodoxy in a way more compelling than the explanations I’ve heard prior. For a well-educated man he was completely humble. He has remained in communication with me since.

The Bad: The congregation was small and the church we attended at a significant distance from home. Also, as a conservative Mennonite accustomed to children and young people, there was a conspicuous absence here. I wondered where the families were. It made me a little sad because there was a depth of tradition here that makes Mennonites seem contemporary by comparison.

The Ugly: While I’m being brutally honest, the iconology did make me a bit uncomfortable. It was something completely foreign to me and it seemed like there depictions could easily become idols. However, when considering the Bibliolatry common in fundamentalist Protestant congregations, perhaps we are also guilty ourselves?

Anyhow, wherever the case, it is one of those things that made me hesitant about this most ancient of Christian traditions.

The Verdict: Ultimately our salvation depends on God and I have a great appreciation for the Orthodox acceptance of this as a mystery of God. This is a welcome relief for someone tired of the contrived (and unsatisfactory) answers of religious fundamentalists.

Orthodoxy is about proper worship of God and their perspective is that worship should be about God’s glory—not our personal preference.

What questions do you have about Orthodoxy?