An Outsider’s Impressions of Orthodoxy
I have found it hugely interesting and helpful, as a Baptist working on the home base of a missionary society which operates in Orthodox areas, to read your impressions of us in several threads on this forum. It is seldom we get the chance to see ourselves as we appear to others. So I offer the following in two hopes:
1) It may be of interest or even help to Orthodox to see how you appear to outsiders.
2) I may have formed wrong impressions by not understanding what I have seen in the right way. If so, I should very much like to be corrected, and shall look for your replies.
In November I went to the village of Zervat, southern Albania, as I wished to view the 10th century Byzantine church there. Sadly it was locked, but I very much enjoyed its old beauty from outside. Whilst two friends went off on a fruitless search for the key, I fell into conversation with an elderly man in the road, who is an adherent of that congregation. He spoke warmly and brightly of the need to have Christ as a daily reality in one’s life and heart, and is grieved over the poor relations between the denominations. Having spent much of his life in an atheist society, and now in a church which (in SW Albania at least) has a shortage of clergy, I felt that here was, perhaps, a brother in Christ, touched and made alive by the Holy Ghost but with little knowledge beyond an enthusiasm for Christ himself. I wondered how many Orthodox worshippers there are in this area, whose hearts are like kindling, ready to be ignited by the operation of the Word and the Spirit.
May I ask what gave you the impression that he had little knowledge of his faith? Even if he lacks knowledge, I would say the fact that he has faith despite the situation is a wonderful miracle! My opinion would be that, rather than changing the theology and system of worship that the man has grown up in by converting him, we should pray for his priest and for the Albanian church to be blessed with more priests! Had I met this gentleman myself (of course, I'm Orthodox...), I would have encouraged him to educate himself and speak with the priest frequently.
Then we headed for another village with a 10th century church. It is reached by a long, stony track without a signpost, and we stopped to ask the way when we espied a man and woman. We gave them a lift, as they were going that way. The woman is the wife of the priest, who lives in a nearby village, and we let her out whilst we turned right to visit the church, which was unlocked and again of great beauty. We decided to visit the priest’s home, and again came upon his wife in the road, who took us there and introduced us to him. We were at once made welcome in the sunshine on his balcony, where Turkish coffee and home-made raki were promptly brought (and enjoyed).
This priest serves five churches, and said he has been priest here since 1992. (I assume in reality he was among the first intake at the seminary in Durrës in 1992, and returned to his home village as priest after ordination.) He was born in the house he now lives in.
Sadly I could get no spiritual conversation out of him. He told us that a pagan temple had been on the site of the church before Christianity came. I observed that men have always sought to find God and worship him. He replied that God is an invisible power. I answered that he is indeed, but that his character has been made visible in the life and character of his Son, Jesus Christ. His reply was no more than, “I hope so.” Should I see him as the blind leading the blind? Or feel sad that maybe here is a man seeking to do what needs to be done, but with no input from elsewhere to learn what it is and how to do it? I leave that to the Lord.
Honestly, from what you describe, my reaction is that this priest is probably burned out. My husband serves only one parish (granted it's a huge one) and works extremely long hours. I can only imagine what it must be like to serve five. And to be frank (please don't take offense), he may have not been interested in talking theology to someone that he viewed as an outsider, whose motives he probably questioned. Obviously I don't know, I'm only going by what you describe and by what my experiences have been-- I love to sit down and talk to people of other faiths (to learn more from them as well as to educate them). But many, many priests and Orthodox do not feel the same way.
Back in the city of Gjirokastër, my hotelier, himself an Orthodox, phoned one of the priests in the city, and said I should like to see him. I found his manner of address on the phone to the priest charming, for it began, “O Papa!”
The priest is a delightful man. His attitude to us Evangelicals was expressed by reference to the words of our Lord, who said, “He that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9.40). This seemed to me a token of better relations than in other times or places. He seems to feel frustrated by the fact that he can only preach for seven minutes: after that, people start fidgeting, looking at their watches, and saying that they can’t sit here so long as they have other matters to attend to. There is, he said (as has one of our own missionaries on many occasions), a reduced interest in Albania in reading - not only religious, but all literature. This has implications for the growth in faith of the flock of Christ. He also said that some villages receive only one visit a year from a priest.
May I ask why he can only preach for seven minutes? Is it simply because of the people's lack of attention span? And I would say that it's not suprising that the interest in reading has waned, considering the influence of communism in the region.
In another place I visited I was told that some members of the Orthodox Church see the priests as corrupt, enriching themselves by acquiring people’s money. I had previously heard a similar idea elsewhere. Whether it is justified, I cannot say. Privately some members are reading the scriptures in their homes, and are disgruntled about the priests.
Sadly, I've heard this a lot. There are, of course, some corrupt priests, just as there are corrupt preachers, ministers, etc. If you've ever read the book "People of the Lie," by Dr. M. Scott Peck, he talks specifically about how evil people (he uses the term "evil," not me-- it's a wonderful book on the lack of a "psychology of evil" and an understanding of evil) often gravitate toward positions of religious power. This is nothing new. The sad part is that all too often, ALL priests are judged by the bad conduct of a few. This is a battle my husband fights every day-- whether it's a congregant who is angry over a decision he has made and judges (and badmouthed) him, or a random person on the street who sees his cassock and judges him because of a few Catholic priest's indiscretions. I have some stories I could tell about the looks and comments my husband gets because he is seen in public with a woman. It frightens me sometimes to think what might happen when we have children and he goes out in public with them without me.
I guess my point here (which I'm sure I'm not making very well) is that this is an excuse. People have many reasons for rejecting the Church. Saying that the priests are the reason is, in my opinion, an excuse. One's faith should not be dependant on perfect priests. Instead of concentrating on the (albeit many) sins of any priest, they should be concentrating on their relationship with Christ. Their opinion of any cleric should NEVER be a reason not to go to church. I have encountered many priests I didn't like, and one whom I truly believe to be corrupt in the worst way. Even faced with that one priest, I never ceased receiving the communion that he consecrated, as the sanctity of the Eucharist has NOTHING to do with the sinfullness (or sinlessness) of the priest. Christ overcomes all. This is what I always say when the people complain to me about the priests or bishops (which happens often, unfortunately). This is what I would say to the people in Albania. And the way I would END that conversation is by asking them, "have you prayed for the priests?"
In another city the Orthodox bishop is a convert from Islam. Under him, the Orthodox Church no longer lays a public curse on the Evangelical Church and its workers and helpers as it did under a previous bishop: another heartening sign of improved relations between us.
Such are some first-hand observations and impressions from contact with Orthodox a few days ago. I would be genuinely interested in your comments, corrections or confirmation of them.
But finally, here is a thought for you to mull over. Several posts on this forum accuse us Evangelicals of going to Orthodox countries and stealing your sheep. Personally (and I speak only for myself), if I saw an Orthodox priest, with his black robes and ‘chimney-pot hat’, standing under the village tree in one of these remote mountain villages, with a group of listeners around him, telling them of Christ in such a way as to enable to Holy Spirit to create repentance and faith in Jesus in their hearts, and then gathering them into an Orthodox church in the village, I would not wish to go now to the same village and start an Evangelical church. It is written that when Barnabas saw the grace of God, he was glad: and I think I would be too. There are perhaps 700,000 Orthodox in Albania - maybe ten times as many as there are Evangelicals. Don’t leave it to us to preach Christ to these distant villages where men and women live unreached and untaught, ‘having no hope and without God in the world’: send them your best men to point them to the way of eternal life through Christ, and I for one will wish you the blessing of God.
I would have to echo the sentiments that have been expressed here. The influence of communism in the region had terrible effects on the people and their faith. It is truly unjust for people to take advantage of that weakness and come in and convert people.
When you say we should not "leave it to you," to preach Christ, I would say that we are doing the best we can. It sounds as though you think we are doing nothing, when in fact we have many active missionaries. But as you said, there are 700,000 in Albania alone. Nevermind Russia and all the other countries that were victimized by communism. We have to reach those people as well. And the situation is much more complicated than you or I understand. Each one of those 700,000 is an individual who needs to be ministered to, educated, and loved. And again, that's just Albania. Each has his own reasons for leaving the church, rejecting the church, never returning to the church, returning without full understanding, etc. Ministering to all those people is a monumental task and we are doing our best, as are the churches in those countries (we are not in the same jurisdictions as they are-- we are under different bishops and have different programs, etc. for addressing those issues). I hope I'm being clear in what I'm trying to say. I'm not saying this as an excuse. I'll be the first to admit that we don't have enough priests in any country, and that we have much work to do, so much so that it often seems overwhelming and like we'll never accomplish it. But that is where the Holy Spirit comes in. He has never let us down yet, and He is in everything. He won't let us fail.
The other thing I would have to say is that there is an element of judgement implied by the presence of missionaries, by the things they have said, and even in what you said (please don't take offense to that). Just because you didn't see a priest under a tree with a group of people listening doesn't mean that they aren't there. Just because you don't see it (and I mean this in the general sense, not just toward you in particular) doesn't mean that Christ is not active in the lives of the people. It is one thing to evangelize to people who have never heard of Christ and never heard the good news of His death and resurrection. It is quite another to judge that someone's (or some group's) understanding of the Gospel is not good enough by your standards and it is your God given duty to "fix" them and their faith. Again, I'm speaking in the general sense when I say "you."
I hope I'm not offending with my words!