"Discovering the Orthodox Missionary Ethos"

 "Discovering the Orthodox Missionary Ethos"

By Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania

Martyria/Mission: The Witness of the Orthodox Churches Today, edited by Ion Bria, WCC: Geneva, 1980.


The last two decades have seen a rekindling of missionary interest in the Orthodox churches. There is, first, a new theological missionary awareness, secondly, a clearer knowledge of the historical reality of the Orthodox churches, and thirdly, an active concern with problems related to Orthodox missionary presence in the contemporary world.


A new theological awareness of mission




            This missionary interest is no innovation but a rediscovery of tradition. Recently, in varying tones and theological contexts, mission has been emphasized as an essential part of the nature of the Church; it is the extension in time and space of the work of Christ; it is the continuous transfusion of a new quality of life, eternal life (cf. John 10: 10) into world society and history. The apostolicity of the Church does not refer to apostolic succession alone, but to the fact that it preserves the apostolic spirit and flame, so that the Gospel will reach "the ends of earth".

            Mission is viewed as a necessary expression of the ethos of Orthodox spirituality whose two main poles are the Resurrection and Pentecost. The basic commandment "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . ." (Matt. 28: 19) is a consequence of the resurrected Lord's triumph. The Resurrection is the starting point for extending the disciples' mission throughout the oikoumene so that Christ's victory, the salvation of human nature, can be preached "to the whole creation".




            While the obligation of mission was being stressed in the awakening of the Orthodox missionary conscience, theological thought focused on the meaning of Christian mission. Basic themes of thought and experience in the theology of the Eastern Church are, on the one hand, love of the trinitarian God in an eschatological perspective, and on the other a doxological look into the mystery of God and of human existence. As Holy Scripture depicts it, the unfolding of history begins and ends with the glory of the Father. God's interventions in history were a series of epiphanies; the definitive appearance of God's glory reached its epitome in the Cross and Resurrection.

            The vision of the glory of the trinitarian God is the ultimate purpose of "being" with Christ. Through the Lord's work of redemption the dawn of the last day approaches, namely man's participation in the glorious life of the Holy Trinity in theosis. Since then, the Holy Spirit continues and completes the divine plan, with the participation of the Lord's disciples to whom He gave authority to preach salvation to all creation and to prepare for the parousia in which God's full glory will be revealed. All those who "have beheld his glory" through the faith and mysteries and who have become members of His Body, partake in a mission that has one end in view: the recapitulation of all in Christ, and their participation in the divine glory. The objectives of the missionary activity of local churches and of the faithful are set in this wider theological spectrum. The preaching of the Gospel is not a mere announcement of ideas but a doxological movement. The foundation of a local church is not the creation of a small colony or of a section of some organization, but a prelude and image of the Kingdom, a creation of the eucharistic community, which through the mysteries and all its life participates in the praise and life of the whole Church. It will contribute to Christ's presence, becoming perceptible in a specific place and time "until He comes" in His final parousia.[1]  If the missionary is unable to transmit this sort of glory, which is not the secular, external glory of civilization, wealth and knowledge, but the inner glory of God as it is revealed in the mystery of kenosis, of the Resurrection and Pentecost, then he has nothing essential to offer.


Awareness of Orthodoxy's historical reality


            In the West there has been a widespread notion that the Orthodox Church has historically been rather indifferent to mission, that it has been preoccupied with theological disputes and its introverted liturgical life, and that through monasticism it has cultivated a static spirituality, indifferent to worldwide happenings. A more careful and deeper study of the history of Orthodox churches reveals that their contribution in spreading Christianity has been very important throughout the ages and that Orthodoxy has lived the theological principles we have referred to in the preceding paragraphs in multiple forms and multiple dimensions.


1. The Byzantine Church, following the missionary tradition of the first three centuries, continued an interest in spreading the Gospel. We cannot go into historical details here.[2] But it may be useful to stress a few basic principles that characterize Byzantine Orthodox missionary activity:


a) The Byzantines were simultaneously concerned with internal mission, within the empire's geographical boundaries, where there were various pockets and bulwarks of idolatry, as well as with spreading the Gospel outside the borders of Byzantium.

b) Orthodox missionaries always had to create an authentic local liturgical community and translate the Holy Scripture and liturgical texts into the local languages. Whenever they did not apply this principle as, for example, in the case of the Arabic tribes - the consequences were catastrophic.

c) The building of a beautiful church always had priority, not only for practical purposes, but also because it was the symbol of God's presence in the midst of the people, the place where the sacraments of the coming and anticipated Kingdom would be celebrated.

d) Emphasis on liturgical life and the ascetic ideal did not inhibit interest in the social and political dimensions of life. Along with religion, the Byzantines offered the peoples they attracted to Christianity, experience in governmental administration, education, the bases for developing their own literature, the first teachers and artists who then trained leaders in various cultural sectors. They gave them all the prerequisites for developing into true nations.

e) According to the Byzantine theological tradition, Christianity's unity was not harmed by a variety of mentalities, languages, customs, cultures and nations of identities. They did not, therefore, carry out a colonial policy but helped these new peoples shape their own personalities and develop as autonomous entities.

f) Missionary activities were never the work of "missionary experts"; members of all social classes contributed. Monks and clergy carried the main weight of the task; but many laymen, laywomen, politicians, military men and even prisoners contributed spontaneously to spreading the Gospel.


2. The Russian Church adopted Byzantine missionary tradition. With originality and daring, they continued and developed missionary methods inherited from the Byzantines: i.e. catholicity in their view of missionary obligations within and outside the borders of the empire; participation of both clergy and laity, and even a general mobilization of the faithful; education for native clergy; translation of liturgical and religious books into native languages with a systematic linguistic interest; celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the local language. Emphasis was on the meaning of the temple's beauty as a visible symbol of God's glory in space.

            From the beginning of the nineteenth century until the Marxist revolution, the Russian Church developed a systematic internal missionary activity and an external one in China, Japan and Korea.[3]

            In the immense Russian territory monasteries were strongholds and centres of Christianity's expansion and stabilization. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries institutions were created such as the famous Spiritual (Theological) Academy of Kazan which was dedicated to linguistic, religious and missionary studies and the Orthodox Missionary Society whose purpose was the education and reinforcement of missionaries, the distribution of publications and economic aid for Orthodox missionary groups. It was founded in 1870 by the Metropolitan of Moscow, the famous missionary Innocent Veniaminoff.


3. From the middle of the fifteenth down to the middle of the nineteenth century, the Orthodox churches in Asia Minor and those in Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and partially in Romania were confronted, under the pressure of Muslim-Turkish domination, with the problem of survival.

Under those conditions it was impossible to consider missionary effort. Despite this, certain Greek texts refer to a considerable number of Muslims who were converted to Christianity and who died martyrs. During this prolonged period of Turkish occupation many outstanding figures (such as Cosmas Aetolean, Nikon Metanoete, etc.) struggled to restore to the Christian faith populations that had undergone direct Islamic influence. In those difficult years monasteries were always centres of spiritual encouragement.



Problems and activities of present-day Orthodox mission




a) The new local Orthodox churches, which came into existence after the various Balkan nations had obtained their national freedom, were faced with a variety of internal problems. At the same time, numerous groups emigrated to western countries, where different religious creeds wer~ prevalent. In an effort to preserve their own religious traditions, the Orthodox were often forced to form closed groups.


b) The new conditions prevailing in our day, radical sociological restructuring and other profound changes, present Orthodox churches with extremely difficult problems. With the communist regimes in power in eastern Europe and the continuing erosive effects of secularism in traditionally Orthodox countries, such as Greece, the field of internal mission is clearly a critical area.


Believers are now aware that they are called upon to participate in the universal, multi-dimensional, spiritual struggle at home and abroad. Thus any polarization of interest between "internal" and "external" mission should be avoided; each reinforces the other. The universality of the missionary duty is increasingly evident: the whole Church must offer the whole Gospel to the whole world, to those nearby and to those far away, and concern itself with the whole of man and the whole of human life.


The participation of the Orthodox churches in the World Council of Churches and sustained contacts with the Roman Catholic Church have enabled many Orthodox to obtain a better view of the worldwide missionary scene - the thinking, the organization and the activity of the western churches - and a broader awareness of general missionary problems. In recent years, Orthodox have in effect admitted the principle that they can do in common with others all that they do not have to do separately. This has resulted in a willingness to cooperate in such endeavours as the preservation of peace, social work, translation of the Bible, missionary training, Christian radio and TV programmes, common research, and efforts to ensure a dialogue with persons of other faiths and ideologies. However, there remain serious ecclesiological problems in the way of full cooperation.

Although full participation in common missionary action is fraught with real difficulties which are connected both with canonical rules and with the scarcity of people and resources, there remains a vast area for joint theological research and in laying sound spiritual foundations for mission. Orthodox are prepared to face these problems with their brethren of the western churches and, in humility and with the courage born of love, contribute to a better understanding of the meaning of Christian witness in the modern world.






Renewed interest in "external mission" of the Orthodox churches originated in recent years from two unexpected quarters. It came, first, from the peculiar rise of Orthodox churches in Africa without the presence of Orthodox missionaries and, second, from initiative of Orthodox youth.

The first noteworthy development was the appearance of indigenous Orthodox churches in eastern Africa which were not the result of any activity by European missionaries. This was the case with the Orthodox nuclei of Uganda and Kenya, whose members came chiefly from the so-called African Independent Churches. The latter had arisen around 1930-40 as a reaction to the policies of some western missions.[4]

Care of these churches was undertaken by the Patriarchate of Alexandria where a special ecclesiastical episcopal organization has been in charge of pastoral work in these communities for the last 15 years. A systematic effort on virgin ground was begun a few years ago by other missionaries in Zaire. It must be admitted that this awakening of African interest occurred, unfortunately, at a time when Orthodox missionary consciousness was at a low ebb. The Orthodox were not ready to respond. Thus the African Orthodox Church was left without substantial help and developed with all the strengths and weakness of spontaneous growth.

The second thrust came from the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth Organizations "Syndesmos". It decided in 1961 to establish an autonomous inter-Orthodox Missionary Centre. This was caned Porefthendes and its aims were defined as follows: investigation of the theoretical and practical problems associated with external Orthodox mission; cultivation of a missionary awareness in Orthodox churches; help to the small Orthodox missionary nuclei in Asia and Africa; and contribution to the training of missionary personnel.

This Centre published a periodical, Porefthendes - Go Ye, in English and Greek during the decade 1960-1970. It did not become an autonomous missionary society but tried to avoid the adverse experiences of the West, where missionary societies and churches had run into difficulties. It set itself the goal of "preparing the way" so that the entire Church might become aware of its missionary duty and specific missionary action be undertaken by official church agencies.[5]

Some other examples of missionary activities developed by the Orthodox Church in the last decade include: the External Mission Week of the Church of Greece; the External Mission Office of Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece; the Institute of Missionary Studies; the introduction of mission as a subject in the curriculum of the Faculty of Theology of Athens University; missionary efforts in America, including the educational contribution of St Vladimir's Seminary which trains priests for Alaska and Japan; the Mission Office of the Greek Archbishopric of America, which provides assistance to the Orthodox communities of Korea and Africa; and the post of a secretary for research and relations with Orthodox churches in the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches, whose purpose is to encourage a renewal of missionary interest in the Orthodox churches.[6]


Orthodox ethos in Christian witness: a contribution to the ecumenical search


I want to add a few principles of Orthodox witness basic to "missionary categories of thought" out of Orthodox theological awareness and experience.


1. Christian mission does not aim at "conquering" the world; neither does it aim to spread and project a Christian commonwealth that controls everything. Its purpose is not to increase an organized church's power but to serve the world with love and humility, to offer it salvation. It is a matter of an incarnation of the Word in new geographical areas and new circumstances with a view to the establishment of new "churches", of new cores of truth and grace, living images of God's Kingdom, where the sacraments of the Kingdom will be celebrated and where its coming will be experienced in eucharist and glorification.


2. A universal view of the world and of man in the light of trinitarian theology is a precondition of correct action in the temporal and the concrete. For Orthodox, the so-caIled practical affairs of the Church are in the final analysis an extension of its dogmatic positions. They believe that the trinitarian theology of the East remains the best theological infrastructure for an appreciation of the importance of the human person and his harmonious coexistence with other human persons in a koinonia agapes. Such a theological awareness makes it possible to overcome both the selfish individualism cultivated by the capitalist mentality of the West and the danger of massification under the dictatorships that harass and flagellate so many countries. By revealing the immense value and destiny of the human person, Christian mission seeks to transfigure life through "communion" in the life of the Holy Trinity.


3. In the eastern tradition, special emphasis is laid upon the inner genuineness and the dynamic significance of each believer's holy life; this contributes to the radiation of the Gospel. When a man submits consciously to the Holy Spirit, then that man is converted into a "sign", i.e.

into a living indicator of the awaited completion of the parousia.

In the history of Orthodoxy, the greatest missionaries were the monks who lived the Gospel uncompromisingly, their hearts vibrating with the cry of the revelation "Come Lord Jesus". The consistency of the lives of the monks with the evangelical precepts of poverty, chastity and love made their mission persuasive.

In the Eastern Church, this ascetic ethos did not remain limited to the monasteries but impregnated the conscience of the believers in a general sense. The focus is "being" in Christ or on ceaseless "becoming" in Christ by an unremitting effort of repentance and transformation. Inner purification is more important than preaching. Therefore in Orthodox spirituality saints have always exercised a stronger influence than preachers. "It is great to speak of God; but it is greater to purify oneself in and for God," as St Gregory Nazianzene says.[7]


4. The axis around which the Orthodox community revolves and the source from which it draws spiritual force for its mission is worship and above alI the Eucharist. The Orthodox contribution to mission is determined by the theological, sacramental message and meaning of the liturgical life. "The Liturgy is our thanksgiving for and on behalf of the created world and the restoration in Christ of the falIen world. It is the image of the Kingdom, it is the Cosmos becoming Ecclesia."[8] In the Eucharist, the vigilance of the Spirit is intensified, the coming age is announced in glory, the meaning of the historical workaday nature of time is transformed and the present day is bathed in the reflection of eternity. So the Liturgy as a whole becomes witness and mission. Mission does not mean just the announcement of redemption in Christ but its revelation, and the invitation to a doxological participation in the event of salvation in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

By experiencing, in the Liturgy, communion with God, sanctification in truth, inclusion in Christ and through Christ in the Father, incorporation in the Church of past, present and future, the believer broadens the horizons or' his thoughts and interests, and acquires inner force enabling him to prolong the experience of the Liturgy into life. There is another kind of liturgy (leitourgia = the work of people); liturgy after the Divine Liturgy that each believer ought to carryon after the celebration of the Liturgy in church. Liturgy can become life and life be elevated to liturgy, that is to thanksgiving, to love, to praise of God and to communion with Him and with the whole world.


5. Such a liturgical spirituality does not imply a negative attitude towards the world but, on the contrary, an admirable freedom and a feeling of being at ease with the world, an attitude of affection and love towards man. The closer one is to God, the nearer one is to the world. "He, therefore, who has lost the likeness with God has also lost the intimacy with life", said St Basil.[9]

If the Church Fathers have been so important in the life and thought of the Orthodox, it is because by drawing ever closer to God they became more familiar with life and its problems, both personal and social.

There is a special sensitivity in patristic thought to justice, truth and compassion, a pronounced sense of communion with all men. The matter of social justice assumes christological dimensions in the thinking of the saints. To them, the person who is wronged, poor, sick, despised, is the person of Christ. "As long as there is time, let us visit Christ, serve Christ, feed Christ, clothe Christ, offer hospitality to Christ, honour Christ", wrote Gregory Nazianzene.[10]


6. In the East, one finds a strong existential understanding of the concept "my power is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. 12: 9). This leads to a joyful freedom from "power" and "anxiety-for-success" complexes (precisely the kind of complexes which often plague "missionaries" and missionary societies). There is a full awareness that what may appear as failure is often only the death of the seed of wheat that falls on the earth and brings much fruit later.

For centuries many local Orthodox churches lived under political oppression. But, following long periods of oppression or even of internal decline, new forces and inspired men, again and again, arose to initiate new areas of spiritual primacy. Out of this apparent failure came the success of the Church. There is a direct relationship between witness for Christ and the martyr-like acceptance of outward weakness for His sake and for the love of His Church, always keeping alive the hope which "does not disappoint" (Rom. 5 : 4-5).

Outward failure of a different kind is inherent in the lives of the monks. Seeking no worldly influence or glory, many of them have remained entirely unknown to history. But the genuineness of their lives and their unreserved and unyielding love of God profoundly affected the soul of the anonymous people who knew and loved them. Many carried on outstanding missionary work without being aware of it. They did immense good just by existing. They lived in freedom: freedom from the desire for wealth, for fame, for power and from the fear of human failure. The Orthodox believer's daily association with these saints, who lived doxologically with Christ's first and last coming, has formed the Orthodox ethos.

This liturgical, ascetic, social and martyr-like ethos is still at work. It is the kind of ethos that gives missionary work a special quality of expression and presence, invincible endurance and joyful freedom.





[1] For a broader treatment of these ideas, see A. Yannoulatos, "The Purpose and Motive of Mission: From an Orthodox Point of View", International Review of Mission, Vol. 54, 1965, pp. 298.307, rev. individual publication, Athens, 1968. cr. by the same author, "Orthodoxy and Mission", St VIadimir's Seminary Quarterly, 8, 1964, pp. 139-148. "Eine Kirche erwacht zur Mission; Gleichgiiltigkeit gegeniiber der Mission bedeutet Leugnung der Orthodoxie", lahrbuch Evangelischer Mission, Hamburg, 1970, pp. 46-53.


[2] For a brief history of Orthodox missions see A. Yannoulatos, "Les missions des Eglises d'Orient", Encyclopaedia Universalis, Paris, tome Xl, 1972, pp. 99-102. For further information concerning Byzantine missions see by the same author, "Byzance: Task of Evangelism", Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (in Greek), Vol. 4, 1964, col. 19-59. Among many special studies, see in particular C. Diehl, Justinien et la civilisation byzantine au VI" siecle, Paris, 190 I, and Le grand probleme de l'histoire byzantine, Paris, 1943, and F. Dvornik, Les Slaves. Byzance et Rome au IX" siecle, Paris, 1929.


[3] A. YANNOULATOS, "Orthodoxy in China", Porefthendes - Go Ye, 4, 1962, pp. 26-30, 36-39, 52-55. By the same author, "Orthodoxy in Alaska", Porefthendes - Go Ye, 5, 1963, pp. 14-22,44-47. By the same author, "Orthodoxy in the Land of the Rising Sun", Orthodoxy 1964: a Panorthodox Symposium, Athens, Brotherhood ZOE 1964, pp. 300-319, 338-440.


[4] D. E. WENTINK, "The Orthodox Church in East Africa", The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 20, 1968, pp. 33-43. Cf. Doens, "Information supplementaire sur J'Eglise Orthodoxe en Afrique Orientale", Revue du Clerge Africain, 25, 1969, pp. 543-576. Reservations and different views are presented at various points in both these articles.


[5] See Porefthendes - Go Ye, Vols. 1959-1969.

[6] The pioneers in many of these efforts were members, co-workers and friends of the first young missionary group of Porefthendes.

[7] Gregory NAZIANZENE, Homily 53, PG 36, 581 A.


[8] Reports of the Consultation "Confessing Jesus Christ Today", in Orthodox Theology, Bucarest-Cernica, 4-8 June 1974, Report No.3, paragraph 2; The Orthodox Contribution to Nairobi, papers compiled and presented by the Orthodox Tasl Force of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1975, p. 18.

[9] St Basil, Ascetic Homily, PG 31, 869.

[10] Gregory NAZIANZENE, On Charity, 50: PG 35, 909.