"On the Theological Possibility of Orthodox/Evangelical Cooperation in Mission"



On the Theological Possibility of Orthodox/Evangelical

Cooperation in Mission




Fr. Edward Rommen



Introduction: On the Nature of the Dilemma

Unlike my fellow speakers, I am not an Evangelical speaking about Orthodoxy I am Orthodox. I speak as a member of the Church and it is that committed which empowers me to speak on her behalf.  My presentation, then,  is not primarily professional, but intensely personal.  It has the character of a confession rather than an apologetic defense of the Church.  For the purposes at hand, I am not particularly interested in defending or trying to prove the superiority of one or the other idea.  But, I am interested sketching the outlines of what I think it will take to move us toward the possibility of bridging our differences and cooperating in missions.

When I first became Orthodox, I was driven by an optimism based on my conviction that, at least at the level of the Gospel, Orthodoxy and evangelicalism were compatible.  For example, I saw no reason for discontinuing my involvement in evangelical institutions.  In fact, I considered that participation an honor and an opportunity to build bridges of understanding and cooperation.  Unfortunately, the things that I have experienced, heard, seen, and read since becoming Orthodox have pushed that initial optimism off to a distant horizon.  It is not altogether lost, but it has become very faint.

Until now, the vast majority of evangelicals that I have been involved with seem determined to systematically eliminate or prevented every opportunity for significant exchange.  Others have said and published things, which are usually reserved for one's worst enemies rather than those with whom one supposedly wishes to cooperate.  I recently read an article in which the Orthodox Church’s teaching on salvation was compared to "a bowl of manure permeated…” with cream.[1]  Another essay disqualified the beauty of the Church as repugnant.[2] I, personally have been call all manner of names (a threat, a danger) and even traveled a great distance to participate in a conference only to be told, as I was about to arrive, that because I was Orthodox, my services would not be needed.  For whatever reasons, there seems to be a steady stream of inaccurate, erroneous slanderous things being propagated about the Orthodox Church. Obviously, drawing "battle lines" does not aid the cause of cooperation.

Some Orthodox, for their part, have also been very reluctant to seek and to facilitate cooperation with evangelicals.  They too have published their share of

unfair and unhelpful statements.  Some of the most outspoken opponents of evangelicals are evangelical converts to orthodoxy.  In recent book by a former Baptist the author states  “The ultimate concern of Protestantism is neither God nor the Scriptures nor anything that could reasonably be labeled truth, but rather the sovereignty of the individual.”[3] 

These then are the horns of our dilemma. How can we seriously speak of cooperation in an environment, which is characterized by such polemic?  An environment, which is more like a battled zone than a field of common endeavor.  And yet, someone must have had the courage or the foresight to put this topic, if only for 15 minutes, onto the conference schedule.  My Bishop has given me his blessing to address this gathering.  Let us then, take heart in these small indices of good will and press on.

Since you have asked me to focus on a theological framework for cooperation, allow me to suggest five aspects of theological activity for you to consider as you look towards the possibility of corporation with Orthodox believers around the world.

Presuppositions: Do you really want to cooperate?

It seems to me that it may be somewhat premature to be talking about a framework for corporation when, as I suspect, the question of cooperation itself has not yet been settled.  You may think that the fact that you have scheduled a discussion on the subject is itself indicative of an answer to the question. 

However, I imagine that there are many of you sitting here who still seriously question the possibility or the wisdom of evangelical cooperation with Orthodox.  The fact that you use your own theologians to speak for other groups


such as the Roman Church does not exactly engender confidence in you desire to cooperate. Unless you actually engage members of the other groups, the only thing you will be cooperating with are your caricatures of those groups.

In order to establish a framework for cooperation you are going to have to at least assume the possibility of cooperation.  If not, you are simply.  It might make you feel better, but it certainly will not lead to cooperation.

Theology and Introspection: Self-examination a Neglected Component

But, let us assume for the moment that you think that some form of cooperation is possible and desirable.  Where do we go from here?  Well, one thing about cooperation is that it usually requires some form of self-examination.  Since becoming Orthodox, my experience with evangelicals is that they are generally not willing to look at themselves.  For example, as I made my journey into Orthodoxy one of the most important questions for me was the nature and form of worship.  When I raised this issue very few seemed willing to discuss the questions I posed.  As I made my way toward the Church, no one seemed willing to ask "have we in some way contributed to this move?" 

My father helped establish the church, which grew to about within a few years.  After some time they hired a new pastor who introduced a radically different approach to worship.  The net result was that they lost about 60 percent of their attendees.  Interestingly, when my father asked whether or not that might be the result of the new worship policy no one was willing to even entertain the idea and insisted that everything was being done correctly.

I recall distinctly the exasperation I experienced when trying to discuss the things that I was discovering about Orthodoxy with evangelical colleagues.  People certainly asked me questions.  But after giving my answer, the usual response was "thanks for your answer," but there was almost never any real engagement of the issues.

Theology and Love: Showing the Mind of Christ.


All theological activity must, of course, be guided by the authoritative truth of Holy Scriptures, but it must be done in a way that shows that the participants are in communion with Christ. That is they should, in all that they do and say, remain cordial, sensitive, loving, and compassionate.  That ought to be obvious to a group of missionaries.  They are, after all, tuned into cross-cultural differences. Nevertheless, you own conference schedule shows a lack of sensitivity.  You have me representing the "Orthodox Movement."  The Orthodox are a Church not a movement.  It may seem a small point, yet, if this indiscretion can happen in the cultured atmosphere of this gathering,  what must go on out in the "trenches."  I don't want to belabor the point, but if the articles I mentioned earlier is any indication, some significant changes will have to be made in the way you speak about, speak to, and treat the Orthodox--at least if you really want to cooperate with them in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Theology and Integrity: Honestly identifying the real or actual differences between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism?

One of the most difficult things about this dialogue is that we are dealing with two very distinct mind sets, two cultures, conceptual frameworks which are the result of different histories, different cultural paths.  Consider just a few of the resulting differences: a) The East tends to be more interested in relationships whereas the West concentrates on propositions.  b) The East emphasizes person, the West focuses on nature. c) The East units reality and symbolism while the West tends to associate symbol with that which is not real.[4] 

Each of these differences gives rise to areas of apparent disagreement.  a) When defining salvation the East is primarily interested in the “new life in Christ” whereas the West concentrates on our change in legal status- justification.  b) When exploring the doctrine of God, the Eastern Theologians emphasizes the Person of God, in the West the focus is on the Nature of God.  c) When venerating an icon, the Eastern believer has no difficulty relating the reality an icon’s prototype with its symbolic representation, while Western believers have considerable difficulty.

These differences are the seedbed of ineffective communication and tend to cause misunderstandings and false identification of theological issues.  For example, in a TWF article Bradely Nassif laid out a brief framework for cooperation based on his conviction that Orthodoxy and evangelicalism are compatible.[5] In a response to that article it was suggested that the two were not compatible because Orthodox teaching inserts additional mediators, priest, Eucharist, etc. This is typical of the misidentification of issues I am speaking about.  In Orthodox theology there is only one mediator, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  So the real issue is not the number of mediators, but the place of these things—things generally neglected by evangelicals.  The fact that these things play a more significant role in the life the Orthodox, does not justify the evangelical assumption that these elements assume the status of mediators.[6]

I get the impression that we have a situation similar to that described in the famous book Flatland[7]:  trying to approach the three-dimensional from a two-dimensional plane, i.e., evangelicals forcing their two dimensional presuppositions on multi-dimensional Orthodoxy .  Of course this type of misunderstanding can be addressed and, to some degree, resolved.[8]

Theology and Growth: Learning from others.


Finally, all theological activity rests on the assumption that it is a human endeavor and therefore incomplete.  As a result it is incumbent upon all theologians to develop a humble willingness to learn from others.  With respect to the question before us, I would like to point you to several case studies, some informative, some challenging, and others exemplifying the attitudes and values I have elaborated on here today.

1) Gospel Light Publications is helping Russian Orthodox Christians teach Sunday school. The key to this endeavor is the attitude expressed by a Gospel Light spokesperson, "We did not want to promote our own ideas or theology. Lessons use Byzantine illustrations and follow Scripture readings in the church calendar.”[9]

2) Cooperation between Western Mission agencies and the Coptic Church is described and documented in Turning Over a New Leaf: Proestant Missions and the Orthdo Churches of the Middle East. London: Interserve, 1992.

3) Dialogue is being fostered by the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (SSEOE). The SSEOE is a Christian “think tank” that serves both the academy and the Church. Through its annual meetings and published papers, it seeks to identify the similarities and differences between the Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical traditions.

4) Finally, let me mention the recently published book Prostelytism and Orthodoxy in Russia. By  John Witte Jr. and Michael Bourdeaux (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999) The book contains a wealth of finformation on the religious, cultural, and legal situation in Russia. In chapter 16 Lawrence Uzzell even sets out a few guidelines “Guidelines for American Missionaries in russa.”


Is cooperation possible? I think that in many areas it is.  At this point I am not exactly sure what those areas are. Determining that will take considerable good will and effort on both sides.  However, I am convinced that Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are largely compatible.  For that reason, I am still committed to the idea of building bridges and if there is any way in which I can contribute to your efforts to do the same, I am certainly willing.

[1] Doug Jones. “Imperfectly Justified.” TableTalk (June 1999), 11ff.  The following two quotes illustrate the boorish tone taken by some, who obviously do not understand even the most fundamental aspects of Orthodox doctrine. "Eastern Orthodoxy shows no concern for conforming any aspect of its worship to the requisites of the Lord. They rejoice in imitating the inferior worship of the Old Covenant temple and shallowly overturn the ancient prohibition on venerating images." "Since deification is grounded in the incarnation rather than the atonement, Christ's cross becomes, in principle, non-essential, a quaint sideshow in deification." Douglas Jones. "Eastern Heterodoxy" Credenda/Adgenda Volume 6 Nr. 5.  Cf. www.credenda.org/issues/vol6/them6-5.htm.

[2] R. C. Sproul. “Repugnant Beauty.” TableTalk (June 1999), 5ff.  Not all evangelicals are engaging in this kind of “smear” tactic.” It seems that the crudest and most ill-informed attacks against the Church come from the Calvinists corner of evangelicalism.

[3] My own experience over the last few years lends credence to his statement. Clark Carlton. The Way. (Salisbury: Regina Press, 1997),  p. 65. 

[4] Obviously this is an oversimplification.  However, it does accurately indicate significant differences in conceptual frames of reference or thought paradigms.  See Alexander Schmeman. For The Life of the World. (Crestwood:SVS Press, 1963), pp 135 –151.

[5] Bradley Nassif. “Evangelical Missions in Eastern Orthodox Lands.” Trinity World Forum

[6] Another example of setting up dialogue without dealing with the actual issue can be found in R. C. Sproul’s article “Repugnant Beauty” TableTalk (June 1999), 5ff. .He suggests that the Orthodoxy  has defended its use of icons on two grounds, their beauty, pedagogical value. In fact, however, the Orthodox defense rests on the nature of the incarnation—Jesus the very icon of God himself. As Leonid Ouspensky puts it “The Church declares that the icon is an outcome of the Incarnation; that it is based upon this Incarnation and therefore belongs to the very essence of Christianity, and cannot be separated from it.”. Theology of the Icon. Vol 1. (Crestwood:SVS Press, 1992) , p. 36.

[7] Edwin Abbott Abbott. Flatland. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[8] Yet, we must honestly face the fact that there are areas of disagreement, which are not likely to be bridged. Some things which lie outside the realm of cooperation, e.g. Participation in the Eucharist.


[9] Reported in “News from Religion Today” http://www.glint.org/projects.htm