The Eastern Captivity of the Christian Church

The reason to become Orthodox is because it is the Christian Church. It is not simply because it is the “ancient faith”, it is because it is the Christian faith. Certainly it is not because it is Greek, and it makes no sense to say that it is because it is Russian. There is nothing about ethnicity or geography that makes Orthodoxy superior. It is not even because Western Christianity has flaws (the history of the East is also pockmarked); it is Christianity itself that compels such a change, not because “the East” is inherently better than “the West”.

I do believe that the Christian “East” has more effectively preserved true Christian worship and doctrine, but I would have stayed Protestant (as several others have) in order to effect similar beneficial change. I did not become Orthodox because they do things better than “Western” Christians.

In fact, the Orthodox do a lot of things worse than the other Christian confessions. We haven’t formed outstanding university’s like the Roman Catholic’s, the Baptists, or the Reformed Protestants. Consequently our children find themselves having to leech off of University’s of other confessions; leaving their training to others and forcing them to be “theological guests” during their formative years. Our voice is barely audible among the others that proclaim the good news. As institutions go we don’t have much worth mentioning.  I drive down the highway and I can see a Presbyterian Medical Building, a couple of Baylor’s medical plaza’s, and it seems that I cannot help but see Roman Catholicism’s pervasive influence our civilization. The other confessions are doing good works; works that speak highly of Christ and those who take his name. Everyday people’s lives are changed for the better by American Christians who are not Orthodox. Their good works are laudable; and if we are honest, it puts us to shame.

And yet we Orthodox often refuse to face up to our shortcomings, and Christ’s victory in the fragmented mess of denominations that surround us. Sure we’ve kept our hands busy with some good works, and I do not mean to diminish outstanding institutions like IOCC or Ancient Faith Radio, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a lot that we’re bad at.

Part of me takes pride when I see that our focus isn’t on certain troublesome standards of “success”. I like to joke about how ugly Orthodox websites tend to be – how we aren’t seeker friendly; we are too busy caring about the content rather than the package. And yet, this sort of pride tends to mask sloth and stubbornness. Is it a very big deal when Orthodox websites are simple and awkward? No. Is it refreshing to be around people who could care less about putting flash animation in their website because they are too busy praying and caring for people? You bet. But taking pride in my work because it avoids the failure of others is a dangerous way to live. This habit is sure to foster serious consequences.

In our case, the consequences have already arrived. Too frequently we talk about “being Orthodox” as if it were a club; when if it were a club it would be one that we would be ashamed of, and one I wouldn’t join. Too often we speak of the East, as if the East were redeemed while the West remains damned. Too much we relish our distinctiveness from those who devote their lives to Christ, and who – without the wealth divine grace that we have – are the tools by which Christ is drawing men to Himself. By calling ourselves “the East” as if that meant we are correct we have calcified what must be supple if the Holy Spirit is to move us. We grow out our beards, we drop the names of Saints, we cross ourselves, we buy more icons, we go to seminary, we call ourselves only by our Saint’s name, we buy a longer prayer rope, we read more books, we listen only to chant, we go to the services, and while standing the entire time we think only about being more Orthodox.

And Christ says to us: “I knoweth thee not”.

In the Orthodox parishes of this country, out of the blessed mouths of many good Christians, and from the hands of the pious one recognizes the dreadful prayer of the Pharisee: “Lord I thank you that I am not like this man”. These words, born from our own striving towards the Center of Orthodoxy, are our judgment and our shame.

The Church does not deserve her Husband, and therefore her voice finds sweet concord with that of the Publican: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”. The Church is the Church repentant, the Church is the humble child. This is the Bride of Christ, this is the heart of Orthodoxy, this is why I came here.  I fast and pray and fight, not because I am Orthodox, but because I am a Christian.  Slapping the identifying name “Orthodox” when it’s not necessary serves to convolute the divine Church with the human institutions that serves the Church’s bidding.  We are the one true apostolic Church, why suggest that we are anything else by dwelling on a label.

I know where most people are coming from when they speak of “the West” and “the East”. I appreciate books like Dr. David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West, and the specific misunderstandings of the Christian faith that are due to an unfortunate “western captivity”.  The distinction is one that is sometimes unfortunately necessary. Most of the time however it is used as a crass title for something more complex: personally it is often haughty, off-putting, unattractive, and unnecessary. Every time we use it we risk being un-Christian. How should we talk about this distinction is something to be addressed elsewhere, when we have taken care of family business.

I became Orthodox to be part of the Bride of Christ. I came here for Him. I came here as a child of the West, with my heart full of love for the West, and (this is obvious) as one living in the West. The West taught me to love Christ and to have the courage to be a Christian. So I became Orthodox. I have not fled the West; I will never flee the West. Christ has come to redeem the world, and thank God He redeems the West too, because otherwise I would still be wandering around the Slough of Despondency. When I found Orthodoxy I found myself ushered into a bridal chamber in which I did not deserve to be, and which continues to astound me. This is Home, not “The East”. This is everyone’s Home, and lo it resides even in the West.


7 thoughts on “The Eastern Captivity of the Christian Church

  1. Jesse–

    This is amazing. Thank you for a challenging call to intellectual, organizational, and spiritual humility. I have been trying to agree with the things you’ve said and act appropriately, but I need to be constantly reminded of it. We need to find a way to get around the “us vs. them” attitude that is sometimes pushed on people.

  2. I find it hard to combine the humility of self-examination with the exclusive claim of being the one true apostolic church. One must ask the question – Why? Why has “the east” slept for 1,500 years while the rest of Christendom surged forward bringing humanity along with it? Why was Russia, steeped in Orthodoxy, such easy prey for the foolish lies of Marxism/Lenninsm? Why, with such growth from this influx of western, middle-class, well-educated converts, does Orthodoxy still struggle to establish the hospitals, universities and charities that (as mentioned) Roman and protestant churches continue to build all over the globe? Is there an inward-looking tendency in Orthodoxy? Protestants have long held that the gates of hell should not prevail against his church; and they have spent 500 years battering against those gates. Some of Christ’s most successful warriors were these westerners – aggressive in their faith but humble of heart. A canvas-covered hospital in the jungle may not have much room to hang an icon and the physician may not have a prayer rope, but these works done all over the world in the name of Jesus speak more loudly of His church than any argument claiming an exclusivity as His bride.

  3. 1. Humility. The claims of Christianity are not meek; though Christians should be. Orthodox who dwell on how special they are for being Orthodox are probably acting Un-Christian. However, the claims of the Church must be examined regardless. Copping to what you believe does not make one haughty, just honest. There is nothing proud about the claims of the Orthodox, though through our sins we express them wrongly.

    2. There is nothing in Orthodoxy that makes it vulnerable to Marxism, just like it wasn’t Orthodoxy that made it susceptible to Nero or Arius. The only reason to think of the two together is if this is all that Orthodoxy and Russia mean to you. Both Russia and Orthodoxy have a longer history than that, and the Orthodox response to communism was not a favorable one. Linking communism and Orthodoxy together is frustrating the way it is frustrating when people only think of Christian history and link it to the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades. Except with the Inquisition and the Crusades the RCC had a great deal of control and influence over the situation.

    It is important to realize that the Kingdom that we belong to is not of this world. The mark of a Christian culture is not politics. The Church does what it does regardless of who is in power – just like Solzhenitsyn (who was Orthodox by the way). But he is nothing special to Christianity: St. Ignatius, and St. Justin Martyr are just a few to courageously speak out against their persecution, which eventually led to their martyrdom.

    3. The Orthodox are evangelizing and serving the poor and needy throughout the world. My own parish is culturally diverse: we’ve read the Gospels in over 20 languages, and do the liturgy in three languages (Spanish and Slavonic once a month as well as English all the time.) My bishop, a native Texan, started the parish as a Spanish speaking mission. Most Orthodox parishes I’ve been to have Christians who hail from Lebanon, Israel, Russia, etc. and as one might expect they really care about what is happening there. Trust me, Christianity’s being fought on a global level organically in Orthodox parishes around the world. The “East” hasn’t been sleeping for 1500 years, the sad truth is that Protestants tend not to know much about Church history between the book of Acts and Luther. Likewise, many Roman Catholics tend to skip from Acts to St. Augustine and then to the Middle Ages.

    4. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the Orthodox don’t have as many institutions as the RC and Protestants. Look at what Fr. Maximos is doing in Cyprus as can be seen in “The Mountain of Silence.” His work is quite effective, and it’s not “organizational”. Check out Kevin’s interview with the IOCC (one of our few organizations, but very effective).

    5. My point is to call out a problem that is current – not endemic to Orthodoxy. America is just now discovering Orthodoxy, and there’s been an unfortunate voice of some scholars that do violence to what they call “the West” (and likewise to what they call the “East” ) by trying to explain how the RCC and consequently those who define themselves by Protesting the RCC went wrong. Is this proud? No, it is just honest dialog.

  4. My point about Orthodoxy and politics is not to marry church and state, it’s to contrast the effect that the spiritual condition of a country or culture has on it’s ultimate political condition. While those cultures in the west were lurching toward “We hold these truths the be self evident, that all men are created equal . . . ” there apparently was little or nothing happening in Eastern Europe, which was stewing in serfdom. Why?

  5. Why hasn’t the “East” been more civilized and less corrupt than the “West” in the past 200 or so years? That’s a political question, I don’t see that as having much if anything to do with the Church. If your going to blame Orthodoxy for that you might as well accuse it of rolling out the carpets to the barbarians and destroying the Roman empire.

    One question is: what establishes our evaluation of the Good? Is it political, philosophical, or theological?

    I think I would be able to understand you more if you told me “lurching forward” towards what? Was the Church of Acts moving towards a political progression? Would they have fostered a Democratic Republic, IRS, Constitutional Monarchy, public education, and the modern hospital? Maybe, maybe not.

    Throughout the ages poltical thought has cycled around, often proclaiming the sacredness of individual human life, giving individuals votes, distributing power, etc. Though the Declaration is a watershed, it also has its heritage in non-Christian Hobbesian philosophy, secular enlightenment thinking, and un-Biblical Deistic theology. I love America, but we’re not all roses. Our fist battle cry was “No taxation without representation”, and that’s not really the most noble of causes.

  6. The quesstion “why” is not political, but anthropological. Cultures are made up of people (fallen folk), who are effected by many things. The prevailing religion of the culture is, of course, a very large influence; even though it may seem as a small rudder on a large, unwieldy raft, it still is a force in steering that culture toward the “next step”. So “why”?

  7. If you question is why has Eastern Europe not done what the west has? I suggest two reasons: the Enlightenment’s fixation and progress with science (which is not a Christian highlight) and the resources of a new and open continent.

    There seems to be an assumption that Orthodoxy produces something culturally destructive, and you ask why. But what if there isn’t? Then the question should be excused for another one.

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