Orthodox- Protestant Relations

The other day my wife, who works at an Orthodox Classical school here in Texas, mentioned how inconsistently the other Christian traditions relate to Orthodoxy. Though her school is explicitly Orthodox, a good portion of the faculty and student body are not Protestant. One of the most active and supportive families (dad’s on the board, mom chairs the PTO) belong to the PCA, the denomination that raised us. In my wife’s current circle this isn’t unusual, and the relationship between these conservative Protestants and the Orthodox isn’t strained. In fact, quite the opposite is true: there is a sense of companionship and camaraderie. This strikes me as the sensible way for conservative Protestants and the Orthodox to relate. Sadly, however, this is often not the case.

I understand that one of the first questions every Protestant must ask when introduced to the Orthodox Church is, “Should I be offended by this?” The honest answer to this is both yes and no. Orthodoxy makes strong dogmatic claims that – precisely because these claims are about important things – hit home in more personal way that most doctrinal claims do. Part of the oddity of our relationship is due to the fact that some Protestants sees many of these claims as unnecessary and perhaps petty: the ever-virginity of Mary, divine energies, how many wills Christ had, the liturgical cycle, etc. Obviously I hold these issues to be vitally important, but I don’t see the value in beginning Orthodox- Protestant dialogs with a discussion of intercessory prayer or the hypostatic qualities of icons. There are centuries of Protestant theology where these issues have been wholly absent from their consciousness, and the Orthodoxy vocabulary is developed enough to hide the heart of Orthodoxy from a Protestant interlocutor. Discussion that begins on this level illustrates the divide between the two “camps”, but in a false and misleading way instead of a helpful and convicting one.

Orthodox Christianity is the best ally Conservative Protestantism has, and it is a senseless shame when good Protestant institutions reject Orthodox Christians from their midst in order to maintain their institutional integrity. Any Protestant institution that has by God’s grace weathered the storm of liberalism and cultural fashionability has a sure friend in the Church. Such institutions – to which I am hopelessly indebted – have survived by clinging dearly on to two main tenets: the Bible should be seriously and humbly treated as authoritative in everyone’s spiritual life, and conservative social ethics. That this is indicative of the Protestantism speaks well of their heart and the kind provision of God, even if it means that they overlook heresies like Oneness Pentecostalism and the like. Both of these central tenets is shared and defended by the Orthodox Church, and it has stolidly defended them since it was established by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Orthodoxy has always elevated and venerated Scriptures. (Dr. Bradley Nassif has been beating this drum for years.) One can see this by talking to our clergy and laity, but even more so by observing the reverence given to the reading of the Gospel in the liturgy and the way the entire cannon pervades all the services. The past couple weeks I’ve been reading the minor prophets and routinely recognize passages from different hymns and readings: this is just one of the ways I find that the Church is bringing the Scriptures into my life in a new a profound way. Moreover, I keep meeting Orthodox converts who moved out of Protestantism and into Orthodoxy precisely because of their devotion to the words of Scripture.

Orthodoxy is unfailingly anti-Abortion, has always preached against homosexuality, and has ceaselessly been emphatically pro-marriage and the traditional household. The Protestant heart that once motivated Sunday worshipers to dress their best for the House of God is shared across the world by Orthodox worshipers. While conservatives might look at eco-friendly Orthodox Christians as liberals, what motivates it is actually a deep seated traditionalism in nature and not fashionable politics.

I find it incredible that institutions like my alma mater, Biola, devote a great deal of effort in restricting the presence of Orthodoxy on its campus, but freely associate with the Episcopalian church which outrightly supports agendas antithetical to its own. Something is wrong when a Oneness Pentecostal (who’s doctrine about the Trinity is about as close to the Christian God as Mormonism) can lead worship at chapel without raising an eyebrow, but I would be disqualified from admission into their Masters program because my pastoral recommendation is from a priest. Calvinists and Armenians battle without disturbing the administration, a woman pastor preaches without causing a blip on the radar, and politically active homosexuals are gently reminded of the unity we have in Christ, but the Orthodox are viewed as strangers. Episcopalian faculty proudly declare their allegiance, and it hardly matters that their bishops are women, support gay-marriage, and defend the slaughter of innocent babies. And I am the outsider? I am the one who left the fold?

It strikes me that the unity such institutions profess to shares amongst its diverse constituents is not shared by these outlying progressive Protestant factions, but by its allies in the Orthodox Church and some conservative Roman Catholics. The true unity; the unity of heart, vision, and Christian mission is not seen because of the superficial common thread of either a Protestation of Rome or tradition of practice in the form of hymns, or contemporary worship music. Such superficial unity is little more than a club or hobby; and this kind of unity doesn’t bind together, it just trips up and entangles. I believe that these institutions exist to further the Kingdom on earth, to engage the world in battle, both personally and culturally. If this is true than the administration of such Bible believing, Christ pursuing, evangelical should know its true allies.

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6 thoughts on “Orthodox- Protestant Relations

  1. ” Though her school is explicitly Orthodox, a good portion of the faculty and student body are not Protestant.”

    ?????????

    Do you mean to say are “now Protestant”? This sentence doesn’t make much sense as written…

  2. It seems that institutions such as Biola value this perceived unity so highly because it is, to them, one of the best expressions of “the body of Christ” that seems readily and tangibly available to them.

    Diverse as the backgrounds of its students are, Biola has little choice. One cannot alienate one group without alienating all groups that see themselves in a minority, so it then chooses to alienate (if that is a fair term) those who profess an exclusive Gospel.

    I wouldn’t say that Biola is Unitarian or anything, but it has certainly backed itself into a corner by choosing to be explicit in certain instances of theological exclusion, but more silent in matters (women preaching, etc) that would only serve to divide larger groups.

    To say it another way, the unity of its campus (although we would both probably wonder how great that really is) has become its professed strength; and, in professing so, it has also become one of its more permeating weaknesses.

  3. To be clear, I intend a term like “exclusive Gospel” to mean that which excludes behavior or lifestyles that Biola or most general protestants might be hesitant to condemn. Egalitarian professors mean that having women preachers is a “great issue for debate” so long as the debate continues indefinitely; Biola has no interest (it cannot, really) in resolving that debate itself.

  4. Nyx, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it was instigated in part by seeing how some Protestants are embracing Orthodoxy as an ally in the culture war. Indeed, Orthodoxy is a closer and more trustworthy ally than the Episcopalian tradition, the Emergent churches, and other faddish denominations. It is shooting the vision of Biola in the foot, trampling on the “Fundamentals” if you will, to have some of these progressive churches in its posse… and the exclusion of the Orthodox is just plain weird then.

    It makes sense to me for an Orthodox institutions (of which there are few) to delimit itself on matters like the perpetual virginity of Mary or the filioque, because they are big deals for the Orthodox Church. It makes no sense for places like Biola to delimit themselves over such issues, because they aren’t vital at all. What is vital is Biblical reverence and cultural conservatism (I’m not talking about Dem/ Rep. here). Why doesn’t a place like Biola try to use Orthodoxy here as much as possible?

    Right now SMU is rolling out the red carpet to the Orthodox Church, offering to start an Orthodox Pastoral School as part of the Perkins School of Theology. Why? Because SMU, which is big, rich, and has sold its soul for academic chops realizes that it needs more conservatism to balance out its “liberation theology” and “feminist theology”. They realize this helps right the scales, and puts them in the “cutting edge” of universities, because Orthodox theology is becoming a presence.

    Yet conservative institutions seem unable to see Orthodox Christianity because it hasn’t been partner to its centuries of theological discourse… “a-mil”, “post-mil”, “double imputation” and “supralapsarianism” are part of a jargon jungle the Orthodox find odd and artificial. Meanwhile, Christology and Trinitarianism are often ignored as fundamental to unity. The Orthodox have never changed in their dogmas here.

    Additionally, good Protestant institutions care about bridging the gap between theology and the work of the Kingdom. Theology should be an evangelical task: and Orthodoxy is very affirmative of this. The greatest theologians, our heroes, our saints, are those who have lived the Faith once delivered.

    As for the “exclusive Gospel”, I see the point your trying to make Tiffin, and while I can accept the distinction as helpful, I find the term abhorrent. The Gospel is the Gospel, judgment comes with the territory. When Christ’s own teaching about the Eucharist was hard for people to handle and they left, He let them leave. The answer isn’t to change the Gospel, it’s to never stop preaching.

  5. Agreed. And therein lies the problem for an institution whose mission is to gather those of theological diversity and train/educate/pick a buzzword while holding to the beliefs upon which it was founded. It’s a difficult balance at best, and it’s a convoluted mess at worse.

    I imagine Biola would agree that the Gospel is what it is, and if that excludes people then so be it; however, their choice of what merits the label of “untouchable” theology has shrunk, it seems, and warped itself for strange and bad areas (oneness, etc.) and against good and helpful (in their view, at the very least pragmatically) ones (orthodoxy).

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