Relations of the Orthodox Church with Other Christians and Their Communities

by Edith M. Humphrey, Very Rev. Maxym Lysack,  Bradley Nassif, Rev. Dr. Anthony Roeber, and Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos

As recognized in the Chambésy pre-conciliar document, relations between the Orthodox Church and other Christians are challenging and complex. They are challenging because of the variegated groups which we engage, and because Orthodox variously assess ecumenical endeavors, some fearing that dialogue relativizes Orthodox claims. They are complex, because they involve several actions:  witness to the historic Church, bilateral discussion for mutual understanding, and involvement in common causes.

The Orthodox Church’s ecumenical mission flows from her responsibility to preserve unity (as expressed in the Scriptures, Ecumenical Councils, Liturgy and Fathers), and is based on the apostolic faith and the Church’s sacramental communion. While it is important to invite non-Christians to embrace the truth, there are also patterns for approaching those who already know something of God’s work. 

Because of the Church’s self-awareness as the body of Christ growing mysteriously in the world, we are concerned not only with atheists and those of non-Christian faiths, but seek to reconcile to communion Christians beyond the canonical boundaries of the Church.  Orthodox ecumenical witness is thus an invitation to apostolic evangelical life in Christ and the Spirit. Some ecumenicists from other traditions may view this motive with a jaundiced eye, saying that we are using the pretext of ecumenical relations for “proselytism.” Instead, we honor our Christian conversation partners by frankly presenting our ecclesial understanding, and praying that they join God’s historic, holy and transformed people. We also must also be alert to challenges of self-criticism, and repent for any Orthodox failure to strive for reconciliation. We reaffirm the Nicene Creed as a song of faith, as well as an abiding interpretation of the biblical witness—one that expresses the core truth of the universal Christian faith and is indispensable in our conversations with other Christians. In this sense, ecumenical relations are a sub-branch of mission, both in formal dialogue, and as we meet other Christians in various circumstances.

Those who respond may enter the Church on the basis of the apostolic tradition and canonical criteria informed, where applicable, by such decisions as Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council, Canon 95 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, and other relevant sources of the Church. (These sources, of course, did not anticipate Roman Catholic or Protestant realities.) In receiving converts, the Orthodox Church has practiced oikonomia in a variety of ways, depending on historical context and theological perspectives of Christians outside its canonical boundaries. We understand oikonomia to be the exercise of discretion by bishops motivated in their governing actions by philanthropia for the salvation of others. Such discretion involves a thorough awareness of each catechumen, especially in light of the differences between various Christian bodies, the mode of that person’s baptism, and their prior commitment to non-Orthodox views.

We turn from concern for the individual to relations with Christian communities. Although, with regard to ecclesiology greater unity exists between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox, and with regard to the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils between Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, the theological and ecclesiological complexities of the Protestant Reformation and their modern descendants present graver challenges. We must discern the difference between Protestants who have been deeply affected by contemporary thinking that dismisses the historic Christian faith, and those who struggle to remain faithful, according to their capacity, to teaching embodied in the Holy Scriptures. Following the canonical example of the Ecumenical Councils, it is the Church’s duty to exercise pastoral discernment in identifying which Protestant communities and movements offer the greatest hope for full reconciliation with the Church, recognizing that some groups are closer, while others may still exhibit piety and fidelity to the Scriptures in word and in deed.

To these ends, we urge the Holy and Great Council to place the highest priority on the following ecumenical dialogues.   Very high priority ought to be given to the conversations between the Orthodox and Oriental Churches.  In this matter, we support all efforts to interpret the Christological definitions of Chalcedon through the lens of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils. Similarly, high priority should also be given to the bilateral dialogues between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics. We acknowledge the presence of Eastern Catholics in lands that are historically Orthodox, as well as in other places such as North America, and pray for healing of our relationship, either through the return of Eastern Catholics to their Mother Church or, where this is not possible, through mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Next, we urge that continuing efforts be made towards the Anglican Churches, especially in those communities where the creeds and traditional ethics are upheld (evangelical Anglicans), and where ecclesial and sacramental mysteries are honored (Anglo-Catholics). We acknowledge that the Anglican dialogue will not easily result in union; it is, however, important for Orthodox to continue their decades of dialogue as an act of love witnessing to the truth of the Gospel, especially considering those who are resistant to or suffering under a revisionist hierarchy.  Finally, given their vast global influence and theological commitment to Holy Scripture, especially where their adherence to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy is clear, conversation should be deepened or opened with evangelical theologians and church leaders both in North America (where evangelicals are showing a renewed interest in tradition) and among those already active in traditional Orthodox lands.

Even in situations where reconciliation of such communities with the Church seems unlikely for the present, there are instances where we may cooperate for the common good. Indeed it behooves the Orthodox Church to lead in such matters, rather than reacting to endeavors that have been catalyzed by Roman Catholic or evangelical voices.  This is particularly important in milieus where Orthodox are a minority, but holds true every place the pressures of contemporary society are muting or repressing Christian witness.  Together with others who name Him, we can proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, God and Savior; uphold the sanctity of life from conception to natural death; honor marriage between one man and one woman as the will of the creating God and affirmed by the incarnate Lord; act as good stewards of creation in promoting strategies and habits that are not destructive; and advocate for religious freedom, since God does not compel belief.

Edith M. Humphrey is William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Very Rev. Maxym Lysack is priest of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, a parish of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ottawa, Ontario.

Bradley Nassif is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University in Chicago.

Rev. Dr. Anthony Roeber is is attached clergy at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Johnstown, PA and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos is Professor of New Testament Emeritus at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

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