(Not all Protestant churches are bad at living out their faith. The heart of this blog is simply to emphasize a historic and holistic faith).
In the previous ecumenical dialogue, my friend Tony says, “for all of our correct theology, why are we so bad at living it out? We supposedly claim orthodoxy (right belief/ worship) but fail in our orthopraxy (right practice).” I agree because our theology informs all aspects of our being. This includes how we live individually and communally.
What does salvation actually mean? How do we embody the Christian ethic? I began examining these issues during my seminary education. My conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy also provided an invaluable opportunity for reflection.
Orthodox theology presents the trinity not just as a unit, but a union. Not just unity, but community. The Father is the ‘fountain’ begetting the Son. The Son shows us the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Spirit reveals the Son. Kallistos Ware states that “the Son and Spirit are the two hands of God.” I think most of us would agree that our being and activity must reflect God. If this is true then why aren’t our hands engaged? Instead many have embraced a privatized ‘couch-potato’ Christianity reduced to words rather than actions!
We are formed in the image and likeness of God, called into community with one another (John 17) and beckoned into union with God as participants and partakers of the divine (2 Peter 1:4). This is a call to communion and action (individual growth and communal identification).
The incarnation reveals the importance of the physical. God became man so that we might become divine. Irenaeus tells us that “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” This does not mean that we become God in his essence, rather through his energies we become participants of the divine. From a Protestant perspective one might categorize this as sanctification in which we are made holy as we embody the qualities of the Holy One. There is also a salvific element to this journey and union with God goes much deeper than focusing on ourselves. It is a journey of holiness where God invites us into an intimate relationship.
These concepts are very different from my experience as an evangelical. I grew up in a theological framework that is disembodied, disengaged, individualized, and privatized.
We focused almost exclusively on ‘getting people saved’ and ‘going to heaven.’ Salvation in this context is a single point in time. I remember fellow Christians giving me a strange look when I couldn’t name the date I ‘invited Jesus into my heart’ (parenthetically this language is not in scripture anywhere). I attended the church and prayed a prayer, but I didn’t understand the Christian life. Do we simply attend as many services as possible until we die or ascend into the clouds? How do we relate to the world around us aside from inviting people to church and offering warnings of hell-fire? The issue is a lack of rootedness in the historic faith.
Orthodox theology provides a holistic view of salvation by not pin-pointing a single prayer, but emphasizing a lifelong process. We are saved (2 Tim. 1:9), we are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18), and we will be saved (Rom. 5:9-10). This process is known as theosis. Life is a struggle, a journey of discipline, discipleship, and growth in holiness. For more info reference orthopathy-the struggle with our passions.
We don’t simply rely on a prayer we once prayed, although God does hear these prayers. We believe in the ongoing and never-ending work of God in our lives and we can participate! This work results in an outpouring of love toward God and our neighbors. There is certainly an individual element to salvation, but it involves our entire lives joined with the Christian community gathered around the sacraments.
As an evangelical, we focused on individual salvation and we were lacking direction. We didn’t emphasize discipleship, or participation in the disciplines of fasting, confession, alms-giving, or care for the needy. This is problematic considering the ubiquitous examples in scripture and among the historic Church.
The Orthodox church draws us into a communal reality where individuals are saved and yet communally united in the faith around the sacraments, most notable The Eucharist. This is a life of engagement, both in our salvation and by actively engaging others in love.
Evangelicalism can also suffer from a disembodied theology. We aren’t supposed to be like the gnostics who emphasized the primacy of the spiritual and the worthlessness of physical matter. The incarnation, God becoming fully man, proves that matter does matter! As Gregory of Nazianzus tells us, the ‘unassumed is the unhealed’. In other words, if Christ is not fully man, then we are not fully healed. But he is, we can be, and this physical life holds significance. Many churches focus so much on being ‘raptured’ that they neglect their calling in this life. Caring for the immigrant, the fatherless, and the widow has fallen by the way-side (see also, Immigration, Identity, and God’s Character). God’s plan is not to destroy, but to redeem all of creation and dwell among humankind as noted in Revelation.
As a member of the Orthodox Church, we repeat the Lord’s prayer often. These words ‘your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven’ recruits every Christian into the activity of God’s kingdom. According to Walter Rauschenbusch, this prayer leaves no room for evangelical emphasis on being saved from earthliness and going to heaven “which has been the great object of churchly religion.” Of course we look forward to heaven, but let us be engaged in Kingdom activity now.
Maximus the Confessor tells us that “theology without practice is the theology of demons.” What a profound exhortation for Christians to awake from their slumber and be active participants in word and deed! We need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
St. Augustine also challenges us. “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
Why are Christians not engaged in orthopraxy? I believe the minimalist view of salvation I once adhered to creates a privatized and individualized lifestyle. It lacked a communal identity and became about me.
In addition, the rapture theory which permeates a great deal of evangelicalism leads to a disembodied theological construct that divorces us from our responsibility to care for this world (a relatively new theory from John Darby with no historical basis). Why care about the world when it’s all going to burn? Caring for those in need and stewardship of creation are often relegated to political terms and found too “liberal”. We also need to become active participants in this life of faith through the disciplines.
The Orthodox faith calls us into a different theological framework, based on the historicity of the church that informs all areas of doctrine. Our faith becomes communal rather than individual and active rather than passive as we participate and cooperate with God’s work in our lives.
In my personal experience, many churches have fallen prey to short-sighted or unorthodox pitfalls but the historic church calls us to a firm theological foundation of faith. This life of faith is fully engaged as we embody our identity!
*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.