I admit it. I was totally fangirling the whole time Pope Francis was in the United States. I wanted to see what he would say, how he would challenge both government and Roman Catholic leaders. It’s exciting to see such an important Christian figure welcomed into the American public sphere. Plus, I actually like the man; he’s a likeable guy!
But once I got past the curiosity of what Pope Francis would say next, and how the media would fail to adequately report on religion, I was reminded of the pain that comes from a divided Christian community. The Pope of Rome just represents one fraction of the Christian world. For a non-Christian looking in from the outside, there’s a smorgasbord of Christian groups – people can choose whatever flavor they’d like. But is this “choose your own adventure” approach to American religion really the paradigm that Christ set for us when He established His Church?
Jesus desires that all who follow Him be one, just as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). But today, Christians are divided into Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Non-Denominations, etc. So where does that leave us as Christians? We could despair over living in a broken world, or we can consider ways we can do our part to heal the brokenness in our neck of the woods.
An important point of clarity before we proceed, though. The Orthodox Church – a community of believers, the Body of Christ knit together through our common baptism – is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I say this, not to be triumphalist (as we discussed last week), but because this is our identity.
As much as we long for unity with other Christians, the Church is not divided in itself. I do not receive only partial sacraments, nor is the Church substantially lacking. The Orthodox Church does not need the Roman Church to be whole, nor would it be more Orthodox if everyone converted. Instead, our divisions are sad simply because we hope for all people to share in the unity that is in Christ.
And, on a more practical level, Christians today cannot offer a unified witness to Jesus Christ when we are so deeply divided. That’s tragic, because the world so deeply yearns for Him.
With that said, here are some things each of us can begin to do today to bring healing to our divisions.
1. Know your own tradition
Before you can talk to someone about who they are, you need to know who you are. So before you can talk with someone about their faith, you have to learn about your own. This is particularly true for us Orthodox in America since we are such a small percentage of the population. You may be the only Orthodox Christian your neighbor ever meets. That means we all have a responsibility to accurately represent our faith in Christ to those around us.
That can feel overwhelming, so where can you start?
First, participate in the Liturgy regularly and attend a new service you haven’t yet (matins, vespers, paraklesis, etc.) Ask your priest questions. Check out a Bible study at a local Orthodox parish. Pick up a book on Orthodox Christianity and read it. (I recommend “The Orthodox Church," which deals with history and teachings, and “The Way of the Pilgrim,” which is a sort of spiritual fiction on prayer.) Get a prayer book and use it. Open up your Bible and get to know it. Catch up on episodes of “Be the Bee,” “The Trench,” and “Coffee With Sister Vassa,” as well as the great podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.
If you don’t know your own faith, it’s easy to paint broad strokes and assume that all churches are essentially the same. What we may dismiss as mere details actually matter. Allowing our ignorance to lead us into assuming that we know better disrespects the deeply held beliefs of all churches, not just our own.
Bottom line: when we are engaged and knowledgeable of our own tradition, we will be prepared to encounter others.
2. Make friends with people in other churches
I cannot have a relationship with an idea; I can only know and love another person.
If I am to see Christ in my neighbors, and share Christ with my neighbors, I must get to know them as persons. Trust and friendship will pave the way for honest dialogue and protect against unfruitful argument, judgment, and stereotypes.
Too often, people talk about other Christian churches without having actually made friends with people of that tradition. This leads to the creation of caricatures that exist only in our minds and uncharitable arguments that do not come from the love of Christ. So make friends with faithful Roman Catholics, faithful Evangelicals, faithful Protestants of any tradition. Share meals together, get to know one another’s families. Once you are invested in who they are, then you are on an appropriate footing to talk about Orthodoxy – naturally and in its proper context: a relationship. We’ve got to love one another to properly share the Lord’s love.
3. Be obedient and trust in the Holy Spirit
Our society distrusts rules and regulations. We hear a rule and want to challenge it. We are given a boundary and want to cross it. When it comes to faith, the temptation to question authority is just as common. Questioning can be good and healthy, but it must be accompanied by trust that the Holy Spirit is also at work. If the Holy Spirit is working in the Church, then the guidelines that we are given might actually be inspired by God and not simply created by men. These boundaries may prove to be the evidence and consequences of real division rather than the causes of it.
In particular, I have in mind the issue of Holy Communion. The Orthodox Church teaches that only baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians can receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion) in the Orthodox Church. That means that Roman Catholics and other Christians cannot receive unless they become Orthodox. Many people could see this as uninviting or inhospitable if we forget the first point: know your own faith first.
In the Orthodox Church, the Eucharist is the climax of a relationship that we have not only with Jesus Christ but with one another in the Church. We receive the Body of Christ because we already are His Body, the Church. Yet we also receive to better become His Body through living out our life in Christ as a community. We partake of the Eucharist after a common work of prayer and fasting, and also after something else we do together during the Liturgy: a confession of Faith when we recite the Creed. We cannot partake of the same meal if we are not sitting at the same table.
We cannot receive communion together, an expression of unity, if we are not actually and substantively united. There can be no communion without community. Receiving the Eucharist in a church to which we do not belong takes Holy Communion from being a life-giving demonstration of community and turns it into a public act of self-will and disobedience, no matter how good the intention may be.
It’s natural for Christians to mourn the divisions that exist between the churches, but we must not mourn as those who have no hope. As individuals we cannot force union between the churches, but we can build relationships with people in other faith communities. We can root ourselves more strongly in our own faith while not being afraid to make friendships with members of other churches. And finally, we can practice obedience to God and reliance on His will, instead of insisting upon our own.
Each of us can follow this model of mutual respect and friendship, because ultimately we all yearn for relationship instead of division. And in these small ways we can make great strides at healing our divided Christian witness as we follow Jesus’ commandment: “love one another: just as I have loved you…all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).