Sunday, January 14, 2007

Orthodox Revival: Emergence, Not Convergence

By the V. Rev. Archpriest James Rosselli

There is a stirring within Orthodoxy: a yearning for the reunion of the Churches, a longing for the centuries-old arguments that distress and discourage us to cease in a more concrete way than simply declaring they don’t exist. There is a fresh turning to God and the Power of God, to the Person of Jesus Christ, to the solid bedrock of the Bible, which God brought about to be The Canon to which His Church looks. Similarly, there is a movement within Protestantism to resolve their differences and get “back to the basics.” While both of these are without doubt the work of the Holy Spirit, the phenomenon which is occurring within Orthodoxy is different and specific.

Who is the Holy Spirit, and why is He saying these things about me?

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out My Spirit. Joel 2: 28-29

And these signs will follow those who believe: in My Name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents, and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. Mark 16: 17-18

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are diversities if ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God Who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 1 Corinthians 12: 5-12

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts 1:8

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. Matthew 28:19-20

The Church that is described here is One Body, and that body is whole and visible, filled with zeal and Divine power born of obedience.

How much does that sound like what passes for Christianity in our own day?

Over here we have “Liberals,” over there “Conservatives.” Over here Charismatics, over there Cessationists. We have Lutherans, Calvinists, Zwingliites, Cranmerians and Wesleyans. We have Apostolic churches, Holiness churches, Apostolic Holiness churches, Evangelical churches, Free churches, Evangelical Free churches, Baptists of every conceivable persuasion and a dizzying number of “non-denominational” Assemblies, Communities and Fellowships. All of them claim unwavering fidelity to the Bible that demands of them, Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul? and declares, I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say I baptized in my own name. 1 Corinthians 1:13

There is no shortage of “movements” to respond to this. We have the Church Growth Movement, which has taught us to think of God as a product; the Seeker Sensitive Movement, which has taught us that if our ideas and tastes aren’t being catered to where we are, there’s always someplace else; the Word of Faith Movement, which teaches us actual thaumaturgy; the Back to the Bible Movement, which ignores the Apostolic Tradition and therefore removes the legend from our map; the Kingdom Now movement, which teaches us that Paradise is attainable on this earth, and hundreds of others.

All of these movements arose to try to solve the problem of a divided Christendom.

Like a denomination with its own “denominational distinctive,” they hoped to unite all Christians around a single principle that would bring them together. Their promulgators imagined that these principles were so strong, so solid, so universal, that in their light the problems posed by doctrinal differences would vanish.

Instead, all that happened was that the various denominations divided once again, into those who did and those who did not support the particular movement. Then the movements themselves, being intrinsically incapable of performing the task they had set themselves, became unbalanced and finally grotesque.

Now we have the “Convergence Movement.” What are we to make of it?


Early in my career I became acquainted with and followed the fortunes of a Protestant denomination that was founded on the Convergence principle. They spoke of a “cord of three strands: Evangelical, Charismatic and Liturgical, that binds us together.”

It was a noble ideal. Sacramentalists and Evangelicals would yield to the release of the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and ministries. Evangelicals and Charismatics would be deepened through Word and Sacrament. Charismatics and Sacramentalists would operate out of an attitude of Biblical fidelity and evangelical zeal. Through prayer, fellowship and the activity of the Holy Spirit they would learn from each other and grow in each others’ strengths. Originally twelve parishes, the denomination grew explosively, to over a hundred and fifty.

This denomination gradually rejected its mission, to the point that eventually their president issued a statement condemning “the three-fold cord that’s strangling us.” They lost half of their parishes in the process.

There’s a happy ending to this particular story: the denomination gradually began to re-discover its original vision, and has begun to gradually grow, again. Unfortunately, there was the usual wreckage in the meantime: burned-out clergy, discouraged and fed-up parishioners, some of whom have never darkened a church door since—and, of course, jaded hierarchs in denial about their part in the debacle, who will have to one day give an account of it before God.

The story is not a rare one. Unfortunately, it’s not even that unusual. Reliance on a “movement” is not enough to hold a denomination, or even a parish, together. The Holy Spirit works in a certain way at a certain time to provide a specific sort of help. In the process, a system of definitions develops which can provide guidance. This, not attempts at some separate institutionalization, is the real value of a “movement.”

The principle value of the Convergence Movement is that it creates opportunities to reflect anew upon the physiognomy—or, if you will, the ecclesiognomy—of the Body of Christ: to reflect that, in her wholeness, the Church is indeed Liturgical, Charismatic and Evangelical.

Doctrine and Mindset

The Convergence movement is about three things:

a) encouraging acceptance of the release of the Holy Spirit, and the manifestation of the ministry gifts of the Spirit, in Christian individuals and ecclesiastical communions; promoting a Biblical approach to the manifestation of the ministry gifts, and avoiding identifying them with any separate “ism,” including “Pentecostalism;”

b) encouraging the order and spiritual depth that can only come from participation in Liturgy and Sacrament;

c) Using these to shape individuals and congregations into a strong force for witness.

Presumably, the hope is that our yieldedness to the Spirit will give Him greater access to us so that He can “lead us into all Truth.” (John 16:13a). However, there is a problem with this: Knowledge is acquired in context. We can be given right information, but without the proper context in which to place it, we will interpret it improperly. Most Protestants are doctrinally deprived of a sense of partnership between God and man, and they are ill-equipped to deal with this.

Take, for instance, the situation of someone who has been taught all of his life that the act he identifies as “baptism” is optional, and that the thing he calls “communion” is only a commemorative re-enactment of a past event. How will the activity of the Holy Spirit lead this person into knowledge of the Sacramental life, unless he is prepared to accept it? Chances are, the activity of the Spirit will succeed in leading him into tolerance of “people who hold the Eucharistic position,” but not into actual unity with them.

The upshot of this shift is that someone who believes with all his heart that the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist is false has been led into compromise of what he believes is true. A third factor, one that now supercedes truth and falsehood, has been introduced into his spiritual life. Call it “tolerance,” “co-operation,” “unity in diversity” or whatever, what has happened to this person is that he has been taught to think of Truth in subjective terms. He has learned to think in worldly terms of what is “true for you” and “true for me,” or has been dissuaded from thinking that we can know the One Truth at all. Wrongly-informed to begin with, this person’s ability to use what resources he has to grow in holiness has been interfered with rather than advanced. The enlightening activity of the Hoy Spirit was present, but the individual’s formation did not equip him to receive it properly.

If, on the other hand, this person accepts the encouragement of the Holy Spirit to look beyond his context, he will discover a dimension that will bring his walk to a whole new level. He will be led not to his own conclusions, but to sounder formation.

It is this element, of transformation by renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2b), which is key.

Where is this going to come from? An environment where there are thousands of variations on dozens of denominational “distinctives?” Where “Christian unity” has always meant “being nice to each other, despite…?” Or will some of what the Spirit is trying to say simply be interpreted as deception? After all, perfectly conscientious teachers, steeped in bad doctrine, can warn perfectly obedient believers not to be “deceived” by what is, in fact, the actual content of the Faith.

Take, for instance, the “Oneness Pentecostals,” who warn people against the “heresy of the Trinity,” or the Adventists, who inveigh against the dangers of believing in the immortal soul. Lesser, but still Spirit-inhibiting doctrinal positions, are advanced by every Protestant observance, and they all warn their followers against being “deceived” by what is in fact the Truth.

The phenomenon isn’t just catechetical. All denominations have their own traditions, and many have martyrs who have cruelly died in the defense of erroneous ideas. That the ideas were erroneous makes the martyrdoms no less compelling nor the traditions less absorbing. Passing along these ideas makes the teachers no less conscientious nor their students less obedient. The personal virtue may be abused, but it’s there, nonetheless, and only makes the positions more convincing.

So, the Holy Spirit may lead us into all Truth, but following Him there is a whole different matter.

The “homiletic exhortation” is no less true today than it was when it was first uttered: How then shall they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of Whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14).

Fullness of faithfulness to God requires access to the fullness of the Faith. Without that there is no true unity, only a community bound together by tolerance of each others’ misconceptions.

At root, Protestantism is non-definitive. It is constantly asking questions in search of answers, in its attempt to “re-discover the Faith.” Either that, or it is locked into “denominationally distinctive” limitations that prevent it from having access to the fullness of the Faith. The ultimate usefulness of the Convergence Movement, therefore, is to acquaint individuals and congregations with the ecclesiognomy of—and thereby to encourage them toward--the Ancient Faith.


What is happening within Orthodoxy is different, because the nature of Orthodoxy is different. Whatever is sound about the multiplicity of “distinctives” of the various Denominations is already present within Orthodoxy. What’s more, they’re placed in their proper balance, and they operate from the perspectives into which the Convergence Movement is going to have to grow if it is to accomplish the task God has set it.

Orthodoxy has always been evangelical, always been charismatic, always been Liturgical. Not because she has had to discover and define them, but because Orthodoxy is the Church, and these things are intrinsic to the nature and definition of the Church.

The coming together of these "three strains" requires no effort within Orthodoxy, because they're already here. They aren't promoted, or debated or "blended:" they're simply part of things, part of the Faith in its fullness, and there is nothing into which it is necessary to “converge.”

The problem is that, while Orthodoxy contains the fullness of the Faith, much of what we do contributes to sealing the container up, away from our daily experience. So, while “convergence” is not necessary, “emergence” most certainly is.

We are a two thousand year old family, and we are human and sinful and prone to quarrels. Many of these quarrels are hundreds of years old, carried on for no better reasons than vanity, pride and the unwillingness to forgive. This quarrelsomeness has become ingrained as a habit, a crippling disease which interferes with the work of God. Its malign fruit is that many Orthodox Churches—all of which share an identical Faith--are not in communion with each other; and that among those who are, there is constant bickering and jockeying for dominance.

As well, there is the insistent and debilitating influence the “Ecumenical Movement” has had upon the Church. So diabolically powerful is it that even many Orthodox bishops have been beguiled into hailing the most craven of apostates as “Christian brothers,” refusing to offer refuge to the unfortunate souls under their malign influence. This attitude has even begun to be extended to souls languishing without Christ in the “world religions.” Say these unfortunate bishops: “Orthodox do not proselytize,” as hell rejoices.

So, we stand at a crossroads. Our hearts cry out for the healing of a broken Christendom, and both sides of the cosmic struggle respond. We can follow the vertical bar upward, toward the solutions of Heaven, or downward, to the solutions of the world; the horizontal bar to the right, to order, or to the left, to chaos.

Hell offers us compromise: a mushy, amorphous “world religion,” wherein all religions and all activities are considered salvific, and the only sin is “intolerance.” Heaven offers us Reality, salvation and the Word of God. Heaven invites us, as always, to walk away from ourselves, our preferences and our insistences upon how we will and will not permit God to deal with us. God offers us Himself, and in our earthly life experience of and interaction with Him.

Hell’s way is attractive. It appeals to the highest standards of human reasoning, empathy and compassion. As he did with the Lord, the devil challenges us to “prove ourselves” to him. To the Lord, he said, “if you are the Son of God…”. To us he says, “If you love…”.

So has it always been, There have always been “lapses in character” on the part of the Church which have bottled her up in unhealthy ways, compromising her mission on earth. At such times God has responded, acting by the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through His Body in a way that will “uncork” the bottle, so that the part which has been bottled up will emerge.

That’s what’s going on, again, today as in ancient days: emergence.

Purpose, Context and Mission

In general terms, the Orthodox Churches need to recover the vision of the Great Commission. We need to dispose ourselves to be willing to carry out this Commission in the manifest power of the Holy Spirit. Orthodox faith and practice already dispose us to take care that we respond to the Spirit, and not try to compel Him (the mistake of many “Pentecostals”). We will receive what we need in order to see the Church renewed, if we yield ourselves to God for the task. We are beginning to see it, now.

I truly think our divisions and contentions are due in large part to having too much time on our hands. We have neglected the advancement of the interests and work of the Kingdom of God, so to fill the time we pursue the advancement of our own.,

Christ came into the world for one purpose: to save sinners.(1 Timothy 1:15). If we are not about that, what are we doing with all of our spiritual work and advancement in the knowledge of the Faith? To what end do we refine our preaching skills? In what work is the prayer of our monasteries backing us up? Are the Churches simply organizations, whose primary purpose is to exist, and to advance their interests?

Are Christians called to be outward-looking, concerned with the spiritual plight of the world and its people, or inward-looking, concerned only about ourselves and our own salvation? Are we the Church Universal, or are we a collection of insular, self-absorbed ethnic social clubs?

Where is the Church that turned the world upside down? Where is the Church that swept across the face of the earth in the power and majesty of the proclamation of the Gospel, and transformed the human experience? When did God ever tell us to stop being that Church?

The answer, of course, is that He didn’t. God is as concerned for the souls of those without Christ as ever, and is just as concerned that His Church go out and harvest fields that have never been riper.

So, what are we doing about it? Where are the newly-planted communities and monasteries? Where are the evangelists, with fire in their eyes and healing in their hands, forming home cell groups and building up the parishes? Are we too tired? too ethnic? too middle-class? Too intimidated by the whining Ottoman-era proscription against “proselytizing?”

Whatever it is, the Lord has sent the Holy Spirit to refresh us and renew us once again, as He has from ancient days when we’ve become distracted from the task of going out into the highways and byways where we belong (Matthew 22:9).

The thing about Orthodoxy is that we have the proper context within which this can all happen. All the gifts, in all their proper order, are present within Orthodoxy. The ecclesiognomy is in the proper balance. Our advantage is that, for us, the business of emergence into the ancient fullness of the Church is neither experimental nor “new.” We do not have to seek ways to “make it work,” because it is already our daily reality: good tinder, lying in neat stacks, waiting to be ignited.

The Lord is not “doing a new thing” among us. The Lord did the New Thing two thousand years ago. What the Lord does among us is old things, from ancient days. He is doing one of these things, now, in our day. All we need to do is yield to Him, and go out with the Gospel to do as He has commanded. Signs and wonders will follow.

Fr. Jim Rosselli is a priest with the Community of the Holy Spirit, a mission community of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

"I truly think our divisions and contentions are due in large part to having too much time on our hands. We have neglected the advancement of the interests and work of the Kingdom of God, so to fill the time we pursue the advancement of our own."

Wonderful. This whole article is wonderful. This is my prayer really. Thanks for posting this.