Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thoughts on Christian Witness

I recently came across some interesting responses given by the Most Reverend Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea, to questions posed by students at a Protestant theological school outside of Seoul. The questions largely center around Eastern Orthodox confession and worship.

Here is his response to the question "What is your understanding of missionary activities in the Orthodox Church?":

To start with, the term “mission” does not express the spirit of the Orthodox Church. We use it compromisingly because it has universal prevalence. Instead we prefer the term “witness.” The term mission, which derives from Western theology, does not exist in Holy Scripture, while the corresponding term, witness, is found many times. The teaching of the Gospel does not mean to say beautiful words about Christ but to give a daily witness of Christ with one’s words and with one’s silence, with works and by example. And if need be, if necessary, to martyr for Christ, namely, to spill one’s blood for Christ, as was done by millions of martyrs and confessors of the faith.

Read it all.

While I'm not sure about pitting terms like "witness" and "mission" against each other, I fully agree that our faith calls us beyond merely using beautiful words (which we certainly have in The Book of Common Prayer!) to our everyday speech, works, and example. That strikes me as very much in keeping with the Baptismal Covenant promise to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ." The language we use to talk about each other and the way we live our lives bear witness beyond ourselves. Do they bear witness to Christ? Do they proclaim the Good News? Or do they bear witness to someone or something else and proclaim a different "gospel"?

I was particularly struck by part of Metropolitan Ambrosios' response to the question "What process is followed in the Orthodox Church for someone to work as a missionary?":

This subject has great theological significance for the spreading of the true faith and for the unity of the Church. If everyone acts according to his opinion and desire, then the faith and unity of the Church is in danger.

At this point permit me to mention the following event: Once I flew from America to Greece with an American woman, a self-appointed missionary. When I asked her why she chose Greece for her missionary work, she told me that she admired the Greeks a lot because she knew a lot about their glorious ancient history, and that is why she had great zeal to Christianize them.

“Do you know what modern-day Greeks believe in?” I asked her.

“Of course, the twelve gods of Olympus!” she answered.

“Do you know,” I told her, “that 2000 years before you some other apostle, the Great Apostle of the Nations Paul went to Greece and preached Christianity? And that Greeks have had an uninterrupted Christian Orthodox tradition ever since?”

Such waggishness and much worse happens when behind every self-called missionary it is not the Church doing the sending.

I've heard similar stories involving Protestant missions to Russia. While no doubt well-intentioned, such efforts are a sad reminder that sometimes we Christians end up bearing witness, not so much to Christ, but to our own needs for approval, affirmation, and esteem in ways that fail to respect the dignity of every human being, including Christians who belong to traditions different from our own.


C. Wingate said...

A quick check against the Unbound Bible shows that the word "mission" is uesd at least in the NASB and NRSV in Acts 12:25, where it translates the word διακονιαν (ministerio in Latin).

Michel S. said...

Missions to the Middle East, sadly, often fall into the same category -- being done by well-intentioned people, in general, but rather ignorant of local traditions.

I'm also reminded of the evangelicals who send solar-powered audio bibles to post-earthquake Haiti... seriously.