The recent dustup over Archbishop Elpidophoros borrowing the historic St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City for a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and then subsequently meeting with its rector, Bishop Dean Wolfe, highlights the perennial debate among Orthodox about how we ought to relate to outsiders. Throughout church history some have seen threats where others see opportunity. But opportunities can be threatening, because they imply risk and change. And for churches to make the most of opportunities requires leaps says Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian Catholic philosopher and author of the widely praised A Secular Age: “There can and must be leaps. Otherwise no significant forward steps will be made in response to God. Someone has to break altogether with some historic forms” (669).
This conflict over relating to outsiders is as old as the gospels. Jesus made a point of engaging with people “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13). While this was refreshing for some, among religious leaders and traditionalists it mostly ignited opposition. They saw Jesus and later the Apostles as threats to familiar and even God-given customs and traditions. Time and again throughout the gospels we see Jesus standing his ground in the pursuit of the mission to open new opportunities to generously advance God’s Kingdom through compassion, healing, offering a spiritual oasis, simplifying and widening access to grace. He does this often quietly and secretly, but at other times in open defiance of religious leaders and the expectations of his own family and disciples. Here are a few examples:
- Jesus sees opportunity to forgive sins and heal the paralyzed. Scribes see blasphemy (Matt 9:1-8).
- Jesus sees opportunity and goes to the home of Zacchaeus, eats with harlots, tax collectors and sinners. Others murmur. (Luke 19:1-10, Matt 9:10-13).
- Jesus allows a sinful woman to wipe his feet and anoint his head at dinner. His Pharisee host is scandalized (Luke 7:36-47).
- Jesus has an engaging conversation with a Samaritan woman who has a checkered past. Even his disciples are taken aback (John 4:1-42).
- Jesus sees crowds of people who are untaught, poor, ill, paralyzed, afflicted and says they are like sheep without a shepherd. They are an opportunity for compassion, generosity, and patience, and he refuses to pile on religious demands and “teach as doctrines the traditions of men.” Predictably, the Pharisees are offended (Matt 9:35-38, 15:1-20).
- Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion whose faith exceeds anything Jesus has seen in Israel. “Many will come from East and West and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness…” (Matt 8:11-12).
It is no wonder the Pharisees felt Jesus was a threat and watched him closely.
I invite you to read through the gospels and see for yourselves this dynamic of opportunity and threat. Yet Jesus also upholds many aspects of Jewish tradition and the authority of the priests (see for example Matt 5:17-20). And he recognized that tradition is a powerful force of familiarity, so it is uncomfortable to consider new opportunities: “No one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:38-39). Nevertheless, Jesus persistently proclaimed a message of “new wine,” and it was his refusal to be silent and adhere to customary piety, limits, order, and authority that led to his arrest and execution.
The apostolic church followed Jesus’ example and continued to open the message of Jesus and the kingdom of God to a wider and wider swath of people, radically dropping requirements of the Jewish law in order to include the Gentiles. But the apostolic preaching also met fierce resistance from religious leaders who saw these changes as dangerous threats to tradition.
Who are the modern-day Gentiles, tax-collectors and Samaritans whom the Orthodox all too often see as “outside the camp”? Are they really threats to tradition? Or should we follow Christ, engage with them, eat with them, and welcome them into our midst?
In answering this question, we could look to the 20th century saint and martyr Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). She was an unconventional Orthodox nun, poet and philosopher who had been married, divorced, had children, cared for refugees, served the poor, and at great risk protected Jews in Nazi-occupied France. She was arrested, sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and on Holy Saturday 1945 was sent to the gas chambers. Writing in 1937, she felt that the conditions of the world demand from Orthodox Christians engagement, simplification, and generosity.
We must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even piety. Ultimately Christ gave us two commandments: on love for God and love for people. There is no need to complicate them, and at times supplant them, by pedantic rules.Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great price: the Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945 (London/Crestwood: DLT/SVS, 1982), 73.
This doesn’t mean jettisoning tradition. In a 2008 interview while he was attending the Anglican Lambeth Conference, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware said Christians need to pay serious attention to tradition and theological consensus when engaging with new issues. But there also must be room for seeing new possibilities, taking risks, being willing to stand up for controversial perspectives and initiatives.
…should there not also be the possibility for a prophetic action? Will you ever have change unless some people are willing to stand up and say, this is what we ought to be doing? And even if their testimony is highly controversial, who will nonetheless stand by their position…
How can we do both these things together—preserve catholic consensus, and yet allow grace for freedom in the Holy Spirit? Christ did not tell us that nothing should ever be done for the first time. The whole witness of the early Church points in a different direction.
“Christ did not tell us that nothing should ever be done for the first time.” We have permission to explore beyond the boundaries of the comfortable religious world where we Orthodox are at home right now. That is precisely where our Lord Jesus Christ is also to be found, “outside the camp.”
So let us also go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.(Heb 13:13-14)
Very Rev. Dr. John A. Jillions is a Research Fellow and the founding Principal of the Cambridge Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, former Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, and the author of Divine Guidance: Lessons for Today from the World of Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is Vice-president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America and currently serves as pastor of Holy Ghost Church in Bridgeport, CT.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.