Lord's Voice | Diakonia | Links | Baptism | Multimedia


Universal Mission and Orthodoxy

Mission, Proselytism and the Ecumenical Movement

Beyond Christian Universalism: The Church's Witness in a Multicultural Society

Reconciliation and Tolerance from an Orthodox Perspective

Eschatology and the Mission of the Church: An Homage to
Dumitru Staniloae

The Eucharistic Perspective of the Church's Mission
Today and Tomorrow

Towards a Eucharistic Understanding of Mission. Russia
Facing Evangelicals

The mission of the Church during postmodernity

BEYOND  CHRISTIAN  UNIVERSALISM: The Church's Witness in a Multicultural Society   

(Published in pp.309-320) 

People of all kinds, and especially academics, and lately even theologians, speak more and more about multiculturalism, which has become almost all over the world an every day phenomenon, which needs a proper scholarly treatment. Quite recently  (2-6 October 2000) an Orthodox academic institution, the Orthodox Theological Faculty at the University "Babes-Bolyai" in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, has celebrated the 10 years since its re-openning after the collapse of the Chausescu regime, by organizing an international symposium on the very interesting topic: "Church and Multiculturalism in Europe at the Edge of the Millenium".[1] This event clearly shows that the time has come for Orthodox theologians to enter into the debate, deal with the subject from various perspectives, and give their witness to the world gleaning from the treasures of their rich tradition.

The purpose of this contribution is to tackle the issue of the challenge of multiculturalism of our time from the perspective of the Christian Mission in relation to the people of other living faiths. Witnessing the Christian faith among people of other religions has always been a hot issue in world mission, both in its "ecumenical" stream and among the less ecumenically oriented "evangelical" missionaries.  The issue at stake has always been the concern not to relativize the uniqueness of Christ event.

I propose, therefore, to present the issue of Christian witness to the people of other faiths by challenging the conventional expansionist attitude, and moving beyond Christian universalism, religious competition, beyond even tolerance, and towards reconciliation, honest dialogue, co-existence, and authentic witness, for the welfare of the peoples, without betraying the fundamentals of the Christian faith. After all, this is the legacy of the authentic Orthodox theology.

 Having said all these, however, one has to acknowledge that any dialogue among people from different religions and cultures is both a delicate task and an extremely difficult enterprise. On the Christian side, despite isolated cases, for more than 60 years now - since the 1938 meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Tambaram, India – world Christianity has affirmed that respectful dialogue with people of other faiths is not only a necessity, but an imperative; all the more so because of religious intolerance and fanaticism in all religions. This conviction, also high in the agenda of the Roman Catholic Church, was reaffirmed in the 1989 World Mission Conference of the WCC in San Antonio, Texas, the principle reason being the humanitarian dimension."The needs of humanit", it was stated,"are not divided among religions, but human needs for life, for meaning, and for hope is surely on".[2] We still live in a period of nationalistic outburst, which inevitably causes religious fanaticism and intolerance, eventually undermining the peaceful coexistence of peoples. «We (Christians) are called to be witnesses to others not judges of them».[3] And in the last world mission conference in Salvador, Brazil (1996) it was again stated that in our mission to the world «we cannot set limits to the saving power of God».[4] When one comes to the issue of Church and  multiculturalism, closely related to tolerance and reconciliation, the tension that historically existed among different denominations unavoidably comes to one's mind. Tolerance as a burning issue occupied the agenda and the philosophical and theological reflections for the most part of modernity, since the time of the famous Letter of Toleration  of John Lock (17th century CE), especially in Europe but also elsewhere. It is, therefore, a religious rather than a social issue, although these two dimensions epistemologically are inter-related and cannot (and should not) be dissociated. It has become a real issue ever since the various world religions, and especially Christianity, have come to understand their mission in terms of universalism, and because of their legitimate conviction to remain faithful to their fundamental truths of their faith.

In my brief presentation: (a) I will  briefly review this basic problem of universalism, common more or less to all Churches and and confessional entities of Christianity. (b) I will present  with the help of cultural anthropology - and also of my (c) Orthodox tradition - the importance of ritual for overcoming a distorted notion of universalism developing new criteria for a multicultural ethos in Christianity. Finally (d) I will draw some conclusions.


In order to properly understand the importance of universalism, one needs to examine a variety of terms and notions involved in current missiological discussions, expressed by such words as mission, conversion, evangelism or evangelization, christianization, witness or martyria.[5] Following Martin Goodman's classification, I have argued elswhere,[6] that in the early Christianity mission was understood in a broad variety of ways: following the steps of Judaism, Christianity developed informative, educational, apologetic and proseltyrizing mission to propagate its faith.[7] However, this pluralistic understanding has gradually given its place more or less to a universalistic understanding, a universal proselytizing mission, which during the Constantinian period became dominant through its theological validation by the great ancient Christian historian Eusebius. However, it never became entirely dormant in the undivided Church,[8] with very few exceptions of course.

Universal proselytizing mission  had  a significant effect in the future of our western world, and to a considerable degree also determined the shaping in later times of the Christian theology of mission, Catholic and Protestant alike.[9] In fact, it was given fresh life by the discovery of the New World, and by the prospect of christianizing the entire inhabited earth. It reached its peak with the so-called African and Asian Christian missions during the last century.[10] This concept of "Christendom", however, carried  with it other non Christian elements to such an extent that eventually industrialized development in Europe and America of the bourgeois society, as well as colonialism and expansionism of any sort, walked hand by hand with Christian mission.

Konrad Raiser, the present Secretary General of WCC, in his book Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, has rightly argued that because Christians at the "old ecumenical paradigm" felt that they were called

"to convey to the rest of humanity the blessings of Western (i.e. bourgeois) Christian civilization...The slogan "the evangelization of the world in this generation" emphasizes the missionary consciousness of this early movement, in which genuine missionary and evangelistic motives were inextricably combined with cultural and social motives".[11]

As a result of a more authentic Christian theology, the world ecumenical mission suggested for the future a radical shift to a "new paradigm," away from the "christocentric universalism" and towards a "trinitarian" understanding of the divine reality and towards an "Oikoumene" as the one household of life.[12] For the understanding of mission, these mean the abandonment of any effort of proselytizing, not only among Christians of other denominations, but even among peoples of other religions. Dialogue is the new term which now runs parallel to, and in some cases in place of, the old missiological terminology.[13] Nowadays, the problem of reconciliation  and tolerance in the religious field has become not simply a social necessity, but a legitimate theological imperative. In the Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, published some 25 years ago by WCC, the people of other faiths are no longer for Christians objects of, but partners in, their mission: "no longer the objects of our discussions but partners in our conversatio".[14]

Thus, the Christian theology of  mission, through the help of the fundamental assumption of the trinitarian theology "that God in God's own self is a life of communion and that God's involvement in history aims at drawing humanity and creation in general into this communion with God's very life", no longer insists on the universal proselytizing mission, i.e. on making new converts; in other words Christianity no longer aims "at the propagation or transmission of intellectual convictions, doctrines, moral commands etc., but at the transmission of the life of communion, that exists in God".[15] If one now takes this understanding of mission a little further, one can argue that the problem of overcoming the evil in the world is not basically a moral or even a social issue. It is primarily - and even exclusively - an ecclesial one, in other words it depends on Christianity's identity. The moral and social responsibility of the faithful of this religious system is the logical consequence of their ecclesial self-consciousness.

It is exactly for this reason that so much emphasis was placed in Christianity, both in the past and in the present, on ritual and Liturgy, without of course undermining ethics. In dealing with Liturgy Christianity deals, especially in my Orthodox tradition, with the very being and the identity of the Church, which directs the community towards the vision of an ideal communal and inclusive new world, towards the coming Kingdom of God, thus avoiding individualistic stances, with hostile and intolerant behavior, but above all avoiding the negative effects of the recent phenomenon of globalization, especially in its cultural and economic form.[16] If on the contrary the emphasis is placed on doctrine, this inevitably distances the members of the community from the "other", any "other" (regardless of his/her Christian confession, or even religion, i.e. a Jew, Muslim, Buddist, even atheist), and therefore from God, the real "Other", leading them to death, to hell.

    I will, therefore, try to reassess the understanding of Christian mission with its consequence to multiculturalism, by reference to the liturgy and ritual. And I will do this by using both the insights of cultural anthropology and the results of modern Orthodox theology.

    Before doing this, however, just as an illustration, I would like to make a quick reference to the Bible, the most revered book of Christianity. In particular to the famous passage of the Gospel of Matthew concerning "The Last Judgment" (25:31-46).[17] The scene of the story is an imaginative royal court in which God will judge the world at the end of history. One can paraphrase the story by saying that human beings are judged entirely on their behavior towards their fellow human beings. What is significant here is that there is neither mention of faith as a presupposition of salvation, nor of religious duties toward God (in fact there is nothing about what we normally consider duties: we are judged on those things that we are accustomed not to consider duties, any kind of duties, religious or otherwise; not to mention of course that in this passage all religious or confessional boundaries are dramatically brought down. We come face to face with the importance of humanity in all theological considerations in that God identifies himself not with any religious establishment, but with those to whom service is given or refused:


"I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me", (vv. 25:35f. and the opposite vv. 25:42f;) and to their astonishment the reply was: "whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers and sisters of mine you did it for me" (v. 25:40, and the opposite v. 25:45).


I mentioned at the beginning the importance of liturgy and ritual for the identity of the Church. This importance was actually reinforced in recent times by the social sciences, and especially by cultural anthropology.[18]

One of the most imaginative insights of modern cultural anthropologists is their conviction that ritual, and the liturgical life in general, do not only transmit culture, but they also "create a reality which would be nothing without them. It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought. For it is very possible to know something and then find words for it. But it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts".[19]

There are two major understandings of the ritual. According to the first one, ritual can be treated as a private act, functioning as a means to meet some particular religious needs: i.e. both the need of the community to exercise its power and supervision on the members, and the need of the individual for personal "sanctification". We could label this aspect of the ritual as juridical. According to the second one, however ritual functions as a means for the upbuilding of the religious community, which is no longer viewed in institutional terms or as a cultic organization, but as a communion and as a way of living. We will call this second understanding communal.

The juridical  understanding of Liturgy encourages and in effect promotes a sharp distinction between the various segments of the religious society (clergy and laity, etc.), thus underlining the dimensions of super- and sub-ordination within the ritual, and contributing to the maintenance of the social structure not only within the religious community itself, but also by extension within the wider social life. What, however, is even more significant for our subject, is that the juridical  understanding of Liturgy develops separation and certain barriers, sometimes even hostility, between members of different religious systems, thus intensifying phenomena of intolerance and fanaticism.

 At the other end, the communal  understanding of Ritual discourages all distinctions between the various segments within the religious communities, but also by extension within the wider social life. And to come again to our subject, the communal  understanding of Ritual disolves barriers between members of different religious systems, thus promoting religious tolerance, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.


What has been so far analysed with reference to cultural anthropology, holds also true on a theological basis. It is almost an assured result of modern theological scholarship (biblical and liturgical) that the principle rite of Christianity, the Eucharist, is properly "lived" not as a mere cult, but as a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation within the tragic realities of history of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, with no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between Jews and gentiles, slaves and freemen, men and women (cf. Gal 3:28). According to some historians, the Church was able a few generations later, with the important contribution of the Greek Fathers of the golden age, to come up with the doctrine of a Triune God (and much later to further develop the important distinction between substance and energies), only because of the eschatological experience of koinonia in the Eucharist (both vertical with its head, and horizontal among the people of God, and by extension with the entire humanity) of the early Christian community, an experience which ever since continues to constitute the only expression of the Church's self-consciousness, its Mystery par excellence.  Therefore, if one wants to approach any specific issue, like "The Church's Witness in a Multicultural Society", one should start from this primary liturgical experience, the eucharistic eschatological experience, the matrix of all theology that produced all theological interpretations of this experience.

However,  since it is a common place to relate any Christian understanding, and especially that of mission, to Christ, I will also refer to His teaching, life and work.[20] His teaching, however, and especially his life and work, cannot be properly understood without reference to the eschatological expectations of the Second Temple Judaism. Without entering the complexities of Jewish eschatology, we could say very briefly that it was interwoven with the expectation of the coming of the Messiah. In the "last days" of history ("the Eschato") he would establish his kingdom by calling the dispersed and afflicted people of God into one place to become one body united around him. The statement in the Gospel of John (11:51-52) about the Messiah's role is extremely important. There the writer interprets the words of the Jewish High priest by affirming that"he prophesied that Jesus should die...not for the nation only but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."

Throughout the Gospels Christ identifies himself with this Messiah. We see this in the various Messianic titles he chose for himself, or at least as witnessed by the most primitive Christian tradition ("Son of man",  "Son of God", etc., most of which had a collective meaning, whence the christology of "corporate personality"). We see it as well in the parables of the kingdom, which summarize his teaching  proclaiming that his coming initiates the new world of the kingdom of God,  in the Lord's Prayer, but also in his conscious acts (e.g. the selection of the twelve, etc.). In short,  Christ identified himself with the Messiah of the Eschaton who would be the center of the gathering of the dispersed people of God.

It was on this radical eschatological teaching of the Historical Jesus about the Kingdom of God that the early Church has developed its ecclesiology, on which its missionary practice was based. This teaching is reflected in images of the Church as the Body of Christ, as Vine, and especially as unity. The apostle Paul in particular was absolutely convinced that all who have believed in Christ have been incorporated into His body through Baptism, completing with the Eucharist their incorporation into the one people of God. The 4th Gospel develops this radical eschatological teaching even further in regard to the unity of the people of God around Christ and their incorporation into Christ's body through the Eucharist above all.

Early Christianity believed that the Eschaton had already entered history, and that the Church as an eschatological community becomes a reality each time they  gather in one place to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. The mission of the early Church stems exactly from their awareness that they are the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:10 par).[21] The apostles were commissioned to proclaim not a set of given religious convictions, doctrines, moral commands etc., but the coming Kingdom, the new eschatological reality, which had as its center the crucified and resurrected Christ. They were called "holy";  because they belonged to that chosen race of the people of God. They were also considered a "royal priesthood"; because all of them, without exception (not just some special cast such as the priests or levites) have priestly and spiritual authority  to practice in the diaspora the work of the priestly class, reminded at the same time to be worthy of their election though their exemplary life and works[22]. And finally, they were called to walk towards unity ("so that they may become perfectly one",  John 17:23).

In sum, the Church according to the Orthodox theology is identified not by what it is given to it in the past, nor by what it is as an institutional reality in the present, but by what it is supposed to become at the end of time, at the Eschaton.  At the same time, the Church's mission is to be understood as a dynamic journey of the people of God as a whole towards the Eschaton, with their main rite, the Eucharist, being their point of departure. There were, of course, periods in which the center of gravity moved from the (eucharistic) experience  to the (Christian) message,  from eschatology  to christology  (and further and consequently to soteriology),  from the event  (the Kingdom of God), to the bearer and center of this event (Christ, and more precisely his sacrifice on the cross);[23] and all these resulted in certain aggressive, unpeaceful and intolerant situations.


If any conclusion is to be drawn from the above skechy analysis, this is an affirmation that the "old paradigm" of the religious "exclusivity" must give its place to a "new paradigm", the main focus of which will have to be the priority of "communion" with the "others". Only then, will Christianity avoid imperialistic expansionism and confessionalist attitudes. Only then, all kinds of nationalistic and phyletistic behaviour will definitely and once and for all be overcome, thus contributing to the struggle for the unity of humankind through tolerance, reconciliation and cooperation, and for the unity of all creation, through a real concern for a just and enviromentally sustainable society.

Having said all these, I do not by any means suggest that the Church should abandon her mission, even to the end of the world. After all  the mission is not an "option" but an "imperative", the sine qua non of her existence. What I suggest is to witness in a tolerant, loving and reconciling way their proleptic experience of God's rule (i.e. the Kingdom of God), gained in their liturgical communal life. After all, the task of the Church is not so much accepting, and believing in, the abundant love of God (which leads to a "confessional and religious exclusiveness"), but exemplifying it to a multicultural world through a peaceful and tolerant witness (this can be labeled "ecclesial inclusiveness"). This new understanding of mission goes beyond any caricature of proselytism; for the real aim of evangelism is not to bring the nations and the people of other faiths to our own relig"encl"; its real aim is"" the Spirit of God to use both the faithful and those to whom the faithful bear witness, to bring about God' rule. According to this understanding, everything belongs to God, and to his Kingdom; in more simple terms it belongs to the new eschatological reality. The Church in her institutional, i.e. historical, manifestation does not administer all reality, as it was believed for centuries; she only prepares the way to that reality.

Secondly, and far more importantly, this sort of Christian mission will go far beyond the religious sphere in the conventional sense. The real mission of the Church has to do with the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the restoration of the "household" of God.

Thirdly, through such an understanding of mission one can expect much easier to overcome the corrupted hierarchical order both in society and in the priestly ministries of the Church; such a  hierarchical order is a reflection  of the fallen reality and not of the kenotic divine one. This will inevitably result in the proper traditional (i.e. Orthodox) "iconic" understanding of all priestly ministries, but will also lead to a more authentic "conciliar" status in all sectors of Church life (i.e. full, unconditional, and inclusive participation of the entire Christian community to the priestly, royal and prophetic ministries), and to a genuine community of men and women.

[1] What follows was originally prepared for that event. Since, however, I have not succeeded in presenting it personally, I thought it would perfectly fit to dedicate it to my colleague Alexander Goussidis upon his retirement, a scholar who has served for years the fields of Pastoral and Social theology.

[2] F.R.Wilson (ed.), The San Antonio Report. "Your Will be Done". Mission in Christ's Way, WCC Publications, Geneva 1990, p.125.

[3] Ibid., p. 26.

[4] Chr. Duraisingh (ed.), Called to One Hope-The Gospel in Diverse Cultures, , WCC Publications, Geneva 1998, p.62, quoting The San Antonio Report, p. 32.

[5]Of these terms the last two have been widely adopted in "ecumenical" circles as the more appropriate for a genuine and authentic Christian mission (cf. the most important documents and books on the issue: e.g. Common Witness. A Joint Document of the Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, WCC Mission Series, Geneva 1982; the relevant to our subject document Common Witness and Proselytism;  also I.Bria (ed.), Martyria-Mission, WCC Publications Geneva, 1980.  Even the Mission and Evangelism-An Ecumenical Affirmation, Geneva 1982, WCC Mission Series Ç1985 , is an attempt to correctly interpret the classical missionary terminology. Cf. also the most recent agreed statement of the Dorfweil/Germany Consultation of KEK with the European Baptist Federation and the European Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (12-13 June 1995) with the title: "Aspects of Mission and Evangelization in Europe Today"), whereas the imperative validity of all the other have been retained as the sine qua non  of the Christian identity of those belonging to the "evangelical" stream of our Christian tradition (cf. the tension in the recent history of the world christian mision, which resulted in the tragic separation and the eventual formation of the Lausanne Movement for World Evangelization).

[6]"Mission and Proselytism. An Orthodox Understanding", Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspecrives on the Unitty and Mission of the Church, WCC Press-Holy Cross Press, Geneva, Boston, 1998, pp. 29ff.

[7]Martin Goodman in his book Mission and Conversion. Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire,  Clarendon Press, Oxford 1994, has discerned four different uses of the word "mission" in modern scholarship of the history of religions, and consequently four different understandings of what has come to be labeled as "Christian mission": (i) The informative mission. The missionaries of this type feel "that they had a general message which they wished to impart to others. Such disseminators of information may have had no clear idea of the reaction they desired from their auditors...(The aim of this attitude) was to tell people something, rather than to change their behavior or status." (p. 3). (ii) The educational mission. "Some missionaries did intent to change recipients of their message by making them more moral or contented...Such a mission to educate is easily distinguished from a desire to win converts." (ibid.). (iii) The apologetic mission. "Some missionaries requested recognition by others of the power of a particular divinity without expecting their audience to devote themselves to his or her worship. Such a mission was essentially apologetic. Its aim was to protect the cult and beliefs of the missionary." (p.4). Finally, (iv) The proselytizing mission. According to Goodman, "information, education, and apologetic might or might not coexist within any one religious system, but all three can individually be distinguished from what may best be described a proselytizing...(the aim of which was) to encourage outsiders not only to change their way of life but also to be incorporated within their group." (ibid.).

[8]Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion , p. 7.

[9]D.J. Bosch, Transforming Mission. Paradigm Schifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis Books New York, 1991, has discribed through the "Paradigm-Shift-theory" the development of Christian understanding of mission down to the most recent ecumenical era.

[10]It was the conviction that the "Decisive hour of Christian Mission" had come that impelled John R. Mott to call the World Mission Conference of 1910, with the primary purpose of pooling resources and developing a common strategy for the "world's conquest" for Christ. The task of "taking the Gospel to all the regions of the world" was seen to be of paramount importance. On the recent history of Christian mission see J.Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction, engl. transl. Grand Rapids Michigan 1978.

[11]K.Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Publications Geneva 1991 (translated with modifications from the Germen original Ökumene im Übergang, C.Kaiser Verlag München 1989), p.34.

[12] Ibid., pp.79ff.

[13]This development is a radical reinterpretation of Christology through Pneumatology (cf.John Zizioulas, Being as Communion, SVS Press New York 1985), through the rediscovery of the forgotten trinitarian theology of the undivided Church (cf. A.I.C.Herton  ed., The Forgotten Trinity, London, 1991).

[14]Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, WCC, Geneva, 1990 (4th printing).  Cf. Stanley J. Samartha, (ed.), Faith in the Midst of Faiths Reflections Ôn Dialogue in Community, WCC, Geneva, 1977.

[15]I.Bria (ed.), Go  Forth in Peace, WCC Press Geneva 1986, p. 3.

[16] More on this issue in the recently adopted by the WCC  Mission Statement, entitled Mission and Evangelism in Unity Today

[17]Incidentally this passage in the Orthodox liturgical tradition has been placed at the outset of the most important and holy period of the Church life, the Great Lent. (cf. A.Schmemann, Great Lent, SVS Press Crestwood 1974).

[18] What follows comes from a joint paper with Dr. D. Passakos, read at an international symposium on "Ritual and Ethics", hosted by the oldest University of Europe, the University of Bologna, under the title: "Ritual and Ethics. A Theological and Cultural--anthopological Approach to the Sacrament of Repentance". The proceedings of that symposium are expected to be published by the Scholars Press.

[19]M.Douglas, Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1966), p. 62.

[20] What follows is taken from my book Eucharist and Witness, pp.51ff.

[21]Cf. John Chrysostom's comment on the relevant petition of the Lord's Prayer: "(Christ) did not say ‘Your will be done' in me, or in us, but everywhere on earth, so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted, and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this respect be henceforth between heaven and earth".(PG  57 col. 280).

[22] J.H.Elliott, The Elect and the Holy, 1966, has redetermined on the part of the Protestant biblical theology the real meaning of the term «βασίλειον ιεράτευμα», which has so vigorously discussed since the time of Luther. Cf. R.Brown, Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections, 1971.

[23] Cf. my article "Σταυρός: Centre of the Pauline Soteriology and Apostolic Ministry", A.Vanhoye [ed.], L'Apôtre Paul. Personnalité, Style et Conception du Ministère, Leuven 1986, pp. 246-253.

For receiving news, offerings and in general any actions regarding the Organization please fill in the next fields. For protection of data see here.

{ technical support        contact