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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


 (Published in I.V.Leb [ed.], Tolerentia si Convietuire in Transilvania Secolelor XVII-XIX, Cluj 2001, pp. 207-218, and in Roumanian under the title " Reconciliere si Tolerantia dintr-o Perspectiva Ortodoxa",  pp.15-26)

Any dialogue among people from different religions is both a delicate task and an extremely difficult enterprise. On the Christian side, despite isolated cases, for more than 50 years now - since the 1938 meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Tambaram, India -  all Christians have 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 is also high in the theological agenda of the Roman Catholic Church, and was reaffirmed in the 1989 World Mission Conference of the WCC in San Antonio, Texas, the principle reason being the humanitarian dimension, or to put it in more theological terms the issue of Christian anthropology. "The needs of humanity", it was stated, "are not divided among religions, but human needs for life, for meaning, and for hope is surely one".[1] We live in a period of nationalistic outburst, which inevitably causes religious fanaticism and intolerance, eventually undermining the peaceful coexistence of, and the imperative of reconciliation among, peoples.

When one comes to deal with the issue of reconciliation and tolerance, the tension that historically existed among different religions, but also among segments of the same religion, unavoidably comes to one’s mind. Reconciliation and tolerance as a burning issue occupied the agenda and the philosophical and theological reflections for the most part of modernity, especially in Europe with the rise of Reformation (16th century CE). 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 have come to understand their mission in terms of universalism, and because of their legitimate conviction to remain faithful to their fundamental truths, one of which certainly is their view of salvation,  i.e. soteriology.

In my presentation: (a) I will  briefly review this basic problem of universalism, common more or less to all world religions, from the point of view of the Orthodox understanding of mission; (b) I will present  with the help of cultural anthropology - and also of (c) Orthodox theology - the importance of ritual for developing new criteria for reconciliation and tolerance among world religions; and finally (d) I will draw some conclusions.


In order to properly understand the importance of universalism in dealing with "reconciliation and tolerance", one needs to examine a variety of terms and notions involved in current discussions, expressed by such words as mission, conversion, evangelism or evangelization, Christianization, witness  or martyria.[2]

Following Martin Goodman’s classification, I argued elswhere,[3] that in the early Church the Christian 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.[4] However, this pluralistic understanding has gradually given its place more or less to auniversalistic  understanding, a universal proselytizing mission, which during the Constantinian period became dominant through its theological validation by the great Church historian Eusebius. However, it never became entirely dormant in the undivided Church,[5] 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 western theology of mission, Catholic and Protestant alike.[6] 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 African and Asian missions during the last century.[7] 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, walked hand by hand with Christian mission.

Konrad Raiser 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".[8]

In ecumenical and missionary circles it is a common view that with the contribution of the Orthodox theology modern ecumenism has taken radical steps towards a fresh understanding of mission. It was this development that made K. Raiser suggest for the future of ecumenism and of Christian mission a radical shift to a "new paradigm," away from the "christocentric universalism" and towards a "trinitarian" understanding of the divine reality, and also towards an "Oikoumene" as the one household of life.[9] For the understanding of mission, this important development means a total 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.[10] Nowadays, the problem of reconciliation and tolerance in the religious field, has become not simply a social necessity but a legitimate theological imperative. The peoples of other faiths are "no longer the objects of our discussions but partners in our conversation".[11]

The Orthodox theology of mission, starting from the fundamental assumption "that God is in God’s own self 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 making primarily new converts, but on witnessing to their faith in an authentic way; in other words Orthodoxy no longer insists—or rather to be honest should no longer insist—on a universal proselytizing mission that aims "at the propagation or transmission of intellectual convictions, doctrines, moral commands, etc.", but on a witness that in fact aims "at the transmission of the life of communion, that exists in God".[12]

If one now takes this understanding of mission a litle further, one can argue that the problem of overcoming the evil in the world is not basically a moral or even a social issue. Strictly speaking, it cannot be measured in conventional missiological terms. It is rather, and for some primarily and even exclusively, an ecclesial  issue. To put in simple terms, it depends on our Orthodox Church’s identity. This of course by no means excludes the moral and social responsibility of the Church (both as an institution and also of its individual members), but this comes as the logical consequence of their ecclesial self-consciousness.

It is exactly for this reason that so much emphasis was placed in the Orthodox Church, both in the past and in the present, on ritual and Liturgy. In dealing with Liturgy Orthodox Christianity deals with the very being and the identity of the Church. Of course, having said that I cannot deny the real fact, that throughout the history there have been numerous cases, where the liturgy,  the primary expression of the Church, and the Eucharist as its center and climax, became in some cases a useless typolatry, and in other worse cases a sacramentalistic (for some even demonic) ritual, which instead of directing the community towards the vision of the coming Kingdom, it lead it to individualistic paths, with hostile and intolerant behaviour, with no sense of the moral imperative of reconciliation. All these eventually distanced the members of the community from the "other", any "other" (Jew, Muslim, Buddist, or believer of any other religion, even atheist), and therefore from God, the real "Other", leading them to death, to hell.

    In the remaining time I will try to reassess the understanding of mission with its consequence to reconciliation and tolerance by reference to the liturgy and ritual. And I will do this by using both the insights of cultural anthropology and the results of theology.

    Before doing this, however, just as an illustration, allow me 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).[13] 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).

In Christianity, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition which I represent, it is believed that the revelation of God took place in a certain time in the person of Christ. This once-and-for-all revelation, nevertheless was not a finished process but continues to the end of time through the presence of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. This continuous revelation, however,  takes place neither in a vacuum nor in an abstract ideological level, but in the liturgical life of the community. The importance of liturgy and ritual for the identity of the religious systems was actually reinforced by the social sciences, and especially by cultural anthropology.

One of the most imaginative insights of modern cultural anthropologists is their conviction that ritual, and the liturgical life in general, is a form of communication, a "performative" kind of speech, instrumental in creating the essential categories of human thought.[14] They communicate the fundamental beliefs and values of a community, outlining in this way its "world view" and its "ethos".[15] The rituals 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".[16] Even the texts, as A. Destro and M. Pesce have pointed out, "are not just writing, literature, or communication, but above and beyond all this, especially in the religious field, part and instrument of a performance". [17]

This conclusion is in fact in accord with the affirmation of modern Orthodox theologians, like George Florovsky, who rightly declare that "Christianity is a liturgical tradition. The Church is first of all a worshipping community.  Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second. The lex orandi  has a  privileged priority in the life of the Christian Church. The lex credendi  depends on the devotional experience and vision of the Church, more precisely on the authentic (i.e. liturgical) identity of the Church."[18]

There are two major understandings of the Liturgy. According to the first one, Liturgy 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 liturgical act as juridical. According to the second one, the Liturgy 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 Liturgy 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 Liturgy disolves barriers between members of different religious systems, thus promoting religious tolerance and reconciliation.


 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, was "lived" in the early Christian community 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.  In brief, if one wants to approach any specific issue, like "Reconciliation and Tolerance",  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. 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 Eschaton") 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).[19] 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[20]. 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);[21] and all these resulted in certain aggressive, unpeaceful and intolerant situations. Nevertheless, the Eucharist always remained the sole expression of the Church’s identity and mission. 


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

 In this way the mission of the Orthodox Church will have to take the form first and foremost of a common Christian witness. After all, the real issue in  Orthodox Christian behavor is not so much the act of accepting, and believing in, the abundant love of God (which leads to a "confessional and religious exclusiveness"), but the concious act of exemplifying it to the world through a peaceful, conciliatory and tolerant witness (this can be labeled "ecclesial inclusiveness"). The new understanding of mission is beyond any caricature of proselytism; the real aim of evangelism is not to bring the nations and the people of other faiths to our own religious "enclosure"; its real aim is to "let" the Spirit of God to use both the faithful and those to whom the faithful bear witness, to bring about the Kingdom of God. According to this understanding, everything belongs to that Kingdom, that new world and new reality. The Church in the conventional sense does not administer all reality, as it was believed for centuries; she only prepares the way to that reality.

Secondly, and far more importantly, the real mission of the Church will go far beyond denominational boundaries, beyond Christian limitations, even beyond the religious sphere in the conventional sense.  The real mission of the Christianity 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 ecclesiastical order; 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 "iconic" understanding of all priestly ministries, but will also lead to a more authentic "conciliar" status in all sectors of religious life (i.e. full, unconditional, and inclusive participation of the entire religious community to the priestly, royal and prophetic ministries), and to a genuine community of men and women.

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

[2]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).

[3]"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.

[4]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.).

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

[6]Orthodox mission, perhaps wih the exception of the Russian mission, has been till very recently latent ......Cf. also D.J.Bosch, Transforming Mission. Paradigm Schifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis Books New York, 1991, who discribed through the "Paradigm-Shift-theory" the development of Christian understanding of mission down to the most recent ecumenical era.

[7]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.

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

[9]Ibid., pp.79ff.

[10]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).

[11]Guidelines Ôn 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.

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

[13]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).

[14]E.Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (transl. by J.W.Swain, New York: Free Press, 1965, reprint), p. 22.  

[15]P.L.Berger and Th.Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1966). C.Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 126-141.

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

[17]A.Destro - M.Pesce, "Anthropological Reading of Early Christian Texts". According to them "a text is the product of a human activity which is at the same level of all other cultural manifestations" (from the Engl. transl. of the enlarged edition of their book Antropologia delle origini cristiane, Editori Laterza, Bari-Roma, pp.1ff).

[18]G.Florovsky, "The Elements of Liturgy: An Orthodox View," Ecumenism 1, A Doctrinal Approach, vol. XIII in the Collected Works, p. 86; also in C.Patelos (ed.), The Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva WCC Press 1978, 172-182, p.172.

[19]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).

[20]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.

[21]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.

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