Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

What Protestants Can Learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church

In seeking to understand the Eastern Orthodox approach to Ecclesiology and Church Life, it is important to remember some of the undergirding presuppositions that shape the Eastern approach.  Our tendency in the West is to have a cataphatic approach to theology – stating things positively, while the Eastern approach is apophatic – stating things negatively.  The Eastern approach is more mystical, modest, prayerful and contemplative. While we like to dissect and analyze God and the church, the Eastern way is to have a vision of God.  So let me try and paint the Eastern Orthodox approach to church life.

Some of the vibrant colors that shape an Eastern Orthodox approach to church are – she is communal, trinitarian, cosmic and liturgical in nature and approach.  While the West starts with the oneness of God, Zizioulas begins with the three in one God.  Thus God in community is foundational for orthodox ecclesiology.  And since the church is the icon of the trinity, true personhood is found in community. Becoming a Christian is moving from “biological individuality, to ecclesial personhood.” While there is an emphasis on the communal nature of the church, “every form of communion which denies or suppresses the person, is unadmisable” (96).

Zizioulas states, “the mystery of the Church has its birth in the entire economy of the Trinity and in the pneumatologically constituted Christology” (99).  Grounding the church in the community of the Trinity allows for an institutional (Christology) and dynamic (Pneumatology) aspect to the church.  All members are ordained into the priesthood at baptism, so there is an equality and unity at an ontological level, though the bishop(s) serve a unique and vital function.  In fact, the central ecclesiological rule for the orthodox is: “Wherever the eucharist is, there is the church,” and the eucharist is only valid when a bishop in apostolic succession is present. The divine liturgical nature of the church is not limited to the weekly gathering and eucharist, but is also found in her approach to mission – “liturgy after liturgy” reflecting God’s ways on earth, so that people might find their way to God.  Not only is the church communal, trinitarian, and liturgical, but the church is cosmic oriented – in that all of creation is related to and in communion with the church. Thus bishops bless the flowers, lakes, and all of creation.

As Protestants we have much to learn from the Eastern Orthodox approach to theology. I would propose that we develop a cosmic, communal, trinitarian, liturgical, missional approach to church. People would become ordained in the priesthood at baptism, but, instead of the church being presided over by a single Bishop, which in practice has developed a strong hierarchy, it would be lead by a Spirit-gifted polycentric team of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers – who both model and equip their fellow priests in the communal way of life patterned after our triune God.  I propose that we would take a more mystical, prayerful and contemplative approach to theology, helping one another live liturgically in rhythms of life that reflect the relationship that we find in the Godhead, as we follow Christ into the world for the sake of the world in the power of the Spirit, where we seek to join God in the renewal of all things.

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