Religion, Rules and Reality

The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
One of the unfortunate aspects of Internet converse that I’ve noticed during my nearly twenty years online is that often interlocutors write as though they assume that what they see in front of them is in fact the only thing that a poster has ever written on a subject. I think this comes of living in a sound-byte world, in which it is proposed to us that one’s entire message must now be encapsulated into a single datum that is the only chance a writer will have to reach his audience. Such a proposition is of course a marketing proposition, and it relies on and indeed perpetuates the formation of an entirely ahistorical and limited attention.

The evidence for this phenomenon is plentiful and pluriform online, so I will not bore you with examples. But perhaps you will remember this problem the next time someone posts something along these lines: “But you NEVER SAID ______ !” Yes, it is possible you never did say ______, but it is also just as likely that ______ was the subject of your doctoral dissertation, best-selling book, appearance on the evening news, official testimony before Congress, etc. But of course that wasn’t checked. ______ was not mentioned in this specific publication and therefore represents an egregious oversight on your part and is evidence that you in fact believe the opposite of ______.

Everything must now be a Summa, but it also must be a Summa of Sensitivity and Spectacle (not to mention, Speed), lest you lose your audience through soporific specificity. As someone with a daily experience of being steeped in iconography, I can of course appreciate the inner human longing at play here, but of course the true icon is not one that presents the viewer with the sum total of its subject, but rather with an introduction to it and an encounter with it.

I wrote those three paragraphs to give you those that follow.

In my oddly controversial post from last Thursday, I was excoriated by a number of commenters—both those whose comments were published and those whose moderation did not permit to see the light of day—who asserted to me again and again (and again, really, ad nauseam) that the Christian is saved by Jesus, not by rules and religion, that Jesus came to save us from rules and religion. And every time anyone countered that assertion, it was simply made again, as though it were some sort of battle cry that is self-evidently true and doctrinally menacing to all who hear it.

Yet, somehow, the vast swathe of Christian history and even the great sweep of currently living Christians manage along with spiritual lives that would suspiciously appear to be about “rules” and “religion.” Apparently, only the very small minority of Christians who hold to pop-Evangelicalism actually have a “personal relationship with Christ,” and even if some of them will allow that there are “personal relationship” Christians within all those rule-ridden religions, it is in spite of (not because of) all that pomp and circumstantial stuff.

But to those of us who live somewhere within or even near what history shows us is traditional Christianity (with all those bishops, sacraments, incense, and so on) hear such claims as utter nonsense. I have never yet met anyone who believes and practices such things who actually believes that he really has no access to God, that he must go “through” some clergyman, that his faith isn’t at all personal, that merely following rules and going through magical ritual motions will guarantee that heaven everlasting is his eternal reward.

Yes, they may say, perhaps rule-ridden religion is not the official teaching of such churches, perhaps they may teach that it is grace that saves the believer, but we know better. We know that they really just skip over certain obviously damning Bible verses that instantly refute their whole way of life. We know that they’re not really serious when they say they believe in grace, salvation through faith, and so on.

And to that, I say: Well, so long as you’re going to tell me what I believe, you may as well come up with something rather more colorful and interesting. (After all, my objections won’t count.) We’re probably also sacrificing chickens late on Wednesday nights and bow down before fish-headed gods and make dark deals with the Illuminati. It’s all quite obvious, you know.

But, if perhaps, you may be willing to listen for a moment, rather than instantly assume that every refutation of pop-Evangelicalism necessarily constitutes an endorsement of Pharisaism, then perhaps you will find something other than what you assumed and expected. You may well be confused, I grant you, because us “religious” types turn out not actually to be what your lot has been railing against for some centuries.

That said, at least as far as Orthodox Christians are concerned (I cannot speak for “religion”), we are saved by grace through faith. There is no act, not even the act of faith, not even praying the “Sinner’s Prayer” with utmost sincerity, that can save us. Only God saves. Only God transforms. Only God heals. And He also does not owe us that healing, no matter what we do. We cannot obligate Him in any way nor do anything that will compel Him to grant salvation. Salvation is indeed a free gift. It cannot be earned or bought, not even by saying the right words in a formulaic prayer or having a conversion experience.

That said, why is it that we Orthodox seem to have so many “rules,” so much “religion”? Well, here’s the thing: For us, salvation is not merely about getting to go to the Good Place rather than the Bad Place when we die, preceded by trying to be moral and making sure to recruit more people for the Moral Recruiters Going to Heaven Club.

And let’s be honest here: That’s what pop-Evangelicalism boils down to—going to heaven and getting more people on board. You of course ought to be moral along the way, and if you are obviously and constantly immoral, perhaps you never really were on board, but since even morality is a “good work,” we know it doesn’t actually have anything to do with getting that free ticket to the Good Place.

So, why do the Orthodox have so much stuff to do? Why are we surrounded by structure, customs, complex worship, strange vestments, otherworldly music, and even crazy people who dress all in black and go off in the forests and deserts and seem to just pray and work all the time? What’s with all the stuff?

At its heart is this basic affirmation: God became man. That means that God became matter, that He became part of His creation. In becoming part of His creation, He made it possible for us to touch the previously untouchable, to see the previously invisible, to access the previously inaccessible. God became matter, and boy-howdy, does that matter. But how does that add up to so much physicality (and that’s what all the “stuff” really is and why it bothers you) in Christian life?

You may never really have noticed this, but there is a lot of stuff-related stuff going on in the Bible: A dead man comes back to life when he falls on the bones of the Prophet Elisha. The people of Israel are healed of snake-bite when they look to a bronze image of a serpent. God directly commands an incredibly complex, expensive and image-filled context for worship. Jesus uses mud to heal a blind man’s eyes. And why is it that pretty much every time the Bible gives us a peek into heaven, we keep seeing an altar, incense, and all that “religious” stuff? We could go on. But of course the biggest piece of matter of all is the matter that was (and is!) Jesus.

But Jesus came to save us from all that, you might say. All of that “stuff” was not His original plan, you might say—and someone did actually say that to me, as though God was somehow taken by surprise when mankind fell and needed to come up with an improvised Plan B. Or, in the word of Jefferson Bethke the New Theologian, Jesus came to “abolish religion.” Yet, what Jesus actually said was that He came to fulfill what had come before, not to destroy it. Yet somehow you want me to believe that fulfill actually means destroy.

What if instead of dealing with mankind in one way for thousands of years and then abruptly changing His mind and doing something entirely different, God was actually gradually opening up His revelation like a flower until it came to full blossom in Christ? What if the Law, the prophets, and even all of the “stuff” were not just a temporary band-aid to be ripped off when the real deal came along, but actually constitute hints and foreshadowings that are fully revealed in Christ? What if a grossly bifurcated history of God’s dealing with mankind actually makes no sense in the light of Christian history?

What if God is actually totally consistent through the whole Bible and even in the nineteen centuries after it?

No, you don’t see it that way, you say. And why can’t you see it that way? It’s probably because you have latched onto the obsessions of an ex-Augustinian monk with the abuses of late-medieval Roman Catholicism and given them legs and turned them into a whole theology that is anti-stuff and therefore horrified at “rules” and “religion.” It is probably also due to your ignorance (and here, I really do not blame you, but now that you’ve been informed, you really should look it up) of Christian history, that details a faith community that lived the Christian life in intense fulness, including an exceptionally detailed interaction with physical matter and all that that entails, with all the bishops and sacraments and incense and so on.

For you, all of that material “stuff” gets between me and God, but that makes no sense to me, because God chose to use matter—He became matter!—in order to connect to man! These things aren’t gateways that shut the door to God. This materiality is actually the very pathway to experience of the divine.

But what if the Apostles actually did succeed in their mission? What if they really formed communities that really worshiped Christ the right way? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that believers getting together for worship in a decent, orderly fashion will look an awful lot like they have “rules” and “religion”? And isn’t it reasonable to expect that people who take Jesus seriously when He said that we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life in us will behave in an exceptionally reverent manner when they do so? Don’t you think a few “rules” might be in order when approaching the King of Kings in such a way that we don’t get sick or die by doing so unworthily?

The reality is that when people live in communities together, they develop rituals and customs that connect them together and define their identities, even in things as simple as a handshake (which accomplishes nothing yet somehow says quite a lot). And the Church is not just any human community. It is the very Body of Christ, constituted and blessed by Christ Himself to be the very pillar and ground of the truth, which is why not just any self-chosen group of believers can lay claim to that identity. There can be only one Church, because there is only one Christ, Who has only one Bride. The Lord is not a polygamist, and He is not betrothed to a woman with multiple personality disorder, either.

Why is it so bizarre to think that the basic elements of culture could actually be Christianized? Why is it that you want so much of life to remain secular, with all of the “stuff” in my life utterly untouched by holiness, by the actual presence of God within physical matter?

You see, that’s what the problem is here. Human life is very much shaped by materiality, by ritual, by custom, by traditional wisdom and ways of doing things. When you say that Jesus wants us not to have “rules” and “religion,” what I hear you saying is that you want most of my life to remain outside of my spiritual life. But I want it to be inside, not outside. And all of this “stuff” is how we do that.

I don’t harbor the delusion that those things save me. They don’t. But they are part of my cooperation with Christ to “press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me,” to “work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling.”

Salvation is not something that God does to me. It is something that He offers me, but that I must receive truly willingly. And the last time I checked, because I am still a sinner, my will was not yet fully aligned with His. That’s why we have received the tradition of the Apostles. And I will continue to obey the words of the Apostle, when he says that we are to hold fast to the traditions that he and the other Apostles taught, whether it was by word of mouth or by written letters.

Does this mean that we Orthodox are enslaved somehow, that we are weighted down with rules? That is no more the case than that an athlete is restrained by the training and diet and exercise he must undertake in order to run his race. We are of course free not to run the race, and we are free not to train. But if we are going to train, it’s going to take some doing.

Does that mean we live in terror from day to day, without an absolute epistemological certainty that we will be going to the Good Place after death? Not at all. You see (and note well here the irony), faith in Christ is a relationship, not an absolute, immovable status. As with any relationship of love, either lover can walk out and end it. Christ won’t, of course, but we humans can and do. But the more we are faithful, when we endure to the end, then we are healed (which is also the literal meaning of the Greek sozo usually translated as “save”).

God calls us to become partakers of the divine nature, to become perfect people, to the fulness of the stature of Christ, not to “get saved” and then just try to be moral and be sure to recruit more people for the Moral Recruiters Going to Heaven Club while we wait to die.

The Orthodox Christian faith offers the possibility for the healing of the human soul, the transfiguration of the human person, mystical communion with the divine right now, and it’s all accomplished by actual, physical contact with the awesome God of the universe, Who is alone worthy of worship. We just won’t settle for less. What Christ offers is far too magnificent.


  1. Remarkable follow-up, thank you for taking the time to do this, I’ll share it around.

    Last week was stunningly disturbing. I think many of us who have migrated to traditions older than a few weeks were taken back by how “alive and well” pop-protestantism seems to be. I confess it shook me to core.

    Watching family and friends cheering anti-religion-boy on was so discouraging. It seems to be lingering for some who care about false-teaching, whereas the “cheerleaders” have moved on to the next great thing, a video of a dog eating with “hands” at the table. Most have moved on and forgotten it ever happened.

    Yet I pray that this event was used to stop a few in their tracks and make them think about their fragmented and contradictory tradition – thank you very much for that, Jonathan Edwards. And may they find the abundant fulfillment of coming to terms with the common-union of true communion at the table.

  2. There are so many things I could say, but in interest of brevity, I will say: well-written, well-said, and well-phrased. I even learned a new word (soporific)! You have a vocabulary, and are not afraid to use it! Verbiage aside, you said it all very brilliantly. And being a podcast listener, I have to read it in your voice too. 🙂

    Thank you Father. As always, an excellent read.

  3. This is a great way to encapsulate a lot of what I deal with among both family members and friends with regards to Orthodoxy. Because of the “legal” baggage of Latin/Western Christian tradition, many find it impossible to understand how all of our supposed “rules” are not “legalism” and “works righteousness” in the Luther-ian sense.

    The missing piece, as you’ve hinted at and demonstrated throughout the Scriptures, is that we are trying to be united to God and become like Christ – not “earn” favor or “merit” salvation through created “means of grace.” The Church is not a merit/grace dispenser, it is the Body of Christ (to which we are united by Baptism).

    Thank you for the wonderful reminders.

  4. “So why do the Orthodox have so much stuff to do?” I came across this nugget at John Sanidopoulos’ blog, Mystagogy:
    “Imagine a heat in a city when one feels hot even in linen slippers. Suddenly you see people walk, carrying at the ready warm caps, parkas and thick boots with spikes at that. What are ice-axes for in a city? What are spikes for on the asphalt? But if at least one of these things is left behind here below, the price of having it thrown out may prove to be very dear high up there. So it is in Orthodoxy. Everything is calculated for moving up in an arduous ascent. Once on the spiritual heights up there you will understand why the fasts, why Church Slavonic, why worship services are so long, and why no pews in churches; what the veneration of saints signify and what an icon offers to you… But however necessary the complex equipment may be for mountaineers, they themselves have to climb up, for the spikes and ice-axes will not carry them to the top. People carry whatever can help them to climb up.” -Fr. Andrei Kurayev

  5. Hi Fr. Andrew,
    I’ve enjoyed your response, as you have a knack for nailing exactly what I have been feeling is wrong with the Protestant tradition that I have grown up with. However,
    I’m a bit confused, after listening to your Podcasts on “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy”. I just finished listening to your second podcast titled “The Essentials of Christian Doctrine”, where you state, in closing statements that “Christianity is not a Religion”. On the surface this appears to contradict what you have argued over the last week, with the Bethke Video. Can you give more detail into what you meant when you said, “Christianity is not a Religion” at the end of “The Essentials of Christian doctrine” podcast.

    Tim Gross

    1. Right. Context is the thing here. I use the term “religion” in positive, negative and neutral senses, depending on the particular argument being developed.

      In the case of pop-Evangelicalism’s use of the term, they mean it to refer to just about anything that is not their brand of anti-sacramental Christianity, most especially anything that we may with shorthand call “organized religion.” When I use it negatively, I use it in the sense that Romanides does in the article where he refers to it as a “neurobiological sickness” arising from fantasy. In other words, “religion” in this sense truly is the invention of man and his philosophy and speculation, while Orthodoxy is simply the content of the revelation of God to man of how he may be cured of all fantasy (and here we don’t mean imagination but rather delusion and sinful desire).

      So, depending on the context, the word may appropriately be used positively, negatively or even neutrally. I myself use it in all three senses and try to explain which sense I mean by context.

  6. Fr. Andrew,

    I loved your article last week. Shared it with a Southern Baptist friend of mine who was impressed with it as well. I’m sorry for the abuse you’ve taken for calling a spade a spade. But please don’t think that all evangelicals are the same. I have been blessed by your writings. Thank you!

    1. I honestly don’t regard it as abuse, just the professional hazards, so to speak, of publishing on the Internet.

      That said, I of course don’t regard all Evangelicals as being the same. I was an Evangelical myself for the first 22 years of my life, and most of my family are Evangelicals of various stripes, and while we of course have rather different theology, they don’t generally seem to be taken by this anti-“religion” business, convinced that anyone with something like liturgy must be practicing “empty ritual,” etc.

  7. Yes, there seems to be a double standard of what they call rituals. All flavors of evangelical Christianity has rituals (they just don’t recognize them as such) that are evident in every service and would be the same no matter where you were at geographically. Kind of like being anti tradition unless it is of course the tradition of Sola Scriptura. 😉

  8. This is well written and does much to advance discussion and educate the misinformed. My one concern would be that it seems in some of your descriptions of evangelicalism, you are guilty of what you are critical of others. I disagreed with a couple of your assumptions which certainly do not match how I live or what I preach to my congregation. Yet you prefaced your view with “Let’s be honest here” – Apparently then I am not just wrong in my understanding, but dishonest when I express it? How is the orthodox making an inaccurate blanket statement of evangelicals any different than evangelicals making inaccurate blanket statements of the orthodox? Just as we are wise not to judge orthodox practice and belief by the poorer examples sometimes seen around the world, so too we should not judge evangelical practice and belief by similar poorer examples. Blessings to you, sir.

    1. Again, context is critical. The “you” to which I was addressing the post is essentially an imaginary interlocutor amalgamated from a number of the comments I received (both published and unpublished) on the previous post linked toward the top, explicitly those who preach that Jesus came to save us from “rules” and “religion.” I was by no means referring to all Evangelicalism (which spans everything from Calvinists to Congregationalists to Charismatics), and I even explicitly narrowed my range a bit by using the term pop-Evangelicalism. The “you” is actually no one in particular, and it is certainly not you.

      As for “evangelicals making inaccurate blanket statements of the orthodox,” my experience is that Evangelicals of almost any stripe aren’t hardly making statements about the Orthodox at all (inaccurate, blanket or otherwise), most of them never having heard of us. That is of course partly our own fault, but the blame probably mostly lies at the feet of the general American culture, which is quite ignorant overall of much of anything significant outside of the United States or of minority communities inside it. That a 2000 year old Church with more than a quarter of a billion adherents (the second largest Christian communion in the world) escapes their notice is unfortunate, but hardly surprising.

  9. In defending my faith, I far too often miss opportunities for humility and for reflection. Likewise when I try to paint other people’s faith with broad strokes. Some of my evangelical friends (I doubt they’d describe themselves as “pop”) live out their faith in ways I can’t even imagine under very difficult circumstances. I don’t think that your synopsis really describes their views on soteriology at all. Watching the video you were reacting to, I found some truth about myself in most of the charges laid out. Do I sometimes become absorbed in the minutia of ritual at the expense of spiritual worship. Yup. Am I really living my duty to love my neighbor and give whatever I have to the poor? Nope. In our defending the Orthodox faith, I think we need to be always painfully aware that we have hypocrisy to share and that a true defense ought to much more about our lives than our words.

    1. Again, I have no delusions that my somewhat caricatured description of pop-Evangelicalism is going to apply to all folks anywhere near that category.

      That said, of course one must live one’s faith. But it is also incumbent upon us to engage the theology that is being put into the public square. We don’t have to apologize for apologetics. While I make no claims to any particular holiness, the fact that someone is engaging in apologetics does not mean that he is not living the faith with his life as well as with his words.

      In short, we Orthodox are not quietists.

  10. I was asked by some members of our parish to say something about church etiquette, and how people should behave in church, so the Sunday before last I did so, and a couple of visitors came to me afterwards and asked wasn’t that making Christianity all rules and regulations? I say something on that topic maybe once every two years so so, but to those who haven’t been around the rest of the time, that becomes “everything”.

    1. Indeed. I am also pretty much the first person in line to complain about a predominant homiletic pattern that focuses on piety and liturgical details. Church life is not about the rules, not by a long shot. But without a few rules—which are not rules, really, but the collective wisdom of ages of reverence—Church life devolves into an irreverent, gnosticized mess.

    2. So if there are no rules to be followed in church, wouldn’t the result be a religious free-for-all equaling chaos?

      1. Aye, but the question is not so much rules as such, but rather, in relation to what Fr Andrew was saying, that it is not only on the Internet, but even in church, that people can get a partial picture, hearing one small part, and mistaking it for the whole.

  11. All I know is what I have truly experienced in my walk with Jesus – when I tried to make it about rules and religion, I failed miserably at it and that just fed the pain of earthly, human brokeness even more.

    It was through embracing Jesus, the real person of Jesus, that truly started the transformation in me, and allowed for me to follow him, and obey him more. There are a couple of areas that have been radically transformed by embracing Isaiah 61:1-4.
    A tertiary effect of this has been to develop a deeper appreciation for church history and liturgy (I have not embraced iconography as of yet, but can appreciate it).

    John Eldredge (as well as LeAnne Payne) taught me this. He has a new teaching out on called “Beautiful Outlaw” about the personality of Jesus and the poison of religion. All one has to do is look at Jesus and who/what he was constantly rebuking in the the gospels: those who were trying to live religiously. Straining gnats and swallowing camels.

    In this and other teachings from I have been challenged to ask “what is the fruit” referring to the idea that we will know them by their fruits.

    So with looking at your whole article here, I can somewhat agree with the overall point you are making. However, with all due respect and love of Jesus, I sense the fruit of pride and arrogance in your words of defending religion and rules.

    Love & Truth in the Inner Most Being

    1. With respect for whatever your personal experiences may have been, I have to ask, what gives you the authority (not to mention, the clairvoyance) to analyze and render judgment on the spiritual state of particular writers on the Internet?

      I will readily admit that I am a rotten sinner. But we are not talking about my sins here, nor yours, nor Mr. Bethke’s. We are talking about bad theology (and bad poetry). Declaring someone to be bearing bad fruit is precisely a red herring to avoid dealing with the actual issues at hand. With such an argument in hand, I suppose one could go about decrying any particular piece of writing one does not like.

      I have refrained from commenting on the inner spiritual state of either Mr. Bethke or any of my hundreds of critical visitors. Don’t you think it’s wise to do the same?

  12. I was right there with you, because I do think that ignorance in its many forms is a large and growing problem in today’s church. But in view of your obvious deep and wide learning, I was startled to see you include Martin Luther among those you blame for anti-“stuff, anti-rules, anti-religion. I am a Lutheran pastor and have been formed in that tradition, and the Luther I have come to know was deeply faithful to the church catholic, as are many of his followers. There are abuses everywhere, but it is unfair, a misunderstanding, to lay them at Luther’s feet.

    1. You are right about Luther himself, of course, and many Lutherans, especially with their carefully balanced schema of Law and Gospel, don’t seem to have the anti-“religion” bug that is in evidence in pop-Evangelicalism. That said, though, I do indeed think that Luther’s doctrine regarding good works, heavily conditioned by a strong anti-Catholicism, is the theological basis for the phenomenon we’re discussing. These are simply people who have taken it in a different direction than you have. Their heritage is in the Pietism of the Radical Reformation and the Revivalism that eventually followed it, not in you folks’ Magisterial Reformation.

  13. Wow, thank you so much for that beautiful post! I powerfully, powerfully agree! The ‘grace’ of forgiveness that Jefferson talks about in His video is only HALF the story of salvation. Any human being who truly knows the darkness of death and suffering wants not only to be forgiven but also HEALED.

    I said some similar things in a post when the video was released earlier:
    I’d be interested to know what you think if you get the chance 🙂

    In Christ,

  14. As an evangelical Wesleyan I agree with the author’s overall point. However he says some odd things about Martin Luther. Luther did not turn Catholicism into “anti-stuff” (by which I think the author means anti- sacraments and Mass, etc.). That was Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland; he mostly did away with the mystical elements of worship which he saw as unnecessary given the centrality of scripture. Martin Luther retained many Catholic practises; he did not necessarily do away with them. The Lutheran Mass, for example, is still celebrated today.

    1. You’re absolutely right, and that’s why it’s critical to read carefully. (This is also dealt with in another comment.)

      I explicitly said that pop-Evangelicalism had “given legs” to Luther’s obsessions and turned them into a whole theology.

      Luther himself is of course quite distinct from such things and also from modern Lutheranism itself.

  15. I’ve read some of the links you have in regards to Bethke’s video. One of the well-known evangelical blogs is lacking in addressing the underlying problems of Bethke’s theology. I think that’s because pop-evangelicalism is tolerated among many who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves “pop” or “hipster” Christians. At the core, many of these conservative evangelicals still grant that Bethke is “preaching the gospel” though he may need to improve on his delivery and tweak his theology a bit more. I would suggest that modern Evangelicalism is inadequate in being able to refute the problems inherent in hipster/pop Christianity. Furthermore, I would propose that Evangelicalism’s impotence in this regard is due to the very problems within Evangelicalism (and all its forms and nuances) itself. The entire ethos of Evangelicalism – at least how we understand it in its most recent forms from the 19th Century onward – must necessarily lead to a “Jesus and me” framework. The Church becomes a tolerated appendage, but not a living reality that is needed for and assists us in our salvation. What else can one conclude if church is reduced to being an invisible entity, not a concrete organism in which one can say – “There it is.” In all the Evangelical gospel tracts I read and distributed when I was an EP, I don’t recall any of them mentioning the need for church. In other words, there was an implication that “church” was a negative concept. Furthermore, baptism was not only de-emphasized, but considered unnecessary as regards salvation. When one belongs to a tradition whose hallmark is to do away with the sacraments, what one is left with is Bethkeism. So how can one counter and rightly expose the dearth in Bethkeism when one holds to the basic tenets of Bethkeism? I’d call this quite a conundrum.

  16. Father Bless…

    A much needed post, not only with regard to that video and response, but in a culture and mindset that I encounter almost daily.

    I can only speak for myself, a simple, former Protestant gal, that all that “stuff” from the Ancient Faith and brilliantly illuminated by J.R.R. Tolkien, gifted my soul with wings and anchored me to the life giving Cross like nothing else.

  17. Good post, but pop-evangelicalism is not the descendant of Luther, who defended the use of “earthy stuff” – it is the “Radical Reformation” of Zwingli, the Anabaptists, etc. which spawned that attitude, and they would have come along had Luther never existed.

    1. Would they? My own reading of the history is that they very much precisely relied upon what Luther had begun, and of course it is well known that Zwingli interacted directly with Luther himself, so even if in some alternate history the RR might have occurred without Luther, the actual history is that it did indeed occur with Luther and not in some theological vacuum. That said, Luther’s basic dynamic of opposing “good works” to faith is still what lies at the heart of pop-Evangelicalism.

      In any event, see elsewhere in the comments on this post regarding this particular issue. I did not say that Luther himself (nor many of his Magisterial Reformation descendents) bought into this anti-“religion” business (though of course one can find many festive examples from the ELCA that make one wonder how far from pop-Evangelicalism they really are), but rather that the pop-E’s had given Luther’s obsessions “legs” and made them into their own theology.

      1. Starting life as a Stone/Campbell Restorationist and continuing in that tradition until mid-life, then shifting into what you refer to as “pop-Evangelicalism”, then into TULIP Calvinism, and now more of a “post-Evangelical” with leanings toward the two main liturgical traditions…it has taken me quite some time to realize that Grace is not in opposition to working, but rather is contrary to merit. I think it was in reading of Luther that brought me to that realization. It hasn’t been too long ago that I would have positively identified with Zwingli, but coming to some understanding of God taking on flesh has blown me out of any Zwingli-ian waters.


  18. In regards to the work of John Eldredge and his latest book Beautiful Outlaw, I have this to say as an Orthodox Christian who nevertheless likes much of what JE is trying to do.

    The roots to this “anti-religion” assumption many evangelicals and charismatics operate under, JE included, can be traced back to the 1980’s Vineyard movement. In the 1980’s, evangelicals and charismatics began an attempt to wage direct “spiritual warfare” by calling certain demonic opponents by name. One of those opponents was called “The Religious Spirit.”

    There is something valid in the assertion that Satan and demons can use “religious” things against Christians in a move to deceive them and keep them in a delusional fog, but equating all things that “look religious” with a “demon of religion” is a mistake in the opposite direction.

    John is trying to have his orthodox cake and eat it too. Note what he says on page 46 “Let me assure you, I cling to the Nicene Creed and the orthodox faith held by the church for ages – Jesus was somehow God and man.”

    Nevertheless, he remains officially outside the institution of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    He can’t get a complete picture of the Orthodox religion from the outside looking in. The complete picture comes only by being on the inside and looking out from there.

    However, at this stage of the game, JE could probably not have the wide impact he is currently having if he chose to leave the evangelical world. And there’s the rub and the reason we don’t see more conversions of evangelical leaders like JE.

    They believe at some level that were they to convert to Orthodoxy with a “CAPITAL O” that they would be donning a straightjacket that would hinder their attempts to minister.

    This speaks to a need we have as The Orthodox Church. We need to live and minister in such a way that a man like John Eldredge could convert and continue to have a large impact.

    How we get there is a huge question. Perhaps we are already on the way, but we need to think “outside the box” at times in order to find creative ways to minister to our surrounding culture. It’s a balancing act.

    We CAN’T compromise who we are, yet we need to make adjustments to what we do for the sake of lost people, both christian and non-christian.

    We are SO different from our culture that it presents us with problems the evangelicals, who are closer to that culture, don’t have (when they try to reach out to the unchurched).

    We must find a way to solve our own problems with INFLEXIBILITY so we can be flexible enough to adjust on the fly to the real needs of people right now. Being Orthodox and Flexible at the same time is a tough challenge, but I believe it is a challenge that can be met.

    We do have the Holy Spirit of Wisdom, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, who can guide us in these matters.

    1. While of course this anti-religion business is very much on display in the VCFs, I wouldn’t regard that as being its origin by any means. It’s really just yet another iteration of the anti-Catholicism that is standard fare in low-church Protestantism.

      I heard about the evils of “religion” all during my childhood at various Baptist and independent churches of the same general type, and that was well before the Vineyard had any real influence.

      And let’s not forget this 1977 classic.

    2. I’ve not heard of John Eldredge, but I do know a little of the history of the idea that Christianity and religion are not the same thing.

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran) made an appeal for “religionless Christianity| in the 1940s, and an Anglican priest, John Davies, read a paper on “Religion versus God” in 1961, basing much of his argument on Bonhoeffer’s (if anyone is interested, I can send them a copy of that paper).

      Fr Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, wrote some similar things in his book “For the life of the world” in the late 1960s.

      In 1971 or thereabouts an Evangelical, Fritz Ridenour, wrote a book of pop theology called “How to be a Christian without being religious”, and ever since then some Evangelicals have been using “I’m not religious, I’m a Christian” as a kind of slogan, in a very shallow way, or else saying “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship”, which is true, but when you use a statement like that as a cliche, it loses all meaning, and becomes just as religious as what they are ostensibly trying to reject.

      1. I’m coming rather late to this conversation, please forgive me. I have read this post several times, and it expresses many of the reasons why I have become Orthodox and I really enjoy reading it. Today I started reading through some of the comments.

        Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless christianity” is quite complicated. I won’t pretend that I understand it, because I don’t, but I do know that what he taught was not the religionless “Christianity” that is being discussed. As has been mentioned often, context is key. In his Letters and Papers from Prison he mentions this:

        “Secondly, I’ve found that following Luther’s instruction to ‘make the sign of the cross’ at our morning and evening prayers is in itself helpful. There is nothing objective about it, and that is what is particularly badly needed here. Don’t be alarmed; I shall not come out of here a homo religiousus! On the contrary, my fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here…I’m now reading Tertullian, Cyprian, and others of the church fathers with great interest. In some ways they are more relevant to our time than the Reformers, and at the same time they provide a basis for talks between Protestants and Roman Catholics” (LPFP New Greatly Enlarged Edition p. 135).

        And in another letter after this one he writes this concerning Roman Catholic and Orthodox Easter/Pascha services:

        “If you have the chance of going to Rome during Holy Week, I advise you to attend the afternoon service at St Peter’s on Maundy Thursday (from about 2 to 6). That is really the Good Friday service, as the Roman Catholic Church anticipates its feasts from noon on the previous day…On Maundy Thursday the twelve candles on the altar are put out as a symbol of the disciples’ flight, till in the vast space there is only one candle left burning in the middle – for Christ. After that comes the cleansing of the altar. At about 7 am on the Saturday there is a blessing of the font (as far as I can remember, that is connected with the ordination of young priests). Then at 12 noon the Easter Alleluia is sung, the organ plays again, the bells peal, and the pictures [icons?] are unveiled. This is the real celebration of Easter. Somewhere in Rome I also saw a Greek Orthodox service, which at the time – more than twenty years ago! – impressed me very much” (LPFP New Greatly Enlarged Edition p. 135).

        And in another he writes,

        “For all my sympathy with the contemplative life, I am not a born Trappist. Nevertheless, a period of enforced silence may be a good thing, and the Roman Catholics say that the most effective expositions of scripture come from the purely contemplative orders…I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book” (LPFP p. 40).

        This certainly isn’t the “religionless christianity” that is being spoken of and is quite different. His “religionless Christianity” is quite complicated and difficult, but I think the heart of it is:

        “Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help…the world’s coming of age…has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by His weakness. This will probably be the starting point for our ‘secular interpretation.'”

        And just a little later in this same letter:

        “‘Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving’; that is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’ That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.”

        And there is more to it, and I haven’t read all he has written tonight. I don’t quite agree with Bonhoeffer on many accounts. He isn’t Orthodox, and his ideas seem rather unorthodox, even among pop-Evangelism and the post-modern Emergent Church. I’m by no means a theologian, nor an expert in Orthodox theology (I’ve only been exposed to it for three years now). I don’t know if what I am about to say is heretical or not. But I wonder, now that I have spent tonight rereading Bonhoeffer, whether he is right in putting an emphasis on the suffering of God, and what distinguishes Christians from non-believers is their standing with God (what does that mean?) during His suffering and especially in the Garden and His exhorting the Apostles to stand with Him in His hour of grieving and prayer.

        Christians and Pagans, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
        Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
        Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
        For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead;
        All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

        Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
        Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
        Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
        Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

        God goes to every man when sore bestead,
        Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
        For Christians, pagans, alike he hangs dead,
        And both alike forgiving.

        Orthodox? I do not know. I’m not quite sure what to make of:

        “‘Christians stand by God in His hour of grieving’; that is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’ That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.”

        I do not think I have read that in the Fathers or in anything I have read about theology…(except the part about sharing in the sufferings of Christ)but I have only read a small amount of the Fathers…although I feel a sort of…similarity…when I read the poetry of Bonhoeffer (especially when he writes about himself) and the poetry of Gregory the Theologian (primarily only when he writes about himself). I guess this thinking is similar to what I hear here
        and also in one of Fr. Hopko’s lectures on “Our Father” in which he speaks about the will of God, Christ, and the cross. But not quite. And that is the reason why I am becoming Orthodox, and not a disciple of Bonhoeffer.

        I wonder if Bonhoeffer would agree with Bethke? I do not know. Just my ramblings, and my addition to the conversation. Maybe I interpret Bonhoeffer correctly, maybe not, but his “religionless Christianity” is certainly of a different category and more complicated than Bethke’s and post-modern Evangelicalism’s.

  19. Fr. Andrew…just found you here thanks to a link at “Shameless Popery”. Hope you don’t mind an “R” flavored Catholid hanging around and listening….? I have only had time for a few posts but they speak to me deeply.

    I joke frequently that I live in Jerry Falwell’s back yard, and have learned quite a bit about evangelicals and fundamentalism since moving here eight years ago. (Only 6% of our little city is Catholic of ANY kind, and Falwell’s megachurch and schools are the 800 lb gorilla around here!)

    What I have noticed (besides the poor theology and solo sciptura) is that “looking and acting like a Christian” is a huge deal…sort of a case of who goes to more bible studies and groups and would never, EVER be seen withing 10 yards of a beer bottle or “R” movie. This may have been the experience that led to the excoriatingly bad “Jesus vs Religion” video of late!

    May more and more of these misled souls find their way HOME….

  20. In the Orthodox Church what would they do with a man like John Eldredge? Obiviously he is being used of God but how does what he is doing fit within the Orthodox structure?

    1. I would catechize him. 🙂 Whether he would keep doing what he’s doing after that is another matter.

      Why does that matter? It’s because in Orthodoxy, method is not really the critical question, but rather the process of personal holiness and healing, which is what catechism begins.

      1. I think it does matter. Not as much as receiving catechism of course. Why would you dismiss it as non issue. So the Orthodox Church wouldn’t really care about what he did before or would they tell him to cease and desist?

        1. The Orthodox Church (as a whole, that is) wouldn’t particularly have anything to say about it at all. My point is not to dismiss the question, but rather that it’s really only relevant within the context of an actual relationship within an actual parish. That is, it’s really putting the cart before the horse to ask what a particular well-known non-Orthodox person might do once he became Orthodox. Who knows? He might recede into obscurity and join a monastery.

  21. Okay, that makes sense. So what would you do (after catechism) when a person like John was still feeling the need to be involved in the type of ministry that he served in before? Or just continuing the same type of ministry in protestant circles?

    1. It would all depend very much on the actual relationship with the actual people. Thinking these things out in pure hypotheticals just doesn’t work very well.

  22. I commend your effort to explain the Orthodox viewpoint to your Evangelical interlocutors. However, my experience over decades of trying to “explain” anything to Evangelicals has been that they really don’t know how to dialogue. But even if the Evangelicals won’t benefit from your post, I have found it immensely inspiring, and it seems so have many of the above commentators. I’m tempted to send it to some Evangelical relatives of mine, but that probably would be very imprudent.

    1. Well, there are Evangelicals and there are Evangelicals.

      In any event, my experience is that most of us don’t know how to dialogue, no matter our particular religious affiliation.

  23. Despite being a follower of numerous blogs, I never leave comments (never actually meaning less than a handful of times). However, I must say that this post may have finally helped me explain to my Southern Baptist father why Orthodox “rules” help connect us to Christ in the flesh (or in the “matter”).

    Funny . . . his favorite verse is “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Not very Baptist of him, I know. Maybe it’s his own fault I went and became Orthodox.

    Anyway, thank you.

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