Is Orthodox Education Really Necessary?

One of the things I’ve encountered among some Orthodox Christians in America is the idea that, since most Christians in history were basically illiterate—that’s one reason we have iconography, right?—then there really is not an urgency to teach people what we might think of as the “data” of the Orthodox faith.

It’s enough to have a good piety, to be a good person, to serve in the Church and to serve others. After all, yiayia and babushka and sittoo (or taita) didn’t really know that much, but they sure loved the Church! Right?

This attitude is, I am sure, why many Orthodox churches have little in the way of educational programs. And those that do mainly stress education for children. It would be too bad if a church did not have a Sunday School.

But would it be too bad if it had no adult education, as well? Is that a critical piece of the puzzle? I think that, for a lot of people and even for many parishes, it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal.

After all, even in very large parishes, you’re lucky to see 5% of the congregation show up for an adult class. And even in most Sunday School programs these days, attendance is spotty and inconsistent. A lot of formerly tireless teachers are becoming tired and demoralized.

My sense is that education is just not seen as very important to a lot of folks. And I think that this lack of importance is bolstered at least partly by this attitude that the ideal Orthodox Christian is a pious, illiterate peasant from [insert holy idealized homeland here].

After all, isn’t it true that most Christians in history couldn’t read and could never own their own Bible (much less, patristic writings, etc.)?

But if we look closely at this attitude, we will see that it is a form of Pietism, which is the idea in Christianity that doctrine doesn’t really matter that much. All that matters is a good heart, sincere faith, moral behavior, etc.

Another Pietism: Anti-Intellectualism

There’s an additional influence that marginalizes Orthodox education in our parishes, and it’s anti-intellectualism. This attitude says that anything that looks like academic study is “Western” and therefore “not really Orthodox.” (Sunday School is a Protestant invention, they say!) If people attend the services, that will teach them everything they really need to know.

This is all assuming, of course, that the services are both 1) in a language understandable to the hearer and that 2) the hearer knows how to listen and understand.

The first is a subject of much debate that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, though, that if you expect that the services will teach people everything, you’re putting a big obstacle in front of them if they don’t speak the language.

Regarding the second, though, I’d respond that I majored in English Literature in college. And I learned there that it takes a lot of work to be able to grasp a literary genre in its full sense with all its tropes, patterns, prosody, etc. Orthodox church services are quite literary. They are heuristic, but almost never in what we might normally think as a straight didactic form. It’s not always obvious what they mean, even if you speak the language and even if you already understand their general structural outline.

A related attitude is that clergy don’t need to go to seminary; they should just spend time at a monastery. This assumes that monasteries are equipped to teach parish clergy. It ought to go without saying, though, that the challenges of a monastery are not all the same as the challenges of a parish. And, let’s face it, even if some monks do have a gift for understanding marriage and parenting, the truth is that most of them don’t because they just have no experience with it. So where will clergy learn that major element of pastoral care?

But Can We Educate?

There is of course a lot that is true underneath the foregoing. We do have to have good, pious hearts and faithful service in the Church. We do learn a lot from what is in the Church’s liturgical services. And we indeed can get a lot out of monastic experiences. (Though I do not think any monastery in the US in itself is really set up for training parish clergy. There are some like that in other countries, though.)

The problem with these pietistic attitudes is that they ignore where we are, and they ignore the commandment of Jesus Christ, especially this one:

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. (Mark 12:30)

This same commandment in other forms also appears in Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27. The Synoptic Gospel writers are all quoting Jesus referencing that passage from Deuteronomy.

Here in America (and I am not speaking of anywhere else), we are a high-information society. We have an 86% literacy rate (which is actually on par with the worldwide literacy rate). We know the ins and outs of the electoral college and of the rules of football. We know the names of all the characters on Pokemon, Star Wars, My Little Pony and Star Trek. We drill our kids on the capitals of every state, all the presidents, and their multiplication times tables.

And yet when it comes to the truths that matter more than anything else, many of us Orthodox (and other) Christians throw all our high-information talents and skills aside and are reduced to mouthing pious platitudes about how good church attendance and contributing to potlucks were good enough for our grandmothers.

Now, I happen to believe that all this applies in many places outside America, too. Did you know that from the period of 1970 to 2015, the world illiteracy rate was halved? In 1970, the world illiteracy rate was a little below 40%. Now it’s below 20%. It used to be that most Christians could not read and relied on a handful of readers to read for them. But now literally almost everyone in the world can read, and the overall education rate is rising, too.

So what does all this mean?

It means that many of us are happy to be literate, high-information people in most of our lives, yet when it comes to applying that same set of talents and skills to the “one thing needful,” we just dump them. We have edited the Lord’s commandment so that we have to love Him with our heart and soul, but only some of our strength and very little of our mind.

So Why Should We Educate?

I try to live by a basic principle. It’s one I fail at all the time, but it’s still one I believe in and which I try to live up to. It goes roughly like this:

Whatever God has given you, you have to give back to Him.

If God has given you wealth, you have to give it back. If He’s given you a good singing voice, you have to use it to praise Him. If He’s given you the ability to build things, you have to build to His glory. And so on.

And if He’s given you the ability to master information, then you have to use that ability to master the information about the Christian faith.

No, information isn’t everything there is to Orthodox Christianity, but there sure is a lot of it in the tradition. And if we’re able, we’ve got to set about making it our own.

Church history is filled with people who knew this and did this. Many of the Holy Fathers were very educated people—and no, they didn’t just cozy up to monks and absorb their wisdom via osmosis. They went to school. They attended lectures. They read. They wrote. They used what God gave them for God’s purposes.

Yes, if you are an illiterate peasant and you are giving God all that you have, that is of course very, very good.

But if you are not an illiterate peasant but you are still serving God like one, then you have a problem. Why? It’s because it means you’re holding something back. Will you rob God (Mal. 3:8)? No? Then why are you robbing Him of your intellect? That literate, high-information brain of yours isn’t just for politics, sports and your job. It’s for the Bible, history, doctrine and theology.

Yes, it’s true that Sunday School was a Protestant invention, but it’s not true that Christian education is. Christian education goes all the way back to the Bible.

A friend of mine who works in higher education once observed to me that most of the high-information Orthodox Christians in America were intellectually trained by Evangelical Protestants (we have them because they converted later to Orthodoxy). (“The converts—they think they know everything!”) We cannot continue to rely on them as feeders for our parishes so that we have a handful of token high-information Orthodox around. We have to begin to take education seriously ourselves, and we have to stop repeating platitudes that have little to do with our life in a literate, high-information culture.

Whatever God has given you belongs to Him. That includes your brain. So it’s time to start using it. And it’s time to start supporting education in your parish by showing up, by teaching, and by insisting that an Orthodox parish without ongoing adult education is really missing something. It’s not an optional add-on. It’s a critical way for us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.


  1. I completely agree, it behooves us to educate ourselves about our faith. I would just add this one caveat: education doesn’t equal salvation, lest we fall into some sort of Gnosticism.

    A few weeks ago, I saw this quote online (though I can’t remember the source), “There’s a difference between teaching Orthodoxy and teaching the wisdom *of* Orthodoxy.” It seemed apropos to this post.

  2. Regarding lay education, I’m a fan of actual old-style catechesis and catechisms. Orthodox of the past may have been illiterate, but that doesn’t mean they were ignorant (otherwise why were they rioting in the streets over technical theological terms like homoousios and Theotokos?). People easily forgot (or don’t know) that many if not most Patristic works are homilies and other public instruction, i.e. directed to diverse, lay audiences.
    – The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem;
    – The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Eastern Church by Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow

  3. I am a lifelong protestant that is in the process of converting to Orthodoxy. Outside of my graduate studies I don’t think I’ve ever studied as hard as I have to understand Orthodox theology. If you want to understand the fullness of this faith it is not something you can do through osmosis. It takes a concentrated effort. But through much effort the boundaries of my Christian faith have expanded beyond my imagination.

  4. Christian education goes all the way back to the Bible.

    This sounds like a remarkably Protestant statement! Perhaps we might say, “It goes all the way back through the Bible”? Or perhaps, “it goes back prior to the formation of the Canon.” Not sure how best to word it….

    But to the subject: I completely agree. When I first joined the Church, I agonized over the lack of education, especially in light of the current state of public education. Our parish is now working to form an Orthodox school and I am very happy to support it, although I don’t know exactly how as yet.

  5. I have on my shelves 37 volumes of the writings of the Church Fathers and 29 volumes of patristic Biblical commentary. That alone is enough to convince me that serious Orthodox education is not optional. How can we benefit from the Biblical, doctrinal, and pastoral insights of these saints if we don’t study them and learn to love the very same Scriptures which they devoted themselves to?

  6. Fr. Andrew, thanks again for every word!

    I’m from an oriental orthodox church and living in the diaspora. I struggled for years with a parish that strives to preserve the culture instead of the faith through sticking to certain languages, and refuses to change, claiming that that language was spoken by our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.

    Yes, the protestants taught me how to study my Bible by dissecting every verse, and by challenging my faith to the point of crushing it, to the point that I realized that my faith is actually getting stronger and finer.

    I read to many apologetics, that to this day, I carry so much respect toward them and their great work. However; the more apologetic work I read, the more doubt attacks I suffer. So I stopped and I felt much better, since “Without faith, you cannot please Him”

    But, there was always something missing, with all that reading and studying, I was getting the feel-good inner talk, but a never-quenching thirst. I handed my faith to the ” plan God has for me”, i.e. auto pilot mode, but that didn’t feel right, and the turmoil continues…

    I believe in my oriental orthodox church foundation, but, to your point, that parish looked dead to me, no orthodox mission, lots of politics, clashing agendas, and so on.

    Until…..I finally found the invaluable Ancient Faith Radio, where my true journey began. I found the ancient orthodoxy delivered in a contemporary style. I found the medical doctors, the psychologists, teachers, ex-intelligence agent, young and old,…etc, all generously pouring their talents into extending orthodoxy to the world. What a blessing!! People like you, Fr. Ted (Ted Talk), Abbot Tryphon, Barnabas Powel, and many names my memory failed to capture, are a BIG BLESSING. God bless you, your families and the work of your hands.

    I’m not looking for an ideal church, as I know there’s no such thing, since, church is people, and people are fallible. I’m simply looking for true willingness to spread our orthodox faith.

    Kindly Fr., mention me and my spouse in your prayers for God to use us for his glory.

    To His name all glory, Amen!

  7. I think we should also consider the fact that the methods that passed on the faith in an agricultural, homogenously Orthodox society will not necessarily be the methods that will pass it on in our society today. In fact, I think we can see that is definitely not the case when we consider the rate at which we lose our young people.

    This is my larger concern with such a large percentage of the active, working people in Orthodox American parishes today being converts, who clearly were transmitted a vigorous faith through the lively educational programs at the churches in which they grew up. Yes, the doctrine and worship practices they learned were problematic, and that is what sent them studying even more and brought them to the eastern church. But by and large our parishes do not have educational programs that will help pass on the faith in this lively, engaged away to those converts’ children.

    We all have to face the fact that the 5 to 10 minute Sunday homily does not constitute adult Christian education. Period. Not in fourth or fifth century Constantinople, and not now, either. And I’m certainly not blaming this anti-education and culture on priests and sermons.! But we have to realize that it’s this culture of no adult Christian education or lackluster participation in what is offered, that needs to be addressed.

    One of the things priests should be learning in seminary is how to teach engaged, discussion-based classes, in which people are presented the richness of the faith and then allowed to interact with it and ways that allow them to assimilate it to their lives. This kind of teaching is an artform and it’s a great gift for the church.

  8. I love this article. I believe that all laity and clergy should be formally educated in Orthodox theology through some type of program through the church. There are now some great online programs to get education and even put some credentials behind your name (i.e. O.SD., PTh.D.) but the problem is they’re not know by many except those wanting to become an intellectuals in theology, and the other problem is cost. They’re not cheap unfortunately which is a deterrent.

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