Proselytizing in Orthodox Lands

[Beliefnet, July 13, 2000]
Is it right to proselytize?

Already it’s a loaded question. “Proselytism” has about as many appealing connotations as “root canal.” It’s more pointed than “evangelism,” which means exposition of the Gospel to any and everyone, particularly those of no faith at all. Proselytizing implies undermining an existing faith in order to clear ground for a new one.

Is it right to proselytize?

Yes. People who believe that they’ve found the best spiritual path have a right to share what they’ve found—maybe even an obligation. Those who lend them an ear can decide for themselves whether or not they agree. Only itchy sensitivities get offended at such sharing, and only paranoid ones whine that it’s coercive. Expressing a belief, even with persuasive intent, is a first amendment right, not coercion.

The truth is that we all benefit from hearing other people talk honestly about their deeply-held faith. There’s nothing wrong with closing such a personal testimony with “and you should try it too.” It’s somewhat analogous to sharing a favorite recipe. I can taste your shrimp-chocolate-chip cookies and decide for myself whether they’re heavenly. Then I can invite you to Sunday services, and you can decide the same about my Church.

It is right to proselytize. But there are situations in which people of faith should refrain from doing so. I believe such is the case with Protestant missionaries in formerly-communist, historically-Orthodox countries.

Some American Protestants have written with surprise and anger about the hostility, and even legal action, brought against them by native Orthodox. They find puzzling the great bitterness Orthodox in these lands feel toward Protestant missionaries. After all, they go at great personal expense and with good will for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. Can’t we live and let live? Are Orthodox just jealous, trying to protect their territory from competition?

But from the perspective of those Orthodox things seem completely different. The actions of Protestant missionaries are seen as intentionally cruel and rude—which, of course, they are not. Missionaries will benefit from grasping this different perspective.

In the first place, a phrase like “traditionally Orthodox lands,” which may seem nonsensical to Westerners, has a rich and positive meaning to Orthodox. It does not mean that other faiths (Christian and non-Christian) don’t co-exist there, but that the Orthodox, as the original Christians to evangelize that land, feel a primary spiritual responsibility. We might say similarly that Italy is a “traditionally Roman Catholic land,” or that Sweden is “traditionally Lutheran.” However this sense of spiritually “parenting” is historically even stronger in Orthodox countries, however.

Thus, if Protestant missionaries come in to care for their own indigenous Protestant congregations it’s of no concern. Orthodox resentment springs up over attempts to proselytize— to convert people who are of Orthodox lineage, so to speak, to Protestant faiths.

Now the whole concept of a faith “lineage” has little weight in America. Here we switch easily from one denomination to another, without feeling an obligation to uphold the church of our grandparents. But in some other lands loyal upholding of one’s inherited faith is viewed as vital. These lands have been Christian a long time: Russia recently celebrated a thousand years of Orthodox faith, and other formerly-communist nations go back centuries more. This spiritual inheritance is deemed alive and important to Orthodox, and continuing it is an obligation and honor. Americans may see this as silly, but failure to understand the Orthodox viewpoint makes for unintentional wounding.

One more factor complicates this picture. It is that these Orthodox lands have just emerged from decades of oppression and persecution. Some twenty million died in Russia alone, as brave Protestant missionaries like Pastor Richard Wurmbrand tried to tell Westerners at the time. American response to this persecution was somewhat weak and confused because it was hard to see what, in practical terms, we could do; also, due to general Cold War prejudice against Russians, that the fate of Russian Christians did not seem pressing.

During this persecution the church in these lands was severely depleted, to an extent we cannot imagine. Most of its leaders were killed, in horrible ways and unimaginable numbers; forty thousand Russian pastors were killed under Stalin, so that at the end of his dictatorship only two hundred remained. Churches were desecrated, possessions confiscated, and the faith was openly and officially attacked. (One young Russian woman recently told me she grew up hearing, “Study hard, or else you’ll be stupid and then you’ll turn into a Christian.”) The antagonism of state and culture to Christian faith was many times more explicit and extreme than what American Christians bridle at now.

As that miserable time recedes the Orthodox Church is severely crippled and in desperate need of support to rebuild. Like the church of Macedonia it might well say to America, “Come over here and help us.” But most outreach to these lands has not been to strengthen what remains, but to establish new, separate churches. To the Orthodox, this is like kicking them when they’re down. Orthodox feel that what the Communists started, Americans are bent on completing: the destruction of their cherished faith.

Moreover, it seems to Orthodox that Americans have unfair advantages, stirring more bitterness. American financial resources are huge compared to what the diminished Orthodox Church is able to gather. While Orthodox churches are still impoverished and in shambles, new Protestant churches are able to look as nice as new American churches. Also, since anything American is fashionable, the church struggles against another frustrating disadvantage, that of mere faddishness. It’s no doubt unintentional, but this well-intentioned Protestant missionary activity is debilitating an already-struggling church, rather than helping it rebuild.

It is right to proselytize. But in some situations, it is merciful to refrain. Instead, missionaries should go to formerly communist lands and seek out those who have held the faith through years of great danger. Perhaps we Westerners, whose response to such persecution has never been tested, can learn something from so heroic a faith. Ask how you can help them. Work together. If Protestant missionaries believe that Orthodox Christians are fellow members of Christ, working together fulfills their mission just as well as working separately.

But some Protestant missionaries might not feel that way. They may believe that Orthodox are not “real” Christians, and that the Church should die. This could be due to ignorance about the tenets of Orthodoxy, or a mistaken presumption that it is the same as Roman Catholicism. Not everyone is trained as well as they should be. One Protestant missionary to Russia lectured me that “anybody who prays to icons can’t know Jesus as Lord,” showing that, even after her trip, she still did not know that Orthodox don’t pray to icons.

Yes, it is your right to proselytize, and you are not obligated to care about any of this. At least be aware of these factors, however, so you can make decisions in awareness of “the law of unintended consequences.” The dilemma is summed up by a missionary t-shirt a friend of mine observed. It read, “Bringing the light of the Gospel where it has never shown before.” Below this there was an image of a church with onion domes—topped by crosses.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Christian LifeOrthodoxy