Worlds Next to Worlds: A Curious Ecumenism

Prosperity preachers Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (From Wikimedia Commons)
Prosperity preachers Kenneth and Gloria Copeland
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Lunch today was with a good friend I have locally, who describes himself as “Post-Charismatic” and “Ortho-Curious.” He is seminary educated and works in the teaching staff at a mini-mega-church (basically the same style as a mega, but without the thousands of people). We eat lunch and drink coffee together regularly, watch movies together, and he has been to my house many times. It has been wonderful over the past few years to have a local friend who is both outside of the Orthodox Church (and so not someone who has any vested interest in our relationship except as friends) yet who is also very much interested in Orthodox theology and worship.

One of our perennial topics of discussion is the theological background that he came from (but is no longer invested in)—the Word of Faith Movement. This is the larger theological world that the Prosperity Gospel comes out of. We talked about this again today, especially preacher Creflo Dollar’s recent infamous attempt to crowdfund himself $65M for a new private jet.

What struck me as we talked is how this action by Dollar (yes, that is his real name) is a real issue in my friend’s circles. It’s controversial. Some people think it’s ridiculous (like my friend), while others think it’s just fine. One of his interlocutors on social media defended Dollar by saying that her own pastor preaches on Sunday morning in Georgia, then takes his private jet to California to preach there in the evening. This is his normal routine.

We could of course lampoon these people here and ask what makes one preacher so special that such enormous resources are needed to get him around so that people can hear him in person on two coasts in a single day.

But what especially occurred to me today is that this situation is so far removed from my own theological world. Yes, Orthodoxy has its problems, too. (We do.) But any priest or bishop who tried to get the world to hand him $65M for a private jet would probably not be too far from deposition. We at least pretend to be ascetical.

But there is nevertheless a whole world in which this subject is something that actually needs to be discussed. It’s serious. It’s not a joke for them. This is, for many, within the bounds of the possible and even the normal. Lots of people take prosperity preachers seriously, else they would have no audience. And their audience is not confined to a bunch of uneducated dupes. There are thoughtful, faithful people there for whom this theology makes sense.

That can be tough to remember when we come face to face with religious traditions that are not our own. I’ve been guilty of not remembering this. I have sometimes treated other religious doctrines and practices as isolated pieces of ridiculous silliness that no one could ever take seriously.

But people do take these things seriously. And it seems perfectly rational within their community to do so.

The best sort of ecumenism is the kind based on actual friendship and brotherhood, the kind based on taking seriously what someone else believes, even if you cannot agree with it. This is the sort of ecumenism which actually does witness to the truth, because it treats the other person as an actual person.

The kind of ecumenism which seeks to compromise on doctrine for the sake of some vague togetherness, as well as the sort which just attacks the other (which probably doesn’t go by ecumenism, of course), does not actually take the other person seriously, because neither engages the other person in his integrity and his faith.

I am always wary of those who say that they are “speaking the truth in love” yet have no actual love evident. (If you have to tell someone that he is being loved, then he is probably not being loved.) I am likewise wary of those who would set aside the truth (usually calling it “dogma”) in the name of love, because they also have no actual love evident. Truth is not the enemy of love, nor is love the enemy of truth.

Love always seeks to engage the person for who he is as a coherent person with beliefs which are coherent and consistent for him. That’s the only basis on which an authentic witness to the truth can happen.

6 comments:

  1. Exceptional words, Father! I am all too often guilty of only viewing other’s views as something silly or something they will “grow out of”. Or worse, I sometimes fall into the “if they only knew what I know now” camp–not only lacking love but brimming in vanity! I pray often that God will make me humble so I may love others and serve Him in that way. Pray for me. God bless!

  2. Thank you for your wise and timely words. They apply not only to theological debate, but also to political debate, as differences between Christians can be extreme and tightly held.

  3. I had friends who after high school entered the Word of Faith movement. I belonged to a Pentecostal denomination for about a decade before I returned to more mainstream Evangelical traditions. I never could swallow the Hagin and Copeland hermeneutic. How do you tell sincere believers their understanding of prayer and spirituality is rooted in occult ideas (New Thought), not in the true gospel? Unfortunately, I’ve lost touch with those friends. I’d love nothing better than to get the chance to answer the question as to why I became Orthodox.

  4. Fr. Andrew,

    Thanks for this. Growing up in charismatic churches which were being invaded by the prosperity movement led me into atheism in my early adult life. I actually thought that charismatic, dispensational, prosperity Evangelicalism = Christianity. And so do many others; we Orthodox have to take this very seriously. I encounter more of these Christians than Reformed, Anglicans and Lutherans in my area.

    Thank you for advocating for true ecumenism; that is what made me convert. Someone loved me enough to patiently tell me the truth about Christ’s Church.

    1. One other thing:

      As a black person, it really bothers me to see Blacks, and often the most socioeconomically depressed among us, fall prey to these guys. They think that teachers like Dollar are their way out of poverty. It’s a vicious circle, if you’re still poor once you embrace the teaching then the problem isn’t with Dollar or the teaching: it’s either your faith isn’t strong enough OR you have to “plant more seeds”, iow, give more money.

      God illumine them!

  5. I liked this article a lot. I think if most theological interactions started from that place of mutual respect and friendship then polemics would be much more muted in online and personal interactions.

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