Drinking Coffee without Controversy

Recently I stood in my church’s crowded fellowship hall with my Styrofoam cup of coffee, savoring the genuine half-and-half on a non-fasting day and feeling content after another beautiful Divine Liturgy. Somehow this after-church mingling felt different than even the warmest times of fellowship in my Protestant days. But why?

[Photo by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash]

Yes, the liturgy was beautiful, filled with deep truths and symbolism that will take me a lifetime to unpack. But something else was different. I just couldn’t place it.

Suddenly the realization hit me.

In eight years spent inside an Orthodox church, I have never once heard a theological debate.

Let me repeat that: not a single theological debate. In the context of my heterodox past, this reality is revolutionary and maybe just a little bit miraculous.

Lock any two Protestants in a room with their Styrofoam cups, and they will argue over the number, preferred form, and meaning of the sacraments. Every. Single. One.

They will also debate End Times theology, the inerrancy of Scripture, proper biblical interpretation, and an unending list of recent trends, such as praise songs versus hymns or the use of fog machines during the music portion of the service. (Note to my cradle Orthodox readers: I am not making up that last bit.)

[Image from Pixabay]

Lock two Orthodox in a room, and they will argue church budget priorities, the odds of an autocephalous (independent and self-governing) American Orthodox Church within our generation, and traffic flow during coffee hour. They will not argue over praying in tongues or the benefits of adding a drum kit to the choir loft.

Heterodox Doctrines Divide

I remember a slogan that was popular in Protestant circles a while back: “Doctrine divides, but love unites.” The saying was an attempt to wave a flag of unity in a crowded field of multiple belief systems.

[Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]

I understand the reasoning behind that perspective, because differing beliefs cause division on a regular basis in Protestant organizations. When teachings are based on individual interpretation of Scripture, the person with the most persuasive argument wins the day. And with enough allies, he or she takes control of the church.

In my own limited experience I have seen Protestant churches, schools, and ministries split and even disintegrate when new leadership introduced different teachings and practices. I have also seen churches continue to grow even though the structure of their services and the sermon content are unrecognizable from those of previous decades.

Ancient, Unchanging Doctrines Unite

A few years ago an Orthodox monk commented on the differing beliefs of various Christian congregations and asked a friend of mine a good question, his voice full of wonder: “Why are Protestants still arguing about things that were settled a thousand years ago?”

He had been blessed to grow up within the unity of the ancient Faith and couldn’t understand the ongoing controversies. He knew from experience that when doctrine is rooted in the apostolic teachings of the historic Church, passed down through the centuries, it does not divide—it unites us in Christ. Not only today, but with the faithful across all time.

We worship together as one in the Divine Liturgy, differing only in languages and local customs. We are united in a Eucharistic community where we partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and His real presence is celebrated without divergence of opinion over the bread and wine. The teachings, the books of the Bible, and the Creed that defines Christian belief were all settled in the first seven Ecumenical Councils.

[Icon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council – Source Unknown]

In contrast, the Protestant Reformation couldn’t hold unity for even a generation before splintering. Even in modern times the teachings of many denominations have changed radically from one decade to the next. The family tree of Protestantism is full of doctrinal divorces with multiple branches of stepfamilies.

Yet even in the midst of these divisions, as an Evangelical I was taught the important concept of the Church as family—the body of Christ, united by Jesus as the Head. We spoke and sang of a unity that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, transcends our weaknesses and differences.

One popular song at youth meetings and interdenominational gatherings contained the lyrics, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord / and we pray that our unity may one day be restored.”

I find it interesting now that in the same sentence we declared both our oneness in Christ and our lack of unity.

Drinking My Java in Peace

[Source unknown]

Nowadays I drink my coffee in peace after the liturgy. I haven’t yet been accosted by a woman who thinks we should be singing in tongues, a man who wants to debate the concept of “once saved, always saved,” or someone pushing an innovative new method of discipleship from a popular preacher.

Of course, parish life is not all bliss; family life rarely is. In the first line of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Likewise, parishes are dysfunctional in their own sometimes ridiculous ways. Members come from various backgrounds, with differing personalities and levels of spiritual maturity. We misunderstand one another. We misjudge one another. We sometimes fail to give one another the benefit of the doubt.

[Photo of St. John Maximovitch from Orthochristian.com]
[Icon from St. Joseph School for Boys bookstore]
 

But we are united, not divided, by Orthodoxy: in the Greek, “straight/sound doctrine.” If we don’t know the answer to a theological question, we don’t make one up; we can find it in writings that have been accepted by the Church everywhere and at all times.

I can pick up a translation of one of the Church Fathers without experiencing the shock of, “They actually believed that back then?” St. John Chrysostom’s sermons feel fresh and relevant today, almost as if the ink is still wet on the parchment. His fourth-century words harmonize with the seventh-century teachings of St. John of Damascus and with the twentieth-century homilies of St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco. Each of them taught and practiced the same Faith.

We may struggle with application and practice, we may struggle with each other, but the Truth is settled and unchanging. It unites us.

We are family, and we’re stuck with each other.

13 comments:

  1. Funny little story about those smoke machines. Years ago I was invited to a Sunday morning pre-service meeting to discuss signage within the charismatic church in which I was a member. (A rather detached and uncomfortable member, by that point.) We were investigating ways of labeling different locations within the sanctuary to direct people seeking specific ministry: “salvation,” “healing,” “prophecy,” etc. I don’t know how but at one point during the meeting, my mind shifted gears and I started thinking about some of the trendy things I’d been hearing about in other churches, and I sarcastically suggested that maybe we ought to spice up our worship with smoke machines, “ha ha . . . sheesh!” My wry comments elicited only silence and some quizzical looks.

    After the meeting, I trudged over to the sanctuary, where the service was already in progress. To my shock, I realized that we were in fact employing smoke machines during worship! How long had we been doing it?!? I hadn’t noticed – I was that distant and removed from the whole thing.

  2. Smoke machines…I’m imagining some Orthodox priest swinging a censer and wryly saying, “So, you finally got a smoke machine, eh?”

  3. I noticed this too!! I grew up in a reformed church, and man, we were the cream of the crop when it came to arguing! It was fun for a while, especially when I was a young and brilliant (or so I thought 🙄) college student. After a couple of kids my brain didn’t work so well and arguments were exhausting. Also I got tired of the fact that my husband and I had plenty of doctrinal arguments within our marriage.
    When we started attending orthodox services I was absolutely astonished by the utter lack of theological arguments. It leaves space to discuss really pertinent things like how to take care of people in need and be a blessing to those around us.
    Thank you!

    1. And arguing feeds our pride and self-righteousness even while we convince ourselves that we’re standing up for “truth.” You’re right–it’s exhausting and ultimately distracting.

  4. There is an American Autocephalous Orthodox Church, it is the Orthodox Church in America since 1970 when we received our Autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. We also have all the Orthodox Bishops in the United States working towards an administratively united Orthodox Church–The Assembly of Bishops, which replaced SCOBA. I’m glad you are Orthodox, however, I am sorry that you are either in an autonomous Orthodox jurisdiction or still under the Mother Church of your particular Patriarchate. Back when I was growing up in the 1960’s their was little interrelationships among the Orthodox Churches and parishes. Now we have the IOCC, and OCMC, and FOCUS where all the Orthodox parishes in the various jurisdictions are working together.

    1. I attend a Greek Orthodox church (English-speaking), although I initially explored Orthodoxy in a wonderful little OCA church. Yes, there has been much progress over the years, and I love the organizations you mentioned. My wording might have been a little sloppy.

  5. I was a Sunday School teacher in my previous church. Moms of younger children would stick around, as some of the kids would be uncomfortable (especially new families).
    This one mom felt a need to voice out that she did not believe in the Real Presence in the cup (she was responding to the day’s lesson for the Feast of Corpus Christi). The exchange left me feeling down for weeks (wondering if my attitude was “inclusive” enough).

    What followed was bitterness on my side – bitter towards that church for failing to stand up for the Truth, and expecting us to receive the Sacrament side by side people who blaspheme it.

    Anyway, I accepted that it is what it is, so I moved on.

    1. I remember being in the cry room during communion at my old church (because we “passed a plate”, not receiving communion from the hands of anyone). I always told my kids “this is Jesus’s body and blood.” But some of the moms in there with little kids were unable to answer their kids questions about communion; basic questions like “why do we do this?” “Why did Jesus die?” It wasn’t because these moms were ignorant, it was just because our church’s teaching on the Eucharist (we never called it that) was so nebulous that if you asked anyone in the leadership the same questions you would have gotten a wide variety of answers. Lord have mercy!

      1. I relate to both Zee’s and MamaV’s comments. A common approach, especially in nondenominational congregations, is to avoid theological specifics in order to accommodate people’s varying beliefs. It’s confusing and painful. May we all find healing and truth in the Orthodox Church!

  6. The frustrations can be especially acute when the pastor is arguing… with himself. There was a Babylon Bee spoof post recently about a pastor completing a 37 year series on Romans – in our case it was over 2 years. One week the pastor would be veering towards Calvin’s predestination, and the next would be countering what he had preached the prior week or retracting himself on areas where he felt he had mis-spoken, each week over-analyzing one verse to death, then another the following week. It was maddening. If you cannot even agree with yourself on your basic theology, your very understanding of who Christ is, and why He became incarnate, what is your congregation supposed to do? And worship? What was that? Oh, you mean the praise band? At least we didn’t have to contend with a fog machine, just a nave that was indistinguishable from a business center in drab grayness, distinguishable as a church only for the cross and the baptistry behind the stage with the drummer.

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