The Eastern Orthodox Church
and the Atonement
Q. Now that we have many contacts in Eastern Europe where the dominant tradition is Orthodoxy, I feel it is important we understand what we have in common with the Orthodox Church and where we are different. You have written about points of similarity but are there any real fundamental differences? And if so, what are these?
A. The Eastern Orthodox Church is a very old one indeed and, arguably, even older than the Roman Catholic tradition. It has evolved considerably over the centuries.
Although Eastern Orthodoxy has much in common with what I will broadly call "evangelical Christianity" it does not believe that salvation is solely through the atoning work of God in Christ but teaches that it is the church which unites humans with Christ through the "Seven Sacraments". In other words, salvation in Christ, according to Eastern Orthodoxy, is impossible without the church. This is, of course, completely unscriptural.
A Romanian Baptist pastor, Paul Negrut, comments: "This idea is appealing to the Western world because it does not emphasise sin or repentance. It is a religion without the dramatic crisis of a new birth or responsibility of living a godly life."
It is very important that we understand this when witnessing to Eastern Orthodox Christians. Without the New Birth there is no salvation in Christ. Eastern Orthodoxy is but another form of "churchiolatry" like Catholicism, Mormonism, the Jehovah's Witness religion and (some would argue) Seventh Day Adventism which requires membership in a "true church" or "organisation" for salvation. Salvation is, for them, adherence to a tradition rather than a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus if any of these Churches were to suddenly "disappear" it would be impossible to be saved.
Whilst we like much of what Eastern Orthodoxy stands for we have to say that membership in, and adherence to its doctrine of salvation through the seven sacraments, is without any spiritual merit in terms of salvation. During the communist era the Eastern Church was virtually a puppet of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, notwithstanding the occasional brave voice. Whilst this Church collaborated with the communists, people like the unregistered Baptist Churches were being persecuted. (Of course, the East German Lutherans were largely controlled by the communist party too).
We need also remember the reasons why that great nation, Russia, and other Slav nations like the Ukraine, accepted Orthodoxy over Catholicism, Islam and Judaism was (a) because the Russians were impressed by the colour and grandeur of the ritual of the Greek Orthodox (Byzantine) Church, and (b) because abandoning alcohol (a requirement of Islam) was unthinkable to their princes. The conversion of the vast bulk of the Eastern Orthodox lands had nothing to do with a spiritual rebirth, as was also true in areas of Catholic hegemony. We should also remember that England became Protestant not because the English people were converted to the Reformers' doctrine but because the Pope would not grant a divorce to an adulterous king (Henry VIII). As the Norwegian King Olav "the Holy" (sic!) forced his people to convert to Catholicism on pain of death, so also did the Russian princes threaten their people with death by the sword if they were not baptised.
As Bible-believing Christians we cannot take seriously any religious tradition purporting to be "Christian" which owes its origin to force or violence. History demonstrates conclusively that all the powerful Christian denominations -- Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism and Mormonism -- were established by means totally incompatible with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whilst we may take God-fearing and Christ-honouring Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Mormons and Lutherans seriously we, as New Covenant Christians, cannot extend the same respect to their respective traditions. Indeed, we must ask them, as Jesus would have done: "Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?" (Matt.15:3). "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men" (Mk.7:8).
This page was created on 16 October 1997
Last updated on 26 February 1998
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