Over the years I have heard different clergy and lay people use this above phrase to characterize how Orthodox saints of the past have approached bringing the Apostolic Faith to new countries. On May 11th our church will be hosting an event that honors Ss. Cyril & Methodius (9th century saints) who are very dear to both Macedonians and Bulgarians for bringing the Orthodox Faith to their lands in their own native tongue. These saints also supplied them with their own written alphabet that they never had before. Is this what it means to baptize a culture? I will speak more about Cyril and Methodius as “baptizers of a culture” at the May 11th event at our church. But I want to cite another quote from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians and share some thoughts on the idea of baptizing the culture we live in today.
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be a partaker of it with you. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
One of the things that struck me about St. Paul’s words here is that before he could approach people with gospel of Jesus Christ, he needed to know and understand the world they lived in. He needed to know something of their customs, language, and way of life. He needed to be a good listener and observer of people’s behavior before he started preaching to them. St. Paul himself was a Jew who was born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus. He knew the Greek language of the time and Hebrew as well. I am not sure how familiar he was with Latin. But St. Paul grew up in a world where he was exposed to a number of different cultures. This may have helped him to “be all things to all men” in his missionary work. Yet being from the tribe of Benjamin St. Paul described himself as a zealous Pharisee, a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, and a true child of Israel (See Philippians 3:5). So in getting to know someone else’s culture and way of life does not mean that one need deny their own.
Early in the life of the Church as recorded in the book of Acts, a conflict arose between those Hebrews who had embraced Christ and were baptized and the so called “Gentiles” who received the gospel of our Lord Jesus, were baptized, but were not circumcised. Circumcision as described in Genesis 17 was commanded by God to perform as a sign that someone was a child of Abraham. The Hebrew Christians believed that in addition to accepting Christ and being baptized that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the precepts of the Jewish law as defined the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Read Chapter 15 of Acts for a summary of this conflict. The first council of the Church met in Jerusalem to address this issue and deemed it proper not to impose on the Gentiles the Jewish practice of circumcision. The Hebrew Christians believed that in order to be saved, circumcision was required in addition to accepting Christ and being baptized. The council of Jerusalem affirmed that men are saved and purified by faith in Christ. Circumcision would not be imposed on non-Jews. So can we conclude from this that while we affirm and keep the culture through which we embrace the Christian faith, we are not to impose that same culture upon others (who don’t share that same culture) as a condition for accepting the Orthodox Christian faith? Can diverse forms of expressing the content of the Faith co-exist as long as the form by which it is expressed doesn’t change the content (substance of the faith) and its meaning? So as a first rule of baptizing a culture, I first need to know who I am as a person, and then I need to know the culture of the environment I am currently living in as I seek to bear witness to Christ.
As Orthodox Christians do we really understand the nature of the western world we live in today; especially here in the Midwest part of the United States? Ever since Christianity became the legal religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, much of evangelism for the following centuries consisted of converting the ruler, prince, monarch, or tsar of a certain land, and the subjects of that ruler were expected to embrace the faith as well. There was no separation of church and state. The two worked actively together for the earthly and spiritual well being of the world. Here in America church and state are separated and there is no emperor or king we can turn to for support. The Orthodox Church has no monopoly on the citizens of this country. We have no czar, king, emperor, or prince to support the Church and provide for its material needs.
America was largely founded as a Protestant oriented country. It wasn’t until 1960 our country elected its first Roman Catholic President. The core of America’s value lies in the rights of its people as individuals to pursue life, liberty and happiness. In America the words of the Frank Sinatra song ring true today; “I did it my way.” Today America is place of diverse cultures, religions, and beliefs. It is becoming increasingly humanistic and secular in its approach to and understanding of people. Religion is seen as a private affair that is getting more and more boxed in regarding the public influence it once had. There may have been a time the church community was the center of a family’s way of life. But in the last 35 years that has become increasingly replaced by the public/private school system and the activities that go with it. The school calendar now orders the family way of life in today’s culture, not the liturgical calendar. This is not shared as a complaint as much as an observation.
I do think one of the ways the Orthodox Church seeks to “baptize a culture” is through Her liturgical life that is observed throughout the church year. But how can a local Orthodox parish do this when it finds itself in a cultural reality that does not hold the observance of a church year and its liturgical calendar as a priority? We as Orthodox Christians need to rediscover the importance of the church year and the value of worship. But more so we need to see how our participation in the events of the church year are not just about fitting more busy activities into our already busy calendar schedule. It is about being able to see how the Church Year and the Holy Days we commemorate serve to lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. At the center of those feasts and events lies the Paschal message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We still have a lot of growing and maturing to do as Orthodox Christians. Even after 215 years of witness here in North America we are still understood by the Non-Orthodox as Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Syrian, or Macedonian or even Jewish! We are seen primarily as an ethnic group, and secondarily as a Christian group. As long as we continue to order, structure, and understand our church life here in America primarily in terms of an ethic identity I question whether we will be able to engage this culture we live in today, bear witness to it as Orthodox Christians, and bear fruit. I believe that the future of Orthodox Christianity in America will lie in churches that are multi-cultural in its demographics, and smaller in size. If the Orthodox Church does grow it will be through individuals making decisions to join Her as opposed to groups and nationalities embracing Orthodox Christianity. Finally the responsibility for evangelistic witness to this culture today does not lie with a priest, a bishop, an emperor, or a czar, but collectively it is the responsibility of the local Orthodox Church. No czar or emperor will save us. If we don’t practice sound Christian Stewardship to support the efforts made to bear witness to our Faith in the world we now live in, some of our parishes are destined to become museums and not places of living faith. Take care, Fr. Paul