All this said, there are major barriers between the Orthodox mindset and the Truth which I suppose in the majority of cases are not pulled down by our preaching to the Orthodox. The true Gospel is capable of pulling down strongholds- and Paul clearly has in mind the massive structures which men allow to develop in their worldviews. Yet the majority refuse to let the Gospel exercise its power. They prefer to remain with the old, for the old always seems better. The Lord criticizes the basic conservatism of the human condition; and yet it is this conservatism which the Orthodox so glorify and justify. It’s worth turning people to the Lord’s parable about the old and new wine, and making this point to them.
For the Orthodox, seeing and viewing is more important than hearing. Therefore there are countless icons, symbols, and symbolic actions. Generally in their churches there are no sermons; their faith is made visible and dramatized in the liturgy. Against this we have to insist that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God in the Gospel. Point out to contacts that the crowds asked Jesus to come down from the cross, that they might see and believe. But the Lord didn’t come down. He knew that faith isn’t related to seeing. Remind them of the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1,2- that faith is seeing what cannot be seen literally. This, to me, is one of the most basic barriers which we encounter. However, we would do as well to openly admit that we run the risk of intellectual understanding becoming more important than feeling, and this leads us to the danger of rationalism. Admit the problems of our tendencies, in the hope that an Orthodox contact will admit the dangers of theirs.
Orthodoxy spread to Russia, Bulgaria etc. by travellers visiting the Christian churches in Constantinople and being impressed with their beauty. They were enchanted with the icons, frescoes, and mosaics, the many types of artworks, and beautiful songs in the solemn liturgy. In that way the Russians came into contact with the culture and religion of the powerful, rich, artistic, and art-loving Byzantine empire. At the end of the tenth century they consciously chose in favor of the Byzantine type of Christianity and asked Constantinople to send missionaries to their country. So the whole Orthodox world-view was based around that which is visible, rather than Bible reading. The Russian Prince Vladimir visited the Church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 987, and witnessed the Divine Liturgy. On returning to Russia he commented: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty”. You’ll realize that essentially, the Orthodox church of today hold the same basic view. The simple fact that God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, but in humble hearts, has simply not been given its due weight. The Orthodox idea is that God does dwell in houses made by human hands, if those houses are made beautiful enough for Him. A simple quoting of the relevant passages about God preferring not to live in such houses but rather in the hearts of those who tremble at His word ought to provoke Orthodox adherents to serious reflection.
This type of Christianity fitted the religious mindset of the Russians, who by nature had and still have a feeling for mysticism, beauty and art. I have heard requests from Russian brethren and sisters for things like identifying badges, and for guidance regarding gravestones- there is a desire for a uniform symbol to be placed on them. We ought to go along with these requests. We can’t impose the Western way upon the East. There is nothing wrong in itself with a more ‘visual’ approach to faith, so long as the faith itself is Bible based.
In the Russian churches, just as in the other Orthodox churches, the worship or liturgy is central. The services are long and festive, but without the proclamation of the word. One nearly never hears normal speaking in the services. Everything is presented by a priest or male choir by singing verses without musical accompaniment. Yet once a person can be encouraged to know the joy of personal Bible study, of personal exploration and discovery, it becomes apparent to them that a religion not based around the Scriptures is not a valid way to reach for the Father who has given us His word through which to know Him.
Noteworthy is the teaching of icon worship. When a believer worships an icon of Christ, Mary, or a saint, he connects with the heavenly, divine world, because there is a mystical bond between the icon and the person in heaven who is represented; even more: the person portrayed is truly and in reality present in his representation, so that the Orthodox speak of a kind of “union in essence”. Icons as we know are ‘out’ for any Bible-respecting faith. I have found that doing character studies of Bible characters, with close attention to the Bible text, is found to be an exciting thing for those from an Orthodox background. We can do this even before attempting to tackle major doctrinal issues; for such studies demonstrate that the Biblical rather than the merely visual is the essence of true faith. Yet all the same, we need to seek to make Biblical matters come ‘alive’, and as much visual support as we can muster is vital.
Another major barrier is that Orthodox people find it hard to give up their deep respect for tradition. Indeed, whoever participates in a service in a beautiful and artistically appointed cathedral, comes under the impression of its loftiness. An unforgettable atmosphere is created not only by the singing of the choir, but also by the attire of the priests and bishops, the sparkle of thousands of candles, illuminating gold and silver objects on the altar, and the devotion of the attending believers. We have nothing to compete with this. All I can say is that we must stress that faith comes from hearing God’s word, not seeing things; it isn’t about merely observing, but actively participating in the true tabernacle, which is invisible to mortal eyes. And the true traditions are those which are in Scripture; we are in that sense followers of a deep and long tradition, although not of human making.
Finally, we have to point out one more difference, namely, that in the East the community is given a central place. The deeply rooted sense of solidarity and union overarches the entire religious and personal life. Indeed one can speak of a “holy collectivism.” The West, on the contrary, is individualistic: there is more concern for the individual and his freedom and rights than for the community. Therefore, in the East there have been constant warnings against destructive individualism, in which people see a threat to the ideal of the community. To counter this we need to point how the teaching of Jesus stressed the value of persons, a recognition of the immense value to Him of each individual- the parable of the lost sheep, searched for whilst the 99 were left in the wilderness, is a good starting point. Yet we also need to stress that we are not merely a loose-knit collection of individuals who broadly have the same intellectual, theological understanding of the Bible. We are a living family. Show some photos of Bible Schools, where ex-Orthodox people from throughout Russia and Eastern Europe come together as one dynamic family. By doing so we allow the Lord’s prophecy of John 17 to come true- that by our unity, the whole world will know the reality of He whom we preach.