by Robert Arakaki & ‘Nicodemus’
While it is true that compared to broader Evangelicalism, neither Orthodox nor Reformed traditions have been known to be champions for Discipleship programs, both are bound to the Great Commission mandate to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). So the subject of Discipleship offers an excellent opportunity to highlight some similarities and differences between the two traditions.
But what is a Disciple of Christ? What does he or she look like? How do they live and act? And, what is his or her goal and vision for living a faithful Christian life? For example, if God’s purpose and the Christian’s focus is all wrapped up in saving as many souls from hell fire as possible – then we can expect a high priority to be put on mass evangelism and “getting people saved” from hell. In contrast, if our vision of the Christian life is focused more on living a disciplined and holy Christian life, then priorities beyond evangelism and salvation must be taken into consideration.
Here the difference in goal and vision of Orthodoxy and Reformed Protestantism is not so stark or pronounced as some might think. The glory of God and a zeal to see Him worshiped in all creation appear to be central to both. Or, perhaps better said, the vision and goals might be better revealed in the how or the doing of discipleship. Here the contrasts are a bit more stark.
As is true of much of Evangelicalism, the central component to Reformed Discipleship is the word of God given in Holy Scripture. This is natural as one of the foundational, if not central tenets of all Protestantism is Sola Scriptura. Simply stated, the word of God, inscripturated in the written text of the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. Note that this does not completely rule out other authorities, like the Church and Tradition. They can and certainly are very useful additional sources of instruction. Yet Scripture alone is the only infallible source of Truth, and thus naturally becomes dominant in all aspects of Reformed or Protestant discipleship.
Therefore, a new Christian must be continuously trained and exhorted to learn and know his Bible. Knowing and obeying the Scriptures as God’s infallible word to him is his primary task. And what is true of the disciple, is more especially true of the Pastor/Elder, who is called to become a master teacher and preacher of the text of Scripture. I remember one Pastor’s quip to me years ago after I had marveled at his recall of an Old Testament passage, saying, “My business is the Word of God, and I take my business very seriously.”
This premium upon the infallible Word naturally translates into a host of study guides, memorizations and catechisms so that the Christian Disciple is progressively, to use the words of another Pastor, “saturated with Bible.” A great compliment said of more than one highly esteemed Pastor is:“He’s so saturated with the Scriptures that when you cut him, he bleeds Scripture!”
Yet we might ask IF the knowledge of Scripture is enough? Is a perfect score on any Bible exam enough? As impressive and proud one may be to attain such Bible mastery, it would be rare to find a Reformed or Evangelical Protestant Pastor who believed mere Bible mastery enough, or that all we want in a Christian Disciple is Bible knowledge. No, Bible saturation, as important as it is, is only a means to the higher ends of understanding Truth and living a holy life of repentance and worship. Worship and holiness are the ultimate goals, and Bible mastery, which leads to theological understanding is a critical prelude to these.
The Christian disciple is not merely one who knows and understands the word of God well. He is one who believes and thus obeys and practices what he knows to be true. He faithfully connects himself to a Church that champions the teaching, understanding and obedience to the Word of God. Thus, we see why so many Protestant Preacher become so skilled and exceptional, as the premium upon clear and effective teaching and preaching of the Word is so central. This could all, no doubt, be better said and fleshed out in more detail. But we must ask where the Orthodox finds himself in all this?
The Church & Tradition
Though there are many similarities we might point to in basic Christian beliefs, Orthodoxy has a somewhat different vision for discipleship. First of all, in contrast to sola scriptura, the Orthodox find their focus upon The Church. As the Apostle Paul taught in I Timothy 3:15, the Church is the pillar and ground of Truth. And it is to this Church that the Apostles entrusted the Faith, once and for all delivered to the saint as its guardian and protector (Jude v. 3). Thus, Her services, Liturgies, Prayers and Sacraments, Fasts, Confessions, Feast – The Tradition – are essential to Orthodox Discipleship.
The Orthodox convert sees himself a part of the Liturgical and Sacramental community of the Holy Spirit. Rather than changing or reforming her into a new-and-improved Church, the Orthodox disciple is changed by Her, in the ancient Liturgies and Traditions. Here, the ancient Church calendar is prominent as the life of the Christian is transformed in and by the practiced repetition of Her Divine Liturgies, prayers, Sacramental mysteries, sacred fasts and Holy Communion. By these, the world is changed (discipled) in union with the Church, as the cultivation of humility, submission leads to what Orthodoxy call Theosis – union with God.
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (II Peter 1:3-4, NIV; emphasis added)
It is likely a strange notion for Protestants to imagine that a Liturgical and Sacrament life full or Ritual and repetition could by itself transform anything. Nevertheless, the Orthodox do not believe they are practicing or following mere human inventions. Indeed, they believe their Sacraments, Prayers, Liturgies and Traditions are all divinely received revelations from the Apostles, via the Holy Spirit who transcends them all. Thus, the praxis of Orthodoxy is a multi-layered sanctifying pedagogy, received from the Holy Spirit, via the Apostles and Fathers (much like Protestants assume the same about the New Testament).
Granted, there is certainly a danger should the sacred Tradition become cold and sterile ritual. Orthodox will admit that the Church has too often fallen into this. The remedy for this is renewed fervor through repentance, not changing the service format. The Liturgy and Traditions demand the sincerity of heart, and prayer for the same Holy Spirit that gave them to the Church for Her sanctification and glory, will bless their use and practice in the Church. A similar danger can admitted to exist for Protestantism. Without the presence and blessing of the Holy Spirit, all the learning of Scripture and knowledge can turn into a haughty pride, if not ugly arrogance.
For the Orthodox, this is the liturgical and sacramental Tradition that is essential not only for the life Church to grow and mature in, but in their pious practice there is increased understanding and strengthening grace for the life of the world. For it is in these sacred Traditions where the potent power of the Gospel really lies. Thus, we do not neutralize the Spiritual power in Baptism, Bread and Wine, Prayers – the Tradition delivered by the Apostles God has ordained to disciple the nations. Let us look at a few of these in particular.
Uniting With Christ – Baptism
Becoming Orthodox is often described as a journey. Because of our sins we are far from God but we have this hunger for God, a desire to be reunited with God. Like Protestants, Orthodoxy teaches that we are saved through faith in Christ. Yet it seems the two traditions often have different understandings of what it means to have faith in Christ. Some Protestants seem to understand faith in Christ in terms of intellectual assent to our sinful state and Christ dying on the Cross for our salvation.
The beginning point for discipleship in Orthodoxy is the sacrament of baptism. In early Christianity salvation was understood not merely or even primarily as appeasing God’s anger against sin, but a radical transfer of allegiance from Satan to Christ. In Orthodox baptism the candidate is called upon to repudiate Satan and to spit on him. Then the candidate is asked three times: “Doest thou unite thyself unto Christ?” Later the candidate is called on to bow down before the Trinity saying: “I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in Essence and undivided.” For the Orthodox becoming a follower of Christ is much like acquiring a new citizenship. One comes under the lordship of Jesus Christ and becomes a member of a new commonwealth, the Church.
Worship as Formation — The Divine Liturgy
Orthodox worship differs from most Protestant churches. Protestant worship usually centered upon the sermon and creative expression. Orthodoxy discipleship is overwhelmingly focused on formation over information, being over knowledge.
The Liturgy is the core of Orthodox discipleship. What may appear to first time visitors as elaborate rituals and ceremonies really functions as teaching tools for being Orthodox. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians stand throughout the entire Liturgy. Standing is symbolic of our being raised with Christ. One sits for a lecture or watching a performance. What do Orthodox Christians do when they stand? We listen and pray the prayers in our hearts. Over time as we become familiar with the prayers, their words begin to shape our understanding of who God is. We also respond either through spoken responses like: “Lord, Have mercy” or by making the sign of the cross.
Attending an Orthodox Liturgy on a regular basis one quickly acquires a sacred sense of mystery and holiness. Making the ancient and historic sign of the cross, likely from the Apostolic era, one becomes conscious of how central the Trinity is to Orthodox worship. Initially, Orthodox Liturgy might seem only an elaborate ritual full of ornate prayers all but an incomprehensible mess. But after several months one begins to perceive an underlying pattern and the biblical teachings behind ritual bodily actions. The Small Entrance where the priest comes out carrying the Gospels symbolizes God sending forth his messengers, the prophets and apostles, to the human race. The Great Entrance where the priest comes out carrying the bread and the wine is rich in symbolism. The priest can be seen as symbolizing the humble donkey carrying Christ into Jerusalem and the congregation symbolizes the crowd of onlookers who shouted “Hosanna!” and some later crying “Crucify him!” The Small Entrance symbolizes the coming of the inscripturated word of God and the Great Entrance the coming of the incarnated Word of God.
The altar area resembles the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament Tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant was located. It also symbolizes heaven where the angels and the departed saints reside. So when the priest celebrates the Eucharist and brings out the Body and Blood of Christ we are invited to partake in the Messianic Banquet foretold in the Old Testament. It is as if the Old Testament prophecies and the Book of Revelation is played out for us in 3-D.
In most Reformed churches the high point of the Sunday service is the sermon or the Word preached. But in the Orthodox Church the high point of worship is the Eucharist in which we receive, by eating and drinking, the body and blood of Christ. Just before we go up to receive Communion, we say this ancient prayer:
I believe, Lord, and I confess, that You are truly the Christ, Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest. I also believe that this is truly Your spotless Body, and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Wherefore I pray You: have mercy on me and forgive my offenses, whether or not intended, whether committed in word or deed, knowingly or unwittingly; and count me worthy to share without judgment in Your pure Mysteries, for remission of sins and for everlasting life. Amen.
Before going up for Communion the Orthodox disciple must prepare himself through fasting and confession. To be unprepared to receive Communion can imperil our relationship with God. But proper preparation can also enhance our receptivity to the spiritual benefits in the Eucharist. The early Christians referred to the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality.”
Discipleship and Spiritual Healing
Orthodoxy gives greater emphasis to understanding salvation as spiritual healing for life, in contrast to Western Christianity’s strong judicial emphasis. While it is true that when we sin we violate God’s law, it is important to view sin as a form of spiritual injury. Our failure to love God and our neighbors distorts the image of God within us. Sin and the passions of the flesh also dull our awareness of God’s presence. Unlike certain Protestant groups that seem to understand salvation as an instantaneous event, Orthodox views salvation as a gradual day by day journey like the Prodigal Son to the welcoming arms of his loving father. As Christians we sin and fall down, then we get up again and take another step of faith. The spiritual disciplines taught by the Orthodox Church are designed to help prepare us for life in the age to come.
Carrying the Cross
Just as Jesus Christ had a cross to carry so do we likewise have a cross to carry. Jesus said:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, NIV)
Orthodox discipleship means that we follow Christ and like Christ we die to ourselves. The underlying premise of Orthodoxy is not: If we follow Christ we will have a rich, happy, fulfilling life, but that: If we follow Christ we will become like him and that we will become sharers in his resurrection.
The Discipline of Prayer
Orthodox Christians are called to live a life of prayer. In addition to the Liturgy we are called to pray on a daily basis. Many Protestants were taught a devotional practice called the “quiet time.” This consists of reading the Bible, reflecting on the passage, and praying for others. The Morning Prayers is liturgical in structure and format. The benefit of the Orthodox Morning Prayers is that it is Trinitarian in focus and much of it is focused on giving glory to God and to seeking the kingdom of God on earth.
One well known Orthodox spiritual discipline is the Jesus Prayer and the prayer rope. The prayer rope consists of a loop of thirty three, fifty or one hundred black woolen knots. Each time one says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” one moves to the next knot. After a while the Jesus Prayer becomes ingrained in one’s memory and subconscious. By this practice the Orthodox carry out Paul’s instruction in I Thessalonians 5:17: “pray continually.”
Confession and Spiritual Direction
Unlike Protestantism which believes in the instantaneous forgiveness of all sins when we believe in Christ, Orthodoxy believes that the forgiveness of sins is an incremental process. God forgives all our sins but only those sins we actually committed; not future hypothetical sins. The emphasis here is on our being with God in a love relationship rather than an abstract judicial one. When we fall into sin we become like the Prodigal Son running away from the Father’s house. When we repent we are making our way back home. Orthodox discipleship is much like the Prodigal Son slowly making his way back home step by step. There are times when he slips up but he gets up again and resumes his journey back home.
Confession is a sacrament of the church. When we confess our sins we allow God’s light into the dark places of our souls. When we confess our sins we are also renouncing Satan’s hold on us. With the help of the priest we gain self awareness of who we are. Confession can be approached superficially through the listing of the bad things we’ve done but it can become a powerful means of spiritual growth when we prepare for it by examining our lives for the good things we could have done but failed to do or by examining the underlying motives behind our sinful habits. Confession is also a time when the priest gives us advice and counsel about how we can strengthen our spiritual life.
The Discipline of Obedience
There is a strong independent streak in Protestant Christianity. In many instances the Protestant attitude is: Show me where it says so in the Bible first and if I agree with your interpretation I will do it. In Orthodoxy when one becomes Orthodox comes under the authority of the Church and its leaders. Submission to church leaders is taught in the Bible.
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17, NIV)
One of the radical differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy is the role of submission to the authority of the bishop. To become Orthodox is to come under the authority of the local bishop. Lev Gillet said:
An Orthodox is one who accepts the Apostolic Tradition and who lives in communion with the bishops who are the appointed teachers of the Tradition (in Kallistos Ware’s The Inner Kingdom, p. 14; italics in original).
The authority of the bishop and the priest is not arbitrary but exercised within the context of Tradition. Many times what the priest does is to remind his parishioners of their commitment to follow the spiritual disciplines like fasting and almsgiving. Obedience is an important component in spiritual direction. When the priest directs a parishioner to cease a sinful practice, he is acting very much like a doctor advising a diabetic to change his diet.
The Discipline of Fasting
When I was a Protestant Evangelical, I never heard about fasting during a Sunday sermon. The one time I learned about fasting as a spiritual discipline was when my Sunday School class was going through Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. In the Evangelical circles I was part of fasting was an exotic practice, not an essential part of discipleship.
Fasting is an integral part of being Orthodox. In addition to Lent and the other fasting seasons, there were the weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts. The rationale behind fasting is controlling one’s desires, saying no one’s self, i.e., self denial. There is a tremendous healing power in fasting. When one learns to control one’s physical appetite one will be in a better position to deal with other inner desires or demons like lust, pride, selfishness, covetousness etc. The Orthodox discipline of fasting takes one back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve succumbed to their appetites and self centeredness resulting in sin. It also helped me to identify with Christ who spent forty days in the wilderness fasting. It also helped me relate to Christ’s instruction about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18).
Lent — A Spiritual Marathon
Every spring Orthodox Christians embark on a spiritual marathon known as “Great Lent.” Great Lent has three major components: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. For more than a month Orthodox Christians become vegans giving up meat (beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs) and dairy products (milk, cheese, half and half for coffee, ice cream, yogurt, butter). During Lent I become very aware of how many food commercials there are on television and how much the commercials appeal to our satisfying our bodily appetites. Modern consumerism based on narcissism and hedonism is very often the antithesis the Orthodox world view.
During Lent, there are two or three additional services scheduled during the week. The focus of these services is repentance, faith in Christ, and spiritual warfare. Lent reaches a climax with Holy Week when there are church services everyday culminating in the Pascha (Easter) service. At Pascha the entire Orthodox world celebrates Christ’s victory over death. The intensity of attending these services has no parallel in Protestantism. During Lent we die to ourselves in so many different ways and we experience spiritual growth in small ways.
Becoming Orthodox is much like becoming part of a family of athletes who work out on a regular basis and who do several marathons in the course of the year. There is no place for spiritual couch potatoes in Orthodoxy! If one skips the spiritual disciplines and lives a self indulgent lifestyle one is living in willful disobedience to the teachings of the Church. A football player who skips the practices and workout sessions runs the risk of being kicked off the team by the coach.
There is much wisdom in the Lenten disciplines. Fasting teaches us self control and strengthens our ability to say no to temptation and bodily passions. Almsgiving is a way of combating materialism, consumerism, and covetousness. The additional services during the week are especially hard for workaholics. We like to squeeze whatever extra hours we can to get more done! Because Lent is so demanding new converts are advised to incorporate the Lenten disciplines gradually over time. Another important principle for Lent and the Orthodox approach to discipleship is that while Orthodoxy has a lot of rules it is not legalistic. The purpose of the disciplines is to help us grow in our love for God and others. If we do not grow in love and faith then the time and energy invested in the disciplines are wasted.
Icons of the Saints
Orthodox churches have icons of Christ and the saints in front on the icon screen (iconostasis) and on the walls. The icons can be understood as Orthodoxy’s hall of fame. The Church remembers the saints’ all out commitment to Christ and holds them up as models for us to emulate and as inspiration for when we face tough times. Remembering the saints and seeking their intercessions can be an important spiritual discipline.
Desert Fathers and Monasteries
There is in Orthodoxy a strand of teaching that encourages us to go out into the desert to draw closer to God. This strand of teaching can be found in the Desert Fathers. This helps us from being seduced and overwhelmed by the comfort and affluence of material society. Another way of growing in the faith is by visiting monasteries. I’ve found it helpful to spend a few days at a monastery. By going to a monastery I withdraw from the busyness of the world and enter into a place where life is centered around prayer and worship. It is also a time when I can reassess where I am in my spiritual journey and discern what God is trying to say to me.
The quiet and prayer centeredness of the monastery stands in contrast to the Protestant camps and conferences that are jammed pack with activities, talks, and rousing worship services. One can learn a lot at these conferences and come away feeling charged up but there is a unique value to learning to be centered in prayer in a monastic setting.
The Goal of Orthodox Discipleship — Theosis
The aim of the Orthodox life is theosis — becoming sharers in the divine nature. All too often Protestants seem to present the goal of the Christian life as gaining entrance into a wonderful place called Heaven. But the goal of the Christian life is more than a place but union with Jesus Christ the Son of God. When we are joined with Christ, our personalities and our entire being will be transformed (see II Peter 1:3-4).
A good picture of our present state and our future state can be found in the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). The Transfiguration is a major feast day in the Orthodox Church. The Transfiguration icon shows Jesus standing on the top of Mount Horeb surrounded by the mandorla — an almond-shaped area of light. The disciples — Peter, James, and John — are shown in various postures indicating their spiritual immaturity. They comprise the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and yet they were in the state of sleepiness (Luke 10:32). Moses and Elijah are shown standing and conversing with Christ. They have entered into the state of perfection (maturity) being able to discuss with Christ the things of God. This is the promise that while in this present life we are stumbling and fumbling like Peter and his companions, one day we will undergo a profound transformation like that experienced by Moses and Elijah. The Apostle John wrote:
But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2; NIV)
So while we struggle to be faithful disciples day in and day out, we persevere in the disciplines of the Orthodox Faith knowing that one day we will become transformed and transfigured beings bringing glory to God.