Understanding Orthodoxy: How to distinguish true mission from proselytism


Is there any difference between internal and external mission (home and foreign missions)?

As you know, the terminology “internal mission” is an influence of the German “inneremission,” and in it we have found a very easy excuse to persuade ourselves that we are missionaries by doing internal mission. And yet the commandment says clearly: ‘and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ The biblical understanding of mission (apostole) means to leave, to accept to be in another cultural environment, to be a stranger. We must distinguish between apostolic mission and the pastoral efforts that we undertake in our local churches. The pastoral efforts and the renewal of Christian life are indeed very important. In many societies now where an atheistic influence prevails, we have to be a witness (in Greek, martyria), to invite to the Church people who do not have faith. However, spiritual edification within the Church is not exactly missionary effort. Missionary effort is about having the vocation to bring into the Church that which is outside of the Church. In the beginning, we had a youthful enthusiasm for the meaning of the word mission. Later, we discovered that these words were widely used. Then we decided to use rather the word martyria, witness, not mission.

How can we distinguish true mission from proselytism?

Proselytism uses all possible means (gifts, food, money and other privileges) to achieve an aim, to bring followers into a concrete religious community. This contravenes the dignity of the human person and of the Gospel, and I believe it is really not sincere. And what is not sincere, sincere both in purpose and sincere in ways of acting, cannot be Orthodox. For me proselytism starts when other means are used, instead of the Gospel, in order to gain followers.

We do not have anxiety about statistics and followers. The Orthodox martyria must be a free witness of what we believe and what we have. A sharing of the gift that we have received. If the others accept it, fine. If they do not accept it, it is their own responsibility.

Is our mission to convert someone to Orthodoxy?

Orthodox mission consists in giving the treasure we have, and leaving the other to decide whether he will take it or not. If the other wants to join the Orthodox Church, you will never say “No.” Our aim is to transmit the tradition of the Gospel in all its fullness, remaining free from any anxiety to convert anyone. You cannot impose on anyone’s freedom. You are there, you give your witness; you are a candle, lighted by paschal joy, and if the other wishes to take from your flame, then of course, you will not refuse him.

In which place is it more difficult to conduct missionary activity, in a rich western society or in a developing country in Africa?

It depends. I do not like this phrase more difficult. Sometimes it is more difficult in a developing country, sometimes it is more difficult in an affluent country. It is not so easy to live in a developing country as a foreigner. It is, for instance, very difficult to live in Africa when there is no water or electricity. But still, it depends. Do not ask where it is more easy or more difficult; ask, “Where does God ask me to be and to go?” And the answer to this question is really a matter of personal vocation.

Very often I am asked where it is more difficult, in Africa or in Albania? I answer clearly in Albania. In Africa, it has never been forbidden to pray to God, or to dance for God; these things are taken for granted. Albania passed through a very terrible persecution for 23 years: if you had the courage to express your faith you were sent into exile or to prison.

Sometimes we find ourselves thinking that missionary activity is reserved for the clergy only. Is this true?

It is very easy to say: ‘This is for monks or priests and since I am not a monk or a priest, I do not have any obligation to do this,’ but this is a mistake.

And here I insist on a theological understanding of mission: every person who is incorporated into the Church, into the mystical body of Christ, bears a responsibility for the Church. Every person has a vocation and of course, he or she must see in his/her heart how this will be expressed and experienced.

Of course there are different ways of participating in a missionary effort. Not all of us shall leave our countries and go somewhere in Asia or in Africa. This was a western romantic vision of mission in the 19th century. Sometimes even in the old Syndesmos gatherings we had the impression that a missionary is a person that takes a cross, and goes to the forest announcing the Gospel. This is not the style of missionary work today.

To take a concrete example: Albania is a missionary field, at least for us who are not from Albania. Our excellent collaborators are not only priests but also lay people. Our team is very small, in all – twenty people, half of it is lay people: professors, teachers, nurses, administrators, catechists, translators.

For every person today there is a possibility to do missionary work. Mission is not only for priests or monks. It is for everybody. But it is also for priests and monks.

Are local cultures a help or a hindrance in mission. And how have you reacted to local cultures in your missionary experience?

This issue of culture is a very basic one. When the Gospel meets another culture, three things happen. One part of the culture clearly you have to accept – for instance, the language. Another part of the culture you have to reject – that which does not agree with the Gospel. Some customs, vendettas, or other traditions that do not grant the same dignity to women, or to other members of the society. And there is a third part, which you have to transform. I can say to “baptize.” To use it, giving it another meaning. And this was exactly what happened in the early Church. When the Gospel came to/encountered Greek culture, it was not a simple change. Greek culture was a very complicated reality. We have to see that other cultures have their own dignity, their own interest and we must respect them.

When we started to think about Africa, it was in the beginning of the sixties. At that time, the general idea was that Africa was a very simple environment, tribal, primitive, and we had to go and bring European culture to it. Then I did some studies on this, and discovered that Africa is more complicated than we think.

My supervisor had asked me to write a thesis about African symbolism in relation to Orthodox symbolism. When I started my research, I discovered that I was dealing with several hundred African languages – not dialects – and that it was impossible to work on such a theme. Then I said to myself: “Let us be more humble. For all these centuries Africa was not outside the interest of God. How did He give them His witness? What are the African religion, African symbolism, the African way of relation with God?” I understood that it was important to study African religions carefully, that it is not accurate to speak about “primitives.” Our knowledge is primitive, but they are not “primitives.”

We have to accept our ignorance and be more humble in our attitude towards others. We must accept the expressions of their feelings and their life and not say, ‘This is not Orthodox!’ What is not Orthodox? Not Orthodox is to be impure, to be dishonest, to be against the will of God, this is unorthodox. The African church is a joyful church, the Africans are cheerful people. This is a blessing, I believe, for Orthodoxy. Respect for cultures, respect for the dignity of others: this is the beginning, this is the Orthodox attitude. This respect was demonstrated in history, in the Byzantine period, when Cyrillus and Methodius went to the Slavic people. The Russian church also kept this tradition in approaching other peoples – and when they kept this respect for the dignity of others, they were successful. When we forgot it, the result of our own efforts was very poor.

Does the love of one’s enemies extend to the enemies of one’s faith, and how?

When Christ speaks about enemies, he speaks about persons. That does not mean, of course, that we have to accept the theory and style of life of our enemies. There are ways of thinking and acting of our enemy that I do not accept – and this is not a lack of love for him. We respect the person; we do not respect all the ideas and paraphernalia of this person. When we speak about love, we speak about love of other persons, not of other religious systems. We have to respect even our enemy as he or she is. But no, of course, to accept and copy his ideas and behavior.

Those who have never encountered Christ, and may piously observe the rules of their own particular faith (for example, good Muslims), will they be saved?

You know that the understanding of the other faiths is an extremely important theological question: Is God present in them? I do not think that we can answer this question very quickly. Today we face two major theological problems. The first is ecclesiological, it is the complex problem of how we see the other churches. And the second is the understanding of the other religions. Of course we accept that God has providence and interest for the whole world. We do not know clearly how this presence manifests itself. We know clearly what is the sure way for salvation to follow. As far as others are concerned, we have the responsibility to pray and to give them our witness, but we cannot take from Him the last judgment and say now just how He would judge others. And we must be a little more humble than some of our brothers who know everything about God, [and] behave like spokesmen of God: ‘God will act like this or that.’ Let us accept that we do not know the whole mystery of God, and we do not know about His infinite love.

We must develop an understanding of other religions from an Orthodox point of view. We need to see this in the Trinitarian perspective and not only Christological. In some protestant circles it happens that they see this in Christological terms only. But in the Orthodox Church we consider that God’s covenant has always extended to other peoples, to the whole creation. We also understand that the Spirit works in a freedom that we do not know.

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania is one of Orthodoxy’s leading missiologists. These questions were offered by participants of the 2001 Syndesmos Festival in St. Maurin, France, where he gave the key-note address. His answers offer challenging insights into key questions of missions work in our times.

This article was originally published in SYNDESMOS News, Vol. XV / 2, Winter 2001/Spring 2002, p 11-13.