Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

7 thoughts on “Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

  1. Phillip

    Thanks to Fr. Anthony Roeber for answering these questions. I’ve had some contact with orthodox believers and I can appreciate their desire to neither add nor subtract from the gospel message. On a visit to Syria I spoke to a priest at the St George Monastery. He said the church was part of the historic church of Antioch and is now Greek orthodox but still associates with the Roman Catholics, or something like that. He said they are still like the early church in that they are peaceful and get along with their Muslim neighbors, unlike the Christians in Lebanon. Somehow I sensed a real connection with him and was really blessed by our converstion.
    While at Bucknell University I had a conversation with Fr. Anthony Roeber in which he pointed out that Mennonites and Orthodox have a lot in common. One of the biggest differences might be the role of Mary the mother of Jesus. That said, we have much more in common than we have differences. I also had the privilege of having dinner (along with about a dozen other people) with his Eminence Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen, a Russian Orthodox Bishop.
    One of the questions I have about Orthodox practice is that is seems very nationalistic. There is no single Orthodox church like there is a Roman Catholic church. For example there is Serbian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and on and on. I see that Fr. Anthony Roeber is Antiochian Orthodox. I have heard that the Orthodox churches of different countries do not always get along depending on the political situation. A current example is the Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox hostilities.
    That said, I deeply appreciate Orthodox believers who are committed to the gospel of Christ. May we be one as the Father and the Son are one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is good you bring up Mary and her role in the Orthodox Christian tradition. I had expected that someone might ask about the honor given to her or the veneration of saints. I’m sure Fr. Anthony could answer better than I could. However, I believe that this veneration is both appropriate and an important refutation of a heretical idea that Jesus was not fully man. Mary did literally carry the creator of the universe in her womb or the claim that Jesus was both God and man falls apart. I also believe that the role of Mary was to restore womanhood and without her example we are left with Eve who was deceived or Jezebel who was manipulative and a negative conception of women. I believe many Protestant (and Mennonite) groups fail in their treatment of women because they do not fully embrace a restored vision for womanhood represented by the mother of God. Again, you can’t have Jesus, fully God and man, without also making acknowledgement of his mother. There is a reason why she sang about future generations calling her blessed. And it is meet and right that we celebrate her role in the story of our salvation. Even Jesus honored his mother, she was the one who had his ear and pushed him to perform his first recorded miracle, so why would we not honor her? It is part of the honor we give to each other as brothers and sisters in the faith as well. No, we should certainly not worship anyone besides God, but we should certainly honor and venerate those who serve as good examples of faith. And we need those human examples too so we can’t fall into this mode of thinking that neglects the humanness of Jesus as an excuse for our own falling short.

      Anyhow, thanks for your comment, I am glad for others who appreciate things that I appreciate and pray that God blesses you on your journey of faith!

      Like

  2. Phillip

    You make a good point about honoring Mary. It seems likely that the Protestants and Anabaptists overreacted against many of the Roman Catholic practices.
    I have to say that the Roman Catholic Hail Mary prayer (“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen”) has a strange ring to my Anabaptist ears.
    I understand the point of asking someone to pray for us. I have done that, and if I were talking to Mary it would not feel strange to ask her to pray for me.
    To me the question really is; do the dead hear us? Which leads to the question of, where are the dead now if they will be raised at the end of time to face the judgment? I know our English Bibles have done a rather poor job of translating “hell” as in Greek it is “Hades” (the grave, the place of the dead), and “Gehenna” (the place of everlasting fire and torment). My current understanding is that the dead go to Hades (the place of the dead, where the gospel was preached, 1 Peter 3:19–20, 4:6) and that Gehenna is where the unsaved go after the judgment. This does indicate that the spirits of the dead can hear, but to follow the Orthodox and Roman Catholic line of thought with regard to Mary, they (she), like God, must be able hear billions of people speak to them all at once in a multitude of languages and understand all of them.
    This is getting far outside of my area of expertise and I don’t have answers for most of my questions, but I do enjoy the discussion.
    Also, I only recently came across your blog and I’m enjoying your posts. Thanks for being so open. You mentioned that you would “prefer that we could all meet over coffee together”. If you’re ever in the State College area I invite you to contact me and we could do just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, the idea eternal life certainly comes with some paradoxes.  In timeless eternity there would be no past, present or future and therefore those who died in Christ should be resurrected.  Paul speaks of that “cloud of witnesses” that is there to cheer believers on and I believe Orthodox Christianity does more to recognize implications of eternal reward.  

      Anyhow, these are questions definitely above my pay grade.  That said, I have little reason to rebuke those who ask for the interceding of those who have gone on before.  It makes as much sense as asking someone to pray for us when we already believe God sees the sparrow when it falls.  I mean, from a completely rational perspective, why pray at all, right?

      I think the western church, fundamentalists in particular, have done themselves and Christian faith a great disservice in trying to explain (or explain away) the mysteries of the church.  They argue that we can’t take Jesus literally about his blood and body and the wonder why some take things a step further and reject faith entirely…

      I would definitely consider meeting up for coffee sometime!

      Thanks for the feedback!

      Like

  3. Joel. I really enjoyed this. I especially enjoyed the answer about non-resistance. I am finding more and more in Orthodoxy who hold to a non-resistance stand (including my Priest and soon to be Deacon).
    You and I have encountered each other before on a message board. I never thought we would both end up with interest in Orthodoxy. My family and I were baptized into the church on 8/6/2017. I have found home
    LJones

    An amazing quote from Fr. Anthony:
    “It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is really interesting to see how many are finding a home amongst the Orthodox. My church is made up of mostly converts, many from Protestant denominations, and people hungry for more than they were being offered. Protestantism, including Menno-ism, truly is a spiritually barren landscape, it is only satisfying for those who know nothing else or are too proud to be wrong about their own initial assumptions.

      It was never my plan to ever leave the Mennonite denomination. It was always my identity and it was my intention to remain Mennonite. But God seems to have had other plans for me. It was extremely difficult leaving my family and friends behind, but that is what is required of a true disciple. I’m starting to find that Orthodoxy is a feast, whereas the Mennonite denomination is only crumbs and barely that. My faith in the Mennonite church ended in a final betrayal and death. My true faith has put me in the Orthodox church.

      Glad to know there are others being drawn in. I’m glad now to leave everything Mennonite in the past and am trying to do that more and more. Jesus says to let the dead bury their dead. Those wanting the truth and willing to repent will can find their home in the church established by Jesus Christ, the church that the gates of hell did not prevail against and exists to this very day.

      God bless you! Thank you for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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