On my way back home from a recent trip I listened to a lot of Orthodox podcasts. Sometimes I need a big block of time to catch up. I heard a lot that was excellent. That’s no surprise with Ancient Faith Radio of course, but one particular show (not to be named) was dealing with interactions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians. This subject always causes me some discomfort, and I sense that this is a common problem for those dialoguing with Catholics and Protestants. There’s some noticeable mental frisson, and I think that it comes from trying to send two dissimilar messages. We want to say that Orthodoxy is different/better/authentic, and simultaneously affirm the other as valuable and good and loved.
The problem is, it’s really hard to say both of those things simultaneously. In order to show Orthodoxy as a valuable alternative to Protestant and Catholic churches we must demonstrate how Orthodoxy is distinctive, how it maintains the apostolic faith, how it is identifiably the Church, capital C. Communicating this necessarily contains the correlated message that there must necessarily be something defective, ahistoric, and schismatic with Protestant and Catholic groups. If there’s not, then it doesn’t matter if you’re Orthodox. If it matters that you’re Orthodox, then there must be a good reason NOT to be Protestant or Catholic (and there is).
Now try to say that and still affirm what’s valuable in the other. Hard to do. If you say, as so often is the case, that there’s so much of the good left in the breakaway groups, and that God is the ultimate judge of everyone, and that there’s so little that really separates us, you might soften the hearer but you undermine the first message. If you strongly demonstrate the problems inherent in the breakaway groups to strengthen the first message, you must undermine the second message. So which is it going to be?
I’m not sure if there’s a perfect answer. At times I’ve needed to hear or say both. Despite our desire to try and “win more with honey” I think we should be very careful to be clear that it’s not ok to be Catholic or Protestant. This may be tough to hear, but there is only one Church, and the unity of that Church is too important to push aside in order to make people feel better.
However, it’s certainly the case that you can’t beat people into the truth. It would be better to allow God to be the judge of those outside the Church, and wait for them to be drawn into a receptive spirit before proceeding to give a defense of the faith. Like the early apostles preaching to their Jewish brethren, we should talk to our Protestant and Catholic brethren and tell them about the Church, with patience and kindness, but with clarity on the distinctions.