It is written in Proverbs that one should seek advice before taking on a project. So, I selected four friends who hold Masters of Divinity Degrees (one has a D.Min) to give their input on the questions I have concerning the African-American church and Orthodox Christianity. My questions are:
- What have you learned about the church (Orthodox) in seminary?
- Is there something about it that is dangerous or a threat to our protestant tradition (besides the fact that they don’t allow women in their clergy)?
- What are the elements of their faith that we must absolutely reject?
- Does their church have any relevance to the African-American community?
One thing about asking questions to the wise is that they will throw questions back at you. So, this morning I will answer what has been put before me.
What do I think is distinctively different between Orthodox Christianity and Christianity? History is a glaring difference between the ancient church and the churches I see around me. The history of my church only goes back to 1889 and my denomination to the colonial period of America. Orthodoxy can trace its physical roots all the way back to the 12 apostles and the day of Pentecost. Of course, true salvation depends upon faith and only God decides who will and won’t be granted into his eternal kingdom. But, in a world of a new denomination (or non-denomination) being founded almost every other weekend (it seems), I think it is important that people know the original body of Christ still exist some 2,000 years since they were first called Christians in Antioch. No preacher filled with his own sense of importance can just put on a collar and call himself “bishop.” He must meet the standards and rise to the office. Scripture is not interpreted by the opinions of popular theologians that lean to a political bias. There is the long-standing tradition of interpretation from the colleagues and disciples of the New Testament writers and the writers themselves. We tend to say what “my Bible says.” But, had it not been for their church, we wouldn’t have a Bible since they were the ones who put it together over 300 years after they got started. Yes, black American Christianity in particular and American Christianity as a whole has developed an authentic voice without the Orthodox Church among us. But, the fact that the ancient church still exist and has this deep historic perspective should not be ignored.
What is appealing to me about the Orthodox tradition? History is one thing. Another would be monasticism. The monastic tradition is honored in Orthodoxy, invisible in much of Protestantism, and doesn’t exist in the black church. Too many of us Negro preachers are way off the chain when it comes to materialism and behavior. Back in the day, Dr. Alix James used to tell seminarians to wear simple suits and little jewelry. I have seen stuff in conferences and pulpits that make some pimps jealous. Vow of celibacy? Yeah, right. Marital infidelity among American Protestant clergy is no secret. According to the reports I have read on the subjects, the only difference between sexual abuse cases among Protestants and Catholics is that we prefer women over the age of 16. I am sure the Orthodox Church has a few bad apples as well. But, celibacy is a choice among its priesthood. Giving up one’s earthly possessions is a time-honored lifestyle of faith that goes back to the second chapter of Acts.
Let me get personal. My wife has bipolar disorder and muscular sclerosis. Needless to say, I have been a celibate for the past seven years. The reaction I get from Protestantism is more of gloom and despair as if my life depends on having a normal married sex life. But, in the eyes of Orthodoxy, I am a blessed man. I still have a wife to love and care for (which I do). But, I am blessed because I have the challenge to overcome my natural desires (sometimes I wish he would bless someone else instead). To a degree, I get to live the life of Paul, Saint Anthony (the father of monasticism), and other great leaders of the church. As for a vow of poverty, I left a job at Dominion Virginia Power that gave me a very good salary and benefits package to substitute teach in King and Queen and West Point because the Holy Spirit told me to. And though I am working year-round as a ranger at York River State Park, what I earn now is still a far cry from what I had and I don’t count it as a loss.
So, I see Orthodoxy as a rebellion against the excesses of Protestant America and those of the black church in particular. But, I desire rebellion not for its own sake. I have no heart to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are elements about the church I was raised in that are well worth keeping. Our story of faith in the midst of struggle as slaves and second class citizens, the spirituality of our hymns and praises, the form of our preaching; no, I am not prepared to put these things aside. I am prepared to seek the truth from the ancient fathers and hold on the truth from my fathers. That is why I am on the journey.