There is real Orthodoxy and folk Orthodoxy. In Albania, people often speak of the "Greek Orthodox Church", though really it is the Albanian Orthodox Church; but many clergy are Greek and the beliefs are the same.
Until about 400 AD the Christian church in the east and the west of the Roman Empire developed together on official doctrine, and the main interests were the Person of Christ and the Trinity. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant still agree on these doctrines.
THE FOUR 'A's
But after about 400 AD, you need to remember the four A's to understand something of how the west (Catholic and Protestant) grew apart from Eastern Orthodoxy: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, the Awakening. These have probably fundamentally affected if not determined the faith of everyone reading this article, but they never affected Orthodoxy.
Augustine of Hippo (354 430) taught that man has totally fallen away from God and is unable to stir himself to come back; that every person inherits Adam's guilt (not just his nature); that salvation is entirely of God's initiative and grace; that those who will believe and be saved have been chosen and predestined before they are born.
Anselm (1033 1109) was an Italian who became archbishop of Canterbury. He taught that in Christ God became human so that Jesus Christ could die in our place as a satisfaction for all our sins: substitutionary atonement.
Aquinas (ca 1225 1275) was a Dominican monk who blended Greek logic (from Aristotle's philosophy) into theological method.
The Awakening in the 18th century (Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield etc) emphasised personal assurance of forgiveness and of the new birth.
The church in the west was greatly influenced by Roman law and tended to see salvation in legal terms: God pardoning the guilty. The Reformation in the 16th century (Luther, Calvin etc), as well as re emphasising Augustine's doctrines of man, sin, election and grace, made another change, namely that whereas Augustine taught that justification is being made righteous, the Reformers and their followers (e.g. the Puritans) taught that it is being accounted righteous by Christ's righteousness imputed to us. They also adjusted Roman Catholic teaching on church and sacraments.
The Orthodox don't emphasise the Cross and forgiveness as much as we do; rather, they see salvation more in terms of Christ's Incarnation, our union with Him, our glorification, and the renewal of creation. They see Christ's death on the Cross less as His paying our penalty in our place, more as His victory over death and Satan.
They have a more optimistic view of man and his ability to turn to God than Augustine's. They have more place for mystery and are less concerned to make theology logical.
They are often "apophatic" (that is, they talk more bout what we don't know about God, while we concentrate on what we do know.)
BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
The Orthodox also have beliefs and practices which make us shudder! They pray for the dead; they also pray to the dead; they believe icons are a meeting point between the living and the dead; they believe God's grace is active in relics of the saints; they pray to angels; they have a view of sacraments which is very different from ours: salvation is deposited in the Orthodox Church, and the priest gives saving grace through the sacraments, so that people have a relationship with the Church rather than with Jesus Christ.
Most of our readers, and most evangelical missionaries to Albania, probably derive their personal religion either from the Reformation or Puritans, or from the Evangelical Awakening. That means up to 1300 years of separate development from the Eastern Orthodox churches. No wonder we are so different! What's more, many Orthodox theologians have seen the Reformation either as resulting from a wrong interpretation of Paul's Letter to the Romans by Augustine (who used a Latin translation, not the Greek: in quo omnes peccaverunt (Rom 5.12) &c) or as God's judgement on the Roman Church for its breach with Orthodoxy. The Reformation holds no relevance.
So is there enough truth in Orthodoxy to save the soul? Let me say: "That isn't the issue..." The real issue, in practical terms, is their tendency to curse us as heretics and to accuse us of breaking up the Albanian nation.
They have pasted posters on top of our posters, calling us heretics and sons of Judas Iscariot. Their leadership are quite simply intolerant.
An Orthodox priest wrote to David Young, Director of the Albanian Evangelical Mission:
"Well, it is a fearful thing to be cursed by a bishop who stands in the shoes of the apostles ... an unwelcome incursion into the sheepfold of Christ. What to do about it? Close the door on it ... So why exert yourself to hijack the native Christianity of Albania by introducing a foreign mission and belief system?"
Dan Baynes Quotes an Orthodox publication as follows:
"The Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania is being hit today from many directions. An organised attack is being carried out against it by missionaries ... particularly by the Evangelicals ... heretics who come in as a wedge to destroy our beautiful faith... traitors to the Church and successors of Judas Iscariot..."
The practical issue is not whether or not there are some true, humble lovers and servants of our Lord Jesus Christ within the Orthodox Church in Albania, but the aggression and indeed poison with which the leadership sometimes speak and write about us and oppose our work.
Apart from disagreeing with our teachings, they see us as breaking up the nation. An Albanian can be Moslem (70% are), or Catholic (10%) or Orthodox (20%), but if you persuade people to become something else, you are destroying national identity with a foreign belief system.
And finally, as no doubt with any religion, there are many who are Orthodox in name but who have little or no idea of what their Church really teaches. They don't know what they ought to believe, they just know others are wrong! Shaun Thompson explains:
"When we do gospel work among people with an Orthodox background, really what concerns us most is Orthodox practice. One of the basic faults of the Orthodox church in Albania (as it has been with many other denominations closer to home) is the appointment of men to the ministry who are seemingly unconverted, and often ill mannered too. These are shepherds that care more for their pockets (or their egos) than the souls of their parishioners. There are, of course, exceptions.
"Another general fault is the focus placed on maintaining a religious ritual, as opposed to seeking the moral and spiritual regeneration of men, women and children. The Orthodox church offers people what they want, which is easy religion, and thus false peace. The emphasis seems to be along the lines of 'go light your candle, make the sign of the cross, kiss the icon and all is well with your soul'. This is tantamount to a spiritual crime. There doesn't seem to be any attempt (in practice) to make a distinction between true and false Christians, only between true and false churches so called! There is also a tendency to so focus on the saints, as to lose sight of the Saviour."
WHAT IS RIGHT?
It might be gracious now to ask, "What is right about the Orthodox Church?"
The Bishop in Korce recently said on the radio that they have gone too far from the Word of God, and from now on there will be preaching in the churches under his leadership. This is a new bishop, not the one who cursed us from his pulpit in the 1990s.
Larry Stucky, Conservative Baptist missionary in Korce working together with Ian Loring at the Evangelical Church and sent by the same mission which sent Edwin Jacques in 1932, says that some of the clergy and some in the congregations in the Orthodox Church are people of spiritual perception.
Evangelicalism has often been portrayed as a foreign religion, brought in by Americans or other Westerners, alien to national Albanian culture. I can understand something of that.
The Orthodox aim to model their services on the worship of heaven, hence the altar, incense, robes and visual splendour: they see these things in Revelation and elsewhere. They aim for reverence, mystery and holiness. They respond negatively to what they see as jarringly American. In August in Albania I attended an Evangelical service, and I noticed a shapely young woman wearing a tee shirt with this statement on her bosom: "Jesus is my homeboy." I winced, and understood afresh how certain aspects of contemporary Evangelicalism jar on peoples sensitivities.
There is also the slick, easy triumphalism one hears so often. In the early 1990s, Barth Companjen, leader of Ancient World Outreach, stated that "According to the statistics, everyone in Albania has received Christ four times." This facile, unrealistic optimism characteristic of some sections of Evangelicalism is risible and unattractive, a far cry from the thoughtful words of John Wesley: "I wish all our Preachers would be accurate in their accounts, and rather speak under than above the truth."
But there is another side to all this: many Albanians want to become westernised! In fact, the American Orthodox Church is working in Albania, including workers who have converted from Evangelicalism.
There is one further aspect to this that I wish to mention. I know a good deal less about religion in Greece than in Albania, but I have not heard such optimistic impressions of the Orthodox Church in Greece. It is estimated that some 2,000 to 3,000 Albanians who are evangelical believers are working in Greece and its islands. It seems to me that, whilst we do well to rejoice that some Albanian Christians are looking and indeed going eastwards to bring the Gospel to the Moslem world, we might also hope and pray that the migration southwards into Greece will bring a breath of new life to that beloved and beautiful land.