What Evangelicals Can Learn From the Eastern Orthodox

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend some time at an Eastern Orthodox church (Saint Nicklaus Church, yes the guy known as Santa Clause) in SW Portland with my World Religions class. Having grown up within the evangelical church I had not spent much time with other Christians outside of that circle, so it was a unique opportunity for me and one that deeply challenged and convicted me.

I would imagine that most of you are like me, in that you haven’t spent much time in an Orthodox church and don’t know much about it. While sparing you of all the mundane history details of how the church was formed, I thought I’d share a few key things I believe evangelicals can learn from the Eastern Orthodox church based on my time at the church. Certainly I have my differences theologically and practically with the orthodox church, but that should not overshadow what we can learn from how they practice their faith.

  1. Church is a sensory experience. The building alone is very beautiful as you can kind of tell from the picture. During their gatherings throughout the week and on Sunday they keep incense lit. This along with the icons (pictures) hung and painted all over the walls and the singing (chanting) that takes place means church is an experience for the nose, eyes, and ears. Certainly evangelicals don’t completely agree with the idea of icons but I like the way Father George Gray talked about icons as being windows to a deeper reality, not a reality in and of themselves. This I can’t disagree with.
  2. Strong historical emphasis, often known as supra-temporal. Supra temporal essentially means bringing the past to the present, or the understanding that some things are above time (example being the eternity of God). The icons (pictures, paintings) all around the room represent the history of the Christian faith. Between the disciples, various saints, and key figures within the Christian faith, the orthodox look to the history of their faith to receive power for their present circumstances. This passing on of faith is often referred to as Holy Tradition, of which Paul somewhat refers to when he says, “For what I received I passed on to you , as of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
  3. Everything has meaning and purpose. A person in the class asked why Jesus was painted with garments of various colors and Father Gray spoke about the meaning of each color. Questions were asked about why there were few chairs, why icons were placed in specific areas, why the stage area (it wasn’t really a stage) was closed off, etc…and everything had a meaning and a purpose. I was blown away. Talking to my professor after class I explained how at my church I think the carpet was chosen simply because enough people wanted it. Few things in our evangelical churches has any meaning or purpose beyond somebody wanting it that way. How sad.

For those of you familiar with Orthodox churches, what do you think we can learn from them?