A Call for Orthodox Churches to Preach the Gospel
I have had several close friends convert to Orthodoxy over the years, and they’re always excited to talk about their transition. “Come and see,” said one friend, smiling. “The iconography, the vestments, the beauty!” It’s not just the visual engagement. There is also an ancient stimulation of the other senses—the smells, the chanting, all of it so different from what evangelicals are used to. But I’ve never had a friend who converted to Orthodoxy say, “Come and hear the preaching!” Why is that?
Some time ago, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick spoke at an Orthodox homeschooling conference and posted his talk “Do Orthodox Christians Know the Gospel Message?” on the Ancient Faith blog.1 The speech was both encouraging (because Fr. Damick was able to critique his tradition in an important area) and disheartening. Disheartening because Fr. Damick recognizes a deficiency in Orthodoxy today among the laity: the average Orthodox Christian does not know what the gospel is. “It would probably be no big stretch to say that, if one were to ask the average Orthodox Christian the question, ‘What is the gospel?’ he would not have an answer.” More recently, retired priest Fr. Aidan Kimel lamented,
Since my retirement I have heard numerous Orthodox homilies. With few exceptions, they have been horrid—poorly constructed, poorly delivered, and lacking in substance. But bad technique may be forgiven if the preacher is at least attempting to proclaim the good news. Alas that has not usually been the case. What I have heard is exhortation . . . to imitate Christ, obey the ten commandments, be nice to my neighbors, pray more often, confess my sins . . . even a lengthy harangue scolding the congregation for its failure to support the parish festival. Exhortation and more exhortation—dreary, impotent words that do not convert, do not heal, do not transform, do not deify. A few years ago I listened to an interview with Fr Theodore Stylianopoulos in which he described the kinds of sermons he heard growing up. He called them “try harder” sermons. Yes, I thought, that’s what I’m hearing now. No wonder church is so depressing. If “try harder” is the only word the pastor has to share, then it would be far better to skip the sermon and allow the Divine Liturgy itself to enact the good news of Pascha.
“Behold, the days are coming,” the prophet declares in the Name of the Lord, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). We are experiencing this famine today. Many priests and congregations pride themselves on their dogmatic orthodoxy and steadfast adherence to tradition, yet the good news of Pascha remains unpreached. To these congregations—but especially to the priests who have been entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel—the terrifying condemnation of Jesus is spoken: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). Exhortations and admonitions will never create the righteousness that justifies. Those who are dead in sin cannot raise themselves from their graves; they cannot pull themselves up by their Pelagian bootstraps. Only the unconditional promise, spoken in the power of Spirit and absolute Love, can bestow the new life that is repentance and faith. But if that word is never declared, where will faith be found?2
This problem was noted by another Orthodox Christian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, just a few decades ago:
One can observe an undoubted decline or even crisis in preaching in contemporary church life. The essence of this crisis lies not in the inability to speak, in a loss of “style” or in any intellectual deficiency on the part of the preacher, but in something far deeper: in an oblivion to what preaching in the church assembly is supposed to be. The homily can be, and often is even today, intelligent, interesting, instructive and comforting, but these are not the criteria by which we can distinguish a “good” homily from a “bad” one—these are not its real essence. Its essence lies in its living link to the gospel that was read in the church assembly. For the genuine sermon is neither simply an explanation of what was read by knowledgeable and competent persons, not a transmission to the listeners of the theological knowledge of the preacher, nor a mediation “a propos” of the gospel text. In general, it is not a sermon about the gospel (“on a gospel theme”) but the preaching of the gospel itself.3
Fr. Schmemann’s call is for the church to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, not just to talk about it (or depict it in iconography, I might add). Until the Orthodox Church rediscovers this emphasis upon the importance of the preached word as well as the sacrament, I suspect that its laity will continue to suffer from gospel illiteracy. The beauty of Orthodox liturgy, with its sensory emphasis, cannot compensate for the sacramental word, which alone creates faith in the hearts of dead sinners. God has promised to save humanity through the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor. 1:21), not through the veneration of icons or burning of incense. If a church focuses on the latter, or even on the sacrament apart from the word, it is destined to produce disciples who cannot articulate the simplicity of the gospel.
The Protestant Reformers would have sympathized with critiques like this, because they too believed the church needed to “rediscover” gospel preaching. This is one of the reasons I am grateful for the Reformed tradition, in which the emphasis has always been “Come and hear the gospel!” In fact, one of the chief complaints the Protestant Reformers had against the Roman Catholic Church (a complaint that may also be raised in the context of this discussion) was that while Rome did not abolish the word, it had subordinated it to the sacraments and shrouded it in extrabiblical traditions. This abasing of the word led to the moral and theological failures of the medieval church. The genius of the sixteenth-century Protestants was in restoring the primacy of the preached word. When the word was rehabilitated in the church, the result was spiritual renewal, a reformation our churches desperately need in modern times.
What then is the solution to the present crisis that exists not only in Orthodox churches, but in many evangelical churches as well? It begins with a proper understanding of the word’s primacy. This lofty position isn’t bestowed on the word by any individual or church, but is inherent to its nature. Since the word comes to us from God (2 Tim. 3:16), it needs no external authority to authenticate it. With a recovery of the word’s primacy comes an understanding of the word’s power. When God compared his word to that of the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day, he said, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). The word alone has the power to warm calloused hearts and break rock-hard wills. It doesn’t just deconstruct—Isaiah likened God’s word to a life-giving rainfall, sent out to accomplish God’s purposes in the world (Isa. 55:10–11). The heavenly shower of apostolic preaching is the foundation upon which the church is constructed (Eph. 2:20), and wherever that word is not upheld, God’s temple is in disrepair.
It also isn’t enough to say we need to have a high view of God’s word. There are many churches that believe in the divine inspiration and power of Scripture, but they still fall short when it comes to communicating the substance of Scripture. This type of preaching (as Schmemann put it) misses the essence of the gospel and (according to Kimel) doesn’t deify. The verbum agraphon (unwritten word) spoken by the prophets and apostles and the verbum engraphon (written word) inscripturated for subsequent generations were always meant to lead us to the Word as Person, Jesus. This happens only when our preaching transitions from moral exhortations (law) to the powerful proclamation of God’s victory over our moral failures (gospel). This is the rain that arid souls long for—the solution to our parched spirituality.
When pastors rightly understand the primacy and the power of God’s word, they won’t grow tired of preaching it; and once congregations experience the life-giving power of the preached gospel, they won’t settle for replacements (regardless of their aesthetic beauty). I remember being pleasantly surprised when a member of a Reformed congregation lamented to me about the church he visited while on vacation, “The pastor only preached the law, not the gospel!” We should preach the gospel so clearly that the laity in our churches lament when it is missing. I’m reminded of Calvin’s commentary on Galatians 3:1.
Let those who would discharge aright the ministry of the gospel learn, not merely to speak and declaim, but to penetrate into the consciences of men, to make them see Christ crucified, and feel the shedding of his blood. When the church has painters such as these, she no longer needs the dead images of wood and stone, she no longer requires pictures; both of which, unquestionably, were first admitted to Christian temples when the pastors . . . uttered a few words from the pulpit in such a cold and careless manner, that the power and efficacy of the ministry were utterly extinguished.4
We can learn a great deal from our Orthodox brothers. The staple liturgy of John Chrysostom, with its holistic engagement of mind and body, reminds us that we’re not simply souls trapped in bodies. Worship should engage the whole person. Orthodox churches, however, should recover the expository rigor of
John Chrysostom, whose homilies weren’t ten-minute musings but in-depth biblical exhortations; they should reclaim the “preaching of the gospel itself,” as Fr. Schmemann called it, and prioritize the weekly refrain Christos Anesti! (“Christ is risen!”) over the “try harder” sermons that leave people in despair. Only when the liturgy of John Chrysostom is accompanied by his expositional preaching can we expect today’s famine to end.
Adriel Sanchez is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in California and a church planter at North Park Presbyterian Church (www.northparkpres.com) in San Diego.
- From http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2015/05/08/do-orthodox-christians-know-the-gospel-message.
- From https://publicorthodoxy.org/2016/12/17/the-politics-of-pascha.
- Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 77.
- John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, vol. XXI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 80–81.