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Mission and proselytism: a Middle East perspective.

The approximately 10-12 million Christians of West Asia/North Africa (i.e., of the so-called Middle East) represent a kaleidoscope of Christian churches and cultural traditions.(1) The great majority are Orthodox, members of the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches, which account for more than 75 percent of the total Christian population of the region. Catholic churches of both Eastern and Western (Latin) rites account for about another 20 percent. The evangelical or Protestant churches form a minority of between 3 and 4 percent.(2) These figures, based on David Barrett's calculations, relate to the churches that are today members of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), probably the world's most inclusive regional ecumenical council. Successor to the predominantly Protestant Near East Council of Churches, it embraces four families of churches (Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant), with the Assyrian Church of the East (so-called Nestorian) possibly joining in the future as a fifth family.(3)

This ecumenical achievement is a positive sign of reconciliation between the indigenous churches, which for centuries have lived in disunity and mutual mistrust. It expresses their growing willingness to resolve historical problems of division by a concerted witness to the Gospel's power of renewal and reconciliation in a politically torn region.

Among the ecclesial issues on the MECC agenda is the problem of proselytism. This was the subject of a special report, Proselytism, Sects, and Pastoral Challenges: A Study Document, which the Commission on Faith and Unity prepared for the MECC's Fifth General Assembly in 1989.(4) As the most ecumenical document on the issue in the West Asian/North African perspective, it provides an appropriate starting point for this essay.

Proselytism: The MECC Definition

The MECC study document defines proselytism as "a practice that involves attempts aimed at attracting Christians from a particular Church or religious group, leading to their alienation from their Church of origin." It is treated as an issue of ecumenical malpractice that contravenes biblical understandings of how God relates to humankind, how Christians relate to one another, and respect for the human right to be free from coercion in religious matters. The problem is analyzed as having psychological roots in "individual and group egoism," political manifestations in "feelings of cultural, political and economic superiority," and institutional dimensions in "an overtrust in one's present methods and programmes." It is perpetuated by ignorance of Christian traditions other than those of one's own cultural or political background, and it may include the willful "dissimulation of the truth about them." Proselytism is therefore seen as the opposite of authentic evangelism, which emphasizes "confidence in God and His economy" as the basis of mission.(5)

The MECC document addresses two dimensions of the issue. In historical terms it is related to the "western missionary strategy" of the medieval Catholic missions and their Protestant successors.(6) The contemporary dimension is identified mainly with "sects" - by which the MECC means millenarian or messianic groups, independent "neo-missionary" groups of fundamentalist persuasions, groups that represent syncretistic forms of religious universalism, charismatic renewal movements within established churches, and new religious movements that claim to draw upon Asian forms of religious spirituality.(7) While proselytism in West Asia/North Africa occurs unconsciously as well as consciously, its underlying presupposition is that a missionary "vacuum" exists throughout the region, where indigenous churches are considered to be lacking missionary motivation and resources.(8)

With this understanding of proselytism, the present essay will examine manifestations of the problem in the complex history of the Eastern churches' experience of the Western church and its missions. It will then review contemporary initiatives in intra-Christian dialogue, one of the benefits of which has been the emergence of a clearer understanding of how the Orthodox churches understand Christian witness. Attention will be given to the MECC's suggested remedies, and in conclusion we shall examine some of the contextual issues that shape the identity of Eastern churches.

Historical Dimensions

Eastern patriarchates. For the indigenous West Asian/North African Christian communities, it is a matter of historic pride and contemporary self-understanding that Christianity has been continuously present throughout the region since apostolic times. The cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Etchmiadzin are quite as important for Christians as are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem for Muslims, and Jerusalem for Jews. They are the places where the apostles proclaimed the Gospel and founded the first churches that carried forward the Christian mission.

In ecclesiastical language, they constitute the "patriarchates" of the East. They have always seen themselves as existing in an equal apostolic relationship with the Western patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople. From the fourth century, Rome was accorded a spiritual primacy as primus inter pares, though without the universal authority that Catholics later invested in the papacy. Constantinople (originally known by its Greek pre-Christian name of Byzantium) held political primacy within the Byzantine Empire, to which most of the Eastern churches belonged. But in ecclesial terms the Easterners have always insisted on the coequal autonomy of each patriarchate as the institutional reality of the biblical conception of the universal church; as the human body is made up of many members, so the apostolic churches are the members of the body of Christ.

The patriarchates have always been the centers of Eastern Christian liturgy, theology, witness, and church administration, expressed in their ancient ethnic languages (Syriac and Aramaic in Antioch and Jerusalem; Coptic in Alexandria). This continued to be true long after the seventh century, when the rise of Islam, its military conquests, and the extension of its political power under the Islam caliphate reduced the Eastern patriarchates socially to the role of Christian minorities in increasingly Muslim societies.

To the northeastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire lay the kingdom of Armenia. Here the church traces its foundation to the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholemew. The Armenian monarchy recognized Christianity as the national religion from the beginning of the fourth century, even before the conversion of the Byzantine emperor Constantine.(9) Armenian Christians have ever since looked to Etchmiadzin as the seat of what they call their "catholicosate," which, in terms of Armenian canon law, has higher authority than a patriarchate.(10)

Despite the diversity of cultural, linguistic, and social characteristics that they represented, the five patriarchates and the Armenian catholicosate preserved the common faith of the Nicean Creed (325) until the early fifth century. This is remembered as the period of "the undivided church." Over the following centuries this ecumenical fellowship proved vulnerable to centrifugal forces. The ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) excommunicated the eastern members of the patriarchate of Antioch. To escape the persecution of those whom the Byzantine rulers declared heretics, these Assyrian Christians took refuge in Persia.(11) Twenty years later the Council of Chalcedon (451) witnessed doctrinal cleavage between the Copts (Egyptians) of Alexandria, the remaining Syrians of Antioch, and the Armenians of Etchmiadzin on the one hand, and the churches of Constantinople and Rome on the other.(12)

Oriental Orthodox. Since Chalcedon, the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians, together with the church of Kerala (India) and the church of Ethiopia, have formed the family of Oriental Orthodox churches. They are "autocephalous," or self-governing, but united in creed and liturgy. Each is inseparably identified with the people and culture in which it exists and in this sense can be described sociologically as ethnic churches. Contextually, this characteristic has been a source of strength throughout their histories and helps explain their remarkable tenacity to the Christian faith, despite their being under Islamic rule. Their numerical decline through the medieval centuries did not diminish the quality of their spiritual life, which is evident in a wealth of theological writing and liturgical expression.(13) Today they continue to account for the majority of West Asian and North African Christians.

Eastern Orthodox. After the Chalcedonian separation, smaller communities of Christians in Antioch and Alexandria remained in communion with Constantinople and technically with Rome. Often referred to as Melkites (from Arabic malik, meaning "king," in reference to the Byzantine emperor), their orthodoxy is of the Chalcedonian kind. In MECC ecumenical parlance they constitute the Eastern Orthodox family. Historically their presence has been strongest in the cosmopolitan coastal regions of West Asia and North Africa. Though historical links with the Greek church continue, especially in the patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Eastern Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch identifies itself as the church of the Arabs.(14) It has contributed in diverse ways to the development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of Arab nationalism and is committed to social coexistence with Islam. Relations between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, though strained in the past, have grown more intimate through a series of pan-Orthodox conferences that began in Addis Ababa in 1965.

Eastern Catholics. This historical survey has so far exposed factors that resulted in the disunity of the Eastern churches. The refusal of one church to recognize the ecclesial validity of another is the soil in which proselytism is seeded. It was with the extension of Western Catholicism into West Asia, in consequence of Rome's denial of the ecclesial integrity of the Eastern patriarchates under what it deemed as their heretical doctrines, that the growth of proselytism began.

To avoid generalization, it is important to emphasize at the outset of this discussion that the oldest and largest indigenous community of West Asian Catholics are the Maronites. Exactly as we have seen to be the case with the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox sense of ethnic identity, the Maronites have strong ethnic ties to Lebanon, where land and faith have combined in the Maronite sense of being a national church. Their union with Rome was gradually consolidated from the era of the Latin Crusades (between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries), and though their ecclesiastical customs were subject to extensive Latinization, they never lost their original Syriac identity, which today they often proudly reaffirm.

In contrast to the Maronites, who claim to have been Catholic from their origins between the fifth and seventh centuries, other Catholic communities have sprung up as the result of the later missionary activity of the Western Catholic church. Following the mutual anathemas exchanged between Rome and Constantinople in 1054 and the subsequent failure of the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1437-39) to heal the rift between Latin Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church developed a strategy for reunion with the East by the conversion of the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches to Catholicism. Western Catholic missions, initially led by the Franciscans and later by the Jesuits, exerted a powerful Latinizing influence upon the Maronites and won converts from the other churches. Thus, corresponding to each Oriental and Eastern Orthodox church, a Catholic equivalent arose: Chaldean (Assyrian) Catholic (1553), Syrian Catholic (1663), Melkite (Greek) Catholic (1724), Armenian Catholic (1742), and Coptic Catholic (1895). By recognizing these convert churches as the canonical heirs of the ancient Eastern patriarchates, Rome claimed to be reuniting the church.(15) Together with the Latin Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem,(16) these Catholic patriarchates are defined by the Second Vatican Council as part of "the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church."(17)

The Vatican designates these churches as Eastern-rite Catholics, in distinction from the Roman (or Latin) Catholic rite of the West. This label emphasizes the Catholic view that they enrich the universal Catholic Church by preserving distinctive elements of their original canonical traditions. Their alternative designation as "Uniate" churches (i.e., united with Rome), while having long historical currency, emphasizes rather the fact of their conversion, which incurs the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox charge of proselytism. The very existence of these churches is therefore problematic; what the Catholics have regarded as a symbol of reunion, the Orthodox have treated as "a major obstacle to the progress of the dialogue" with the Catholic Church.(18) The fact that significant progress has recently been made in this dialogue is an ecumenical achievement to which we shall return later in this article.

Evangelical churches. In the nineteenth century, Eastern churches, led by the Maronites, joined cause in laying the charge of proselytism this time against the evangelical missions that had arrived in West Asia. In 1823 the first missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) began evangelistic work in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The Maronite patriarch greeted them with an encyclical that condemned their version of the Bible and forbade Maronites to associate with the English bibliyyun ("biblicists"). In May of that year, Pope Leo XII backed the patriarch by issuing a further condemnation of "a certain Bible society" which had printed and distributed a corrupt version of the Scriptures.(19)

The aim of the missionaries was the revival of "nominal Christians," who, by becoming "Christian in heart," were expected to advance the evangelization of Muslims and Jews. The initial ABCFM policy was stated by Rufus Anderson as follows: "not to subvert them [the indigenous churches]; not to pull them down and build anew. It is to reform them; to revive among them . . . the knowledge and spirit of the Gospel. . . . It is not part of our object to introduce Congregationalism or Presbyterianism among them. . . . We are content that their present ecclesiastical organization should remain, provided the knowledge and spirit of the Gospel can be revived under it."(20)

This statement did not prevent the emergence of separate evangelical churches. Some of the missionaries found it impossible to credit the indigenous churches with any spiritual vitality.(21) Orthodox and Catholic Christians who associated with the evangelical missionaries were ostracized by their church hierarchies, the case of the Maronite As'ad Shidyaq becoming the cause celebre when he was imprisoned by the Maronite patriarch and died in jail (ca. 1823).(22) When in 1826 two Armenians, Gregory Wortabet and Dionysius Carabet, asked to be received into an evangelical fellowship, the missionaries decided to form themselves into a church.

The first evangelical church was established in Beirut. "Being desirous of enjoying Christian ordinances," its founding members determined (in the words of their charter) "to adopt with some variations, the Articles of Faith and the Form of Covenant, used by the First Church in Hartford in Connecticut, U.S.A., to be publicly read on the admission of members."(23) Increase in the number of converts during the mid-nineteenth century, and the need for an appropriate form of institutional organization within the Ottoman millet system of religious communities encouraged the missionaries to develop a fourfold policy: the conversion of indigenous "nominal" Christians, the organization of convert evangelical churches, the training of an indigenous ministry, and the publication of Christian literature.(24) Anderson acquiesced in the missionaries' practice as a result of his 1844 visit through the region, and his original policy of nonproselytism evolved to "the restoration of pre-Constantinian and primitive (Pauline) Christianity . . . [by] the formation not only of exemplary individuals in their [i.e., the Eastern churches'] midst but of exemplary communities as well."(25) But he recognized the consequence of this policy change when he later wrote: "This admission of converts into a church, without regard to their previous ecclesiastical relation, was a practical ignoring of the old church organizations in that region. It was so understood, and the spirit of opposition and persecution was roused to the utmost."(26)

The ABCFM policy in this regard is but a concise example of the practice of the nineteenth-century Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed missions in Turkey, Palestine, and Egypt. An Anglican bishopric was established in Jerusalem in 1841 largely through the efforts of Britain's Church Missionary Society. German missionaries created the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan around 1860. In addition to the work of the ABCFM in Lebanon, which gave rise to the present National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, its activity in Turkey spawned an Armenian evangelical congregation in 1846, which has grown to become the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East. American Presbyterians in Cairo founded the Coptic Evangelical Church in 1853, which is today the largest and most influential Protestant denomination in the region.(27)

In his discussion of the evangelical churches of West Asia, Norman Homer notes that "the vast majority of their membership came originally from Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic churches. This has left a residue of mutual suspicion and ill will that can be overcome only by more creative ecumenical relationships than yet exist, especially between Protestant and Orthodox churches."(28)

Intra-Christian Dialogue

Our overview of centuries of church history in the West Asian/North African region will have served its purpose if it illustrates the ubiquity of intra-Christian proselytism as an issue with which the contemporary churches must deal. It sets discomforting questions against the cherished Western maxim that the modern ecumenical movement evolved from the history of missions. The Western trajectory of mission has been experienced as profoundly antiecumenical by the Eastern churches, compounding the disunity that already existed and arguably weakening the situation of Christian minorities within Muslim societies.

Against this background the ecumenical achievements of the MECC are the more remarkable. Mutual recognition among the different member families of churches has offset the absolutist demands that continue to be heard in other regions affected by similar historical problems (e.g., the demand by some Orthodox that Uniatism be abolished by the absorption of the Uniates into the Latin rite of Roman Catholicism).(29)

The process of healing these historical wounds can be illustrated by two significant examples, both of which have had a positive impact on the life of the MECC, though the initiatives originated elsewhere. The first involves the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which, since 1990, have been trying to resolve the issue of the Eastern-rite Catholic (Uniate) churches. Their joint "Statement on the Subject of Uniatism," published as the Freising Declaration of 1990, became the basis of a continuing dialogue in which it has been agreed that while the Eastern-rite Catholic churches have come into existence as part of the historic search for unity, Uniatism no longer provides a model or method for Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement. In the contemporary ecumenical understanding of the church as a communion of those who receive the "gifts and graces" of the Holy Spirit,(30) neither Catholics nor Orthodox claim exclusive possession of the Holy Spirit's authenticating marks. They embrace one another as pilgrims in a Spirit-guided journey toward perfect communion. In this pilgrimage the Eastern-rite Catholics/Uniates serve not as intermediaries between sister churches but as fellow pilgrims who seek to make their own specific contribution to the growth of Christian koinonia.(31) Although a certain ambiguity remains about the specific ecumenical role of the Eastern-rite Catholics, agreement that Uniatism is no longer a model for ecclesial reunion represents a significant defusing of tensions created by proselytism.

A second example of intra-Christian dialogue is the growth since the late 1980s of bilateral conversations between Western evangelical missions and the indigenous churches of West Asia/North Africa. An annual conference of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), founded in 1987, provides a framework for dialogue between indigenous Christians and Western evangelicals who are exploring cooperative rather than competitive understandings of mission. Speaking to evangelicals, EMEU director Donald Wagner calls for "a new day for mission . . . [in which] we must strive to become authentic partners with the churches of the Middle East. We will discover that God is already at work in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, and throughout this region. We will not only learn from our sisters and brothers in the faith in these lands, but will find the true meaning of being the church in new ways that will honor the Lord and the gospel he gave us."(32)

An example of this sort of dialogue has been published in Turning Over a New Leaf: Protestant Missions and the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East. This book introduces Western evangelicals to the life of the indigenous churches of West Asia in a concise, informed, and sensitive manner that seeks to replace negative stereotypes by "a kinder, gentler understanding."(33) It explores aspects of Orthodox theology that evangelicals find difficult (e.g., works/faith relationship, the Eucharist, Mariology and the communion of saints, apostolic succession) and develops a frank discussion of differences between their respective understandings of salvation and spiritual renewal. It is especially helpful in showing how Orthodox spiritual renewal draws inspiration from the Orthodox liturgy of worship.

These examples show evidence of a process of reconciliation at least between churches (Catholic-Orthodox) and mission groups (Western evangelicals) whose understanding of mission centers upon the church and the local Christian community. It must be admitted, however, that these positive developments have little impact on those groups that, as noted above, the MECC terms "sects." From the EMEU perspective, Donald Wagner has expressed concern about what he sees as "the western orientation and cultural insensitivity" of the evangelical AD 2000 movement. He also subjects the theology and policies of the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem to critical scrutiny, concluding that it "allows the gospel and lordship of Jesus Christ to become subservient to the modern political ideology of Zionism . . . reducing the Christian church to a mere 'parenthesis' and rejecting the local Christian community."(34)

Orthodox Understandings of Mission

Perhaps the most sensitive issue for continuing dialogue between Western and Eastern churches is the nature of mission itself. On grounds that the ethnic identity of Eastern churches is assumed to deprive them of a real sense of mission, evangelicals sometimes continue the nineteenth-century practice of justifying a proselytizing evangelism of Eastern Christians so that they might become effective channels of indigenous evangelism. Orthodox response to being treated as terra missionis often caricatures Western missions as a continuation of the medieval Crusades and has resulted in denunciation of the word "mission." With its Latin connotations of "sending forth," they associate mission negatively with their historic experience of the imperial ambitions of the Holy Roman Empire and its successor European states.

Orthodox churches generally prefer the Greek term martyria (witness). The following paragraphs attempt to summarize the content that modern Orthodox have given this term in their recent missiological writings and consultations.

Witness as liturgy. The heart of the Orthodox understanding of witness is the liturgy. "The Liturgy," writes Metropolitan Anastasios of Albania (formerly professor at the University of Athens), "is a continuous transformation of life according to the prototype Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit. If it is true that in the Liturgy we not only hear a message but we participate in the great event of liberation from sin and of koinonia (communion) with Christ through the real presence of the Holy Spirit, then this event of our personal incorporation into the Body of Christ, this transfiguration of our little being into a member of Christ, must be evident and be proclaimed in actual life. The Liturgy has to be continued in personal, everyday situations. . . . Without this continuation the Liturgy remains incomplete."(35)

Liturgy after the Liturgy. The idea of continuity between the liturgy and witness in life is expressed in the phrase "liturgy after the Liturgy." Ion Bria, the Romanian Orthodox theologian who served as Orthodox adviser in the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, explains it thus: "The mission of the Church rests upon the radiating and transforming power of the Liturgy. It is the stimulus in sending out the people of God to the world to confess the Gospel and to be involved in man's liberation."(36)

Liturgy as witness/mission means the church being in the midst of the human community it serves in order to transform it into the Christ-like image and likeness of God (theosis). This necessitates the radical conversion of societies and individuals whose lives are characterized by sin, separation from God, and submission to the evils of idolatry (social and political as much as religious). Accordingly, a group of Orthodox theologians who met in Bucharest in 1974 to discuss the topic "Confessing Christ Today" analyzed witness under its "vertical" (divine-human) and "horizontal" (social-individual) dimensions. They emphasized that "the first method of evangelistic witness is the sharing of love by those who have acknowledged the love of God for them." They argued that this primary expression of witness, this self-giving quality of Christian lives that invite emulation, is a more effective way of transforming human communities than "the bold announcement of Christ as Saviour to a world which has already heard the words and still remains unresponsive."(37)

The context of witness. The ethnic and national identity of Orthodox churches means that the primary context of their witness is their own people and nations. For much of the twentieth century, Orthodox churches living under the restrictions of Communist regimes had no opportunity to witness beyond their own societies. But contemporary Orthodox theologians insist that their understanding of witness is not contingent on a particular sociopolitical circumstance. It flows from the Orthodox ecclesiology, which identifies the church with the people (laos) as "the people's church."(38) This understanding gives missiological priority to the indigenization of faith in a particular culture so that the latter is transformed by gospel values. The Orthodox consultation "Confessing Christ Today" identified four dimensions of such indigenous evangelization: (1) the evangelization of those who are Christian in name but ignore their baptism either deliberately or through indifference; (2) the penetration of superficially Christian cultures with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit reaching into "every nook and cranny" of national life; (3) the evangelization of "the structures of this world," especially in the social, economic, and political spheres, where the church should give voice to the poor and oppressed; and (4) the evangelization of secularized men and women for whom transcendence, forgiveness, and the sacramental have no meaning.(39)

Evangelism. The notion of the people's church must at the same time be understood within the historic order of the ministries within the Orthodox Church. The primary evangelists are the bishops, their presbyters and deacons, and the monastic orders. The monastic community has the specific evangelistic role of living as "a sign, a paradigm, an anticipation and foretaste of the Kingdom," sanctifying time and seeking the renewal of the inner life through unceasing prayer.(40) Modern Orthodoxy is rediscovering the power of the laity, especially through the development of various Orthodox youth movements. Given the persecution that many Orthodox churches have experienced from hostile political authorities, it is important to recognize the evangelistic value of the faithful who suddenly find themselves called to physical martyrdom. Evangelism, therefore, while the calling of the whole church, is effectively exercised by particular representatives who witness "from within the faith and truth of the body of the Church."(41)

Cross-cultural witness. The Orthodox churches' firm emphasis on culturally indigenized witness may seem to beg the question, often asked by Western missionaries, of the place of cross-cultural witnessing in Orthodox priorities. However, Orthodox history proudly records the evangelization of the Slavs by the ninth-century Greek brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius. This century has seen innovative forms of intra-Orthodox missionary cooperation in Africa, Alaska, and the Far East, regions of what is sometimes called the Orthodox diaspora. Cross-cultural evangelism has not figured significantly in the witness of Orthodox churches living under restrictive political (e.g., the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) or socioreligious (e.g., Islam) conditions, which we have already acknowledged. Recent political change in Russia and Eastern Europe opens new opportunities, though the recurrence in Eastern Europe of previously suppressed animosities between Eastern-rite Catholics and Orthodox, on the one hand, and evangelicals and Orthodox, on the other, has revived Orthodox suspicions of mission as involving one church transgressing the ethnic context of another. Where cross-cultural evangelization is possible, Orthodox agree that its subjects must be non-Christians, not Christians from other Orthodox, Catholic, or evangelical churches.(42)

Christian witness within Islam. Since the seventh century, Islam has provided the social, cultural, and political framework of Orthodox presence in West Asia and North Africa. It exceeds the scope of this article to review this long history of Orthodox-Muslim relations.(43) The contribution of Father Joseph el-Zahlaoui, an Antiochian Orthodox living in Lebanon, to the compendium Your Will Be Done: Orthodoxy in Mission offers a good example of a contemporary Orthodox whose concern is with witness in the context of Islam.(44)

Rejecting the view that the Orthodox communities have been introverted by the social experience of Islam, el-Zahlaoui reminds us of important ways in which Orthodox Christians have contributed to the cultural, ideological, and scientific renaissance of Arab societies in different periods of their history. His general point is that "Christianity became an essential spiritual force in the cultural, social and political life of Arab Muslims."

The contemporary resurgence of conservative religious trends throughout the region confronts all minorities with difficult problems. Many Christians feel threatened, even to the point of fearing for their survival. As in previous times of crisis, many Christians opt to emigrate out of the region, usually to the West, with the result that the remaining Christian presence is seriously weakened. Hard as this situation makes it for many Christians to give confident witness, el-Zahlaoui insists on the responsibility of the church to relate the Gospel to this crisis. "The witness of the Gospel challenges us to transform the prevailing destructive suspicion between the minorities and majorities into constructive confidence."

In practical terms, this means that the church must identify with the cause of all victims of injustice in "a fidelity to Christ who calls us to assume on behalf of everybody all true human solidarity." In the Lebanese context el-Zahlaoui emphasizes the church's medicosocial and educational services, through which it witnesses the presence of God within human suffering and manifests the reconciliatory power of the Incarnation.(45)

The most serious impediment to effective Christian witness is the disunity of Christian churches. "Where the Church should be a manifestation of God's love to all human beings and a united community in God's peace, it often appears as a gathering of sects, mutually exclusive of one another." Such disunity invites the criticism of Muslims whose scripture, the Qur'an, argues that disunity is a sign of God's punishment upon Christians who have neglected their divine covenant (5:15).(46) The challenge of Christian witness within Muslim societies, el-Zahlaoui concludes, demands concerted "spiritual and theological reflection on the meaning of our faith and of our beliefs in the Islamic context in which we live."(47)

A Pastoral Approach to Issues of Proselytism

The MECC document with which this essay began calls for "a pastoral agreement" among churches for the resolution of historical and contemporary problems of proselytism.(48) The key to this approach is "a dialogue of love"(49) in which Christians of different traditions learn to listen to one another in their search for mutual correction and enrichment. The examples we have given point to the growth of such dialogue between churches and with missionary agencies that operate with an ecclesial commitment, however varied this may be. The MECC study document lists several issues that call for discussion under the category of "unconscious" proselytism, such as religious freedom and the freedom of conscience, the issue of "returning to the mother church," mixed marriages and religious education, and the evangelization of nominal Christians.

Is dialogue possible with what the MECC terms "sects," for which, in its judgment, "proselytism is a constitutive element of their identity"? If the MECC has less confidence in dialogue in this respect, there being "not enough basis for a constructive dialogue," it nevertheless recommends "a pastoral strategy" that specifically rejects the option of trying to suppress the freedom of sects to operate. No haven is offered to the argument that civil law should be invoked against the sects. On the contrary, the study document insists that the freedom of the sects to operate must be upheld, as also the right of the individual to choose his or her religious affiliation.(50)

A pastoral approach to the sects should include challenge in two senses of the word: challenge to the sects by monitoring their activities and raising "awareness of the religious and human threats of this phenomenon"; and the challenge of the sects, in that the churches should be energized for renewal, expressed in "a more efficient pastoral work that 'recaptures what has been lost' and immunizes (the) faithful against the temptations of 'religious consumerism.'" Without elaborating further, the document emphasizes the need for continuing renewal of religious education, ministerial formation, pastoral care, and "the balance between participation and the need for leadership" (which this author reads as meaning the new relationship between clergy and laity).

Issues for Intra-Christian Dialogue

The MECC's call for dialogue between Eastern and Western churches implicitly requires us to consider the sociopolitical context in which proselytism continues to evoke contentious argument. At least three dimensions of Christian identity need to be kept in mind.

Christian religious identity in West Asia/North Africa. The Lebanese theologian George Sabra reminds us that religion continues to function as a primary factor of social identity throughout the West Asian/North African region. He draws a helpful distinction between the "denominational" (or sociological) identity of a Christian community and the "ecclesial" (or faith) commitment of its members. These two dimensions may be continuous with each other. But modern forces of secularization have tended to erode the ecclesial vitality of many Christians who nonetheless continue to be socially defined by their denomination. In this context, Sabra argues, the purpose of evangelization is to enhance the ecclesial identity of individuals and communities. He then poses the question, If the faith renewal of an individual or group leads to a change of ecclesial affiliation, is this evangelization or proselytism?(51)

Two variables tend to influence the way this question is answered. Where continuity between church and ethnicity is strong (e.g., in the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Maronite church), change of ecclesial affiliation from the mother church is unconscionable and treated as a betrayal of community. In cases where ecclesiology has reduced or eliminated the sense of ethnicity (e.g., in Protestant churches), the quality of personal faith commitment/salvation is the primary value of evangelism.

Here the second variable becomes evident. Where faith is understood in individualistic terms as a personal relationship with God, freedom of religious conviction and the right to change religious affiliation tend to be given priority. This is typically the case with Protestant Christianity, which has been so much influenced by principles of the Western Enlightenment. A quite different worldview pertains among those churches that are historically rooted in the cultural and intellectual traditions of West Asia/North Africa, where community provides the social and spiritual context within which individual faith is nurtured. This is at the heart of the monastic tradition of Christianity and is inherent in the shape and content of the liturgy. In different ways it is no less evident in the Islamic religious consciousness, which has influenced the social character of indigenous Christianity. Evangelism in this context is understood in terms of the renewal of an individual's ecclesial identity within his or her denominational identity, not in separation from it. Orthodox witness makes this very clear and amounts to a conceptual (and thus practical) resistance to the many Western notions of mission.

Christian cultural identity in West Asia/North Africa. The intricate relationship between language and culture is richly evidenced in the indigenous Christian communities in West Asia/North Africa. Our review of the churches has emphasized the diversity of linguistic cultures (Aramaic, Armenian, Coptic, and Syriac) that distinguished the ancient Eastern patriarchates from each other and from the West (Greek and Latin). With the rise and expansion of Islam from the seventh century, however, Arabic has become the lingua franca of most of the peoples of the region. The wealth of Christian theological writing from the mid-eighth century in Arabic as well as in their ethnic languages is a literary monument of their bilingual traditions. Sydney Griffith, a leading scholar of this genre of Christian literature, observes that Christians "actually adopted a way of presenting the traditional teachings of the church in an Arabic idiom conditioned by the Islamic frame of reference in the midst of which they lived."(52) Rarely have Western missions been sensitive to this achievement. Indeed, if recognized at all, it has usually been regarded with suspicion as an incipient paganism that must be expunged. The conversion of indigenous Christians to Western forms of Christianity has had the effect of deracinating them from their cultural-linguistic traditions, marking them out as "aliens at home"(53) and burdening them with the criticism of being cultural proselytes.

Christian political identity in West Asia/North Africa. Under the Ottoman Empire the Christian communities of West Asia/North Africa were recognized for legal and political purposes as millets-autonomous minorities within Muslim society, represented by their clerical hierarchies. For four hundred years (early sixteenth to early twentieth centuries) this was the juridical framework of George Sabra's sociological category of "denominational" identity. While the millet system has been formally abolished in the constitutions of the modern Arab states, it continues to exert informal influence in terms of political psychology and practice. This is strikingly evident in Lebanon, where a "confessional" system of public life guarantees (in theory) that each religious community in the state is represented proportionately to its size in relation to the other religious communities. While political leadership is exercised on constitutionally secular lines, confessionalism allows the religious hierarchies of both Christian and Muslim communities to continue to exert considerable influence behind the scenes, and openly if political life breaks down in civil or military disorder.

Against this background the antagonism of indigenous churches to proselytism has certain political resonance. This may be construed as a case of clerical hierarchies protecting their political influence from further erosion. But since this is how the political culture continues to operate, it can also be argued that a politically influential clergy is a positive asset for Christian minorities in societies that are themselves undergoing various forms of Islamic religious and social renewal. Burdened by a feeling of vulnerability, many Arab Christians look for the strengthening of their traditional institutions of leadership and feel politically undermined and endangered by proselytism.


This article has attempted to elucidate the controversial issue of proselytism in West Asia/North Africa in a dispassionate manner, based on historical evidence and contemporary documentation, analyzed from the point of view of the indigenous Christian communities. In conclusion, the author wishes to commend the statement of George Sabra that "ecumenism is simply incompatible with proselytism."(54) The weight of historical evidence shows that proselytism almost invariably becomes the dynamic of intra-Christian relations where disunity prevails among churches or sectarianism is fostered by exclusivist groups. Ultimately, it is evangelism itself that becomes the casualty of "sheep-stealing" mission.

If the renewal of the church arises from the renewal of Christian witness, the qualitative wealth of Christian traditions in West Asia/North Africa (notwithstanding their quantitative decline) suggests that this region has an important role to play in the twenty-first century, as it did in the first. But this promise will be realized only to the degree that the churches of the future can regain the ecumenical fellowship of the early Christian centuries. Drawing once again from Sabra's sociological analysis, we can well support his hope that in a truly ecumenical situation "the evangelizers could aim at reviving . . . sociological Christians in and for their own (ecclesial) traditions."(55)


1. The author acknowledges indebtedness and expresses gratitude to Carolyn Sperl, coordinator of Reference and Interlibrary Loan Services, Hartford Seminary, for assistance in researching the disparate literature relevant to this study. The colonialist associations and geographic ambiguities of the term "Middle East" and its variant "Near East" call for the less prejudicial (albeit less elegant) terminology "West Asia/North Africa," which will be used throughout.

2. Recent introductory studies of these churches include Roland Roberson, The Eastern Churches: A Brief Survey, rev. 3d ed. (Rome: Pont. Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1990), which deals with the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and with the Catholic churches of West Asia/North Africa and elsewhere (but excludes the Protestants); and Norman Horner, Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East: Present-day Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa (Elkhart, Ind.: Mission Focus Press, 1989), which includes information on the Protestant churches as well as the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and the Catholics. A briefer summary appears in David Teague, ed., Turning a New Leaf: Protestant Missions and the Orthodox Churches of the Middle East, 2d ed. (London: Interserve; Lynnwood, Wash.: Middle East Media, 1992). For a sociopolitical overview of these Christian communities, see Robert Betts, Christians in the Arab East: A Political Study, rev. ed. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978). For the contemporary statement of an Arab Christian, see Mitri Raheb, I Am a Palestinian Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). Standard scholarly reference works include Aziz Atiyah, A History of Eastern Christianity (London: Methuen, 1968); and A. J. Arberry, ed., Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Concord and Conflict, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969).

3. For the MECC's account of the churches of its region, see "Who Are the Christians of the Middle East?" MECC Perspectives (Limassol, 1986).

4. The preamble of the document reads: "After a discussion process started in December 1986, the Commission on Faith and Unity studied in its last meeting (July 1989), before the Vth General Assembly, a third draft. It has agreed that it should be considered 'A Study Document' submitted to the Executive Committee of the MECC and to the Churches and made available to institutions, groups or individuals concerned."

5. MECC study document, paragraphs 6-11. For an elaboration of these definitions, see George Sabra, "Proselytism, Evangelisation and Ecumenism," Theological Review: Near East School of Theology 9, no. 2 (1988): 23-36.

6. MECC study document, paragraphs 13-14.

7. Ibid., paragraph 39.

8. Ibid., paragraphs 20-29.

9. King Tiridate's conversion to Christianity at the hands of St. Gregory the Illuminator in 301 predates the baptism of Emperor Constantine around 337.

10. In Armenian canon law the catholicosate has global authority over Armenians, in contrast to the patriarchate, which has only regional jurisdiction. The church comprises two patriarchates (Jerusalem and Constantinople), which are dependent upon the catholicosate of Etchmiadzin. In the fifteenth century a second catholicosate was created for the Armenian diaspora in Cilicia, Syria (modern-day Lebanon).

11. The name "Assyrian" reflects their claim to descend from the ancient people of Nineveh. Alternatively, they call themselves "Chaldean." In either case they reject their designation by other churches as Nestorian, after the fifth-century theologian Nestorius, whom the Council of Ephesus condemned for allegedly teaching Dyophysitism, the view that the person of Jesus Christ included two separate natures.

12. The doctrinal issue turned once again on the problem of defining the person of Jesus Christ. Was he of a single divine nature as the Orientals were alleged to have asserted (Monophysitism), or of two natures that were united without confusion, change, division, or separation as the Western Christians insisted (Chalcedonianism)?

13. The recovery of the theological output of these churches within Muslim societies and culture is the goal of important contemporary research, much of which has been pioneered by Samir Khalil. For a recent example of this in English, see Samir Khalil and Jorgen Nielsen, eds., Christian Arabic Apologists During the Abbasid Period (750-1258) (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994).

14. The Arabization of the episcopate and election of the first Arab patriarch at the end of the nineteenth century stands as one of the early milestones of Arab nationalism.

15. In fairness to the Roman position, it must be acknowledged that Rome viewed the Eastern-rite churches within the Catholic communion as symbols of the full communion with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches that is yet to be achieved. They were provisional models of reunion, or as the Second Vatican Council stated: "All these directives of law are laid down in view of the present situation, until such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity" ("Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches," in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Waiter Abbott [New York: Guild Press, 1966], p. 385).

16. Created by the Latin Crusaders after their conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, this patriarchate did not survive the end of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem but was reconstituted by the Vatican in 1847.

17. Documents of Vatican II, p. 373.

18. For example, see Theodore Zissis, "Uniatism: A Problem in the Dialogue Between Orthodox and Roman Catholics," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 35 (Spring 1990): 21-31.

19. For analyses of the history of nineteenth-century evangelical missionary theory and practice in West Asia by indigenous scholars, see Habib Badr, "Mission to 'Nominal Christians': The Policy and Practice of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and Its Missionaries" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton Univ., 1922; UMI no. 9229015); and Wanis Semaan, Aliens at Home: A Socio-Religious Analysis of the Protestant Church in Lebanon and Its Backgrounds (Beirut: Librarie du Liban/Longman, 1986).

20. Badr, "Mission to 'Nominal Christians,'" pp. 164-65. Anderson's study of this issue is found in his History of the Missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the Oriental Churches, 2 vols. (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1872).

21. For example, see Henry Jessup, The Greek Church and Protestant Missions; or, Missions to the Oriental Churches (Beirut and New York: Christian Literature Company, 1891).

22. A contemporary American missionary, Isaac Bird, was the first to write on this incident in his Martyr of Lebanon (Boston: American Tract Society, 1864). Rufus Anderson later wrote a chapter "The Martyr of Lebanon, Assaad Shidyak" (History, 1:52ff.).

23. Badr, "Mission to 'Nominal Christians,' "pp. 100-102; cf. Semaan, Aliens at Home, pp. 82-85. The missionary significance of the First Church in Hartford lay in its minister from 1818 to 1867, Joel Hawes, who played a leading role in the Second Great Awakening. Hawes was a friend and supporter of Rufus Anderson, as well as his traveling companion on an extended visit to West Asia in 1844. On Joel Hawes, see George Walker, History of the First Church in Hartford, 1633-1883 (Hartford, Conn.: Brown & Gross, 1884).

24. Badr, "Mission to 'Nominal Christians,'" p. 254.

25. Ibid., p. 264.

26. Anderson, History, 1:47.

27. See Horner, Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East, pp. 65-79, for a full list of Anglican and Protestant churches in West Asia/North Africa.

28. Ibid., p. 72.

29. Zissis, "Uniatism," p. 22. Defining uniatism as no more than "a method of proselytizing the East," Zissis argues that it is a "fraudulent union" that should be abolished, asking that "the Uniates . . . be incorporated in the Latin rite of Roman Catholicism."

30. Documents of Vatican II, p.34 ("Dogmatic Constitution on the Church").

31. Summary of salient points in the Joint Commission's 1991 working document entitled "Uniatism as a Method of Union in the Past and the Present Call for Full Communion," published in Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 10 (1991): 60-62. For an interpretation of this document by an Eastern-rite Catholic priest, see Joseph Loya, "Uniatism in Current Ecumenical Dialogue," Ecumenical Trends: Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute 21, no. 6 (June 1992): 83-86.

32. Donald Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon: A Call to Partnership for Middle Eastern and Western Christians (Waterloo, Ont.; Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994), pp. 181-82; see also 57-58 and 186-87. For a report on the 1991 Cyprus meeting, see Kim Lawton, "The Other Peace Conference: Middle Eastern and Western Christians Hold a Summit Meeting of Their Own to Resolve Long-standing Tensions," Christianity Today, November 11, 1991, pp. 46-48.

33. David Teague's phrase, which he uses as the title of the chapter in which he speaks of what he learned through personal encounter with Coptic Orthodoxy in Egypt (Turning Over a New Leaf, pp. 63-84).

34. Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon, pp. 181, 96-113.

35. This often-cited quotation appears, for example, in Ion Bria, ed., Martyria/Mission: The Witness of the Orthodox Church (Geneva: WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, 1980), pp. 66-67; see also Ion Bria, ed., Go Forth in Peace: Orthodox Perspectives on Mission (Geneva: WCC Mission Series, 1986), p. 38.

36. Bria, Martyria/Mission, p. 68.

37. Ibid., p. 226.

38. Ibid., p. 10.

39. Ibid., p. 228.

40. On the role of monastic witness in Orthodoxy, see ibid. pp. 243-48.

41. Ibid., p. 230.

42. Case studies of cross-cultural witness appear in George Lemopoulos, ed., Your Will Be Done: Orthodoxy in Mission (Geneva: WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, 1989).

43. For a sociohistorical analysis, see Robert Haddad, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970). For a more theological perspective, see N. M. Vaporis, ed., Orthodox Christians and Muslims (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1986).

44. "Witnessing in the Islamic context," in Your Will Be Done, ed. Lemopoulos, pp. 95-104, from which the following quotations are taken.

45. For further information, see Milia Khouri, "The Mission of the Orthodox Youth in Lebanon," in Your Will Be Done, ed. Lemopoulos, pp. 181-83.

46. Qur'an 5:15: "For those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a Covenant, but they forgot a good part of the Message that We sent them. So We estranged them, with enmity and hatred between one and another, to the Day of Judgment. And soon will God show them what they have done" (Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation, and Commentary, pp. 245-46).

47. The leading contemporary Orthodox theologian to have addressed the issue of the Christian relationship to Islam is Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Lebanon; see his "Christianity in a Pluralistic World: The Economy of the Holy Spirit," Ecumenical Review 23 (April 1971): 118-28. For a discussion of the contextualization of Christian theology, including Orthodox contributions, in Palestinian Muslim society, see Andre Mazawi, "Palestinian Local Theology and the Issue of Islamo-Christian Dialogue: An Appraisal," Islamochristiana 19 (1993): 93-115.

48. MECC study document, paragraphs 34-37.

49. The phrase is used by the former MECC general secretary Gabriel Habib in his letter to Evangelicals, "Renewal, Unity, and Witness in the Middle East: An Open Letter to Evangelicals," Evangelical Missions Quarterly 26 (July 1990): 256-62. See also Michael Roemmele's reply in the same issue, pp. 260-62.

50. MECC study document, paragraphs 61-64. On this point, George Sabra argues that an appeal to secular authorities, or to the courts other than in cases where proselytizing groups breach national laws, infringes the religious rights of individuals, denies the spirit of the Gospel, and betrays the witness of the earliest Christians, who courageously stood for freedom of faith against the political, legal, military, and social pressures of the Roman Empire ("Proselytism, Evangelization, and Ecumenism," pp. 26-28).

51. Sabra, "Proselytism, Evangelization, and Ecumenism," pp. 29-31.

52. Sydney Griffith, "Faith and Reason in Christian Kalam: Theodore Abu Qurrah on Discerning the True Religion," in Christian Arabic Apologists During the Abbasid Period (750-1258), ed. Khalil and Nielsen, p. 5.

53. See Semaan, Aliens at Home, a socioreligious study of the evangelical church in Lebanon.

54. Sabra, "Proselytism, Evangelization, and Ecumenism," p. 25.

55. Ibid., p. 33.

David A. Kerr, a contributing editor, is Professor of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the center of the same name. He was formerly a professor in Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, where he directed the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
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Author:Kerr, David A.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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