Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Nominal Christianity is Worse Than Atheism

I was having an interesting conversation with a fellow seminarian about nominal Christianity. By this I mean those Christians that show to church every Sunday, or not even that, but do not really participate of care to do so. They are the ones who do not completely agree with all aspects of the faith and do not really make any effort to actually grow spiritually by participating in the sacraments on a regular basis (communion, confession, services, fasting, etc.).

In our conversation we agreed that nominal Christianity is not only a problem within the church, but it is indeed worse than atheism. These may seem extreme in today's society where we are told by most Orthodox hierarchs and spiritual fathers that we must be loving and non-judgmental when it comes to dealing with our neighbors. Indeed, as an aspiring priest, I have been cautioned on many occasions to be gentle in my future ministry when "laying down the law" so that I do not offend many congregants and therefore lose their souls if they decide to leave the church. Yes, the prevailing mentality among the Orthodox clergy today is that numbers equal success. If we have our churches full, we are doing well. If we lose bodies, for any reason, then it is a failure on behalf of the priests.

This to me is one of the greatest problems that the ministry faces today. The unwillingness to truly preach the faith as it is for fear that many will reject it and walk out. We believe that we should be lenient on certain contemporary issues such as abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc., so that we do not offend the more liberal minded Christians who feel that it is not fashionable to go against the status quo. The problem with this is that we subjugate truth to the relative and transient sense of morality that is so prevalent in today's society.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating a type of puritanism that only allows those "super-orthodox" into communion. Anyone who knows me is aware of my lack of religious rigidity and piety. What I am saying is that keeping compassion and love in the church does not necessarily mean that we must expell hardline morals and unchanging doctrine. The truth does not change, no matter how unpopular it may get at times. We must stand up for the teachings of Orthodoxy, even if it means a few people walk out of our church. The church exists to cater to the spiritual needs of the people, not to the spiritual laziness of the baptized masses. It is true that no one is perfect and we cannot expect everyone to succeed in the perfect execution of the faith. We are all human and we fall. This is why we have the sacrament of confession. However, we must not stop teaching what the church considers to be sin and the need for it to be corrected. It is on this point that we must exercise resolve. We must present the Orthodox Church as the ark of truth; a truth that cannot be compromised. we must say, "This is it. Take it or leave it. "

As a good friend of mine said in a speech a few weeks ago, "If you don't believe in confession, you're not Orthodox. If you don't believe in fasting, you're not Orthodox." It is statements like these that need to be made more frequently in our churches. Notice that he didn't say "if you don't fast, you're not Orthodox." Execution of the ideal is not a pre-requisite for the faith, but belief in that ideal and an attempt to strive to achieve it is. As Fr. Tarazi says, "you're either holy or you're not. You're either righteous or you're not. You're either part if Israel or you're not." There is no in between. In this case, to be holy doesn't mean perfection, it only means that one agrees to attempt to live under God's Law. This is what the Church is. There is no picking and choosing what we like and what we do not like. Either we subscribe to the whole truth or none of it.

It is for this reason that we are warned in the Gospels about being luke warm in our beliefs. Either we are for Christ or against Him. This is also why I, as well as my fellow seminarian, respect the new Pope Benedict XVI. Many criticize him for being to conservative and for not being in touch with today's world and the needs of modern Catholics. I respect him because I agree with the criticism, he isn't in touch with today's world because today's world isn't in touch with the law of God. In this, Benedict affirms that if you wanna be Catholic, be Catholic! Don't be a pseudo-Catholic. North American Catholics are upset at their new Pope because he will actually insist on them being Catholics. And this is the danger of the pseudo-Orthodox, or nominal Orthodox. Their presence within the Church is not a sign of success in numbers. Their presence is an example of spiritual laxity and liberalism that breeds the same attitude among the faithful. In these cases, whether these people are sitting in the pew or at home, makes no difference. And furthermore, it is better that they sit at home, because at least then they will not inspire spiritual laziness among others in the community. We must not think that if people walk out the door we have lost them, because the way things are now, there many in the pews who are already lost. They are simply going through the motions.
n conclusion I would have to say that while we must have compassion for all in the church, those who are pious and those who are not, we must not be afraid to preach the hard truth, even if it causes some to leave. If the minister preaches the truth, it is not he who is causing the condmenation of those who are nominal. At that point their own rejection of the word is condemning them. Christ came to call sinners to hear the truth, but He did not compromise that truth for tha sake of a larger following. Those who have ears, let them hear.


Anonymous said...

Three thoughts to add:

1. At least atheists are honest about their beliefs (albeit they are pretty stupid beliefs)... people always complain that their peers are not "real", lying about their beliefs and paying "lip service" to some... why not with God?

2. Numbers should never be a question; rather, it should be the "quality" of the believer. I once went up to 10 Sunday School youth, who came to Church every Sunday... they all said that the Virgin Mary is "more important" than Jesus ... yikes. If we do not make an effort to catechize people, how do we expect them to know the basic truths of the Faith? Wishing it won't make it happen,and neither will half-baked Youth and Religious Education classes... if something is to be done, the "ppl in charge" (and there are plenty of us) are at fault.... We can not change the past, but we can change the future.

3. "Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:16)

Kali Anastasi


Anonymous said...

I'd like to quickly add my own thoughts for this topic. I totally agree with you guys. Your comments really hit home, especially as we are in the middle of Holy Week and approaching Pascha. It's time for the people to start repenting and adjusting their lives according to the Truth, which is Christ and to stop adjusting the Truth according to our "moral freedom" and our selfish worldly wants.

I think the problem (or maybe fear) that a lot of priests face today is exactly the issue of quantity vs quality in the number of people attending church. One of the priest's main duties is to guide Christ's flock towards Him in a loving and open manner, without compromising the dogma of the Church. However, for many priests (if not all), this is a balancing act. On one side of the scale you have the duty of teaching the people that the Truth is just that, no matter what compromises we would like to make in order to ease our consciences. On the other side of the scale is the sometimes discouraging fact that many community and church councils measure the priest's success according to the number of regular attendees they get every Sunday because more attendees mean more money for the community/church. Since it is the communities that pay the priests' salaries, if the number of regular attendees goes down (regardless of the spiritual state of the flock), the council immediately complains to the Bishop of Metropolitan that the priest is useless and is driving the people away with his "hard views and old-fashioned teachings." So what is a priest to do?

I sometimes envy the priests in Greece, because since they paid by the government and not the communities they serve, they have no fear of being "fired" from the community by any councils. We however, in North America, face a different reality. I believe the trick is to keep the people that truly are Orthodox Christians and at the same time re-kindle the flames of faith in the lukewarm people. If anyone out there can tell me how to do that without being sometimes viewed either too loose or too strict, please pass on the secret. Personally, I'd like to think that I'd rather be viewed as a "hard" priest instead of a "pleasant" one.

That's it for now.

Have a blessed Pascha.
Fr. Kos