Before His Ascension our Lord Jesus Christ gave a Great Commission to His Church. He said to the apostles, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
Our Lord knew that this mission could not be fulfilled by merely human means. He promised His Church power from on high: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
From the very beginning all of the powers of hell have tried to stop the Great Commission from being fulfilled. This dark opposition has included outward persecution and inward corruption. From the birth of Christianity until St. Constantine’s edict of toleration in AD 313, Christians were persecuted with some 3,000,000 martyrs shedding their blood as witnesses for Christ. Millions more lost property, children, status, and had to live lives in the shadows, but the Church could not be stopped from fulfilling its mission. Tertullian (AD 160-225) had written that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church; and that seed grew into a great harvest as the Church overcame its persecutors through the Gospel and transformed the pagan Roman Empire into what has become known as Christendom.
After failing to crush the Church through persecution, the strategy then turned to corrupting it from within. Soon the Arian heresy arose, which denied the divinity of Christ; but the Church answered by holding an Oecumenical Council in Nicea in AD 325, and adopting what has become known as the Nicene Creed which is recited at the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Day.
Although persecutions and heresies continued to arise and threaten the Church, nothing has been able to stop it from advancing its mission. The Church was established by Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 16:18), it is His body (Eph. 5:30-32), of which He is the head (Col. 1:18). The Church is not just a fellowship of believers or a human organization, but a Divine institution and a living organism. Jesus commanded his disciples to “Hear the Church” (Matt. 18:17), assuring them that they could trust the Church because the “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16), for it is led by the Holy Spirit (John 15:26-27; 16:12-15), and is “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15).
Over the centuries heretic after heretic has arisen and spread his errors, but the Church could not be overcome by them. There have always been churchmen who would embrace novel teachings and, out of pride and self-will (“I know more than the Church does”), fall away from the Church to follow various teachers or even their own ideas, but the Church has always continued on in the Orthodox Christian Faith as promised by our Lord.
The Church was originally established in Jerusalem and the indigenous Christians of Jerusalem and the Holy Land remain Orthodox to this day. The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch and the Christians of Antioch have always remained Orthodox. In fact, there are some 500,000 Antiochian Orthodox Christians in Syria and 300,000 more in Lebanon today. The seven churches of the Book of Revelation are in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and that area remains to this day under the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). The churches in Greece to whom the Apostle Paul wrote his many epistles have always remained Orthodox and are part of the Greek Orthodox Church. Only the Church of Rome is no longer Orthodox, having unilaterally changed the Nicene Creed and fallen away in AD 1054.
Since changing the Nicene Creed the Roman Church has continued to makes changes in its doctrine, adding such novelties as indulgences and purgatory, leading to an explosion called the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, the “Reformers” did not seek to restore the Faith and Order of the Undivided Church (to use a common Western term) and to return to unity with the Orthodox Church, but instead invented the novel notion of sola scriptura and the private interpretation of the Scriptures, with every man doing what was right in his own eyes, leading to split after split after split, until today there are more than 30,000 divided, disagreeing and competing Protestant denominations with five more being started every week, plus uncountable numbers of independent, interdenominational and nondenominational churches.
The Protestant Reformation shattered Western Christendom like a hammer blow against a glass window. Yet, despite the chaos caused by changing the Faith and falling away from the Orthodox Church, the Church of Rome continued to evolve and change the Faith, adding such novelties as the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and Papal Infallibility in 1870, thus carrying it farther and farther from “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Through all of this controversy and division in the West, the Orthodox Church - sometimes called the Eastern Orthodox Church - remained unchanged and unchanging. St. Mark of Ephesus said, “There can be no compromise in matters of the Orthodox Faith.”
Unable to destroy the Church from within, the powers of darkness returned to trying to crush the Church through persecution. Middle Eastern and North African Christians have suffered under Islamic domination and persecution since the seventh century, all of Asia Minor since the 15th century, and then Greece and the Balkan nations in Europe until the 19th century. Spain too suffered from Moslem occupation; and Jihadist armies eventually reached the gates of Vienna before being pushed back. In Russia and Eastern Europe the Church suffered from Mongol and Tatar invasions and occupations.
In the 20th century came the worst persecution up to that time — persecution by atheistic communism in Russia and later throughout Eastern and Central Europe, and elsewhere. While an estimated 3,000,000 Christians died as martyrs over three centuries in the pagan Roman Empire, an estimated 20,000,000 Christians died as martyrs in just over 70 years in the Soviet Union.
Yet, despite the rise and fall of various heresies, and centuries of brutal persecution, the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church and the Work of the Church continues to advance. The Orthodox Church cannot be destroyed or prevented from fulfilling the Great Commission because it is a Divine institution, a living organism, the body of which Christ is the Head, and it is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Under Lenin and Stalin millions died for their faith and there was a wholesale closing of churches. In 1937, after twenty years of brutal communist dictatorship, Stalinist Russia conducted a census. Everyone over the age of 16 had to answer on the census form whether they were a believer or an unbeliever. In the census, 55.3 million people, 56.7% openly declared themselves believers! Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) wrote, “Thus, despite the mass persecution of the clergy and faithful, the closure and destruction of churches and monasteries, and despite the danger of being shot or repressed that threatened everyone — including their families — who openly confessed their faith in God, more than one half of the adult population proclaimed their religiosity in 1937” (Orthodox Christianity, The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, c. 2011, pp. 272-273).
Why did God allow the Bolshevik Revolution to take place in Russia and for the communists to persecute Christians? After the stoning of St. Stephen the Protomartyr the Book of Acts records, “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). This scattering of Christians actually spread the Church and advanced the work of the Great Commission. The rest of Acts chapter 8 records how Philip, one of the deacons ordained in Acts chapter 6, took the Gospel to Samaria, “And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip” (Acts 8:6), and “both men and women were baptized” (Acts 8:12). We also know from history that it was during this persecution that St. Joseph of Arimathea left Jerusalem and carried the Gospel to Britain.
God has used the communist persecution, much as he used the persecution recorded in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, to spread the Faith throughout the world. St. John of San Francisco, himself a Russian émigré, said in 1938:
“In chastising, the Lord at the same time also shows the Russian people the way to salvation by making it a preacher of Orthodoxy in the whole world. The Russian Diaspora has made all the ends of the world familiar with Orthodoxy; the mass of Russian exiles, for the most part, is unconsciously a preacher of Orthodoxy.... To the Russians abroad it has been granted to shine in the whole world with the light of Orthodoxy, so that other peoples, seeing their good deeds, might glorify our Father Who is in heaven, and thus obtain salvation for themselves.... The Diaspora will have to be converted to the path of repentance and, having acquired forgiveness for itself through prayer to God and through being reborn spiritually (will) become capable also of giving rebirth to our suffering homeland” [The Orthodox Word, 1973, no. 50, pp. 92, 94].
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia occurred in October 1917. At the time of the Revolution there were around 60,000 Orthodox churches in Russia, plus large numbers of chapels, monastic communities, and shrines. However, by the time that Russian Christians celebrated the millennium of the Baptism of Russia in 1988, after seventy years under the communist yoke, there were only 7,000 churches still open. But God was about to work a miracle. God sent a spiritual revival that has led to a new Springtime for the Orthodox Church and has advanced the Work of the Great Commission all around the world.
Although there were only 7,000 Russian Orthodox churches open in the Soviet Union in 1988 when the millennium of the Baptism of Russia was celebrated, by the end of 1989 there were around 11,000! By 1994, there were around 16,000; and by the year 2000 there were some 19,500. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has opened more than 26,000 churches; that is more than three churches a day each and every day for almost a quarter of a century, and this resurgence just continues to gather steam.
Monasticism has always been considered the best gauge of the spiritual health of a Church. A spiritual healthy Church will have an abundance of men and women entering the monastic life, an unhealthy Church will have few; a dead Church will have none. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has established more than 800 new monastic communities.
As of 2006, the Russian Orthodox Church had five theological academies, two Orthodox Universities, two theological institutes, thirty-seven seminaries, thirty-eight lower level theological schools, in one diocese a pastoral school, and departments of theology in twenty-one universities.
After seven decades of persecution, atheistic propaganda in the media and atheistic teaching in the schools, the Russian people are being overwhelmingly won back to Christ. “According to statistics, approximately 70% of Russia’s population considered themselves members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The majority of believers in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldavia belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, and in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) the majority of Orthodox believers belong to the Russian Orthodox Church... the total number of members of the Russian Church in Russia, in the aforementioned countries, as well as outside them, is approximately 160 million — more than those of all other local Orthodox Churches combined"(ibid, Alfeyev, p. 290). That is more than twice the membership of the Anglican Communion, and the Russian Church is just one of the autocephalous local Orthodox Churches.
The Russian Orthodox Church has gone from a marginalized and persecuted body of believers with only around 7,000 open churches to a resurgent Church with more than 160,000,000 members world-wide in less than a quarter of a century. This is a miracle and can only be the work of God!
This spiritual revival and resurgence of the Church is not limited to the Church of Russia either. It is a world-wide movement of the Holy Spirit. There is good news to report from every continent on earth, including the frozen Antarctic where the first Orthodox church was opened in 2004.
To report to you what is happening everywhere would take a book, not a Blog post. But I would like to highlight just a few countries. Like Russia, Romania suffered for decades under communism. After the fall of the brutal Ceausescu regime in 1989, the Romanian Orthodox Church regained its freedom. Romania is not a large country by any means, but as of 2006, there were 20,000,000 faithful, 13,000 parishes, more than 500 monastic communities with more than 7,000 monastics, two theological faculties and seven seminaries.
Serbia suffered under communism and then in war as Yugoslavia broke up into separate states. Yet the 1990s witnessed a revival and a renewal of church life in Serbia. In 2006, little Serbia had 8,000,000 faithful, more than 3,500 parishes, more than 200 monastic communities, two theological faculties and six seminaries.
The tiny Balkan nation of Albania is a real miracle story. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) writes, “In January 1946 the communist party headed by E. Hoxa (1908-1985) came to power in Albania. Thereafter began the systematic persecution of the faithful, which took on mass proportions. In 1967 Albania became the first nation in the world to officially ban all religious services. After this all clergy were executed, imprisoned or exiled, and hundreds of churches and most monasteries were destroyed. The Orthodox Church in Albania ceased to legally exist and its governing structure was annihilated. In 1973 Archbishop Damian of Tirana and All Albania died in prison. The revival of the Albanian Church began in 1991, after the fall of the communist regime. Since no single Albanian bishop remained alive at this time, a bishop from the Church of Greece, Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) was elected first hierarch of the Church. From 1992 to 2002 several bishops were consecrated, including ethnic Albanians, as well as 114 priests. Moreover 74 new churches were built, 65 churches and 5 monasteries were rebuilt from ruins, and 130 churches were restored” (ibid, Alfeyev, p. 309). From having to start over with no churches or clergy after decades of brutal persecution to 269 churches and 5 monasteries in ten years — that is a work of God!
There is a new and exciting move of the Holy Spirit going on in the Philippines. Thousands of people who share much the same background as traditional Anglicans are pouring into the Orthodox Church. In early 2014, a whole diocese of the Philippine Independent Church converted to Orthodoxy together with its two bishops, all of its priests, and 28 parishes. Later in the year their example was imitated by 8 more PIC bishops and 25 more parishes. In total, 53 PIC parishes in the Philippines have come into Orthodoxy so far, with the largest having 1,500 members! The Philippine Independent Church was established by clergy and laity who left Roman Catholicism early in the 20th century and formed a national Catholic Church in communion with the Utrecht Union of Old Catholic Churches and the Anglican Communion. They are now converting to Orthodoxy en masse and the Moscow Patriarchate has organized them as the Philippine Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).
Large numbers of Africans are being won to Christ and are being baptized and added to the Church (Acts 2:47). The Patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt has jurisdiction over the continent of Africa, and marvelous things are happening there. The Patriarchate of Alexandria fell under Islamic domination when Egypt was conquered in AD 640. For nine centuries, from 640 to 1517, the Christians in Egypt suffered under non-Christian Arab domination, only to be replaced in 1517 by the Ottoman Turks, and then by Egyptian Moslem overlords. For nearly a millennium and a half the Christians in Egypt have been repressed for their faith in Christ. Unexpectedly (moves of God usually take us by surprise!), a revival began in 1926 after Meletios (Metaxakis), the former Patriarch of Constantinople became Patriarch of Alexandria. Since that time the Patriarchate of Alexandria has carried on aggressive and wide ranging missionary work throughout the African continent and the membership of the Alexandrian Orthodox Patriarchate has grown ten-fold.
The work of the Church in Israel very interesting. The Church of Jerusalem is the mother Church of Christendom and is one of the five ancient Orthodox Patriarchates. The Church there was predominantly a Jewish Christian Church until the Second Jewish War against Rome (AD 132-135), after which the Jews were expelled from the city and the Church became wholly non-Jewish with a Greek bishop. Today the Patriarch is still a Greek, and the Church is made up primarily of Palestinian Christians. So how is the Church to reach the Jewish population of the new State of Israel? No need to wonder, God already had a plan. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) explains: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states from the 1970s to 1990s led to a significant growth of the Moscow Patriarchate’s flock in Israel, since many of the ethnic Jews who emigrated were Orthodox Christians. Pastoral care for them is conducted by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission and the church institutions under its jurisdiction, with the permission of the patriarchate of Jerusalem” (ibid, Alfeyev, p. 302). I have experienced the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Hebrew over the Internet from Israel. It is an heavenly experience!
One day Eugene Rose, the future Fr. Seraphim Rose, asked St. John of San Francisco a question that he had been pondering: “Nearly all the peoples of the earth have had the Gospel preached to them. Does this mean that it’s the end of the world, as the Scriptures say?” “No,” St. John replied, “the Gospel of Christ must be preached in all tongues throughout the world in an Orthodox context. Only then will the end come.”
The Great Commission charges the Church with a two-fold mission: First, to make disciples of all nations; and Second, to teach them to observe all things that Christ has commanded. That means that the Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him, and the fullness of the Orthodox Christian Faith to those who do. That is why, to quote St. John of San Francisco, “The Gospel of Christ must be preached in all tongues throughout the world in an Orthodox context.”
Tremendous missionary work is being done all around the world and a harvest is being reaped in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. The unevangelized are hearing the Gospel, and Christians of every tradition are finding their way home to the Orthodox Church. In 2007, Patriarch Alexei of Moscow wrote, “Orthodoxy is one of the few religious confessions whose membership is growing rather than declining.”
What about in the United States? Is the Orthodox Church growing here at home? Yes, it is! “The percentage of growth of Orthodox Christianity in America was higher than any other major classification of Christianity mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1995” (Turning to Tradition, Converts and the making of the American Orthodox Church, by D. Oliver Herbel, Oxford University Press, c. 2014, p. 8).
It is often difficult to gather membership facts about Orthodoxy in America because religious studies often group Orthodox Christians with mainline Protestants as neither Roman Catholics or Evangelicals. However the 2008 US Landscape Survey reported that 23%, virtually one in four, of Orthodox Christians in the United States, are converts. That is an amazing statistic!
Orthodoxy in North America is no longer an immigrant Church. The vast majority of Orthodox Christians here are native born. One-third of the Orthodox clergy in America are converts. About a third of the membership of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, America’s largest Orthodox jurisdiction with 525 parishes, 20 monastic communities and about a half a million faithful are converts; and 51% the laity and 59% of the clergy of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) are converts. Many of the clergy and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) are converts, including dozens of Western Rite clergymen and their congregations. Three ROCOR bishops in America are converts as well: two from Anglicanism and one from Roman Catholicism. The same can be said of other jurisdictions in North America. Three out of four Orthodox parishes in the United States use English as the language of the Liturgy, and 81% use English as the language for sermons.
There are now around 2,000 Orthodox parishes in the United States, plus hundreds more in Canada. As I have already said, monasticism has always been considered a good way to gauge the health of the Church, and monasticism is thriving and growing in North America. There are around eighty monastic communities in the United States with others in Canada.
God has been doing an amazing work in North America. St. Alexis Toth (1853-1909) was a Uniate (Roman) Catholic priest who arrived in America from the Subcarpathian region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1889. Uniate Catholics are the descendants of Orthodox Christians who converted to Roman Catholicism under pressure from Roman Catholic dominated governments in their homelands, while maintaining their Eastern Rite and culture. After arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota Fr. Alexis was subjected to the same second class status at the hands of the Roman authorities that he had experienced in his homeland. With religious freedom in America, Fr. Alexis was able to return to the Church of his Fathers, the Orthodox Church, where he served as a priest for the rest of his life. He dedicated himself to reaching out to other Uniates and helping them return to the Orthodox Church. Due to his missionary work or the influence of his legacy and prayers after his death, an estimated 200,000 Uniate Catholics returned to the Orthodox Church in the United States in the 20th century. Our Lord promised, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you (Acts 1:8), and St. Alexis Toth was used powerfully by God.
Fr. Raphael Morgan (c. 1869-1916) was a black man from Jamaica who was an Anglican deacon and a missionary to Africa. In 1904 Deacon Morgan travelled to Russia. Upon returning home he wrote of his visit: “I shall speak boldly and loudly about the brotherly feelings entertained here [in Russia] in the bosom of the holy Orthodox Church towards its Anglican sister of North America, and about the prayers which are offered here daily for the union of all Catholic Christendom” (ibid, Herbel, p. 69).
Upon his return to America Deacon Morgan began developing a personal relationship with the Greek Orthodox clergy in Philadelphia. Eventually Morgan’s approach changed. He could no longer see any reason for Anglicans maintaining a separate Church, and he and his family entered the Orthodox Church. On August 15/28, 1907, the Feast of the Dormition, Raphael Morgan, an immigrant to the United States from Jamaica, was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in Constantinople. He was the first man of African American descent born in the New World to be ordained a priest in the Orthodox Church.
While his outreach to black Americans won only a small number of souls during his lifetime, through others influenced by Fr. Raphael’s ministry thousands of former Anglicans in Africa entered the Orthodox Church through the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Today there are growing numbers of African Americans who are finding there way home to the Orthodox Church, and the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black is a pan-Orthodox community dedicated to reaching out to African Americans in North America.
Traditional Anglicans in America and throughout the world are entering the Orthodox Church in large numbers. Twenty years ago Anglicans made up the second largest group of converts to the Orthodox Church. Today they may well be the largest group. In the past, the Eastern Rite was the only option, but today Anglicans can return to the Church of their Fathers and retain their Western spiritual, cultural, liturgical patrimony.
The restoration of Western Orthodoxy is another sign of the world-wide Orthodox resurgence. With the Great Schism of 1054, and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, Western Christendom and the Western rites became essentially lost to the Orthodox Church, and the Church became culturally and liturgically an Eastern Orthodox Church. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the concept of Western Orthodoxy was restored by the Russian Orthodox Church. With the coming of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and then World War II and the Iron Curtain, this restoration was slow, difficult and experienced setbacks. Writing to Western Rite Orthodox Christians in France in the 1960s, St. John of San Francisco said, “I have foreseen these difficulties and still others to come. The greater the difficulties, the greater the success of an enterprise. An enterprise without difficulties is an enterprise without a future.” By the grace of God, various difficulties have been overcome and the Western Rite is now thriving in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Two great 20th century Russian Orthodox Saints were champions of the restoration of Western Orthodoxy. The first was St. Tikhon (Belavin), and the other was St. John of San Francisco.
St. Tikhon was the Orthodox bishop of America where he became close friends with the saintly Anglican bishop Charles Grafton of Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Through his efforts the English Use of the Western Rite received approval in principle from the Holy Synod in Russia for use by Anglican converts to Orthodoxy, provided some necessary enrichments were made. The English Use of the Western Rite which came into Orthodox use decades later has been called the Liturgy of St. Tikhon in his honor. St. Tikhon was elected Patriarch of Moscow as the Bolsheviks were seizing control of the government of Russia. He suffered greatly as leader of the Church, was a Confessor of the Faith, and is one of the New Martyrs of Russia.
St. John of San Francisco was a strong supporter of Western Orthodoxy, and was involved in the restoration of the ancient Gallican (French) Rite, the Liturgy of St. Germanus of Paris. St. John said, “Never, never, never let anyone tell you that, in order to be Orthodox, you must be Eastern. The West was fully Orthodox for a thousand years...”
There are now dozens of Western Rite congregations and monasteries in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and on the Continent of Europe under the Russian and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, and this is just the beginning. There were six Western Rite ordinations in ROCOR in December 2014 alone. God is doing a marvelous work and wonder in our day. The Church in the West is being rebuilt.
When Western Christians in general and Anglicans in particular enter the Orthodox Church they are not “joining a new Church,” they are simply returning to the Church of their Fathers. At the time of the Great Schism in 1054, the English Church sided with the Eastern Patriarchs against the novelties introduced by Rome. This led to the Norman Invasion of 1066. Had the Normans not invaded England, or had the armies of Orthodox England not lost the battle of Hastings in 1066, Anglicans would be Orthodox Christians today. The word “Anglican” comes from the Latin and simply means English. Anglicans did not leave the Orthodox Church, they were torn away by conquest and force. Restoring the Faith and Order of the Undivided Church was the Vision Glorious of the Oxford Movement, and that vision is now being fulfilled as Anglicans return home to the Church of their Fathers.
The Third Millennium of Christianity is proving to be a New Springtime for the Orthodox Church. The Gospel is going out in power and the unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable Orthodox Christian Church is advancing the Work of the Great Commission and growing world wide. Holy Cross parish is a part of this move of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it time that you joined us in the work of re-evangelizing the post-Christian West, rebuilding the Western Church, and having a part in this world-wide Evangelism Explosion? I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you: (402) 573-6558; firstname.lastname@example.org