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Historical and theological experience

Diaconia as a Manifestation of Christian Witness in the Life of the Faithful and the Preaching of the Church

Protopresbyter Vitaly Borovoy

1. The original and perpetual task of the Church

In all times, in every place and any historical situation the Church should be the Church of Christ, called to witness to Him before the world, preaching to all people His gospel of the kingdom of God and His good news of love, brotherhood and salvation. And this Christian witness should be manifested in diaconia expressed in the life of Christians and their communities as service of their neighbour's needs, care for their well-being and concern for their salvation.

Thus, diaconia is part and parcel of Christian witness as an essential, original and perpetual task of the Church. The Lord commanded to his apostles: "You will be my witnesses to the end of the world" (Acts 1:8). This commandment is also addressed to the present-day Christendom, to all churches and to all of us, and it is especially relevant today when the world lying in division and wickedness faces a spectre of universal destruction.

What does it mean to be witnesses even "to the end of the world"? It means to bear witness everywhere, for everyone and in everything. Such witness is no longer a matter of abstract classical theology. Nor is it a matter of strategy and methods of Christian involvement in efforts to keep peace, to establish justice, to preserve the integrity of creation, environment and cosmos. Essentially this witness is about the future of Christianity and the Church and their role in the future history of humanity, in general, and the place of our own Church in the future history of our country in particular.

In the face of growing secularization and de-Christinization of the world today, it is generally accepted to speak about a crisis of faith, Christianity and the Church. Debates are held about the causes, scope and consequences of this historical development, yet nobody denies the fact of this crisis.

The demographic statistics indicates a rapidly changing proportion between Christians and non-Christians, not in favour of the former. While in the early 20th century the number of Christians was 0.5 billion people out of the 1.5 billion-strong world population, that is the proportion was 1 to 3, at present there are only 1 billion Christians among the 4 billion people in the world, that is the proportion is 1 to 4, or even 1 to 5, according to some estimates. The estimates made in the West are even worse. According to them, consciously believing and practising Christians amount to only 1-1.5 percent of the population. In this situation, Christians today have to bear witness as a minority in an indifferent and even antagonistic milieu.

The Russian Orthodox Church, too, has to face this very acute crisis as new prospects and conditions have opened for her Christian witness in the new, post-Soviet, society, posing very difficult and important problems and tasks. The primary tasks are to restore normal church life in dioceses and parishes after the repressive and destructive control of the totalitarian materialistic system has gone and to begin new Christianization, catechism, mission and religious education among the peoples in Russia and new states in the former Soviet Union.

The tasks are made even more complicated by the intensive and massive proselytic activities carried out by the Catholics, Uniates and various Protestant groups. It is even more difficult for the Russian Orthodox Church as these systematic efforts of missionaries from Western historical churches has coincided in time and space with the invasion and intense activity of an endless number of diverse exotic and shamelessly aggressive sects from America, Europe and Asia, various para-religious groups, Oriental cults and movements. Using as a cover the slogan of "witness to Christ", they parasitize on the hardships experienced by the Russian Orthodox people and their Orthodox Church today,

Thus the noble ideals and sacred dreams of "Sister Churches" entertained by the best people in Christianity and their faith in the feasibility and necessity of "common witness to Christ" have been compromised in the eyes of many Russian Orthodox people.

What is important is that the Russian Orthodox Church should not be lost in face of this trials. The "signs of time" should be understood correctly as showing that everything that has happened to her and within her is a God's call to repent of her past and present sins. At the same time, it is a powerful call of God to the Church to engage herself in a new witness before her own people and the world at a time when the entire national and cultural self-awareness of peoples in the former Soviet Union is going through a very painful but utterly necessary transformation, with the old things dying while the new things still in "labour pains".

It is essential that everybody in Europe, in Russia and in new states of the former Soviet Union should understand that the processes of this "birth" are intertwined and interdependent. Their success or failure are equally significant for both the future of Russia and the Orthodox Church and the future of Europe, her new states and the Community of European churches. Though the death of the old and the birth of the new are excruciating indeed, the Church should accept them with joy and hope as they open up new opportunities for new witness to Christ and new diaconia in the name of Christ and His Church.

What exactly should be our new witness and diaconia in the new historical situation in the post-Soviet space of Eastern and Central Europe? There can be only one common answer valid alike for Western churches in their de-Christianizing world and for any Christian church in the world. In order that our witness and diaconia today may reach the hearts of our people and find "favour with all the people" (Acts 2:47), they should be as they were in the apostolic time of early Christians in the Early Church.

2. Witness to Christ in the Early Church

Apostles and early Christians had to bear witness to "the good news" of "the Word of Life" first as a very small minority amidst a hostile heathen and Judaic majority. This involved sacrifice and both potential and real martyrdom. The Lord called Himself a "faithful and true witness" (Rev. 3:14) and His witnesses "my faithful martyrs" (Rev. 2:13; 17:6; Acts 22:20). Christ was also called "the Apostle of our confession" (Heb. 3:1). He placed on the apostles the service of being "His witnesses" (Acts 1:8; 26:22). Witness, therefore, is continuation of the apostolic ministry in the world.

Such was the witness of the Early Church and first Christians who preached to all people the joyful good news of salvation in Christ and the Kingdom of God (Mt. 4:23; 9:35; Mk. 1:14) where love, brotherhood, peace, justice, freedom and fullness of life will prevail. And this witness of a small minority triumphed, because it was borne both in word and deed expressed in the service of people which is Christian diaconia.

3. Diaconia in the Early Church

Christian diaconia began concurrently with the preaching of apostles to Christ and the descend of the Holy Spirit upon the first Christian community in Jerusalem on Pentecost. At that time "all believers were together and had everything in common... and gave to everyone as he had need", so that "all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything the had. There were no needy persons among them... and it was distributed to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32; 34-35).

With the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem and Palestine to Greeco-Roman cities in the Mediterranean, the forms and manifestations of Christian diaconia began, naturally, to differ from those used under the "emergency" condition in which the apostolic community in Jerusalem of the Pentecost time had to live as they had to be adapted to a new social and cultural situation. Though common property, communal life and shared meals could no longer be practised in the large cities of the Greeco-Roman world, the same apostolic principles of the early Christian diaconia were strictly observed in the post-apostolic times. Those principles were as follows:

  • every one must work: "if a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thes. 3:10);
  • "the worker is worth his keep" ("wages") (Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7);
  • to take from every one according to his resources and abilities;
  • to give every one according to his needs;
  • there must be no needy or neglected persons in a community;
  • all people are brothers, and the duty of every community is to take care of all who need help, brotherly love and consolation (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32; 34-35; Mt. 23:8).
These apostolic principles, dictated by the commandments of Christ and the spirit of Pentecost, was a pivot on which the diakonical and liturgical life of early Christian communities was built. Various studies in the life of early Christians present a picture of their diaconia as the gospel of love and effective care of the needy expressed in concrete forms, such as:
  1. Almsgiving in general and during divine services;
  2. Support for community teachers and workers;
  3. Support for widows, including lonely and helpless women, maids and orphans devoid of family care;
  4. Support for the sick, poor, helpless, neglected and disabled;
  5. Care for prisoners, convicts and those exiled to hard labour in mines and pits, etc.;
  6. Assistance in burial of the poor, homeless, lonely and neglected;
  7. Care for servants in general and those exploited and oppressed;
  8. Relief to victims of natural disasters and epidemics;
  9. Assistance in seeking employment;
  10. Care for strangers and offering them hospitality.

It was only natural that this concrete, direct and joyful witness to Christ supported by loving diaconia should have led the Christian communities of that time to triumph throughout the Greeco-Roman world under Constantine the Great.

However, when the Church became the state church under Constantine's successors, the nature of early Christian diaconia radically changed to become also part of the Byzantine theocracy, serving the so-called "symphony of power" called to seal the external "inchurching" of the state apparatus and its public institutions. The apostolic simplicity and spontaneity characteristic of the diaconia of the Early Church sank in the bowels of the Byzantine imperial and ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

4. Failure of the Byzantine utopic maximalism

Byzantine theocracy was based on the so-called "symphony of power", the closest possible union of Church and Empire. From the very beginning the Byzantine Church associated herself with the "Christian empire" in which all earthly things were to be united with heavenly (liturgical) things in a perfect harmony. Everything in the state was to be inchurched so that the state might become the embodiment of the kingdom of God in human earthly history.

This plan failed, of course, as the historical difficulties of implementing the maximalistic ideal of a Holy Empire resulted in replacing an authentic "transformation" of not yet truly "inchurched" society by a fiction, an external ritual and empty rhetoric declaration of a "Christ-loving" state. This dangerous replacement of a real inchurching of public and social life in the empire by an externally pious appearance provoked protests within the Church herself as well as diminished her authority.

The patristic theology of that time is full of protests against this hypocrisy. One has to look attentively into all the writings and teachings of Fathers and Doctors of the Church on this matter, rather then select their utterances from occasional collections, to understand the bitter remark made by Bolotov on these "selected" statements. He argued that the most dangerous enemy of the Church is an externally devout but internally hypocritical ignoramus who maintains: "This is what Holy Fathers said", while "he himself did not read them".

This is exactly what happened when Prof. Basil Exempliarsky of the Theological Academy in Kiev, a renowned theologian well-versed in Fathers of the Church, published in 1910 his study on "The Teaching of the Early Church on Property and Almsgiving", a solid and erudite work with authentic references to Fathers of the Church and their writings, intended for doctorate. This well-balanced and impartial study made by a very conservative researcher alien to any liberalism or criticism of the authorities was read, labelled noisily as "subversive" and banned by the Holy Synod. It was only after several years that the decision was made to publish it and grant doctorate to its author.

The authentic teaching of Fathers of the Church on all social and public issues and the ideal of society's true inchurching found a powerful reflection in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 19th century. It was stimulated by the revival of Russian philosophical and theological thought which blossomed into the early 20th century till the 1917 Revolution broke out.

5. The Russian revival of the 19th and the early 20th century

Since its inception the Russian religious-philosophical and theological thought was marked with a sincere and profound social pathos. Aimed at a "common cause", it always burnt with the idea of "the kingdom of God". At the same time, it was concrete, positive and pragmatic, offering projects for a transformation of the world through fraternal unity of people building a just society in "holy sobornost". Russian thinkers always sought to implement words in real action. It can be safely said that in no Christian country the social nature of Christianity, expressed in efforts to save "the kingdom of this world", was perceived as profoundly as it was in the Russian religio-philosophical and theological thought.

It is sufficient to recall here the teaching of Khomyakov on "free sobornost" and the "system of Christian policy" developed by Vladimir Solovyev in an integral way to articulate the social mission of the Church. The Christian as a person in society was believed to be an active co-worker of God in His economy, not a passive contemplator of God's glory, while Christianity was perceived as not only a personal reflection on God but common action.

Dostoyevsky was convinced that the ultimate goal of social action is the Universal Church of all people. From this follows his Christian socialism in which the Church is regarded as the social ideal. True Christianity, he believed, cannot be reduced to one's home or church, but should seek social action.

Nicholas Fyodorov, in a brilliant and profound system developed in his Philosophy of Common Cause, maintains that the world organism is one, and the task of Christians is to gather its disunited diversity into "diverse unity". The world in every stage of its human and cosmic development is not something given, but assigned for humanity to build not only a new society, but a new universe. It should come to unity in which 'I' and 'you' are replaced by 'we' and 'all'. Fyodorov believed that all human beings are brothers and that there are no those who are far, but all are near. He built his system on the doctrine of the Trinity as not only a doctrine of faith, but also a doctrine of action and the social ideal. Humanity is called to be not only an active participant in God's action, but also His co-creator.

Similarly, Nicholas Berdyaev, a great messenger of freedom and creative action, called people to take part in the creation of the universe, continuing the creation of the world by God.

This perception of the social nature of Christianity and the task of the salvation of the world so profoundly espoused by the Russian philosophical and theological thought made it sometimes too radical and revolutionary to be accepted by the legitimately concerned government and the church hierarchy. Unfortunately, in the course of its struggle, this trend turned eventually into an extremist movement bent on radical and uncanonical actions to obtain its goals. The extremism of the Renovators did much damage to the Church by compromising "the cause of renewal" and was rightly condemned by the Church.

The movement for renewal in the Church went parallel to the efforts for renewing the state and society. Ecclesiastical and political motivations intertwined to sabotage sometimes the progress towards an authentic, canonical, church renewal. Canonical procedures towards renewal in church life were observed, however, in the work of the Pre-Council Conference (1905-1907) to prepare a Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. A tremendous work was carried out to prepare a fundamental renewal in the life, work and administration of the Church. Everything was done to convene the Council which was supposed to introduce reforms and outline basic landmarks for a canonical renewal. But it was too late. The 1917 Revolution broke down.

6. The Revolution and the Renovators' schism

The revolution came drawing down destruction, civil war and hunger on the people and the Church. The Council had to stop its renewing work. It is only now, in the new Russia, that prospects have been opened up for authentic restoration and regeneration. However, the tragic experience of the Renovators' schism in the 20s and 30s and other numerous divisions which occurred after the revolution remain to be a serious obstacle in efforts to increase the role and influence of the Church in society.

These schisms continued to cause much trouble to the Church in the new, Soviet, period of her history by splitting her clergy and laity in that fateful time. The Communist Party and atheistic propaganda used them, especially the "Renovators' movement" and the fierce struggle it provoked in the Church, to weaken and undermine the Church from within, using the "divide and rule" policy. As a result an extremely negative attitude to the Renovators' ideas and personalities developed among the episcopate, clergy and faithful.

This attitude has been aggravated by the failure of perestroika, invasion of Western missionaries, disintegration of the country, chaos, explosion of nationalism and ethnic confrontations and impoverishment of the people. A wave of anti-ecumenism, ultra-chauvinism and Orthodox fundamentalism has flown over the country and the Church. Though the extremism and political adventurism of the Renovators was rightly condemned by the Church and has become for her a bitter experience not to be repeated now, the inevitable need for a renewal of the Church and revival of her former role and influence remains and will have to be met, though in a way different from that of the Renovators.

7. The right approach to today's problems in the life of the Church

The right approach to the task of restoring the former role and influence of the Church should be based on faithfulness to the forefathers, a free meeting with the West and spiritual sobriety in the dialogue and cooperation with society.

Faithfulness to the forefathers presupposes the creative use, in the spirit of the patristic tradition, of the heritage left by the 19th-20th centuries movement towards the restoration of the Church's influence. The Church should also make use of the rich materials produced by the 1905-1907 Pre-Council Conference and the Actions and instructions issued by the 1917-1918 Local Council, which gave a general outline of steps to enhance the influence of the Church in society.

The legacy of the theologians and religious thinkers of the 20 century Russian Diaspora, especially Ilyin, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Frank, Lossky, Father Florovsky, Zenkovsky, Kartashev and Fedotov, should be also considered.

A free meeting with the West presupposes the use of the historical experience gained by Western Churches in renewal dictated by the demands of time, for they, in their own centuries-old history, also suffered periods of heavy crises and decay. They also underwent regeneration and renewal before they achieved the present state of relative stability.

Spiritual sobriety and concreteness presuppose that our projects and aims in restoring the influence of the Church in society should ensure the historical continuity of the 19th and 20th century movement for the renewal of the Church. A consistent continuation of the renewal planned by the 1917-1918 Council but interrupted by the revolution, the present projects and aims should be concrete and intelligible for the parish clergy and faithful. They should also be relevant to and attractive for the intelligentsia, youth and mass media. At the same time, they should take into account our realities and resources in each stage of their implementation, as we cannot allow the tragic history of the so-called Renovators to repeat itself.

The criteria for any theology and any church task or initiative are practice and actual context.  Faith is recognized only by deeds. The church life and work should be focused not on an abstract and speculative orthodoxy, but on ortho-practice, that is Christian diaconia.

In order to make Christian witness and diaconia complete and successful, it is necessary to avoid the extremes of any one-dimensional Christianity, for it is pseudo-Christianity; it is actually an ultra-right or ultra-left ideology Christianized by theological phrases. Christianity, however, is not an ideology, but the Good News of the New Life in abundance.

True Christianity and authentic patristic Orthodoxy reject any false alternatives. The is no alternative between evangelization as Orthodox witness and humanization as Orthodox diaconia. There is no alternative between the heart's turning to God and the improvement of our suffering brothers' life. There is no contradiction between the vertical aspiration of faith and spirit and the horizontal service of people's needs here on earth.

Those who try to separate these elements destroy the theological unity of the Person of Jesus Christ. For such were the faith and witness of early Christians who lived in the heathen Greeco-Roman world, preaching the kingdom of God, and "righteousness (justice), peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17) were essential parts of this preaching.

The same preaching should be put in the basis of our witness to Christ and our diaconia in the name of Christ in the post-Soviet society. We should build this new society together with other people in our country, with all our brothers and sisters. This means to learn to live together with them, sharing their joys and sorrows, successes and failures. To live together means to share their hopes and needs. Our witness and diaconia in the name of Christ is our and their task alike; it is a common cause of all  and every member of the Holy Orthodox Church.

Our Church can succeed in her primary calling of witness to Christ only if all the above-mentioned aspects of the healthy growth of the church body are involved in the revival and restoration of church life, as they were in the Early Church. Her witness and diaconia will reach people's hearts only if she becomes a faithful servant of all those working and burdened in our country. Just as the Early Church, our Church will then  again "enjoy the favour of the people" (Acts 2:47), and the Lord will "add to their number daily those who are being saved" (Acts 2:47).

In doing this, we should always remember as a warning for the future the words Christ said to the paralyzed man: "You are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you" (Jn. 5:14).

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