Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Met. Ambrose of Korea speaks with Protestants

I find this Q&A interesting not only because of the location, but because of the dialogue with Protestant pastors in a seminary setting and the dilemmas faced by Orthodoxy when it evangelizes in the diaspora.

(Pantokrator Monastery) - 12 Questions and Answers on Orthodox Confession and Worship. Transcribed by A.D Kondogianakopoulou.

On Monday 5 September, following an invitation from a Protestant theological school (postgraduate level) located outside Seoul, the Most Reverent Metropolitan of Korea, Fr. Ambrose, gave two lectures to 35 postgraduate students, all pastors. The lessons, within which the lectures were given, were on missions and the Liturgy. We have recorded the discussions for the most part that followed after each lecture and provide it below since we believe that the topics raised as well as the manner of their delivery of the Orthodox confession in Korea is of particular interest.


1st Question: What is your understanding of missionary activities in the Orthodox Church?

Answer: To start with, the term “mission” does not express the spirit of the Orthodox Church. We use it compromisingly because it has universal prevalence. Instead we prefer the term “witness.” The term mission, which derives from Western theology, does not exist in Holy Scripture, while the corresponding term, witness, is found many times. The teaching of the Gospel does not mean to say beautiful words about Christ but to give a daily witness of Christ with one’s words and with one’s silence, with works and by example. And if need be, if necessary, to martyr for Christ, namely, to spill one’s blood for Christ, as was done by millions of martyrs and confessors of the faith.

2nd Question: What is your opinion on proselytism?

Answer: In the Orthodox Church we consider proselytism a great sin because it does not honour man. It tramples upon the precious divine gift of freedom and debases man’s personality. Proselytism means to impose on someone else your beliefs by lawful and unlawful means, while confessing Christ means to struggle, to live according to Christ and to repeat by one’s words and life, the perennial “come and see” of the Apostle Philip to any well-intentioned “Nathanael” – your neighbour. The disastrous results of proselytism of the so-called missionary countries by Western Christianity, which we face to this day, I believe, does not leave any margin for the indefinite condemnation of the proselytising process.

3rd Question: What process is followed in the Orthodox Church for someone to work as a missionary?

Answer: In the Orthodox Church, the deacons of the Bible are not self-called but other-called. In other words, someone does not decide by himself to work as a missionary but is sent by the Church. Obedience to the Church is the only soul-saving route. If we remember, for example, the case of Barnabas and Paul, we see that the Holy Spirit chose them and the Church through prayer and fasting sent them to preach. (Acts 13:3) And when they returned to Jerusalem they informed the Church which sent them of “everything that God did through them.” (Acts 15:4)

This subject has great theological significance for the spreading of the true faith and for the unity of the Church. If everyone acts according to his opinion and desire, then the faith and unity of the Church is in danger.

At this point permit me to mention the following event: Once I flew from America to Greece with an American woman, a self-appointed missionary. When I asked her why she chose Greece for her missionary work, she told me that she admired the Greeks a lot because she knew a lot about their glorious ancient history, and that is why she had great zeal to Christianize them.

“Do you know what modern-day Greeks believe in?” I asked her.

“Of course, the twelve gods of Olympus!” she answered.

“Do you know,” I told her, “that 2000 years before you some other apostle, the Great Apostle of the Nations Paul went to Greece and preached Christianity? And that Greeks have had an uninterrupted Christian Orthodox tradition ever since?”

Such waggishness and much worse happens when behind every self-called missionary it is not the Church doing the sending.

4th Question: You accused the woman from America who went to Greece as a missionary. Why did you come to Korea? Are you not doing the same?

Answer: No, I did not do the same, nor did I accuse the lady. I simply mentioned the event to show what can happen if the missionary work of someone does not have proper ecclesiological foundations. You know better than me that in Korea there are millions of people who are not only non-Christians but are also pagans. However, Greece is a country with two thousand years of Christian history with a population of over 90% Christian. If Korea was a Christian country, the Ecumenical Patriarchate wouldn’t have sent me here.

To be more clear allow me to add the following: At the University where I teach, the parents of one of our female students are in Greece as self-appointed missionaries. And, in fact, the place they chose for their missionary activities, was the holy island of Patmos! The island of the Revelation, where the traces of the Evangelist of love, Saint John the theologian, are still fully obvious. On this island, where many Christian saints lived and acted, there are an innumerable number of churches and monasteries where the Orthodox faith of its inhabitants has its roots in the apostolic period. One could ask what could they teach the Orthodox inhabitants of the island, two Koreans who became Christians a few years earlier? Don’t you think that it is not honest to try to change the faith of people who carry in their DNA a tradition of twenty centuries?

In the same way, it was not honorable what the Roman Catholic Church did during the 90’s, after the fall of communism in Russia. Immediately after, the Uniates ran to underhandedly convert the Russians with their centuries-old tradition into Roman Catholics. If one wishes to do missionary work, let him turn to other non-Christian countries.

5th Question: Would you like to tell us about the personality of a missionary (hierapostle)?

Answer: In answering your very substantial question, I will try to explain very briefly what the theoretically ideal missionary is like. Of course, I am not maintaining that what should be done is always what is done. The one doing the missionary work of the Church must first have Christ as their prototype and all those who followed the steps of Christ, namely the saints. The missionary must without doubt be a person of many virtues, the main one being that of a person struggling against his passions. The cleansing for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit is the first step. From cleansing one then progresses to enlightenment and theosis (deification). You cannot transfer to somebody something that you do not have. To give a witness of Christ you yourself must necessarily have tasted the presence of Christ in your life.
Question 6: What is the method for missionary work in the Orthodox Church?

Answer: In the Orthodox Church we follow the practice of the early Church as we find it in the Book of Acts. When the Apostles saw that their numerous cares for the service of the tables would “steal” time away from their main work, they proposed to elect seven deacons. For themselves they announced to all the following decision: “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). In other words, the Orthodox Church following the apostolic tradition places worship before preaching. One can easily see this, if they visit a worship service at an Orthodox Church and then does the same at a protestant assembly. The emphasis in a congregation of the Orthodox is dedicated to the worship of God, while for the Protestants it is preaching. That is why we often hear from the Protestants who have come to know Orthodoxy that “in our congregations we hear many words, but in the Orthodox Church we pray a lot and hear few.”

We Orthodox are taught the Holy Gospel, which we always have at the centre of the Holy Altar to remind us that the word of God must be at the centre of our daily life, during our Divine Worship in three ways. Firstly, we read it. At every holy service, holy readings are read. Specifically, at every Divine Liturgy we hear the word of God from the Apostole and Gospel readings and from the divine preaching that follows. Secondly, we sing it. The wonderful, most theological hymns of Orthodox worship are for the most part full of direct and indirect scriptural references. In fact, in many cases if one compares the texts they can see that certain hymns are word-for-word quotes from the scriptural texts. In other words, we have “melodised” the text of Holy Scripture. And thirdly, we see it. We see the Gospel in Orthodox icons. That is, icons are an “illustrated” Gospel. If, for example, we pay attention to the icon of the Transfiguration of the Lord, we shall note that the iconographer through the designs and colours repeats iconographically the words of the evangelists who described the miracle of the Transfiguration. In conclusion we say that in the worship of the Orthodox Church we have a perfect audiovisual system of the Gospel teaching.

7th Question: You said that in the Orthodox Church worship takes precedence over preaching. However, the Apostle Paul only preached when at the Areopagus.

Answer: The Apostle Paul was speaking to the Athenian idolaters for the first time. It was logical to start the preaching about the “unknown God.” To which God could he pray with the idolaters? During any other situations though as we learn from Acts, the Apostles followed the hierapostolic method of worship and then preaching. Their gatherings had as their main purpose the “Breaking of bread” and teaching.

8th Question: You have spoken in great length on worship and its centre point, which is, as you said, the Holy Eucharist? How do you believe that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ?

Answer: In the Orthodox Church we believe that the greatest work that is performed on earth is the Divine Liturgy. And this is because during the Divine Eucharist we relive the occasion of the Last Supper for the redemption of the human race. Just as then when in the upper room in Jerusalem Christ surrendered His Body and His Blood to His disciples, so it is that at every Divine Liturgy Christ Himself is invisibly present hypostatically and essentially as victim and sacrificer and imparts His Body and His Blood to the baptized faithful, who occupy the place of the Apostles. And, of course, we who receive Holy Communion believe that we commune the same holy Body and Blood of Christ “for the redemption of sins and unto life eternal.” Not symbolically, because Christ did not say during the Last Supper to His disciples, “Receive, eat, this is like My Body” or “Drink from this all of you, this is like my blood” but “this is My Body” and “this is My Blood.”

9th Question: In other words, what we do in our worship is nothing?

Answer: The great difference between Orthodox worship and yours is the fact that in your worship an imaginary representation is made of the sacrifice of Christ, namely a fictitious act of the Last Supper. In contrast, in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ are present, and Christ is given “again and many times” to “be eaten and be drunk” by the faithful – “Always consumed but never spent”. The Apostles received the tradition of the celebration of the “Last Supper” from the Lord. They passed it on to their disciples and the Orthodox Church continues this tradition to this day without interruption. In the ecclesiastical history of the Early Church there are great number of references to the time of the persecutions and the catacombs that testify to the zeal of the first Christians and the dangers they ignored by participating in the Eucharistic gatherings to commune the Body and Blood of Christ.

For us Orthodox, it is incomprehensible how Protestant theology interprets passages of Holy Scripture that speak most clearly about the heavenly Bread, such as those found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John: “He who eats of my Body and drinks of my Blood has eternal life and I shall raise him in the last day” (John 6:54) and “he who eats of my Body and drinks of my Blood dwells in Me and I in him.” (John 6:56) Just as our body has absolute need of actual, and not symbolic, food and drink to be sustained in life, likewise our soul has absolute need of the Body and Blood of Christ that it may not die spiritually. We cannot live either in this or the next life if we do not eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ. Perhaps this sounds harsh. However, let us remember that many of the disciples ceased to follow Christ after everything He told them about His flesh and His blood. And addressing the twelve He asked them “Don’t you too wish to leave?” (John 6:67) He repeats the same even today to all who wish to be Christians but do not wish to believe and accept the whole teaching of Christ.

10th Question: Is man not saved only by preaching? Why do you insist so much on the topic of worship?

Answer: The salvific work of the Church is not accomplished only through preaching. Someone listening to the word of God and saying, “I am saved” does not mean that he has already been saved. The Orthodox Church apart from the word of God also offers man the sacramental life. Man, by participating in the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, is sanctified and achieves theosis. The offering, for example, of Holy Communion to the faithful is done “for the remission of sins and life eternal.” The faithful through the Holy Eucharist are mystically unified with Christ and become “partakers of the divine nature…” (2 Pet. 1:4) What else is the salvation of man beyond this?

11th Question: How can you explain to us what a Mystery (Sacrament) is?

Answer: It is hard for one to believe in the sacramental life of the Church if he does not first understand what the word “Mystery” means. A Mystery is something we see being performed but is impossible for man’s mind to comprehend how it is performed. If we could understand the manner in which the Mystery is taking place then it would not be a Mystery, but a common daily human activity.

We say, for example, that God is Triune. I ask you: Who of us understands the Mystery of the Holy Trinity? Three Persons, one Essence! This Mystery when considered with human logic is absurd. However, if a person sees it through the dimension of Faith then he will understand that it is not illogical but beyond logic. Who could understand what God is? What is, for example, the essence of God? NO ONE! Nevertheless, we believe in God. Not because we understand it, but because we feel His presence mystically and we heartily feel His love. In other words, we can understand the uncreated energies of God, as the great fathers of the Orthodox Church have so beautifully theologized about, but not His Essence. Let us see what God said to Moses when he asked God to show him His glory: “I will make my glory pass before you…but you cannot see my face: for there shall be no man see me and live…” (Ex 33:18-20) The same happens in all matters of faith that surpass natural laws. We “see them without seeing them,” we “know them without knowing them” for they are all wrapped up in the “divine darkness” (Gregory of Nyssa). We experience and participate in them only through the power of Faith. If we insist on believing only in what we understand with our finite logic then we narrow extremely our spiritual horizon and in the end cannot be Christians. For ultimately “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) And, of course, faith is conditional to true humility, with which we attract the grace of God. For “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) The humble man who trusts God more than his logic, with the grace of God, can understand the Mysteries of the Church.

12th Question: How can one study Orthodox theology in Korea?

Answer: Because Orthodox theology is almost unknown in Korea, the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea is trying to build an Orthodox School of Theology, which will be the first not only in Korea but in the whole of East Asia, to provide the possibility to anyone wishing to approach this precious treasure. Pray that our wish soon becomes a reality for the glory of God.

[The lectures with question sessions lasted more than three hours (with a 10 minute interim break) were concluded with the following epilogue.]

My dear, before I leave the rostrum, I would first like to thank you for your polite invitation and for your particularly concise questions. Secondly, I apologize, for it is possible that some of you may have been disturbed by my answers. My intention was not to annoy anybody. Because I believe that for a dialogue to be meaningful and fruitful (for I believe that no one came here to hear empty idle talk and waist one’s time), without doubt, frankness and love must govern, that is why I told you what I believe with the language of truth and love. “Speaking the truth in love…” (Eph. 4:15) and “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) was the scriptural foundation of my thoughts. Finally, I wish to add, to avoid any misunderstanding, that I did not tell you that we, the Orthodox are all holy. Our goal, of course, is our sanctification for which we struggle. However, what everyone does in his personal life is what will be judged by God. What I tried to tell you is that we Orthodox believe steadfastly that we have the correct Faith. We continue in the Faith of the one undivided Church of the first millennium, keeping in mind the apostolic admonition: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold fast the traditions you have been taught, whether by word or by epistle of ours.” (2 Thess. 2:15).

I warmly thank you.


  1. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I appreciate the unabashed candor with which Orthodox clergy generally answer questions from other Christians. As an inquirer myself, I like knowing exactly where the Orthodox stand, and what I'm considering becoming a part of.

  2. I generally don't have a bone in this but I do find that "Western" mission and "Eastern" witness a bit of a hogwash since it's really the same thing. Don't we say that there is the "Great Commission" that the Lord gave to his disciples?

    Also, if it was true that there is no proselytism why is there a Metropolitan of Hong Kong and all of Southeast Asia when the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries already have established hierarchies?

    I'm pretty sure you'd consider us mission countries.

  3. The reason that "mission" is not in the Greek Bible is because "mission" is from the Latin verb "missa", "to send", whence also "Mass" for the Liturgy (the dismissal (!) is "Ita, missa est" which became the name). This attempt to distinguish mission from witness is a little off, historically.

  4. Thanks for posting. I linked back.

  5. Christ is risen!

    Sam, thanks for pointing that out, and Julio, I agree with you.

    Had I been able to ask a follow-up question to the first answer, I would have asked His Beatitude how this all relates to the great St. Paul. It seems to me that St. Paul went on Missions and said "beautiful words about Christ" in addition to giving a daily witness as well as the ultimate sacrifice. Plus, I'd be curious how His Beatitude would understand a passage like Romans 10: 14-15 where St. Paul writes:

    "But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?"

    It seems to me that passages like this one seem to imply that the Church must preach the word as well as live it. Each individual must preach, live, and breathe the Faith as best they can in his own way according to where God has placed him.

    I think if we give up preaching completely, we have a tendency to lapse into passiveness and just expect people to come to us rather than going out to the byways and street corners to bring people to the banquet.

    I do think there is a fine line between evangelizing and proselytizing. Oftentimes, that can be determined just by the circumstances. I mean in today's world, a secularist and/or atheist might accuse one of proselytizing when really one is just casually mentioning one's Faith and/or just sharing it without any pressure.

    Plus, the whole "mission" versus "witness" is just a false dichotomy between East and West and one of the traditional strawmen that needs to be put to rest permanently.

    Thanks for posting this, Joseph.


  6. from Romans 10:15 in Latin: quomodo vero praedicabunt nisi mittantur
    "Mittantur" is the third person plural passive form of "missa", hence "mission".

  7. I'm not sure where the good Metropolitan suggests giving up preaching altogether in one's daily life. Instead, he refers specifically to St. Philip's call to Nathaneal to "come and see." This is the difference between evangelism (if there is a true justification of the word) and proselytism.

    As to his distinction between "mission" and "witness," I find it curious most anyone who has taken issue with this interview can't seem to get past what the Metropolitan himself termed a "preference," not a dogma. What of all the other live-saving words he spoke, in particular his words concerning the Holy Eucharist. That the bishop would distinguish between a significant word passed down through Western tradition and its equivalent in the East, seems common for Orthodox living in non-Orthodox nations. The same is often done (including this interview) between the words "Sacrament" and "Mystery." For the Metropolitan to say that the word "witness" better captures the "spirit" of Orthodoxy is something only one entrenched in that faith could say. Those outside may scoff, but I can personally say the word "Mystery" much better capture what happens in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy than does sacrament.

    Perhaps the words "witness" and "mystery" are better choices in general, since they both have established meanings outside the ecclesial experience. "Mission," like "sacrament," are both words handed down to us directly from Latin, and carry no semantical understanding outside the faith. This by no means invalidates the words, just as it would not invalidate "apostle" or "eucharist" or any number of Christian words, but it seems (to me) that while one cannot fathom a mystery, he can certainly comprehend the meaning behind the word, whereas a sacrament is both unfathomable and incomprehensible, unless someone explain the meaning behind "sacrament."

    At any rate, that the words are used by the Church in the English (and other languages) in traditionally non-Orthodox countries is exactly what the Metropolitan said it is: a compromise. Not sure why there's beef with that.

  8. BTW, I loved this interview. I wish I could get access to the question-answer session.

  9. But, Derek, sacrament comes from the Latin word, sacramentum, which means mystery, so why even set "sacrament" and "mystery" against each other? What's the point? I don't understand.

    I get frustrated when everything is presented as "us versus them" needlessly. There are definitely theological problems that need to be addressed, but honestly, why create a dichotomy where one doesn't exist?

    That's my issue.


  10. There's nothing wrong when each Church uses the terms it is most comfortable with. But I just see a problem when people make false dichotomies. I'd like to remind the good Metropolitan that he is in the "far east" and I am "far" more east than he currently is and we see no problems with terms that are basically the same thing.

  11. I think there was some hogwash here that needs to be called hogwash.

    Here are 2 examples:
    In the same way, it was not honorable what the Roman Catholic Church did during the 90’s, after the fall of communism in Russia. Immediately after, the Uniates ran to underhandedly convert the Russians with their centuries-old tradition into Roman Catholics. If one wishes to do missionary work, let him turn to other non-Christian countries. - Was it honourable for the Russians to take part in the forced liquidation of the UGCC? Which they did not apologize for btw. And now they still seek to confine the UGCC to a new ghetto.

    And this gem: "If one wishes to do missionary work, let him turn to other non-Christian countries." Is that why there are Orthodox Churches springing up in Cuba and Mexico which have been Catholic for centuries? Come on people, this is utter rubbish. I don't think the Metropolitan has honour if he continues to spout such lies.

  12. Andrew: As an Eastern Catholic, I couldn't agree more with what you are saying, and thank you for doing so. Of course, I suppose for the Metropolitan every country that is not traditionally and predominantly Orthodox is non-Christian.

  13. @Andrew: Most of the activity in Cuba and Mexico is promulgated by Russian emigres and local people who came into Orthodoxy. No "missionary" work there. Just an extension of Russian culture and local converts. They continue to grow because of the fusion of the two.

  14. @Paul, how sure are u of ur statement? A cursory check reveals, for example, the recent consecration of the new Antiochian Cathedral. And most of the clergy are local or have Hispanic sounding names. I'm sorry, but I have to urge you to retract or back up your assertion.

    The fact is that the Orthodox have Bishops and Metropolitans of areas that are historically and canonically Catholic. They have an Orthodox Bishop of Vienna for God's sakes, the former See of Met. Hilarion. And now like the Protestant sects which are mushrooming all over South America, the Orthodox want a piece of the action too. It's rubbish and it's about time that they get of their high and mighty pedestal and acknowledge it. But I think they they will continue to want to eat the pie and have it too.

  15. I visited the church in Vienna when I lived there. The vast majority of congregants were Russian émigrés. That did not bar non-russians (like myself) from attending and partaking. And I have a friend who lives in Columbia and attends the Russian Orthodox church there. It's a similar situation.

    The reason for so many émigrés all across the globe, btw, was more often than not persecution. That people have come into the fold over time (including clergy and their congregations) is not tantamount to aggressive proselytism, or barging in where they aren't wanted. Rather, people see something in Orthodoxy they are not getting elsewhere. This is the entire "Come and see" ethos.

    In some cases, the RCC has benefited from all the émigrés, such as in my father's hometown, where there is a large population of Lebanese but no Orthodox church. Many ended up converting to the Roman Catholic faith out of necessity (and some, I'm sure, out of interest).

    I'm rather certain that grievances could be named on either side of the argument. The big question, however, is one of ethos. How have Orthodox Christian missionaries historically worked, versus other Christian faiths.

    @ Scott: perhaps there is no actual dichotomy. Ultimately it makes really little difference, so long as we understand each other. Much of what I said above was hypothetical and semantics, and as an English teacher I get overly-charged on the issue at times. Forgive me if I contributed to your frustration.