“I don’t read the Bible, I’m Orthodox.”
You don’t expect to actually hear those words. Everyone knows it’s true, but it’s never said. Certainly not as a means of identification.
On the bus home from a seminar the other day, Nansi had a Russian study Bible on her lap. The man sitting across from her, a Jehovah’s Witness, engaged with us – easy enough when someone is carrying a Bible! You can read the story of that encounter here.
There had been four of us sitting in tight quarters, like a restaurant booth without the table. Sitting next to the Jehovah’s Witness was a woman, who I initially thought was with him. After he left the bus, since she had heard the entire conversation, I asked if she read the Bible. Immediately she answered, “I don’t read the Bible, I’m Orthodox.”
[“Я Библию не читаю, я Православная.”]
In response I asked, “Are Orthodox not allowed to read the Bible?”
After an awkward pause, ignoring the question, she said “that guy’s not normal,” referring to the Jehovah’s Witness.
Below is the rest of our conversation:
“I come from a different branch of Christianity, and I don’t really understand Orthodoxy. What is most important in Orthodoxy?”
“To be a good person.”
“That’s only possible with God’s strength.”
“Sometimes I feel that way.”
“I know you might think that I’m also from a cult, we work with the Baptists. We can’t be good people on our own. You can’t be a good person. I can’t be a good person. My natural self does not seek the things of God. It’s only when God resurrects me, though Jesus Christ, that I can live.”
“Why are you here, in Pskov?”
“My wife and I moved here because we want to help people. We have some friends from the area who recommended it.”
“My priest told me not to help people unless they want to be helped. I’m old, I’m in my 60s, I’m tired of people, I don’t want to spend any time with them. People don’t have the same values today, they’re only interested in money.”
“Were you a Christian in the Soviet times?”
“I never thought of it that way. I sang in the choir at church. I was a schoolteacher and they threatened to fire me because of my church going.”
A standard, nominal Orthodox Christian, who never goes to church, would also say it’s important to be a good person. It’s enlightening, however, to hear that from someone who is a regular part of the church’s life.
She thinks the Jehovah’s Witness is in a cult, and he thinks she’s an unbeliever, but both of them are trying to earn their salvation. I hope she gives up. I hope she stops trying to rely on her own strength.
She knows who we are, and she knows where we meet, but the cultural baggage against Protestants is so strong that very few self-identified Orthodox are willing to engage.
Less than 10% of Russians have any connection to any church. Most Russians are Orthodox only by ethnic identification. To them all Protestants are “Baptists,” and they’ve been taught that Baptists are Western traitors who practice child sacrifice. Seriously. Most believe the first accusation, and some the second.
This is one of our greatest strengths as foreign missionaries in Russia. We’re not Russian. It’s ok for us to be Protestant – I’m not a traitor for being one. Russians can engage with us as a cross-cultural dialogue, not a negotiation with an enemy. The problem is, we don’t even have the Bible as a common foundation.
Do you have any experience in theological communication with Orthodox? Let me know in the comments!
Read part 1: Evangelism on a City Bus – Jehovah’s Witness