by Fr. John Reeves


What's wrong with being ethnic? It seems to be a problem for Orthodox Christians in this country. It need not be, but it is. Sometimes we forget that we are ethnic. None of us live in a vacuum. Some are Greek-Americans, or Americans of Greek extraction; some are Russian-Americans, or Americans of Russian background. Some of us are Hispanos, and others Anglos, and even others are Celts, or Navajos, but we are all ethnics.

Somehow we have failed to understand that the country which we call a melting-pot is made up of many diverse sub-sets of cultures. At the same time, the basic underpinnings of the United States are firmly fixed in an English (i.e. Anglo) culture, which has been effected through the centuries by both Rationalism and the individual rights of man, as well as Calvinism, which among other things promoted an ethos of work which allowed both capitalism and individual liberty to flourish.

We cannot get around this. It is fact. It is also the reason which we have so attractive a place to live over the past three-and-a-half centuries. No other nation has achieved what we have achieved, not even England, from whence has come much of the original philosophical base on which our society rests.

If we are going to have an effective theology of mission, it will not be based upon abstract theory, but will be centered in the cultural reality of American society. We are a pot, rationalistic-Calvinistic; but we have not fully been melted, a fact underscored every four years in Presidential campaigns. In this most American of practices, an orderly change of government without rights or heredity or revolution, the great appeal is made to the "ethnic voter." Upon closer examination, it might seem that just about everyone is ethnic. This is precisely the point. Certain common values now hold distinct peoples together.

Herein lies the particular problem for Orthodox Christians. How are we, who by and large are "ethnic" in the more common sense of the word, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints? A common response has been to condemn the concept of "ethnicity." Now, one may condemn any concept to avoid dealing with it. Orthodox Christians are no less guilty. As was recently noted at our Diocesan Assembly, it is somehow wrong to be Russian in the O.C.A. at present, though not wrong to be Albanian, Bulgarian, or Romanian. Yet no one can just stop being ethnic, unless, of course, he dies. We do not seem to understand this.

The early Church, too, had an ethnic problem. It existed because there was from the beginning two ethnoi at least in the Apostolic community: Palestinian Jews, who spoke Aramaic, and Jews from the Diaspora, referred to as "Grecians" in the Book of Acts.

It is interesting to note that the first internal difficulty, one which threatened to impede the mission of the Church, was one involving these two groups of Jews comprising the Church. The "Grecians" complained that the "Hebrew" widows were receiving greater quantities in the daily food allotments than their own. The Church's response was not to say "Don't be ethnic." Rather, the first seven deacons, all of them with Greek-rooted names were selected by the faithful and ordained by the Apostles.

We are told that as a result of settling this question of ministry the Church multiplied greatly, (Acts 6:1-8). Behind their solution was what members of the Church Growth Movement now identify as the "homogenous unit" principle: people tend to group themselves around people like themselves. This may or may not be an "ethnic" or a linguistic grouping. Yet we all feel more affirmed as people when ministered to by someone "like we are."

The Apostles did not let "ethnicity" impede their work. They, in fact, affirmed it and the Church was blessed as a result. The issue would arise again over the admission of Gentile converts to the Church. Did they have to become Jews first? Again, they responded to the two distinct groups in the Church. Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, but Jews were not admonished to cease the practice, or Sabbath observance in the synagogues, or all of the dietary commandments of the Torah.

Finally, it was decided for St. Paul to be the Apostle to the uncircumcised, the Gentiles. He, himself, was a Hellenized Jew, from Tarsus, not from Palestine. St. Peter became the Apostle to the circumcised, he being the Palestinian.

Ethnicity was not denied. It was not obscured. It was simply accepted as fact and responded to creatively. When the Judaizers persisted in calling for circumcision of Gentiles, their Jewishness was not the issue. Rather, it was their failure to understand that in Christ there was neither Greek nor Jew. It did not mean that the Greek became the Jew, or vice versa, any more than it did that the male became the female; the Scythian, the Barbarian; or the slave, the master.

Only when anyone insists upon the acceptance of his culture as salvific should we view "ethnicity" as a problem today. It is becoming one in Christ which saves, not one in culture. Attacking "ethnicity" as the "great Satan" is not the principle employed by the Apostles. It should not be employed by the Apostolic Church in the twentieth century, either.

A personal example might prove helpful. When I sought guidance in my conversion to Orthodoxy, I was referred by Archbishop John of San Francisco to a church whose pastor had also been an Anglican, as I was, and whose founding pastor had been a Baptist. The parish itself was at least fifty percent "converts." This was the homogenous unit principle.

My conversion was facilitated, not merely because the services were in English — I was ready to learn Swahili, if it took that — rather, because the parish priest could speak my real "language." He had made a similar decision. He had come from a similar cultural ethos as my own. I could relate. I felt at home. I neither had to adopt an ethnos foreign to me, nor did I have to abandon my own.

This is the crucial task facing us today. Perhaps, we do not like some of the implications, but we are going to have to deal with the fact that, in the main, a convert is going to feel more at home among other converts, at least while he is converting. This does not mean that only convert priests can speak to converts. We would never have gotten out of Jerusalem if that were the case. Yet it does mean using the homogenous unit principle as a bridge into other cultures, other peoples, other nations.

As noted above, St. Paul went to the Gentiles. Culturally and linguistically they were comfortable with him, "and he with them." Note what happened, however, when St. Peter went to Antioch to visit the Gentile church. Everything went fine until others from Jerusalem came, and then St. Peter withdrew from the Gentiles' company and other Jews with him.

St. Paul rebuked Peter to his face, "because he was to be blamed ... (for he) walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel," (Cf. Gal. 2:11-14). It was obvious why it was decided for Peter to minister to the circumcision. He could fit into one cultural idiom, but not another.

This did nor mean smooth sailing at all times. Paul still circumcised Timothy, whose mother was Jewish but whose father was a Gentile, and Titus who was a Gentile convert. Yet, this too did not mean the abandoning of the principle. Rather, it affirmed it. Timothy's ministry would get no where among the Jews, because of his mixed background, without it. Neither would Titus.'

For us, it means that mission work seeking converts, usually, is going to be best carried out by those who understand the conversion process from one of the denominations into the fullness of faith. It means that seeking the lapsed Orthodox, American-born, English-speaking, "native" Orthodox clergy. We should not be dismayed by this but seek to benefit from it.

The growing denominations of the protestants have long been employing just these observations and realities. They affirm a unity in Christ but permit diversity in culture. They seek as soon as possible to raise up indigenous clergy to minister to indigenous peoples. It strengthens them and they are being multiplied. The Baptists, for example, minister in 26 different languages in the Los Angeles area alone. There is no wonder there are not only Korean Baptists, but Cambodian and Laotian as well. They do nor fight ethnicity, and yet this is being done by a denomination which still calls itself "the Southern Baptist Convention." They have never asked their "own" people to sacrifice their identity.

Why should we ask our own people to sacrifice their identities, their ethnoi, whatever they are? In my own case, it was a Russian Archbishop who affirmed my Anglo- Saxon-Celtic ethnos. He did not ask me to become Russian. Why should I have asked him to cease being Russian? We are now one in Christ. This is the power of the Gospel, one which the homogenous unit principle helps effect in practical terms.

Instead of a melting-pot theory, we have to understand that the Church is really called to be more of a congealed salad. We are not called to salvation to be boiled down into a lump. We are held together, one together in Christ, grapes and cherries and pineapple chunks: sanctified and transformed, not conformed and melted.

In the main, the specifics are the following. To minister to any ethnos, we need members of that ethnos to minister most effectively, to minister as did the Church when it began to multiply in Jerusalem. Yes, Anglos for Anglos, Hispanos for Hispanos, American Blacks for American Blacks, Tlinkits for Tlinkits, Navajos for Navajos, this is what we must learn to do, if we are serious about evangelism.

This is not racism, rather its antithesis. This is simply how the Church has gotten people inside her doors down through the ages. It was the Ebionites, those Judaizers who insisted on a common culture, a common ethnos, who failed. They died out by the end of the first century. We might well fail in North America for similar reasons, the failure to appreciate ethnic diversity as a sign of the catholicity of the faith. After all, if we don't get 'em, the Baptists will. They will even get the Russians, if we are not careful.

Reprinted from the September 1988 issue of "The Dawn," Diocese of the South, OCA.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
December 1988
pp. 15-16