In fact, Michael J. Gorman’s viewpoint is heavily influenced by the Orthodox notion of theosis, that is, God’s purpose that Christians become like/become united with God. And Gorman resonates powerfully with me. And so it seems a natural thing to check into.
Now, the Eastern Orthodox are unfamiliar to most Americans, largely because our cultural heritage is largely from Western Europe, and hence we are strongly influenced by Catholicism and Protestantism — both of which are phenomenons originating in Western Europe.
But the early church was largely an Asian and Eastern European phenomenon — the stomping grounds of Orthodoxy. You see, under Constantine (4th century) the Romans built a second capital in Constantinople, later known as (under Muslim rule) Istanbul. The result was to solidify the Roman Empire’s earlier separation into eastern and western administrative divisions by Diocletian.
The West largely spoke Latin, being ruled out of Rome, whereas the East spoke Greek, as it had going back to Alexander the Great.
The East contained Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria, and countless others of the oldest Christian churches. The West, of course, had Rome, which remained the center of the Empire as a matter of history and heritage, although its power began to move toward the East.
The barbarians — various largely Germanic tribes — attacked the West and ultimately overthrew Rome, but the East remained largely free from the dissolution that destroyed the West. The Eastern Roman Empire thus become the Byzantine Empire — not by conquest or downfall, but by a loss of its Roman and Latin roots. It survived until Constantinople was conquered by the Muslims in 1453 — leading to the Muslim invasion of Eastern Europe.
In the West, the bishop of Rome became the most powerful influence, in part due to his skillful dealings with the barbarians and in part due to the lack of much in the way of civil government. The Roman government had fallen, leaving the church in place as the central, organizing feature of Western civilization.
The result was that, in the West, the church was seen as above civil government. The kings answered to the Pope. The Pope crowned Charlemagne when he became king of the Holy Roman Empire (modern France, Germany, and part of Italy, all under one king).
However, in the East, each major city had its own bishop and none claimed supremacy. Moreover, the government continued to be strong (relatively) and to support the church. The church was very nearly a department of the Byzantine government.
As a result, the Eastern churches rejected the claims of the bishop of Rome to authority over all of Christendom. However, otherwise, the Eastern and Western churches continued to be in fellowship, to hold common church councils and to work together — most of the time.
And yet, because of language and cultural differences, and the sheer difficulty of communicating across lands trapped in the Dark Ages (as was true in the West), the two halves of Christendom became more and more distinct.
In 1054, the East-West Schism occurred, formally dividing the Catholic West from the Orthodox East. Both sides excommunicated the leaders of the other.
The doctrinal points leading to the division seem absurdly trivial to a Protestant reader, and you have to figure that politics and power played a very large role. After all, the East had no interest is submitting to the increasingly powerful Pope or his powerful allies in the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, when Western armies sacked Constantinople on their way to the Crusades, they demonstrated that they considered the Orthodox as no better than pagans — and thus subhuman.
The Orthodox effectively converted to Christianity all of Eastern Europe, including Russia and much of the former Communist bloc nations, from Greece north. The Orthodox church chose to organize itself into national segments, so that there is a Russian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, etc., but they consider themselves as making up a single church, but with no formal authority over each other.
Because the Orthodox leaders are often appointed by secular rulers, the Orthodox patriarchs never enjoyed the raw political power of the Pope. Indeed, they routinely found themselves subservient to the state, as the church was generally funded by tax revenues as an arm of the state government. Nearly all churches were state churches in the West, too. The difference is that, in the West, the church saw itself — and was seen — as having authority over kings.
Thus, without a balancing doctrine subjecting kings to the power of the church, state funding of the church inevitably led to state control of the church. There were instances, of course, of church leaders protesting state actions, but it’s easy to trace much of the vast difference in the histories of Eastern and Western Europe to the relative weakness of the Eastern church when confronted with state power, compared with the relative strength of the Catholic Church over against the Western kings.
This is not to approve either structure, just to point out that the difference had a huge impact on the development of the culture of Europe.
During the years of immigration to the US from Eastern Europe during the Ellis Island days, vast numbers of Orthodox Europeans came to the US, and they brought their religion with them.
The Greeks founded Greek Orthodox Churches. The Russians founded Russian Orthodox Churches. Etc. Although the Orthodox had once been great missionaries, by this time, the churches were more closely tied to ethnic identity than to evangelistic mission.
Earlier generations of Americans had, of course, brought their state religions with them, but they quickly became Americanized and transformed their state religions into democratized versions of their European forebears. Thus, the Presbyterian Church was originally the state church of Scotland, but few would identify an American Presbyterian with Scottish heritage today.
However, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Orthodox Church of America was founded, having its roots in the Russian Orthodox Churches in Alaska, although there’d been ethnic Orthodox congregations in the US for around 200 years at that point.
The Orthodox have posted a remarkably frank critique of the American Orthodox experience here and here. In short, they are divided administratively, not nearly as missional as they ought to be, evangelistically weak, and often unwelcoming to converts. (And, of course, we Protestants are often guilty of the very same sins.)
And yet they are experiencing a revival and growth — as many convert to Orthodoxy from other American expressions of Christianity. They admit their problems and are trying to do better.
In theological terms, they have a weak theology of the Kingdom and of the gospel. After all, the call of all nations into a single church, a single Kingdom, under a single king, was meant to do away with ethnic divisions within the church — the very thing that so many of the Orthodox are unwilling to give up in the U.S.
Nonetheless, we who have a Western cultural heritage find that the Orthodox have some insights into the Scriptures that were forgotten by the Western church. You see, the West came to be dominated by the thought of Augustine, who greatly influenced not only Catholicism, but the Lutherans and Reformed (Calvinist) churches as well. The East largely rejected Augustine, and so developed a subtly different theology in many respects — with ideas that simply didn’t make it onto the Western theological radar.
One final point. The Churches of Christ have always spoken highly of the Orthodox, because we share an a cappella heritage with them. I know a large number of former members of the Churches who’ve converted to Orthodoxy. After all, unlike our pretensions, they have roots that provably go back to Pentecost, as a matter of history.
Moreover, they have some attitudes that are very Church of Christ-like. For example,
With reference to the above question, it is particularly instructive to recall the answer once given to an inquirer by the Blessed Theophan the Recluse. The blessed one replied more or less thus: “You ask, will the heterodox be saved… Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins… I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever.”
Thus, the Orthodox, like many in the Churches of Christ, define the faith that saves in terms of a systematic theology — a body of doctrines — rather than simple faith in Jesus. It changes quite a lot about how we understand our salvation and our Savior. But at least this position is more generous regarding the eternal faith of the non-Orthodox than that of many of my brothers in the Churches of Christ!
And so … I find much to admire in Orthodoxy and expect to learn quite a lot as we consider their views on the atonement. However, I don’t see them as holding a purer, truer gospel than many other denominations. Rather, like so many others, they emphasize some things we ought to emphasize more, and we emphasize some things they ought to emphasize more.
This is why Jesus called us toward a single church, headed by a single King, joined by a singular faith in Jesus. If we would obey that command, our strengths would compound, rather than compete.