What country can boast of being one of the most Christian?
No country boasts of being more “Christian” than Greece.
Not only is Greece totally defined as Christian it is most difficult to socially navigate if you aren’t just Christian, but Greek Orthodox. A professor, a publicly admitted communist said, “Of course we are all Christian. You can hardly register a child unless baptized by the state church. I’m an atheist but I’d be a fool not to be a Christian too.” A Christian leader in conversation happened to say he was Evangelical. The other turned in surprise and exclaimed with puzzlement, “But I thought you were Greek!”
Being Greek and Orthodox means one is linked by the umbilical cord of history, tradition and birth.
But let’s go back a step and first see how the Orthodox fits within Church history.
Countries in eastern, southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have historically been shaped by Christian Orthodox Churches whose people make up some 100 million worldwide.
I was raised in the Canadian prairies, surrounded by Ukrainian and Russian communities, at whose center was an Orthodox church, which seemed much like the Roman Catholic with a slightly different name. A big mistake, especially when you travel in countries where Orthodox is the prevailing Christian faith and community.
A little history: Christians in the early AD centuries fought bitterly over which would dominate: the Eastern churches, centered in Istanbul (then called Constantinople) or the Western churches centered in Rome? Refusing to acknowledge Rome, most Christians in eastern/southern European, Mid East and North African countries rallied around often what was a national or regional church, with much the same theology as Rome but not submitting to its Roman bishop – or pope. Out of this rose various national churches including the Coptic (Egypt), Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Syrian, Antiochian, Czech, Armenian, Melekite and Maronite Orthodox. They established their separateness with their own archbishop but gave a tacit approval to the seniority of the Patriarch of Istanbul. Some, such as the Coptic Church in Egypt even have their own pope.
Greeks proudly declare, and rightly so, their early role in the founding of the church. The marvelous archaeological digs give evidence of this country’s place in the founding of the Christian faith. A quick read of The Book of Acts (chpts 16, 17, 18) describe those early days. However it grew not only by Spirit-led evangelism, as Roman Emperor Theodosius also pressed Christianity on its citizens. In a tragic moment in 387 AD he announced chariot races in Thessaloniki, north of Athens. Once the 7000 had assembled he sent in his soldiers and all were slaughtered. Athenians, knowing he was on his way south in a matter of days, rushed to the sea and were baptized, demonstrating to the emperor their newly found faith.
Greece, early in its history became solidly Christian, by conviction, fear or accommodation and today the Greek Orthodox Church remains a remains prime shaper of Greek life and politics.
To live as a Christian outside the Orthodox has it challenges. I observed three paradigms or models of living which influence how one goes about practicing faith and engaging others with Christ’s call.
Evangelicals recognize their minority status. They know that the majority faith can upset or marginalize their witness whenever they choose. And further, there are social levers to press civic authority and police to hamper Evangelicals.
That is not to say they are persecuted. I asked a group of some 50 Christian leaders one evening at dinner. They vigorously shook their heads, “No.” Yet a younger mission leader explained what he meant by persecution. He told how in distributing Bibles, published by the Bible Society – which curiously begins with a letter of support by a leading Greek Orthodox bishop – last summer a number were rounded up by police as they distributed door to door in a rural area. Eventually they were released. This for him was more than annoying.
Second, their witness is with two supporting expectations: that their witness of Christ will raise in the hearts of the Orthodox, an appreciation and love for Christ. In a country which claims to be Christian, their devotion and theology rests on understanding Jesus as infant, the Christ-child and Mary as dominant. Most Evangelicals admit that their goal isn’t so much to win over the Orthodox but rather to inspire faith and spiritual renewal within the church. Their second expectation is to build a strong and credible Evangelical presence by way of churches, missions and witness.
I was surprised by their strong feeling that they viewed western churches and missions as having overlooked them, assuming they were not in need of help in mission enterprise. They felt abandoned, forced to rely only on their own resources and initiatives.
The third is Proselytism.
The Greek Constitution declares it is a crime to proselytize. When Greece entered the European Union they had to abandon this clause, yet the government prefers to pay fines when utilizing such a law. When they exercise the old law they pay a fine to the EU, preferring to keep it in place even with the penalty. Also if one is accused of proselytizing a minor (one below 21 years of age) they are prosecuted for molestation. While one can appeal to the European court, the costs for most are prohibitive. In effect the application of the old law has a dampening effect on witness. The irony is that the Orthodox claim to be the only means of salvation, so if one outside the church wishes to accept the Christian offer of salvation, their only option is to change religious affiliation and become Orthodox which is what we call proselytism.
In a strange twist of language, the government uses an English word for Evangelicals calling them “Protestants” refusing to use the Greek word “Dimartyria.” In effect by using the English term, it suggests they are foreigners, while the actual Greek word Dimartyria carries with it an implication of being a martyr.
The Evangelical community got its start in the early 20th Century in part by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which was the Muslim led force located in Turkey that dominated Greece for 400 years and ruled much of southeast Europe right up to the gates of Vienna. Greeks living in Turkey were released to return to Greece after the Turkish Ottomans were defeated in WWI. Many Greeks in Turkey, influenced by Evangelicals, upon their return kept alive their heritage building churches especially in the north part around Thessaloniki.
Realistic yet determined to press forward in witness, Evangelicals in Greece are rooted in the Apostle Paul’s missionary witness to a people identified as being Christian but as is true everywhere, in need or a personal knowledge of the risen Christ
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance