A Case for Orthodoxy in the African American Church

The following is a collection of notes I wrote to present to my former congregation and colleagues concerning my desire to form a bridge between African American Baptist and Orthodox Christians.  I still believe strongly that such a bridge is very necessary for the sake of black Christians to grow deeper in the faith.  Now, I will have to work to forge such a link from the Orthodox side of the equation.  I hope and pray this will lead to some discussion.  

 

Introduction

First and foremost, let me state the importance and place of the Protestant Church (Baptist, Methodist-Episcopal, and Pentecostal) in African-American history.  Had it not been for these bodies of Christ, we would not have survived and thrived as a people.  Our slave ancestors met in the bush arbors and in secret places which would become the Negro Baptist congregations of the South.   Richard Allen, a free black, refused to put up with second-class citizenship in the house of God and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Though they are a later manifestation, the Church of God In Christ was a “Holy Ghost” haven for our people during the Jim Crow era.  These are the houses of faith that we formed that became our first schools and the home of our first civic organizations.  These are the birthplaces of our scholars and Civil Rights champions.

Most of all, it was in these denominations that our ancestors found redemption through Jesus Christ.  Even as slave masters and racial supremacist told us that we were either not worthy of redemption or that we could not live an abundant life in this world, the Lord taught us better than that in our churches.  Despite our oppression, illiteracy, and poverty; we created great spirituals, heard and preached soul stirring sermons, and saw ourselves as beloved children of God.  The salvation power found in African-American Church history is so evident that some of our nation’s schools of divinity make a study of our church a requirement for Master’s Degree programs.  An Orthodox priest and grandson of an AME pastor, declared in a national conference of Orthodox evangelism that there was a time that the Black Church was the equivalent to the Orthodox Church.  This same priest declared in the same speech that the Black Church of today is dead.  I don’t believe his assessment is correct.  But, it is no secret that the African-American Church is dying.  And I firmly believe that unless we seek renewal through Orthodoxy, perhaps to the point where many of us convert to the Apostolic and Catholic Church, death is unavoidable.

 

 

Historical Reasons for Renewal

At least once every Black History Month, many of us hear some version of this popular parable, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  Most of us know who the founders of our local churches are.  Some of the elders among us are only two or three generations removed from them.  Beyond this history, our Christian past is rarely discussed past slavery.  A few of us have been exposed to topics of Blacks in the Bible in some books, and conferences.  Yet, we largely have not been fully exposed to the great African men and women who established our Christian heritage.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this lack of exposure is with Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.  For the first 300 years of the church, there was no confirmed and canonized Bible.  At best, churches had the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and a few letters and Gospels written by the apostles and their disciples.  Not long after the persecutions of the church came to an end, there was a common doctrine being taught that Jesus was not always the Son of God, but only became so after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Athanasius gave the church two important gifts that would put an end to this false doctrine.  First was the Nicene Creed, named for the city where the first ecumenical council met.  In the creed, the Christian doctrine that we believe is clearly spelled out:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only Begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made.

The doctrine of the creed is in line with the second gift from this African saint.  Athanasius was one of the first bishops to define what 27 gospels and letters would be included in the New Testament.  Needless to say, he was a staunch supporter of the Gospel of John as the text teaches us in the first chapter:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were mad through him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.  In Him was life and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it.

Now, I ask you brothers and sisters; while it is right for us to celebrate Martin Luther King, George Washington Carver, and Harriet Tubman; three people who were guided by right doctrine and the Gospel; should we continue to ignore the man who fought for the doctrine and the inclusion of the text in our canon?

And if you still believe Athanasius as unworthy of our recognition as African-American Christians in the 21st century, please consider that the same false doctrine of Jesus not being the Son of God from the very beginning has reared its ugly head in our community.  The Jehovah Witness Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, interprets John 1:1 to read:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god.

I don’t think it is an accident that this false doctrine has appeared among a people who does not honor the man who fought against.  We do not have images of Athanasius in our churches that we can point to and remind ourselves and others that here is a brother who fought against the Jehovah’s Witnesses before they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  We Baptist and Pentecostals never recite the Nicene Creed to re-enforce what we believe on a weekly, if not daily basis.

Yes we have the Bible as our primary defense against the illness of false doctrine.  But, what doctor gives a prescription for high blood pressure medicine and tells the patient to rely on medicine alone?  Any good doctor will tell a patient to also eat right and exercise.  It is right for us to stand on the truth of God’s written word.  It is also good for us to have icons, lessons, and prayers of the saints who stood for the truth before and after the written word was compiled and accepted.

As Baptist, we don’t bow down to pictures of anybody.  But, let us, at least put up an icon or two of saints who have fought for the faith, at least for Black History Month.   We may not agree that, according to the creed, the Orthodox Church is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  We can, as the Episcopal Church, interpret that sentence to mean that God is the one who determines who is saved and it is the saved that make up the church no matter what denomination one belongs to.

Athanasius is just one of a plethora of other African saints that are known and honored in churches from Moscow, Belgrade, Athens, Beirut, Addis Ababa, and Dar-Salaam but are little or unknown in our community.  Each of them has a story of great faith that we can embrace on our own Christian journey and accept as our ancestors in Jesus.  These include:

  • St Macarius – An Egyptian Monk who’s prayers are a part of the daily prayer cycle in all Orthodox Churches
  • St Maurice – A Roman soldier from Egypt who refused to slaughter Germanic Christians though ordered by the Roman emperor
  • St Cyprian – Bishop of Carthage who encouraged believers to hold on to the faith despite persecution and was himself martyred
  • St. Mary of Egypt – Who once led a life of prostitution until she was convicted, converted, and became an example of repentance

Of course, we can also go to the scriptures themselves and find

  • Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross for Jesus up Mt. Calvary
  • Rufus and Alexander, Simon’s sons who Paul mentions as co-workers of the Gospel
  • Simeon called Niger who was one of the leaders of the church in Antioch
  • Lucius of Cyrene who was another leader of the Antiochian Church

As it is written in Hebrews, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  It is also written in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun.  Therefore, as we struggle with our various sins and temptations, it would be a tremendous resource for us to refer back to someone of the faith who also struggled with and overcame the same thing.  How many people in our community struggle with sexual sins?  St. Mary of Egypt did and her story shows that a life of prayer and fasting over time does help us overcome our fleshly desires.  How many men are in our legal corrections system?  St. Moses the Ethiopian (aka, the Black) was a gang leader who became one of the wisest of monks.  The stories of African saints are being told among Christians of a variety of racial backgrounds.   There is no reason why they cannot be told among us as well.  The stories of the saints are not to compete with nor replace the Bible.  They are supplements the same way we purchase children’s and youth Sunday School books and VBS materials.  Whereas such modern supplements are discarded and forgotten, the stories of the saints have been and are being passed down through many generations.

I do not suggest that putting icons of Sts. Anthony and Catherine in the home of every black Christian will eradicate everything that ails our community and will fill our pews every Sunday and Wednesday overnight.  But, I am very aware of how Satan uses icons of wickedness and keeps them and their stories in front of our youth on a constant basis.  In the 1980’s, a Los Angeles drug dealer named Rick Ross was the most infamous crack cocaine distributer in the nation.  Using gang connections (and some believe a CIA source of cheap cocaine), Ross became a rich man bringing death and destruction to inner city communities.  Today there is a rap artist who constantly flaunts himself as wealthy from being above the law with gang connections in major cities spewing foul language, degrading our young ladies and boasting the thug lifestyle.  Guess what he calls himself; Rick Ross.  So, the more we choose not to explore and uphold our Christian heroes, the more we give the devil license to corrupt our sons and daughters with his villains.

I see no need for us to continue to cheat ourselves out of the rich history of African Christians that is found in the Orthodox Church.  Indeed, a historical renewal in our churches can be very beneficial to the traditional Black Baptist Church.  Along with our Civil Rights heroes and denominational founders, we can also stand on the shoulders of the giants who preferred death to renouncing the faith in Jesus even before the Bible was established and the ones who first organized our accepted canon.  Let us stand on the scriptures as the source material of our belief.  But, let us also use the time tested supplements of the African saints, their iconic images and heroic stories to help us on our Christian journey.

 

 

A Renewal of Prayer

You all have already heard and seen this change demonstrated in me.  That I make the sign of the cross before worship and recite prayers that are unusual in the Baptist denomination.  I do apologize that I didn’t explain these things before I brought them into the church.  But, please permit me now to explain these ancient practices and that they are not against our doctrine and can enhance our personal and congregation union with God.

First, that the ancient fathers taught that prayer had a physical element as well as vocal and spiritual.  Bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, and standing were all a part of early worship and are still being practiced in liturgical denominations today.  Even the first Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were not against these expressions of faith.  But, the more radical reformers, from where our Baptist denomination was born, saw these practices as too similar to Roman Catholicism.  Out of general consensus, early Baptist stopped doing them almost all together.  We may kneel on occasion in a special prayer or stand at the altar to intercede on behalf of others or ask for special blessings.  Yet, the sign of the cross has been shunned by us for so long that we don’t realize it is a visible lesson in Christian doctrine:

  • The two fingers that are pressed against the palm represent the two distinct natures of Jesus Christ.  He was both divine and human.
  • The two fingers and thumb joined together represent the Holy Trinity; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • With this right hand and fingers so formed, Christ came from heaven to earth.  So, the hand goes from the forehead to just below the chest.
  • We are called to repentance and confession of Jesus as the Son of God, as the thief on His right, and follow Him.  So, the sign of the cross is finished right to left.

The Roman Catholics started finishing the sign from left to right somewhere in the 12th or 13th century as a further separation from Orthodoxy.  However, we Baptist don’t have any doctrine that can denounce the practice (especially done

according to the holy tradition) as being ungodly.  Jesus did denounce the Pharisees and scribes for demanding of him some sign from heaven to prove his authority.  But, signs of what we believe are permissible.  If they were not, the Bible its self would not be allowed among us as sentences and words are also symbols of how we convey our faith.

Does this mean we Baptist need to follow all of the physical postures of prayer and make the sign of the cross as frequently as done in Orthodoxy?  If becoming a part of the Orthodox Church is the goal, yes and we should scrap our order of worship and perform the Divine Liturgy as it has been done for over 1600 years.  We can, however, remain fully Baptist and still honor our ancient Christian heritage and show solidarity with our Orthodox brothers and sisters who maintain the faith and practices handed down from the Apostles.  Making the sign of the cross at the end of our prayers, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” is a good practice founded on sound doctrine.  Using the sign to help mark the beginning of morning worship, the end of the morning and intercessory prayer, and the end of worship are proper times for us to use this sign.

The prayers that you have heard me recite are called The Trisagion (Thrice Holy).  These are the opening daily prayers found in one form or another in every Orthodox prayer book.  The first portion of the prayer is the invocation:

O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.

The call for repentance and mercy are in the next two portions that honor the holiness and majesty of God:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us. (3 times)

All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.

The series ends with the familiar Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

And I close the prayer with our traditional:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.  Amen.

I pray the whole Trisagion three times a day and offer the invocation when I pray The Hours (which I will discuss later).  What we do in private tends to come out in public.  Had there been a series of Baptist prayers or order of prayers, I would have used them years ago.  But, in our doctrine and practice, we have no prayer books and are free to use written prayers as we wish.  This is from the New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches:

Baptist churches, as the most free among free churches, are neither defined nor limited by creeds, theological principles, or practices.  In worship, Baptist are free to borrow from all the experiences of the whole church, past and present, or to create new experiences.  (pg. 106)

What I have done with the invocation and intercessory prayers is to combine our tradition of extemporaneous prayer from my heart (based on our doctrine of soul competency) and the ancient prayers of Orthodoxy that have been handed down for hundreds of years and are still being used by those churches.  Perhaps I was wrong for bringing these prayers (and the sign of the cross) into the pulpit without informing the rest of the church family as to what I am doing and why I am doing it.

However, blending our tradition with the ancient tradition, I believe, is a better alternative to what is currently happening too often in many of our churches.  We have a habit of repeating catch phrases and slogans that are popularized in Gospel TV and radio broadcast even if they have no historic, doctrinal, or even biblical base.  In time, such phrases and slogans “get old” as a new set of popular words are used.  I believe if we are going to, “set the atmosphere for worship,” we should do so with the prayers and practices that have stood fast through great persecutions, test, and trials and not those that will last no further than the next “Gospel Hit.”  I think we should have a bond with our brothers in an Ethiopian rock carved church and the Syrian sisters living on a Street Called Straight where Paul once walked as well as our friends and family we have always known.  God so loved the World, not just we Black American Baptist.

I was brought up to believe in the power of prayer and that it should be done as frequently and freverently as possible.  Yet, I confess, that it is easy for me to become distracted by many daily task, responsibilities, and other pursuits to maintain a disciplined prayer life.  Exhaustion also interferes with my efforts to have a meaningful communication with God.  Often, Satan doesn’t have to do much to tempt me into evil.  All he has to do is wait for an opportune time.  Unless I have a regular standard of prayer times, he doesn’t have to wait too long.

Orthodoxy (and later Catholicism and Anglicanism) teaches a pattern of prayers called The Hours.  During set times of the day, if possible, one should stop what they are doing and pray.  If one cannot take time at the top of the hour, then as soon as possible, he or she should make the time to pray.  The Hours are not complicated and are based upon Biblical and oral Christian doctrine:

  • Matins – the first prayer one offers when waking up in the morning.   Jesus himself went to a lonely place before sunrise to pray.
  • First Hour (7 am, or so) – the prayer of the first light of morning.  This is an opportunity to thank God for the rising of the Son from the dead.
  • Third Hour (9 am) – The Apostles were gathered in the upper room and received the Holy Spirit about that time in the morning as the Apostle Peter explained to the crowd at Pentecost.
  • Sixth Hour (12 pm) – Jesus Christ was crucified at this time.  With His arms outstretched, He gathers us all in his love and mercy.  We seek to crucify our flesh to be one with him.
  • Ninth Hour (3 pm) – Jesus Christ died commending his spirit to the hands of the Father.  We are to remember to fully commit our lives into the will of God and not our own pursuits.
  • Vespers (Sunset) – the beginning of the liturgical day.  This is the time to thank God for bringing us through another day and for repentance.
  • Compline (Bedtime) – Prayers for protection and safety for our bodies and souls just before we go to sleep.
  • Midnight (12 am) – Arising from sleep as we don’t know the day nor the hour of his return.

The early church fathers and most modern bishops and priest do not expect believers to maintain such a rigid discipline of prayer to the letter.  But, all Christians should at least take 20 minutes in the morning and evening to seek communion with God.  Chances are most people cannot make the time for a lengthy prayer time at 9 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon.  The prayers need not be long as they are done frequently.  The point here is not so much to be legalistic about prayer as it is to live our lives seeking constant communion with God.

The African-American scholar Benjamin Mays said that failure is not the problem.  The real problem is low aim.  What happens too often to too many of us is that we say, “I pray all the time,” when it is so easy not to.  For the older generations of African-Americans who were raised in the stinging humility of segregation and knew that God was their only haven, this was not as much of a problem.  Black Christians of that time knew how to stay in prayer.  While I rejoice in the fact that Jim Crow laws are dead and gone, I fear that we have lost that great sense of our need to be constantly connected to the Lord.  The temptation for us to rely on (at best) our politics, education, finances, intelligence, and self esteem,  tempts us to regard prayer as either unimportant, or reduce it to an effort to put God on our side rather than submit to do his will even if it makes us uncomfortable.  Thus, the aim of our prayer life has been lowered.  When this happens, Satan doesn’t have to do much else to tempt us into sin.

A visiting deacon once remarked that we should keep a “short sin account.”  Praying The Hours is a perfect tool for repentance.  Not that if one, let’s say, cursed at a co-worker at 9:30 am that he should wait until noon to repent.  It is always best to realize one’s sin and repent as soon as possible.  But, if remorse is not felt until the Sixth Hour Prayer, the guilty party should at least repent out of knowing that what he did was wrong.  Certainly by Vespers as not to let the sun go down on one’s sins.  The Hours can be a good guard against wicked habits and thoughts knowing that about every three hours are time to commune with God.

Thus, the believer aims not to fall into the temptation for the next three hours and the three after that.  Repentance need not be delayed until the hour of prayer, but can be done quickly to come to the Hour with a clear conscience.

Sin is similar to a snowball at the top of a hill.  Oh, it may be small and insignificant as it starts to roll down hill.  But, unless a snowball is impeded, it grows larger and picks up speed.  Let’s say that a man holds on to a lustful image of a co-worker or some other woman at 9:30 am.  Unless that snowball is halted by repentance in prayer, that lust can grow into something worse.  Many men who are in jail for rape and child molestation are not some sort  of deranged monsters.  Many of them are ordinary guys who didn’t stop the snowball from rolling down hill and let it roll too long.  “Oh, it was just a little day dream.  No harm done.”  But in time, the daydream is not satisfied.  It wants to see more.  “I will just look at a little nudity.  It won’t hurt anyone.”  But sooner or later, the appetite grows for more exiting images.  “Hey, these women are just acting.  This stuff happens all the time.  I am just watching the movie.”  Eventually it becomes a question of finding a willing partner, buying a prostitute, or having a plan to take a woman or child by force.  Regular re-assessments of one’s thoughts, or  bedtime checks of one’s thoughts with remorseful repentance and dutiful correction can prevent most, if not all, of these horrible crimes from happening.   Praying the Hours is a means of stopping and breaking snowballs of sin from becoming avalanches of tragedies.

Let us also consider how many written prayers in Orthodoxy are written by African saints and the non-Africans wrote, worshiped, and prayed alongside them as equals in the faith.  In the Antiochian “St. Philip’s Prayer Manual” and ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) “Jordanville Prayer Book,” there are Five morning and two evening prayers attributed to St. Macarius the Great, an  Egyptian.  In some monastic orders, even outside of Egypt and Ethiopia, many other prayers from other saints are used.  Yet, in our “African-American Heritage Hymnal” under the litany prayers, not a word of any of these great brown skinned saints is used.  I can understand omitting references to Mary as the Mother of God, or some other doctrines that we would have a hard time agreeing with.  But, where there are no glaring conflicts with our doctrines, these prayers from African ancestors can and should be used by we African descendants.  Blond-haired Ukrainians, pale-skinned Serbs, and even Aleuts of Alaska use them.  Why can’t we?

I am not saying we shouldn’t “pray from the heart,” or “in the Spirit.”  Yes, we can make room for extemporaneous prayer.  But, why should we not claim our ancient Christian heritage by using the words of our ancestors to speak to God?  We are striving to be where they are in heaven.  Wouldn’t it be good to be well versed in their words before we meet them in heaven?  It is written in Ecclesiasties that there is nothing new under the sun. Suppose one finds a prayer from St. Anthony the Great (the father monasticism) that speaks to a problem he or she is having.  Should the prayer be ignored because, it isn’t “from the heart.”  Is it “not in the Spirit” just because it was written over 1500 years ago?  Can it be argued that these prayers (which have been approved for use by bishops who can trace their ordinations back to the twelve apostles) are indeed full of the Holy Spirit as they have stood the test of time?  Again, our doctrine says we are free to use the experiences of the whole church in our public and private worship.  Orthodoxy gives us a sound, tested, tried, and true foundation of doctrine to practice as much or as little as we wish.  And since Africans played a role in the formation of the doctrine, we the descendants have a right and responsibility to honor and respect what we find applicable, if not fully convert to.

I am also very concerned about the tendency of modern Protestant churches to rely too heavily on “being relevant.”  This is not to say the word of God should not speak to our current events and issues.  But, too often, we find ourselves buying into a plethora of books, media, and other items that are relevant for a little while; yet are quickly discarded and forgotten about when the next “relevant” lesson and ministry comes around.  Some years ago, Pastor Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Church” came out with a text and study guide.  Where is this doctrine now?  What churches are being guided by these lessons?  Today, Pastor Jazten Franklin has a popular book, study guide, and DVD series on “Fasting.”  How long will it be until this new doctrine (which is an insulting rip-off to any Orthodox doctrine on fasting which doesn’t cost anything to learn) be thrown into the scrap heap of the religious marketplace?  I doubt that it will last longer than Memorial Day weekend when many people are grilling burgers and hot dogs.

Yet, Orthodox doctrine and apostolic teachings have stood the test of time and persecutions.  The writings of saints such as Ireanaus of Lyon, Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of the Apostle John), Clement of Alexandria, and Polycarp (a disciple of the Apostle Peter) laid the foundation for Biblical doctrine.  The sermons of John Chrystostom (the “Golden Mouthed”) are used as a commentary for New Testament studies.  His Divine Liturgy is used in almost every Orthodox Church today.  The deeply spiritual words of monastics such as Isaac the Syrian, Gregory Nazien, and John of Damascus still serve as devotional and meditational guides in today’s sin stained world.

We all are familiar with the cliché, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.  I believe we need to stand on two sources of truth as African-American Baptist.  First is the sound doctrines of those in this nation who lead our people to freedom and hope such as Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, Howard Thurman, Gardner Taylor, and others from that era.  The other foundation is the ancient Fathers from the Apostles to the schism of 1054 AD.  If we do not stand firmly on these pillars, we run the risk of being swept away from mass marketed “relative” doctrines that are not aimed at making disciples.  They are aimed at making a profit.  Thus, Christian doctrine is being reduced to a raw material and the faith is merely an industry.

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