On Unity: Moving Beyond Spiritual Tribalism

On Unity: Moving Beyond Spiritual Tribalism

OCF Theme PhotoThis year’s OCF theme is Unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),
Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.
This week is part four of a six -part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

It’s hard to believe that the reality game show Survivor has been around since 1997 and appeared in 60 countries! Regardless of country, the goal is the same—be the sole survivor. In the early stages the tribe is all important in helping people survive to the next round, but in reality, even the tribe is just a means to an end—something to be used. Everything in the show serves the ultimate goal of one person “surviving.”

How totally different is our Orthodox Christian faith? St. Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833) taught, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” In Christianity, unlike the TV show Survivor, the goal is not just our own survival, using others so that we win. In working out “our own salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) we participate in bringing our fellow brothers and sisters back to God.

In 1985 I attended a Lenten retreat with Bishop Mar Makarios of the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church in Houston. The Bishop looked at the 35 or so Orthodox clergy and parish lay-workers gathered and said:

If you are in the New York City area these days you will see something quite odd—Indian nationals standing on street corners with clip-boards in hand looking for other Indians. They are trying to enlist them to go home to India for summer vacation by signing them up for a charter flight. They are working very diligently knowing that if they don’t fill the plane – don’t enlist enough others for their flight – the plane won’t fly and they won’t get home!

Seeing the blank looks on our faces His Grace realized that his message was not getting through. Somewhat frustrated he burst out:

My dear brothers, don’t you get it, Christianity is a charter flight! If we don’t bring others with us, we won’t fill the ‘plane’ and we won’t get home to Jesus Christ!!

Over 30 years later, that story remains indelibly etched on my mind. Certainly it was one of the catalysts for my nearly three years as an Orthodox missionary in East Africa, but more importantly it solidified the fact that our Orthodox Christian faith is for all people regardless of race, status, gender, etc. As St. Paul writes, “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3:28). However, the Bishop’s story could be misunderstood. Some might argue that the charter flight is only for those of Indian ancestry. In other words, to be an Orthodox Christian one has to be Greek or Russian or Serbian or Arab. In other words, some would argue that the tribe is what is most important.

Orthodox SurvivorIn theological parlance, this is called phyletism from the Greek “phyle”—meaning tribe. Phyletism is spiritual tribalism and diminishes the universal/catholic nature of the Church. It limits the fullness of the Church, rendering meaningless the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians (4:4-6): “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

While our Orthodox faith invites different cultures and ethnicities to embrace the faith and make it their own, it doesn’t require that one become part of that culture or ethnicity to be Orthodox. As an Orthodox Christian we can walk into any Orthodox Church—anywhere in the world—and know that we are one. We might not understand the language or some of the local cultural and liturgical expressions (like crossing our arms while taking Holy Communion), but it is our church.

As an Orthodox college student I encourage you to:

  • Embrace the diversity found in the unity of Orthodoxy;
  • Attend different Orthodox jurisdictions knowing that it is “your” church;
  • Embrace and enjoy the different customs;
  • Be humble and avoid comparing customs, or acting like one is better than another;
  • If it is a parish using a different language, learn a few liturgical words in that language;
  • Be an example of the words in Psalm 132, dwelling in unity as brothers and sisters;
  • Even if someone might not be welcoming, don’t be discouraged. Show that you are part of the Body;
  • Above all, let your Christian love shine through.

In the end it is not about “me” or my tribe, but about our common adoption as sons and daughters of God—being part of His body.

About the Author


Dan Christopulos is the U.S. Country Representative for International Orthodox Christian Charities where he has worked for over 12 years. He has a M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary and a MSW. Dan has taught at the high school and college level, managed federal grants in the health field, as well as participating in parish work. He also spent almost three years in Nairobi, Kenya teaching at Archbishop Makarios III Seminary and doing mission work throughout East Africa as the first long-term U.S. Orthodox missionary to Africa.

On Unity: Members of One Body

On Unity: Members of One Body

This year’s OCF theme is unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),

“Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

This week is part three of a six part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

This is a guest post from Thano Prokos, Great Lakes Regional Student Leader on the 2013-2014 Student Advisory Board. Thano is a junior at DePaul University, majoring in Secondary Education. This is his first year serving OCF on the SAB.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” – 1 Corinthians 12:17-31

I’ll be the first to admit that I often feel beaten over the head with the message of unity. After two years attending a school in Chicago that prides itself on diversity and social justice, I’ve reached a certain level of cognitive dissonance when processing the message of unity.

On the one hand, I realize how important it is to strive for unity. Of course we shouldn’t let things like ethnicity and language keep us apart. Of course, we’re all supposed to be one body in Christ, each contributing different talents to a greater whole. But on the other hand, images of everyone dropping all their conflicts, holding hands, and singing “Kumbaya” work their way into my head and—unfortunately—the once beautiful concepts of cooperation and oneness seem so cheesy. It feels as though unity is God’s great joke; a nice idea, but so unrealistic.

So, why feel this way? Why have such a cynical attitude about such a wonderful concept? Why is it so hard to see a united body of Christ as a possible reality? We don’t have to labor too much to come up with the answer: unity is work.

As a Student Advisory Board, we have definitely been presented with a lot of work that we have to accomplish in the coming year. Managing large regions, contacting chapters, planning events, reaching out to hierarchs, participating in service, conflict resolution, and facilitating discussion. All of these things, of course, done in the hope of building a strong, united OCF. As a new member of the board, do I feel intimidated? Of course I do, but at the same time, spending four days meeting my fellow board members allowed me to see just how much each of them loves the Faith. And if I love it half as much as they do, then I can’t shirk off the responsibility that I have as a member of the SAB.

But the responsibilities to the Orthodox Church and its ministries do not fall on the OCF North American Office alone, that is, if we want to bring a united Orthodox body into fruition. There’s so much work to be done in our own interpersonal relationships. Local leaders are blessed with the responsibility of reaching out to students. We have to make those students feel wanted in this new section of their Orthodox family. We have to be innovative, welcoming, responsible and alive with the love of Christ.

On the other hand, the rest of our OCF body has an equally important responsibility, and that is to participate. I encourage all of you to attend as many meetings as you can. Go to as many services with your friends as you can. Go to retreats. Go to College Conference. Go on the Real Break trips. Look at every opportunity OCF presents as an opportunity to see new things, meet new friends, and become a better Orthodox Christian.

I realize that sometimes local chapter life can be less than ideal. There are some common problems that I’ve heard from a lot of different chapters.The meetings are too boring, the chapter feels “too Greek,” etc. Of course, if we don’t feel like our chapter’s life is healthy then we have the option to leave, but that won’t make the meetings any less boring or the ethnic vibes any less Greek. We can’t feel that OCF or the Church are separate entities from ourselves. We are OCF and we are the Church, and we can either let both entities wither in our absence or grow strong by our active presence. Living together in Christ is work, and we all have our own responsibilities to fulfill. The heads of our ministries must inspire—the bodies of our ministries have to make that inspiration a reality. The eyes must see, the ears must hear, the hands must grasp, the feet must move, and the heart must unceasingly beat if we want our Faith to be alive in Christ.

The Orthodox community is filled with many beautiful differences, and I firmly believe that each one of those differences serves to express our faith in a unique way. While at times we may feel divided, we have to remember that there are ultimately two things that unite us: the first being that we come from what I firmly believe to be the most beautiful tradition in all of religion and spirituality, and the second is our call to fulfill our functions in the Body of Christ. I love the Faith. You love the Faith. The Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the rest of our Orthodox ministries love the Faith. And at the end of the day, the Faith is the labor that we put into it. So if we remember that we share this common love and duty, and we actively do our duty while full of that love, then we are in for a spectacular year.

I love you all, and wish you a blessed school year, and a fruitful journey in the body of Christ!

On Unity: Finding Unity in Christ

This year’s OCF theme is unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),

“Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

This week is part two of a six part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

This is a guest post from Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, parish priest at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Price, Utah and a workshop speaker at this year’s College Conference West. Fr. Brendan is an expert on Orthodox Christian apologetics and missionary work. He has published four books and about a hundred articles, book chapters, reviews, and monographs on Christian theology, prayer, mission, world religions, and medieval studies.

There are different kinds of unity. People can tolerate one another, and so appear unified. Better, they can become friends. But far beyond these is the unity which is ours in Christ. It is the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit, in the Body of Christ. It makes us truly one and transcends friendship, human love, even time and space and leads into eternity.

The Apostle Paul teaches that Christ fills all things, and in Him all things hold together (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:17). Thus, communion with Christ leads to communion with all that exists. We discover this communion when, in the words of the ascetics, the mind “descends into the heart.” Here, in stillness, we draw close to God. Only then, we begin to understand our real purpose in life as God’s children, and we discover the awesome beauty and worth of everything that God has made.

When this happens, we realize that all people are icons of Christ. They become the presence of Christ for us. Paradoxically, people who do not know Christ at all discover Him in us, but we do not necessarily see Christ in ourselves because we are aware of our own sins. Strangely, it is only because of this awareness, in repentance and humility, that we are empowered to bring others to Christ.

Orthodox Christians know that we do not tell other people what to believe or how to live. Instead, we pray for them and demonstrate the love of Christ for them. This makes it possible for us to enter into dialogue about the nature of God and His Church; about our communion with the Earth and all that God has made.

Going to college or university is an awesome opportunity to experience the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in creating unity. Here we encounter—sometimes for the first time—people of other ethnic backgrounds and ways of life, of all religions and no religion. Without going anywhere, we inevitably find ourselves in the position of world missionaries, presenting the Orthodox Way simply by being who we are.

As a college professor and OCF spiritual advisor, I have enjoyed watching the Holy Spirit draw students into communion from all backgrounds. On one campus, for several years the entire Orthodox Christian Fellowship was made up of non-Orthodox students who had simply stumbled upon a celebration of Great Vespers by accident. Becoming Orthodox, one of them later graduated from Holy Cross School of Theology and is now awaiting ordination as an Orthodox priest.

At another university, some Orthodox students made friends with members of the Pagan Society. Soon, Pagans began attending our weekly Bible studies and did so until they graduated. They were surprised to learn, for example, that St. Ephrem the Syrian spoke of the Earth as our Mother; that there were Christians saints who befriended bears and lions; and that the Bible teaches that all things are alive to God. Similarly, on still another campus, a group of Native Americans were deeply moved to learn about Orthodox spirituality, and asked for special prayers at Pascha just with themselves (we sat on deerskins, and out of respect, the warriors left their medicine bags outside).

It is exciting to realize that our Orthodox Way resonates strongly with followers of many world religions and spiritual paths. Hindus readily understand our view that Christ is the Center of all that exists. Buddhists appreciate the practice of compassion and of apatheia (“passionless-ness”). Jews and Muslims alike see in us that God is not merely justice, but forgiving Love. Wiccans and Native Americans are amazed that in our view, even rocks and seas are alive to God and that our task is to live in harmony with them, as caretakers of God’s creation. Atheists respond readily to the realization that, as St. John says in his first letter, anyone who has ever loved has known God, because God is Love.

All this has led me, in the few years of my own priesthood, to the privilege of baptizing followers of many religious backgrounds. When we speak of unity, then, let us practice it in truth. We can invite anyone to share in fellowship with us, whether they are Orthodox Christians or not.

Who knows which of them will meet Christ in us, and ask for baptism? Or, perhaps, decide to become teachers of our faith or to enter into the holy priesthood of the Church?

On Unity: Communion & Culture

This year’s OCF theme is unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),

“Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

This week is the beginning of a six part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

This is a guest post from Eddie Ryan, Social Media Student Leader on the 2013-2014 Student Advisory Board and a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. Eddie got involved with OCF at school during his freshman year and converted to Orthodoxy in 2012. He is currently studying Biomedical Engineering, and this is his first year on the OCF Student Advisory Board.
CC Image courtesy of Fr. Maxim on Flickr

When we receive the sacrament of communion, we are united, through Christ, to all Orthodox Christians: past, present, and future. We are bound together in our faith, the fundamental beliefs by which we interpret the world around us. We are also bound together in our purpose, to work to fulfill Christ’s “new commandment:” to love one another as He loved us. This concept of unity may seem straightforward in theory, as working together often does. However, experience tells us otherwise, dwelling in unity requires time, effort, and a great deal of patience.

The various jurisdictions of the Orthodox Church each have their own unique interpretations of the Faith, many of which are based on how different cultures interpreted the Church’s teachings. This has led to the development of different customs, different approaches to certain issues, and differences in methods of celebration. While these differences help to solidify the identity of a culture or community, they also promote division amongst the branches of the Orthodox Church. These divisions, and tensions that arise from them, have existed for generations. But efforts and changes in the mindset of recent generations of Orthodox Christians are causing some of these old wounds to heal.

This is not to say that the end goal is a single Church, devoid of ties to any group or ethnicity. Rather, it is that we can coexist peacefully and lovingly, that we do not question where an Orthodox Christian came from before they are welcomed into our parish or region. By finding a balance between the customs and traditions we hold dear and our charge to stand together as the true Faith, we are moving towards a time where we can truly say that we dwell in unity.