Orthodoxy and Mission work – St Justin Popovich

St Justin Popovich, recently glorified by the Church of Serbia, is one of my favorite authors. He would not be among the favorites of many Orthodox, because he is blunt and truthful. He addresses here Missionary work. I have had discussions about this in the parish before, and I present his words here because they are provocative, and TRUE. So much that passes for missionary work and its sister "ecumenical dialogue" is insipid and lifeless because it is not ascetical (and therefore, cannot be truthful, because it cannot not know the truth).

Like any quote, it cannot address all aspects of a subject, but every word St Justin speaks should be taken to heart. I hope that some dialogue will result because of this post.

The Ascetics are Orthodoxy’s only missionaries.

Asceticism is her only missionary school.

Orthodoxy is ascetic effort and it is life, and it is thus by effort and by life that her mission is broadcast and brought about.

The development of asceticism . . . this ought to be the inward mission of our Church amongst our people. The parish must become an ascetic focal point. But this can only be achieved by an ascetic priest.

Prayer and fasting, the Church-oriented life of the parish, a life of liturgy: Orthodoxy holds these as the primary ways of effecting rebirth in its people. The parish, the parish community must be regenerated and in Christ-like and brotherly love must minister humbly to Him and to all people, meek and lowly and in a spirit of sacrifice and self-denial. And such service must be imbued and nourished by prayer and the liturgical life. This much is groundwork and indispensable.

But to this end there exists one prerequisite: that our Bishops, priests, and our monks become ascetics themselves. That this might be, then: Let us beseech the Lord. (St Justin (Popovi?), Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, ed. Fr Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994), p. 30,31)

Taken from a great Article:

'The Lives of the Saints Are Applied Dogmatics'—On the Glorification of St Justin"

from the Blog "Logismoi"

My comments.

A missionary who does not love the services, the Psalter, the Gospels, fasting and ascetical effort is not a missionary. The same goes for a priest. We cannot give what we do not have, and we cannot have God without struggle – all with ourselves. God gives Himself freely, but we cannot bear Him in our souls without ascetical struggle. The Orthodox world does not readily acknowledge this truth – one only need look at our churches on Saturday night to know something is terribly wrong.

This is why I talk so much about fasting and the services. They are not missionary work (although there are many stories, including mine, of how the holy services caused a person to be joined to the church) – but such work cannot be done without them, except (in the latter instance only) among the truly exceptional – and those are they who have noetic prayer.

I am not an ascetic priest, because my passions burden me – but I can say without lying that I aspire to be. At least, God helping us, we have two liturgies a week, and proper services on the weekend. With God helping us, there will be more. Perhaps in time more of my flock will see the great importance of prayer together, and with it, more frequent confession and communion, and effort in everything!


  1. What St. Justin says is no doubt true, but he is not speaking about evangelism or missions. It seems to me he is talking about trying to overcome the widespread nominalism within Orthodoxy through a vigorous program of discipleship. He is not addressing the need to go out and do missions, ie, preach the gospel to those outside the Church. That's why he writes that fasting and attending services are "not missionary work."
    In other words, asceticism is about discipleship, not evangelism.
    Evangelism is the proclamation of Jesus' love for the world. It involves sharing what Jesus Christ has done for unworthy sinners, by dying on the cross, rising from the dead, and reigning triumphantly with the Father. Its about the riches of Jesus' grace and love, and our need to receive it freely through faith in his atoning death, because it is only by His blood that we are cleansed and forgiven and made right with God.
    So we come to the question, do we need to be ascetics in order to preach the gospel effectively? No. Absolutely not. For three reasons.
    First, because the gospel is not about our holiness, but our unworthiness. Or rather, its about Jesus being holy for us (Rom 10:13) because no one is righteous (Rom 3:10-12).
    Second, because the gospel has an objective force apart from our own spiritual state. Even the worst sinner or hypocrite can be an effective evangelist. In that sense St. Justin is mistaken. What matters is not our own ascetic struggle, but whether or not Jesus is preached. Hence, Paul wrote to the Philippians (1:15-18): "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice."
    Third, because God's word is living word, and it has the power to convict the hearts of sinners apart from whether or not we ourselves are faithful. (Isaiah 55:11; Heb 4:12). The only thing required for a good evangelist is that Christ be preached, because without a clear, coherent presentation of what Christ has done people cannot believe: "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14)
    ~Shawn L

  2. Father, Bless,

    I had not thought of asceticism as mission work before, but after reading and thinking about this, the connection now seems obvious.  Our first and foremost mission to the world is as intercessors and witnesses of the Love of Christ.  In order to help others with the splinters in their eyes we must first remove the beams in our own.  Asceticism, the outward and inward denial of our desires and submission to His will, is how this is accomplished. 
    Outward asceticism in a hedonistic world makes a powerful statement and witness to others.  Inward asceticism prepares our hearts to act as effective intercessors for a lost, hurting and dying world.


  3. Thank you, Father.
    This reminds me of two other things I've read recently expressing the same truth:
    1. A recent article about our own Holy Cross Hermitage, available here: http://ishmaelite.blogspot.com/2010/05/holy-cross-hermitage-in-herald-dispatch.html.
    2. Comments by missionaries in Russia's far east, in response to several interview questions:
    "To what should a missionary give the most attention in his preaching?"
    Prot. Dmitry Karpenko: "That his words are not contradicted by his deeds."
    Priest George Chekenev: "To his audience."
    Prot. Dionysius Posdnyaev: "To a deep understanding of what he preaches. Not just on the level of the mind, but also the agreement of the will and the feelings."
    Igumen Agathangel (Belikh): "To be, and not to seem."
    Hieromonk Daniel (Nazarov): "The important thing is not what you say, but how. The most important thing is the living faith of the missionary himself…"
    "What constitutes 'success' in missionary work?":
    Prot. Dmitry Karpenko: "Drawing people into the mystical life of the Church. If they are drawn in from the heart, that means that our efforts have not been in vain."
    Priest George Chekenev: "That even one is baptized, that even one is converted."
    Prot. Dionysius Posdnyaev: "The birth of an active and self-functioning church among those to whom the preaching is addressed."
    Igumen Agathangel (Belikh): "The formation of a small Church community."
    Hieromonk Daniel (Nazarov): "Not in any case the number of those converted! A missionary is a sower, and it is not his business to reap the harvest … I think the most important sign of a missionary is his pure conscience, when he may prayerfully say to God: 'I've done everything I can – bring it to fulfillment, O Lord!"

  4. Shawn: What about "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?"

    It is my obligation to be a witness to Christ (and I often fail to do so). But it is also a hindrance to my witness when my life contradicts my words, because people see that, and sense it, and it turns them away. And woe to me for turning others away from the Lord. That doesn't mean that I need to be perfect, for nobody is. It does mean that I need to be humble, to love and fully rely on my Lord, so that my witness is authentic. And this is only learned through asceticism.

  5. I believe that while it is true that God can use as vessels those whose lives are from from living out the Faith (as the case Balaam shows), this is an exception to what we see in life. Most of the people I know who reject Christianity do so because they were burned by bad or poorly practicing Christians. To bear real fruit we need to be grafted unto the Vine and be bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our daily lives. As Orthodox we know that the way to do this most effectively is through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and vigilance or, in short, ascesis. The more we incarnate the fullness of the Gospel in our lives the more fruit we will bear, fruit that will last. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, "Aquire peace, and thousands around you shall be saved." One passage from St. Paul which I think addresses the practice of ascesis in context with evangelism quite clearly is 1 Cor. 9:25-27 "And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
    26  I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:
    27  But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway."
     And there is also St. Paul's words to Timothy where, while not addressing ascetic practices directly, does mention the importance of living out a whole-hearted commitment in order to win others to the Apostolic Faith: "Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee." (1 Tim 4:15-16)
    David H

  6. It is true that not all evangelism or mission work is ascetical but all true asceticism is missional.  
    To be a witness for Christ to the world, as He commanded, is to be a martyr for Christ–the word for martyr and witness being the same in the Greek. There are, of course, different levels and types of martyrdom, as there are different levels and types of asceticism.  But I think few would disagree that martyrdom, the laying down of one's life for Christ, is the ultimate act and goal of asceticism. Thus, it appears that asceticism and our mission to the world as directed by Christ are inextricably linked.

  7. But on the other hand, I think it is also true that private asceticism alone is not enough; we must also be present, and witness to our faith.
    Some nuggets from something I'm reading:
    "In this world of very intensive communication, the only way to preserve your identity and your  faith is to explain that faith to others. It is through communication that you elaborate arguments, that you preserve and defend your right to live as you believe you should. The Church has two imperatives. The first is to preserve the faith. The Church could attempt to do this by isolating itself, but then it would be the truth for only a small fold. The second imperative is for missionary
    work, to witness the Gospel throughout the world."

    "In my experience, a desire on the part of other Christians to learn about Orthodoxy usually  appears only after they meet Orthodox people. This personal contact and the beauty of the  services often spark an interest."

    –Fr. George Ryabych, from an interview with the journal Road to Emmaus, volume VII, No. 3

  8. Fr. Nicholas et al.,
    Regarding the verse you quoted: those men were trying to perform a miracle without truly knowing Jesus. That's why the demons did not know them. But in preaching the gospel, we aren't performing a miracle. We're just talking. But the Word of God that we communicate, the message of the Cross, has a power apart from us, because it is a living Word, and as God explained in the verses I quoted, it accomplishes His purpose apart from our own subjective states.
    Also, regarding the interview you quote. Its interesting that in their responses to what should be given the most attention in preaching, and what constitutes success in missionary work, the interviewees you quote do not mention Jesus. I would have said the most important thing to attend to in preaching is to preach Jesus. And success would be defined by whether or not people fall in love with Jesus. What else could a Christian preacher preach other than Jesus?
    Asceticism is fine and important and necessary… after a person has fallen in love with Christ. If a person does not yet know Christ intimately as their Saviour, and they only come to Church because of a vague cultural attachment to Orthodoxy, or a vague deistic belief in a Creator God, or because they like ritualized worship, then teaching them asceticism is not gonna help, especially if Christ is not made the focus of the teaching. In that case, asceticism becomes a law to hit people over the head with, and therefore a form of alienation, reinforcing the idea that religion is legalistic. People will stay away. And for good reason. Remember, the great ascetics in NT times were the Pharisees, and the most ascetic people living today are found among the Hindus! But how many people do you see converting to Hinduism? Not many. Asceticism by itself does not get people closer to God because asceticism without love of Christ is useless (1 Cor 13:3). So a fervent ascetic is not necessarily a healthy or true Christian. But all who truly believe in Jesus have eternal life, and once someone loves Jesus, an ascetic life become a joyful thing, not a burden.
    Certainly, living the Gospel message makes for a more authentic and more powerful testimony. You can't share what Christ has done for you if he hasn't done anything for you. And one of the most effective ways of drawing people to Christ, and helping them come to know Christ's love, is to love them yourself. So the personality of the missionary is important. But lets be honest. Very few people, if anyone, become holy in this life (ex: I'm especially thinking of Seraphim Rose who died swearing vulgarities at his friends despite a life of asceticism). St. Paul knew he was still the chief of sinners even after being called to be an apostle. And every Orthodox person in the world makes the same confession in the prayers before communion. So we're all the chief of sinners, and will be until the day we die. Yet just as St. Paul went out preaching Christ to the world nevertheless, so should we. And if we don't preach Christ, then fewer people will come to faith than if we did.
    ~ Shawn L
    PS: Sorry for being so opinionated! All these thoughts are being churned up as I start to read my Bible again. You see, I used to read the Bible every day, since before I converted to Christianity when I was 17, up until I converted to Orthodoxy. So for about 14+ years, not a day went by that I did not read the Bible. Then after I converted I suddenly just stopped reading because, to be perfectly frank, a culture of devotional Bible reading is just not reinforced in Orthodox life compared to evangelicalism. (Abby has had the same experience). Anyways, I'm trying to pick it back up again, and as I read through Paul's epistles, and the letters of John especially, I can't help but see a giant Jesus-shaped hole in contemporary Orthodoxy. We say his name a lot, but is he a living reality or just an abstract idea like he was for the Byzantines? (according to Fedotov)

  9. "Preach the gospel at all times–when necessary, use words."–St. Francis of Assisi

  10. Shawn, I just found your latest comment in the spam filter and sent it through — let me know if that happens again, please (I don't routinely check it).

    I'm sorry that you have not been encouraged to read the Scriptures since becoming Orthodox, and I hope you now know that that the Church certainly does encourage all of the faithful to read the Scriptures daily, and even has a number of established methods for reading through the New Testament regularly. (My favorite is the Optina method of reading one chapter from the Gospels and 2 from the Epistles daily, although I'm out of the habit of doing this.)

    We are not, however, encouraged to read without guidance, but rather to read with the assistance of the writings of the fathers – for example, the commentaries of St. John Chrysostom or Blessed Theophylact, because "no scripture is of private interpretation." And that is the difficulty; I would disagree with your interpretations of some of the verses you have quoted and would be happy to explain why, but that is not the point: the point is to subject our understanding to the teaching of the Church in any event. The church unequivocally teaches the importance of an ascetic life for a proper witness, and that is enough for me. And I think you have recognized why. Now does that mean that just because I am not holy, I should not witness to my faith? Absolutely not; I am required to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in me. But that mission's effectiveness will depend on my own faithfulness in deed to those words.

    To address your other question, if the rule of prayer is the rule of faith as we teach and live, then Christ is at the very center of our faith. Indeed, He *is* the faith. There is an excellent commentary by St. Justin regarding exactly this, in which he says "only Christ, as the God-man, is the supreme value and infallible criterion" — and not as an abstract principle, but as a person, to whom our every moment should be consecrated in prayer. The missionaries I quoted are Christians, speaking to another Christian. They are assuming that they are preaching Christ — what else would they be preaching. The question is what is most important about how to preach Him.

    The reading from St. John's Gospel appointed by the Church for today — the day after the Ascension — also makes this point beautifully. In John 14:1-4, Christ talks about how he is going up to heaven and will prepare a place for us. Clearly the Church sees this as a reference to the Ascension. Thomas questions, "how can we know the way," and Jesus responds, "I am the way…". Phillip says, "Show us the Father," and Jesus says "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father." The message of the Church is placing this reading here is clear: Christ is ascended into heaven, but He has not left us. He is still the center of our lives, the Way, the Truth, the Life…

  11. Something else: reading the Bible is asceticism. For what is asceticism? It is the struggle we undertake to be saved, to know God. It is the violence by which "the violent take [the kingdom of God] by force." It is violence directed against our passionate, sinful tendencies which don't want to be saved, to be changed. And what specifically are these means? The Elder Cleopa of Romania lists four specific ways: Holy Communion, prayer, keeping the commandments, and hearing the word of God. Similarly, St. Theophan the recluse mentions prayer, reading the Scriptures and the writings of the fathers, and obedience to God's commandments (if I recall correctly). And St. Ignatius Brianchaninov in The Arena emphases a life lived according to the commandments of the Gospel, and therefore based on a close acquaintance with the Gospel.

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