Orthodoxy and Triumphalism

September 26, 2008

It seems recently that accusations of “triumphalism” have been thrown around pretty wildly. I find it curious that it is being used by (presumably) Orthodox to denigrate other Orthodox, most especially when, on the first Sunday of Great Lent every year, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. If we make our boast in the Lord, or in his Cross, what is the harm in that? Did not the blessed St. Paul do the same?

Perhaps we need to turn our attention to what is meant by triumphalism.

It seems to me that, when I look at accusations of someone being “triumphalistic,” such an accusation normally occurs when one is chiding another about scaring off inquirers. Such people argue that it is unkind, even not Orthodox, to disturb the delicate sensibilities of those inquiring about the Faith, even to the point of not clearly saying what we believe. Don’t mention the ever-Virginity of the Theotokos, don’t mention full immersion baptism, and, whatever you do, don’t say anything about there being only One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—we don’t want to offend people by telling them that they are not part of the Church, as they might “take that the wrong way.” In the approach the anti-triumphalists would take, we would lie to people—either blatantly, or by omission, or by presenting them with long, circuitous explanations that explain nothing—to bring them to the True Faith.

I must say, I most stringently disagree with this approach. There is a god who is the father of lies, but he most certainly is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who became man, who died to set the captives free from Hades, and will return again with glory to judge the living and the dead. The Christian God is the God who is Truth incarnate, and what congress can Truth have with lies? How will you bring someone to the Truth without telling them the truth? If, by refusing to lie to people to “bring them to the Church,” one becomes a triumphalist—by all means, let us all become triumphalists. Better that than a liar.

If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then the gates of hell will prevail over her—and Our Lord is made a liar. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then she is just one more “church” among many, and there is therefore no truth to be found in the world. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, plainly stated, Christianity itself is a lie; and, if that is the case, St. Paul was right, and we are the most wretched of all men.

Often I am told “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” My answer to that is, the purpose of catching flies is to kill them; the Lord did not call us to catch flies, but to become fishers of men. We are to pull them out of the deep water of sin in which they are downing, and give life to them—how can we do that if we are deeper in the water than they? If we do not believe that there is one truth, one cross, one savior, one Lord, and one Church, then what have we to offer anyone that cannot be found elsewhere—and, elsewhere, requires less of people? Vinegar is bitter, yes, and sour tasting; but so, too, is the Truth to those who are accustomed to imbibing lies. Yet, that bitter draught of repentance, indeed, leads to nothing other than the Living Water of Christ Himself.

Are we afraid that the exclusivity of the Church will turn people away? Are we ashamed that the Church is exclusive in her understanding of those who are part of her and those who are not? If so, perhaps it is because we have forgotten that it is not we who exclude them; those outside the Church exclude themselves from her communion. If we were to say to a person “You cannot be part of the Church”—that would be sin. But it is no sin to tell someone “You are not part of the Church,” especially if you do so in the context of telling them how they can become part of the Church. The door is open, the table laid, and all are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb; but those without a wedding garment will be cast out, for many are called, but few are chosen (St. Matthew 22:13-14).

It is no sin to say what the Lord said Himself. This is made plain in the Gospel of St. John, in the sixth chapter; there are hard sayings, and many who followed turned away, because they could not bear them. The servant is not greater than the master, after all. If we would lead men to worship in spirit and in truth, we tell them the truth, the whole truth, about our Faith. We tell them, up front, what we believe. If they cannot receive it, they cannot—and that is not the fault of the Church. All are bidden equally to the feast; those who do not come, or who send excuses, are excluded; others will be brought in, from the highways and hedges.

For this particular sinner, nothing I can imagine is as full of life or joy as this understanding: that God became a man, so that I might become like Him. In return for this great gift, I will do whatever He asks of me, for as long as he gives me the strength to confess Him, and the Truth of His Holy Church, that is what I will do. If that is triumphalistic, so be it.

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