In Orthodox theology, the missionary vocation of the Orthodox Church originates from the Trinitarian relations of the Godhead, in that the Father sent the Son into the world for the salvation of mankind (cf. Psalm 57:3, John 7:16, 7:28, John 20:21). The Holy Spirit is likewise sent into the world to sanctify it (cf. Luke 24:49, John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:7).
Christ passed His mission on to the Apostles when He commanded them to share the Good News of salvation with all peoples: “This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached throughout the whole world as a witness to all nations; and then the end of the world shall come” (Matthew 24:14). The Lord’s final commandment before ascending to the Father is known as the Great Commission and is recorded in multiple accounts:
- “ ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ ” (Matthew 28:19-20)
- “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’ ” (Mark 16:15-16)
- "Then He said to them, 'Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.' " (Luke 24:46–48)
- "So Jesus said to them again, 'Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.' " (John 20:21-23)
- “ ‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ ” (Acts 1:8)
The missionary calling of the Orthodox Church finds its fulfillment in the beautiful eschatological vision of Saint John the Theologian: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (Revelation 7:9-10) The Orthodox Church has consistently upheld this vision of the worship of God in every language.
Historically, Orthodox missiology has been characterized by its incarnational approach of learning the culture of the audience, translating the Scriptures and liturgical texts into the language of the people, training native clergy, imparting the full Orthodox theological heritage of doctrines and patristic wisdom; and ultimately establishing a regional, self-ruled hierarchy. This theology of missions was epitomized by the missionary saints Cyril and Methodius, Apostles of the Slavs.
The great missionary hierarch, Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Albania, has done much to articulate the missiology of the Orthodox Church. The following are selections from Archbishop Anastasios’ missiological reflections, teachings, and writings:
- “With all my talk about mission, I was regarded at first as very romantic, but gradually people began to understand that a Church is not apostolic if it is not involved in mission activity. Apostolic means to be like the apostles, every one of whom was a missionary.”
- “The Church is not the Church when it is not actively engaged in mission.”
- “Mission will always remain the central ecclesiastical matter; an expression of the life and vitality of the Church. Unthinkable as it is to have a Church without liturgical life, it would be even more unthinkable to have a Church without missionary life.”
- “The question of the motive of mission can be studied from several angles: love of God and men, obedience to the Great Command of the Lord (Matthew 28:19), desire for the salvation of souls, longing for God’s glory. All these surely, are serious motives. . . . However, we think that the real motive of mission, for both the individual and the Church, is something deeper. It is not simply obedience, duty or altruism. It is an inner necessity. “Necessity is laid upon me,” said St. Paul, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). All other motives are aspects of this need, derivative motives. Mission is an inner necessity for the faithful and for the Church. If they refuse it, they do not merely omit a duty, they deny themselves.”
- “As a young person I had been moved by stories of Father Damian, a Catholic priest who served lepers in Hawaii... I asked myself whatever happened to our missionary tradition in the Orthodox Church? Where were the Orthodox missionaries? What are we doing to share our faith with others? What are we doing to reach all those people who have never heard the Gospel? I realized that indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. How had it happened that a Church called to baptize the nations was so indifferent to the nations? Saint Paul brought the Gospel to Greeks. Who were we bringing it to?”