Response to Pen & Pulpit on Orthodoxy

At this point, it is no secret that former evangelical juggernaut, Hank Hanegraaff, has converted to the Orthodox Faith through the Greek Orthodox tradition.  Over the last week, the evangelical and Orthodox communities have discussed the “good” and the “bad” behind the conversion, but the intent of this post is not to discuss those stories that have already received so much attention.  Rather, the intent of this post is to respond to a recent article posted by the Protestant blog, “Pulpit & Pen,” who have used the platform of Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to boost their own notoriety.  In this case, however, not all press is good press, as there has been a strong backlash from Orthodox and Evangelical believers alike.

Jeff Maples, the author of the recent articles discussing Hanegraaff and the Orthodox Church, has made some strong accusations against Orthodox Christians all over the world.  Without beating this subject to the floor even further, the Reader’s Digest version of Maples’ claims is that Orthodox Christians are not Christians, but rather apostates.  Even further, in an even more outrageously despicable assertion, Pulpit & Pen has strongly asserted that those Coptics recently martyred for their faith are not Christians.

In the most recent article by P&P, Maples tells of his recent experience at Hanegraaff’s parish.  On Holy Saturday, this year (2017), Maples and gang visited St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC, for what appears to be Rush service, Paschal Matins, and Paschal Liturgy.  He outlined 9 total issues which apparently stood out to him and which he took great issue with.  Of course, these issues are largely exaggerated and overly-caricaturized.  At the heart of the article, though, sheer ignorance is demonstrated by Maples in that he set out to “experience” a Liturgy for the sake of proving his adversaries wrong and to bolster his own claims against the Orthodox Church.  Because of all of the alleged complaints that he’s received with accusations of “misrepresentation” towards the Orthodox Church, he felt that attending a Liturgy would build his credibility in his presentation of the Orthodox Church.

Let’s take a look at Maples’ issues (his comments in orange):

1.) I have sat through many Catholic masses. I was married in a Catholic church, and I can definitely say I’ve “been there done that.” But I’ve never sat through anything so long and tedious as the Greek Orthodox mass. Perhaps being a special Saturday night “resurrection service,” this wasn’t the norm, but it was excruciatingly long. 2 1/2 hours in and no sign of slowing down.

1.) Orthodox services are long.  Special festal services are long.  The length of one’s worship, however, should not be limited or governed by one’s willingness to participate.  The Kingdom of God deserves all of our attention, devotion, and time, and if a 2 1/2 hour commitment is just too much for an individual, maybe check out one of those billboard evangelical churches that promise short services in addition to the circus acts that permeate throughout.  Additionally, it should be mentioned, that Maples attended multiple services in one sitting (Rush, Paschal Matins & Liturgy).  This was not merely a “resurrection service”; this was the Feast of feasts and the greatest Liturgy of the year for the Church.  The service doesn’t slow down; the Orthodox don’t slow down.  And we certainly don’t take shortcuts.  On a final note, Maples also mentioned that the service was “tedious.”  The only “tedious” thing about the service–at least that I can imagine–is the level of each individuals participation in the Liturgy; we participate in the Church corporately.

2.) The cliché, “bells and smells” is actually a true reality. The burning of incense and ringing of bells was a noxious combination. It reminded me of being in a college dorm smoking weed and blowing the smoke through toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer sheets.

2.) The “bells and smells” cliché rings true.  It’s a reality because we meet to celebrate and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom we are chief.  Incense and bells are just two individual pieces [of many] that help us to utilize all of our senses holistically to more strongly worship the Living God.  What struck me as odd, though, is not so much what Maples was reminded of, but more so that he was reminded of what seemed to be his own past which involved “smoking weed and blowing the smoke through toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer sheets” inside of his dorm.  Like, who does that?

3.) The liturgy was vain and repetitious. Literally, the same ritualistic prayers and chanting were sung over and over. Every prayer included an invocation of Mary and the Saints.

3.) Here, we arrive at some heart issues and some bearing false witness issues.  The Orthodox Liturgy is somewhat repetitive [during the Paschal services]: we worship corporately, sing and chant hymns and songs (mainly that Christ is risen), venerate the saints, and worship the Almighty God of the universe.  Other than that and the Litanies, there is hardly anymore repetition.  I hope Maples will forgive me for stating this, but to make the claim that our Liturgy is “Literally, the same… over and over” is an outright lie.  And this lie is followed by another lie.  The majority of our prayers, contrary to popular caricaturization, do not actually invoke Mary or the Saints.  To close on this point, calling the Liturgy “vain” appears to be a heart issue.  The Liturgy is only vain to an individual who finds no meaning in what is being delivered to the congregation.  I, for one, have always been moved by the Liturgy in its entirety, so vanity, in this case, appears to be a subjective [and unfair] charge leveled against the Orthodox, that actually seeks to examine each individual’s heart without any basis in doing so.  One could easily argue that the hymns (or rock music) that Maples “worships” to at his “church” are vain.  They mean different things to different people.

4.) While there was actually quite a bit of Scripture reading, there was absolutely no teaching. In fact, the vast majority of Scripture reading was sung in the eerie Byzantine chant. You’d really have to pay attention and try to listen really hard to even understand what they were reading or reciting.

4.) The Orthodox Church reads a lot of Scripture corporately.  A lot.  And why wouldn’t we?  The Orthodox gave and preserved the Scripture!  And there is some strong teaching in the Church.  In fact, the Orthodox Liturgy is comprised of more theology than one would receive at any other tradition in the world.  Our hymns and chants are steeped in theology–sweet, sweet Trinitarian and Christological theology.  And our Byzantine chants are not “eerie.”  That would be like me saying Reformed hymns (err, is Maples even confessionally Reformed?) are monotonous and sound like they’re being sung by the frozen chos… nah, I won’t go there.  Again, this is subjective, and it’s different for everyone, obviously based on preference.  Maples probably didn’t hear a homily/sermon during the Paschal Liturgy because St. John Chrysostom’s beautiful sermon was read aloud.  There are theological powerhouse Priests who employ fantastic teaching during their homilies, and there are those who are not the most eloquent speakers when it comes to theology, but again, this is not exclusively an Orthodox issue, as this problem exists in every single tradition around the world.  Let’s not set double standards.  On a final note, the Orthodox understand what’s being sung, chanted, and read.  Why?  Because we participate in it and have learned it, or eventually will.  And if someone can’t understand what’s being said, maybe try picking up the Bible or Liturgy booklets that each parish provides.  Just an idea… but that would take too much effort, right?

5.) The facility was adorned, literally, wall to wall, floor to ceiling in graven images of the saints. The images were painted in such a way that the expressions on their faces were devoid of any emotion. They looked like lifeless figures just floating around in space.

5.) Ah, yeah!  The beauty of our icons.  The Saints bear witness to the Church and participate in the Divine Liturgy mystically, when Church Militant and Church Triumphant gather to partake of the Holy Eucharist.  But why is it that our flat painted icons are considered “graven images of the saints,” but the literally graven/carved Reformation wall, which features “saint John Calvin,” is not considered a “graven image?”  And of course our icons are devoid of emotion; the Orthodox Church has reasons for this.  Would Maples have liked it more if they were smiling or frowning?  Oh, and they’re not just “floating around in space.”  Maples said they were “wall to wall,” remember?

6.) The enthusiasm of the clergy and participants in the service was extremely low. Those participating in the rituals walked around with lifeless expressions on their faces. The entire ritual was empty and dead.

6.) One can easily make this argument about Calvinists, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Wesleyans, Particular Baptists, you name it.  This charge is “literally” just grasping at straws.  It is writing something down just for the sake of writing something down.  At the very root of it, it is a heart issue, and it is impossible for Maples to know the extent of the clergy and participant’s hearts in their worship of God and their participation in the Liturgy.  The “lifeless expressions” charge is also pretty funny.  What did ya expect, Maples?  Wide-eyed smiles?  A motivational speaker?

7.) There is obviously little to no pursuit of holiness in this church. Several times during the service, the ushers and deacons could be seen stepping out to take smoke breaks. Many of the women and even some of the younger girls were dressed less than modestly.

7.) Again, heart issue.  How can one judge what the “pursuit of holiness” looks like in a 2 1/2 hour timeframe, much of which is done in pitch black?  I can’t speak to ushers and deacons stepping out to take smoke breaks, but I seriously doubt the veracity of this claim, especially as it pertains to Deacons, as they are generally not permitted to leave the altar during Liturgy.  And as far as women’s dress, it really makes me wonder what the intent of Maples visit was, aside from him and his gang wanting to “confront Hanegraaff,” as he states earlier in his article, which is a whole other ridiculous venture.  Orthodox women tend to be some of the most modest of women worldwide, especially in their dress (head coverings and dresses, anyone?).

8.) Repeatedly, the chanting and liturgy included a summons to God to perform certain acts. It was clear that they believe that God works through and is dependent upon these rituals to activate the work of the Holy Spirit.

8.) Huh?  Perform certain acts?  Like 1) save His people, 2) bless His inheritance, 3) forgive our sins, 4) grant us peace and safety, 5) make the schisms cease, 6) grant us life eternal, 7) be glorified, etc.?  Oh, Maples probably was referring to prayer here.  Yea, dude.  We pray and send our petitions–a lot.

9.) The Greek and Eastern Orthodox church is clearly a lifeless church. There was absolutely no gospel in this service. A lost person could not walk into this church and walk out a changed man. It was literally a Pagan practice. Like a seance. Pure witchcraft was going on in this place. In this religion, salvation doesn’t come through Christ’s imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement on the cross, it comes through these dead rituals that they believe ontologically changes them into divine beings. It was truly one of the most wicked experiences I’ve ever seen.

9.) The Orthodox Church is the Life-Giving Church.  It is the clearest and truest expression of the Faith, delivered once and for all to the saints.  The Gospel is presented more times in one sitting than it is in months at the most conservative of Protestant churches.  It has preserved the clear teaching of Christ and the Apostles since the first century, and continues to do so.  In Orthodoxy, salvation comes through Christ.  And through Christ, the Sacraments were instituted as a means of grace–as Life-Giving-and-Preserving instruments in which God extends to His people.  It is truly the most glorious experience in the universe–where Heaven and Earth meet.  And to Maples claim about paganism?  Were there human sacrifices?  Blood rituals?  Druids and Shamans with masks?  I’ll let Prince Vladimir, a former pagan from the 10th century, respond:

“When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.”

It is very disheartening to witness a professing Christian lie so boldly and openly over a public forum which is viewed by many.  No charity was employed and no benefit of doubt was given towards Orthodox Christians.  Maples is a man set out on a mission not to disprove Orthodoxy–his arguments are too weak for that–but rather, to misrepresent the Orthodox Church and Orthodox Christians through a series of bold lies and baseless accusations off one short visit to one specific parish.  The reality is that the Orthodox Church has withstood the test of time, and it will always continue to do so, even in the face of false witness.

The best way to engage any given subject is by being intellectually honest, and part of that requires refraining from employing your own set of presuppositions to judge an ideology (in this case, a Tradition).  The only way to test Maples’ claims is to visit a local Orthodox parish yourself or to speak to a few of the hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians in our midst and asking sincere questions.

Come, taste and see that the Lord is Good.

*Originally posted on Orthodoxidation Blog, April 18, 2017*

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