Last Sunday, my wife and I met up for lunch with a priest friend and his family who were visiting from out of town. We went to an Indian restaurant in Cary, North Carolina, since it was close to where our friends were staying. They have three children, and so there were seven of us total at the table, which necessitated much shifting, re-arranging, and trips to the buffet. The conversation was a blessing, and we enjoyed each other’s company.
At one point, the wife left the table with two of the children, leaving Father alone with his youngest, whom he picked up and calmed down when she began to act up. It was at this moment that the family sitting in the table across from us sprung in to action. The father of the family, who had a discernable accent suggesting a Mediterranean background, asked our friend the perennial question that we priests face: “what religion are you?” Upon hearing the response, “Orthodox Christian,” the man followed up with a quick retort: “so are you born again? Saved?” From the tone of voice and context, I was rather sure the man knew what we were, and that he was baiting my friend.
The conversation quickly degenerated, because as my priest friend gently explained what Orthodox Christians believe and why, this belligerent man, who described himself as a Free Will Baptist, began issuing forth canned responses, reciting proof texts, and making progressively more wild and inflammatory comments. Father walked away when the man exclaimed that “most Catholic saints are in Hell!” This man was conducting himself in this manner in the presence of his wife and minor children.
In some instances, I might have jumped in to the conversation to help out, but I felt a spiritual restraint, so I kept quiet sitting next to my wife, letting the conversation diffuse itself. Sometimes, it is just clear that we should keep silent, and pray for such people, rather than engaging them. This particular gentleman was also a partisan of the King James Only view, namely that the King James Version of the Bible is the only acceptable translation, and all other translations are corruptions—usually deliberate—which confound doctrine. I prefer the King James Version, especially since it is based primarily off the Received manuscripts and is not infected with modern pseudo-scholarship, but this translation itself suffers from several defects, the most glaring from an Orthodox point of view being its using the English word “Hell” to encompass the disparate Greek words Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, leading to such strange notions as that after the Crucifixion, Christ went to Hell to suffer separation from God (as if that were possible) and the eternal punishment we all will experience if we do not accept Christ, rather than the Christian view that Christ went into Hades to free the captive souls of the righteous in the Old Testament.
We finished up our meal, which was a bit awkward since we were still facing the Baptist family’s table, and left. A good fifteen minutes of our time together was expended on this curious exchange. My wife and I were amazed at how some people can mask plain old rudeness with the mask of “Evangelization” and “doing God’s work.” They probably even saw our offense as symptomatic of our “rejection of the Gospel” (at least the Gospel as these folks envisioned it). Neither my friend nor I mind engaging in theological discussions with non-Orthodox people, but there is a certain propriety in not ambushing someone while he is eating with his family and friends.
There is also the other antisocial aspect that our opponent highlighted, which is the general lack of a listening ear in our culture. This man seemed utterly ignorant of his obligation to listen to his conversation partner, and to ask questions that are not baiting, but which truly seek to elucidate the other person’s point of view. What could have been a productive exchange, even if one of each side trying to convert the other, was instead reduced to the recitation of rehearsed answers seemingly gleaned from an adult Sunday school study guide.
This dual lack of propriety and lack of listening made the entire exchange uncomfortable to witness, and did not endear us to this man’s church and view of religion. I contrast that with the generally profitable exchanges I have had with Protestant friends whom I meet for coffee, a meal, or a beer, to talk about our respective Churches, and ask questions of each other. Having had numerous such exchanges, I know it is possible to have an honorable discussion even with those who might disagree with me on matters I consider essential, and still come out having learned something and having built a bond that can be used to probe deeper into these difficult questions. Having had such exchanges makes what I witnessed yesterday all the more pathetic. I only hope that this man’s children do not pick up the idea that as long as it is God that we’re pushing, we have free license to treat other people like dirt.
If perchance the man who had this debate with my friend ever finds this article: I welcome you to follow up with me, provided you come with a heart for learning and with respect. I won’t hold what you did against you, because we all are subject to passions and anger from time to time. But I encourage you to reflect on your behavior at the restaurant, and repent of it. I also encourage you to learn a little bit about Church history. Might I recommend you read Henry Chadwick’s concise treatment in The Early Church?
For the record, I am also aware that Orthodox apologists sometimes act irresponsibly, and my words might equally apply to them. I am also keenly aware of my own shortcomings and mistakes I have made in the past when talking with others about our Holy Faith.
May God bless us all, as we strive to understand His will, peer into the deep mystery, and truly know Him on His own terms, and not superficially!