How To Deal With Protestant Sisters and Brothers?
In evangelistic work you will meet Protestant Christians. So, how can we deal with them? Are we going to evangelize to them? How about if they create a heated theological discussion? Should we engage in such arguments? Are they going to heaven like Orthodox Christians? These and many other questions face us in evangelism. Let us try to discuss here the different aspects related to this topic.
To understand why some Protestants are against any tradition, sacraments, or saints, both they and we need to understand the historical background that shaped the present tenants of most of Protestantism’s beliefs.
First: Background about Church Schism:
The church lived as one church with one faith, one baptism, one spirit, one kind of administration, and very closed rituals in the whole world for about five centuries. At that time you could go to any church in the world and share in the Holy Communion without any problem. There were no denominations in the church. Although there were different church names, this was merely based on geographical areas to make administration of the churches achievable.
The sad division came in the year 451 AD in the Chalcedon Council. In this council, The Oriental Orthodox Churches decided on continuing to follow the faith as it was delivered from the Fathers of the Church and continue to do so until today. These churches are the Coptic Orthodox Church (Egypt), the Syrian Orthodox Church (Syria), the Indian Orthodox Church (India), The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Ethiopia), and The Armenian Church (Armenia). The other churches decided to be on the other camp.
Starting from this schism, the other churches, especially in Europe, suffered a lot of divisions. Many heresies appeared, many corruptions happened, and the church in Europe appeared to forget its mission and deviated into political conflicts. All these changes happened while the Oriental Churches were isolated from all these events and kept preserving the faith and worship as were delivered from the Apostles of our Lord and the Fathers.
Second: Background about Protestantism:
To understand many of our Protestant brothers & sisters’ points of view in many topics related to the church, we need to go back to the history of the Reformation that took place in the sixteenth century. In the few centuries preceded the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church in Europe suffered a severe deviation from the truth in both the ecclesiastical life and in the dogma. Corruption crept into the church and the clergy forgot their pastoral responsibilities and instead they looked after their own personal pleasures.
Starting from the eleventh century, the history of the Roman Catholic Church is full of persecution, inquisitions, and heresies. Burning heretics at the stake and using torture were common methods to deal with the heretics. Here, the word heresy could refer to a false teaching related to the principle of Christian faith or could refer to an act as in the case of William Tyndale, who was strangled and burned in 1536 because he translated the New Testament into English. The word heresy could also just refer to an opinion of matters related more to science or philosophy than to Christianity as in the case of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who was tried by the Inquisition of Rome and forced to spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest because of his scientific evidences that proved the earth revolves around the sun.
Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth century revived the value of the classical Greek and Roman writings, which included among other things the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Learned people at that time started comparing what they read in the Bible and the Classics by the reality they witnessed in the Catholic Church and concluded that ‘Catholicism differed from the church of the New Testament in doctrine, morals, and administration.’  Some called for ‘reform in head and member.’
One example that shows how corrupted the Catholic Church as at that time is the story of Jan Hus, a disciple of John Wyclif. He considered leaving the Catholic Church as an act of honoring Christ and the gospel. Yes, to that extent the learned people started refusing the church and its corruption. Learned people refused the moral corruption in the life of the clergy and the heresies of the church.
Therefore, as soon as Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD) announced his disputation on indulgences and posted his 95 theses, the news spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Later on, this wildfire led to separation from Catholicism into many branches over the years of what is known today as Protestantism.
People of the Middle Ages in Europe had a very real dread of the period of punishment in purgatory and hell, which were graphically portrayed in the church. Based on the teachings of the indulgence of the Catholic Church, the Church controlled both destinations. Unfortunately, facing all the fears of both, the Church offered selling indulgences, which were hard to pay by the poor and a source of distress for the rich, instead of offering Christ as the Savior. As a result, when Reformation started, people hurried to join to get rid of the nightmare of both the purgatory and the hell.
Salvation and grace were almost forgotten topics in the Catholic Church at that time. Of course, in the middle of the corruption there were very faithful clergy and laymen who led good Christian lives. But, as usual, most human beings forget the good and remember the bad, even inflate the bad to make it look worse than the reality.
In conclusion, now you can see why the reformation movement separated itself from the church and denied most of what belonged to the church. They had had it with the Catholic Church and they were eager to get rid of all that belonged to the church. They put all their efforts, derived by psychological and social impulses, to refute all what the church called for and believed in, especially those things that were done by the clergy. They refused priesthood because of the corruption of the clergy and subsequently denied all work that required a priest. Since all the sacraments were administered by a priest, Protestants refused most, if not all, of the sacraments (Of course this depends on what Protestant denomination you talk about. Some denied all sacraments, while others still acknowledge some with the same perspective or different ones from the Catholic Church’s perspectives).
So, Protestants refused some or all of the sacraments, the intercession of saints, many rites, and other traditions not because of biblical, traditional, or historical reasons, but rather because of inner- psychological, historical, and social reasons. Then, later on they tried to rationalize them by finding biblical verses that supported their beliefs.
I would like to stop for a moment before
continuing to say some Protestants have no idea
about what their churches believe in or refuse. I am not talking here about those
people. But I am referring here to other
Protestants who are strictly still practicing the mentality of the
Reformation. Those people need to understand this background and to know that the
Coptic Church had no relationship with what happened by the Catholic Church
during this period. On the
contrary, the Coptic Church did not adhere to any
of the teachings or heresies of the Catholic Church during this period. Rather, Copts adhered to the apostolic
teaching as was received directly from Christ and handed down over the
centuries until it reached us today, without change or addition or elimination.
It considered itself as a defender of the faith that was once for all delivered
by the saints ((Jude 1: 2,3), and the Lord along with His apostles asked to
observe, reserve, and guard (Matt 28:20, 2 John 1:10, 2 Tim 1:13, 1 Tim 6:3-4,
2 Thes 2:15, Phi 4:9, Gal 1:8).
With this background in mind, we can shape a better understanding of Protestantism, which will eventually lead to better communications. Here are some general rules that will help you when dealing with Protestants.
1. With Respect: Remember to respect them and deal with them as Jesus dealt with people in the gospel. He never mistreated a person. You need to win people’s hearts and this will never be achieved without showing sincere respect and regard.
2. With Love: We love Protestants as brothers and sisters. Without real love we can’t win people’s hearts. Genuine love is the key to evangelism with anyone, including Protestants.
3. Protestants are not enemies of Orthodoxy, therefore we need to stop this defensive mode and get into a more relaxed relationship and friendship. Mostly, they are faithful to what they learned in their Sunday school. They are not coming to attack you or to take someone from your church.
4. Most of them have an open-heart and an open-mind, which you can use to bridge the gap between our faith and theirs.
5. Friendship: Develop a friendship with them.
6. Never attack their church’s beliefs: Someone once said: ‘You may tell me that my mother was wrong in doing so and so, but never tell me my mother is ugly.’ It hurts to tell any of us that our mother is ugly. Apply the same rule to other people’s churches. Attacking another church has a severe impact on its members and it destroys the relationship between you and the people. Even if you know the errors of another church, try to remember that this is the best that the members of this church know. Instead of attacking, teach the truth while showing love and care.
7. When you talk about faith, deal with each topic as a topic related to the Bible, the tradition, and the Fathers without mentioning church names. Teach the right faith without having to mock faith of others.
8. Defend the right faith that we received from the Fathers, when it is needed. Keep in mind that you need to win the other person without compromise the faith. Therefore, you need to pray and ask for wisdom on what to say and when to say it. Show the greatness of the Orthodox faith and when the time is appropriate and it is needed shed light on the false teachings. Most of the false teachings we hear about today are not new. Let others know that these teachings appeared before in the past, and the Church at that time showed what was wrong with these teachings. When you do that do it without anger, shouting, and emotions. You will win people more if you use biblical verses, logical conclusions, and backed up by historical facts
9. Keep in mind there are some Protestants who have no idea about any other beliefs. Some of them need evangelism, because they never heard the message of the gospel. They consider themselves Christians, but they have no idea about Christianity. Work with them to lead them to salvation.
10. You will meet some who argue a lot, not to understand but to prove their point of view. Don’t waste your time with them. They need more prayers from you than anything else. However, if the person is seeking understanding, then answer his/her questions using biblical, historical, and logical proofs.
11. Be sensitive to their feelings: In a meeting or in the church, never overlook the fact that there are people who are very sensitive to what you say about others. Don’t attack their faith or put down their clergy or people or pass judgment on them.
12. Pray: You need to pray in all cases, but you need it more when you meet with someone who has pride and tends to argue. I will not forget a professor who used to work with me in the same college. When I felt that she tended to argue and that we were not going to reach any conclusion this way, I started praying for her. Four years later, she came looking for me one day, asking me about the Virgin Mary. She never believed in the Virgin Mary, but while she was praying she heard a female voice telling her that she is the Mother of the Lord and she loves her and asked her: ‘why don’t you love me as I love you?’ This was the turning point in her life to leave Protestantism.
Fourth: Good Approach:
The following approach has been tried by many and proven as an excellent one. It is based on the fact that most Protestants, if not all, don’t have a good collection of church history. As a matter of fact, some of them are eager to know about what happened to the church of the New Testament and where it is now. Many of them ask about what happened to the church between the apostolic age and the Reformation era.
I urge you to review ‘The Legacy of The Coptic Orthodox Church’ brochure that you can find in our evangelism web page under ‘Brochures.’
Here is the approach; you may follow the same following consequence in your approach:
1. Christ taught His disciples not from a book but He delivered a life and taught them all that were related to the church life.
2. All the disciples had one faith, which they delivered to all the nations and exhorted them to keep; ‘I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:4).
3. The church lived as a guardian of the faith.
4. The church in the entire world lived for at least five centuries with one faith and almost the same worship (culture impact usually appears in worship) and administration. At that time there were no Orthodox or Catholics or Protestants, but Christians belonging to local churches that were established to help in pastoral care.
5. Talk briefly about the first schism in the church in the Chalcedon Council (451 AD) over the issue of the nature of Christ. Draw a line to refer to the one church before this council, and two lines derived from this line: one to refer to the schism into the ‘Oriental Orthodox Churches’ and the other one to the Western Churches, which split again in 1054 AD to the ‘Roman Catholic Church’ and ‘Eastern Orthodox Church’ because of many heresies that crept into the Roman Catholic Church. Now draw two lines out of the line that was referring to the Western Churches, one to refer to the Roman Catholic Church and the second to refer to the ‘Eastern Orthodox Church.’
6. In the sixteenth century the ‘Roman Catholic Church’ suffered another sever split by the ‘Reformation.’ Now, draw another branch from the line depicted the ‘Roman Catholic Church.’
7. The ‘Oriental Orthodox Church’ never split or had any deviation of faith. It did not experience change of faith. So, it kept the faith as it was delivered by our Lord through His apostles.
8. Oriental Churches have a spiritual treasure. One of these churches is the Coptic Orthodox Church.
9. You can talk about some aspects of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Again, I refer you to go back to ‘The Legacy of the Coptic Orthodox Church’ brochure by Victor Beshir.
10. Keep referring to the drawn lines to emphasize the fact that the Coptic Church still has the same faith and practices of the church of the New Testament.
11. Now, if your listener has an idea about differences between the Coptic Church and the Protestant Church, you can go back to the Reformation and explain how they refused everything belonged to the church as a reaction to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. You can use cautiously some of the background that I mentioned earlier. Don’t overdo it, otherwise your listener will interpret what you say as passing judgment and will not accept your claim.
1054 AD 1529 AD
33 AD 451 AD Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian,
Chalcedon Armenian Orthodox Churches) continued with the same Council faith as in 33 AD.
(If you can’t see the diagram, because of transfer file inadequacy, the lower line depicts the starting of Christianity in 33AD and then the schism in 451 AD to the Western Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The line branched from this one depicts the Western Churches from 451 AD until their division in 1054 AD, where you see two lines branched out of this last line; one depicts the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the other points to the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1529 AD suffered another separation by the Reformation, depicted by a line branched from the line that depicts the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, many Protestant denominations branched from the Reformation, which depicted by many small lines branched out of the Reformation line.)
Fifth: Do we need to evangelize to Protestants?
(The following is my own personal opinion, which might be different from someone else’s point of view. However, I found it to work very well with me)
As I mentioned earlier, some Protestants who don’t go to church or are just Christians by name, surely need the message of Salvation. Others who faithfully follow their church’s teachings need to learn about ‘the fullness of Christ’ that Orthodoxy has in its sacramental life and its long- experienced spiritual life.
I am not going to pass judgment on Protestants, but rather I invite them to experience the fullness of Christ in Orthodoxy. In many of my discussions with Protestant brothers and sisters, I tell them that what I have in the Coptic Orthodox Church is what was delivered once and for all by the Saints (Jude 1: 2,3) and was pass down throughout the centuries faithfully by the church. I continue to say, ‘the richness of the Coptic Orthodox Church is found in its preservation of the faith, beliefs, spirituality and worship without changes.’ ‘Therefore, it still keeps the spiritual treasure as it was delivered from Christ to the apostles.’ ‘The sacraments that the Lord instituted to be the means of our salvation are still in the Coptic Orthodox Church.’ In other words, ‘What you see in the Coptic Church is exactly how salvation was obtained in the early church.’
A Discussion With Protestants About Priesthood:
After the previous introduction, I tell them that the Protestants follow something different. For example, the Lord ordained His disciples and apostles, and in return they ordained bishops and priests by laying hands, as we see in the ordination of Saul and Barnabas by the Apostles (Acts 13: 2). Afterwards St. Paul (Saul) ordained Timothy as a bishop. In St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, he asked Timothy to ‘not lay hands on anyone hastily’ (1Tim 5:22). This means that only Timothy has authority in his church to lay hands and ordain others. Therefore, we noticed that Christ gave ordination authority to the apostles, and they ordained bishops and priests. Those bishops ordained other bishops and priests by laying hands, and so on until it reached us nowadays.
Then, I say to them, for example, I know that Pope Shenouda, current Pope of the Coptic Church, is number 117 successor from the days of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have the names of those 116 Popes who were ordained one after another. Afterwards, I say, ‘this succession I am sure of, but who ordained Protestant priests? Did the people who ordained them have this succession of priesthood that started from our Lord Christ and continued until today?’ The answer is ‘No’ because we know that the history of the Protestants started just four centuries ago for the oldest denominations and some new denominations just started a few years ago or a few decades ago.
Sometimes, someone asks me this question:
“In the absence of this succession for millions of people, don’t you think that the Holy Spirit can work through other ways for the salvation of people?”
My answer is always like this:
“The Coptic Church is following the truth that was handed down from Christ Himself. He was the one who established the ways of salvation, and who left His church that we have today in the Coptic Orthodox Church. We follow His commandment to His apostles: ‘teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). Therefore, we have no authority to change what He left for us and we need to follow that to experience the fullness of Christ. You come to me today, after twenty centuries and you changed it. What is the evaluation of God on that? I am not in a position to judge others and say if God will accept or refuse, but I am sure of what Jesus commanded us to do and I am following that faithfully in the Coptic Church.”