That they may be one

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On Malaysia’s national crest is the motto, “Bersekutu bertambah mutu”-roughly translated, “United we are better”. This is not an empty slogan. Unity is the central theme of Malaysia’s founding narrative. Malaysia is a federation of thirteen states, each with vastly different histories and demographics.  Ours is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse nations on the planet.

Unlike many multi-ethnic postcolonial states, Malaysia has been largely successful at forming a stable, prosperous nation out of communities that do not have a lot in common. I am very grateful for the privilege of growing up here, and having to learn to love and respect my neighbor, even when that neighbor looks different, thinks different, and lives different.

There is a lot of fragmentation even in Malaysia’s small Christian minority. I was raised in the Anglican church, but I had a lot of extended family members who were Roman Catholic. My favorite ice cream shop was run by the Seventh Day Adventists. And there were churches around town belonging to every denomination imaginable.

Having grown up in this environment, I considered this state of affairs to be natural, even good. With this wide array of Christian churches, it was easy to find one that fit your particular worship style and theological inclination, and to be with people you liked and who made you comfortable.

Nevertheless, it was difficult to reconcile this reality with how strongly the Bible talks about the importance of church unity:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”


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I pray also for those who will believe in me… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

That last quote in particular- the prayer of Jesus for his followers in John 17:20-21, speaks of unity in the strongest terms. Many years ago Malaysian bar council member Andrew Khoo spoke to my church youth group about this passage, and he pointed out that the unity Jesus said he wanted between his followers was the same kind of unity that exists within the Holy Trinity. How then can our panoply of churches, each professing a different version of the Gospel, each completely unaccountable to the other, fulfill Christ’s desire for unity within the church?

The invisible church doctrine  is a Protestant attempt to reconcile the contradictions between the scriptural teaching about church unity and the fact that Protestantism by definition divides the church.  The invisible church supposedly consists of all “true” Christians, each worshiping in the various denominations. Membership of this invisible church is known only to God. Thus, despite the readily apparent divisions among Protestants, they could claim that within this “invisible church” they were united!

I used to ascribe to this doctrine, and its problems only slowly became apparent to me. Firstly, this unity within this invisible church did not mean anything in practice. My pastor could teach doctrine on Sundays completely independently and without accountability to the pastor across the street. The churches might emphasize such different parts of Christianity that they might seem to be of different religions. I did not have to submit to, sacrifice for, or even talk to members of these other churches. In fact the reason that I chose  my church might be because I did not like people in that other church and wanted to avoid them.

At that time, I thought that a visible unity among Christians was an unachievable ideal, and that the abstract unity of the invisible church was the best we could do. I realized eventually that for the first thousand years of Christianity the church was concretely united, and that this united church still exists as the Eastern Orthodox Church. I can go to an Arab Orthodox church in Texas and a Russian church in Malaysia and while the music, language and iconography styles might differ according to the local culture,  the liturgy and doctrine will be identical. I have to practice loving and to submitting to people I don’t like and whose opinions I find abhorrent, and in doing so I learn how to show mercy when others hurt me, and discover that I need mercy  when I hurt them.

The unity within Orthodoxy is not perfect, of course. I have been in Orthodox churches that have been torn apart by vicious fighting, and even among the leadership of the church the Patriarchs and bishops occasionally disagree over various matters. Nevertheless, by the grace of God there is a tangible, beautiful unity here, where the leaders  of the church are accountable to one another in concrete ways, and where we all have to try to love one another, to submit to one another, to suffer for one another out of reverence for Christ. Bersekutu bertambah mutu.

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Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon

The only canonical Orthodox church in Malaysia today is a Russian mission in downtown Kuala Lumpur, practically under the shadow of the Petronas twin towers. The Moscow patriarchate gave us the building, sent us a priest-monk and a few nuns to help run the services, and supports us in many other ways.

I am very grateful that our small community receives this help, and very grateful that the Russian church is in a position to support Orthodox Christians all around the globe. Things were very different a few decades ago.

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Chosen for His People (by Jane  Swan) is a biography of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow during the communist revolution. This is the only complete biography of St. Tikhon written in the English language. I found this fact very surprising, as St. Tikhon was of great importance in 20th century Russian history, as the man who led the Russian Orthodox Church through the first persecutions of the Soviet communist regime.

The book is short- 117 pages, not including the very extensive endnotes and bibliography. It is more than just a hagiography, rather, Swan makes a good effort at historical rigor, and a lot of the statements and stories in the book are sourced.

Given the short length of the book, St. Tikhon’s early life and ministry are covered very briefly. The focus is on his Patriarchate from 1917 to 1925, a time of great turmoil and transition in Russia. The communist revolution deposed a devoutly Christian Tsar and installed an atheist government that was hostile toward the church, and sought to undermine it at every opportunity. The book chronicles with great detail St. Tikhon’s struggles against the enemies of the church, both within and without. St. Tikhon had to deal with the state’s slander, the murders of clergy and the confiscation of church property, but also with collaborationists in the church, opportunist clergymen who sought to empower and enrich themselves by siding with the Soviets.

The book paints a very humanizing picture of a simple, humble man, called to an impossible task in the most trying of circumstances. We see St. Tikhon’s courage in the face of great  adversity, and deep compassion for his country and its people. We see his great faithfulness and prayerful perseverance despite deteriorating conditions and physical frailty.  At its core, his is a story of a man refusing to give up, refusing to be cowed, standing up for Christ and His church in its darkest hour.

As with a lot of stories set in Russia, this is a depressing read. The Soviets eventually get St. Tikhon deposed as Patriarch,  and at his death Christianity  in Russia remained under grievous threat.  Nevertheless, the church survived and endured, and has now outlasted the Soviet regime. We see Christ’s words fulfilled- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

I am grateful that I can read this book 100 years after the events transpired, so I can see now that St. Tikhon’s sacrifice, and the martyrdoms of countless thousands of bishops,priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople like him in the past century were not in vain. Half the people who worship with me in our Kuala Lumpur church are ethnic Russians- those around my age are the first generation for whom the Soviets are but a faded memory. I am thankful for the opportunity to partner with them in building our little Russian Orthodox mission, and in some small way honoring the legacy of St. Tikhon and all those who suffered with him.