Saint Innocent's Rules

by Mr. Andrew Boyd

In 1853, while he was a missionary bishop in Alaska, Saint Innocent wrote a letter to a priest in the Nushagak region of Alaska and gave some simple instructions on how to do missionary and evangelical work among the native people. In 2008, I shared some of these with an OCF chapter, and we had a long discussion about how these rules might be applied to evangelical work in a campus setting. Saint Innocent started with this instruction:

Nushagak River, Alaska

On Arriving at Some Settlement of Savages, thou shalt on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear in the guise of a poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow men, who was come for the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity.

This rule was obviously specific to the context of St. Innocent’s work in Russian America where the government, a private corporation, and the Church were sometimes confusingly intertwined. He tasks missionaries with having “the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity.” I am going to go out on a limb and assume that St. Innocent was not trying to indoctrinate people into some sort of pyramid scheme, but instead the prosperity of eternal life in Jesus Christ. That is the single purpose of missionary work, the good news of the Kingdom of God and his Christ.

From the moment when thou first enterest on thy duties, do thou strive, by conduct and by virtues becoming thy dignity, to win the good opinion and respect not alone of the natives, but of the civilized residents as well. Good opinion breeds respect, and one who is not respected will not be listened to.

Respect is key to evangelical work, as are loving relationships. One student used the example of a man shouting outside the student union for hours about how all college students were going to Hell. Perhaps that is an example of not being respectful or seeking to attain the good opinion of people in the society. Better instead to forge respectful relationships with people and to give room for the Holy Spirit to work.

On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.

There is much “open contempt” for the college “lifestyle” from many religious groups. College has become synonymous not with growth, education, and responsibility, but rather excesses, debauchery, and “finding yourself”, whatever that means. As destructive as these behaviors can be, a person has no hope, no ability, no resources to change them without a relationship with Christ in the context of His Church. If we bring people to Christ, and Christ to them, then behavior will change as they encounter Him more. Many college students have made Christians into judgmental and uptight caricatures, and perhaps this is largely our fault as so often we only have a word of judgment towards them, not a word of the good news of Jesus Christ.

In giving instruction and talking with natives generally, be gentle, pleasant, simple, and in no way assuming an overbearing or didactic manner, for by so doing thou canst seriously jeopardize the success of thy labors.

This may not be an effective strategy

This is where we Orthodox so often fall into the traps of the richness of our faith. We are rarely simple in presenting our faith, and often overbear people with our eagerness and didactic presentation of our history. There is a temptation to define ourselves against another group (for example “We’re like Catholics, but different”). Our OCF chapter challenged each other to explain our faith without reference to the Byzantine Empire or certain events in the year 1054. We all found this very difficult. Rarely do we start speaking to non-Orthodox using the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We’d often rather start with a complex and nuanced history lecture.

When a native speaks to thee, hear him out attentively courteously and patiently, and answer questions convincingly, carefully, and kindly; for any question asked by a native on spiritual subjects is a matter of great importance to the preacher, since it may be an indication both of the state of the questioner’s soul and of his capacity, as well as of his desire, to learn. But by not answering him even only once, or answering in a way at which he can take offense, he may be silenced forever.

Do we listen when we engage non-Orthodox people? Or, do we bury them with our well-rehearsed theological and historical arguments? St. Innocent argues that how we answer questions is paramount. Often we don’t give very good answers, eager instead to force our agenda, or to give an “easy” answer, or say that we will “find out” but never follow up. If we have people who are interested enough to ask questions about our faith, we have a duty to do everything we can to give them complete and satisfactory answers, answers which not only convey information, but our care and concern for individuals. Paying careful attention to questions is necessary for missionary work.

Saint Innocent ends his instructions by commanding his missionary priests to wish well and treat well those who reject conversion and baptism. This is also helpful advice, if people reject Jesus Christ; we are still called to treat them with respect, keeping in mind that how we treat people is in itself a missionary effort. Matthew’s Gospel is quite clear, that we are all called to missionary work, to teach and baptize in every context. Even though Saint Innocent was writing for a very specific context (work amongst native Alaskans), his instructions are useful for us today in almost any setting. Our campus ministry group attempted to draft some rules for missionary work on our campus. What would some specific rules be for yours? How would they help you and others in missionary work?

St. Innocent by the hand of Fr. Andrew Tregubov

The English translations of Saint Innocent’s writing were taken from “Orthodox Christians in America” by John Erickson published by Oxford University Press in 1999.

More Information on Saint Innocent.

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