Practical Change

To effectively propose a Christian understanding of an appropriate relationship between ethnic/national/cultural identity and church identity, it may be helpful first to examine an established church system that embraces the fusion of church and culture practically to then understand its limitations and the implications of that way of living in the Coptic Orthodox Church. John Burgess, through his book Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in New Russia, observes the social and cultural dynamics of Orthodox Christianity’s harmonious yet multifarious relationship with today’s Russia, examining a social society that strongly embraces the life of the church. In so doing, Burgess suggests, “It is not easy … to know just where to draw the line between familiarizing people with the Church and integrating them into Church life.”[78] Through his journey into the heart of Russian social ministry and education, we might learn that the Church’s role in calling people to live according to the teachings of the Gospel might be overshadowed by Her engagement in cultural and political affairs. He writes:

[78] John P. Burgess, Holy Rus’: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia (Yale University Press, 2017),

The social vision and program of the Russian Orthodox Church contrast dramatically with my assumptions about the separation of Church and state, the limited place of the Church in pluralistic societies, and the rightful “secularization” of the physical and cultural landscape. I agree with those North American theologians who argue that social privilege and cultural dominance too often cause churches to neglect their first task, which is to call people to a distinctive way of life shaped by the gospel, not general social norms.[79]

[79] Burgess, Holy Rus’, 222.

Anchoring the community’s identity in the Trinity may inspire one’s participation in our shared worship, which is ultimately the means by which our unity is truly achieved. Through a renewed emphasis on the role of the Holy Trinity in unifying believers, the church can realign its priorities, discovering unity in its spiritual journey’s sacred and transcendent aspects. Building upon the renewed emphasis on fostering unity within the church, “Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Spiritual Problem” further illuminates a perspective that upholds unity, communion, and love among persons as essential components to the “personal” Orthodox life, writing:

Thus in every Saint the world is saved and it is fully saved in the one totally fulfilled Person: Jesus Christ. And within this perspective evil (“… and we know . . . that the whole world is in the power of evil” 1 John 5: 19) is precisely the surrender of man, of the human person to the “impersonal” nature and thus his reduction to, and enslavement by it. It is the triumph of “nature” over the “person,” a triumph which results in a fatal deterioration or fall of both nature and person, for the very calling of the person is to possess and thus to fulfill the nature. Hence the fundamentally personal character of Christian faith. It is preached to the world but in the person of man. Its fruit is unity, communion, love, but it is unity of persons, communion of persons, love among persons. In the Orthodox doctrine of Church no “belonging”, no “participation”, no external “membership” is as such a “guarantee” of salvation; i.e., of the true belonging to Christ and to the new life, but only a truly personal “appropriation” and fulfillment of all these gifts. And, in a sense, a sinful Christian does not belong to the Church, and this in spite of all formal “belonging.”[80]

[80] Alexander Schmemann, “Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Spiritual Problem,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 8/2, (1965), 178.

In essence, Schmemann elucidates the perilous effects of succumbing to the impersonal forces of evil, emphasizing the inherent risk of reducing and enslaving the human person through this surrender to nature. He contends that the Christian faith, fundamentally personal in nature, transcends mere external affiliations, stressing that salvation lies not in formal belonging but in the profound personal appropriation and fulfillment of the gifts bestowed by Christ – “unity of persons, communion of persons, and love among persons.” Later in his text, Schmemann reminds us of who it is that inspires one’s faith in Christ and, likewise, what it is not.

It is looking at us, Orthodox, that America cannot see Orthodoxy and discern any Truth and Redemption. And yet it is clear to everyone who wants to see that there are today around us thousands of ears ready to listen, thousands of hearts ready to open themselves to us, not to our human words and human explanations, not to the “splendors” of Byzantium or Russia, but to that alone which makes Orthodoxy, which transcends all cultures, all ages, all societies, and which makes us sing at the end of each Liturgy: “We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true Faith…” And if only we could understand this and take it to our hearts and our will, day after day, there would be no problem of Orthodoxy, but only a mission of Orthodoxy in America.[81]

[81] Schmemann, “The Spiritual Problem,” 193.

This is the crux of the issue. In order to embrace believers from all walks of life and to encourage one’s identity to be found in the Trinity before anything else, whatever their culture/race/nationality may be, we must maintain the teachings of the Gospel and the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit at the forefront of all consideration within the parish life. It is necessary to translate this understanding that one’s identity and relationship with the Church, namely my Coptic Orthodox parish, should be inspired by the teachings of the Gospel and should culminate in the recognition of the role played by the Holy and Divine Trinity in the unity of all believers.

Establishing our identity in the Church is not a human achievement alone but a divine work orchestrated by God through Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, highlighting the significance of God’s plan for salvation and Christ’s redemptive work in shaping our identity within the community of believers. However, we must not forget that although the Holy Trinity is the means by which unity is fully achieved, our Coptic Orthodox faith finds its origins in Egypt, and so it is not the culture that divides us but rather the perception of culture as an elite or necessary feature to one’s membership in Christ or in this parish. In his work, “Christ and Culture Revisited: Contributions from the Recent Russian Orthodox Debate,” John Burgess speaks about how the Russian Orthodox Church is who they are due to the Gospel’s transforming power that “has become embedded in aspects of their culture.”[82] He writes that “not only the Church, but the culture transmits the gospel.”[83]

[82] John P. Burgess, “Christ and Culture Revisited: Contributions from the Recent Russian Orthodox Debate,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 31, 2 (2011), 64.

[83] Burgess, “Christ and Culture Revisited,”64

In essence, recognizing and utilizing culture as a means to transmit the gospel is not only a pragmatic approach but a theological one. It acknowledges the diversity of God’s creation and affirms that the transformative message of Christianity can find resonance in cultural expressions. Rather than viewing culture as a potential obstacle, the Church should understand it as a vessel through which the timeless truths of the gospel can be effectively celebrated. This acknowledgment mirrors the dynamic interplay within the Trinity and underscores the idea that diversity, when embraced and harmonized, contributes to a more vibrant expression of faith within the cultural context of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Burgess suggests a type for engaging Christ with culture – Christ-in-culture. This type “draws our attention to ways in which Christian theological and ethical values become embedded in a culture and continue to inform a culture, even when that culture no longer understands itself to be explicitly Christian.”[84] The Coptic Orthodox Church has a powerful opportunity to use its cultural richness for the transmission of the Gospel through unifying iconography, often referred to as “windows to seeing Christ.” By purposefully incorporating diverse racial representations in these icons, the Church not only exemplifies the concept of Christ-in-culture but also employs its cultural expressions as a means to convey the universal message of the Gospel. This blending of culture and faith may inspire belonging for believers from various backgrounds and serve as an invitation for individuals of different races to explore and embrace the Christian faith within the context of their own cultural experiences. In this way, the Coptic Church demonstrates how its cultural heritage becomes a potent tool for transmitting the transformative message of Christ. Additionally, considering other methods for unifying believers in my parish, see the following practical actions and how they can be implemented.

[84] Burgess, “Christ and Culture Revisited,” 55.

1. Communal prayer meetings that are accessible to everyone and planned with intentional outreach and advertising methods.

  • Schedule regular communal prayer meetings at different times to accommodate diverse schedules.
  • Ensure that promotional materials for these events are inclusive, featuring imagery and messages representing the parish’s diversity.
  • Use various communication channels, such as social media, church newsletters, and announcements during services, to reach a broad audience.

2. Educational sermons shed light on the unity of believers in Christ, emphasizing that this unity transcends ethnic distinctions and the Holy and Divine Trinity’s role in achieving this unity.

  • Collaborate with clergy and guest speakers to deliver sermons focused on unity in Christ and the theological understanding of transcending ethnic distinctions.
  • Provide educational resources, such as pamphlets or workshops, that explore the biblical teachings on unity and diversity.
  • Use real-life examples or testimonies from diverse members of the congregation to illustrate the unity found in Christ.

3. Engage in outreach programs that embody the Gospel’s message of love, compassion, and unity.

  • Identify community needs and establish outreach programs that address those needs, embodying the principles of love, compassion, and unity found in the Gospel.
  • Involve diverse groups of parishioners in outreach efforts, creating opportunities for them to work together and build relationships.
  • Promote these programs through community events, social media, and word-of-mouth to encourage broad participation.

4. Incorporate diverse iconography that embodies the authentic races/ethnicities of those they are depicting to embody the diversity of the saints/martyrs and likewise the diversity of the congregation.

  • Engage talented iconographers from different ethnic backgrounds to create iconography that authentically reflect the diversity of those they are depicting and the congregation.
  • Furnish the church with the newly written iconography.
  • Implement educational discussions and communication strategies to raise awareness about the importance of diverse iconography in fostering unity and belonging within the church.



By consistently highlighting the importance of unity in Christ and extending a warm welcome to all believers, regardless of their specific ethnic origins, the Coptic church can foster an environment where all are valued and encouraged to live out the Gospel in harmony, free from any notion of ethnic elitism in relation to one’s membership in Christ or in the Church.

Scroll to Top