The Maronite Church is going through an identity crisis. In fact, this is a worldwide phenomenon and not specific to the United States. Is the Maronite Church an ethnic Church? Is it a Lebanese Church or an Arabic Church? Does the Maronite Church serve only those who come from Lebanon or the Middle East and by extension those who are married into a Lebanese or Middle Eastern family? Or is it the Church of Christ, in which there is no distinction between Lebanese and non-Lebanese?
The early church community faced a similar dilemma. Should a Gentile become a Jew before being accepted into the fold of the Church? Is it “necessary to circumcise them [the Gentiles] and direct them to observe the Mosaic Law?” (Acts 15:5b). Some Jewish Christians taught “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
At the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35), the question was put to rest. “Peter got up and said to them [the apostles and presbyters], ‘My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts…[W]e believe that we are saved through the same grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they’” (Acts 15:7-11). Therefore, according to Peter, circumcision is not a requirement to become Christian. Becoming a Jew is not a pre-requisite for baptism.
The Apostles and the presbyters present at the council of Jerusalem wrote a letter about their decision to their brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origins, “[G]reetings. Since we have heard that some of our number [who went out] without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond those necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’ ” (Acts 15:24-29).
The first Church council took place in Jerusalem in response to an identity crisis that the early Church was facing. Is it a Jewish Church? Or is it the Church of Christ with no distinction between Jews and Gentiles? The gavel fell on the side of “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:12-13). St. Paul teaches us that with Christ there is a renewal. With this renewal there is no distinction between human beings. He says in his letter to the Colossians “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:9-11).
The early church discovered that it is not an ethnic Church, not a Church for the Jews only or those who become Jews or married into a Jewish household. It saw itself as the Church of Christ who welcomes everyone who believes in Him and consequently in the One Who sent Him regardless of ethnic backgrounds. In Him, we are the adopted children of the One Father and brothers and sisters of His only-begotten Son, made into the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The issue of identity was settled with the first Church Council. Why, then, is the Maronite Church throughout the world reliving a similar identity crisis as the early church? As long as our Maronite churches remain ethnic, we have no future for ethnicity is our god. As long as our Maronite churches insist on using a language foreign to the lands in which they exist, we have no future for the language is our god. If we continue on the same path, we are muffling the Word of God and not allowing it to work in the World. Then the precepts of our Lord to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature…” (Mark 16, 15f) falls on deaf ears. The seeds of the Word are thus falling on the path and are being trampled upon (Luke 8:4-8).
The Maronite Church is neither a Lebanese nor an Arabic Church. It is identified with neither. Our relationship to Lebanon is a spiritual one for the Maronite See is in Lebanon. In fact, the recent Maronite Synod rightly acknowledged the identity crisis that the Maronite Church is facing worldwide and made it one of its priorities. Indeed, the first document it addressed was on the “Identity of the Maronite Church.” This synodal document and others are published on the internet at http://www.maronitesynod.com/index-new-eng.htm. Unfortunately, after two years of the Synod’s closing, these documents are only available in Arabic; non-Arabic speakers do not have access to them. Official Maronite Church documents direct our churches to worship in the vernacular. Yet, many Maronite churches in the United States and throughout the world use Arabic as the main liturgical language. The official language of the Maronite Church is Syriac. Arabic is the language of the Maronites living in or migrated from Lebanon and the Middle East. However, it is not the language of the Maronites who are born outside of Lebanon and the Middle East or are converts.
The members of the Synod who met were the Maronite Patriarch, Maronite Bishops (retired and active), rectors of Maronite seminaries, heads of Maronite religious orders (monks and nuns), laity from across the globe, experts on different Church issues, and others. They identified five characteristics of the identity of the Maronite Church. The Maronite Synod teaches us that the Maronite Church is:
The Lebanese culture and traditions are rich, important, and must be shared with the world. We, who come from Lebanon, must preserve them. In order to do so, we need to encourage, support and establish Lebanese institutions that promote the welfare of Lebanon and its citizens, assist the Lebanese people who immigrated to the United States and other countries around the world. However, preserving a culture or a language is not the duty of the Maronite Church or any other Church. The Church’s duty is to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people and to bring people to Him. As important as the Lebanese culture and traditions are, it is vital for the growth of the Maronite Church to keep in mind that the Lebanese culture and that of the Maronite Church are distinct. Separating them does not take away from the dignity of either tradition. On the contrary, it enhances the promotion of each and alleviates the division that has happened and is happening throughout the Maronite communities. As the council of Jerusalem taught us that one does not follow the precepts of Judaism in order to become a Christian, the same council teaches us today that all who believe in Christ are welcomed into the Maronite Church under one precept: Loving God through the eyes of the Maronite Church.
The Maronite Church is a worldwide Church whose doors and communities must be open to anyone who comes to our churches and falls in love with God according to the worldview of the Maronite Church. As Christ welcomed the Maronites into His sheepfold, we must welcome our brothers and sisters into the Church of Christ as well. It is time for the Maronite Church to recognize its spiritual, theological, and liturgical wealth. It is time for the Maronite Church to act according the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations and step out into the world and bring people to Him. The time is ripe to be a missionary Church and let go of our ethnic and linguistic barriers and cling to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let our churches be good soil allowing the seed of the Word to grow and produce fruit of hundredfold. “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Luke 8:4-8).