Orthodox America

Are There Orthodox Outside the Church?  

As to those people who are good and kind but are not believers, we cannot and must not judge them. The ways of the Lord are inscrutable; let us leave these good people entirely to His judgment and to the grace of His Providence. He alone knows how and why He has built the argosy of humanity, and the small boat of each one of us, such as it is.  –Elder Macarius of Optina

      The preceding article may have left non-Orthodox readers who consider themselves to be sincerely believing Christians wondering: Weren't these dialogues rather one-sided, the Orthodox demanding that the Protestants submit entirely to their way of thinking, while they themselves remained inflexible in their Orthodoxy? Isn't the Orthodox Church being exclusive, if not presumptuous, in claiming to be the Body of Christ, when the overwhelming majority of Christians today are not numbered among her members? If the Orthodox do not consider these other believers to be portal the Body of Christ, what in fact is their position in relation to the Church from an Orthodox perspective? These important questions are thoughtfully treated in Fr. Michael Pomazansky's highly recommended book, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. Here we shall simply say that these questions often stem from the fact that today it is considered unreasonable or "unloving" to believe that there is only one Church of Christ. Yet it is not thought unreasonable or extreme to believe in one God. Holy Scripture itself teaches us that since God is one, there can be only one true Church: 

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, on faith, one baptism. (Eph. 4:4-5)

For more than a century a growing number of souls here in America--including pastors and leaders of some non-Orthodox churches--have, through prayer and study, realized that this one body is the historic Orthodox Church which contains the fullness of faith "given once and for all to the saints." Singly, and in very small groups--but mostly as individuals--these souls have been gathered to the fold of the One Flock, humbly submitting to the authority entrusted to its leaders by the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And there are many who come to Orthodoxy in this pure and simple way.

    But the last two decades have seen something new. The awakening interest in Orthodox spirituality has led a number of groups to gradually embrace many of its teachings and even rites and liturgical practices. The assumption often follows that because they have adopted Orthodox dogmatics, they are therefore fully Orthodox. This has become a very confusing, even dangerous phenomenon which should be addressed from the Orthodox missionary standpoint.

    Many innocent souls are led to believe that in having joined one of these groups which calls itself "orthodox," they have entered the fold of the One, Holy and Apostolic Church. And in following the Orthodox teaching of obedience to one's spiritual leader, many are kept from an independent and objective examination of the group's canonical standing. In some of these groups, contact with "mainline" Orthodox clergy and parishes is even discouraged--this, presumably, to protect them from any ethnic or jurisdictional bias.

      In my own pastoral work I have encountered a number of individuals from such groups. To give an example, one convert whom I baptized several years ago came from the Evangelical Orthodox Church whose origins lay in Protestant fundamentalism. As a keen reader of Church history, he had discovered that this group was not, in fact, part of the Universal Church. Having found his way by the grace of God into Orthodoxy's saving enclosure, he naturally carried a heavy burden for those whom he had left behind. He asked me to write to his former bishop and try to establish some fruitful contact between the E.O.C. and the Russian Church Abroad.

      The response to my letter, written with the blessing of my bishop (at that time I was in the diocese of Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco and Western America) was startlingly defensive, This E.O.C. leader said that if my bishop would like to make an appointment to see him he would "consider" talking to him, but really wasn't interested in talking to an "old world" bishop from an "ethnic" Church.

     I wrote back, urging him to put aside his fears, preconceptions and assumptions, because the personal piety and profound historical continuity (with the Apostles themselves) of an "old world" Orthodox hierarch was truly a "pearl without price." He replied that dialogue with the historic Orthodox Churches simply wasn't necessary for his group because they already professed the Orthodox Faith. When I reminded him of the Orthodox teaching concerning Apostolic Succession, without which correctness of doctrine is empty, he said that doubtless the Holy Spirit had "jumped" from historic Orthodoxy to their group because of their sincerity and lack of ethnic involvement !

    A few months ago I chanced to see a letter which an Orthodox priest had written to the E. O. C. printed in their bi-monthly publication "Again." After sincerely applauding their journey's progress towards Orthodoxy, the priest gives a very apt exhortation: "What is holding you back?...It is important that we get off the 'islands' of 'orthodoxy' and 'playing' Church (I hope you understand really what I mean by 'playing' Church) and in fact become a part of the Church," [1]

    From the beginning the Church has consistently taught that Orthodoxy of belief must be combined with a right-believing bishop who stands in historic succession to one of the Apostles. This attribute of the true Church is missing in these self-professed 'Orthodox" groups. And until they submit themselves to a rightful hierarchy, they stand outside the Church.

    No matter how Often the word "orthodox" is used, no matter how many Orthodox doctrines are embraced, the words of St. John Chrysostom still maintain their force: "If they are Orthodox, then why are they not with us?" Why indeed?

    It is true that the "outsider' s" perception of ethnic baggage and other human frailties on the Ark of the Orthodox Church may be very discouraging for him--and for this reason, Orthodox pastors and archpastors must be sensitive, compassionate, and continue to remove any stumbling blocks that do not compromise the essence of Orthodoxy--whether it be language, purely ethnic customs and habits, etc.--so as to hasten the numbers that will be joined to Christ's True Flock before the end of time. In other words, they must be missionaries of Christ in the fullest meaning.

     On the other hand, those seeking to enter the Church must not expect to be handed the pearl of great price on a silver platter. The real treasure of Orthodoxy is discovered only gradually, with much patience and long-suffering. And even a seemingly mundane Orthodoxy-which appears to characterize so much of existing parish life--can yield great treasures for those who seek diligently.

     Above all, both sides should exert maximum charity, refraining from judgment, excusing one another's weaknesses; for only through love is it possible to hope for that harmonious union of souls to which we are called in one Body, the Bride of Christ, which is His Church. 

Fr. Alexey Young

[1] The E.O.C. has recently joined the Antiochion Orthodox Church.