First, let’s be clear: Everyone should become an Orthodox Christian. I want everyone to be part of the Orthodox Church, and the work I do is aimed at that. The God-given purpose for every human being is to be united to Christ in His Church, and so doing, to become like the angels.
But is there ever a reason for a priest to turn anyone away from baptism and/or chrismation in the Orthodox Church? Yes.
But we should be clear that the purpose in turning someone away is ultimately to arrange for them to be received into the Church and to pursue the life of salvation in Christ.
So why might a priest tell someone “not now” or “not yet” or even “no” who says that he wants to become an Orthodox Christian? It is because he has good reason to believe that the person who wants to join will do so in such a way as to be damning to him rather than salvific.
Baptism is a risk
Wait? Is that even a thing? Yes:
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:20-21)
St. Peter speaks here of those who are fully part of the Church and know “the way of righteousness” and yet turn from it. He says that it is worse for these people than if they had never been part of the Church. In other words, becoming a Christian involves an actual risk.
If there were no risk at all, then certainly, there is absolutely no wrong reason to convert. But there is clearly a risk.
There are a lot of things that a priest might discern to put someone at risk who approaches the Church. If he wants to become Orthodox just to satisfy an ideology, for instance, he is not seeking Christ but rather his own desires — he is exploiting the Church. Or if he does it without a sense of the gravity of his decision, then he is likely to treat his involvement in the Church as something that does not matter very much and will thereby blaspheme what is holy through his dismissiveness.
The key thing that a good pastor looks for is repentance. If a person entering the Church is willing to lay aside all earthly cares in order to be joined to Christ, then he is doing it the right way, no matter how sinful he is. There is no sin that keeps one away from Christ, only the refusal to repent. The discerning pastor is not looking for perfection but for repentance.
If someone comes to the Church and says that he will not repent, then he cannot be received into the Church. He would be lying as he spoke the words required of him at baptism: “I renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his worship, and all his angels, and all his pomp.”
If someone is not willing to renounce all of those things, then he is not aligning himself with Christ.
Baptism comes with conditions
Christ Himself turned people away and even rejected them for their lack of repentance. He always gave people a choice and looked for their willingness to repent in order to be part of the Kingdom. But being joined to Christ is not unconditional.
There are canons, for instance, that stipulate conditions under which someone (or even their children) should not be baptized or which give conditions for it:
Since certain, erring in the superstitions of the Hebrews, have thought to mock at Christ our God, and feigning to be converted to the religion of Christ do deny him, and in private and secretly keep the Sabbath and observe other Jewish customs, we decree that such persons be not received to communion, nor to prayers, nor into the Church; but let them be openly Hebrews according to their religion, and let them not bring their children to baptism, nor purchase or possess a slave. But if any of them, out of a sincere heart and in faith, is converted and makes profession with his whole heart, setting at naught their customs and observances, and so that others may be convinced and converted, such an one is to be received and baptized, and his children likewise; and let them be taught to take care to hold aloof from the ordinances of the Hebrews. But if they will not do this, let them in no wise be received.
– Second Council of Nicea (AD 787), Canon VIII
Renunciation of errors is a normal and ancient requirement for those who wish to enter the Church from other religious groups:
Those who from heresy turn to orthodoxy, and to the portion of those who are being saved, we receive according to the following method and custom: Arians, and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari or Aristori, and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God. Thereupon, they are first sealed or anointed with the holy oil upon the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears; and when we seal them, we say, “The Seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
But Eunomians, who are baptized with only one immersion, and Montanists, who are here called Phrygians, and Sabellians, who teach the identity of Father and Son, and do sundry other mischievous things, and [the partisans of] all other heresies — for there are many such here, particularly among those who come from the country of the Galatians: — all these, when they desire to turn to orthodoxy, we receive as heathen. On the first day we make them Christians; on the second, catechumens; on the third, we exorcise them by breathing thrice in their face and ears; and thus we instruct them and oblige them to spend some time in the Church, and to hear the Scriptures; and then we baptize them.
– First Council of Constantinople (AD 381), Canon VII
Note well this language: “On the first day we make them Christians.” Becoming a Christian is not something you do for yourself. It’s something that the Church does to you. It requires the discernment of the Church, not only one’s individual decision.
There is a quite lengthy passage from the Apostolic Constitutions which denies baptism to various people — but they may be admitted if they repent (under the header “Various Canons of Paul the Apostle Concerning Those that Offer Themselves to Be Baptized — Whom We are to Receive, and Whom to Reject”):
I also, Paul, the least of the apostles, do make the following constitutions for you, the bishops, and presbyters, and deacons, concerning canons. Those that first come to the mystery of godliness, let them be brought to the bishop or to the presbyters by the deacons, and let them be examined as to the causes wherefore they come to the Word of the Lord; and let those that bring them exactly inquire about their character, and give them their testimony.
Let their manners and their life be inquired into, and whether they be slaves or freemen. And if any one be a slave, let him be asked who is his master. If he be slave to one of the faithful, let his master be asked if he can give him a good character [witness]. If he cannot, let him be rejected, until he show himself to be worthy to his master. But if he does give him a good character, let him be admitted. But if he be household slave to an heathen, let him be taught to please his master, that the word be not blasphemed.
If, then, he have a wife, or a woman has an husband, let them be taught to be content with each other; but if they be unmarried, let them learn not to commit fornication, but to enter into lawful marriage. But if his master be one of the faithful, and knows that he is guilty of fornication, and yet does not give him a wife, or to the woman an husband, let him be separated; but if anyone has a demon, let him indeed be taught piety, but not received into communion before he be cleansed; yet if death be near, let him be received.
If any one be a maintainer of harlots, let him either leave off prostituting women, or else let him be rejected. If a harlot come, let her leave off whoredom, or else let her be rejected.
If a maker of idols come, let him either leave off his employment, or let him be rejected.
If one belonging to the theatre come, whether it be man or woman, or charioteer, or dueller, or racer, or player of prizes, or Olympic gamester, or one that plays on the pipe, on the lute, or on the harp at those games, or a dancing-master or an huckster, either let them leave off their employments, or let them be rejected.
If a soldier come, let him be taught to do no injustice, to accuse no man falsely, and to be content with his allotted wages: if he submit to those rules, let him be received; but if he refuse them, let him be rejected.
He that is guilty of sins not to be named, a sodomite, an effeminate person, a magician, an enchanter, an astrologer, a diviner, an user of magic verses, a juggler, a mountebank, one that makes amulets, a charmer, a soothsayer, a fortune-teller, an observer of palmistry; he that, when he meets you, observes defects in the eyes or feet of the birds or cats, or noises, or symbolic sounds: let these be proved for some time, for this sort of wickedness is hard to be washed away; and if they leave off those practices, let them be received; but if they will not agree to that, let them be rejected.
Let a concubine, who is slave to an unbeliever, and confines herself to her master alone, be received; but if she be incontinent with others, let her be rejected. If one of the faithful has a concubine, if she be a bond-servant, let him leave off that way, and marry in a legal manner: if she be a free woman, let him marry her in a lawful manner; if he does not, let him be rejected.
Let him that follows the Gentile customs, or Jewish fables, either reform, or let him be rejected.
If any one follows the sports of the theatre, their huntings, or horse-races, or combats, either let him leave them off, or let him be rejected.
Let him who is to be a catechumen be a catechumen for three years; but if any one be diligent, and has a good-will to his business, let him be admitted: for it is not the length of time, but the course of life, that is judged.
Let him that teaches, although he be one of the laity, yet, if he be skilful in the word and grave in his manners, teach; for they shall be all taught of God. Let all the faithful, whether men or women, when they rise from sleep, before they go to work, when they have washed themselves, pray; but if any catechetic instruction be held, let the faithful person prefer the word of piety before his work. Let the faithful person, whether man or woman, treat servants kindly, as we have ordained in the foregoing books, and have taught in our epistles.
– Apostolic Constitutions (ca. AD 375-380), Book VIII, XXXII
That’s long, I know, but note how it starts: “Those that first come to the mystery of godliness, let them be brought to the bishop or to the presbyters by the deacons, and let them be examined as to the causes wherefore they come to the word of the Lord; and let those that bring them exactly inquire about their character, and give them their testimony.”
In other words, “Why do you want to be baptized?” is a perfectly valid question that needs good answers so that the baptismal candidate is not put at risk. And note how often the sincerity of heart and manner of life are emphasized in this passage.
(Note that the Apostolic Constitutions as a whole are not regarded as from the Apostles nor except for a certain later section given any canonical weight in the Orthodox Church. But they are an important historical document that for our purposes is a witness to a general approach to Church life.)
The Eucharist is risky, too
The idea that the sacraments are a risk should not be a surprise to anyone. The Eucharist is likewise risky:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor. 11:27-30)
There are people who say that no priest should ever deny someone communion. But guarding the Eucharist not just to prevent it being blasphemed by someone who might harm it but in order to protect the person who wants to receive it is part of a priest’s duty before God and his bishop. As St. Paul says, “a man should examine himself,” but that is not the only condition for communing. The clergy have the responsibility even to cast some out until such time as they repent (cf. 1 Cor. 5:20, 1 Tim. 5:5).
They are far too many to cite here, but there are numerous canons that stipulate that a person not receive communion under various kinds of circumstances. Regulating whether someone can commune or not has been part of Church life since the very beginning and was the basis for a lot of disciplinary literature over many centuries.
If communion requires care from the priest, so does baptism (and/or chrismation, as applicable). Why? Again, the ultimate aim is the salvation of the person in front of him.
Yeah, but what about…?
Is it possible that a priest might be wicked or undiscerning? Of course. But that does not mean that that part of priestly duty is thereby annulled. Abusus non tollit usum, as the saying rightly goes. If a priest is erring, correction from God and the bishop are of course possible.
What about people who come to the Church because they’re marrying someone who’s Orthodox? Shouldn’t they just be received? If they see conversion as merely a formality to make a wedding possible, then what they are saying they want really needs to be made clear to them: By requesting to be received into the Church, they are requesting to enter into the life of repentance in Christ. If they don’t want to do that, then they need to wait until they’re ready to do that. Their salvation is more important than their wedding.
What about infants? We baptize them without checking whether they are repentant, right? Yes, of course. But just as they do not have the capacity to give intellectual consent, they also do not have the capacity to reject Christ by being unrepentant. So we give to them the gift of baptism according to the commandment. But someone who has the ability to reject Christ has to be repentant. The command to repent is the most basic and repeated command from the Lord. If someone won’t do that, then he endangers himself by coming into contact with what is holy.
Death by holiness
Death (both material and spiritual) by holiness is absolutely a thing:
Our God is a fire, consuming unworthiness (Heb 12:28-29; cf. Ex 24:17; Deut 4:24; 9:3; Is 33:14). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31). God is holy, and the holy God dwelling in the midst of his people presents a potential danger. When a sacred object is treated as a common thing, that sacred thing is profaned. It becomes no longer sacred and holy but a thing of common use. Because God is his holiness, he cannot be profaned. Christ cannot be made common. The Holy Spirit can not become a spirit of some other kind. The profanation of God, then, does no injury to God but results in the destruction of the human person. Approaching our Lord Jesus Christ with repentance, reverence, and awe results in the burning away of all that is sinful and impure within us. Approaching him in any other manner will eventually lead to our destruction along with our sins (John 8:21-24).
– Fr. Stephen De Young, “Death by Holiness“
In the ancient Church, the catechumenate often lasted for three years. If someone wasn’t willing to do that, and if the bishop saw no good reason to shorten it, then he wouldn’t be baptized. Why so long? It is precisely so that the person may be planted firmly in Christ, so that he learns the life of repentance and is being purified by Christ.
Does someone who assents to the life of repentance really know what he’s getting into? Quite likely not. But he still needs to assent to it and begin it, even if he’s not very good at it yet. It’s not about being “good enough for baptism.” But anyone who refuses to repent is refusing Christ. You cannot approach Christ without repentance.
Some might say that all this is anti-convert. On the contrary, this is so pro-convert that it is about doing conversion the right way. We want converts really to convert — to Christ. Because if they come into the Church but are not there for Christ, a very risky thing has happened. It may be that they will convert to Christ at some point after that, but they are also now being held to a much higher standard having been given the mysteries. That is why appropriate care is normal and beneficial.
Someone who comes to the door of the Church is indeed asked to give everything up in order to become one with Christ. It is not expected of him that he will instantly be able to shed all of his baggage of sin and worldly attachments. But it is expected that he will commit to repentance. If he won’t make that commitment, then for now, the answer has to be “no.” But when he is willing to make that commitment and to make a move toward fulfilling it, the answer becomes “yes.”