Baptismal Boundaries (2)

In my previous blog piece I examined the question of how converts to Orthodoxy should be received. One set of criteria which suggested that non-Chalcedonians should be received by confession alone, that those “who previously have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity in a manner recognized as authentic” should be received by chrismation alone, and that those “from non-Christian religions who do not believe in the Holy Trinity, or those that do not baptize with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” should be received by baptism. Those in this third group were said to include “Baptists, Buddhists, and Jews”. I suggested that this set of criteria was inadequate given current ecclesiastical complexities, and that the counsel of St. Basil might be of help in addressing our current situation.

This counsel is found in Basil’s letter to a friend in which he offered his opinion about a number of canonical questions. In one section of the letter (preserved by posterity as “Canon 1”) St. Basil dealt with the issue of how different groups were to be received upon returning to Orthodoxy. He distinguished between 1. heresies; 2. schisms; 3. unlawful congregations. By “heresies” he meant groups that had “altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith”. These were groups which required full baptism before they could be admitted to the Church. By “schisms” he meant groups that “separated for some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution”—groups such those which “disagree with members of the Church about repentance”. The Church could accept the baptism of these schismatics, so that they required only chrismation before being admitted. By “unlawful congregations” he meant, a man “convicted of crime, and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, [who] then refuses to submit to the canons, but arrogates to himself episcopal and ministerial rights, and persons [who] leave the Catholic Church and join him”. People from this group were readmitted to the Church “after they had been brought to a better state by proper repentance and rebuke”.

In all these decisions, Basil’s rationale seemed to be the degree to which the group had become “alienated in matters relating to the actual faith”. In Basil’s words, “The old authorities decided to accept that baptism which in nowise errs from the faith”.  He did not focus narrowly upon their theology of baptism or whether or not they offered a verbal confession of the Holy Trinity, for the Encratites of his day were orthodox in their Trinitarian theology (Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies, VIII, xiii refers to them as “acknowledging what concerns God and Christ in like manner with the Church”) and yet Basil still advised that their baptisms be rejected. It seems that he examined the group’s faith and life as a whole and not simply one aspect of it. (Scholars, feel free to weigh in.)

Note too: what counted was the faith of the group in which the candidate had been baptized, not the candidate’s own personal views. A candidate might dissent from the erroneous views of his former church, but what counted was that church’s faith itself. Obviously economia was required in some cases (Basil himself cited the example of the followers of Izois and Saturninus whom he received without rebaptism), but the akribeia or norm looked at the views of the baptizing church, not the idiosyncratic views of the individual who had been baptized by them.

I suggest that this ought to guide our approach as well. We should consider the faith and life of a group taken as a whole and not simply their stated understanding of baptism or their confession of the Trinity. The Orthodox Church would therefore look to the dissident group and try to discern whether or not it can recognize its own Faith there. Obviously that faith will not be identical with that of Orthodoxy in all respects, but the important and broad outline of the Orthodox Faith should be the focus, and not simply the group’s baptismal theology and practice. Thus the fact that Bishop Spong’s Episcopal Church baptizes with water in the name of the Trinity and confesses that this baptism is sacramentally transformative cannot be the deciding factor if that Church has been so marred by liberalism so as to effectively be another religion. If we make this patristic approach our own, certain conclusions follow.

Firstly, our Evangelical Protestant friends must be received by baptism, since Orthodoxy cannot recognize its own faith among them. It is happily true that they share our acceptance of the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity (apart of course from the issue of the Filioque), and much of our moral praxis and standards as well. That is cause for celebration and allows us to regard them as brethren in Christ who partake of His salvation and His Holy Spirit (whether from or apart from their sacraments I here offer no opinion).

Please note: I emphatically believe that these Protestant evangelicals are saved and are therefore our brothers and sisters in Christ. Receiving them into Orthodoxy by baptism does not, to my mind, imply that they were not born again prior to their Orthodox baptism any more than receiving them by chrismation implies that they had not received the Holy Spirit. All it means is that their previous spiritual experiences were received in schism, and that baptism or chrismation is the door into the historical Church and the way out of schism. What is undeniable from the patristic perspective at least is that they reject so much of the Orthodox Faith that it cannot be said that (in St. Basil’s words) they “in nowise err from the faith”. Given their sometimes heated and emphatic rejection of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ there, their rejection of the regenerative power of baptism, of the necessary place of asceticism within the life of the Christian, of the role of clergy and of sacramental confession, of prayers to the Theotokos and the saints, of veneration of their icons and relics, and (in many cases) the total transformation of liturgical worship into religious entertainment, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we have here in many ways a different religion.

Here one may pose an historical question: if St. Basil could arise today and walk into an Evangelical Protestant church service and familiarize himself with their doctrine, praxis, and spirituality, does anyone deny he would have trouble recognizing their spirituality and life as the Christianity with which he was familiar? Would he say that this church does “in nowise errs from the faith”? Would he not rather reluctantly conclude that it erred from the faith in practically everything, so that people coming from this church to Orthodoxy must be received by baptism?

Secondly, I suggest that mainline Protestants should be received by baptism as well. It is true that much of their historical teaching and morality was consistent with traditional Orthodoxy—which is perhaps why Orthodox bishops in the past had been willing to receive converts from them by chrismation alone. But that was then; this is now, and most of the Protestants of today look nothing like their ancestors. Orthodox churches receiving those converts in the past (were there ever very many of them?) made a number of assumptions which no longer hold. Formerly they believed (perhaps a little naively) that these denominations were strictly confessionally based, so that if their Confession or Statement of Faith made a pronouncement regarding the faith, then everyone in that denomination regarded the pronouncement as binding and they therefore believed it. The bishops also believed that these churches were untouched by a liberalism of theology and morality so that they looked a lot like the Orthodox. These things might have been true at the time those Confessions were drafted, but it hasn’t been true for some time now.

The Anglicans have not formerly repudiated their Thirty-Nine Articles, but any member of the Church of England appealing to them as a binding authority now would be laughed out of court. Their Creed may state that they believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ” who is “light from light, true God from God, of one essence from the Father”, but that never stopped Bishop Spong from denying it long and loudly—or, come to that, bishops like Christopher Pike (d. 1969) before him. My own former United Church of Canada has been overwhelmingly and effectively Unitarian for at least a generation, despite the fact that it still formally subscribes to the Creed. Such formal subscription is easy and costs nothing—and therefore tells you nothing. One can tell whether or not the subscription possesses reality by what the church does when someone openly denies the teaching. For example, if a clergyman openly expresses a view denying the divinity of Christ, is he or she disciplined or deposed? If a layman does so, is he or she excommunicated? If not, then the verbal and historical subscription to the divinity of Christ in the Creed is worthless. A Church’s discipline is everywhere a test of its true views. The actual state of a denomination can be gauged by this, and not simply by what is written on a piece of paper somewhere.

The truth is that most of the mainline Protestant churches have been so liberal as to allow its people to deny practically anything they like with no ecclesiastical consequences whatsoever. Indeed, adherence to the older traditional faith is more likely to be an impediment to promotion. This overwhelming surrender to theological liberalism is the elephant in the ecumenical room. Many if not most of these churches have accepted women clergy and blessed homosexual practice, and are now in the throes of accepting transgenderism as well. This in itself disqualifies them from being considered anything that St. Basil would recognize as remotely Christian. Individuals from these denominations may not agree with their churches when the churches embrace such liberal heresy, but a person’s reception into the Orthodox Church must depend upon their former church’s life and praxis, not the (happily orthodox) idiosyncratic views of individuals within her. There is always room for economia to deal with such situations, of course, such as in cases wherein their former church bears a great resemblance to Orthodoxy or when other pastoral considerations arise. But our normative akribeia must base itself upon the actual state of the other churches themselves and not upon individuals within them. Please note that I am her referring to Protestant denominations that are liberal enough in their theology to embrace gay marriage, not to conservative denominations which are holding the line against the rising tide of liberalism.

What then of our Roman Catholic friends and our non-Chalcedonian neighbours? I suggest that the latter be received by chrismation, and be treated as schismatics, for I agree with the theologians who regard the differences between our respective Christologies as merely verbal. As for the former, it all depends upon how one answers two questions: 1) Are the differences between liberal and conservative Roman Catholics sufficient for us to say that we cannot recognize our faith among them? And 2) Should the mode of baptism by affusion rather than by immersion be regarded as an impediment to accepting their baptism? These are good questions, which unfortunately cannot be dealt with in this already overlong essay. But a beginning must be made somewhere since the drift of these churches away from Orthodoxy continues to escalate. The praxis of the past cannot provide a precedent for our present action so that it is no good citing it as if it now should have binding force. Too much has changed.





  1. Is the Episcopal Church in North America still part of the Anglican Communion now?
    The Church of England is Anglican of course but it is in England ,so would Bishop Spong’s views hold there necessarily? I ,for one, have not heard much about him in the New Zealand Anglican Church which has it’s own constitution.
    It may not follow that the Bishop’s views are accepted by the World Wide Anglican Communion.
    Would baptism in the Church of England or other similar national church invalidate Chrismation in the Antiochian
    Orthodox Church.?

    1. Yes, the Episcopal Church of the USA is still in communion with Canterbury. I think that if the Orthodox Church decides to receive such Anglicans by baptism that should have no effect upon those who were already received into Orthodoxy by Chrismation. The issue is not so much whether or not every single Anglican in the world wide Anglican Communion accepts the views of Bishop Spong (clearly many do not) but their membership in a communion which does accept his views. It is the integrity of the group which should determine our practice, not the views of individuals within those groups.

    2. Everything TEC does always finds its way to the rest of the Anglican Communion.

      I’m a catachumen (former Anglican) within the Patriachate of Alexandria. I am in favor of baptizing all who come to Orthodoxy. If not, then the Church has to take a judge’s throne of sorts – trying to discern each and every church (and mind you, the theology seems to be forever shifting).

      If Orthodoxy is indeed, THE church, in my opinion she is not obligated to validate anything that took place outside of her.

      1. I agree with Zee. I was received by Chrismation, and I don’t doubt whether I’m really Orthodox. If, however, we simply baptize everyone, then there will be no questions by anyone, anywhere. If a man goes to Athos, there will be no problems. The ecclesial world outside Orthodoxy is such a mess, it would be simpler to just dunk them all.

    1. In my (strictly personal) opinion, there should not be a difference. Byzantine Catholics are still Roman Catholics, whatever rite they use. They are under the Pope which makes them “Roman”. A state of schism is not determined by the rite one uses, but by with whom one is in communion. If they are in communion with Rome, they are Roman Catholics.

      1. Father, I must respectfully disagree with your suggestion that the difference between Roman Catholics and Byzantine Catholics is merely a matter of rite. When I was a Byzantine Catholic, I did not accept the filioque as part of the creed. No Byzantine Catholic does. Byzantine Catholic theology does not view sin as a crime, as the Romans do, but as a falling short of the mark, like the Orthodox. I could go on and on about the theological differences between the Byzantine and Roman Catholic churches, but it is not my intention to argue. I only mean to point out that the difference between Byzantine and Roman Catholicism is more than a matter of rite. It is also a matter of theology. Byzantine Catholic theology is more Orthodox than Roman. However, I became Orthodox because, as Orthodox as the Byzantine Catholic churches are (I was a Ruthenian), the fullness of the faith is found only in the Orthodox church.

        1. I did not mean to deny that there exist differences in theology between Byzantine Catholics and their western rite confreres. My only point was that difference of rite (and accompanying theology) cannot be determinative factors in this matter. Thank you for allowing me to clarify that the issue is not primarily one of theology or rite, but of family. You are quite correct about the differences of theology between eastern and western rite Catholics. God bless you!

  2. How long does one need to be a member of a particular church to need baptism? Consider a man born and raised in an evangelical church. But before coming to Orthodoxy, he joined a Coptic Church for 5 years. Is he chrismated or baptized? Or he went from the Copts to an evangelical group for only a year?

    I know these would be rare events, but I’m curious as to which faith affiliation takes precedence.

    1. Each case like this would need to be considered separately. If a man joined the Coptic church, I would trust that the Copts received him properly and receive him by chrismation as I would any other Coptic Christian.

  3. I was baptized Catholic as a baby. I was baptized as a generic non-denominational in college. I wasn’t really attending any church in the couple years before I happened upon Orthodoxy. The priest told me that in this synod, they baptize all comers and I’m fine with that because why try to split hairs? To paraphrase Teena and a certain Cold War sentiment, dunk ’em all and let God sort ’em out.

  4. The Copts reject the 4th Ecumenical Council even when some on both sides have said it’s merely a wording issue… if it’s a wording issue then there’s no problem in essence so they can now accept that and the subsequent Councils… Some Coptics even teach theosis is a heresy, which is the logical route from a rejection of the 4th Ecum. Council, but why would we accept that as close to us?

    The Roman Catholics believe several heresies as well as being schismatic, so I’m not sure why, if you are trying to follow Saint Basil, we wouldn’t baptize them as a general standard?

    I’m also unsure why you can say the Protestants are saved and our brothers in Christ??

    Saint Justin (Popovic) says, “From time to time, heretics and schismatics have cut themselves off and have fallen away from the one and indivisible Church of Christ, whereby they ceased to be members of the Church and parts of her theanthropic body. The first to fall away thus were the gnostics, then the Arians, then the Macedonians, then the Monophysites, then the Iconoclasts, then the Roman Catholics, then the Protestants, then the Uniates, and so on—all the other members of the legion of heretics and schismatics.”

    As do the rest of the saints on this topic.

    If we as members of the one Church cannot claim we will without a doubt be saved in the end, how can we say that about Protestants? How are heretics and schismatics our brothers and sisters in Christ?

    The standard is baptism for all, with some exceptions given on individual cases, but these are exceptions and rarities and not standard practice. You argued to do so by a denomination by denomination basis but then you destroy your own argument by showing how most individual do NOT hold to their own denominational standards and confessions– so why would you decide this by their overarching confession then?

    One of Saint Basil’s comments canonically on who to baptize is the ones who have only received one immersion (rather than the triple immersion the Orthodox do) which is unfortunately virtually all of the denominations in the world at this time. So why not follow that?

    1. If you are saying that no one is saved but the Orthodox, we will have to simply disagree. The idea that God would reject a penitent soul who comes to Christ in trembling humility simply because that soul is not Orthodox makes nonsense of the notion that God is love, and smacks of a Pharisaic legalism utterly at odds with the grace of God. Regarding the mode of baptism, most of the denominations of the world practice a triple application of water–usually by affusion rather than by immersion. The question then revolves around the importance of the mode of baptizing.

  5. Will there be a part 3? I’m a former Catholic hoping to be received into the Church very soon. I wish I could be baptized. The norm is receiving by chrismation. Things in my former diocese were not very “orthodox”. They didn’t do anything wacky during the baptism but it all seems questionable to me. There’s no telling what was actually believed by the priest who baptized me or his bishop.

    1. In response to your comment I have written a Part 3; it will be posted on Monday. Thank you for suggesting it; I was going to end after Part 2.

  6. It looks like some comments have been deleted. So here goes again. If you believe that evangelical protestants are saved then this brings forth questions. Why try to bring them to the Orthodox Church? If they are saved then why do you want to interfer in their life? They can become Orthodox and fast and pray and struggle and endure hardships and be alienated from their family or they can stay as they are, have an easy life and go to heaven. Do you realize how goofy this article comes across to those who hold to the Apostolic Faith?

    1. No, all the comments on this post have been published. As long as a comment is on topic, I publish it, even if the tone is somewhat disrespectful (as you can see).
      The reason why I strive to bring Protestants into Orthodoxy even though they can be saved as Protestants is because 1) there is more to discipleship and faith than simply going to heaven. Faith in God is more than eternal fire insurance. Orthodoxy offers the tools for spiritual growth and holiness that are not found elsewhere. 2) Schism is contrary to the will of God; His intention is that all Christians share the same sacramental family. 3) Truth is preferable to error. Why believe that (for example) the Lord’s Supper is not sacrificial and that it is not the Body and Blood of Christ when in fact it is? Why believe error when you can have the truth?

  7. Bless Father,

    Concerning the Copts and Protestants, St. Paisios made some comments which are at odds with some of the peripheral statements you made in this article:

    (An excerpt from The Life of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac, pp. 658-660)

    “There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichristis; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’t giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness- we have to tell them that they’re in error.”…

    He considered the Anti-Chalcedonians (that is, the Monophysites)—along with the other heretics and those of other religions—to be creatures of God and our brothers according to the flesh, in terms of our common descent from Adam; but he did not consider them children of God and our brothers according to the spirit, characterizations he believed applied only to Orthodox Christians. Regarding the Monophysites’ sympathizers and their fervent supporters among the Orthodox, he observed, “They don’t say that the Monophysites didn’t understand the holy fathers—they say that the holy fathers didn’t understand them. In other words, they talk as if they’re right, and the fathers misunderstood them.” He considered proposals to erase from the liturgical books statements identifying Dioscorus and Severus as heretics to be a blasphemy against the holy fathers. He said, “So many divinely enlightened holy fathers who were there at the time didn’t understand them, took them the wrong way, and now we come along after so many centuries to correct the holy fathers? And they don’t take the miracle of Saint Euphemia into account? Did she misunderstand the heretics’ tome too?”

    1. God bless you! Thank you for sharing this from the life of St. Paisios. I make a distinction between saying that devout Protestants will be saved, and telling them that they will be saved, since the latter involves specific knowledge that I do not have. In my conversations with Protestants, I tell them that they are in error and that they should become Orthodox. But their eternal fate I leave with God.

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