Part Four: Not Like Religion – Clean and Unclean

In his final post of this series (the first three may be viewed here, here, and here) we will look at the category of clean versus unclean in the Christian Faith, and its difference from the use of that category in religion. The category of “clean versus unclean” is basic to religion. St. Paul refers to such a category as one of the stoicheia, the basic building blocks of religion (Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8, 2:20). The category had varied applications, for it attached itself to various things. Food could be clean or unclean (Leviticus 11), garments could be clean or unclean (Leviticus 13:47), a house or its vessels could be clean or unclean (Leviticus 14:33f). A person might be unclean through “leprosy” (meaning not just what we refer to as leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, but any infectious skin disease; Leviticus 13). A man could become unclean through seminal emission (Leviticus 15:16f); a woman through her monthly menstrual period or through childbirth (Leviticus 15:19f, 12:1f).

Since these categories were parts of religion and since Christianity transcends religion, it is not surprising to find Christ and His apostles paying them little heed. Christ refused to worry about the ceremonial washing of hands to eliminate possibility of ritual impurity before meals, and so (in the interpretive words of St. Mark) “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). St. Peter was shown a vision of clean and unclean animals all mixed together and was told to arise, slaughter, and eat them, and when he protested that as a good Jew he had never eaten any unclean animals, the heavenly voice responded, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common [i.e. unclean]”. The point of the vision was that Peter must not regard Gentiles as unclean, but that point had relevance to food also, since it was eating with Gentiles that made one unclean (Acts 10:9f). Peter later stumbled a bit on this very point, withdrawing from Gentile table company after more strict Jews had arrived from Jerusalem, and he was rebuked openly by Paul, who reminded him that the categories and practices of the Jewish Law no longer applied to Christians (Galatians 2:11f). Paul himself was emphatic that no food was unclean in itself (Romans 14:14, 1 Corinthians 10:25-27, 1 Timothy 4:1-5).

During the days of His ministry, Christ made it clear that His conformity to Jewish ritual practices and obligations was not because He Himself was subject to the Law, but simply not to give offense. He was not a subject to the Law, but was the Lawgiver Himself; not a child of the Sabbath, but the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). When He healed a leper, He told him to go and show himself to the priests so that they could certify that he had indeed become clean. But He stressed that this was not because He was subordinate to the Law or the priests, but rather simply “for a proof to the people” (Mark 1:44). When someone asked if Jesus paid the Temple tax (which all Jews paid as a sign of their subordination to the Temple), Christ miraculously paid the tax by taking a coin from the mouth of a fish. His answer to Peter when He did so is significant: He asked, “Simon, from whom do the kings of the earth take toll? From their sons or from others?” When Simon gave the obvious answer that kings did not tax their own sons, Christ replied, “Then the sons are free. However, so not to give offense to them” they should pay the tax. This was an important point to any Jewish Christian. Christ was saying that He and His disciples were no more bound by the obligations of the Jewish Law than sons were to be taxed by their royal fathers. Christ and His followers would pay the tax and keep the Jewish Law only so as “not to give offense” to other Jews. Matthew recorded this miracle and teaching because it applied not just to paying the Temple tax, but to all the obligations of the Jewish Law. The Christians were God’s sons; as far as the Law’s categories and obligations were concerned, they were “free”.

The upshot of Christ’s words and the apostles’ application of them is that the categories of clean and unclean belong to the Jewish Law and to religion generally. They are valid for religious people, but do not apply to Christians. We are not bound by Jewish food laws, nor by categories of ritual impurity. This same insight is found in the Didascalia, a document dated around the late third century. It deals specifically with the question of whether or not a woman may receive the Eucharist while menstruating. The response? “Think about it and recognize that prayer is heard through the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist is received and consecrated through the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures are words of the Holy Spirit. Therefore if the Holy Spirit is within you, why do you isolate your souls and not approach the works of the Holy Spirit?…Beloved, flee and avoid such [legalistic] observances; for you have received release that you should no more bind yourselves; and do not load yourselves again with that [yoke of Jewish Law] which our Lord and Saviour has lifted from you. Do not observe these things, nor think them uncleaness, and do not refrain yourselves on their account, nor seek purification for these things”. In other words, the author of the Didascalia considered that Christ lifted the yoke of the Law with all its stoicheia from us, so that its categories no longer applied to Christians.

The discussion of the category of clean versus unclean, sometimes discussed today, cannot be separated from the larger discussion of the abiding relevance of the Jewish Law. The Mother of God, her Son, and His apostles, conformed to the Law and its Temple practices during their sojourn among their fellow Jews (Luke 2:21-24, Acts 21:20-24). But the Saviour promised that a new day was coming. On that day, the old ancestral worship in the Temple would no longer be needed. They would worship in the Spirit, and in the truth (John 4:21-24). As far as the Law’s provisions were concerned (including its categories of “clean versus unclean” and its recourse to the Temple) they would be free. Our freedom from the Law’s restrictions therefore is rooted in the transcendence Christ bestows through the Spirit. Faith in Him does not involve us in another religion. Rather it roots us in the powers of the age to come.





  1. Fr. Lawrence:

    This is a beautiful post. I wish more Orthodox Christians availed themselves of the freedom that we have as Christians. We are not members of a religion (God forbid!) nor are we slaves to any law other than the law of love, but we are co-members of the body of Christ, and made one with this very same body. Slavish adherence to the law kills, but the spirit gives life.

    Rejoice and be exceedingly glad!

  2. After reading this several times, I come away with a tension…a thought, “what about the uncleanliness of my heart…the very thing that is most needful of cleansing?” Indeed this is the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ teaching of clean vs unclean.
    If it were only as simple as keeping the laws of clean and unclean as the means toward a pure heart! If it were that simple, I suppose I would have no need to trust that God can actually transform and continually cleanse my impure heart. No need to embrace His love, His forgiveness, His guidance…no need to strive for humility, to extend that love to others, to desire to love Him more. Thus, we would be our own god. And even if the means to “cleanliness” was to keep the commandments, I still couldn’t even do that. So yes, “religion” is not the answer…it is rather life in Christ.
    Appreciate these articles Father. Thank you.

  3. Father Lawrence, do you not feel that claiming that Orthodox Christianity is free of ritual purity rules runs against real-world practice and what other bishops and priest would claim is a matter of Tradition? Here in Romania, it is the general consensus that women should not enter a church if menstruating. I have even heard this rule insisted on by my bishop. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if globally among hierarchs, the prohibition of menstruating women in churches were more overwhelming than the view that they are allowed and that Christians are freed from such stigmas.

    Inversely, while here in Romania the Orthodox Church makes no protest against the very popular food of black pudding, I’ve seen several members of the North America church over the years claim that foods made with blood remain off-limits to Orthodox Christians. (For example, in one of the conversion stories in the SVS-published volume Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith, the author says that in joining the Church he was enjoined to give the food up).

    1. Yes, sadly I agree that some Orthodox, even bishops, keep to such rules. In the early church the question was debated, with some teachers like Dionysius of Alexandria stating that such rules should be enforced, while others (such as the author of the Didascalia) insisting they should not be. With the drop in weekly lay-communion, the question soon became moot, and the issue remained largely unaddressed. I maintain: 1. the question is still an open one, and 2. St. Paul (and the rest of the New Testament) is crystal clear that adherence to such rules constitutes a failure to understand our faith.

      1. Father, I was taught the reason menstruating women don’t receive communion in the Orthodox Church is the same reason men who cut themselves while shaving or whatever don’t receive communion in the OC, we don’t want to spill the precious Body and Blood of our Saviour. A person is anointed, confesses, and receives the Eucharist before surgery because there is a chance s/he may die. Otherwise, if you know you will bleed within, I think, 24 hours, or are bleeding, then you don’t present yourself to receive communion. Thus, nothing at all to do with ritual purity/impurity, which, back in seminary (Protestant) a professor I had scorned as “orifice ethics”. 🙂

        1. With respect, the stated reason you were taught makes no sense to me. How would a cut while shaving prior to receiving the Eucharist spill the sacramental Blood of Christ? The celebrant dropping the Chalice would spill that Blood, but how would the communicant knicking himself while shaving two hours before receiving Communion do that? The diversity of explanation for why women may not receive Holy Communion while menstruating suggests that the explanations proffered are attempts to justify a prior taboo, and not the actual reasons themselves.

          1. That may have been a bad example, Father; sorry.
            What I meant is that if a man is bleeding, then, I was taught, he too must not commune, as, when we receive the Holy Eucharist, Christ’s blood flows through our veins. Thus, when we, having received Holy Communion, bleed, we spill His blood.

          2. I still cannot understand how receiving the sacramental Blood of Christ through the mouth into the stomach “translates” into His Blood flowing out through one’s veins, especially if the flow of blood (such as occurs when cutting oneself while shaving in the morning) stops prior to coming into Church. This seems to me to suppose an unduly literal understanding of the relationship of the sacramental to the biologically physical. If such an understanding be true, then how long would one have to wait until able to bleed non-sacramentally? And on what authority would one base such an understanding?

  4. Father,
    Please forgive me in what I have to say. I do not mean to offend.
    I can not begin to express the emotion that triggers in me when I read about the prohibition of receiving the Eucharist for a woman who is menstruating. The sense of shame and disgust this policy brings upon a woman is beyond the pale. I speak as a woman. I have experienced the degradation, since childhood…words and admonitions that my father spoke, then only later, in rebellion and a longing to be loved, to lend myself to men that felt free to use me. A woman’s place in society is sometimes a very difficult place to be. It takes a lifetime to overcome this…by the grace of God it can be done. So in posts like this, when this prohibition is spoken of so nonchalantly (it is to me, anyway) is too much for me to bear. I can not understand how this could even be open to question in the Church, Father! I thank God that Paul spoke against these taboos. And my heart goes out those those women in Romania….I’m sure many, by years of conditioning, some actually agree with this rule. It is horrible.
    Forgive me.

    1. Thank you for writing, Paula. I do not see that anything you have said needs forgiveness. I applaud your honesty and courage.

  5. I’ve never “bought” the reasons behind prohibitions against women who are menstruating receiving communion, and I once attended a church where a priest asked his wife to tell him the dates when his teenaged daughter was menstruating so that he could EXCLUDE her from communion. Imagine the shame and degradation that she must have felt. Some of the women in the parish would refuse with her in solidarity. This was an OCA parish, in the Diocese of Mordor.

    At the risk of being crass, I go to coffee hour after communion and then, usually, go to the bathroom. I have received the body and blood of Christ into my own body, and I have emptied my body. How is this any different from what a woman experiences?

    1. In my own little OCA, no less! That is very sad. And a bit surprising, given that a Dept. of Religious Education booklet published by the OCA as long ago as 1980 entitled, Women & Men in the Church teaches that ideas and practices such as “women with their menstrual periods should not receive holy communion” are “morally and dogmatically indefensible according to strict Orthodox Christianity”. It further says that “Church leaders must address themselves to these issues and clear up all errors and abuses for the sake of the Christian life and the salvation of the people”. To which I can only add: “Amen”.

  6. I would not have believed this if I had not seen it firsthand….. and by standing up for the girl and her mother, I was excommunicated. This kind of pharisaicalism is alive and well in the Orthodox Church, and even in what has been laughably called the “liberal” OCA. This kind of pharisaicalism drove me out of the church and deprived me of the sacraments for several years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *