The Ecumenical Reality

Sometimes I feel a little sorry for the Pope—he seems to have the unenviable task of changing Roman Catholic dogma and practice while all the time denying that he is doing any such thing. Take for example his apparent recent desire to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics into Eucharistic Communion. Traditional Catholic theology and papal pronouncements said that such readmission was not possible for the remarried Catholic unless he or she either returned to the original partner or lived in celibacy. The aura of authority surrounding these pronouncements, whether or not proclaimed with ex cathedra infallibility, allowed for very little if any wriggle room. As one dear friend said (a Ukrainian Catholic priest, no less), “Being the Pope means never having to say you’re sorry.” In theory anyway, whatever Rome says is right, is right. Period. End of discussion. Roma locuta; causa finita est.

The problem becomes larger because Roma has spoken and dogmatized about so many things over the centuries, some of which it would appear it now regrets. Take, for example, the heretical status of Protestants. In reaction to the Reformation, Rome said pretty authoritatively and clearly that all Protestants were going to hell, and that it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to so much as enter a Protestant Church. One can see why from their point of view:  as far as they were concerned, the Roman Catholic Church had never erred and was in no such need of correction as the reformers alleged. Indeed, the Roman Church was a societas perfecta which, however defined, did not encourage profound self- criticism. If the Roman Church had nothing that radically wrong with it, then surely the Protestant Reformers were heretics pure and simple, not really very different from such older heretics such as Arius and Nestorius. That being so, anathema to them!

Then came the latter half of the twentieth century, and by the time of the Second Vatican Council, a desire arose to deal with the Protestants rather more gently. The fascinating sea-change which transformed anathematized heretics into “separated brethren” has been well told by Fr. Peter Heers, in his volume The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II. In it we learn that although a few old hard-liners voted against the new sea-change (having been taught all their lives that Protestants were hell-bound heretics), the ecumenical reformers succeeded in reforming the status of the Reformers. An aggiornamento indeed!

What does all this have to do with how Orthodoxy views those outside its canonical boundaries? Do we Orthodox find ourselves facing the same dilemma as our Roman Catholic friends regarding the status of those outside their communion, changing our past dogmas to conform to present perceptions? I don’t think we do.

When we return to the patristic approach to heresy, we find the Fathers dealing with people who knew Orthodoxy, understood it to a great degree, and who still rejected it vehemently enough to go into schism. St. Basil famously distinguished between the varying degrees of separation within these groups. Some were sufficiently close to Orthodoxy as to be reconciled through a simple recantation of their errors; others were further enough from Orthodoxy that their reconciliation required them to be chrismated; and some were so estranged from Orthodoxy that they had to be received by baptism. One could argue about whether or not these different ways of receiving heretics into the Church represented differing appreciations of their baptisms. Here I only point out two things: 1. all of those outside the Church were considered as being outside salvation, and 2. all of those heretics were consciously and deliberating rejecting the Orthodox Faith.

This last point is important, for it reveals the significance of the subjective state of the heretic. That is, heresy and the schism to which it led were considered damnable not simply because the heretic was in factual error about some bit of theology, but because he had sinned against love. Mere well- intentioned error alone does not suffice to make one a heretic—one must also hold to one’s erroneous view in defiance of the community, proudly scorning the received Tradition. (We note that, for all his odd personal views, men like Origen died in the communion of the Church; I would suggest therefore that although “Origenism” is heretical; Origen himself was not actually a heretic.) Heresy is primarily a matter of the heart; it is more like rejecting one’s family than like adding up a tall column of figures and getting the sum wrong.

The Fathers’ denunciation of the heretics of their day were denunciations of men who were rejecting the Orthodox family, and if we would be faithful to their patristic glossary, we would also define as heretics today men to were moved to reject Orthodoxy in the same way as did the heretics of old. But in fact we find the modern Protestants do not fit this ancient pattern quite so well.

Here we differ from our Roman Catholic friends. They were committed to the view that there was nothing much doctrinally wrong with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and so had little choice but to reject their Protestant critics as heretics. We Orthodox can see plenty wrong with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and in fact would agree with much (though of course not all) of the Protestant critique. Admittedly the Protestants in varying degrees threw out some of the doctrinal baby with the bathwater. But that does not change the fact that in much of their quarrel with Rome they were motivated by genuine Christian impulse—i.e. they were concerned to a large degree to serve Christ. If the Roman Catholic Church was by the sixteenth century in such a mess that we Orthodox could not bring ourselves to be in communion with them, can we really blame the Protestants for going and doing likewise?

This Protestant concern to serve Christ was not, I submit, enough to preserve their ecclesiastical status. If Rome was then in schism, then the Protestants were doubly so. But it was enough, I suggest, to save their souls, and to rescue them from the unambiguous condemnation such as the Fathers justly heaped on the heretics of their day. The ancient heretics were primarily rejecting the truth of Orthodoxy; the Protestants were primarily rejecting the errors of Rome, and it is an error in historical methodology to equate the two. When at length they did come to discover Orthodoxy, they had already been too greatly affected by their western quarrel, and their conversations with us (one thinks of the Lutheran conversations with Jeremias II) were less times of true discovery than foraging parties for new ammo to use against Rome. Even now most Protestant groups cannot really hear our words; their ears are too full of their cannonade against Rome.

All of this concerns the historical Reformation with its classic creeds, and the contemporary picture is complicated by the immense theological liberalization of most of the Protestant churches. Indeed, Luther today would certainly disown much of what passes for Lutheranism. But not all of the Protestants have followed in the broad way of liberalism. In my own experience, both past and present, I know of Protestant Christians who sincerely love Christ and strive to serve Him. Some have received clearly supernatural help, and their lives bear the undeniable stamp of the Holy Spirit. Their churches’ doctrine and the spiritual resources available to them there are still deficient, of course. They still remain in schism, and that comes at a price. But they have clearly experienced God’s grace. One may say, if one wishes, that such grace comes short of the new birth, but if a person can experience forgiveness, peace, and joy in Christ apart from the new birth, one might be forgiven for asking what exactly the new birth accomplished anyway. Surely it is better to recognize in these souls the new birth and presence of saving grace? I suggest that this grace comes to them apart from the Church, and apart from the Church’s sacraments, precisely because they are not like the heretics of old, but seek Christ according to the limited light given to them.

I say this not just because to deny it I would have to deny the evidence of my own senses and experience of others. I also say it because to deny it I would have to deny what I have experienced in my own life—the only life about which I can speak authoritatively. Before I became Orthodox, I was a Christian in the world of charismatic Protestant Evangelicalism, and then in the world of conservative Anglicanism. I know perfectly well how deficient my theology was and how lacking my experience of the Faith’s fullness. I also know perfectly well that I had truly come to experience Christ’s saving grace nonetheless, and that this experience of grace formed a constant which continued in my life after I came to Orthodoxy, binding my pre-Orthodox life and my Orthodox life together into a single whole.

It is true that receiving such grace apart from the Church’s sacraments would be unusual and not according to the usual pattern of covenantal initiation—though not out of character for the Lord who wishes all to be saved and who never rejects those who come to Him in faith. And such extra-sacramental bestowal of grace even has some Scriptural precedent: we think of Apollos who was clearly a Christian even before being baptized by the Church (Acts 18:25)—indeed, he is even described there as ζεων τω πνευματι/ zeon to pneumati, a phrase the RSV renders in Romans 12:11 as “aglow with the Spirit”. We think too of how the Holy Spirit fell upon a roomful of unbaptized Gentiles when they heard the Gospel from Peter with open hearts (Acts 10:44-48). These examples of course do not set a pattern for possible initiation. Even in their day, they were unusual. But they did reveal how God’s grace could precede sacramental administration, and how God is not bound to follow the normal ecclesiastical pattern. Apparently the Spirit really does blow where He wills (John 3:8).

I suggest that we are currently experiencing the same kind of reality today, wherein certain people, canonically outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church, genuinely experience God’s saving grace. But before I suggest what this means, let me also first suggest what it does not mean. It does not mean that sacraments do not matter. It does not mean that doctrine does not matter. It does not mean that all churches are the same so that it does not matter which church one belongs to. It does not mean that sacraments are valid outside of the Orthodox Church. It does not mean that all Protestants are the same. It does not mean that the churches to which these saved individuals belong are part of an ecumenical super-church or “invisible church”. It does not mean that we Orthodox should not press and try to persuade all Christians to become Orthodox. It does not mean that the Fathers are not reliable guides, or that the Fathers were wrong. In our over-heated polemical climate, over-heated polemicists are keen to draw any number of these conclusions, but I would caution against it. None of these conclusions follow from my suggestion that men can be saved apart from inclusion in the Orthodox Church. We may debate what theological significance finding grace outside of Orthodoxy has for (say) our understanding of their sacraments or their ecclesial status, but the fact that grace can be found there should be beyond dispute.

So, if saying that saving grace is found outside the Orthodox Church does not mean any of these things, what does it mean? In a word, it means that reality is messier and God’s love is bigger than any tidy system can easily handle. It means that as we walk through the world, we must give due weight to what our eyes can see and what our hearts can discern. To deny that some devout souls who love Christ and serve Him with all their strength and whose lives have born spiritual fruit for Him are Christians seems to involve a degree of blindness shared by the Pharisees of old. It involves also a curious insensitivity of spiritual palate, somehow equating Billy Graham and Mother Teresa with Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy. For there is clearly a deep and substantive difference between (say) conservative Reformed Anglicans like J.I. Packer and the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If the former are condemned as heretics, we must then find a new and stronger word for the latter, for by anyone’s sane figuring, the two groups are too dissimilar to be share the same label.

The present ecumenical reality is therefore a new thing in the earth, and the patristic categories are insufficient to understand them, since the Fathers dealt with heretics of another kind. Things are changing quickly, as darkness and light increasingly separate from each other and we see fewer and fewer shades of grey. We may expect the liberal Protestant churches to become more and more estranged from us, as they reject not only our doctrine but our moral praxis as well. They will be the true heretics, like the heretics of old, and the patristic categories will apply to them in full. But there remain in Protestantism a few souls which have not bent to the knee to Baal. For them there is hope. We owe it to them to continue talking, recognize the grace within them, and to help bring them home.


  1. Father,

    I found your last paragraph interesting. It brought to mind the difference between persons and institutions (or societies, or if you will “churches”). When you say “We owe it to them to continue talking” I assume you mean on the institutional/societal level – in the sense that most use the term “ecumenism” (i.e. meaning the institutional process/function of organizations such as the WCC or the various “theological dialogues” between Orthodox academics/clergy and their RC counterparts).

    I myself have been a critic of this institutional “talking” because I believe it almost entirely rests on a modern (and nominalistic) understanding of “dialogue” in theory and in practice it’s fruits have been largely negative. Supporters of such institutional talking bring to their defense only one argument I can think of that has credence: that such institutional talking allows for the contact between *persons* that on occasion facilitates a bringing someone “home”. Even then however, one still has to reflect on the fundamentally deceptive aspect of this in that we know that our participation in such institutions (such as the WCC) is never going to lead to an *ecclesiastical* rapprochement between “churches” and so we are in a sense just spinning our wheels when it comes to the explicit goals of such dialogue. It is often asserted by those who support institutional ecumenism that if Orthodoxy decided to not participate it anymore that we would have no real opportunity and contact with Christians outside the canonical bounds of the Church. I find this idea quite silly because most (scratch that – every convert I have ever known) has come to the Church by Providential “contact” that had nothing to do with institutional ecumenism. In other words the implication is that if you criticize/oppose the institutional nonsense, you are somehow against evangelism as such.

    In any case, I would be interested in your thoughts as the what/how of “continue talking” and what that means to you.

    1. Thank you for your comments, with which I completely agree and which allow me to correct a possible misunderstanding. The “talking” to which I referred were the personal and individual relationships between Orthodox and other Christians at a local level. I think the “institutional” talking an almost complete waste of time, and one which increasingly gives the impression of more agreement between Orthodoxy and the other confessions than actually exists. In particular I regard our presence in the WCC as a mistake, and one which does more harm than good. We have been talking institutionally now with them for many decades, and it is crystal clear they are not interested in buying what we are selling. Time to be honest and pack it up.

  2. Thank you. Very very helpful. My wife and I came into Orthodoxy thur a Monastary in Texas. We are still there, Amen.
    We have come home. I was a former pastor, missionary, USMC, US Army Chaplain. Who bounced around in so many faith groups, that never became home.
    Now we are happily home. Baptized and remarried 2 years ago.
    Question, where has this been?
    Only a very Merciful God could bring us home like He did.
    You comments are helpful. We do rejoice and are sorrowful for those of the faith you speak. That they are not home yet. Lord Have Mercy upon Them. 1830 358 6149

  3. I’m not so sure that the Roman Catholic Church ever dogmatically claimed that heretics were all hell-bound. Of course, I know the pronouncements from, e.g., Florence, but those at Vatican II also had access to these and decided they were not dogmatic. I’ll need to see something more than proof-texting to be convinced.

    I really enjoyed your insightful discussion about why heresy is so sinful, although I disagree that liberal Protestants are as bad as the ancient heretics. Usually the Fathers responded so harshly to heretics because heretics were quite mean-spirited, and I don’t think liberal Protestants really match that (although some do).

    1. The canons of the Council of Trent with their anathemas seem pretty clear. And anecdotally speaking, every Catholic I’ve ever spoken to about this issue (including my own father) was in no doubt growing up that all non-Catholics were going to hell. Surely if all the parish clergy and their faithful believed something that should bear some weight? I’m not quite sure what you mean by “proof-texting”; what would constitute convincing proof?

      1. Like I said above, I was not taking a side on this issue, just pointing out it’s not an open-and-shut case. It just reminded me of liberal Catholics who try to argue that the Roman Catholic Church has changed its position on issues like usury, who (from what I’ve seen) always end up being wrong.

        I suppose one would have to show that the canons of Florence and Trent refer to everybody not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church and not merely to heretics/schismatics with sufficient knowledge. And I mean, in the 1400s, the Roman Catholic Church even said those who were innocently and reasonably not in communion with the Pope during the Western Schism possibly had the fullness of sacramental grace, and it even canonized such a person (Vincent Ferrer). This is just to say that we have to take things in context. I knew someone who claimed that Dei Verbum did not allow Catholics to hold any error in Scripture, and it indeed easily reads that way, but if you look at the debate around the text, it’s pretty clear that it was a compromise document between more conservative types and men like Cardinal König who even listed off historical errors in the Bible to argue his point.

  4. Thank you! As a former Protestant, I often wrestle with what to do with the spiritual experiences I did indeed have in those fellowships. I also, until recently did not know how to relax when I on the occasion, for family reasons, find myself in Protestant worship. This article brings many loose ends together beautifully.

  5. Hi Father,

    This is awesome!

    I always struggled with the whole notion of saying “there is no salvation outside the Church”, while at the same time saying “but we can’t say what happens to those outside the Church”

    That sounded so contradictory and made it feel like we were avoiding saying the what seemed inevitable because it wasn’t politically correct, but this explanation is really great.

    Thank you!

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