“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” – Genesis 1:3-5
In response to growing sentiments of unrest online following the reception of Matthew Heimbach into the Orthodox Church, a person active in the white nationalist group known as the Traditionalist Youth Network, I offer the following explication of certain theological ideas which I see to be at the root of the issue as it pertains to Orthodox Christianity. Heimbach’s position is favorable to the ethnophyletism found in the Orthodox Church, the situation where each ethnicity has its own church and its own distinctive ethnic boundaries and nationalist agendas. It is claimed that such a situation is compatible with Orthodox ecclesiology and Orthodox theology as a whole, which ideas I desire to disabuse.
As a point of history, it should be noted that the Undivided Christian Church was always ethnically diverse. From the earliest Christian communities in Palestine (Acts 6) to those that were founded throughout the Roman Empire, diversity was a key component in the development of Christian theology. The Roman Empire at the time of the birth of Christianity was extremely diverse, with people from all over the known world transferred via the army and via immigration. A brief review of the ethnicities named in Acts 2 will satisfy as an illustration. It was not until the 19th century, as the Orthodox world began to crawl out from underneath the rubble of the fall of Imperialism that the various ethnicities that made up the Orthodox population began to acquire distinct national identities. It is now in this very unnatural situation that I turn to examine certain theological principles that will orient us toward Christ’s High Priestly Prayer that “they all be one.”
It is widely acknowledged by biblical scholars that Genesis 1 was composed by a priestly author who wrote the famed chapter describing the creation of the cosmos with certain priestly concerns in mind. Some see the account of the seven-day creation as describing the temple architecture with the intent of describing all of creation as the temple of God. Others see the primary intent of the seven-day creation as providing a reason for Sabbath observance. Whatever the full meaning of the priestly intent behind this account of creation, we can observe within it what the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament understood to be the essence of priesthood written into the very fabric of the cosmos, and through this understanding of priesthood we may see very clear marks of what priesthood means even today within the Orthodox Church, especially in regard to priestly responsibility in regard to the outside world.
Within the creation account of Genesis 1, the author uses a particular Hebrew word repeatedly to describe God’s creative work. The word wayyaḇdēl (“And he divided”) is derived from the root BDL meaning roughly “to divide, distinguish, be distinct” and is placed in the causative stem meaning “to cause division, cause/make distinction.” Repeatedly throughout Genesis 1, God divides and distinguishes between kinds, mostly in regard to the division between light and darkness, (vv. 4, 14, 18) and the division between the waters (vv. 6-7). Furthermore, each creature that is made is given the power to reproduce “according to its kind.” In accordance with the priestly, Jewish Law of Mixing (kil’ayim), kinds are kept distinct with no mixing. Linen and wool are not to be mixed in clothing (Deut 22:11), cattle and plants are not to be crossbred (Lev. 19:19), and Israelite is not to mix with non-Israelite lest the Israelite contract ritual impurity or engage in avodah zera, illicit worship. Furthermore, one particular task of the priest of the Old Testament was to distinguish between malignant skin diseases and benign spots (Lev. 13). The priest was also placed in charge of declaring a leper to be cleansed, so that his infection would not spread to the rest of the people (Lev. 14).
The concept that is being described through the actions of God in creation and the priestly duties in diagnosing skin diseases is the very notion of holiness. Holiness is the property of being distinct, separated to God for His purpose and use. In Leviticus 10:10, the Lord charges Aaron in his high priesthood “to distinguish (lǝhaḇdīl) between the holy and the profane, between the unclean and the pure.” Therefore, to be a priest and to act as a priest is to perform this duty, the very duty that God himself performed in the creation of the cosmos thereby signifying that holiness is a part of the very fabric of reality.
Now, there are two ways that this notion of holiness, of distinction, can be interpreted and applied. One interpretation is that of the New Testament Scriptures and the other is that of a twisted and satanic lie.
St. Peter’s First Epistle draws heavily upon this concept of holiness and distinction, as is written “But you are a chosen race (γένος), a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9).
To which “race” does he refer? To the race of Christians, those called from every nation and race to constitute the New Israel, the Body of Christ. Notice here the darkness/light motif, picking up on the same motif within the creation account. To be holy, to be a part of God’s race, is to distinguish darkness from light, that is, to distinguish between evil and good. In this race, St. Paul states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In the new race of Christians, there is no racial distinction, because we are one in Christ, the Verus Israel, the True Israel.
The other way to interpret this concept of holiness is the satanic delusion that the many races of humanity are to be kept distinct and unmixed. As Jew was not to mix with Gentile in the Old Testament, so races should not mix today – so the thinking goes. This could not be further from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, wherein the shadow of the old Law of Moses is fulfilled spiritually in Christ. The distinction between Jew and Gentile was not for the purpose of keeping human ethnicities distinct for all time, but for the purpose of creating the distinct, spiritual race of Christ, the people of God, who are holy, separated, and distinct from the race of Adam, corrupted by sin and given to evil. Therefore, to advocate any sort of racial purity or ethnic nationalism is contrary to Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Having now described the role of the priesthood and having “distinguished” between what is the biblical and the unbiblical interpretation of the Law of Mixing, we find that the priesthood of Christ, the very priesthood of the Orthodox Church, instantiated first in the office of the bishop and extending to the presbyters and the diaconate, and finally to the “royal priesthood” of every Christian, is charged with maintaining the purity of the Church. It is the responsibility of the priesthood to distinguish between what is holy and what is profane, what is good and what is evil, the benign spot and the malignant tumor, what is clean and what is an infectious disease. Racism and ethnic nationalism is just such a malignant tumor and an infectious disease that has no place among the holy people of God.
It is, then, the task of the Orthodox Christian priesthood to make the necessary distinctions in order to preserve the holiness of the Church. Let us not find that the world is holier than Christ’s Church, that the world distinguishes and cleanses itself of racism and ethnic nationalism to a greater extent than God’s holy people.