On Ecclesiology, Humility, and Love

It has been argued by some that modernity is, at its core, simply the continuation of the Protestant Reformation. I think that there is a great deal of merit to this theory — at least, so far as it goes (what it leaves out is that the Reformation itself was simply the continuation of the Great Schism, as I have alluded to before). This theory is especially borne out when examining the attempted incursions of modernity into the Orthodox Church: unavoidably (much though their instigators would doubtless prefer to avoid it), such incursions must needs take as their foundation an unmistakably Protestant ecclesiology.

Indeed, it is largely on this account that such attempted incursions of modernity into Orthodoxy are so dangerous: they are, in actuality, about far more than the particular issue they claim to address. Though they purport to be undertaken in a spirit of devotion to the Church, though they profess to seek only to “correct” one particular and isolated “misunderstanding,” in reality they seek to stealthily replace “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) with the quicksand of mere human reasoning — and thereby seek to subjugate the Church to the spirit of the age.

As St. Paul writes: “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Reliance upon the “carnal mind” is the hallmark of the fallen West — and therefore let us Christians beware whenever anyone among us begins with a set of principles (even the best and most Christian of principles) and then begins to reason. Indeed, let us call to mind the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon at the beginning of his treatise Against Heresies:

Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside… and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations. These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretense of superior knowledge, from Him who founded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.

It is precisely in such a spirit that the modernist culture warriors descend upon Orthodoxy: “as if they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal” than that which the Church of Christ has already revealed, “more true than the truth itself,” which is “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). And in the service of this newly-discovered “truth,” those who still claim to adhere to Orthodoxy have no choice but to “falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation.” Thus it was in the time of St. Irenaeus, and thus it remains today.

Yet today, our modern culture warriors must do even more than this: they must not only become “evil interpreters of the good word of revelation,” but they must also do something about all the many good interpreters of revelation who have already spoken — the Holy Fathers and saints of the Church. Let us observe then (with humility, and with hearts full of sorrow and not of scorn) as an Orthodox clergyman attempts thus to advance the LGBTQ agenda within the Church:

If we turn instead to Christ, we find that he neither forbade nor saw fit even to mention homosexuality—nor any other sexual activity that we class under LGBTQ+… Both sides of the debate appeal to Tradition. But from Holy Tradition itself we hear only…silence. For Holy Tradition is rooted in the word and work of Christ. And here, as we have seen, we find nothing concerning LGBTQ+. So the opinions of the Church Fathers on sexual behavior (aside, always, from adultery) are just that: opinions, growing out of their own cultural context, but not out of Christ’s word.

While paying lip service to Holy Tradition — without which nobody can make any serious kind of claim to be speaking for Orthodoxy — this article has, in a single paragraph, surreptitiously restricted the entire scope of Holy Tradition to only the words and actions of Christ which are specifically recorded in the Gospels. Anything else concerning which the Church has ever spoken in all the thousands of years since — including, apparently, the words written in the Epistles themselves — are instantly reduced to mere opinions which can be freely discarded at will. This is nothing other than an extreme form of Sola Scriptura (one which few even of the Reformers would have countenanced) with the thinnest veneer of Orthodoxy possible.

Although extreme, there is really no other choice for the one who tries to assert the compatibility of Orthodoxy with the dogmas of the LGBTQ movement. The witness and practice of the Orthodox Church — indeed, of every Christian church from the time of St. Paul up until approximately yesterday — has simply been far too clear and too unanimous to deny.

Having stripped all doctrinal authority away from the Church in favor of the Gospels alone, the article then proceeds to suggest sweeping Protestant-style Eucharistic reforms. Watch carefully: it begins with humility— that most Christian of principles! — and manages to reason its way, within three sentences, to the conclusion that the entire history of Eucharistic discipline in the Church has actually been nothing but rank clerical hypocrisy:

Each of us confesses, as we approach the Chalice, that we are chief among sinners (1 Tim 1:15). Then by our own confession we are worse sinners than any sexual transgressor. If, then, we forbid “practicing” LGBTQ+ persons to approach the Chalice, we ourselves had better run out the exit door before we brazenly approach that same Chalice with judgment in our hearts.

Note that this line of reasoning is in no way limited only to “LGBTQ+ persons.” According to such logic, none of us (including priests and bishops) has any right to forbid any person from approaching the Chalice for any reason whatsoever. After all, we confess that we are worse sinners than pagans and sorcerers — so how can we forbid them from receiving Holy Communion merely for the sin of persisting in unbelief?

Of course, it seems to have completely eluded such a reasoner that imposing a Eucharistic penance on someone is and must be nothing other than an act of pastoral love on the part of the priest or bishop imposing the penance. Even an anathema, the last and most severe admonition that the Church can possibly give, is only pronounced out of heartfelt love and sincere desire for such a person to be saved:

And of course, anathema is not a curse or a death penalty, as secular mass media often try to present. This is the last attempt to return a person to the path of salvation. The anathematized can still repent, admit that he/she is wrong, humble himself before the Church, experience a deep inner transformation – and then he will be gladly accepted back.

To return to the article at hand: yes, it is absolutely true that “we cannot use Rom 1:26-7 to judge others without calling judgement upon ourselves.” And yet when Christ commanded those whom He healed to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto” them, was He judging them with His words? Or was He reaching out with divine love to heal their souls as well as their bodies? So why is it that the shepherds of Christ’s flock cannot likewise call wandering sheep to repentance and to spiritual healing, not out of scorn and judgement, but out of Christlike love and compassion?

As I have said, the words of this article appear to be rooted in the deeply Christian principle of humility. It claims that we cannot know with certainty what Leviticus really meant (it is “impossible to translate reliably”), or what Romans really meant (“we can pursue historical investigation forever before we discover just what Paul had in mind”), when those books forbade homosexuality. It claims that we who are pastors cannot even think of chastising the sins of others, since “we are all living in sin.”

All of this comes across as very humble. But it is actually nothing but the grossest pride. It is a pride so monumental that it does not hesitate to overturn, with two short pages, two thousand years of unanimous and unbroken Christian ecclesiology and teaching and practice. It is a pride that considers itself a better translator than the Church, a better teacher than the Church, a better physician of souls than the Church. It is a pride that considers itself more loving and more compassionate than the Church.

But St. Paul — who, after all, was himself the first of anyone to confess that he was the “chief among sinners” — spoke the following words from a heart burning with pastoral love:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

What kind of humility declares that this cry of St. Paul was nothing but arrogant and judgmental bigotry — the same St. Paul who was willing to be damned himself, if only those who persecuted him could be saved (cf. Romans 9:3)? What kind of humility believes that St. Paul, who “was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter,” was somehow confused on this point, that he somehow mistook mere cultural prejudice for the authentic teachings of Christ? What kind of humility considers itself in full possession of the wisdom, insight, and compassion necessary to root out and correct the “mistakes” of Christianity?

And herein is the absurdity of such pride revealed: it requires the belief that for two thousand years the entire Orthodox Church was filled with bigotry, judgment, pride, and hypocrisy, and nobody knew it, until modern society happened to figure it out yesterday, right after apostatizing from the Christian Faith. It requires the belief that the Holy Church of Christ ought to take moral instruction from a society which absolutely prides itself on the routine massacre of millions of babies, a society with far more innocent blood on its hands than all the Herods and Caligulas and Stalins of the past combined.

I do not wish to seem too hard on the clergyman who wrote this article. I believe that he is sincere, that his love for the Church is sincere, that his love for Christ is sincere. Sincere, but nevertheless deceived, and in danger of deceiving likewise many of the faithful who are so hungry to find love.

And indeed, all of us are hungry for love. But the hard truth, the truth that the ugliness of the modern world makes all too clear, is that we simply do not know what love really is — we do not know Who Love really is — unless and until we become willing to be taught. Unless and until we become willing to obey. Only once we humble ourselves in obedience to His Church can our darkened minds be enlightened with the light of Christ.

We might sometimes find the teaching of the Church strange, or difficult, or even incomprehensible. But do we, as Orthodox Christians, really believe that we know better than the Church? Do we really believe that we can love better than the saints?

The world preaches love, and the Church preaches love. But how irreconcilably different are these loves! It is as Fr. Seraphim Rose writes:

Christian love seems difficult to the world, primarily because its reward is not in this life, but in the life to come. Those who preach worldly ‘peace’ and ‘love’ do not believe in the future life, or else they believe in it half-heartedly, regarding it as something vague and distant. For the Orthodox Christian, on the other hand, the whole meaning of love resides in its fulfillment in eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). The worldly man, if he loves his fellow man, does so out of pity for his weakness and mortality, and from concern to make his short life pleasant while it lasts; such love has no power over death, and it ends with death. The Christian, however, loves his fellow man because he sees in him one created in the image of God and called to perfection and eternal life in God; such love is not human but divine, seeing in men not mere earthly mortality, but heavenly immortality.

It is only in the Church that such divine and heavenly love can be found, and it is only through obedience to the Church that such love can be acquired. Then — and only then — will it be as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov prophecies:

By rejecting carnal love tainted by sin, you will become capable of spiritual, pure, holy love, which is the highest blessedness. He who has felt spiritual love will only despise carnal love — seeing it for the unsightly parody of love that it is… Humility and loyalty to God destroy carnal love. That means that it lives through lack of faith and arrogance. Do whatever good you can to your beloved loved-ones, whatever the commandments declare, but always commit their care to God. And your blind, carnal, careless love will transform – little by little – into a spiritual, wise, holy love.

We are not wiser than the Church. We are not more loving than the Church. We are not more merciful than the Church.

Knowing this is the only path to real humility. And such humility is the only path to real love.

9 comments:

  1. My Dear Brother in Christ, Hieromonk Gabriel,

    I give thanks to God for your Spirit-filled words, imbued with the Patristic fronema. Would that your article could be published in every Orthodox Jurisdictional magazine or newspaper.

  2. Dear Father Gabriel, So thankful to see your work on ancient faith now! Thank you for continuing to bring clarity, speak the truth! It is so needed, especially in these difficult times we are living in.

  3. Father, are you stating that the ill-informed opinion of a single person as representative of some sort of class of anti Christ anti Church modernists undermining the Church?

    I am hoping that you are not and will give you the benefit of the doubt. However, if this is indeed what you are stating i.e. that there is widespread belief of this protodeacon’s ill-informed non Orthodox opinion and that there is a hidden class of “modernists” that are undermining the Church,, then I disagree with your construct. I’d suggest two things – survey Church leadership on this to get an actual percentage and then express that within the context of your article.

    Otherwise an article like this propagates the actual spirit of Protestant ecclesiology, the spirit of division.

    1. Anestis,

      While (thank God) there have been far fewer inroads made into Orthodoxy in this regard than into some other Christian bodies, it has been my experience that there are many among the laity (at least here in America) who are either confused on this issue, or have even broken with the Church entirely and sided with our secular culture. Therefore I think that public pronouncements along the lines of the one made by this Protodeacon need to be addressed publicly, because there is a very real danger of people being led astray. I think that, unfortunately, there are very many people (particularly the young) who only need to hear someone speaking from a position of authority in the Church telling them that “the LGBTQ lifestyle is just fine according to Orthodoxy” in order to breathe a sigh of relief and depart believing exactly that.

      Also, I think one need look no further than Public Orthodoxy to discover some other attempts at inroads being made. They have quite a following.

      1. Thank you for your response. I understand the reason for your article. I work with Orthodox youth across the country – I’ve yet to meet one that has indicated to me that LGBTQ lifestyle is understood as acceptable by the Church.

        Many do have friends and acquaintances who live that lifestyle and while most don’t advocate it, they do accept their friends. I’m not sure whether being friends with someone LGBTQ – especially since many of them knew them before they defined themselves by their sexuality (another modernist sin) is a sin or not – I guess that’s something you could respond to. I just tell them to be a witness of your faith and to pray before any interaction “God, how do you want me to act now” but I tell them to do that with every interaction.

        Regarding Public Orthodoxy – you may wish to find out what the parameters are for freedom of speech and freedom of expression within a university context in regards to their publishing some of their pieces – have you asked Dr. Papanikolao or Dr. Demarcopoulos about this or about your reservations?

        if you haven’t why not.

        1. I absolutely do not think it is sinful to be friends with any sort of sinner. Christ Himself is the “friend of sinners” par excellence. With that said, I do think that it is necessary to exercise discernment with regard to our friendships more broadly — I can certainly tell you (from my own experience as a young Orthodox Christian when I was living in the world) that to surround oneself primarily with unbelievers is extremely unwise. I don’t think we need to cloister ourselves, and I certainly don’t advocate treating anyone at all anything less than the utmost love and respect, but we also need to make certain that we are well grounded in the Faith and supported by a strong community of fellow believers. To sum up, I think your advise to these children is very good, and I am encouraged to hear of their faithfulness to the Church’s teaching and their desire to live a God-pleasing life.

          Regarding Public Orthodoxy, I do understand that they are operating within an academic rather than an ecclesiological framework. However, they certainly are not pretending they do not exercise editorial oversight, since they freely admit that they reject out of hand any articles which “challenge the dogmatic claims of Church Councils.” This implicitly gives one the understanding that certain things in Orthodoxy are not to be questioned, while others can indeed be legitimately questioned — and I do not disagree with this principle, but rather their application of it. In general, I would submit the following article by Fr. Lawrence Farley as an articulation of my concerns (though I might not agree with Fr. Lawrence on every individual point): https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/dishonest-dialogue/

          Edit: I will also note that it seems Dr. Papanikolaou has not only implicitly but also explicitly stated that Public Orthodoxy believes Orthodox moral teaching is up for debate: http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-living-church-20.html

          I have not written to them because I am not their confessor or their bishop, and I have not been given the obedience to question them concerning their conduct. I have, however, been given the obedience by my abbot to write articles concerning keeping the Orthodox faith amidst the winds and tempests of modern life, and it is this obedience I am trying — in my sinful way — to carry out on this blog.

          I sincerely ask forgiveness if I have done so in a way that is harmful or counterproductive.

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