Thursday, December 31, 2009

Objections I Have Heard

Objections I Have Heard
(To Leaving World Orthodoxy)

A Guest Article
Joseph Bragg
A Former Antiochian Orthodox Priest 

There is an abundance of material that is cited for support by those who have ceased to have communion with heresy and those in communion with heresy. Many writings in support of this action can be cited from Scripture, the Fathers and numerous Councils, Synods and Canons. A good summary of this reality was set forth by St. Mark of Ephesus when he said, “All the teachers of the Church, all the Councils, and all the Divine Scriptures, exhort us to flee those who uphold other doctrines and to separate from communion with them.”

But what material or what sources are cited by those who remain in communion with heresy? What arguments or defense do they set forth? They certainly cannot cite any teachings of Scripture, the Fathers, Councils or Canons that tell us to remain in communion with heresy. The arguments I have most often encountered are as follows:

1) "The heresy in World Orthodoxy is not official but merely the private opinions of various bishops."

First, where do we get the distinction between official heresy and unofficial heresy? Heresy is heresy, period. The only distinction made by the Church is the public proclamation of heresy vs. private and unexpressed opinions. Once a bishop publicly proclaims heretical teachings, separation is in order and, in fact, required and praised by the Fathers and Canons.

But the fact is that many of the heresies of World Orthodoxy have received an “official” status if such a thing is important. Heretical statements and position papers have been published in official journals, signed officially and even approved by synods. But whether such an “official” status is given to heresy is irrelevant as to separation according to the Fathers, and Canons.

2) "It is wrong to separate from the Church."

This statement and thinking shows how far World Orthodoxy has fallen from the Orthodox Faith. Such thinking reflects the Latin understanding of the Church as an organization or political entity that is defined primarily by what is “official” and by external associations. Since the Church is the Body of Christ that holds the Orthodox Faith under Orthodox bishops, those who separate from the heresy of officialdom are not leaving the Church but are, as one Canon puts it, preserving the Church, since they have not left bishops but false shepherds. In World Orthodoxy, the externals of officialdom are equated with the “Church”. This, of course, is not true. How can it be that those who hold the faith unchanged have left the Church while those who have changed it have preserved the Church? You see how perverted and deceived the thinking of World Orthodoxy has become! Those who have changed the faith (heresy) are the ones who have left. Those who have not changed the faith are the ones who have continued the Church. The perception of the Church as membership in “officialdom” stands in sharp contrast to the teachings of Holy Scriptures, the Canons, and the holy Fathers, including St. Gregory Palamas who wrote:

“They that are of the Church of Christ are they that are of the truth; and they that are not of the truth are not of the Church of Christ...for we are reminded that we are to distinguish Christianity not by persons who have ecclesiastical titles, but by the truth and by the exactness of the Faith.

3) "Everything is not so black and white as to the teachings of the Fathers and the Canons on this issue. There is a lot of gray area."

At this point I want to ask, “What is it that is not black and white and what is it that is gray?

Is it the Truth of the Church that is not certain? Is it the teachings of the Fathers and the Canons that are not certain? Is it not possible to know heresy when you hear it? How did the Church throughout history know, identify and anathematize heresy if it is all so gray and uncertain? And why are the teachings of the Fathers uncertain and gray only when it comes to what they say about separation from heresy? Why aren’t their teachings unclear and uncertain when they teach about the Holy Trinity, the Nature of Christ, the Veneration of the Saints, the doctrine of the Church, the meaning of the Eucharist, the necessity of the Hierarchy, the Canon of Holy Scriptures, etc.? What is unclear or uncertain when the Scriptures tell us to have no association with those who do not continue in the Apostolic Tradition? Is it not possible to know the Apostolic Tradition? If not, then Orthodoxy is a joke and unworthy of serious consideration.

What is unclear or uncertain about the words that tell us to flee from heresy as from a plague? What is unclear or uncertain when Orthodox bishops do the things they have done and make the statements they have made? They are public knowledge and as clear as any news event. No, the argument that it is all gray and uncertain is contrary to the facts and dare not be applied to the teachings of the Church.

4) "We should not be judgmental."

This understanding reflects a confusion of what it means to be judgmental. The Scriptures and Fathers all urge us to discern and judge between right and wrong and truth and error and light and darkness. The Fathers made many such judgments. The Canons are judgments about what is good and proper and Orthodox and what is not. St. Paul taught that we are to judge a “different gospel” as false and under Divine Judgment. He also tells us to discern the sprits to determine if they are of God and to turn away from that which is false. If we are to make no judgments about the truth or error of beliefs then, again, Orthodoxy is a joke and there is no reason to be Orthodox.

The kind of judging that is condemned by Scripture and the Church is that which judges a person’s unknown heart or motives when we really don’t know what is in his heart. Thus we are not to make judgments about people’s unknown motives or eternal destiny but only about their false beliefs and teachings. The Church has always made judgments between truth and heresy and has always called on the faithful to do the same.

5) "Those who separate are guilty of violating the canons that condemn schisms."
It is interesting how the teachings of the Fathers and the Canons suddenly are clear and no longer gray when it comes to understanding schisms and how it is no longer judgmental to make such judgments. But the “schisms” canons do not apply to separation due to heresy. The canons tell us to separate from heresy but if we separate from our bishop for other reasons, then we are guilty of schism. The “schism” argument does not apply to the heresy issue and is used as a smoke screen since there are no canons that forbid separation due to heresy.

6) "We should stay and fight from within."

This is contrary to all the teachings of Scripture, the Fathers, the Councils and the Canons that tell us to flee. Beside, if you stay to fight from within, how do you do that? Do you stand up and speak out when you see the Faith being violated and betrayed? Do you bring these issues to the attention of your priest and others? Do you write to your bishop objecting to the heresies of World Orthodoxy? Or do you just learn to adapt, go along and ignore?

7) "Ecumenism has never been condemned by a Council."

The Fifteenth Canon of the First-Second Council of Constantinople clearly tells us that we do not have to wait for an official council before we separate from heresy. But the fact is that all or most of the heresies present in Roman Catholicism, Monothelistism and Ecumenism have already been anathematized by numerous councils. This is why Ecumenism is called a “pan-heresy”. It contains all the heresies already condemned by the Church.

8) "What the bishops do or say doesn’t effect me. I don’t agree with them and neither does my priest so we will be Orthodox and ignore the bishops."

This is fine if you are a Protestant but it is not Orthodox. The Orthodox Faith teaches us that when we receive the Eucharist from the antimins of the bishop and commemorate his name at the Liturgy we are united in faith with him. The faith he holds is also the faith of the priest and the people. The bishop is the line of apostolic succession through which the Grace bearing Mysteries are passed on or lost. If we do not believe what the bishop believes why would we be under his omophorion and commemorate him as a right believing bishop?


  1. Thank you for posting this, Nathan. I really do hope that it gives people of different perspectives some food for thought. I would like to respond to some of the points made in the article from my own perspective, if that's all right.

    1. "The heresy in World Orthodoxy is not official but merely the private opinions of various bishops."

    This objection is indeed misguided for the reasons that Fr Joseph says. However, I wonder whether he may be missing a nuance here. Personally, I do think that there is a distinction to be drawn between a bishop's personal views and what he teaches and practises. It is possible, for instance, that there is some element of doctrine which a bishop may not fully understand and which he may wish to explore further before he himself can reconcile it in his own mind with his own thoughts. I do not have a problem with this provided that while he is doing this exploring, his teaching and his practice are based not on expression of doubt but on humble obedience to the Tradition of the Church. I don't think there's anything wrong with the position of "I personally do not understand this well enough to give my personal assent to it but I believe the Faith of the Church to be true, so while I try to better my limited understanding, I shall submit my own will to that of Christ and behave in keeping with the Faith that we have received." I myself have been through this with a number of issues. Of course, the question may be raised over whether it is acceptable for a bishop to find himself in such a situation.

    2. "It is wrong to separate from the Church."

    Well yes, it is wrong to separate from the Church. I don't think anybody can argue with that. The question is, "Where is the Church?" My conversion to Orthodoxy was initially spurred on by ecclesiological considerations. As an Anglican I had long recognised that Orthodoxy was the original Church from which others had separated. When the Holy Spirit, through my prayer, reading of the fathers, and study of the councils led me to a proper ecclesiological understanding, and I saw the doctrinal bankruptcy of the Anglican branch theory, I realised I was outside the Church, had never received the sacraments, and needed to fix this. The Church is where the Faith delivered to the Apostles is taught and lived in communion. So it comes as no personal insult to me to be told that I am outside the Church. I understand and embrace the ecclesiology behind it.

    However, communion is as much a part of the essence of the Church as right faith, and I am not sure exactly that it is always clear exactly when communion has been broken and when the departure from right faith is such that it necessitates such a withdrawal. If a bishop teaches something heretical today but this time next week he recants his error and confesses the right faith, have we been in communion with heresy during that time? Is it instantaneous? Or do the remaining right-confessing hierarchs exercise some discernment over time? Those clergy who withdrew from Nestorius without delay and were consequently deposed by him were subsequently vindicated and restored to office by the Council of Ephesus. So perhaps we should act immediately. On the other hand, it was in the 6th century that the heresy of the double-procession of the Holy Spirit began to be taught in the west. Yet it was another 450 years before we finally severed communion with them. Until then, (and even after then), there was a shared chalice and, sometimes, concelebrations. Was the whole Church in error during those centuries for being in communion with heresy? I am merely asking questions here, and not claiming to have answers, but I think it is worth thinking about.

    cont'd below

  2. 3. "Everything is not so black and white as to the teachings of the Fathers and the Canons on this issue. There is a lot of gray area."

    I sort of half agree with this. The grey areas for me lie in my questions above in response to point 2. As for what constitutes right faith, the place of the mysteries within that understanding, and things such as joint prayer and shared mysteries with those outside the Church, I see no shades of grey. The unwavering witness of Scripture, the Fathers, the Councils, and the liturgical practice of the Church leaves little room for doubt.

    4. "We should not be judgmental."

    This is irrelevant. As Fr Joseph has said in his answer, this is not a matter of passing judgement on people's hearts but rather it is about discerning what is and is not in keeping with the Faith of the Church for the sake of our salvation.

    5. "Those who separate are guilty of violating the canons that condemn schisms."

    Again, whether or not one agrees with this depends on how one perceives the issues raised in point 2.

    6. "We should stay and fight from within."

    I have some sympathy with this. I do not think that it is beneficial to anybody for us to see the iceberg and pretend it isn't there, no matter how close it comes. However, are we to walk away at the first sign of wrong teaching, with no effort to correct those who appear to be going astray? I don't know.

    Incidentally, to answer Fr Joseph's own questions on this point: a) yes, I do speak with my priest about these matters, and I know and am happy with his own position; b) yes, I do contact my bishop about my discomfort with the practices that I see; b) yes, I do speak up when I see things happening that are incorrect, (and can provide examples if required).

    7. "Ecumenism has never been condemned by a Council."

    Ecumenism, by its collective name, may have never been condemned by an ecumenical or pan-Orthodox council, yet the various elements that constitute this heresy are clear contradictions of the canons, Scriptures, and the Fathers. Saying ecumenism as a whole is ok because it hasn't been comdemned by a council is like serving somebody hazelnut ice-cream because they did not specifically tell you they are allergic to "hazelnut ice-cream", even though you know they are allergic to nuts and are lactose intolerant.

    8. "What the bishops do or say doesn’t effect me. I don’t agree with them and neither does my priest so we will be Orthodox and ignore the bishops."

    If Fr Joseph says that Orthodox people have said this to him, then I cannot tell him that it is not so, but I struggle to see how any Orthodox person could utter these words. I'm surprised he even gave it the dignity of a reply.

    Those are just some of my thoughts on this. I hope that this helps to form some small part of the discussion.

    In Christ,

  3. Anonymous11:30 AM

    Please note that I am not Fr. Joseph, just Joseph. I was laicized by Met, Philip.

  4. Forgive me, Joseph. Thank you for the clarification.

  5. Anonymous3:34 PM


    I perceive in you a good and honest spirit that is searching. It seems that each of us must go through our own questions and sort through our defenses and counter answers before we arrive at conclusions. May God guide you on your journey.



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