Since I haven’t posted anything new since May 2013, I wanted to take a moment to give you an update. I absolutely love writing, but there have been some other priorities that I have had to take care of that prevented me from producing anything new. I’m now living in Reston, Virginia, having relocated from Raleigh, North Carolina in July. In my limited free time, I’ve been working on some websites for people who contracted with me, and I have also been studying for some certifications at my regular job. As such, I have not posted or even written any new articles, but my mind has been swirling with ideas and I hope to have something new for this site soon.
I wish you all a Happy New Year and a blessed Old Calendar Orthodox Christmas!
Last Sunday, May 5, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter, which we generally refer to as Pascha. Having received a kind invitation to visit my friend Fr. George Psaromatis in Maryland and stay with his family, I took Friday off and began my journey by car. There are three services that are generally served on Holy Friday in our Church, two of which are generally well-attended by the faithful: Vespers with the Unnailing from the Cross, which is generally celebrated in the early afternoon Friday, and the Matins of Holy Saturday, celebrated Friday evening by anticipation.
I couldn’t make the 1 pm Vespers service in Maryland, and I also wanted to pay a visit to my friends at St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church in Richmond, Virginia, where Fr. Nicodemos Gayle is the priest. They were having Vespers at 2 pm, so I decided to stop there on my way up to Maryland to pray with that community. It proved to be a good choice; I wasn’t rushed in my driving, and the service was fantastic. They have a beautiful building; their old building was gutted by fire, and they were able to rebuild from scratch a traditional Orthodox Church edifice a few years back.
This was also my first time back to Church since I resigned the priesthood and returned to the lay state. I was a little apprehensive, fearing the unknown, but Fr. Nicodemos told me he would take care of notifying people so there would be no surprises. When I arrived, everyone was completely welcoming, and I felt touched by their kindness. After the one hour service, which features a symbolic taking down of an icon of Christ on the Cross and wrapping Him in a burial sheet, followed by bringing out the Epitaphios, a type of burial shroud with an icon of Christ in the tomb on it, we had light refreshments, this being a strict fast day, and then I took leave of these kind Christians and continued on my way.
The journey up to Crofton, Maryland was a long one. I expected there to be traffic, but it was worse than I had expected. The Washington, DC area has some of the worst traffic in the country. What should have taken me 2 hours took me 3 hours. The Matins service at St. Nicholas Orthodox Mission in Crofton began at 6 pm, but I arrived at 6:50 pm. I feared I had missed a lot, but thankfully, the service continued on for another three and a half hours, ending at 10:30 pm. Orthodox services are blissfully long!
What does one do for four and a half hours in Church, you might ask? The entire service is chanted, with beautiful ancient melodies resonating throughout the room. The priest often comes out of the altar area in order to cense (which means to produce incense with a tool called a censer), or perform other actions. We also had a procession outdoors around the block that evening. Bible readings occur, and basically we perform a funeral service for Our Lord. Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is not a bystander event, but one which draws the worshippers into the midst of the action, not just remembering what occurred 2000 years ago, but making us a part of it anew, as we go through the journey with Christ through His Crucifixion, Burial, and Resurrection.
St. Nicholas is a mission community, which means it is just getting started, so it doesn’t have a fancy building, but it has a core group of faithful who are working hard to establish a permanent place of worship. For the meantime, they are meeting in a rented facility, which although small and makeshift, does not lack anything and is in every way as Orthodox as an established parish such as St. Seraphim’s.
After the service, I returned to Fr. George’s brother’s home, where I was treated to kind hospitality by his brother and sister-in-law. We got to sleep late, and then awoke Saturday morning in order to have another service, this time a Divine Liturgy (communion service). At this point, the priest in many local traditions changes from dark vestments to light vestments, although such is not too common in the Greek practice. There are 15 readings from the Old Testament, the most prominent being one from the Book of Daniel, where we recount the Three Youths (Shadrack, Meeshack, and Abendnago) in the furnace, and then chant a magnificent hymn called “Arise, O God!” where we celebrate Christ’s breaking the bonds of death and Hades (the realm of death, Sheol, where all the dead of the Old Testament went, regardless of whether they were good or not; no one could enter Paradise until Christ destroyed the power of Death). In some places in Greece and the Arab nations, bay leaves are thrown and chairs and other things are banged to symbolize the locks being shattered. Fr. George and the parish did not do this, not being familiar with the practice, but I hope to cross-pollinate a little by next year and see it happen there…forgive my presumption!
Holy Saturday afternoons are for rest; Fr. George and I went to lunch to discuss the recent events of my life, and he gave me encouragement and good advice. Then back to the house for rest. We returned to the Church at around 11 pm, and the Pascha service began! The moment was finally here, that we had been waiting for! The beautiful hymns of Resurrection, joyous in both content and nature, replaced the slow, somber melodies we had previously heard. The tomb is empty! Christ the Lord is risen! Orthodox Christians sing a hymn that goes like this:
“Christ is risen from the dead; by death hath He trampled down death by death, and on those in the graves, hath He bestowed life!”
It is repeated a multitude of times throughout the five hour service.
We ended around 4:30 in the morning, and then broke out the meat and dairy products—food that Orthodox Christians fast from during the 40 days of Lent and 7 days of Holy Week. Not only were we spiritually renewed, but we feel a joyous physical relief from the burdens of fasting.
Coming back to the house, I went to sleep, only to be awoken by Fr. George’s five children playing around 10:30 am. I came out and began to speak to them. They are kind, intelligent children, ranging in age between 2 and 10, and I truly enjoyed speaking with them. They are also extremely polite; they offered to help me carry my luggage to the car. I see in them the result of good parenting, and hope for the same in my own life. High expectations combined with lots of love and attention from the parents—founded in a life of prayer, of course—are the right mix to ensure well-behaved children.
A brief 30 minute service was held around 1:30 pm, and then I took leave of this pious Christian family. They were headed for the big parish barbeque (lamb is generally roasted on a spit by Greeks Pascha afternoon) owing to needing to travel back home, but even so, I left feeling fulfilled and refreshed.
As an aside, I have to mention that something ironic happened while I was there. When I was a priest doing mission work among Americans, I always saw myself as a type of bridge between the Greeks up North at the Cathedral and the converts I was baptizing in the South. Many Greeks are sensitive to their culture being preserved, and rightfully so; however, at times this goes over into issues of language in services, and there are concerns about what is going on in missions with English liturgies and people not being familiar with Greek, Greeks, and the history of the Church in Greece.
From the convert perspective, there is of course the concern that one does not need to become another culture in order to become Orthodox, and an expectation that liturgy would be in a language that they understand, and so I generally would try to show people that there is a type of generic Orthodox culture and way of life that has to be grasped in addition to the dogmatic side of things, while also showing the Greeks I know that English liturgies do not take away from their own experience of the faith. I learned some Greek and even can sing several Greek folk songs so that Greeks would know that what I was doing was in no way aimed at changing the Church they grew up with.
Well, there were a lack of Greek people who were trained in chanting this time around, so yours truly was handed the book several times in order to execute some of the chant in Greek for the benefit of those who were first-generation Greek speakers. I also was asked to read the Catechetical Homily of St. John Chrysostom in Greek after Fr. George read it in English. He is able to read Greek, but only if he practices it thoroughly, which didn’t happen owing to the hustle and bustle of the week. So the convert guy saved the day for Greek chant and readings. Funny how things work out sometimes!
I would also like to add that this was the first time in five years that I had experienced Pascha as a layman, and had been at my mission Nativity of the Holy Theotokos Orthodox Church in Greenville, North Carolina in years past. In 2012, we had 32 people there, having started in 2008 with 3 people. I always enjoyed spending Pascha there with the fine people of the parish, and while I had a blessed time in Virginia and Maryland, I truly missed my old parish community during this holy time of the year.
Having become refreshed at these two Orthodox Christian parishes, I highly recommend them to anyone in the area. St. Nicholas Mission will be getting a website soon, at which point I will update this blog post. Whether convert or cradle Orthodox, these two traditional Orthodox parishes will provide you with the means to have peace in your life and save your soul. I thank God for allowing me to worship with them last weekend.
For the sake of aiding discussions on the matter of the Toll Houses and Orthodox views on eschatology in general, I offer some excerpts from our liturgical tradition. There are more, but these are just a few I selected arbitrarily:
“Noetic roaring lions have surrounded me, seeking to carry me away and bitterly torment me. Do thou crush their teeth and jaws, O pure One, and save me” (Ode 3, Troparion 2).
“Behold, terror has come to meet me, O Sovereign Lady, and I am afraid of it. Behold, a great struggle awaits me, in which be thou unto me a helper, O Hope of my salvation” (Ode 4, “Both Now”).
“They that shall lead me hence have come, holding me on every side. But my soul shrinks back and is afraid, full of great rebelliousness, which do thou comfort, O pure One, by thine appearance” (Ode 7, “Glory”).
“O thou that gavest birth to the Lord Almighty, when I come to die, do thou banish from me the commander of the bitter toll-gatherers and ruler of the earth, that I may glorify thee unto the ages, O holy Theotokos” (Ode 8, Troparion 3).
And from another canon at the departing of the soul from the body, for those who have suffered a long time, by St. Andrew of Crete:
“Come all you that have gathered together, who have lived your lives in piety, and lament the soul bereft of the glory of God, for shameful demons are striving to enslave it” (Ode 1, Troparion 1).
“Behold, a multitude of evil spirits are standing about, holding the handwriting of my sins, and they cry out exceedingly, shamelessly seeking my lowly soul” (Ode 1, “Glory”).
“O Sovereign Lady! O Sovereign Lady! Have mercy now on my perplexed soul looking to thy protection only, and do not disdain me, O Good One, who am being given over to demons” (Ode 4, “Both now”).
“Have mercy on me, O all-holy Angels of God Almighty, and deliver me from all the evil toll-collectors, for I have no good deeds to balance my evil deeds” (Ode 7, Troparion 2).
Source: St. Tikhon’s edition of the Book of Needs (Volume III, pages 75 ff.).
On Tuesday, April 3/16, 2013, the Holy Synod of the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of America heard my petition to resign the Holy Priesthood for personal reasons, and accepted it. I have been returned to the lay state. I realize this will come as a surprise to many of you, but it was not a decision taken lightly or quickly. I remain a member of the Orthodox Church, under my diocesan bishop, His Eminence Metropolitan Pavlos. Please keep me in your prayers.
As far as this website is concerned, I intend to continue using it as an avenue to develop my writing career. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and while I am no longer a priest, hopefully I can still use my writing skills for the glory of God and His Holy Church.
Finally, I have time to write you back! I was unusually busy the past two weeks.
I’ve read a little about the Greek Orthodox Church, enough to know that there is one doctrine that might divide us: “Bible + nothing” VERSUS “Bible + church tradition”. Being Baptist, I, of course, would be on the “Bible + nothing” side of the equation. Please don’t let that separate us, brother, because it appears that we are on the same page for many, if not most, of Christian doctrine.
That is one of the issues that Baptists and other Protestants have an issue with, the idea of “Scripture versus Tradition.” I certainly can’t cover the whole topic in one or even ten emails, as entire books, websites, and seminars have been held on the topic. I find that ultimately, all of the issues between Christian denominations boil down to questions of authority.
My basic response is that it is not necessarily the case that we Orthodox believe in two sources. We ultimately believe that properly speaking, the Word of God is Jesus Christ (John 1) and as such the Bible is the “Word of God” insofar as it is a reflection of Jesus Christ and His Gospel of salvation. The Apostles, who were illumined at Pentecost, were given a vision of God and this enabled them to carry on the message of Christ with the same authority. What they experienced—exemplified by St. Paul being caught up into the third heaven, and St. John seeing the heavenly worship in Revelation—is something that is available to Christians in each generation who through God’s grace overcome the passions (and purify their “mind”, which in the New Testament is the word used to translate “nous” which actually refers to the highest faculty of the soul, the intellect, which concerns spiritual discernment).
We do admit, however, that the people who saw Christ personally and were His immediate followers, had a special charisma as Apostles to write down what they experienced and teach it. That is why we only accept the texts written by the Apostles and their immediate disciples (such as St. Mark) as Scripture (while we accept as profitable the many other writings from that time such as the Epistles of Ignatius, etc., and reject as heretical any writing which did not have as central the Crucifixion, which is why the sayings-gospels such as Thomas were rejected as false, because they presented “wisdom” divorced from the Cross of Christ).
Yet the Apostles did not just teach doctrines, they shared this experience of Pentecost with their converts. Life in Christ is not just about believing in Christ, but being sanctified as well, being totally transformed. Doctrines are like the guardrails that make our spiritual experience of Christ valid, because without proper beliefs, we are worshiping a vague “spirituality” and not the True God. Spirituality is the proof that our faith is legitimate, though, on the flip side. Those who are false teachers may appear spiritual for a time, but their flaws and faults are ultimately exposed, whereas the True Christian bears the grace of Christ in a way that is discernable to others. So one’s faith and one’s doctrine, and one’s spiritual life are wrapped up in one, not rigidly separated into categories (if you want to talk about faith vs. works, we can, but that is a separate topic for discussion. I will assuage any concern though preemptively by stating we do not believe in “works righteousness.”)
Obviously, this method of spiritual discipline was something passed down from teacher to student. And there was a context in which the Scriptures were passed down. For instance, you might know that the Bible was not given an “official table of contents” until the Councils of Hippo and Carthage (393 and 397), although St. Athanasius of Alexandria lists the New Testament books in his Paschal Letter in c. 367, and other lists existed before this time, although sometimes people disagreed on things like the Book of Hebrews. How was the list determined? In council, the bishops spoke of which books they had been taught by their preceding bishop, publicly, and of course, they mostly agreed. What had been read publicly in the Churches in common across the whole world was seen as proof of authenticity. The Church had discerned true Scripture from false, and they had done it in council. This whole 300 year process is an example to Orthodox of “Holy Tradition at work”: not another source of doctrine in addition to Scripture, but the context by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ was passed down. Scripture has a primary role, but Scripture has to be understood according to the context of the Church, in which it is born in each generation.
To sum up, the text is passed down, but how it is preached and lived is as much a part of the package as the words themselves. When the Reformers and the Roman Catholics debated “one source” versus “two sources” they were both wrong; there is only one source—Jesus Christ—and the Bible is the primary way His disciples chose to collect this message, but the way the message was communicated and contextualized is very important and authoritative. We witness now many people having commentaries on Scripture, and trying to explain what the passages meant. For Orthodox, we like to go back to the people who lived right after the Apostles, and then their successors, and then the next generation, and see how the passage in question was understood throughout all time. We don’t believe that a doctrine appearing in the 11th century, 13th century, or 18th century is valid; it has to be something that was believed by Christians from the beginning. There is no sense in which the Church “got lost” and then “found itself again.” We see the arguments between Roman Catholics and Protestants as taking two extremes to basically non-existent problems, essentially.
So basically, we believe the Scriptures are the means by which we understand the Word of God, Our Savior Jesus Christ, and the Tradition of the Church is how this message was lived from all generations until the present.
I cannot explain it better than others have already, so if you want to explore the Orthodox view further, please see the articles on this page: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/inq_tradition.aspx
I’m sure, of course, that you are not pre-Millennial or a pre-Tribulationist, but I can live with that!!!
It would be interesting to know what the Greek Orthodox Church teaches with regards to eschatology, if you can point me toward anything.
I am not familiar with all the ins and outs of Protestant views of eschatology, because when I was a Protestant, I was Lutheran, and we did not believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture. I only became aware of this idea when I was around 16 years old. I think, though, that our view is basically that we are in the 1000 years now, because Satan was bound when Christ died on the Cross and descended into Hades (Sheol) to liberate the captives found there, before arising as victor on the 3rd day. The Church, the Body of Christ, is Heaven on Earth, a foretaste of eternity. Satan’s power is utterly limited now, such that he can only act on Christians when we give him license through falling into sin. Death is destroyed now, and is only a temporary rest, whereas in the Old Testament, even the righteous feared death, which was a guarantee of separation from God, a gloomy, shadowy, half-existence (the Psalms are full of references to this idea).
When a person dies, he is given a particular judgment, and sent to the waiting place for hell or the waiting place for heaven (because they don’t have their bodies restored yet, it is a foretaste in either case). This will ultimately be fulfilled on the day of the Last Judgment, when all people dead will be raised and with those alive at that last time, will be reunited to their bodies and given the final Judgment. Leading up to this time, will be periods of ever-increasing tribulation for the world, but Christians will not at some point get a rapture, leaving Jews to convert and fulfill the final several years. I don’t see much evidence for such a belief before the 1840’s, and references to a literal 1000 year kingdom did occur in a few Church writers in the 3rd century, but were not the consensus, and the Church ultimately sided against this teaching (called Chilianism).
I don’t have any good websites to send you to, because just as some Protestants are infected with the end-times mania of people like Hal Lindsey, we Orthodox have people who like to run with all sorts of prophecies of alleged holy people whom God allegedly revealed things to. I don’t deny that God can do that if He wants, but I am not even sure that some of the things I read on English language websites are accurate translations from the original languages. For instance, our St. Cosmas the Aitolian who lived in the 18th century allegedly predicted airplanes and telephones before the final “great war,” but people who speak Greek tell me they cannot find the actual Greek texts that are allegedly being translated. So I don’t want to send you to Orthodox websites on the topic without having first discerned whether they really represent Orthodox understandings of the End Times, and I don’t have time right now to research the issue thoroughly.
Well, I have rambled on way too long here, and I apologize for my wordiness. If you wish to respond, feel free to. I’d also love to meet you some time in person as face-to-face interactions are more fulfilling to me. You’re welcome as well to visit our Church any time, especially when we have a service on Saturday since you probably are committed to your own Church community on Sunday.
I’ve never been a big sports fan—let’s be clear on that! However, I will attend sporting events or watch them on television if family, friends, or co-workers invite me. I recognize the opportunity for social interaction that can occur during sporting events, and recognize that relationships have to be built and maintained. Not everyone likes to sit around and talk about religion and politics like I do, so a little give-and-take is necessary.
When one has children that are involved in sports, sporting events become even more important. While my daughter is not old enough for sports yet, I can see from my family, friends, and co-workers how sports can positively contribute to the family’s sense of togetherness. When parents go to their children’s sporting events, their children are happy; if the parents have to miss a game for some reason, especially if they had already committed to it, the children are generally disappointed. It’s not just about the sport itself—it’s about the dedication shown and the attention paid to the child. It’s a show of sacrifice, because children know their parents are busy, and seeing them put aside another thing they could be doing in order to attend the sporting event means a lot. We make time for the things that are important to us.
I was raised in a Christian family, and I remember as a child going to church—every Sunday. I also remember that we would go to Church during Holy Week—Thursday and Friday. We went on Christmas, too. It used to be that people who only attended church on Christmas and Easter were called “C and E Christians.” Sometimes that was a label that was thrown around judgmentally—shame on all of us who used it that way—but sometimes it was used not out of judgmentalism, but more out of concern, and even sadness, because there is so much that one loses by not regularly attending Church services. It’s as if a treasure is being offered to anyone that will take it, and yet people pass by the treasure, making excuses for why they can’t accept it (actually, I didn’t come up with that idea—it’s a parable in the Bible. I won’t tell you where it is, though, in case you feel motivated to figure it out yourself!)
Over time, I have noticed that many Christians don’t even attend Church on Christmas or Easter, let alone on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Yet these same people, when prodded, profess to be Christians. They talk about Jesus, the Bible, moral values, etc. Many of them even live a better life than I have. Yet Church attendance doesn’t seem to be on their radar screen. To them, faith in God is something they have “in their heart.” Let’s be clear again—I am not presuming to judge their relationship with God; I am only making an observation and trying to understand how we’ve come to this point.
Perhaps it’s the logical outcome of their Protestant belief system—accept Jesus in some type of personal, spiritual way, and you’re set, so Church is kind of a nice add-on but not really fundamentally necessary. You certainly couldn’t lose your salvation by missing Church, right? (Well, in my opinion, you could, but that’s a different essay topic). The problem is, it’s not just the Protestants among my family and friends that are tempted this way; many Roman Catholic friends and acquaintances are like this, and even some Orthodox, too. Hence I’m not going to delve into the theological underpinnings or try to compare and contrast Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox Churches, but rather continue to focus on the phenomenon itself and why I think it’s unfortunate. I’ll do that by tying it back to sports.
In a few years, let’s suppose my daughter takes up soccer. She begins to do the work, go to practices, train, and starts to go to games. But I never show up.
“Well honey, I love you very much. You’re always in my heart.” I think we all know that excuse would not fly. The response would likely be:
“Then why don’t you show it, Dad?”
To support our children involved in sports, we have to go to the games. It is part of the relationship. In the same way, every Sunday, Jesus is as it were playing a match: in this game, the most important game, he is defeating the Devil, Death, and Sin. It’s really quite an amazing thing, and like our children, Jesus wants us to be there to see it. He wants us to participate. Unlike our children, He doesn’t need our attention, but He does love us, and it makes Him happy when we show our love for Him in return. He also wants us to get something out of the experience—hearing Holy Scripture, receiving Holy Communion, and having fellowship with fellow Christians—which are all things that we can’t do “in our hearts.”
We go to our children’s soccer games, because we love them. If we love Jesus, let’s go to Church, too.
Recently, I traveled to my birthplace of Toledo, Ohio, to attend the funeral of my grandmother, Jane Marcy Cole. She died at the age of 88 on Monday, March 25, 2013. She is survived by her husband Ralph, three daughters, six grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and numerous extended family.
One thing that worried me was that she might have chosen to be cremated, but thankfully, this was not the case. In recent times, the number of people—including Christians—who are choosing to undergo this process instead of opting for a traditional burial is on the rise. I think this is lamentable for several reasons.
First, there is the theological reason. The Christian Church in general was against cremation from the beginning, and the Orthodox Church in contrast to most other denominations continues to ban the practice. We are not dualists; we believe that man is a body and a soul united together, not a soul imprisoned inside of a body as did the ancient pagans. It is commonplace today to hear people talk about their soul being the “real self” and the body just being a vehicle or an external container. This is paganism revived, plain and simple, and this idea is an import from Eastern religions. Christians believe in the resurrection of the body; at the end of time, our bodies will be reconstituted and rejoined to our souls, and in this restored form, we will face God in judgment. As such, we bury the dead, because their body is still a temple of the Holy Spirit; it is still a nexus of the spiritual and the physical. The soul has departed from it, but this is only temporary, and as such the body deserves our continued respect.
Second, there is the pastoral reason. We go to funerals not just for the sake of the one who died, but also for our own sake. A funeral serves as a reminder that we are next. We will all pass away at one point or another, so it is important to be ready for it. If we have not repented of various sins, let’s not wait for another day to do it. This is even more vividly experienced at the funeral of a young person who passes suddenly. Being in the presence of the deceased is a jarring but necessary experience which is diminished when he or she is instead presented in a colorful vase or jar. For this reason I am also opposed to closed-casket funerals except in cases of harsh disfigurement. My own grandmother wanted a closed-casket funeral, perhaps because she did not understand these principles, but at least we the close family were allowed to see her body during private viewing hours.
Finally, there is the psychological reason. When I was a teenager, my beloved pet dog Pipper woke up one morning and couldn’t walk anymore. She was seventeen years old—quite advanced for a dog. My father took her in to put her to sleep, and I did not go. For years since I have had recurring dreams of my dog being still alive, or being lost and then found, because I never saw her expire. In contrast, I was present when my other dog Lucy died, and had no such experience. Seeing our deceased love ones face-to-face is important for psychological closure and moving on. It is certainly hard, but it serves a vital purpose. Seeing my grandmother one last time was special for me and made me feel at peace.
I occasionally meet people who have a fear of funerals and dead people, who make comments to the effect that they would skip the funeral of someone they loved in order to just remember them in the way they were when they were alive. To be honest, this strikes me as avoidance and unhealthy, because the person is in effect pretending that a fundamental event common to all of us has not just occurred, that a relationship has not just been fundamentally altered. They also remain aloof from the rest of the family and friends who are in the grief process, and who benefit from the presence of others. Skipping the funerals of loved ones and friends does a disservice to oneself, one’s loved ones, and the deceased.
If you are a Christian and have chosen to be cremated, I strongly encourage you to rethink this choice and opt for a traditional burial, out of respect for your body, and for the sake of your loved ones!
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (II Thessalonians 2:15).
I have long thought that Evangelical Protestants approach problems with a methodology of identifying a dichotomy and then arguing for the one side and against the other, but I believe that oftentimes these dichotomies are false dichotomies, or straw men. Obviously, since I am an Orthodox Christian and former Protestant, but you know me well enough to know that I am not approaching this merely as a polemicist but as a fellow open-minded truth seeker (Truth being found in the person of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ).
You are an intelligent and thoughtful person, and I always enjoy our discussions, and in fact, look forward to that day when again I will see you in person, if the Lord should grant it. For that reason, I will simply come out and say that your post was a drive-by post that doesn’t really touch the issue, and you can and should penetrate a little deeper.
What are the arguments that traditionalists such as myself make? Do we ever suppose that our Traditions are above the Bible? Of course not! We obviously believe that our Traditions are in perfect harmony with Biblical Truth, are revealed by Christ through the Holy Spirit, and are part and parcel of the Apostolic Deposit of Faith, whether by word or by letter. Holy Tradition has been called “Scripture Rightly Understood” or the Word of God as lived and experienced in each generation.
Yet we do not imagine that everything old is necessarily good; St. Vincent of Lerins, who tackled this problem in the 5th century, had the famous statement that what is Tradition and True is that which is believed at “all times, everywhere, by all people.” Obviously, there will always be those who deny Truth and break away, but that was not his point. His point is that there has to be evidence of a teaching being present in all times, places, and by all peoples in the Church. That which cannot be traced to the beginning, or is being championed in only once place, or by only a select few, is not Tradition but rather is “an antiquity of error.”
We Orthodox, for instance, have faithfully passed down such universal practices of the Church (at least they were universal until the Protestant Revolution) such as making the sign of the Cross, baptizing by three full immersions into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, etc. Yet we also find improper customs floating about that have to be addressed and rooted out in each generation; things such as the faithful only receiving Holy Communion once, twice, or thrice a year, which St. Nikodemos the Haghiorite attacked vociferously as anti-Tradition in the 19th century.
So the question should not be whether you will follow Tradition or Biblical teachings; your question should be what is Tradition and whether a certain practice is really a Tradition or merely a degenerate custom that has infiltrated the body like a weed among grass.
Is this merely a matter of semantics? No, I would say not; firstly because St. Paul commands us to follow certain Traditions, so we need to take him seriously and figure out what he means by that, and secondly because it’s just too easy for Protestants to label anything they don’t like as a preference as a “dead Tradition” which can be disposed of.
The things that you mention in the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) and other Baptist conventions are not matters of Tradition but are rather customers–rather lately developed–which not only have no basis in Scripture, but are anti-Scriptural, are completely novel, and divide SBC members from the universal practice of the ancient Church. That some SBC members such as yourself have rejected these practices and especially in a different social/cultural context is positive and may we all look in our own hearts for those things that separate us from Christ and the practices of His Holy Church.* But let’s do it with an eye toward fidelity toward the legitimate Tradition of the Church, and not with an eye toward innovation and creating yet more and new expressions of Christianity in the name of relevance. True, legitimate Tradition will always be flexible and broad enough to speak to all peoples and cultures.
Yours in Christ,
(* M. is referring to his parish Church’s rejection of anti-alcohol teachings, which separates it from the wider Southern Baptist Convention to which it belongs).
In the last century, a new heresy permeated the Orthodox world, the heresy of ecumenism. This umbrella term encompasses several related problems that have been eating away at Orthodox life for more than eighty years. For the purposes of this article, we will use ecumenism as an umbrella term to refer to the problems of the branch theory, which imagines that the sacraments of the Church are present in various Churches that are not united and do not share the same faith, and modernism, which is at its root the assumption that modern man has the ability to diagnose the development of the Church’s tradition and make modifications as necessary, ignoring the organic development of the past several centuries.
From the beginning of this heresy, Orthodox have resisted it. These Orthodox are known by various names: True Orthodox, Genuine Orthodox, Traditionalist Orthodox, Old Calendarists, and Anti-Ecumenists, for instance. In the beginning, Athonite monks provided the sacraments to those in Greece who refused to follow the first tangible aspect of ecumenism in the life of the common people: the calendar change of 1924, when the patristic calendar was jettisoned in favor of a crude hybrid Julian-Gregorian calendar (a calendar so flawed that in several thousand years Christmas and Pascha will coincide). Later, in 1935, several bishops returned to the patristic calendar. Later, as ecumenism increased, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) also experienced an awakening of anti-ecumenism. In the 1960’s, the ROCOR and the Old Calendarist Greeks began to cooperate in witnessing traditional Orthodoxy: the ROCOR even provided the Greek Old Calendarists with bishops after the last Old Calendarist bishop reposed.
In lands where Orthodoxy is not established, there is generally more confusion as to what constitutes authentic Orthodoxy. With the heresy of ecumenism, the lines have become even more blurred. Anti-ecumenism exists in North and South America, but what constitutes valid resistance to this heresy is not always obvious. Due to the influence of false western ecclesiological ideas, such as the idea that apostolic succession exists outside the Church (and thus anyone ordained a bishop by “valid” bishops is himself a “valid” bishop as long as he can prove his “lines” of succession), combined with pride and ambition, and a desire for money, there have arisen a class of pseudo-Orthodox clergy who claim to be priests and bishops of the Orthodox Church.
These bishops, called episcopi vagantes in Latin ecclesiological terms, sometimes pretend to be Roman Catholic, sometimes Orthodox, or sometimes even combinations of their own creation. Among the New Calendarists, these people are rightly rejected as being false clergy, but the problem becomes acute when innocent people begin to resist ecumenism and look for a new home. This is because when searching for a traditional Orthodox parish, one often encounters these episcopi vagantes who claim they are Old Calendarists too. Those looking for traditional Orthodoxy then end up farther away from it than when they started. Therefore, one must understand the difference between a True Orthodox Church and a false Church staffed by episcopi vagantes, which we hope to make more clear by pointing out several indicators of a Church being false.
The first clear indicator of a false Orthodox Church is one which appeals to “valid orders,” “valid apostolic succession,” or “ordination from valid bishops” and in this context oftentimes usually considers anyone from the Orthodox or Catholic Churches to have this “valid succession.” A traditional Orthodox bishop would not appeal to such concepts because an Orthodox bishop is not made a bishop by those claiming descent from Roman Catholic bishops, or from bishops who he never communes with again, or made an independent bishop. An Orthodox bishop must be part of a Synod which confesses Orthodoxy in an unbroken community, not simply a line of one bishop ordaining another—if a bishop breaks from other bishops and consecrates bishops, these ordinations are meaningless. A bishop can only be created in the Church and for the Church, by people still in communion with the Church and with each other.
Some would argue that because Old Calendarists are not in communion with the so-called “mainstream” Orthodox (i.e. the New Calendarists and those professing ecumenism, or those who are in communion with such persons), they are falling under their own judgment for not being in communion with the Church. We must point out, however, that one of the criteria of true apostolic succession is bishops are ordained in the context of the Orthodox community, and not in schism or heresy. Ecumenists, by their heresy, have cut themselves off from the Church, and as such, we must not have communion with them. An episcopi vagante often does not have concerns about ecumenism, or traditional Orthodoxy, but rather is separate because of personal problems with the “institutional Church” or flaunt their “independence”—but do not resist any heresy. What reason, then, do they need to be separated from New Calendarists, since one can only separate for questions of faith, and not for personal controversies?
Some episcopi vagantes are anti-ecumenist, but then the question arises, why are they not in communion with the Orthodox Church (i.e. the True Orthodox)? Again, one can only separate for reasons of faith, and yet some of these false bishops accept that ecumenism is wrong, and that the True Orthodox are right in their position, and they may even present themselves as True Orthodox, but they do not commune with the True Orthodox nor do they belong to a Synod of True Orthodox bishops? One cannot be Orthodox and be independent of the Church. If one is opposed to ecumenism, he should join the True Orthodox Church—not start his own.
The other major problem of these false Orthodox are ambition and immorality. Some are so interested in becoming clergy that they will do anything to be ordained. When they are turned down from ordination in the New Calendar Church, suddenly they seek out alternatives to ordination. Sometimes they briefly join the Old Calendar Church and successfully feign piety long enough to be ordained and leave. But more often, they rush towards the most sure and quick way to be ordained: by seeking out episcopi vagantes, who are eager to ordain so they can build up their numbers on paper. This double lust for worldly glory leads to disastrous results.
Other clergy are simply immoral, and have been defrocked by other Churches; these people, having nowhere else to go, start their own Churches. Sometimes, there are priests that are not immoral, but wish to become bishops while being married. This is another sign of a false Church: married bishops. No Orthodox Church has married bishops, and there are no exceptions to this rule. A false Orthodox Church will often have more clergy than parishioners, or its clergy will claim grand titles, like “Metropolitan Archbishop” when they only have one parish. While size is not the main factor in determining legitimacy, having a consistent lack of parishioners while maintaining a large number of clergy, or having a consistently changing population of people (i.e. many coming and many leaving, so that at any given time most people are not the same people that attended a year ago) are other clues of being a false Church.
Thus, if one is seeking the answer to ecumenism, he will find it in one place: the True Orthodox Church. In Greece, this is headed by Archbishop Kallinikos of Athens. In America, there is an Eparchial Synod under the presidency of Metropolitan Pavlos of North and South America.
Just so we’re clear on something: Priests Have Feelings, Too! One of the worst feelings a priest has is when parishioners he is particularly close to depart into error (for instance, leaving the Orthodox Church). Sure, anyone leaving is a sad occasion, but when people you have worked closely with and spent a great deal of time with leave, it adds to the pain on a human level. The following poem is something I wrote when this occurred to me a few years ago, and I offer it to give insight into what occurs inside the heart of a priest during these types of situations.
Don’t tell me the bad news!
Enough! Only the good I want to hear.
I can’t deal with these issues.
Hurt and fear arise inside me.
I know the platitudes—
Just trust in God! It will be alright!
I know in my head this is true,
But my heart is aching.
The pressure inside my chest grows
My neck is stiff, and I’m light-headed.
My consciousness is leaving the room
Bit by bit, I am slipping away.
I’m not here anymore
So much of me has grown dead
It’s all withering away
Nothing will be left.
So recently you were here
All of one mind, I was so happy
My friends, my partners: one team
One goal, one aim, one life.
Your faith was a consolation to me
Now our experiences have become shadows
Photos, dreams, memories
But nothing new.
I pray you will come back.