I was sent an article written by the late Fr Seraphim Rose on “The Proper View of Non-Orthodox Christians” and I would like to share some thoughts on its argument.
While I do not disagree with the general intent and purpose of the article (how to cultivate φιλανθρωπία, or the love of neighbor), I do believe that the article is not as effective as it could be because it does not take into account the many nuances and complexities of Orthodox/Protestant dialogue in the 21st century.
Maybe that is because Fr Seraphim wrote during a time when globalization and the Protestant awareness of Orthodoxy in America had not grown to the extent it has today. Be that as it may, I’d like to address some of the article’s arguments. (Please note that I am addressing only the content of the argument, not making any appraisal of Fr Seraphim, his writings, or anything like that).
The article is available in many places online, e.g., here.
After making some general remarks about how Orthodoxy is the Church, the article starts by saying that
It is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Orthodox Church.
I think Fr Seraphim begins by unintentionally committing the fallacy of poisoning the well when he asserts that it is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Church. It assumes that criticisms of error and debates about the church and doctrine, at least in the majority of times, consist of people judging the personal state of those with whom they were interacting; but that is not always the case. Plus, this is not the topic of the article to begin with.
It goes on to say,
About those Christians who are outside the Orthodox Church, therefore, I would say: they do not yet have the full truth. Perhaps it just hasn’t been revealed to them yet, or perhaps it is our fault for not living and teaching the Orthodox Faith in a way they can understand.
Here, I believe Fr Seraphim equivocates on the concept of “the truth not being revealed to them yet.” Of the several possible meanings of this idea, which one is intended here? One could think that he means that people never heard in their entire life about the Orthodox Church and of Christian doctrine, and if so I think this could be a valid point.
However, most interactions in a place like the United States today are not of the sort. On the contrary, they are interactions between Orthodox people and Protestants who know what the Orthodox Church is and what it teaches; and they often are very happy to deny her teachings, in its most central dogmas, and explicitly call Orthodox people non-Christians. So they know. And they reject it.
The only other possible meaning of “God has not yet revealed that to them” would be a subjective, Calvinistic idea of God conveying some secret revelation to people in their hearts. I don’t know if Fr Seraphim meant this, but this meaning would be problematic for several reasons: first, because it is not for us to inquire about secret and hidden things; also, because the Church in its history did not simply tell those who opposed Christian truth by saying, “maybe God didn’t reveal it to you.” Well, maybe God didn’t, but truth is truth, and error was rejected. Explicitly. In many councils.
The article also makes some vague statements about using the terms “heresy” and “heretic.” For example,
Among Western converts to Orthodoxy there is indeed a temptation to speak too freely of “heresy” and “heretics,” and to make the errors of the non-Orthodox an excuse for a certain pharisaic smugness about our own Orthodoxy.
Perhaps it is true that people might use those terms too loosely at times. However, the clear, intentional, informed, obstinate, and deliberate denial of the central tenets of Christianity by many Protestants is also a reality.
It is a common experience of many practicing Orthodox people in a place like United States, who have friends and relatives who are Protestants, to be told explicitly things like, “there is no such thing as the Eucharist, there is no such thing as the bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. This is idolatry and paganism. Communion is just a memorial, it’s just bread and wine, or better, crackers and grape juice.”
Or, “the Virgin and Theotokos is neither a virgin nor the mother of God. This is idolatry and paganism; she is only the mother of Jesus, she was just a pipe through which God sent the physical body of his Son.”
Or, “The Orthodox Church is not the Church; it is not in the Body of Christ. It is at best just another denomination, at worst a pagan group developed after Constantine, and people in it deny Christ and go to hell.”
Or “asking for the help and prayers of the ‘saints’ is idolatry, necromancy, paganism, it is empowered by demons, and it is a sure sign that one is going to hell.”
I could go on with many other examples. These I report from personal interactions and listening to Protestant public teaching, from the pulpit, media, etc.
Maybe one is prepared to be confronted with such things and shrug if off in the name of love. After all, there is some truth in Protestantism (as it is inevitable – there is much truth in Buddhism and Islam as well), and, as Fr Seraphim says,
Almost all of the [Protestant] religious Christmas carols are all right, and they are sung by Orthodox Christians in America (some of them even in the strictest monasteries!).
Maybe Fr Seraphim was thinking of some of the classic Protestant hymns of John Newton and the Wesleys, not the, shall we say, interesting things sung in modern pop evangelical Jesus-is-my-boyfriend Christian rock.
Be that as it may, I don’t think that true love, in this situation, is one not to address truth. This would be simply superficial indifference and compromise. And I don’t think the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils who gave their lives to defend truth and evangelize the world would agree with that approach either.
Many Protestants say these things outlined above to Orthodox people. They deny the Eucharist, the Church, the Mother of God, the communion of saints, the Mysteries (Sacraments), and Orthodox Christology. They actively teach the erroneous alternatives to the Christian Faith.
They also say these things to other Protestants. Pastors and teachers say these things from the pulpit. Protestant churches use all available media tools to spread these errors and to keep people from being joined to the Body of Christ. I have heard, read, or been told these things hundreds of times.
The article ends by affirming that we should view or non-Orthodox people as potentially Orthodox, and live peaceably with them and not be harsh towards them.
In the end, we should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognizing that at least we have our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teaching.
I think this is a very problematic equivocation, and here’s why.
It assumes that opposing these errors I listed here, and many others, is automatically, and by definition, equivalent to being harsh, to considering people as lost causes, enemies, or wanting not to be peaceable with them.
Not only this is not true, very often the opposite is true. We speak the truth in love with the hope that people will embrace the truth and reject error, not because we don’t consider them as potentially living in the Truth.
We live in a society where truth has been, by and large, demoted from the public square and reduced to personal, subjective preferences. The popular idea that “truth is relative” is something that many people actually believe. And one offspring of such darkness is the increase in hatred against opposing views.
We already see this in the current socio-political condition of this country, where “toleration” is something that one only wishes to apply to his or her opinion, but never to extend to the ones who disagree with him or her. More than ever, people do not accept opposing in views, and express hatred against those who hold them. We are living in an increasingly fascist society when it comes to ideas and freedom of speech. It probably won’t be too long before people can be jailed for simply saying particular Christian beliefs out loud which are out of step with current popular opinion.
This carries on to the religious arena as well. Ironically, very often, the same evangelical Christians who complain about not having the liberty to believe as they will in the secular world, will not tolerate being questioned in their beliefs by other Christians either.
I cannot count how many times I have witnessed Protestants reacting with hatred at the mere mention that their views are in error. Not necessarily by an Orthodox – it could be a Lutheran questioning Word-of-Faith preachers, or many other combinations.
Protestants are often very eager to affirm the things I outlined above, but if one tries to explain why the affirmations are erroneous, the reaction is something like, “how dare you? Who do you think you are? How dare you judge me? You are rude and judgmental and harsh!”
Most often, it would not matter if you were to oppose their views on your knees and holding out flowers and a box of chocolates. The mere objective mention of their error, or the defense of the Christian faith and truth, is a cause for hatred and the accusation of rudeness, arrogance, and of being judgmental.
It is no surprise that those who have been wounded by the zeitgeist (as we all have some way) get angry when confronted with the truth, even if the “confrontation” is done with respect and even gentleness.
I do not doubt that many people have failed to be gentle and respectful in their theological interactions. I am sure I have at times. We should all heed the call to gentleness and respect.
But I am convinced that more often than not, the problem is just the opposite. It is that people knowingly and deliberately reject the truth they do know, much like the Pharisees of old; they do not like being opposed in any way that does not suit their personal preference. Because for many Christians in America, Christianity, either in itself, or in its different “expressions,” is a matter of preference, not ultimate truth. That is why many Protestants now, more than ever, incessantly pursue the Holy Grail of being “relevant” to the public preferences du jour.
I do not even need to list the numerous passages in the New Testament where St. Paul and others command their co-workers to “rebuke sharply” those who oppose the truth.
I worked for a few years in countercult apologetics when I was a Protestant. I have seen how cults operate. Groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on. They might be “potential” Protestants and Christians, but they are not Protestants, and they are not Christians. They’re cults. They jeopardize peoples’ lives spiritually. Maybe God has not yet revealed something to them either.
Often they also react with anger and hatred against those who very gently, objectively, and respectfully speak and publish against their serious errors. Against people who have spent their entire lives, as a calling, reaching out to them and “speaking the truth in love” to help pluck them out of the fire.
Many of those people speaking the truth are former cultists. I have met them. Many of them are very thankful that somebody reached out to them. They are thankful that people were not afraid to be hated or thought of being jerks by simply telling them the truth. They are thankful that people cared and reached out and spoke the truth to them.
Our friends and family members who are Protestants may not be in cults. But, as I mentioned above, they can very clearly, deliberately, and obstinately espouse very serious error and spread such errors against the truth of Christ. They do it here in this country. They also send missionaries to Orthodox countries to “evangelize” them – i.e., get them out of the Church and into their own groups and versions of “Christianity.”
I believe Fr Seraphim’s article, which I have seen circulating on the interwebs, and which is well-intentioned, does a disservice by implying that presenting truth is, automatically and by definition, unkind; and that we should “live in peace” and quiet alongside outspoken error and heresy for the sake of being nice and not being thought of as rude.
On the contrary, we should speak the truth in love.
As I write this, I’m reminded that last night I was invited by a friend to attend the Service at the old ROCOR Cathedral in San Francisco, when in a couple of weeks he (a Protestant convert) will be made an official catechumen so he can be baptized and Chrismated into the Church. Because people who cared (including me) spoke the truth in love and took the time to answer his questions.
Glory to God!