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Why I’m Not Eastern Orthodox

I often get asked why I don’t become Eastern Orthodox. If I know so much about Church history, shouldn’t I conclude that the Roman Church has gone off the rails and Eastern Orthodoxy has preserved the precious dogmas of the early Church in their pristine form? There are many reasons why I can’t embrace the Eastern Orthodox Church and here are a couple.

Let’s get one thing straight right at the start, there are multiple Eastern churches. There is the Eastern Orthodox church which includes Greece, Russia, and those in communion with them. There is the Oriental Orthodox Church which separated from the Catholic Church in the 5th century due to Christological heresy. This Church includes the Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, Eritreans and several other groups. There is also the Assyrian Church of the East which like the Oriental Orthodox Church, separated over a Christological heresy in the 5th century. All three of these churches still exist and claim to be the Church that Jesus Christ founded. Then of course, there are the Eastern churches in full communion with Rome, sometimes called Uniates. There are multiple Eastern apostolic churches. Modern popular promoters of Eastern Orthodoxy often try to pretend like other ones don’t exist.

A few years ago I read a book by the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Peter Gilquist. The book is called Becoming Orthodox and it chronicles the journey of some Protestant pastors who go on a journey to discover the true Church. No other Eastern churches are mentioned. It’s simply Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I find this to be a fairly common and dishonest approach.

Many Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics know the famous date of 1054 AD; the date when Rome and Constantinople decided to part ways. However, hardly anyone knows the big issue that was debated at this time. Most would guess the Papacy or the Filioque but that actually wasn’t the case at all. It was a Greek theological war on Latin liturgical customs, primarily unleavened bread for the Eucharist and Fasting on Saturday.

Anyone who studies church history, knows that while the faith must be universal in all places and at all times, liturgical customs are allowed to vary among different Christian communities. This wasn’t enough for the clergy of Constantinople, led by Patriarch Michael Cerularius who had recently closed all of the Latin churches in Constantinople due to their use of unleavened bread. Cardinal Humbert showed up to discuss the issue and it ended up in a fiasco with mutual excommunications.[1]

Apart from intolerance of non-Byzantine liturgical customs, there is another reason why I can’t go Greek and that is their sacramental theology, or rather their lack of it. Allow me to explain what I mean. In 2014 I went on a trip to the Balkans and visited several Eastern Orthodox countries. I had quite the love for Serbia, which is an Eastern Orthodox nation. The big saint in Serbia is St. Sava. They recently completed one of the largest Cathedrals in the world and it is named after St. Sava. When I was there, it was in its last stages of construction. Being the history lover that I am, when I got home from vacation I ordered a biography of St. Sava. I found a biography written by Nicholai Velimiroch and started to read. On the very first page it said the following:

He was born in Ribnica, near old Ducleja, and was baptized first by Latin-speaking priests there, but later rebaptized by clergy recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Church of the Holy Apostles at Ras.

This is rank heresy. Baptism doesn’t depend on whether you’re under an Eastern Orthodox Patriarch; the Holy Spirit gives power to the sacraments, not the priest. The early Church knew that some baptisms outside the Church were accepted and some weren’t. In the Council of Trullo, canon 95 lays out which heretical groups are to be received by baptism and which aren’t. The Holy Spirit works in baptism, providing it is done properly. The Eastern Orthodox have never figured this out with respect to Catholics or even the Protestants. If the Eastern Orthodox stuck to the same practice always and everywhere it would at least be consistent but that’s not what they do.

In the book The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, this Orthodox author describes the train wreck of a track record of the Eastern Orthodox Church accepting or rejecting Catholic baptism. Ware writes:

In 1724 a large part of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch submitted to Rome; after this the Orthodox authorities, fearing that the same things might happen elsewhere in the Turkish Empire, were far stricter in their dealings with Roman Catholics. The climax in anti-Roman feeling came in 1755, when the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem declared Latin baptism to be entirely invalid and demanded that all converts to Orthodoxy be baptized anew (Penguin: 3rd ed. 2015, p. 94).

In other words, Catholics are aggressively missionizing Eastern Orthodox members so their baptism is not valid. This is not how sacraments work. Ware continues: “This measure remained in force in the Greek world until the end of the nineteenth century” (loc. cit.).

I suppose at this point the Catholic missionary activities slowed down and hence Catholic baptism became valid again in the eyes of these three Greek patriarchates.

These are just the ancient patriarchates. The equally Orthodox Russian Church was a whole new ball game. Ware writes: “Russians generally baptized Roman Catholic converts between 1441 and 1667, but since 1667 they have not normally done so” (ibid., 94-95).

Ware doesn’t give a reason for the change in Russian policy, just the relevant dates. Nothing significant changed in Catholic baptisms in 1667.

One can only assume how confused these Eastern Orthodox bishops were when the Protestants came on the scene. In the book Russia and the Universal Church, Soloviev writes the following:

William Palmer, a distinguished member of the Anglican Church and of the University of Oxford, wished to join the Orthodox Church. He went to Russia and Turkey to study the contemporary situation in the Christian East and to find out on what conditions he would be admitted to the communion of the Eastern Orthodox. At St. Petersburg and at Moscow he was told that he had only to abjure the errors of Protestantism before a priest, who would thereupon administer to him the sacrament of Holy Chrism or Confirmation.

But at Constantinople he found that he must be baptized afresh. As he knew himself to be a Christian and saw no reason to suspect the validity of his baptism (which incidentally was admitted without question by the Orthodox Russian Church), he considered a second baptism would be a sacrilege.

On the other hand, he could not bring himself to accept Orthodoxy according to the local rules of the Russian Church, since he would then become Orthodox only in Russia while remaining a heathen in the eyes of the Greeks; and he had no wish to join a national Church but to join the universal Orthodox Church. No one could solve his dilemma so he became a Roman Catholic (New Edition, 2013, p. 66-67).

As we can see, there is no consistent view on baptism in either Russia or the Middle Eastern Orthodox churches, and both of them have contradicted themselves at certain points in post-schism history. It’s ironic that the Latin Church was cast into outer darkness in the 11th century for using unleavened bread and fasting on Saturday; however the various Eastern Orthodox branches have contradictory views on baptism yet that’s not a reason to break communion. Ironically the churches of Constantinople and Russia are no longer in communion with each other. They didn’t break over theology related to the soul saving waters of baptism. They broke over territorial jurisdictional squabbles in Ukraine. This just shows that the unity they shared in the past was a purely artificial. The only reason that they could be in communion was because they either didn’t discuss theological issues among each other or didn’t take them seriously. A Church that doesn’t take baptism seriously should not be considered a viable option for conversion.

There is a slippery Eastern Orthodox answer to this baptism conflict. When you point this baptism problem out to them they simply say that “it’s all economia.” Economia is the cavalry that comes to save the day. There is no full definition of the word but it usually refers to the loosening of the canons. The only problem is, fancy Greek words can’t create a baptism out of nothing. If someone isn’t properly baptized, throwing a fancy Greek word out there doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t see how this confusion has anything to do with loosening of the canons. You’re either validly baptized or you aren’t. Ware pointed out that the Russian Church changed its policy on Catholic baptism in 1667. How is this Economia? Why does Economia give two different answers for Russia on both sides of 1667? Why was Economia working differently for the churches in the Middle East? The term was probably originally meant for cosmetic non-doctrinal issues like the length of a catechumenate. Trying to apply Economia to the baptism issue is like trying to put a band aid over an amputated limb.

Baptism has never been a problem for the Catholic Church as we’ve known what a true baptism is for 2000 years, whether Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Arian, etc. Remember, baptism is an issue related to salvation. One can’t go to heaven without baptism. If the Russian and Constantinople churches had disagreements on cosmetic issues such as how many months one should be a catechumen, that wouldn’t be an issue. When salvation is on the line as it is with baptism, nothing can be taken for granted. Since this key theological issue doesn’t seem to be important to the majority of the Eastern Orthodox world while shallow nothing issues like Ukrainian jurisdiction and unleavened bread are reason for separation, I simply cannot take the plunge into this confused and multi-layered schism. It’s all Greek to me.

[1] In commenting on Cerularius’ Letter to Peter of Antioch justifying his actions against the Latins, Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev writes: “The majority of these faults of the Latins are purely ritual in nature and do not relate to the essence of the faith (the wearing of rings by bishops, the shaving of beards, fasting on Saturdays, the eating of meat by monks), while other reflect practices of church life in the west (celibacy of the clergy), and still others are due to cultural peculiarities of the Latin west (scanty knowledge of the Greek fathers). Only one serious dogmatic difference between the east and west is mentioned: the teaching on the filioque, but it is mentioned in passing, along with other liturgical trifles. In this epistle Cerularius makes no mention of the main reason for the division: namely, papal primacy” (Orthodox Christianity Volume I: The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church [SVS Press, 2011], p. 114).


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