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The Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement


The following article first appeared in the November 1996 edition of "Diocesan News For Clergy and Laity" (Volume 4, Number 11), printed and distributed by the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver.

Much has been said, and much written, concerning the Orthodox Church and its involvement with what is broadly referred to as the "Ecumenical Movement." It seems that no other issue causes as much consternation within the Orthodox Church as "Ecumenism," and indeed it has resulted in serious divisions and even schisms within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by our Lord.

In general, we might say that the Ecumenical Movement is an effort to bring Christian Churches back into the union that existed at least prior to the Council of Chalcedon. A noble endeavor, to be sure. But the means for such union remain highly disputed.

For the faithful Orthodox there is only one answer in this regard: union of the Christian Churches must be a union in the traditional apostolic faith. In other words, the separated Churches must return to Orthodoxy. The Delegates of the Orthodox Church to the North American Faith and Order Study Conference, in Oberlin, Ohio in 1957 expressed the matter most succinctly when they were asked to comment on the topic of Christian "Unity:" "(this Unity) is for us a given unity which has never been lost, and, as a Divine gift and an essential mark of Christian existence, could not have been lost. This unity in the Church of Christ is for us a unity in the Historical Church, in the fullness of faith, in the fullness of a continuous sacramental life. For us, this unity is embodied in the Orthodox Church, which kept, catholikos and anelleipos, both the integrity of the Apostolic Faith and the integrity of the Apostolic Order." Genuine "Orthodox Ecumenism" can therefore only be a witness to the Christian world of the faith once delivered to the Apostles that has never changed, and which they are called to accept as the only authentic Christian expression.

On the other hand, for most of the Christian denominations participating in the Ecumenical Movement the means for union is something very different, and completely unacceptable to the Orthodox. The Ecumenical Movement has its roots in the frustration of European Christians who were fed up with their history of nationalistic goals and wars which were all too often fought in the name of God. Their answer was to establish in the secular arena an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect for men of differing faiths. To support this within the religious sphere they sought to establish a methodology for minimizing those doctrinal and dogmatic differences that turned brother against brother and cousin against cousin in bloody European wars.

The philosophical underpinning to their methodology was to postulate what is know as the "branch theory" of Christian denominations. This theory proposes that all of the Christian churches evolved from the same basic root, or trunk, and thus are essentially all one. Being all of one common source, the various churches can coexist and flourish side by side in mutual respect. The resultant Ecumenical Movement is predominantly a Protestant fabrication, since neither the Roman Catholic nor the Orthodox Churches could ever have recognized their breakaway ecclesiological entities as having remained faithful to the original dogmas and teachings. Instead of regarding them as branches that sprouted from the authentic trunk, they see them as branches which were broken off from the True Vine. United only in their "protest" against the hierarchical ecclesiology and dogmatic theology of the Roman Catholic Church (which herself is heretical and schismatic from the Orthodox church), the Protestant denominations must necessarily accept as common ground the fact that they differ in belief but are united in the desire to coexist peacefully.

There is no true or real intent on their part to be unified in doctrine and dogma, but rather they seek only to find some lowest common denominator of belief which all of the factious Protestant denominations can accept. Those Orthodox who are involved in the Ecumenical Movement are essentially trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Orthodoxy is about the fullness of truth as revealed within, and maintained by, the Body of Christ which is the Orthodox Church.

The Ecumenical Movement is about eclectically assembling a hodge-podge of disparate elements and reducing the resultant stew into a couple of generally acceptable phrases with no more substance than the modern media "sound-bite." Curiously, it is cradle-Orthodox who are most likely to become involved in the "Ecumenical Movement." To the extent that some of these represent the immigrant Orthodox, this effort can be regarded as an attempt to be accepted as part of the ecclesiastical establishment in America.

At the same time, it is a seemingly "safe" thing for the cradle Orthodox to dabble out of curiosity with Western Christian denominations and traditions. Tied so tightly as they are by language, culture, religion, and family to an Orthodox ethos, it is unlikely that they will become apostates through casual contact with the Protestant and/or Roman Catholic world. On the other hand, there is an extreme danger that through such contact they will gradually—almost imperceptibly—adopt customs and traditions that draw them away from truth, from the Orthodox phronema. For the convert Orthodox, participation in the Ecumenical Movement is all but anathema. "Been there, done that" might very well be their catch phrase.

Some converts left their Western Churches not out of anger or desperation, but because their spiritual search drew them inexorably closer to the truth of the Apostolic faith. For these, Orthodox involvement in the Ecumenical Movement may at first seem comforting. It is the reverse of the immigrant Orthodox seeking acceptance; it is a kind of recognition by the convert's mother church of the new Orthodox faith they have encountered. Ultimately, however, most of these converts will reject the Ecumenical Movement simply because it is ingenuine and inconsistent with their spiritual journey.

Other converts found the Orthodox Church after realizing that their mother Churches had abandoned the teachings they grew up with (the case with most Protestant and Catholic denominations), or that their Churches in fact no longer existed on the face of the earth (especially the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches). For these, Orthodox involvement in the Ecumenical Movement is a scandal and tragedy of infinite proportions. At best, converts who as adults made a conscious decision to embrace Orthodox Christianity—usually after no small amount of soul-searching—find it extremely perplexing to find the cradle Orthodox looking with interest at the churches they left and even seeking to cooperate with them.

Most converts embraced the Orthodox Church at great personal cost. Many are despised by their relatives (even by parents and siblings) for having abandoned the family faith. Many lost friendships and relationships which dated back to the years they were living within their mother churches. Most converts have had to rebuild their personal lives and reestablish emotional connections in a Church that is culturally foreign to their previous experiences and lifestyle. For those who suffered so acutely to be part of the Orthodox Church, involvement in the Ecumenical Movement is an extremely painful betrayal. Those forced to endure such betrayal may even become physically ill as a result.

Ultimately, for almost all converts, involvement in the Ecumenical Movement boils down to one basic question: Is the Orthodox Church truly "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic." In other words, is it the true Church? The Ecumenical Movement necessarily answers that it is not, because they maintain that no Church has the whole truth since all Churches have a part of the truth. Zealous and fervent Orthodox Christians often react with great dismay at any involvement of our Holy Church in the Ecumenical Movement. They often consider Ecumenism itself as the "heresy of heresies."

This is probably a fair description, because the Protestant-led Ecumenical Movement is an eclectic blending of disparate denominations and confessions, most of which express—indeed embrace—one form or another of the heresies combated historically by the Orthodox Church through its Ecumenical Councils. Some groups within the Orthodox Church even "wall themselves off" from those segments of the Church which dabble with the Ecumenical Movement. Even certain monastic communities struggle with their hierarchy over this very same issue.

The notorious Balamand Agreement, in particular has aroused extreme fear among certain elements within the Orthodox Church that we are about to effect a union with the Roman Catholic Church on terms that accepts them "as is." Unfortunately, some individuals within the Orthodox Church have even espoused the ridiculous "two lungs theory," which postulates that the one visible Body of Christ (the Church) is divided into two lungs: an Eastern lung (the Orthodox) and a western lung (the Roman Catholic). Such a concept is irrational; it is an oxymoron to state that the One Church is divided.

It is true that Orthodox apologists for the Ecumenical Movement seek to gloss over and compromise our differences with the heterodox, presumably in a spirit of Christian charity. Unfortunately, love that is not truthful is not charitable; love that accepts and enables falsehood is simply not love. In fact, the Orthodox presence in the Ecumenical Movement has been abused, principally by the Protestants who are its main constituents. Our presence seems only to be used by them to justify their own positions.

Moreover, our "witness" (the supposed reason by which we justify our continued participation) has apparently not educated our heterodox friends; witness the total disdain and disregard for Orthodox ecclesiology expressed by two Protestant ministers—one an officer of a state Council of Churches organization—for our Orthodox ecclesiology when they publicly denounced the Bishop of Denver and our hierarchical structure. Ignorance, or a willful attempt to bring us down to their level? In the end, it showed that our participation in the Ecumenical Movement means nothing.

Some fear that Orthodox Ecumenists will betray the Church; the most often cited scenario is some kind of union with the Roman Catholic Church. Let us remember, however, that no one person, and no small group of persons, speaks for the Orthodox Church. The "voice" of the Orthodox Church is consummately conciliar. Should some second false union with the Roman Catholic be pursued as an outgrowth of the Balamand Agreement (or any other movement), we must remember that even the False Council of Florence—endorsed by a personage no less influential than the then Patriarch of Constantinople—was rejected by the Orthodox faithful, and is counted as nothing more than a footnote to history. Even should a vast majority of the faithful fall into error, we must remember the period when such holy luminaries as Saint Athanasios and Saint Maximos the Confessor stood up virtually alone to defend the true Orthodox faith.

God will not abandon His people, but will send clear, prophetic voices to remind us that we have received the fullness of truth in His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church.