The Patristic Position and the Witness of Archimandrite Justin (Popovich) Regarding Ecumenism

The World Council of Churches: A Visible Expression of the Una Sancta?

1. In 1971, the then Patriarch of Serbia, German, as one of the Presidents of the "World Council of Churches (WCC)," co-signed the following "Message" of this ecumenical organization in Geneva:

And the powerful Breath of renewal will blow into the mighty arena of the Church, as well as into each of her communities; for these are not simple administrative units, but they all constitute a part of the one great Christian Church. (1)

This is a clear formulation of the ecclesiological heresy known as the Branch Theory: that the one and great Christian Church is comprised of its constituent Christian communities.

The Church of Serbia entered the WCC in 1965 (2); thereafter, as Patriarch German began to participate actively in the ecumenical movement—in fact, immediately after his aforementioned declaration—, the ever-memorable dogmatist, Archimandrite Justin (Popovich), ceased to consider him an Orthodox Hierarch and ceased his canonical commemoration, as well as all ecclesiastical relations with him. (1)

It is hence noteworthy that the Patriarch did not attend the funeral of Father Justin (†March 25, 1979)…. (3)

The prestige and authority of Father Justin, this stalwart contemporary Patristic figure, are well known:

‘His repute as a universal Father and Teacher of the Church, who cleaved unremittingly to the Cross of his witness and who bore the marks of Christ, transcended the boundaries of Serbia and spread to the whole world’ (4); ‘Fr. Justin did not speak as an individual, but as the mouth of the Church; he expressed the conscience of the Church, the Faith of the Church’; ‘The preaching of Fr. Justin is a continuation of the preaching of the Holy Fathers of our Church and especially of the last great Father, St. Gregory Palamas.’ (5) (6)

2. We consider it worthwhile, given this reference to the Patristic stature and witness of Father Justin (Popovich), but also in view of recent events, to deal once more, in brief, with the nature and work of the WCC.

A well-known ecumenist sets forth in the form of a question the prevailing set of problems at issue within the bosom of this ecumenical organization in Geneva:

Is the WCC the instrument by which the Christian Churches express their unity in God, or is it that instrument by which the divided Churches attempt to restore the unity of their faith, structures and witness? (7)

One faction of the members of the WCC sees the Council as a visible expression of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (Una Sancta), while another part regards it as a simple ancillary tool for the attainment of unity:

The Orthodox Churches took part already at the inception of the Council, because they firmly believed that they were dealing with a simple tool…. (7)

First and foremost, we must strongly emphasize the falsity of this view that "the Orthodox Churches took part...at the inception of the Council."

The truth is that there was no Pan-Orthodox participation in the first and founding General Assembly of the WCC [emphasis that of the translators] in Amsterdam, Holland (August 22-September 4, 1948): "Only the Œcumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Cyprus, and the Church of Greece sent representatives."(8)

And not only was the Orthodox Church not fully represented, but precisely one month earlier it expressed strong protest—virtually Pan-Orthodox in character—thereto: ten leaders and representatives of the Autocephalous Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Albania, at the Congress of Moscow (July 8-18, 1948), refused to take part in the ecumenical movement, since they saw the WCC as aiming towards the creation of an "Ecumenical Church." (9)

Their view was proved indisputably true by the subsequent course of this ecumenical organization in Geneva.

3. The WCC has never ceased to feel and to act explicitly as though it were a super-church, and this has all along been, together with many other factors, the source of various misgivings regarding the multifaceted outlook of the Council.

Some twenty years ago, a veteran ecumenist summarized the Orthodox critique of the World Council of Churches as follows:

But such extremes and deviations and modernist ideas, the polarization and secularization of the World Council of Churches, as well as the tendency of theological dialogue to skirt the truth itself, dispose the Orthodox Church towards a critical attitude towards it. Thus, competent Orthodox judge that the Orthodox Church should rethink her decision to participate in the World Council of Churches, if it does not overcome its present crisis and the impending danger of secularization and ‘horizontalism’ [a preoccupation with worldly issues—Trs.], and if it does not return to its original, purely ecclesiastical purpose. Others, again, maintain the same opinion from a theological standpoint also, that this Council, as it was shaped and acts ecclesiastically, without being a Church, poses a great ecclesiological problem that is difficult to solve, a problem which the Orthodox Church will eventually be forced to confront. (10)

This most profound crisis of the WCC, with regard to its ecclesiological identity and bearings, something pointed out even before its inception, has certainly not been solved, and the WCC is keenly preoccupied with it, as evidenced by two recent consultations in Geneva. The first (June 1995) dealt at length with the theme, "A Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches," and had as its goal the "total reappraisal of the ecumenical commitment of the Orthodox Churches and the removal of specific uncertainties over their relations with the WCC". (11)

The second (September 1995) dealt with a text of the General Secretary about the "meaning of being a member of the WCC" and ultimately resolved that study "concerning the future orientation of the WCC" should be continued. (12)

Quite correct, then, is the observation that

This non-existence of an essential (ecclesiological) identity creates unlimited room for confusion, disagreements, and arbitrariness in every instance of a decision that involves the orientation and the basic goals of the WCC. (13)

4. Perhaps, however, the Orthodox anti-ecumenists exaggerate in maintaining that the WCC is possessed, apart from other things, by a super-church syndrome and the tendency to manifest itself as a kind of supreme authority supra Ecclesiam.

To prove our point, let us cite, apart from the foregoing "Message" in 1971, that in 1991, the then General Secretary of the WCC stated the following:

  • We believe that the WCC has a mission to embrace all of the churches, members or not. All of our programs are designed for all Christians, not only for those within our member churches...! (14)

In 1993, the eight-member Presidency of the WCC, in its Pentecost "Message," which is addressed to its member "churches" and which was signed by Patriarch Parthenios of Alexandria, wrote the following:

  • We can, as the Church, affirm our solidarity with women…! (15)

In 1994, again in their Pentecost "Message" the Presidents wrote similar, and even worse, things, and it was signed by the same Patriarch:

  • Our world has become very different since we sent you our last Pentecost message. Changes have come about that have wide repercussions. The Church is obligated by her calling to provide spiritual reserves and examples of virtuous human behavior, in a world that is so persistent in its search for the values of life.... Let us, then, be vigilant and courageous, as members of the body of Christ, as we build our faith in the family anew, in the context of the search for a new world order! (16)

These few testimonies are sufficient to prove the paternalistic syndrome of the WCC, to the extent that they have unquestionable ecclesiological weight, and the criticism of those Orthodox opposed to ecumenism focuses primarily on this point, in asserting that the ecumenical movement constitutes an ecclesiological heresy.

5. The one theme to which we constantly return is that the Orthodox members of the WCC sin very gravely because—apart from other considerations—, in their participation in the organization, their joint prayer, their coöperation, and their co-signing of its pronouncements, they help this confederation in Geneva to cultivate its consciousness as an "Ecumenical Church" and its tendency to project itself as a visible expression of the Una Sancta.

In vain do veteran Orthodox ecumenists state emphatically that "the Orthodox will never recognize the WCC as an ecclesiastical body, with the traits of the Una Sancta." (17)

In vain do Orthodox ecumenists formulate "a whole series of desiderata for a more profitable and more fruitful participation of the Orthodox Churches" in the WCC. (18)

In vain, finally, do they refer to the "positive and useful services which" the WCC "has offered and continues to offer" on a social and philanthropic level "to its member Churches." (18)

And we underscore the word "in vain," since none of the foregoing can dissuade us from a purely theological and ecclesiological evaluation of the ecumenical movement (and of the WCC), which genuinely constitutes "a tragic alienation from the actuality of the Church." (19)

The resolute stand of the ever-memorable Father Justin (Popovich) points us in the right direction, and the facts underline the dire necessity and "the duty of Orthodoxy to withdraw from the WCC" (20)

We repeat, that the Orthodox ecumenists sin very gravely,

  • —because the very fact of their participation in a man-made confederation constitutes de facto a withdrawal from an Orthodox ecclesiology and an alteration and corruption of the truth of the Church;
  • —because, by their participation in the WCC, they diminish beyond measure the prestige of the One (and Only) Holy Orthodox Church, "accepting like mendicants yearly economic assistance on the part of the Protestant Council of Churches" (21) and finding themselves linked together in various ways as "organic members" of a chain of heterodox communities, "each one of which (is) spiritual death"; (22)
  • —because they contribute irrevocably to the realization of the syncretistic dreams of the WCC, on an inter-Christian and inter-religious level, in that it has been admitted that "attempts" are being made, "chiefly by certain Third World theologians[,] to broaden the scope of the WCC, by embracing other religions, with the assertion that ‘the term oikoumene suggests the whole inhabited earth, and not only the Christian part of it’"; (23)
  • —because, finally, they fully confirm the accurate contention that the ecumenical movement, as was otherwise expected, has "long since degenerated, and aims towards being a kind of pan-religion." (21)

In conclusion, once again we address an anguished question, stemming from brotherly love, to the ecumenists among us Orthodox:

"Quo vadite, Orthodoxi Oecumenisti?"

"Whither go ye, O Orthodox ecumenists?"


(1) Orthodoxos Typos, No. 144/June 15, 1971, p. 4, abstract of the text.

(2) At the Assembly of the Central Committee of the WCC in Enungu, Nigeria, January 12-21, 1965 (see Vasilios T. Stavrides, History of the Ecumenical Movement, Analekta Vlatadon 47, pp. 150 and 157, Thessaloniki, 1984).

(3) We have before us the relevant accounts by living Serbian spiritual children of Father Justin. See also Tasos Michalas, Ten Days with the Orthodox Serbs, p. 37, "Heptalophos" Publications, Athens, 1983, where there is a reference to this event, naturally without any mention of the reasons. The recent Orthodox position paper by Bishop Artemije of Rashka-Prizren confirms the attitude of the Serbian Confessor. Bishop Artemije, who is of Father Justin’s stature, submitted to the Serbian Synod this memorandum, entitled, "The Serbian Orthodox Church and the World Council of Churches" (November 17, 1994), in which he declares that ecumenism  constitutes an ecclesiological heresy, cites the Patristic position of his Elder at length, and proposes that the Serbs withdraw from the WCC, which—according to the memorandum—is a gathering of heretics (see the English text in Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, No. 2 [1996]—Tr.).

(4) Father Vasilios Voloudakis, "Before the Grave of Fr. Justin," in Orthodoxos Typos, No. 356/May 11, 1979, p. 2 (emphasis ours).

(5) Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregory (Mt. Athos), "Memorial Address in Honor of the Blessed Father Justin Popovich on His Forty-Day Memorial Service," in Ho Hosios Gregorios, No. 5/1980, pp. 45-47 (emphasis ours).

(6) We remind [our readers] that the ever-memorable Father Justin, in his historic Memorandum to the Serbian Synod (November 13/26, 1974), characterized the WCC as a heretical, humanistic, man-made, man-worshipping association; regarded the position of the Orthodox towards the ecumenical movement and the WCC as deplorably and hideously at odds with Holy Tradition, slavishly degrading the Holy Church; and finally, emphatically underscored that the decision (a Pan-Orthodox one!) that the Orthodox Church should be an organic member of the WCC was apocalyptically atrocious in its un-Orthodoxy and anti-Orthodoxy and a monstrous indignity and unprecedented betrayal! (See the full text of the Memorandum in Koinonia, March-April 1975, pp. 95-101; also in Orthodoxos Typos, No. 235/June 1, 1975, and in Orthodoxos Enstasis kai Martyria, Nos. 18-21/January-December 1990, pp. 166-173.)

(7) Prof. Father Emmanuel Clapsis, "‘What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches’/ Missionary Implications of the 7th General Assembly of the WCC," in the collective volume of G.N. Laimopoulos, The 7th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches—Canberra, February 1991—Chronicle, Texts, Evaluations, p. 247, "Tertios" Publications, Katerini, 1991.

(8) V.T. Stavrides, History of the Ecumenical Movement, op. cit., p. 113. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the few participating Orthodox representatives, "chosen at the last moment" and "not knowing that they would be voting on the first charter" of the WCC, which passed itself off as "a fellowship of Churches jure profano [according to secular law], in accordance with Article 66 of the Swiss Civil Code," were divided; "a debate was provoked" and "a disagreement arose," and finally "separate reports were submitted to the Holy Synod (of Greece), and a war of words between the members of the delegation was brought to pass"! (See Gerasimos J. Konidaris, "Amsterdam," entry in the Threskevtike kai Ethike Enkyklopaideia, Vol. 2, cols. 395-396, Athens, 1963.)

(9) V.T. Stavrides, ibid., pp. 111-112. It should be noted that in Amsterdam the Dutch General Secretary, Visser ‘t Hooft cited, among other things, the following characteristics, which express the self-awareness of the WCC at its creation: "(1) we are building a type of inter-church community, for which there is no prior model in the history of the Church; (2) the Ecumenical Council, without substituting for the Churches, constitutes above all a fellowship (Gemeinschaft), which attempts to express the unity in Christ of the 147 Churches (i.e., those which took part in the 1st General Assembly—our note), among which are the historic Holy Orthodox and other Churches; (3) …the sole purpose, which deserves the attention of the Council of Churches, is the manifestation of the one undivided Church." (See G.J. Konidaris, op. cit., emphasis ours.)

(10) John Karmiris, The Orthodox Church in Dialogue with the Heterodox Churches, pp. 79-80 (emphasis ours), in V.T. Stavrides, ibid., p. 204. Cf. Nicholas A. Matsoukas, The Ecumenical Movement/History-Theology, Philosophical and Theological Library, No. 4, p. 278, n. 67, "P. Pournaras" Publications, Thessaloniki, 1991. See also, Vasilios Stavrides, "Orthodox coöperation in the Ecumenical Movement," Episkepsis, No. 205/ March 1, 1979, p. 14.

(11) Episkepsis, No. 519/June 30, 1995, p. 24. The "Meeting" took place following an invitation from the General Secretary of the WCC at the "Orthodox Center of the Œcumenical Patriarchate" in Chamblésy, Geneva, and Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonians, and senior executives of the Council participated in it (June 19-24, 1995). See a detailed report in Enimerosis (Geneva), 11-1995/7-8, pp. 3-5: "The Future Course of the World Council of Churches[:] the Subject of a Consultation of Its Leadership with the Orthodox and Ancient Oriental Christians," and pp. 10-12: "Orthodox and the World Council of Churches—the Difference between Responsible Criticism and Malicious Misinformation" ("Note" by Protopresbyter George Tsetsis) (reprinted in Ekklesiastike Aletheia, No. 401/September 1-16, 1995, p. 10). Cf. "Response by Mr. Nicholas Psaroudakis" in Orthodoxos Typos, No. 1144/October 13, 1995, pp. 1 and 3, No. 1145/ October 20, 1995, pp. 1 and 3. While certainly not agreeing with the "Note" of Father G. Tsetsis and his severe characterizations of those who react against ecumenism, it is impossible for us to agree with the "Response" of Mr. Psaroudakis, which expresses a purely fundamentalist spirit in both its tone and essence.

(12) Enimerosis, 11-1995/9, p. 2: "World Council of Churches—the 46th Regular Meeting of the Central Committee."

(13) Chrestos Yannaras, The Truth and Unity of the Church, chapter 4, "The Problem of Unity Today," 10, "Confederational Unity," p. 206, "Gregore" Publications, Athens, 1977 (emphasis ours).

(14) One World, No. 168/August-September 1991, p. 17: "A Mirror of Diversity—A Conversation with Emilio Castro" (emphasis ours).

(15) Ecumenical Press Service, No. 10/93.04.15: "Pentecost Message from the WCC".

(16) Ecumenical Press Service, No. 9/94.04.36: "Pentecost Message from the WCC Presidents."

(17) Enimerosis, 11-1995/7-8, p. 4. This statement is that of Metropolitan John of Pergamon, who spoke at the aforementioned Consultation in Geneva (see footnote 11) on the subject of "The Self-Understanding of the Orthodox and the Participation of the Orthodox Churches in the Ecumenical Movement."

(18) Protopresbyter George Tsetsis, "Orthodox and the World Council of Churches—the Difference between Responsible Criticism and Malicious Misinformation," in Enimerosis, 11-1995/7-8, pp. 10-12.

(19) Yannaras, op. cit., p. 216.

(20) V.T. Stavrides, op. cit., p. 216. See also Episkepsis, No. 205/March 1, 1979, p. 13.

(21) Archimandrite Spyridon Bilalis, Orthodoxy and Papism, Vol. 1: Critique of Papism, pp. 376 and 377, "Orthodoxos Typos" Publications, Athens, 1969.

(22) Archimandrite Justin (Popovich), Memorandum (see footnote 6).

(23) Enimerosis 9-1993, p. 8 (emphasis ours): "An Orthodox Self-Examination of the Ecumenical Movement Today: Topic of an Address in the Context of Presentations in Memory of Georges Florovsky." Protopresbyter George Tsetsis lectured on this topic, as the keynote speaker, in Boston in May of 1993.

Translated from the Greek by Hieromonk Patapios and Archbishop Chrysostomos from the periodical Hagios Kyprianos, Nos. 267-268 (July-October, 1995), pp. 67-72. This appeared in Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, Nos. 3&4, pp. 4-10.