Ecumenism and the Ecclesiology of Saint Cyprian of Carthage
by Fr. Daniel Degyansky
Saint Cyprian of Carthage developed with fearless
consistency a doctrine of the complete absence of Grace in every sect which had separated
itself from the True Church. His doctrine is one of the basic foundation blocks of
Orthodox ecclesiology and it stands in direct opposition to the presuppositions of the
ecumenical movement. Moreover, his warnings about the enemies of the Church have
traditionally guided Orthodox in their response to those outside Her fold:
Not only must we beware of
what is open and manifest, but also what deceives by the craft of subtle fraud. And what
can be more crafty, or what more subtle, than for this enemy...to devise a new fraud, and
under the very title of the Christian name to deceive the incautious. 
Saint Cyprians warnings about enemies of the Church
who call themselves "Christians" in order to destroy the Faith can be applied to
many of those who support unity through the contemporary ecumenical movement. The fact
that such application is seldom made gives us evidence of just how far contemporary
ecumenism has removed some Orthodox from the criterion of truth that is their Faith.
The essence of Saint Cyprians
reasoning lay "in the conviction that the sacraments are established in the
Church." That is to say, they are effected and can be effected only in the
Church, in communion and in communality. Therefore, every violation of communality
and unity in itself leads immediately beyond the last barrier into some decisive outside.
To Saint Cyprian every schism was a departure out of the Church, out of that sanctified
and holy land "where alone rises the baptismal spring, the waters of salvation."  Saint
Cyprian was adamant in his position with regard to the Churchs rejection of the
validity of an heretical sacrament:
For it is no small and
insignificant matter which is conceded to heretics, when their baptism is recognized by
us; since thence springs the whole origin of faith and the saving access to the hope of
life eternal. And the divine condescension for purifying and quickening the servants of
God. For if any one could be baptized among heretics, certainly he could also obtain
remission of sins. If he attained remission of sins, he was also sanctified.
Saint Cyprian felt that if the True Church recognizes the
sacraments of those outside of Her realm, She gives credibility to heretics and
For if they shall see that it is determined
and decreed by our judgement and sentence, that the baptism wherewith they are there
baptized is considered just and legitimately in possession of the Church also, and the
other gifts of the Church; nor will there be any reason for their coming to us, when, as
they have baptism, they seem also to have the rest. But further, when they know that there
is no baptism without, and that no remission of sins can be given outside of the Church,
they more eagerly and readily hasten to us, and implore the gifts and benefits of the
Church, our Mother, assured that they can in no wise attain to the true promise of divine
grace unless they first come to the Truth of the Church.
The teaching of Saint Cyprian on the
Gracelessness of those outside the True Church is directly related to his teaching on
unity and communality: "Therefore, we ought to consider their faith who believe
without, whether in respect of the same faith they can obtain by grace, for if we and the
heretics have one faith, we may also have one grace."  Strictly speaking, the theological premises of Saint
Cyprians teaching have never been rejected. At the same time, neither has the
Orthodox Church ever unequivocally applied Saint Cyprians conclusions. In fact, the
First Canon of Saint Basil, if carefully analyzed, suggests that the issue of schism and
heresy is more complex, in practical terms, than the theory of Saint Cyprian would
suggest. Thus the canonical norms of the Orthodox Church do not state that schismatics are
in all circumstances without Grace. Ecumenists have used Saint Basils position, at
times, to defend their activities (though in the course of deviation from correct Orthodox
teaching, it must be noted, many Orthodox ecumenists have come to believe that
"schism" and "heresy" are terms without meaning, except when they can
be used to berate those Orthodox who oppose the ecumenical movement). In fact, however,
the ecclesiological teachings of Saint Cyprian complement and stand side by side with
those of Saint Basil, since they are unified by the function of "economy," by
which the theoretical exactness of Saint Cyprians teaching is rendered effective in
the oikonomia of practical application.
Thus, there are those who quite wrongly think
that the Church has in some instances acknowledged that the sacraments of
sectarians, and even of heretics, are valid. They wrongly assume that the Church admits
that sacraments can be celebrated outside of the strict canonical limits of the
Churcha perilous assumption, indeed. The Church, for example, may under
extraordinary circumstances accept adherents from sects, and even from heresies, not by
way of Baptism, but rather by Chrismation or even by their simple profession of our
Orthodox Faith. But in so doing, She does not recognize, as some theologians
incorrectly assert, what is outside Her domain; rather, by "economy," the
Church, being the PanMystery, as Archimandrite Justin expresses it, creates Grace
where there was no Grace, filling the empty form of a mystery (sacrament) unknown to Her.
At the same time, before the emergence of whole bodies of Christians separated from the
historical Orthodox Church, there were times when those who had lapsed in their Faith even
for a generation were received back into the Church without being Baptized. But here, too,
it was the correct form of their empty mysteries which the Church accepted, not the
validity of their sacraments. By "economy," then, the primacy of the Church was
extended beyond Herself to create Grace in what was done outside Her boundaries. But in so
doing, in no way whatsoever did She accept what was beyond Her boundaries. She
acted beyond the Canons, but not in violation of them:
As a mystical organism, as the sacramental
Body of Christ, the Church cannot be adequately described in canonical terms or categories
alone. It is impossible to state or discern the true limits of the Church simply by
canonical signs or marks.... In her sacramental, mysterious existence the Church surpasses
canonical measurements. For that reason a canonical cleavage does not immediately signify
mystical impoverishment and desolation. All that Saint Cyprian said about the unity of the
Church and the sacraments can be and must be accepted. But it is not necessary, as he did,
to draw the final boundary around the body of the Church by canonical points alone.[144 ]
Saint Augustine of Hippo, espousing
opinions clearly outside the consensus of the Church Fathers, wrote that within the sects
and divisions of Christianity the "union of peace" had been broken and torn
asunder, but in their mysteries the "unity of the Spirit" had not been
terminated. This shows, as Father Florovsky observes, "the unique paradox of
sectarian existence: the sect remains united with the Church in the grace of the
sacraments, and this becomes a condemnation once love and communal mutuality have
withered."  Thus, Saint Augustine directly affirmed "that in the sacraments of
sectarians, the Church is active; some she engenders of herself, others
she engenders outside, of her maidservant, and schismatic baptism is valid
for this very reason, that it is performed by the Church."  According to Saint Augustine,
then, "the Holy and Sanctifying Spirit still breathes in the sects, but in the
stubbornness and powerlessness of schism healing is not accomplished." 
Ecumenists have used Saint Augustines thought to
confirm that there are valid sacraments outside the Orthodox Church. By the same token,
those opposed to ecumenism have concluded from the same thought that the rites of the
schismatics are not sacraments, but a blasphemous caricature thereof. Some Orthodox
conservatives affirm, indeed, that salvation can be found only
within the confines of the Orthodox Church, thus arguing that all
schismatics are condemned to damnation. The conclusions of the ecumenists are absolutely
incorrect. The Orthodox Church accepts no sacrament outside of Her boundaries except,
again, as empty forms. Moreover, Saint Augustine is writing about the undivided
Christianity of an age which knew nothing of the hundreds of sects which constitute the
Christian world of our day, many of them so far removed from the historical Church and Her
rich doctrines that only by their belief in Christ can they be defined as Christians. It
is an act of intellectual dishonesty to use his words about sects and heresies in
the ancient Church as though they applied clearly to contemporary times. Nor, as we have
pointed out, is the thinking of Saint Augustine about the validity of the sacraments of
heretics and sectarians in agreement with the Patristic consensus or internally
At the same time, it is wrong for
"conservatives" to interpret the words of Saint Augustine in such a way as to
suggest that the Orthodox Church compromises the Providence of God. The Church has always
affirmed the dominance of love within the confines of Her exclusive
claims that only in Her bosom does salvation rest. Because of Gods love, the
Orthodox Church can at once proclaim that salvation is possible only for Orthodox
Christians and, at the same time, refuse to compromise Divine Providence by condemning all
others to damnation. And because of the love which prompts the Church in Her mission, She
at times reaches out in the spirit of "economy" to fill
with Her exclusive Grace the empty forms of nonOrthodox religious acts. In so doing,
however, the Orthodox Church never, until the advent of ecumenism, acknowledged
the validity of any sacrament outside Her boundaries.
In many ways, the Orthodox Church cannot
accept the precepts of modern ecumenism because they also violate the spiritual teachings
of the Fathers about personal integrity as a foundation for ecclesiastical validity. In
the fourth century, Saint Ephraim the Syrian said, "Pride does not permit a man to
accept the teachings handed down by Tradition."  The Orthodox tend to see separation and disunity in Christianity
not as the result of a tragic process of mutual alienation, but of pride and sin. Thus,
the second major schism in Christianity, the Great Schism of 1054, can be seen in the
By the anathema against
papism the Church proclaimed that the pope and his followers abandoned the Church, lost
the Truth (which is Christ), and were submerged in the depths of error from which Christ
came to free them. Their teachings were declared a delusion of the Evil One, and a poison
to the souls of men, and any communication with them makes us like them by cutting us off
from the Grace of God, from His Holy Church, and estranges us from the path of salvation,
placing us rather on the road to perdition.
The root causes of heresy and schism,
then, are the intransigence and sin of prideful men. Heresy and schism do not just happen;
they are caused. They rise out of spiritual delusion, spiritual disease, and alienation
from the ways of God and His Church. Deviation from Orthodox Truth in the form of
ecumenical activities has had a negative effect on the Church, as though to prove that
schism and heresy are not the products of misunderstanding, but of the willful deviation
of wrong believers from the True Church. For instance, Orthodox theologians have come to
reject the Canons of the Church, so that they can justify their ecumenism. Thus the late
Archpriest John Meyendorff, a wellknown spokesman for Orthodox in America, dismisses
the Canons which forbid joint prayer with heretics as archaic and no longer applicable to
the Church. He claims that these Canons were intended to apply to prayer with conscious
apostates from the True Church, "and not sincere Christians who never personally left
it."  Thus individual
responsibility for wrong belief becomes an inessential part of Christian confessiona
novel idea, indeed. By the same token, not a few Orthodox theologians and Hierarchs are
beginning to see a place for Orthodoxy in the ecumenical "branch theory."
While claiming to love the Orthodox Faith,
they violate their promises at Ordination to defend the Truth and instead openly state
that the Orthodox Church is just as guilty of divisiveness as the heretics and schismatics
who separated themselves from the Church of their own free will. Again, to hold such views
or to participate in ecumenical activities which champion such ideas is to deny the
existence of the True Church and Christs earthly presence. Thus one who participates
in such ecumenism perforce denies Christ. Ecumenism, in short, has led
many Orthodox to deny the very existence of Christ as we Orthodox understand Him.
139. St. Cyprian of Carthage, The
Unity of the Church (Mahopac, NY: KurskRoot Icon Hermitage, n.d.), p. 3.
140. Florovsky, Ecumenism I , p. 36.
141. St. Cyprian of Carthage, "Epistle to Jubianus," in Vol. 5
of The AnteNicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand
Rapids, MI:Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), p. 382.
142. Ibid., p. 385.
143. Ibid., p. 380.
144. Florovsky, Ecumenism I , p. 37.
145. Ibid., p. 42.
146. Ibid., p. 4142.
147. Ibid., p. 42.
148. "Stolen Doctrines," The
Orthodox Christian Witness, Vol. 19, No. 29 (17/30 March 1986), p. 3.
149. Alexander Kalomiros, "The Anathema of 1054" (Seattle: St.
Nectarios Educational Series, No. 69).
150. Meyendorff, Witness, p. 46.
151. Lev [Archbishop Lazar] Puhalo,
"Can One be an Ecumenist without Denying Christ?," Orthodox Life, Vol.
24, No. 3 (MayJune 1974), p. 33.
From Orthodox Christianity and the Spirit of Contemporary Ecumenism,
by Fr. Daniel Degyansky. (Etna: CA, The Center
for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1997 ), pp. 76-83. Fr. Daniel
is a Priest in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).