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Strictness and Economy

Resolution of the ROCA Synod of Bishops on the Reception of Converts

by Protopresbyter George Grabbe

In the period when heresies and schisms developed in opposition to the authority of the Church, the question arose, always with greater or lesser acuteness, as to which measures could most expediently be taken in the struggle with them and in defence of the flock from their detrimental influences. In some cases, strictness was seen to be essential, in others, concession and toleration.

The Church is concerned with human souls; she educates us and, aside from passing on general principles, is ever concerned with the need for an individual approach towards various people and situations. In the third canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which deals with the question of the marriage of clerics, we find an indication of a different approach to this question: "Seeing that the most holy Church of the Romans is disposed to observe the canon of strict conformity; while, on the other hand, we under the throne of this God-guarded and imperial capital city, have neither carried meekness to excess, nor have left an arid impression of austerity; and especially in view of the fact that failure due to ignorance extends to a multitude of not a few men—therefore we concur in decreeing that. . ." and so on.

The two approaches to the question indicated in this canon are usually called strictness and economy. However, the word "economy" does not at all mean an absolute concession. In the first canon of St. Basil, it is translated from the Book of Canons as a "certain discretion", that is, a measure intended for the building up of the Church. This principle is set forth with particular fullness and clarity in canon 102 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, concerning the "art of spiritual healing". There it is explained that "all that matters to God and to the person undertaking pastoral leadership consists in the recovery of the straying sheep, and in healing the one wounded by the serpent. Accordingly, he ought not to drive the patient to the verge of despair, nor give him rein to dissoluteness and contempt of life, but, on the contrary, in at least one way at any rate, either by resorting to extreme and stringent remedies, or to gentler and milder ones, to curb the disease, and to put up a fight to heal the ulcer for the one tasting the fruits of repentance, and wisely helping him on the way to the splendid rehabilitation to which the man is being invited." This canon shows that ecclesiastical economy or Church benefit can at times demand strictness and at times concession.

Bishop John of Smolensk in his commentary on the forty-fifth Apostolic canon, as Bishop Nikodim (Milash) notes, "quite wisely observes" that the canons strive not only to protect the Orthodox from infection by an heretical spirit, but also to guard them from indifference to the faith and to the Orthodox Church.

It is well known that the question of strictness or concession in receiving converts from heresy was particularly acute in the third century. It is generally conceded that the dispute on this question took place between the holy Hiero-martyr Cyprian and Stephen, Pope of Rome. Their names stand out, but important opinions were also articulated by many other fathers of the Church. The dispute concerned the order for receiving heretics and schismatics.

It is an historical fact that in different places and at different times, the Church had different practices for receiving converts. Sometimes baptism and the imposition of hands were performed on converts in every case without fail, but sometimes this was not done and they were received, in their status, through repentance, chrismation or the imposition of hands.

St. Cyprian had a clear, logical view: the grace of the Holy Spirit can be received only in the one Church of Christ; outside her, there can be no grace-filled life and, consequently, no mysteries. On the other hand, the view of Stephen was akin to contemporary ecumenism. This has been condensed to a formula with perfect clarity by Archbishop Hilarion: "All heresies have the grace of baptism and it is not necessary to baptize converts to the Church" (There is no Christianity without the Church, Sao Paolo, 1954, p. 101 [in Russian]).

The principle of economy, in the sense of the practice of concession, has most often been applied with regard to the reception of heretics and schismatics into the Church. The most ancient of the canons have established the teaching that there are no mysteries outside the true Church and have forbidden any religious communion with heretics and schismatics. Prayer in common with them and even presence at their prayer meetings is prohibited (Apost. 45, 65; Laodicea 33). Their presence at divine services is not permitted, nor can they participate in the prayer of the faithful (St. Tim. of Alex. 9). Ordination by heretics is not considered true ordination (Apost. 68), the baptism of heretics should not be recognized and it is laid down that those who are baptized by them should be "re"-baptized (Apost. 47, 68; Laodicea 8).

Bishop Nikodim begins his commentary on the forty-sixth Apostolic canon with a clear statement of principle: "According to the teaching of the Church", he writes, "every heretic is outside the Church, and outside the Church there can be neither true Christian baptism nor true Christian sacrifice, and, in general, no true holy mysteries. The present Apostolic canon expresses this teaching of the Church with reference to Holy Scripture, and permits no communion between one who confesses the Orthodox faith and one who teaches against it. We also read this in the Apostolic Constitutions (IV, 15), and the fathers and teachers of the Church have taught this from the very beginning" (The Canons of the Orthodox Church with Commentary, Vol. I, St. Petersburg, 191 1, p. 1 16 [in Russian].

In the first two or three centuries, the persecuted Church had little experience with mass conversions of heretics and schismatics. This experience came largely with the conversion of the Donatists and Novatians and later became more widespread in the century of Emperor Constantine and successive Orthodox emperors. The Church turned from individual problems to the mass conversion of heretics when the Christological heresies lost their force and tenacity. The hierarchy was faced then with the task of facilitating conversion to the true Church by way of concession instead of an exclusively strict practice, which was especially necessary in periods of persecution in so much as such a practice could move them to steadfastness. The Church could thus move from a defensive position to a missionary offensive, employing concessions or economy which weakened that tenacity of the heretics.

St. Basil the Great expressed this in his first canon. He explains the absence of grace in the baptism of the Cathari whom "the ancients ordered to be cleansed anew by a true Church baptism", but then writes that "inasmuch however, as it has seemed best to those in the regions of Asia for the sake of extraordinary concession [or 'economy'] to the many, to accept their baptism let it be accepted." In other words, while regarding their baptism as invalid, for the sake of practical missionary objectives, the holy father recognizes the possibility of accepting them without re-baptism, but with recantation of their heresy. He explains likewise the inadmissibility of the baptism of the Encratites who were malicious gnostic heretics. "But," he then writes, "if this is to become an obstacle in the general economy [of the Church], we must again adopt the custom and follow the Fathers who economically regulated the affairs of our Church. For I am inclined to suspect that we may by the severity of the proposition actually prevent men from being saved because of their being too indolent in regard to baptism." Thus in this canon, which is confirmed by the authority of the Ecumenical Councils, the holy father admits, in principle the possibility of a practice which is both strict and concessional with regard to those very heretics who have been deprived of all grace. We see the very same thing in the forty-seventh canon of St. Basil the Great.

Bishop John of Smolensk, in his commentary on the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, speaking of the reception of the various heretics mentioned therein, notes that "a rule of Concession was laid down for them, particularly because by such condescension to the heretics their conversion to the Church was facilitated" (Vol. I, pp. 51 1-512).

However, concessions in the rites of reception have often been taken as recognition of the validity of the mystery of baptism of heretics. An incorrect dogmatic conclusion was drawn from the existing practice, and this has now taken root in many minds despite its absence of logic. We find an example of this even in the well-known canonist Bishop Nikodim Milash.

I have already quoted his words in his commentary on the forty-sixth Apostolic canon. I will now quote from his commentary on the forty-seventh Apostolic canon: "Baptism," he writes, "is an essential condition for entry into the Church and for becoming a true member thereof. It must be celebrated according to the Church's teaching (Apost. canons 49-50) and only such baptism is called true according to this canon... From true baptism the canon distinguishes false baptism which has not been performed by an Orthodox priest according to the Church's teaching, and which not only does not cleanse a man from sin but, on the contrary, defiles him" (op. cit,Vol. I, p. 117).

On page 283 of the same book, in his commentary on the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, Bishop Nikodim reaffirms this position, but, passing to the practice of concession, ascribes to it not practical but dogmatic significance in relation to baptism among the heretics and thus introduces confusion into his confession and understanding of Orthodox ecclesiology. He writes: "But if there are other Christian groups who are outside the Orthodox Church and who have conscientious intention to bring a newly-baptized person into the Church of Christ (that is, they intend to impart divine grace to him through baptism, that by the power of the Holy Spirit he will become a true member of the Body of Christ and a reborn child of God), then the baptism received in such a group will be considered valid insofar as it has been performed on the basis of a faith in the Holy Trinity, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; for when baptism is given and received with faith, it must be effective to impart grace and Christ's help will not fail to be made manifest. Any group with a distorted teaching on God which does not recognize the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, cannot perform a valid baptism, and any baptism which is performed by them is not a baptism because it is outside Christianity. On this account, the Orthodox Church recognizes as valid and salvific the baptism of any Christian group which is outside her confines, whether heretical or schismatic, but whose baptism is truly performed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Undoubtedly, Bishop Nikodim's reasoning is here in accord with the present teaching of Roman Catholics and with arguments often encountered among intellectuals who have no theological education. However, it is decidedly unworthy of an Orthodox theologian and in no way accords with Bishop Nikodim's own opinions which we cited above.

Primarily, there is no basic logic in what he says here. In what way can a group, which does not belong to the Orthodox Church, "have a conscientious intention to bring a newly-baptized person to the Church of Christ and impart grace to him" by baptism and make him a true member of the Body of Christ? Only a person who belongs to the Church can be such a member. By receiving baptism in a heretical group, a man unites himself to that group and not to the Church. Can a priest or a pastor who himself does not belong to the Church bring someone to her? On the other hand, as we have seen, Bishop Nikodim himself has recognized this as impossible. How can a person who has joined a heretical or schismatic group, which is outside the confines of the Church, be within the true Church by receiving baptism from that group? Baptism is not a magical act with an important formula of incantation which takes effect independently of the position of the person pronouncing it and of the faith of the person being baptized. Nowhere in the Orthodox Church can we find a faith of this sort in a parallel church, in a salvific Christian group which does not belong to her. On the contrary, the Apostle writes: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5).

Bishop Nikodim could have arrived at such an ecumenical concept only as a result of an incorrect premise. Obviously, his train of thought was such: if the Church accepts a heretic without "re"-baptism, this means that she accepts his heretical baptism as true and valid. Having accepted such a premise he tries to adjust his subsequent opinion to it and falls into a contradiction of that teaching of the Church which he himself had set forth correctly a few pages earlier. This happened because he attempted to give an explanation of a practice of the Church in the reception of heretics and schismatics which bears no relation to general Orthodox ecclesiology, that is, the teaching of the unity of the Church. Only in such a way could he, by yielding to the Roman Catholic and Protestant type of reasoning, conclude with the words cited above, that the Church recognizes as valid the baptism of any Christian group "be it heretical or schismatic." There is no such teaching in any of the holy fathers or in any canon.

Faith, by virtue of a correctly pronounced sacramental formula, independent of the person pronouncing it, whether he is defrocked or deprived of his orders, is peculiar to the Roman Catholics, not to the Orthodox Church. If one carries the thought of Bishop Nikodim to its logical conclusion, one arrives at the position where the regenerating gift of baptism can be given outside the Church.

But what exactly do we receive in baptism? Can this gift be received outside the Church?

We sing: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." One would like to ask Bishop Nikodim if this is achieved outside the bounds of the Church, in an heretical or schismatic group. Can the water in the font of such a group be sanctified and become "the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the laver of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship"? Can the water of an heretical or schismatic priest transform the person being baptized, "that he may put away from him the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may be clothed upon with the new man, and renewed after the image of Him Who created him"? By receiving baptism from such a group, will he, "being buried after the pattern of Thy death, in baptism, in like manner, be a partaker of Thy Resurrection"?

It is only possible to speak of the validity of baptism outside the Orthodox Church in superficial terms; and only if one forgets that a truly baptized person is liberated from his sins and, by renouncing the devil, is joined to Christ as Head of the Church. He becomes a member of the Body of Christ, that is, of the divine-human organism. Herein lie the purpose of baptism and its fruit; and according to the sixty-eighth apostolic canon, persons baptized or ordained by heretics "cannot possibly be either faithful Christians or clergymen."

Therefore, when any heretic or schismatic is accepted into the Church without "re"-baptism, this does not signify recognition of the validity of the heretical rite or mystery. It simply means that he received the grace of baptism by another rite. In Chapter 60 of the Book of Canons, St. Timothy of Alexandria explains why some heretics are accepted without "re"-baptism. He replies that in the opposite case, a person would not quickly be converted from heresy, being ashamed to be baptized a second time; "however, through the laying on of the priest's hands and the prayers, the Holy Spirit may descend, as the Acts of the Holy Apostles testify" (this is from the contemporary Russian translation). This explanation is in accord with that of A. S. Khomiakov in his third letter to Palmer.

But if St. Basil the Great recognized the reception of heretics and schismatics on the basis of economy without "re"-baptism as possible, St. Cyprian, on the other hand, has pointed out the practical advisability of the strict practice.

In his Epistle to Jovian, he points out that in his case the strict practice contributed to his conversion from heresy and did not hinder him. He referred to the economy of strictness.

The Roman Catholic belief that any action of a priest (if done correctly and with a definite intention) is valid, is a belief in the invocatory power of a formula and makes any struggle against schism extremely difficult for them. For example, they have been powerless in their clash with Archbishop Lefebvre. The pope suspended him, but, according to Roman Catholic theology, this did not deprive his priestly acts of validity. He would be deprived of nothing even if he were defrocked. Thus, the pope has not wished to resort to such a measure. Whatever the strictures might have been, the Roman Catholic Church would have to recognize the validity of the sacraments performed by him.

In the Orthodox Church we know that however exactly a rite is observed, if it is performed neither within the Church nor in accordance with the Church's authority, it is devoid of grace. This is precisely defined in the fourth canon of the Second Ecumenical Council which concerns Maximus the Cynic and his uncanonical consecrations. The canon says: "Maximus neither became nor is a bishop, and that neither are those ordained by him entitled to hold any clerical rank whatsoever."

If in some cases a concession might be deemed expedient, on the other hand the danger arises that it can give rise to indifference, which Bishop John wisely warns against in his interpretation of the forty-fifth Apostolic canon. Thereby are ecumenical feelings and opinions encouraged, which Archbishop Hilarion has accurately defined as dreams about a "Churchless Christianity" He correctly notes that, "not to mention the very obvious contradictions of this Churchless Christianity, one can always see that it is completely void of the genuine grace of Christian life and the grace-filled inspiration and quickening of the Spirit" (Christianity or the Church?, p. 35).

It is very interesting and important that the fathers at Carthage, in their canons against the Donatists were, on psychological, tactical grounds, lenient towards those who wished to reunite with the Church. However, in their sixty-sixth canon, the fathers of the Council of Carthage who did not agree with the proposal of Anastasius, Bishop of Rome, concerning a more strict practice stipulated that the Orthodox Church is "the sole Mother of Christians" and that "in [her] all the sanctifying gifts, soterially everlasting and vital, are received which, however, inflict upon those persisting in the heresy the great punishment of damnation, in order that what to them in the truth was something brighter that they ought to follow for the purpose of gaining everlasting life, might, in fact, become to those in the error darker and still more damned."

One should note that the earlier in the history of the Church an attitude existed regarding the rite for the reception of heretics and schismatics, the stricter it was, thus confirming the opinion which I have expressed, that economy in the reception of schismatics became expedient after the Church's position strengthened following the victory of Christianity over paganism."

History shows us that the Church was most strict with regard to heretics and schismatics when their activities commenced, but practiced economy when they began to weaken.

We must take all these lessons into account in the resolution of modern problems which have arisen with the growth, not only among heretics, but also Orthodox, of inter-confessional, ecumenical tendencies that obscure the boundaries between truth and error.

Translated from Orthodox Russia, No. 22 (1144), November 15/28, 1978, pp. 1-3.


15/28 September, 1971

On the question of the baptism of heretics who accept Orthodoxy the following resolution was passed:

The Holy Church has from old believed that there can be but one true baptism, namely that which is performed within her bosom: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). In the Symbol of Faith "one baptism" is also confessed, while canon 46 of the holy apostles decrees: "we order any bishop, or presbyter, that has accepted any heretics' baptism, or sacrifice, to be deposed."

However, when the zeal of any of the heretics weakened in their battle with the Church, or when the question of their mass conversion to Orthodoxy arose, the Church, to facilitate their union, received them into her bosom through another form. In his first canon, which was incorporated into the decrees of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, St. Basil the Great indicates the existence of various practices in the reception of heretics in different countries. He explains that every separation from the Church deprives one of grace and writes concerning schismatics: "The beginning, true enough, of the separation resulted through a schism, but those who seceded from the Church had not the grace of Holy Spirit upon them; for the impartation thereof ceased with the interruption of the service. For although the ones who were the first to depart had been ordained by the fathers and with the impartation of their hands had obtained the gracious gift of the Spirit, yet after breaking away they became laymen, and had no authority either to baptize or to ordain anyone, nor could they impart the grace of the Spirit to others, after they themselves had forfeited it. Wherefore, they [the ancient partisans of Sts. Cyprian and Firmilian] bade that those baptized by them [the heretics] should be regarded as baptized by laymen, and that, when they came to join the Church, they should have to be repurified by the true baptism as prescribed by the Church". However, "for the sake of the edification of many," St. Basil does not object to the use of another form of reception for the schismatic Cathari in Asia. Concerning the Encratites he writes: "If, however, this is to become an obstacle in the general economy" [of the Church], another practice may be employed, explaining it in this way: "For I am inclined to suspect that we may, by the severity of the prescription actually prevent men from being saved. . ."

Thus, St. Basil the Great, and through his words the Ecumenical Council, while confirming the principle that outside the Holy Orthodox Church there is no true Baptism, allows through pastoral condescension the reception, called economy, of certain heretics and schismatics without a new baptism. In conformity with such a principle, the Ecumenical Councils permitted the reception of heretics in various ways, corresponding to the weakening of their embitterment against the Orthodox Church.

The Kormchaya Kniga (the Slavonic Rudder) cites an explanation of this by Timothy of Alexandria. To the question: "Why do we not baptize heretics who have converted to the Catholic Church?" he replies: "If this were not so, man would not readily turn away from heresy, being ashamed of baptism [i.e. a second baptism], knowing moreover that the Holy Spirit comes even through the laying-on of a priest's hands and through prayers, as the Acts of the Holy Apostles testify."

With regard to Roman Catholics and Protestants who claim to have preserved baptism as a mystery (e.g. the Lutherans), in Russia since the time of Peter I the practice has been followed of receiving them without baptism, through the renunciation of their heresy and by the chrismation of Protestants and unconfirmed Catholics. Until Peter's reign, Catholics were baptized in Russia. In Greece the practice also varied, but for the past almost 300 years after a certain interval, the practice of baptizing those converting from Catholicism and Protestantism was again introduced. Those received in another manner are not recognized as Orthodox in Greece. There have been many cases in which such members of our Russian Church have not been admitted to Holy Communion.

Having in mind this circumstance and the growth today of the heresy of ecumenism, which attempts to eradicate completely the distinction between Orthodoxy and all the heresies, so that the Moscow Patriarchate, in violation of the sacred canons, has even issued a resolution permitting Roman Catholics to receive Communion in certain cases, the Council of Bishops recognizes the necessity of introducing a stricter practice, i.e. that baptism be performed on all heretics who come to the Church, excepting only as the necessity arises and with the permission of the bishop, for reasons of economy or pastoral condescension, another practice of reception in the case of certain persons (i.e. the reception into the Church of Roman Catholics and those Protestants who perform their baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity) through the renunciation of their heresy and by chrismation.

Translated from Orthodox Russia, Vol. 42, #20 (15/28 Nov., 1971), p. 12. This article and the resolution was published in Orthodox Life, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1979, pp. 35-43.