I hope this blog post does not come across as bold, hateful or full of contempt because it is not. It is not meant to be exhaustive, absolute, or a complete defense or position paper either. It is a small compilation of thoughts of a simple clergyman who sees something which is a threat. It is not unique as it has been addressed before and by those much more competent than I.
I personally love and respect all, understanding that we are all in different stages of life, have been reared in different faiths, exposed to different historical circumstances and the like, knowing full well that not everyone has been exposed to Orthodoxy or has made a conscious decision to reject it. Adherents to Orthodoxy are not guaranteed salvation and those outside of her fold are not automatically condemned. That would be insane fundamentalism. Actually just about all of my outreach ministry in the area of nursing home and hospice work and past efforts with the homeless were with non-Orthodox, so, I am not some hateful bigot, I just love Truth. This post is written more for Orthodox people who read my blog and it serves as an airing of thoughts as I continue to witness the “fruits” of the so-called branch theory.
One must not under any circumstance harbor anger, hatred or malice towards a person or group that is hostile toward those who are faithful, period. On the contrary Christ tells us that, one must love him or them unceasingly and do as much good as humanly possible towards him, despite the error, arrogance, violence or hatred. Following the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ: "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you" (Mt. 5:44).
Also, I understand and support that on the basis of morality, societal issues, humanitarian causes and so forth, we can have a common witness with those outside the Church in standing against such frightening issues as violence, greed, genocide, so-called same sex marriages, human starvation and a plethora of issues which afflict all humanity and are a common concern to all who label themselves as Christians. My own patriarch, Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev of Moscow and all the Russia in recent times stated that: “Together with Roman Catholics, we stand together in facing aggressive secular liberalism, in defence of the traditional Christian understanding of family values and human life. We present a united front against certain sorts of medical-biological experimentation, as so much of it isn’t compatible with a proper respect for human dignity.” This is completely different than accepting false the eccliesology of those outside the Church. It is a heathly balancing act of love, but without compromise. It does not mean “union”, it means agreeing on issues that afflict all human beings and taking a stand. However, even in joint efforts standing against the kingdom of this world we need to be careful. This is one problem I had with the “Manhatten Declaration”. Although I agree with its premise and what it supports, at its heart was that all differing confessions somehow constitute the “global church”.
Archbishop Averky of our Holy Russian Church of blessed memory stated the following: “We are living in a strange time, when all the true and healthy Christian concepts are being replaced by false and deceitful concepts, discovered often with an evil intention with the undoubted intention, naturally, of drawing people away from the right path of a truly Christian life.”
As time, as we humans perceive it, goes on I am exposed more and more too Orthodox clergymen who believe in the branch theory. In good conscience I cannot accept this error. Arguing over truly semantic points, topics where liberty and opinion can be taken is often a waste of time and is not the problem. However there is no doubt in my mind that the branch theory is a direct assault on the nature of the Church, it is not backed up in our tradition and is a battle the Church has waged against constantly. Unfortunately many believe the modern fallacy that the branch theory is orthodox.
We know that compromise with error is falsehood indeed and guideposts from the holy ones before us have always been means of dealing with heretical innovations, various errors and issues which at first may seem like semantically orientated arguments, but in reality are a cancer which seek to enter the body of Christ in an attempt to whither her and ensnare her faithful. One thing is sure though, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18) We must remember what saints before us have proclaimed and even been persecuted for. St. Mark of Ephesus proclaimed "In matters of the Faith, there must be no concessions and no wavering...There exists no little or worthless word in matters of the Faith; and that which appears insignificant contains the most important meaning."
What is the branch theory? As with all errors which seek to ensnare the faithful it is rather ambiguous. It ranges from accepting other sacramental churches with some semblance of apostolic succession which is only mechanical in nature (Augustinian view), to a more brazen acceptance of many or all Christian churches as valid to even the insanity that all religions are sufficient and vehicles to salvation.
Is the Church divided? Does the Church embrace all forms of heresy, promotes schism, violate its own synodal decisions, violate its own canons, and spit in the face of its saints and martyrs? Of course not. Whether a moderate or extreme branch theorist, as opinions in its application vary, one thing is clear. It is not patristic.
The branch theory promotes that the Church differs in life, varying doctrines being acceptable or even in the extreme case of its proponents that the Church is not one as required by the very Creed and despite canons and patristic testimony. Canon 1 of the second ecumenical council and other guideposts are set aside brazenly as outdated or not applicable. In the Nicene Creed itself all Christians confess their belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Oneness is essential and is a characteristic of Christ's Holy Church. The Church is not a set of different opinions and practices resulting in denominations having a common claim to follow Christ despite their contradictory life and belief. The Church, which is the Body of Christ, can never be divided, separated or exist in opposition to itself. It is one as the Holy Trinity is one. Christ is not schizophrenic having manifestations which contradict, this is just insane.
The sacred canons and professions must be upheld. It is essential that the true unity of the Holy Orthodox Church exists in the unblemished expression of the total harmony of her bishops who hold to these guiding canons, by a common undivided and apostolic faith and a common, pure and holy spiritual life rooted in her Holy tradition. Church's canons are a direct reflection of the essential and unchanging faith and doctrine it so proclaims universally throughout all of time. Renovation to the practice of the internal, spiritual life of the Church will certainly cause disarray, confusion and the possibility of error. As taken from Canon I of the Second Ecumenical Synod, "Let not the Symbol of Faith be set aside…but let it remain unchanged: and let every heresy be given over to anathema.” Or let us look at the eighth proceeding of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod. “If anyone breaks any ecclesiastical tradition, written or unwritten, let him be anathema. We are obligated, despite the times which change as the seasons, to maintain the Truth of the gospel message undefiled and without addition, subtraction or innovation. A bishop has a most difficult task in preserving apostolic truth without alteration or corruption. I am not talking about semantic points, matters of discipline but of the very underlying uniqueness of our holy church.
The branch theorists instead feel when the branches come back together, the fullness of the Church will be enacted. Under the branch theory those in schism and heresy are often embraced as co-equal to the faith delivered unto us by the saints. Under the branch theory the faith and life of an outside body, their “sacraments”, and witness are often misconstrued as no different than that of the mystical body of Christ.
Canon XLVI of the holy apostles states: We order any Bishop, or Presbyter, that has accepted any heretics' Baptism, or sacrifice, to be deposed; for "what consonancy hath Christ with Beliar? or what part hath the believer with an infidel?" Further St. Ignatius of Antioch in the third chapter of his Epistle to the Philadelphians states: “If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
We have Canon VII of the Second Ecumenical Council and also St. Basil the Great’s first canon and the testimony of St. Cyprian of Carthage that with apparent schism those who depart from the Church no longer possess the grace of the Holy Spirit, the priestly gift of grace is discontinued and void, and the transmission of the priesthood is obstructed. Without the transmission of the true priesthood, apostolic succession, those baptized by them are considered to be baptized by laymen at best. Consequently both argue that, “they have neither authority to baptize nor to ordain.”
Saint Cyprian of Carthage continues: “For if they shall see that it is determined and decreed by our judgment 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.”
St. Mark of Ephesus in Florence, who spoke frankly as follows: "We have split ourselves off from the Latins for no other reason than the fact that they are not only schismatics but also heretics." He continues, "The synods condemn those who will not obey the Church and maintain opinions contrary to what she teaches. I neither preach to my own glory, nor have I said anything new or unknown to the Church. I keep intact the pure and unadulterated teachings with the Church has received and preserved, and continues to preserve, from Christ our Savior...Therefore, if I remain steadfast in this teaching and do not desire to deviate from it, how is it possible to judge me as a heretic? First, one must judge the teaching which I believe, and then judge me. If, however, the confession is holy and Orthodox, how can I justifiably be judged?"
St. John Chrysostom states;"Let not the systems of the heretics fool you, my dear listener: for they have a baptism, but no illumination; accordingly, they are baptized, it is true, with respect to the body, but as respects the soul they are not illumined."
A good modern evaluation by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos is: “The Church can receive this or that heretic by the principle of economy, without any implication that She recognizes as a Church the community that previously baptized him.” Ekklesiastike Parembase, No. 71 (December 2001) [In Greek]. Translated by and printed from Orthodox Tradition, Vol XX, No 2, pp. 40-43.
This is why I find the branch theory so repulsive, it undermines the ecclesiology of the church, uniting Truth with falsehood ambiguity and confusion, promotes or rather allows schism and heresy, and ultimately sees nothing wrong with it. St. Symeon the New Theologian says: "A lamp, even if it is filled with oil and possesses a wick, remains totally dark if it is not lighted with fire. So it is with the soul in appearance adorned with all virtues, if it does not have a light and the Grace of the Holy Spirit, it is extinguished and dark" (Homily 59).
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