On the Question of the Order of Reception of Persons into the Orthodox Church, Coming to Her from Other Christian Churches

By Archimandrite Ambrosius (Pogodin)

Originally published in Russian in Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniya
(Messenger of the Russian Christian Movement)
Paris-New York-Moscow, Nos. 173 (I-1996) and 174 (II-1996/I-1997).

Translated with permission of the author by Alvian N. Smirensky

Translation Copyright © 2000 Alvian N. Smirensky. All Rights Reserved.
Publication Copyright © 2000. All Rights Reserved.
For information on re-publication write to webmaster@holy-trinity.org

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Introductory Notes - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Appendices


Where possible, quotations in the text have been taken from existing translations. Where possible, the canonical references have been taken from L'Huillier, Archbishop Peter. The Church of the Ancient Councils. Crestwood, N.Y.: SVS Press, 1996. Other texts were checked against Bishop Nikodim Milash.


This essay attempts to review the problem of how persons coming from other Christian confessions are to be received into the bosom of the Orthodox Church. Can the baptism of the heterodox, performed upon them by their churches, be accepted if it was done in the same spirit and understanding as in the Orthodox Church (i.e., by triple immersion in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit)? Can such persons be received into the Orthodox Church by the renunciation of all heresies, confession of the Orthodox faith, and chrismation in order to complete that which was lacking prior to acceptance of the Orthodox Faith? Or, in other cases, should persons be received on the basis of renunciation of heresy, repentance and confession of the Orthodox Faith? Or, should the effectiveness of the baptismal mystery performed in all heterodox churches be rejected as lacking in grace? In that case, should such persons be received into the Orthodox Church exclusively by baptizing and chrismating them?

This issue was always a significant problem in the history of the Church. It was considered by the ancient Church[1], the Holy Fathers, canons of ancient Local Councils and the Ecumenical Councils, later decisions of individual Local Church Councils, and, in certain cases, by rulings of Orthodox sovereigns. For us, who live abroad among the heterodox, this problem is not as academic as it is practical, parochial and pastoral. In our parishes we constantly encounter, in small or large measure, an influx of heterodox, some of which later join the Orthodox Church both as clerics and laity. Mixed marriages are a common occurrence in our parishes and offer an opportunity for attracting new converts to the Orthodox Church.

In modern times, this question is still an issue. Rules promulgated by the Church must wisely guide and assist the parish priest in this missionary situation. It is essential that these rules, when they appear under new forms in conjunction with current circumstances and conditions in the world, reflect both the stability and the tradition of the Orthodox Faith along with the wisdom and love of Mother Church. In the distant past of the eighth century, St. John of Damascus wrote that the Church's legislation must breathe with a spirit of love and condescension.[2] This should be all the more expected today in these difficult times for the Orthodox Church and all Christianity; times when ". . . the mystery of lawlessness is already at work"[3] as evidenced by godlessness, falling away from the Church, indifference, and all other spiritual evils. The Orthodox Church, while avoiding any type of compromise, must primarily show herself to be a loving mother with respect to those heterodox who, with faith and love, come to her from other Christian confessions.

If kept in this perspective, the Church's rules will be vital and conducive to the work of spreading Orthodoxy in the world. History is a wonderful teacher for life. We will present the history of how the problem of the reception of the heterodox into Orthodoxy was resolved: 1) in the Universal Church, 2) in the Russian Church, 3) in the Greek Church of the 18th century, and finally, 4) how this question is seen by the Orthodox Churches at the present time.[4]

Footnotes and Endnotes

Web Editor's note: the original publication had both footnotes and endnotes. For Internet publication all notes have been converted to endnotes.

[1] Apostolic Canons 46, 47, 49, and 50. Back to referring section.

[2] St. John Damascene, On the Holy Fasts, ch. 3 P.G. 95, col. 64-76.. Back to referring section.

[3] 2 Thess. 2:7. Back to referring section.

[4] It is without question that the Sacred Canons are promulgated by the episcopate and priests are obliged to carry them out, but it is presumed that in this case it would be beneficial if in our times the episcopate, before promulgating one or another set of rules which have a direct relationship to parish life, would solicit the views of parish clergy. In ancient times bishops were also pastors of parishes which explains why there were so many bishops and chor-bishops in relatively small territories, which at times would number hundreds of bishops within its boundaries and who, as a result, would have been cognizant with the needs of parish life.

Among the Eastern Fathers we do not find such a sharply defined concept of episcopal authority within the Church. St John Chrysostom said that in the ancient Church the terms "bishop" and "presbyter" signified an identical service and in his writing he had high praise for the service of presbyters in the Church. The Eastern Churchıs canons prescribe total obedience by the clergy towards their bishops, but they also provide an opportunity for the offended cleric to complain about his bishop to the territorial metropolitan, and the metropolitan is required to look diligently into the complaints of offended clerics at the regular sessions of the Synod of Bishops. A cleric offended by his bishop had the right to appeal directly to the patriarch of the territory.

A sharply defined concept of episcopal authority in the Church is more likely to be found in the West and belongs primarily to St. Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) whose writings reflect the following axioms about episcopal authority in the Church: the bishops are established by God; the Church is based upon the bishops; Christ has entrusted his Bride ­ the Church, to the bishops; they are successors of the Apostles; the bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the bishop; those who are not with their bishop are not with the Church; without the bishop there is no Church. At the same time, the same St. Cyprian writes that from the beginning of his episcopal service he determined not to decide anything without consultation with the clergy and the people (P.L. 4, col. 240. Epistola V). Calling bishops "sacerdotes" he uses the same term for the presbyters (P.L. 4, col. 333-334) and says that those of them who were most worthy were in session with him in correcting Church matters. St. Ambrose writes that there were worthy priests around the bishop to help him and were ready for immediate appointment to widowed cathedras. He writes that bishops and presbyters were of the same order, both being "Godıs priests," but nonetheless, the bishops were in the first place: because he is the bishop who is first among the presbyters (P.L. 16, col. 496).

The Blessed Augustine wrote that it is fitting for the clergy and laity to receive directives from their bishops because the bishops are the custodians and pastors, but themselves were under Christ the Chief Custodian and Pastor. In another place he writes that bishops are servants of the Church; in his letters addressed to presbyters he signs himself as "co-presbyter," in his letters to deacons he signs as "co-deacon."

In the Church the authority and the significance of the episcopate is unique and sacred. But the Church can also benefit from the blessed experience of parish priests.

Membership in the [Russian] Sacred Ruling Synod consisted not only of prominent bishops but of prominent presbyters as well. Back to referring section.

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Introductory Notes - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Appendices