Sectarianism in Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy in Sectarianism

by Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) of San Francisco

It is erroneous to think that all Orthodox are in reality not sectarians and that all sectarians are in reality not Orthodox. Not every Orthodox in name is so in spirit, and not every sectarian in name is so in spirit, and, especially at the present time, it is possible to meet "Orthodox" who are in fact sectarians at heart: fanatic, unloving, narrow minded, persistent in human precision, not hungering or thirsting after God’s truth, but gorged with their own presumptuous truth, strictly judging others from the summit of this their imaginary truth dogmatically correct from the outside, but lacking origin in the Spirit. And, conversely, it is possible to meet a sectarian who apparently does not understand the meaning of the Orthodox worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, who doesn’t "recognize" this or that expression of ecclesiastical truth, but who in fact conceals within himself much that is truly divine, who is truly filled with love in Christ, truly a brother to his fellow man.

And the existence of such variety in Christian society does not allow a shallow approach to the problem of interfaith relations. Sectarians sin in their failure to understand Orthodoxy, but we Orthodox also do not follow our own Orthodox teachings in not understanding sectarians who are at times surprisingly fervent and pure in their persistent pursuit of the Lord towards a life in Him alone.

The narrow, arrogant, ailing reason of mankind, not transfigured in the Spirit of God, aspires identically to division and seeks a cause for it, whoever this reason might belong to - Orthodox or sectarian.

We Orthodox believe and see in spirit that we possess the fullness of the truth as can be humanly expressed. But that does not mean at all that we are already following that fullness of truth and that completeness has filled us. We sometimes possess it only on our lips, or think that it should replace in our eye the beam of our spiritual sloth. But all that is far from what should be. We possess the truth, and in its fullness, but we do not know how or refuse to live it, and often simply do not aspire to live it, because it overly places too many restriction on our "old self". Yet we are not against taking pride or glorying in our orthodoxy.

Then as among heterodox Christians there are many who live in the truth of Orthodoxy through their spirit. There are sectarians who are aflame with the spirit and love of God and fellow man much more than some Orthodox, and that very spirit of fervent love for God and man is the mark of a true Orthodox life. Whoever among Orthodox does not possess it is not truly Orthodox, and whoever possesses it among non-Orthodox is truly Orthodox. As he is human, he makes mistakes; as he is human, he fails to understand this or that, he can’t distinguish this or that color in the spiritual world (spiritual Daltonism, e.g. he doesn’t comprehend the meaning of icons, the communion with saints who have left this world). Yet in spirit, in his inner self he is "faithful and true", devoted in unfeigned love to the living incarnate God, our Lord Jesus Christ, until death. The presence of such true Orthodox Christians may be observed among professed Orthodox as well as among Roman Catholics and among Protestants of all categories. It also may be observed among Russian sectarians, who have become sectarian, i.e. separated themselves in mind and experience from the dogmatic confession of the Church, partially from an inability to comprehend that confession in the Spirit, and partially from bad examples of the realization of that confession in life. It is clear to every Orthodox, that professed Orthodox are often not only not edifying to society, but rather contribute to an outright perversion of that society. We are not speaking of examples of politicians or social activists. Of course to the greatest degree this also concerns us, the clergy, who do not always stand on the spiritual heights of Orthodoxy, in spite of our clear comprehension of the truthfulness of our Church. And as for monasteries . . . What depths of unorthodox feeling, of worldly, corrupt spirit lay at times under the humble monk’s habit. And all this "lightweight" rottenness floated on the surface of the life of the Church and was more noticeable to the eye than the truly humble labor of a multitude of real Orthodox pastors and monks, who renounced themselves to follow Christ in their lives and died in Christ. The Revolution [of 1917] revealed and unmasked this weak layer of the Russian Orthodox priesthood, yet it underlined the confession of an Orthodox life through martyrdom for the majority of priests. Someone has said that the presence of sectarianism testifies to the religious nature of the people. It may also be said thus: the presence of sectarianism testifies to the Orthodoxy of the people, the fervor of its spirit, its idealistic aspirations, its thirst for internal, not external religion, a heartfelt thirst for a covenant with God. And that in essence is Orthodoxy. The Orthodox laymen, and even more so the Orthodox priests, are always more responsible for the presence of sectarianism than are the sectarians themselves. Is not to think thus - to think in an Orthodox manner - to bear upon oneself the blame and responsibility for our separated brethren? Otherwise not to accept the blame would not be Christ’s truth. One may realize human truth in acknowledging the sectarians to be themselves to blame, but Christ’s truth is another, "foolish" for the world, wise - only for God.

The positive strength of the Spirit of God, which lives in Orthodoxy, and which is itself Orthodoxy, may not be proven by quarrels, or disputes, or arguments or coarse disclosures. This Spirit may be manifested only by "foolishly" - according to the world - renouncing the rights of reason and handing the matter over to trial by the Spirit.

In Orthodox apologetics a clear and strong emphasis must be placed on the explanation of the meaning of the knowledge of the faith in life.

It must be clearly understood that Orthodoxy is a fearsome Fire like the Holy Mysteries. This fire will either transform or consume those who receive the fullness of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy created the spirit of the Russian people, but it also cast them into the fire. The Orthodox have been burnt by Orthodoxy. They have become unworthy communicants of the Sacred Mystery of the Fullness of the faith. This Sacred Mystery not only vivifies, but it also burns.

Sectarianism is an unorthodox search for the ways of Orthodoxy. Because of human weakness this search in conducted not "in depth" but "off to the side", i.e. not in doctrine but somewhere around doctrine. A dogmatic (pure) life somewhere around doctrine seems more Orthodox, of course, than a non-dogmatic (immoral) life in doctrine. This must be understood with all the clarity and all the precision of the Word of God, which seems to indicate this directly in the parable of the two sons, one of whom said that he would not fulfill the will of his father, yet fulfilled it; and the other that he would fulfill it, but did not. The confession of the Orthodox Symbol of Faith [the Creed] is the seal of the Gospel. This Symbol should be accomplished in life, it should become reality. For one person it may be totally unrealistic in life, although that person recites it every day at prayer. For another person his faith is manifested in his life of love for Jesus Christ, for our Heavenly Father and for the Holy Spirit, and it is reflected in his countenance, in his words and in all his actions. Who is closer to the Kingdom of God? The answer is clear. Of course the second person, who is not Orthodox in name, yet is Orthodox in spirit and in Truth, who is taught by the Spirit Himself.

Those who are Orthodox by their own profession and confirmation should understand that Orthodoxy is by no means a privilege, nor is it cause to judge others, nor is it pride. Orthodoxy, on the contrary, is humility. It is the confession of the fullness of the Truth, of righteousness and of love. Orthodoxy must win the victory only by its radiance, like the Lord Himself, and by no means through the use of cannon, steel or verbal (there is no difference). Orthodoxy does not shine forth in an Orthodox society that takes pride in its Orthodoxy. It shines forth in those who are humble in their Orthodoxy, who understand the purity of the faith, not only in their puny reasoning, but through the spirit through all their life.

The beauty of Orthodoxy is granted for people’s salvation, but some Orthodox have begun to make use of it in order to judge, to destroy others. It may be said that there are no completely Orthodox people on earth; but both those who call themselves "Orthodox" and those who do not think themselves to be Orthodox, yet consider themselves to be in Christ’s Church and live their lives in Christ - are partially Orthodox. Orthodoxy is sunlight falling upon the earth. It shines upon all, yet not all are enlightened by it, for some live underground, some have shut their windows, and some their eyes . . .

Yet there arises a necessary question: are not these thoughts, even in the slightest measure, a renunciation of the purity of the Orthodox faith, of that purity for which sake so much blood was shed and for which the Holy Fathers were so zealous?

No, not at all. It is not only not a renunciation of Orthodox purity, but it is its defense and confession.

Let us take for example the veneration of the saints, praying to them. The sectarian - irrationally, not according to the spirit - rejects this branch of spiritual life. We confirm its spiritual reality in Christ. Can anyone who does not recognize this reality be saved? This is a strange question. Can that, which should serve as an aid to salvation, be used as a pretext for condemnation, if this aid is not taken advantage of? What do the saints seek - their own glory or God’s? God’s of course. And every true glorification of the saints is first and foremost the glorification of God. "God is wonderful in His saints." This means that if we glorify God "directly," and in fact truly glorify Him without hypocrisy, the saints and angels rejoice of course and are glad and spiritually kiss those who send up glory. And on the other hand, does anyone who sings magnifications and akathistos hymns to the saints without the love of the spirit, the spirit of Christ’s purity and truth and love in his life not dishonor the saints rather than glorify them? Perhaps for this reason many have ceased to glorify the saints, led astray by similar results of glorification. Oh how coarse and persistent is human sophistry, crucifying the most pure spirit of the Lord in people!

The ordinances of the Orthodox Church are a school of the spirit, the most convenient school - if it is studied in the spirit. Everything in the Orthodox Church is supposed to quicken and inspire. Man is to blame if he remains rooted to the earth. We Orthodox pastors are teachers in Christ. There is only one Teacher - the Lord Jesus Christ, and no one - outside of Him - may be a teacher. Our sole instruction is obedience to the One Teacher. We are teachers not in our own name, but in the name of Christ. And then we observe that someone has learned to be a disciple of Christ without us. So what? Shall we rise up against him like the Apostles who wanted to rise up against those who "did not walk with them" (Luke 9, 49)? But they received a proper admonition from the Teacher, fitting also for us Orthodox pastors. We should be glad that someone through the power of the Almighty Spirit, who "breathes where He will", has miraculously transformed his life and offers its fruits to God. Is the way of the Spirit not clear to us in such a person? But have we been designated to pass judgment on the way of the Spirit, if the fruits of the Spirit are clearly before our eyes? It is commanded to know them by their fruits. And the fruits are clearly defined by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13, 4-8).

There is but one unforgivable sin - the sin against the Holy Spirit, against love for Him. Those who love wickedness, who praise sin, who delight in evil are guilty of that sin, but in no wise those who in their hearts "acknowledge" or "do not acknowledge", i. e. see or not see in their hearts this or that truth. If I am a spiritual Daltonist and do not see this or that color in the nature of the spiritual world, but I see the remaining colors as all others do, am I to be disowned? I should rather be an object of particular attention, of particular compassion. The sectarian who believes in the Holy Trinity, in the necessity of spiritual birth, in the necessity of a conscious relation to baptism, in the necessity of a believers not being ashamed of one’s faith in the presence of indifference, but rather confessing it before all, who believes every word of Holy Scripture and in his zeal for that faith considers as superfluous all other manifestations of the revelations of the Holy Spirit in the Church for the last 1900 years (revelations, which do not contradict, but explain that, which is hidden in the Gospel), should this sectarian be persecuted by us Orthodox? What shall our Orthodoxy consist of then? We must not maliciously, stingingly or harshly persecute and condemn not only sectarians, our brothers in the faith in the One Savior and Redeemer of the world. We must not dare to maliciously or stingingly condemn anyone. We may point out an error or a weakness - if we ourselves are pure, - but with compassion. We should mercilessly drive out only the coarse spirit of the world from our hearts. And then our Orthodoxy will shine forth. For it is unthinkable to justify the means by the goals. Orthodoxy cannot be defended through pagan or Jewish arguments. The purity of the Spirit of the Gospel, Holy Orthodoxy, must be defended evangelically, dispassionately, wisely, with great love in the soul for which He who was both God and man shed His Blood.

It is very easy to throw stones. And our old man searches out every permissible cause for throwing stones. The cause of religious zeal is the most convenient. The purity of faith and spirit, a great sacred object is being defended! It is precisely here, in the defense of sacred things, that we must clothe ourselves with sacred things and gird our loins with fasting and almsgiving of the spirit. In this is the Orthodoxy of our life.

We must openly recognize the indisputable fact that among all the confessions of faith in the true Incarnation of God upon earth accomplished in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega of salvation, among all who call upon His Holy Name - there are spiritually born people. They are among Orthodox, and among Roman Catholics, and among Protestants of every shade and shape. The reverse fact is that among all three there are those who are not born in Christ through the Spirit, who do not despise evil and who do not love God with their whole heart and with their whole mind. All those whom the Orthodox Church receives without baptism are Christians, are brothers of the Orthodox in Christ, and our attitude toward them must be especially brotherly and loving. We say "especially" because attitude toward all people must be brotherly. How can an Orthodox believer convert another to the faith, if he does not possess this love for his fellow man? How can a person recognize that faith of love, if he sees no love in those who proclaim it?

Pride is abominable before God, and we Orthodox have been convicted not only for our corporal sins but also for our spiritual sins. "You say: How rich (Orthodox) I am! In fact you are the most pitiful wretch, poor, blind and naked," (Rev. 3, 17) says the Lord to the prideful, unloving Orthodox person.

Will the blessed age ever arrive, when true Orthodoxy will shine forth among those who bear Its name? When meekness, mercy, purity and without hypocrisy love in Christ will shine forth towards every man, towards all creation? In our time, the Orthodox Faith shines forth in the martyrdom of the Russian people. But in some sectarians also, martyrs and confessors, like those Catholics who have been persecuted and tortured for the faith of Christ, - Orthodoxy has been glorified, - true, unfeigned and much more pure and holy than in the thousands of lukewarm, timorous people who simply bear the name, "though they have a name for being alive" (Rev. 3, 1), but who are in fact dead followers of our pure dogmatic doctrine.

Our Orthodoxy here is only a reflection, only an echo of the heavenly Orthodoxy, of its eternal truth, of its eternal perfection. It is purely reflected dogmatically in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. But Orthodoxy is spirit and life, and it has as its fruit - only life. Orthodoxy is the good fruit, and one must judge the tree only by its fruit, the results of its blossoming. The flower may be unattractive, the leaves dry and prickly, the tree may be low and unsightly, perhaps even broken. But if the fruit is sweet, pure and nourishing then the tree is Orthodox in its bearing fruit. And conversely, the leaves and flowers may be luxuriant, the tree may be huge and beautiful, but if the fruit is inedibly bitter, poisonous or spoiled, then nothing can manifest the truth of Orthodoxy from this seemingly exceptional tree. And it will be truly pitiful, if it begins to make itself stand out and exalt itself above the other trees.

But, practically speaking, what does the spirit of sectarianism consist of, against which one should arm himself through prayer and vigilance? That spirit is a spirit of soulful (not spiritual) zeal. It is a rationalization of the faith, the observance of the purity of the faith and the loss of its depth. It is the loss of love. Some Orthodox defend their Orthodoxy in a sectarian manner, arming themselves with scriptural texts or canons like cudgels to scold sectarians or even their fellow Orthodox (examples of the old and new schisms), defending their faith without hope in God and without love towards their fellow man. And, conversely, in certain sectarians the spirit of Orthodoxy is realized in their handling of this or that problem. For example, concerning the lack of understanding of the communion of the Heavenly Church (the saints), all sectarians will "not recognize" that communion, and not desiring to commune with its experience of the Spirit, will arrogantly renounce that communion. But one sectarian will accuse the Orthodox of "idol worship", while another will "leave it up to God" and simply offer a humble prayer for the illumination of his Orthodox brethren with the light of truth. Both the one and the other will remain outside the experience of the Orthodox communion with the Heavenly Church. The former will have a non-Orthodox frame of mind, while the latter will have an Orthodox state of mind, and in spite of his unorthodox profession of faith, he perhaps may appear to be more Orthodox before God than another Orthodox, who communes with the saints only on the surface as part of a ritual, but who does not live his life according to the commandments of the Gospel, who does not aspire in his heart to the spirit of the saints.

Everyone is to blame. "There is none righteous, no, not one." (Rom. 3, 10) This must be understood. And we must not judge one another, but rather help one another, teach one another the truth. How many barriers will fall then!

If the Lord had limited Himself to those laws of salvation, which our human minds can comprehend, we would all be lost. To the limitless joy of humanity that is not so. The laws of God’s salvation are wider than our understanding, or - more precisely - deeper. For the Savior is the Lord, and we are people, insignificant and wretched creatures before God. And "all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag." (Is. 64, 6) All our Orthodox demeanor is really "like a filthy rag". And our comprehension of this simply manifests, simply underlines the boundless truth, depth and greatness of Orthodoxy.

San Francisco, California, 1963.

From the publication, "The Rule of the Spirit." Paris, 1932

Translated from the Russian for the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE by Robert A. Parent

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