Orthodoxy on Other Christians…

Blessed Seraphim Rose

by Blessed Fr. Seraphim Rose

A few years before he died, Fr. Seraphim received a letter from an African-American woman who, as a catechumen learning about Orthodoxy, was struggling to understand the uncharitable attitude that some Orthodox Christians showed to those outside the Church, an attitude which reminded her of how her own people had been treated. “I am deeply troubled,” this woman wrote, “as to how Orthodoxy views what the world would call Western Christians, i.e., Protestants and Roman Catholics. I have read many articles by many Orthodox writers, and a few use words like ‘Papists,’ etc., which I find deeply disturbing and quite offensive. I find them offensive because as a person of a race which has been subjected to much name-calling I despise and do not wish to adopt the habit of name-calling myself. Even ‘heretic’ disturbs me….

“Where do I stand with my friends and relatives? They do not know about Orthodoxy or they do not understand it. Yet they believe in and worship Christ.… Am I to treat my friends and relatives as if they have no God, no Christ?… Or can I call them Christians, but just ones who do not know the true Church?

“When I ask this question, I cannot help but think of St. Innocent of Alaska as he visited the Franciscan monasteries in California. He remained thoroughly Orthodox yet he treated the priests he met there with kindness and charity and not name-calling. This, I hope, is what Orthodoxy says about how one should treat other Christians.”

This woman’s quandary was actually fairly common to people coming into the Orthodox Faith. Now nearing the end of his short life and having thrown off his youthful bitterness, Fr. Seraphim answered as follows:

I was happy to receive your letter—happy not because you are confused about the question that troubles you, but because your attitude reveals that in the truth of Orthodoxy to which you are drawn you wish to find room also for a loving, compassionate attitude to those outside the Orthodox Faith.

I firmly believe that this is indeed what Orthodoxy teaches….

I will set forth briefly what I believe to be the Orthodox attitude towards non-Orthodox Christians.

1. Orthodoxy is the Church founded by Christ for the salvation of mankind, and therefore we should guard with our life the purity of its teaching and our own faithfulness to it. In the Orthodox Church alone is grace given through the sacraments (most other churches don’t even claim to have sacraments in any serious sense). The Orthodox Church alone is the Body of Christ, and if salvation is difficult enough within the Orthodox Church, how much more difficult must it be outside the Church!

2. However, it is not for us to define the state of those who are outside the Orthodox Church. If God wishes to grant salvation to some who are Christians in the best way they know, but without ever knowing the Orthodox Church—that is up to Him, not us. But when He does this, it is outside the normal way that He established for salvation—which is in the Church, as a part of the Body of Christ. I myself can accept the experience of Protestants being ‘born-again’ in Christ; I have met people who have changed their lives entirely through meeting Christ, and I cannot deny their experience just because they are not Orthodox. I call these people “subjective” or “beginning” Christians. But until they are united to the Orthodox Church they cannot have the fullness of Christianity, they cannot be objectively Christian as belonging to the Body of Christ and receiving the grace of the sacraments. I think this is why there are so many sects among them—they begin the Christian life with a genuine conversion to Christ, but they cannot continue the Christian life in the right way until they are united to the Orthodox Church, and they therefore substitute their own opinions and subjective experiences for the Church’s teaching and sacraments.

About those Christians who are outside the Orthodox Church, therefore, I would say: they do not yet have the full truth—perhaps it just hasn’t been revealed to them yet, or perhaps it is our fault for not living and teaching the Orthodox Faith in a way they can understand. With such people we cannot be one in the Faith, but there is no reason why we should regard them as totally estranged or as equal to pagans (although we should not be hostile to pagans either—they also haven’t yet seen the truth!). It is true that many of the non-Orthodox hymns contain a teaching or at least an emphasis that is wrong—especially the idea that when one is “saved” he does not need to do anything more because Christ has done it all. This idea prevents people from seeing the truth of Orthodoxy which emphasizes the idea of struggling for one’s salvation even after Christ has given it to us, as St. Paul says: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [Phil. 2:12]. But almost all of the religious Christmas carols are all right, and they are sung by Orthodox Christians in America (some of them in even the strictest monasteries!).

The word “heretic” is indeed used too frequently nowadays. It has a definite meaning and function, to distinguish new teachings from the Orthodox teaching; but few of the non-Orthodox Christians today are consciously “heretics,” and it really does no good to call them that.

In the end, I think, Fr. Dimitry Dudko’s attitude is the correct one: We should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. St. Innocent’s attitude to the Roman Catholics in California is a good example for us. A harsh, polemical attitude is called for only when the non-Orthodox are trying to take away our flocks or change our teaching.…

As for prejudices—these belong to people, not the Church. Orthodoxy does not require you to accept any prejudices or opinions about other races, nations, etc.

Book: Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works.

10 thoughts on “Orthodoxy on Other Christians…

  1. +CHRIST IS RISEN+

    PLIZ FATHERS,PRAY FOR ME THE SINFULL.
    THANK YOU+

    THANK YOU FOR YOUR NICE+BLESSED SITE….
    KALO PARADEISO+
    =WISH=HAVE A PLACE IN PARADISE.
    AMEN+

    ANGEL OF LAV+

  2. Why The Orthodox church in Turkey close the door Turkish people. Even If they go to Orthodox church they are not very welcome because of the history. And what can we do protestant church is always open door for every body.

    • Dear Salih,
      The Orthodox Church in Turkey, from what I understand, is mostly made up of ethnic Greeks. Given the history of these two peoples, Turks & Greeks, it seems that old hatreds die hard.
      The Church is not “closed” to Turks but there is a human element that must be overcome. I have no clear answers, but I know that Christ-like love and forgiveness will go a long way towards healing old wounds.
      The Protestants do not possess the history that Holy Orthodoxy & Islam do. They do not know centuries of persecution and martyrs.
      The Orthodox Christians of your country have much to overcome and they need the support of other Christians to be able to do it, not to replace the historic Church of the region with something else.
      It is difficult, but with God all things are possible.
      Merry Christmas!
      Leah

  3. This is something that needs to be realized and put into practice in our every day life’s But what does Islam got to do with Orthodoxy? when that requires bowing down to a man made Deity.

    • Dear Raymond,
      I don’t quite understand your question…
      Orthodoxy has nothing to do with Islam, except for the deep history of persecution.
      Perhaps Salih was questioning why everybody cannot commune, though why a Muslim would want to is beyond my ken. His question may have been about a completely different issue than the one I answered, I may have misunderstood. As I said earlier, I don’t see where anyone was saying the Orthodox should bow to any man made deity and, indeed, categorically the Orthodox should never do so.

  4. Christ is risen!

    What a beautiful post Leah! I am not very familiar with Fr Seraphim, I have only heard of the controversy surrounding his writings on toll-houses.

    I believe, as Fr. Thomas Hopko has expressed, that toll-houses are perhaps meant metaphorically as temptations by the Evil One who sends demons to attempt to convince us to hold on to our sins and failings as we lay dying. Thus, these tempters prevent the necessary repentance of sinners at death’s door. I could believe in such a teaching, but if the teaching is that the houses are exact in number and set, physical things in the sky, that sounds a bit fanciful. . . I do not know much on this matter, so I leave it for more knowledgeable minds to debate.

    Regardless of the toll-houses, this particular letter by the late hieromonk is very touching. I think it would be healthy and edifying if all Orthodox Christians were to read it!

    Warmly in the risen Christ,
    -Ryan

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