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Unintentional Schism? A Response to Peter Leithart’s “Too catholic to be Catholic”

Victims of Climate Change?

Victim of Climate Change?

Of late Protestantism seems to be undergoing a “climate change.”  Theological positions are shifting and church affiliations are undergoing realignment in surprising ways.  Reformed Christians are rediscovering liturgical worship and the church fathers.  While pastors sought to enrich their Protestant heritage, they did not intend that people would jettison their Protestantism altogether and become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.  These defections are raising concerns among pastors.   Peter Leithart in a recent posting noted:

My friends tell me that my name has been invoked in various web skirmishes concerning Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, sometimes by people, including friends, who claim that I nurtured them along in their departure from the Protestant world.  My friends also hinted that it would be good for me to say again why I’m not heading to Rome or Constantinople or Moscow (Russia!), nor encouraging anyone to do so.

Leithart’s “Too catholic to be Catholic” is an apologia for his remaining Protestant.  A considerable part of the article focused on the matter of closed Communion and church unity.  He argues that converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy does not heal divisions among Christians but rather reproduces the divisions in different ways.


Mercersburg Theology Paves the Way

I once held to this view.  Prior to becoming Orthodox my theology was shaped by Mercersburg theology.  Mercersburg Theology was a form of high church Calvinism in the 1800s that sought to incorporate the early church fathers and the Eucharist into Reformed Christianity.  In many ways the Mercersburg theologians, John Nevin and Philip Schaff, anticipated the inclusive approach advocated by Leithart by more than a century.  There is little that is new to what Leithart is advocating.  There seems to be a Mercersburg revival among young Reformed scholars like W. Brad Littlejohn and Jonathan Bonomo.

Like Nevin and Schaff I believed then that through a historical dialectic the divisions between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism would be resolved.  According to this view even if I were to become a Catholic, the dividing issues would still remain between the two traditions and for that reason it would be better to remain a Protestant and help Protestants recover their Catholic roots.  In this way a more radical healing of the divisions would come about.

However, as I studied the early Church the more the underlying assumptions of Mercersburg Theology and the Protestant Reformation became problematic.  Theology in the early Church was based upon the receiving of Holy Tradition and being in communion with its bishops.  Nowhere was there any evidence of people reading the Bible for themselves.  Contrary to the popular understanding of tradition as extra-biblical man-made inventions, the early Christians sought to preserve the teachings and practices of the Apostles.  (See my posting on apostolic succession.)  And just as surprising was the discovery that the New Testament teaches the passing on of the apostolic doctrine from one generation to the next (II Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2; II Thessalonians 2:15).  (See my posting on the biblical basis for Holy Tradition.)

This historic-biblical understanding of Tradition was radically different from Mercersburg’s scholastic method which viewed the writings of the church fathers as theological resources for constructing theological systems than as part of a traditioning process.  The notion of Tradition contradicts the idea of doctrinal evolution that underlies much of Western Christianity. For the early Christians then and Orthodoxy today, Holy Tradition is a body of doctrine and praxis received as a treasure to be safeguarded and preserved from alteration; it is not a jar of silly putty to be shaped and played with as we like.  Furthermore, theology in the early Church was conciliar in which the Church Catholic made binding decisions on matters of doctrine and practice.  This was a fulfillment of Christ’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth.  (See my recent blog posting on Pentecost.)  What impressed me about the early Church was the reality of church unity back then.  As a Protestant I was haunted by the fact that there was so much theological diversity among Protestants and even within the same denomination.  And I was troubled by the fact that Protestant Christianity seemed to bear little resemblance to the early Church.


Horizontal Unity versus Vertical Unity

Leithart posed the question: “Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome?”  My response is that there are two dimensions to Eucharistic unity: horizontal unity in which one shares the same faith with others across the world in the present moment and vertical unity in which one shares the same faith with others across time, e.g., fellowship with the church fathers.  As I became increasingly aware of the significant differences between Protestantism and the early church fathers I reached the conclusion that Protestants, even the original Reformers, would be barred from receiving Communion in the early Church.  This led me to an awkward dilemma.  Did I want to be in communion with contemporary Protestantism and out of communion with the early church fathers and the Ecumenical Councils?  Or was I willing to give up my Protestant beliefs in order to be in communion with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church?

In other words, Pastor Leithart’s advocacy of open communion is inadvertently divisive because it sacrifices vertical unity with the historic Church for horizontal unity with the contemporary Protestant church.

Many Protestants would object: But we believe in the same things the early Christians did!  I would respond: Do you really believe the same things the early Christians did?

  • Does your church accept the Nicene Creed as authoritative?  (Many Evangelicals today never heard of the Nicene Creed.)
  • Does your church celebrate the historic Liturgy or is your order of worship something recently concocted?  (Most Protestant churches do not celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday.  Those who celebrate the Eucharist regularly do not have a received liturgical tradition that goes back to the Apostles, e.g., the Liturgy of St. James, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Mark.)
  • Does your church accept the doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood as taught by the early church fathers and the ancient liturgies?  (Most Protestants today believe that the bread and wine are just symbols.  The Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation and the Reformed doctrine of the spiritual feeding in the Lord’s Supper have no counterpart in the teachings of the early Church.)
  • Who is your bishop?  What is his line of succession?  (Virtually all Protestants lack bishops in the historic sense.)
  • Does your church accept the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s decision about the veneration of icons?  (No Protestant denominations and none of the Reformers venerated icons as decreed by Nicea II.)
  • Does your church reject the novel doctrines of sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola scriptura (the Bible alone)?  (None of the early church fathers taught these Protestant doctrines.)

The gap between modern day Protestantism and the early Church is considerable.  The early Church did not subscribe to the view that if one accepted Jesus as Savior one was automatically a Christian and therefore a member of the body of Christ.  Becoming a Christian in the early Church was a fairly lengthy process in which one faithfully attended the Sunday liturgies for at least a year and learned the Creed by heart.  Conversion in the early Church meant undergoing the sacrament of Baptism in which one was born anew in Christ, received the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Chrismation, then brought before the altar where one received the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  (See Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, especially Lectures XIX to XXIII.)

Pastor Leithart is critical of the notion of closed communion.  He wonders what the difference is between the Catholics, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, or the Continental Reformed?  For Pastor Leithart this is a rhetorical throw away question.  But actually, this is a very useful question to ask.  Another way to pose the question is to ask: What does Communion mean for this particular body?  What does Communion tell me about the boundaries for their faith?  How a church body practices Communion brings to light how they define the parameters of doctrinal orthodoxy, i.e., how it distinguishes right doctrine from heresy.  It shines a spotlight on the theological core of the church body.  A church body without a theological core is like a person without an identity (a very unhealthy situation to be in!).

Communion in Roman Catholicism means: (1) that one accepts the infallible teaching authority of the Pope and (2) that one accepts the Catholic Church’s dogma on transubstantiation.  Communion in the Orthodox Church means: (1) that one has received the “pattern of sound teachings” (II Timothy 1:13-14) passed on from the Apostles through the bishops (II Timothy 2:2) to the church of  today, and (2) that one has placed one’s self under the authority of the bishop the guardian and teacher of Apostolic Tradition (II Timothy 4:1-5).  In the case of the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod, to be in communion means that one accepts the distinctive Lutheran doctrines as found in the Book of Concord.  Even Baptists practice a form of closed communion; only those who have been baptized by total immersion are granted access to the communion table.

What Pastor Leithart is doing with his rhetorical question is not only trivializing the Eucharist by detaching it from doctrinal authority but isolating the Eucharist from the historic church be it Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox.  He seems to be saying we all should be giving communion to each other regardless of our doctrines or regardless of our what our faith tradition teaches.  Is he implying that there are no core doctrines?  And that communion is to be given to all without condition?  And that there is no such thing as wrong doctrine (heresy)?  I’m sure that Pastor Leithart does have doctrinal standards that he applies when he celebrates Holy Communion.  Once he spells out what the preconditions are then he in effect declares what he considers to be the boundaries of his church tradition.


A Critique of the Branch Theory of the Church

Leithart’s criticism of closed communion is apparently based upon the branch theory of the church.  The branch theory of the church believes that despite the outward divisions, the various denominations (branches) remain part of the one true Church.  This view holds that despite the differences we are all one and that we need to recover a visible expression of our underlying oneness.  In its original version, the branch theory encompassed the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions; then somewhere along the way it was broadened to include Lutherans, Reformed Christians, Baptists, and born again Evangelicals!  Given Protestantism’s inability to find common theological ground, the attempt is made to substitute orthodoxy with inclusiveness.  Such an approach is radically at odds with historic Christianity.  Furthermore, the branch theory calls into question Christ’s promises that the gates of Hell would not prevail over the Church and that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth.  (See my recent blog posting: Pentecost and the Promise of God Fulfilled.)

Orthodoxy rejects the branch theory on several grounds.  One, none of the church fathers taught this doctrine.  Historically, it was invented by the Anglican theologian, William Palmer (1803-1885), and then popularized by the Oxford Movement in the mid 1800s.  Two, the branch theory assumes that heterodoxy is compatible with the one true Church.  Three, the branch theory assumes that each of the branch (denomination) has a part of the Truth but no one branch (denomination) has retained Apostolic Tradition intact.  This implies that the original Apostolic Tradition is no longer intact but exists only in broken fragments.  On the grounds that it has faithfully preserved the Apostles’ teachings for the past two thousand years, Orthodoxy is compelled to reject the branch theory.  The irony and tragedy here is that Leithart’s position on open communion seems to have roots going back to the 1800s, not to the ancient Church.


Is denying Communion to Protestants a Bad Thing?

Orthodoxy is not a social club but a covenant community entrusted with safeguarding the Apostolic Tradition.  This is the teaching and practice of the Apostles handed down from generation to generation with care and diligence; much like how the crown jewels of the British monarchy are treated with great respect and care.  Protestants are denied Communion because they do not share in the historic Faith but hold to a novel theological system that none of the church fathers taught.

By denying Protestants Communion Orthodoxy is actually doing Protestants a favor by making visible Protestantism’s alienation from its patristic roots.  We invite Protestants to become part of a historic Faith that has been handed down from the Apostles.  We invite Protestants to leave behind their doctrinal innovations and embrace the historic Christian Faith.  But it should be made clear that Orthodoxy will not endorse a cheap ecumenicism that jeopardizes our ties with the historic Church.  The Eucharist is not just a symbol but a genuine receiving of Christ’s body and blood.  Eucharistic union with the Orthodox Church means being in communion with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed.


Learning From Ignatius of Antioch

Icon - Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117)

Icon – Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117)

Let us give heed to Ignatius of Antioch, the third bishop of Antioch who was martyred circa 117.  Tradition has it that Ignatius was one of the children Jesus took into his arms and blessed.  It is important to keep in mind that Antioch was the Apostle Paul’s home church (Acts 11:25-26, 13:1-2).  This means that Ignatius was discipled at one of the spiritual capitals of the early Church.  Orthodoxy can claim a direct historic link to Ignatius through the Patriarchate of Antioch which still exists today.  The church Antioch continues today under the leadership of the Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV.

Ignatius wrote:

Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.  Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.  (Letter to the Smyrneans VIII)

For Ignatius the Catholic Church was evidenced by two things: the Eucharist and the bishop.  The Orthodox Church holds to the same view as Ignatius.  It is surprising that Pastor Leithart feels free to ignore the very point that Ignatius stressed over and over as he faced death as a martyr for Christ.  Ignatius also has stern words of warning:

“Be not deceived,” my brethren, if any one follow a maker of schism, “he does not inherit the kingdom of God;” if any man walk in strange doctrine he has no part in the Passion. (Letter to the Philadelphians III)

What we read here from Ignatius is not a call to doctrinal inclusiveness but to doctrinal orthodoxy.  “Strange doctrines” refers to any teaching not taught the Apostles and their successors, the bishops.  Because they lack bishops Protestants have been vulnerable to strange teachings.  The novelty and Protestant assumptions underlying Pastor Leithart’s article “Too catholic to be Catholic” becomes stark when compared against Ignatius of Antioch’s letters.  The two positions are too different to be reconciled.  Leithart’s “Too catholic” article cannot be squared away against Ignatius’ teachings.  One has to accept the one and reject the other.  This means that one must choose between communion with contemporary Protestantism or communion with the historic Church via Eastern Orthodoxy.


Pastor Leithart misses the mark when he makes inclusiveness and doctrinal diversity the basis for being “catholic.”  What Leithart is proposing is a Protestant solution (doctrinal inclusiveness) for a Protestant problem (denominational divisions and doctrinal innovation).  Ironically, Leithart’s attempt at ecumenicism exacts a high price – schism from the historic Church.  To conclude, Leithart’s “catholicism” is unintentionally schismatic.

 Robert Arakaki
See also: Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s response: “Too catholic to be Catholic”: Communion With Idolators?


  1. Vincent M.

    This is a great piece, thank you for the time and effort you put into it. You really hit the nails on the proverbial head.

    • robertar


      Thanks! I’m glad you liked the blog posting.


  2. Adam Saverian

    Great post Robert. How have we not connected yet? I used to be a member of Peter Leithart’s Church. Our family recently converted to Orthodoxy. Very good point about horizontal and vertical unity.

    • robertar


      Thanks! I’m glad we’re connected now. And I’m glad you became Orthodox with your family. Let’s keep working to get the good word out about Orthodoxy!


  3. Outlaw Presbyterian

    I don’t want to get into the specifics of Dr Leithart’s argument at the moment (since numerous bloggers from every tradition have already dissected it), but would make a flyover observation:

    Many Protestants go “East or West” after dallying with Mercersberg. It seems that Mercersberg offers them “deep church” that they couldn’t find elsewhere. However, after seeing the problems in Mercersberg (of which there are many), they finally abandon it for the “full truth” and rest content they are no longer second-class Christians straddling the gates of hell.

    I think that is a fair analysis of the Mercersberg movement in Protestantism. And I think that route is unnecessary. At least sociologically or psychologically, many Protestants would not be going this route if the Reformed seminaries didn’t do such a miserable job at training young ministers. At the Reformed seminaries we spend 95% of the time interacting with the “hip, young” Reformed authors and the latest trends instead of reading the richer works. These richer works actually have addressed all of the problems that Mercersberg addressed, minus the latter’s full commitment to Hegelian dialectics.

    I am really not interacting with the specifics of Leithart’s article. I don’t agree with him simply because agreeing with his specifics would place me in the orbit of other Federal vision corollaries, which I violently reject.

    • robertar

      Dear Outlaw,

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I sympathize with your distress over Reformed seminaries nowadays. I’m glad for my time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts. I went in the early 1990s but I don’t recall there being much emphasis on “hip, young” Reformed theologians. I learned some valuable lessons in theology and church history that I still make use of even now.


      • Outlaw Presbyterian

        Gordon Conwell, despite largely capitulating to egalitarianism on some issues, is a superior academic institution compared to RTS. We didn’t learn much valuable stuff.

  4. John


    I clicked on your link to the Leithart article on Wed. 13 June 2012 @ 13:25h UTC but got this message:

    Not Found

    Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.

    Link: http://www.leithart.com/2012/05/21/too-catholic-to-be-catholic/%22%20%5Cl%20%22more-14412

    Is there a technical difficulty on Leithart’s site?



    ps: Love your article.

    You could have added another two bullet-points:

    # Does your Church accept and deploy all the Sacraments and Sacramentals (yes, I know that in Orthodoxy they are called”mysteries” but the West would not understand this term properly) as present in the Apostolic Church?

    [and in addition to the second-last on Icons]:

    # Does your Church support and recite the anathemas IN FULL as recited on the Sunday of Orthodoxy?

    – a penny for your thoughts.

    • robertar


      Thanks for bringing up the defective link! I fixed it. Please let me know if you are still having trouble accessing Pastor Leithart’s article.

      Re. the additional bullet points you suggested, I want my Protestant friends to rethink where they stand vis-a-vis the historic Faith. I’m afraid that if I confront them with the anathemas they will be overwhelmed by its strong language. It’s important to keep in mind that getting people to rethink their theology is not easy and requires a lot of gentle persuasion and charity.

      But you might find this interesting. I was received into the Orthodox Church on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. I chose that day because of the important role that the icons played in my becoming Orthodox. I invited a number of my Evangelical friends to the Liturgy. It must have been quite an experience for them: the Liturgy, the procession around the church with icons, and then the anathemas! Talk about getting a full dose of Orthodox theology!


  5. Nicodemus

    Good post Robert. What first comes to mind with the disingenuous denial amongst this Reformed faction is, “Thou protest too much.” They faint to own the proverbial “unintended-consequences” of their own study and teaching. I pray Pastor Leithart (far more the gentleman and credentialed scholar) will eventually take responsibility. Thus far, he loyally follows his mentor, James B. Jordan, in the study and promotion of Liturgical and Sacramental theology. This took them to Mercerberg and the magisterial reformers first. Then naturally to Anglican, Rome and Orthodox theologians they love. But they stopped short of joining their teachers (or always referencing borrowed verbiage that fills their writings).

    Both men hail from recent Reformed Reconstructionism, started by the late Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, his son-in-law Dr. Gary North, and the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen. Their forays into to Biblical Law and culture, ended in politics and the Christian Right of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Jordan, with Bahnsen and Ray Sutton (now a Reformed Episcopal Bishop) directed the group away from politics into what they fashioned as Ecclesiocentric theology, replacing the State with the Church at the center of the public square. It is not difficult for one to see how this Ecclesiocentrism emended worship and sacrament easily to the center. Thus, the study of Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians.

    For Pastor Leithart to now claim all he and Jordan have written and taught considerably the past 20 years has in no way served as an “Entry Drug” that has led anyone to Rome or Orthodoxy is simply a brash denial. One cannot gradually leak gratitude for your sources (Nevin/Schaff, Fr. Alexander Schmemann/Bishop Kallistos Ware & Bishop N.T. Wright) to your own very bright young disciples, without risking some of them will have the courage to embrace these historic Churches. That some of Jordan and Leithart’s disciples are being more courageous in their follow-through, is all but predictable. Many of the Reformed detractors of the CREC and Federal Vision have long warned of it.

    Yet here, Pastor Leithart champions their novel, ahistoric basis for Eucharistic communion no Church (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Reformed) has ever held, including Calvin & and magisterial Reformers. Yet without hint of arrogance, what do they propose with straight faces for all Christendom? Leithart and Jordan (with other CREC zealots) would now have the entire Church follow their novel reforms, and premise Eucharistic unity upon any Trinitarian baptism, say by my cousin Billy, who was ordained by his uncle Ralph last week after being saved at a tent revival meeting. Bishops and historic Christendom be damned!

    And why not? When one claims the right to jettison and leave Holy Tradition the Apostles delivered to their Discipled-Bishops (2 Tim.2:2), who gets to say where lines should be drawn, if anywhere? Who decides: a group comprised of Uncle Billys, John Calvin and magisterial Reformers, Westminster divines, James Jordan, Pastor Leithart and their friends? Or, do historic Church Councils of hundreds if not thousand of Bishops meeting together over centuries decide? Leithart and company would love to use Galatians 2 as their proof text. But there is a big problem. No amount of eisegesis can read Baptism into this text as a basis for Eucharistic communion. It’s not there. Peter shunned duly baptized and Eucharistic communing Gentile brothers at a common meal, due to old Jewish-ethnic bigotry. There is no sacramental implication in this text whatsoever. One must read it into the text.

    Nor have I, or Robert’s excellent Blog here touched upon all that’s going on with Pastor Leithart. As Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick rightly shows, Pastor Leitharts’ strange new notion of unity leads him to desire Eucharistic communion with men he moments earlier openly calls Idolaters! Does not Shakespeare have a clever line about the quagmires which trap men in their inconsistencies? http://roadsfromemmaus.org/2012/05/23/too-catholic-to-be-catholic-communion-with-idolaters/


    • Outlaw Presbyterian

      Agreed with all of this. For the longest time I used Leithart’s book on baptism to refute Calvinists!

  6. Maya

    Brilliant! Thank you for formulating so simply and logically what I, as an Orthodox Christian, know and feel, but cannot usually express so well in discussion. Of course, your theological education has a lot to do with it, but I think even a layman should be able to explain why he/she is Orthodox and not Catholic/Protestant, etc. I mean, we should know what we believe in, and what we do not believe in and why, and not get mislead about it. Your article is geared mostly towards the non-Orthodox Christians. In my case, my biggest concern is about Orthodox people who tend to simplify Orthodoxy and turn it into some protestant grotesque version, mostly for convenience and out of ignorance. I have no large observations about many places and I do hope the case I am seeing is isolated, but I do see a tendency to “protestantize” Orthodoxy, and it causes great pain in me. I ask myself: “Is it that people in America, being so far from the historical lands, where Christianity was born, are more ignorant about the true faith, or is it just that we, the contemporary people are getting too spoiled and want to choose the easy way in everything, even betraying our Faith and God?” I am not sure, and it may not matter why, but it is, in my opinion, a battle we need to fight within Orthodoxy. Do you think otherwise?
    And one more point: Ignatius is Saint Ignatius, right? I never feel comfortable, when we call the saints simply by name. It just seems like a lack of reverence and respect, even though it is probably not the case with you.
    Thank you for this post!

    • robertar

      Dear Maya,

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I’m glad you found this blog posting helpful.

      You’re right. Ignatius is really Saint Ignatius. When I write for the OrthodoxBridge I try to articulate Orthodoxy using the Evangelical “dialect.” This follows Saint Paul’s principle: “…and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law….” (I Corinthians 9:20-21) I’m quite aware of the protocols expected of Orthodox Christians but I don’t want to impose them on my Protestant friends. I want to make the OrthodoxBridge a welcoming place for Protestants, not a place where they feel they must mind their Ps and Qs or a place where issues are discussed in an unfamiliar language.

      With respect to attempts to “Protestantize” Orthodoxy, that’s a complex issue. What’s important to keep in mind is that Orthodoxy in America is still very much in a missions situation. While Orthodoxy has been on the American continent since the 1700s, that is, almost as long as the USA has been a country, it is still very much a new comer to the neighborhood in many parts of the country. Many of the Orthodox parishes are ethnic parishes and they function to preserve the culture and customs of the old country. That needs to be respected. But there is also a need for Orthodox parishes where the Liturgy is all in English. We need Orthodox parishes that reflect our unique American culture and in that we are still very much in the beginning phases of missionary outreach. I know of Protestant inquirers who live hours away from the nearest Orthodox parish or live near a parish whose Liturgy is barely understandable due to the use of non-English.

      The key is be rooted in Holy Tradition and to let Christ’s teachings transform our lives and the lives of our families. This means that we hold on to the core of Orthodoxy and not confuse outward forms like old country languages or particular practices with the Great Tradition. I believe that with discernment certain aspects of Protestant Christianity can be incorporated into Orthodoxy here in America. As an Evangelical I picked up the habit of going to church on Sunday on a regular basis. When I began checking out this Orthodox Church, I was assumed to be Orthodox just because I was there more often than many of the other parishioners! Fr. Peter Gillquist, a Protestant convert, noted that the Protestant practice of tithing is something to be encouraged among the Orthodox. And of course there is the Protestant emphasis on biblical exposition which really parallels the practices of the early Church but seems to have declined in contemporary Orthodoxy. We need more in depth exposition of the Scriptures in our liturgies! Living the Orthodox way of life is not easy and should not be watered down to accommodate the consumeristic lifestyle around us. The key to a sound missionary strategy is to plant Orthodoxy in the American soil and in time nurture a Church that is both genuinely Orthodox and authentically American.


      • Maya

        Thank you very much for the reply. I had not familiarized myself with the blog in such details (I came upon the article through another blog it was posted on, Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy), so I guess your use of the saint’s name without the “saint” added to it was very thoughtful and proper in this case. And I agree with your observations on the local Orthodox parishes and their styles and specifics. I think that the OCA churches are the ones that offer everything exclusively in English, but, yes, they are not that many. Well, Orthodoxy may spread much more, God willing, but where it already exists, it should be kept as true as possible. And that is difficult. I really enjoy it when I find publications, blogs, articles etc. like yours. Thanks again!

  7. David Brent

    I am a Christian who is interested in Orthodoxy. Maybe you would call me an inquirer. My roots are in the American Restoration Movement churches, namely churches of Christ. I am reading this blog in search of Truth.

    Have you read 2 Chronicles 30 lately? It is a little piece of history that is seldom looked at by most Christians I know. The snapshot tells us a lot about God. (quotations from NIV.)

    The service of the temple of the LORD was reestablished. The Temple had been restored and cleansed. Hezekiah proclaimed a celebration of the Passover. The people were told that . . . 9 If you return to the LORD, then your fellow Israelites and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will return to this land, for the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.”

    A very large crown assembled. They turned to God. Their hearts were filled with a desire to serve the Lord . . . to be right with the Lord . . . to no longer be a stiff necked people . . . but to be God’s people. They were trying to do what was right. They wanted to please God. They loved God. But they didn’t follow the rules. Maybe they didn’t know the law. Maybe they didn’t understand the law. We continue reading . . . 18 Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone 19 who sets their heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” 20 And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.

    Do you know what the law required? It required death. Whether you knew it or understood it or not.

    What did Hezekiah do? Did he tell them that they deserved to die because of their sin and then stood back to watch it happen? No. Did he ask the Lord to bring justice on the people? No. Did he wash his hands of them? No. Did he separate the ones who did not properly wash from others who may have properly washed and treat them as second class? No. Why?

    Because he understood the nature of God—the LORD. Hezekiah knew the heart of God. The issue was not one of obedience. The issue was one of the heart. The LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people because they had set their hearts on seeking God.

    Jesus has not changed the nature of God. Jesus and the Father are One. We should expect the one who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth to treat the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow with no less mercy. We should expect the Apostles who serve the Risen Lord to do the same. And the Fathers.

    What does this tell us?

    This does NOT mean that God is not interested in obedience.
    This does NOT mean that God is not interested in understanding truth.
    This does NOT mean that God doesn’t care if we understand Apostolic Tradition.
    It DOES tell us that God is more interested in the hearts of the people than the above.

    No matter what we think a church father has believed.
    No matter how long a belief has been held to.
    No matter what millions of adherents may profess.
    No matter what any priest, bishop, or patriarch has sincerely taught . . . God’s nature does not change. When we read scripture or the Fathers or listen to liturgy, we should listen with ears that know the heart of God. Right?

    My heritage has struggled with this. For too long we have condemned others who did not understand and practice the truth. We thought they stood outside of God’s grace when they were not properly baptized . . . or if they did not properly worship . . . and on and on. But we are coming to realize (it is a slow painful process) that we missed a glimpse of God. It is the glimpse of God that we most needed.

    I’m beginning to sense the same with some of the Orthodox.

    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Believe it or not I’m in a Hebrew reading group and we went through II Chronicles last year. So I’m familiar with the passage you cited. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Old Testament foreshadows the coming of Jesus Christ and his founding the New Israel, the Church. Your focus was on II Chronicles 30, but I would like to bring your attention to the previous chapter which talks about the gathering of the Levites and the reconsecration of the Temple. What we see in the Old Testament is God’s faithfulness and mercy despite the many failings and even apostasies by the Israelites.

      What we find in the New Testament is a continuation of the Old Testament. At the Last Supper and on the Cross Jesus instituted a New Covenant that would fulfill and surpass the prior Covenant made with the Jews. But even then we see signs of continuity. By his death on the Cross Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice who fulfilled the Old Testament sacrificial system. Just as the Old Testament had a priesthood (II Chronicles 29:4, 30:27), so does the New Israel have a priesthood taken from among the Gentiles (Isaiah 60:20-21. II Chronicles 29:7 notes that they failed to burn incense. This is a reference to Exodus 30:7-8 when incense was to be offered as part of the morning and evening services in the Temple. Luke writes that John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, was offering incense when the angel Gabriel appeared to him (Luke 1:8=11, 1:19). The Orthodox Church burns incense at every liturgical service; something that many Protestant churches do not do. I find this significant in light of Malachi’s prophecy that in the Messianic Age the Gentiles would worship the true God and that the Gentiles would offer up incense like in the Old Testament Temple. This Scripture prophecy points to the Orthodox Church as the Church prophesied in the Bible. Given that Protestant churches historically have not offered incense in their Sunday services this puts them outside of Malachi’s prophecy.

      Admittedly the Orthodox Church has had many failings and lapses among its members but we believe that God is faithful and that Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church holds true (Matthew 16:18). The messiness of the history of Orthodoxy is such that we all need to cry out: Lord have mercy! What I find remarkable about Orthodoxy is that it has faithfully safeguarded the Apostolic Tradition for the past two thousand years (see II Timothy 1:13-14, 2:2). I recommend you read my recent blog posting: “Pentecost and the Promise of God Fulfilled.”

      Since you expressed an interest in learning more about Orthodoxy I recommend you get a copy of the Orthodox Study Bible. You might want to check out the page: “Resources” for other helpful materials.

      Blessings on your journey to Orthodoxy!


      • David Brent

        Thanks Robert. I will check out these resources. I appreciate you very much.

    • ofgrace

      Thanks for your comments. My heart really goes out to you. My brother was in what is known as the “Boston Movement” for over 10 years, so I understand some of your struggle. My husband also suffered under a similar type of teaching and leadership in a very small Fundamentalist-influenced cult-like Bible study group. The size and some of the particulars of the groups was very different, but the manipulative dynamic and “triumphalism” was the same.

      Belonging to a church that has a long and very continuous catholic apostolic tradition is somewhat of a safeguard from certain aspects of this more cult-like version of triumphalism and exclusivism, but I’m afraid the loose categories of “legalistic,” “triumphalistic,” “nominal,” and also “genuine,” “pious,” “sincere,” “mature,” and “spiritual” do apply to those gathered under the Orthodox umbrella as well. We are sinners like everyone else, and progress toward spiritual maturity is a journey. The important thing to understand is that neither nominalism, externalism, triumphalism, nor legalism, etc., are properly “Orthodox” (i.e., they may be “in” the Church, but they are not properly “of” the Church) and there are correctives within the spiritual teachings and faithful practice of Orthodoxy to these tendencies of sinful human beings.

  8. David Brent

    I’m looking for evidence that Orthodoxy takes into account the mercy of God in its theology for those people whose hearts are turned to God who don’t get everything right. God desires the best for his created people. God gives rules to help people come to him. Sometimes they are called laws . . . sometimes commands. God expects that hearts that are turned to him will respond in the ways he as asked us to demonstrate our faith. Things are no different in the Kingdom.

    God has shown us that when people have the right hearts and they respond as God has asked (obedience, faithfulness) that he blesses the people. And God has also shown us that if the people have the right heart . . . but don’t get everything right . . . his mercy kicks in just the same. Rules matter. They are important in the life of the people. They are the door into Fullness of life and faith. But ultimately, what matters most, is the people’s heart. We like rules because they are tangible. Our nature drives us to rules. God’s nature is different. His nature goes straight to the heart.

    We have no reason to believe that God will be less merciful to Protestants who have sincere hearts that are seeking communion with God . . . seeking to honor God . . . seeking to please God than he has shown himself to be in the ancient days of Hezekiah.

    This does not mean that the Truth should be exchanged for a lie or that Truth doesn’t matter or that the Orthodox shouldn’t concern itself with doctrine and dogma. It does matter. The Church must promote the truth. However, God loves his created people. And God shows his true self in the mercy he gives to all who seek him. It is important to realize that God has NEVER restricted his ability to give mercy to those who seek him. It is godly nature. Christians are to adopt the mind of God . . .the mind of Christ . . . with the indwelling of the Spirit. The Orthodox are not exempt from striving to have the mindset of God.

    Regarding Protestants, I think the Orthodox should be praying for these two things:
    1. Unity of the believers. The Orthodox should be praying for Protestants to know the Truth and to become One.
    2. God’s Mercy. Regardless, the Orthodox should be praying for God to show mercy to all who are seeking him through Jesus Christ just as mercy has been given to the Orthodox. There should never be a hint of anything less. Where can I find evidence that Orthodoxy understands and practices this?

    What I’m beginning to see is a picture that the Orthodox may be more proud that they are the true Church than they are thankful to be a forgiven people indwelled by the Spirit. It is the traits of the Jewish people all over again . . . history repeating itself.


    • Daniel

      One need only look to the Antiphons that are a part of our every service to see that we are constantly praying for unity and God’s mercy. In fact we ask for God’s mercy more than anything else, we are truly aware of our need to be forgiven. And as far as your point about rules, coming from a varied Protestant background to convert to Orthodoxy I can say that Orthodoxy is far less legalistic than some of my old churches. Orthodoxy is about the heart not rules.

      Regarding Protestants we pray several times during the Liturgy and Vespers “For peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”

      We also ask for mercy upon all mankind and “For this parish and city, for every city and country, and for the faithful who live in them, let us pray to the Lord.”

      • David Brent

        Does praying for the faithful only mean Orthodox? Do the Orthodox pray for mercy for those whose hearts are right but who missunderstand?

      • David Brent

        I forgot to stress my Thanks for your response. As one who is learning the liturgy, I needed some direction.

        • Daniel

          To be perfectly honest I don’t know if it means “mercy for those whose hearts are right but who misunderstand”

          When it was written originally the faithful only meant Orthodox, since it was written pre-schism. Today I would look to the saying of St. Augustine. “We know where the Church is but not where it isn’t.”

          Orthodox shouldn’t be arrogant and say anyone who isn’t Orthodox doesn’t have their heart in the right place but at the same time we do know that the Church is Orthodoxy, we just don’t know where it isn’t, which is why we pray for unity and mercy for all mankind.

          • Karen

            David, following up on what Daniel has written, there are indeed places in the Liturgy where we make petition “for all mankind.” The Liturgy and prayers are offered, not only for the faithful, but by the faithful on behalf of “all mankind.” That more than includes those of goodwill toward Christ and His Church, but who are not yet fully convinced that the Eastern Orthodox Church is coterminous with that Church, in terms of dogma and sacramental practice and understanding. Thank God, His mercy does not depend upon our perfect understanding of His will and ways, otherwise we Orthodox would be without hope as well! No one gets it all right in terms of their own subjective comprehension of God or the faith. What the Church offers as dogma is fully trustworthy and true, yes. That doesn’t mean that we all “get it.” Even what we “get” is still a mystery comprehensible only by God Himself. Also, the Church does not have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, as Bp. Kallistos (Timothy Ware) says. If the Holy Spirit were not at work in those who have yet to be added visibly to the membership of Christ’s Church, they would never come to be convicted of the truth of the Church’s teaching and join it. Also, David, if any Orthodox seems to suggest to you that they know who is being saved and who is not and that this is simple to deduce based on one’s formal relationship to the institutions of the Orthodox Church, they are not properly representing Orthodoxy. There are many who are in the Church, but not “of” it. Similarly, Christ still “has sheep” not yet in the fold who He is in process of rounding up (and He will keep them safe until they get here). Rest assured, God is very patient and unspeakably full of mercy. He does not make it hard for us to be saved. If you seek Him, you will find Him, and you do not need to be anxious during the search. I’m passing along what in my heart I believe is true and also what I have heard from a trusted source (Fr. Stephen Freeman, a Priest in the Orthodox Church in America. He blogs at “Glory to God for all Things”).

    • robertar


      Daniel brought up a good point. The Orthodox Liturgy has a petition: “For peace in the whole world, the stability of God’s Holy Churches and for the oneness of all, let us pray to the Lord.” I would like to add that the concluding prayer for the Liturgy has this line: …for He is good and loves mankind.” Just before the priest says the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper, he says a silent prayer that contains a paraphrase of John 3:16: “You so loved Your world as to give Your only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” So as you can see, the Liturgy does contain prayers for the non-Orthodox. The Sunday Liturgy is celebrated not just for the Orthodox Christians but really for the entire cosmos.

      The Orthodox Church does not take a definitive stance on those who are outside the Church, especially with respect to their eternal destiny. We say that the eternal destiny of those outside the Church is a mystery. Even if one has been a member of the Church for many years salvation is not guaranteed. It’s possible for someone to stumble later in life. But even if one stumbles there is the opportunity for repentance and the offer of God’s mercy.

      I admit that one can have the attitude that he is a better Christians because the Orthodox Church is the true Church. This sinful attitude is not consistent with Orthodox spirituality. But neither does it refute Orthodoxy’s claim to be the true Church. For that claim to be refuted one will need to look at Christ’s promises in Scripture, not in the attitudes of people one has met.

      You brought up the fact that the spirit of pride seems to be repeating itself all over again. And that it seems to be a recurrence of a trait of the Jewish people all over again. In a way that’s not all that surprising. The Church is the New Israel of the New Covenant that takes over from the Old Israel of the Old Covenant. Every year the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee just prior to Lent. On this Sunday we are reminded to guard against the self righteousness of the Pharisees and to follow the example of the tax collector who sought out God’s mercy.

      I would encourage you to attend the Orthodox Sunday services and become familiar with the prayers in the Liturgy. Listen for the themes of divine mercy. Listen to how the themes of mercy and divine holiness intertwine in the Good News of Christ proclaimed in the Liturgy. As you stand during the Liturgy get a sense of the holy peace that pervades the Liturgy and manifests God’s mercy shown to sinners.

      Also, I would encourage you to get in touch with an Orthodox priest and ask him about Orthodoxy and the Orthodox way of life. Ask him about what Orthodox Christians believe. But I would also encourage you to ask questions about the spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox way of life. I bring this up because of your concern about legalism and self-righteousness. What you will find is that while Orthodoxy has a lot of rules, it is not legalistic. This may sound surprising and even contradictory but getting a handle on this will give you insight about how Orthodoxy understands God’s mercy and holiness. I pray you will find enlightenment for your mind and healing for your soul.


      • David Brent

        Robert, your kindess is evident in your reply. Thank you for taking time to help me.

        • david

          Hey David,

          You sense the kindness of Orthodoxy in Robert’s reply here. I too am an old Protestant inquirer into Orthodoxy the past two years…reading and listening to very much! There IS much to learn…and to assimilate into the ‘protestant-mind’ that seems not only weird, but almost heterodox. The mercy of Orthodox to ALL outside the Church (professing/faithful or pagan) is sometime so great it seems they become universalist who deny any souls in hell! This is their strange (to protestants like us) application of holding to a certainty that the fullness of grace and salvation IS in the Orthodoxy Church…while the grace & salvation of God to those outside…a mystery. We don’t know for sure what God has or will do with a certainty. There is hope…so we pray. As a 58 yr-old twice PCA Elder, let me give you a gentle brotherly exhortation, read and listen with a teachable heart. Attend at least six or more Divine Liturgies with attentiveness. There is much to learn. Avoid premature judgements…and you will be blessed greatly…even if you never become Orthodox!
          in His tender mercies,

  9. David Brent


    You are right. I need to attend Divine Liturgies and listen. Figuring out how to do that while having a wife and children who also love God, have hearts filled with faith, and want to serve the Lord with good works is difficult. There are lots of hearts involved. I haven’t figured out how to approach it while not creating doubt in their minds. I have a great church family . . . one of the best in the world. My interest in Orthodoxy is not driven by any problems at “home.” My desire for Truth is driving me. And the Lord too?? I will find a way

    • robertar


      One suggestion I have is that you visit an Orthodox Church for their Saturday night vespers. Usually these services last less than an hour. Another possibility is that you attend a Liturgy during the week. For that you can contact the local Orthodox church office or the pastor there. Just say you are interested in learning more about Orthodoxy. If there are several Orthodox churches near where you live, ask how much English is used in their services. Most Americans find it easier to attend a service that is mostly or all in English. The Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) are likely to have services all in English. Good luck!

      I’m glad to hear that you have a good church home. My former home church was a fine Evangelical congregation. I still miss them. It took me time to make the transition from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy. My advice is don’t rush. Ask God for his guidance.


      • John


        Apologies for being a bit late on this thread.

        Great Advice re attendance at an English-only Liturgy. Yet can I suggest attendance at a larg-ish all-Slavic Parish with a good choir and an in-tune congregation. Or, if they are a tourist in a Slavic country, attend a larg-ish local parish (or even better, a Cathedral).

        Preferably at Pascha.

        The Slavs here have outdone their Byzantine mentors!

        In the lead up to the Baptism of Kiev, Vladimir’s emissaries at Hagia Sophia “did not know whether they were on earth or in heaven . . .” in terms of the quality of Liturgy they had experienced.

        Yet once Patriarch Nikon had completed his work on the Liturgy, and it had time to settle down, the Slavs in general and the Russians in particular have never been headed in the holy “competition” for the “most-heavenly” Liturgy.

        This will show Orthodox “seekers” what is available in Orthodox Liturgy. Even a Latin full Pontifical Mass pales in comparison.

        Once “bitten”, they will be smitten forever, and all else will pale.

        Keep up the good work, and may the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.


    • david

      Just stumbled over and read this excellent…and touchingly humble Blog post. Read & enjoy.

  10. Canadian

    David Brent,
    “My interest in Orthodoxy is not driven by any problems at “home.” My desire for Truth is driving me. And the Lord too?? I will find a way”

    Wonderful spirit! Seek and you shall find.
    Regarding your uneasiness with the exclusive claims of Orthodoxy, I understand. Just be sure to note that though our claims to be the church are exclusive does not mean that we know where every Christian is, that is God’s concern. But it would not be truthful to tell everyone that they all are part of the church while in schism. In the Hezekiah passage, God does what he does best……he shows undeserved mercy. But notice he was merciful to them in conjuction with the covenant people of God and it’s liturgical life…..Israel. Hezekiah offers intercession for the unclean ones.
    God will do what is right with all those who seek him without knowledge of his one, holy, catholic and apostolic church….”Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”Genesis 18:25

  11. David Brent

    I appreciate all the comments and help you all have given me. I sense love in your responses. I really like this site! Thank you Robert for creating this space of conversation.

  12. Burckhardtfan

    Mr. Arakaki,

    Thank you for another brilliant post. I just have two questions:

    1. When Ignatius says that nothing should be done without the bishop, what does he mean by the word ‘bishop’? Does it mean a local pastor or someone with authority over local congregations in a certain area? Congregationalists believe that local churches should be completely autonomous, believing that any external authority which in any way dictates the affairs of a local church is illegitimate. This is especially prominent among Baptist churches; they jealously guard their independence. Does Ignatius or any other father clarify what they mean by a bishop or describe the functions of this particular office?

    2. In the passage, what is the phrase ‘catholic church’ in the original Greek/Latin (I don’t know which language Ignatius wrote in)? Does it really mean ‘universal’ in the original Greek/Latin, or is the English translation an interpolation? I know the Greek word ‘katholikos’ means universal; if this word is present, then I know the concept of a ‘catholic’ church existed from the very beginning (some Baptists completely reject the notion of a ‘universal Church’ – and some go so far as to reject the idea that the Chruch is the Body or Bride of Christ!)

    God bless!

    • Burckhardtfan

      Sorry, I made a typo: for the second question I should have said, “In the SAME passage, what is the phrase ‘catholic church’ in the original Greek/Latin?” i.e. the same passage I was discussing in the first question.

      God bless!

    • Canadian

      Not to answer for Robert, just highlighting a couple things.
      A distinction in scripture between bishop and presbyter (priest) is seen in that some had the authority to ordain over vast areas while those which they ordained did not have this ability. Titus 1:5, Acts 14:23. Not one NT church ordained their own leadership.
      Also, decrees from an episcopal authority had the ability to bind the conscience of all believers everywhere. The local congregations could not opt out. Acts 16:4. This is real Conciliar and episcopal authority.

    • robertar

      Dear Burckhardtfan,

      Great questions!

      Canadian gave a good start to answering your question about the nature of the office of the bishop. I wrote a lengthy answer that I decided to turn into a blog posting

      Let’s keep dialoguing.


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