Catechism: On the Identity of the Church
A Collection of Questions and Answers from Recent Correspondence
Q: What is the Church?
A: In the words of the Apostle Paul, the Church is the Risen Body of Christ (I Cor 12, 27; Eph 4, 12). This is why the Church belongs not to us, but to Christ, Who is the Head of His Body, the Church.
Q: Who is Christ?
A: Christ is God, Who took on human nature and so gave us His Risen Body, the Church. He did this in order to give mankind the Holy Spirit – His comforting mercy and truth, the spiritual strength to save ourselves from evil (sin) and death.
Q: Who is God?
A: God is Love, for ‘He that loves not, knows not God; for God is Love’ (I Jn 4, 8). This is why God became a man - out of Love for mankind. A god who was not Love would have ignored mankind and left him imprisoned in his hell of sin and death.
Q: What is sin?
A: Sin is evil, everything that distances us from God.
Q: Can we know this God of Love from books?
A: No, we cannot know God by the head, the reason, outward knowledge. Such knowledge of the material world, of mortal things, is called science and comes from study and booklore. It can puff us up and make us proud and arrogant, whereas ‘Love is not puffed up’ (I Cor 13, 4). Christ did not write books, though if He had, ‘the world could not contain the books that would have been written’ (Jn 21, 25). Christ had no need to write books, for He is Himself the Word of God.
Q: How then can we know God?
A: We can only know God by the heart, the spirit, inward knowledge, which is called wisdom. God is the Spirit and only the spirit can know the Spirit. When He created us, He breathed this immortal faculty of the spirit into us, and not into animals, precisely so that we could know Him. Such knowledge of the spiritual world, of eternal things, sees behind and beyond the physical, material world, into ultimate reality. The knowledge of the spiritual world gives us faith. ‘For we walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor 5, 7). Faith comes from suffering and deep experience of life. Faith gives us realism and makes us modest and humble. Christ gives us wisdom, for He is Himself the Wisdom of God.
Q: What is the difference between true faith and false faith?
A: True, or unerring, faith comes from purity of heart. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5, 8). The heart is made pure by faith, hope and love, which together are called holiness. Thus, the saints are pure in heart and can see God. True faith is faith in the God of Love, Who has revealed Himself to mankind and appeals to all races, nations and cultures because He has overcome sin and death.
On the other hand, false faith is belief in an unrevealed superior creative force. This belief is shaped by human, racial, national or political institutions, moulded and conditioned by culture, language, superstition and imagination.
Q: What is a Christian sect?
A: The word sect means ‘cut’ and has the same root as the word ‘secateurs’. A sect is a group of people who have formally or informally cut or ‘walled’ themselves off and do not mix with others. This is because, consciously or unconsciously, they think that they are superior to others and so do not want to be ‘contaminated’ by them. A ‘Christian sect’ – actually the two words contradict each other – is a group which has left the mainstream and is on the fringes and margins of the Church. It has taken one teaching of the Church in isolation from the others and made it into an ideology, a point of idolatry.
It continues to justify itself on this point, is small, inward-looking and self-obsessed, continually finding fault and dividing. It is therefore negative and depressing. It generally attaches great importance to externals, to eccentric but uniform clothing and strange fashions in haircut and, sometimes for men, in facial hair. Sect members are usually deluded into thinking that they alone are right and are offended at the concept that they might be wrong. Thus, they refuse any obedience to authorities, whom they constantly dispute, and any criticism. This refusal shows the innate pride of sects. This spiritual delusion of self-righteousness is a spiritual disease and is known in Greek as ‘plani’, in Latin as ‘illusio’ and in Slavonic as ‘prelest’.
Q: What is a Christian cult?
A: In some languages there is no word for a cult, it is also called a sect, for sects often grow into cults. Indeed, everything that we have said of the sect above is also true of the cult, with a single difference. This is that a cult is not so much idolatry of one teaching of the Church taken in isolation from all the others, but the idolatry of a personality. This personality may variously be called a ‘leader’, ‘guru’, ‘starets, ‘elder’, ‘spiritual director’ or ‘spiritual father’. It will be noticed that cult members often attempt to dress and look like the cult leader, name their children after him (he is usually male) or even imitate his characteristics and mannerisms and surround themselves with photos of him.
This cultishness, the result of the personality cult, cuts its members off from the mainstream of the Church and they live on the fringes and margins of the Church. Cult members are usually deluded into thinking that they alone are right and are offended at the concept that they might be wrong. Thus, they refuse any obedience to superior authorities and any criticism. This refusal shows the innate pride of cults. This spiritual delusion of self-righteousness is a spiritual disease and is known in Greek as ‘plani’, in Latin as ‘illusio’ and in Slavonic as ‘prelest’.
Q: What are the results of sects and cults?
A: Having isolated themselves from the wholeness or mainstream of the Church by emphasising one teaching or one personality in isolation from others, sects and cults neglect the central Person, Christ, the Head of the Church. Thus, its members lose all true perspective of reality, which is why they often do not hold down jobs or otherwise fail to live in reality, but live in their imagination or fantasy. If there is no repentance, sooner or later, sect and cult members end up by leaving even the fringes and the margins of the Church, cutting themselves off from the Church completely, and so losing the sense of the God of Love. Then they will turn to insults, slander, hatred, other unloving methods of self-justification, and even violence. As the Gospel says: ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ (Matt 7, 16 and 20).
Q: Are groups like Roman Catholicism and Protestantism sects and cults? If so, why have they both survived for hundreds of years and not withered away very quickly?
A: It is unjust to assert that Roman Catholicism is a cult, on the basis of the idolatry of the personalities of the bishops of Rome. It is also unjust to assert that Protestantism is a sect on the basis of the idolatry of a teaching taken in isolation – the importance of the Holy Scriptures or ‘Bibliolatry’. This is because such negative views overlook positive elements in both of these confessions. Both have survived for hundreds of years precisely because they left the Church with an Orthodox heritage, large chunks of Church Truth, positive elements.
For example, until recent years, both confessions have continued to profess the Orthodox belief in the Holy Trinity, the Divine and human natures of the Person of Christ, outward sacramental forms etc. This is especially true of Roman Catholicism, from which Protestantism broke away only later, rejecting parts of even its Orthodox heritage, parts of Church Truth which even it had conserved.
Q: But still Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are not inside the Church. Can they survive forever?
A: First of all, they can only survive in a defective and distorted way, missing the fullness of the Faith, not knowing the fullness of the God of Love. This we can see from their spiritual poverty, whereby Roman Catholicism honours as saints those whom the Church would not honour as saints and Protestantism has no saints. As a result of spiritual poverty, both confessions suffer from pride, persecution of others, violence towards them, and exploitation of their fellow-men and the natural world.
Secondly, they cannot survive forever. The spiritual law says that a movement can only survive outside the Church for as long as it was inside the Church. For example, those who today are Roman Catholics are issued from distant ancestors who were inside the Church for over 1,000 years. Today, another 1,000 years on, we can see that Roman Catholicism is disintegrating. In large parts of Western Europe, where 1,000 year-old monasteries are now closing, in the Americas and Australia, it is actually disappearing altogether.
The same is true of Protestantism. Its ancestors spent some 500 years inside Roman Catholicism, against which their less distant ancestors eventually revolted and then broke away from. Now, 500 years on, Protestantism too is disintegrating into secular humanism, its places of worship closing in their hundreds every year.
These processes of spiritual decay explain why members of those confessions are increasingly turning to the first thousand years of Christian history in Western Europe, to the Age of Faith, the Age of the Saints.
Q: Why is there a variety of practices for the reception of Roman Catholics, Protestants and others into the Church?
A: Outside the Church, Non-Orthodox do not have sacraments, but they all have at least one and sometimes several sacramental forms. These forms are completed or fulfilled when Non-Orthodox are received into the Church. The method of reception used varies according to place and time, depending on how close to, or how far from, the Church, Non-Orthodox have shown themselves to be. This closeness or lack of closeness, to the point of conscious rejection, to the Church is defined by the love, or lack of love which they have shown towards the Church and Her practices. Thus, Non-Chalcedonians (1), Roman Catholics and Protestants (including Anglicans) are received into the Orthodox Church by one of three methods, involving respectively four, three and two sacraments. These methods are:
A. Baptism, chrismation, confession and communion.
Practices regarding the reception of Non-Chalcedonians also depend on their historical attitudes towards the Church. Thus, in the Russian Church, Copts and Ethiopians are generally received by methods A or B, whereas Armenians, who were Orthodox for much longer and are close to the Russian Church, are generally received by method C. However, in Greece and Cyprus, because of historical enmities, Non-Chalcedonians are generally received by method A (2).
In Greece and Cyprus, Roman Catholics are also usually received by method A because of the historical violence suffered in those countries from Roman Catholicism. Similarly in Serbia, a repentant Roman Catholic Croat war criminal would almost certainly be received into the Church through four sacraments, method A. On the other hand, in recent centuries the Russian and Romanian Churches have generally received Roman Catholics by methods B or C, unless they have been under Greek influence (as certain dioceses of the Russian Church in North America were in recent decades). This is because Russia and Romania have suffered much less from Roman Catholic violence in recent centuries. For instance, the average Western European Roman Catholic, who had never heard of the filioque, never believed in papal infallibility or other such Roman Catholic beliefs, and is only Roman Catholic because of their nationality, would be received by methods B or C, depending on how much they feel at home in the Church and whether they feel that they had always been here or not.
On the other hand, Protestants, and this includes Anglicans, who have been baptised by water in the Name of the Holy Trinity, but have little concept of the sacraments of chrismation, confession and communion would usually be received through those three sacraments, method B. However, as regards sects issued from Protestantism but rejected even by other Protestants, for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are not Christians but Arians, they would be received through four sacraments, method A.
Notes: 1. Non-Chalcedonians, traditionally known as Monophysites, include principally Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. For some peculiar reason Roman Catholics and Protestants call them ‘Oriental Orthodox’. However, they are neither Oriental (a meaningless and racist term), nor Orthodox.
2. A problem arises among those Anglican clergy who have been ordained without training as Orthodox priests in one small Patriarchate and who do not recognise the sacrament of confession. It seems that they ‘receive’ Non-Chalcedonians even without confession.