Return to Home Page

Obstacles to Becoming Orthodox


It is not unusual to hear of people saying that someone ‘has become Orthodox’, when what they really mean is that someone ‘has joined the Orthodox Church’. For it is one thing to join the Church, to become formally a member of the Body of Christ, but quite another to become inwardly Orthodox, that is, to enter deeply and truly into the spirit and way of life of the Church. Most Orthodox clergy do not receive people into the Church too quickly and without adequate catechism, but even so there is an attrition rate. Over the years we have, for example, seen dozens of people joining the Church but never becoming Orthodox, as can be seen from their lapses or schisms into sects, cults or para-ecclesial groupings. Moreover, we have seen this happening tragically, even after decades of formal membership of the Church.

This is not a question only, say, of the many English people, who later lapse from the Orthodox Church, once the initial burst of enthusiasm has burned itself out, but it is also true of Russians, Greeks and others. Thus, for instance, we know of one second generation Russian in London who over thirty years ago had himself circumcised and became a Jew, or of a Russian professor of the first generation who had his children baptised Anglican, for, as he said, ‘we are in England now’. On the other hand, no fewer than six of the clergy of the Anglican Diocese of London are Greek Cypriots. Having been born and brought up in England, they long ago decided that Orthodoxy was only for Greeks, but that, since they were now English, they would become Anglicans. Countless other examples of apostasy could be cited, including the large numbers of second and third generation Russians in France who became Roman Catholics.

What then are the obstacles to becoming Orthodox, in the genuine sense? Where do people go wrong? In order to discover this, we must first of all look at this issue in the light of the four qualities of the Church, as defined by our Creed. In this, the Church is defined as ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic’. It is in their light that we shall find answers to our question.

Intellectualism against Oneness

The Unity of the Church is distanced by intellectualism. This danger is particularly strong among converts in Western countries. Intellectualism challenges the Oneness or Unity of the Church, for every intellectual trend is divisive, creating both supporters and enemies, who say that they are of Paul, of Apollos and of Cephas, but not of Christ (I Cor 1, 12). We should not forget that all the great heretics were intellectuals, from the Hellenes and Gnostics of the first century, to Arius and Nestorius and to today’s modernist and renovationist Neo-Gnostics. The influence of these latter is particularly strong in countries of the Russian emigration, notably in France and the USA, but also in Belgium and England.

The intellectualist trend comes from outside the Church, from the heterodox world. There it is commonly believed that the faith can only be understood by the reason or intellect. This rationalism is hostile to the ethos of the Church, where we believe and know from experience that knowledge does not come from the fallen human reason, but from the purification of the heart. Indeed, it is only once the heart is purified, through ascetic practices of prayer and fasting and the sacraments joined together, that the reason or intellect can be enlightened. In other words, in the Church, knowledge comes to us through struggling against sin and battling for virtue, by following the commandments, and not through vain booklore. The latter merely puffs up and makes its willing victims into idle self-flattered playthings of the devil, pretentious reasoners who inspire either mockery or pity on the part of others.

Intellectualism divides, for its adepts in their cliques and clans work against the Unity of the Church, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Hebrews 13, 8). Unity can be found only by remaining faithful to the Tradition, the deposit entrusted to the saints which we are called on to guard (1 Timothy 6, 20). In novelties we can be sure to find the intellectualist spirit, foreign to the Living God and His Church.

Spiritualism against Holiness

The Holiness of the Church is distanced by spiritualism. Spiritualism confuses the authentically spiritual with the emotional delusion of pride (delusion in Slavonic is prelest, in Greek plani, in Latin illusio). This has also been one of the great weaknesses of the Russian emigration, but today it is also found in sectarian Greek old calendarism. This spirit is brought into the Church from outside, from all kinds of worldly but ‘spiritual’ theories and strange philosophies such as anthroposophism and guenonisme, sectarianism and cultishness. These all form attractions to disincarnate spheres of being, which are inhabited by evil spirits (which are disincarnate), under the illusions that these are angelic, and not satanic, spheres.

Perhaps the most obvious representative of this school was the Russian Evgraf Kovalevsky. However, he was only the most obvious of many cases of this spiritual disease, which was especially strong among the Paris Russian emigration who had brought it with them from St Petersburg. Many of them joined the Church, but they brought with them the disease and tried to spread it inside the Church. They did not understand that an interest in ‘spirituality’ is not the same as the practice of virtue. An interest in spirituality can be highly dangerous, for the devil is a spiritual being. This is especially visible in cases of interest in heterodox or Non-Christian spirituality, such as ‘Franciscanism’ (which, as nineteenth-century Russian saints repeatedly pointed out, is the very definition of spiritual delusion) or interest in Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist ‘spirituality’.

Spiritualism, with its disincarnate, Neo-Gnostic lack of focus can be seen incarnate in the unfocused iconography of many representatives of the Russian Paris emigration. The lack of sharpness and clarity in their icons signals their disincarnate spirit. This represents a false holiness, not holiness at all, but a lack of ability to penetrate inside the Church on account of an impurity of spirit.

Phyletism against Catholicity

The Catholicity of the Church is distanced by phyletism, which comes from the Greek word for race. The word could be expressed in English as racism, and is sometimes expressed by the words nationalism or ‘ethnicism’. It is particularly common among Greek and other Balkan Orthodox, who endured the Turkish yoke and its millet system. This is why phyletism was first defined in Constantinople in the nineteenth century. However, other Orthodox are by no means immune to phyletism and we have seen many examples of it in ROCOR and other parts of the Russian Church. Nevertheless, ironically, we have seen it at its most virulent among ex-Anglican Orthodox, where, for example, only English is used, with a token use of mispronounced foreign languages, and a subtle but hurtful form of anti-Greek, anti-Romanian or anti-Russian racism operates. A recent example of this is a demand by a recent American convert for an ‘American Patriarch’. Did this mean a short back and sides, beardless, American bishop who gives sermons while chewing gum? What we all need in our respective countries is holy patriarchs – their nationalities are utterly irrelevant. If there is no holiness, how can anyone be saved? Nationality is simply not a criterion.

Phyletism, or as we would rather call it, racism, excludes Orthodox who do not belong to the majority nationality of a particular church. Only recently, and not far from here, we came across a case of a group who excluded an English Orthodox from their services and communion because he was ‘not dark enough to be one of us’. Apparently, fair hair or blue eyes were equivalent to excommunication. We also came across another case where Non-Serbs were forbidden to venerate an icon of St Sava, for ‘he can only be venerated by Serbs’. Such cases are too frequent to mention here.

Phyletism speaks and acts against the catholicity, that is, universality in all times and places, of the Church. It divides racially and is against any solution to the diaspora canonical problem of multiple ‘jurisdictions’ or dioceses on the same geographical territory. The solution to this problem is clear – it existed in North America before the Russian Revolution, where multiple nationalities were united in one common Diocese. Those who broke that unity then will have much to answer for at the end of time.

Aestheticism against Apostolicity

The Apostolicity of the Church is distanced by aestheticism. This means that the depth of the Church’s teaching, preached and expressed by the apostles in their confession and martyrdom, is contradicted by a superficial attitude to Church life. Those who come to church to light a candle do well, while they are there, but they stay for only a few minutes. Today this aestheticism is perhaps the greatest problem of all, for this evil of nominalism affects the majority of baptised Orthodox. Those who view the Church as a piece of theatre, those who come to be moved by the (all too often) Italianate singing, or to venerate the (all too often) Italianate icons, those who are moved by the smell of incense, are all missing the point.

Aestheticism views the church as an emotional experience which is fine for twenty minutes a few times a year. It fails to understand the great spiritual and therefore moral truths of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, of the Redemption. The Church exists because of the blood of the Martyrs and the sufferings of the Confessors. Without suffering, there would be no Church, the Church, the Body of Christ, is founded on the Blood of Christ, the Eucharist is founded on His Body and Blood. A shallow and superficial approach to Church life, typical of nominalism, will not lead to a righteous, let alone holy, way of life. And we shall be judged on how we led our lives, not on our inevitably impure emotions.

Aestheticism acts against the Apostolicty of the Church, it contradicts the depth of the spiritual experience of the apostles, who toiled and suffered for the benefit of mankind, recalling that the Chief Apostle is Christ Himself, sent by the Father for the redemption of all mankind. It completely overlooks our vital commitment to the great spiritual and moral truths which all Orthodox are called on to embody in our daily life.


The four characteristics which define the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church are summed up in the single word, Orthodox. This is why we speak of ‘The Orthodox Church’, a short way of saying ‘The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. This is why, if we should fall into any of the above isms, intellectualism, spiritualism, phyletism or aestheticism, we inevitably fall away from the Orthodox Church. Let us be on our guard, in sobriety keeping vigil over ourselves against these four different delusions: ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5, 8).

Archpriest Andrew Phillips,

3/16 February 2009
Righteous Simeon and Prophetess Anna,
St Nicholas of Japan

to top of page