Audio length: 46:10 minutes
Transcript published: March 07, 2012
If we believe that the Orthodox Church is the True Church, how are we to relate to those in other faith traditions or even non Christians? Fr. Tom takes us to the Church Fathers for answers.
We recently said in a reflection on Ancient Faith Radio about how we Orthodox Christians confess, believe and confess, that the Orthodox Church, the one to which we belong, is really the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church of Christ, the one true Church, the Church that keeps God’s Gospel and Jesus pure and holy and proper. It’s not a different Gospel; it’s the same Gospel. How it preserves and keeps the faith once for all delivered to the saints, as it says in Scripture, in Jude. And that really, the Christian faith in the Orthodox Church, is really orthodox—it’s true and good. It’s catholic—it’s of the catholic Church; that means it’s whole, complete, nothing missing, nothing distorted.
In terms of the Bible, like Deuteronomy and the Apocalypse of the New Testament, we would say it’s the Church in which nothing has been added to what has been given to us from God, nothing is extraneous, nothing simply human is put into it, but also nothing is taken away from it. We don’t emasculate it; we don’t remove anything that belongs, essentially, to the faith and the teaching and the life and the worship of God’s covenanted people called the Church, which St. Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians says, “the Church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Or as it says in the Letter to Timothy, “the Church of the living God, the pillar and the bulwark of the truth.”
We also said in that reflection that, alas, sadly, we Orthodox do believe that other Christian churches, although having many true and good things—the Scriptures, the teaching, prayers, worship, sacramental rites—that in every one of them, there are things that we think are not good, that are not right, that are not accurate. Sometimes it just might be a kind of mistaken understanding. Sometimes that it’s said between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox that it was just a terrible mistake in history, a mistake of language, a mistake of expression, but in fact the content of the faith, the substance, was identical.
Mayhap it be that this may be so, but in that case, what the Eastern Orthodox Christians would say—I’m certain the Oriental would say the same—they believe that their churches have held what is really the faith of God, the truth of God, the Gospel of God in its fullness with nothing added, nothing taken away—catholic, full, whole and perfect and pure. We said also, however, that that doesn’t mean at all that the members of the Church are all holy and perfect and pure. On the contrary, we’re all sinners, terrible sinners.
But as the saying once said, “The true Church has sinners in it, and the false churches and the churches that are not completely and totally accurate and clear and true, they also have sinners in them. They also have saints, holy people, who, by the grace of God and by faith and grace and the Holy Spirit, live very holy lives. Here we would say it’s certainly a dogma of the Orthodox Church, that outside of the Orthodox Church the grace of God does act. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, and there are righteous, holy people who are in other Christian churches, in no Christian churches. It’s all a great mystery here. We don’t say.
But what we would say, at least in abstraction, is that wherever you have people living according to God’s commandments in Christ, even if they don’t know them specifically, even if they don’t realize what they’re doing, still, God is there; the Holy Spirit is there; truth is there. And it would be the truth that we believe Christ is. Christ said, “I am the Truth.” It would be the product of the Spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth. And it would be substantially what is worshiped and celebrated and taught in the true Church of Christ, the one true Church of Christ which we Orthodox believe is the Orthodox Church.
Saying these things, we could ask this question for today: if I’m an Orthodox Christian, if I belong to the Orthodox Church, if I confess that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church of God, that it is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in which we believe, if it is the Church that God in the Body and Blood of Christ has founded, if it is the final covenanted community Church in the Messiah, the fulfillment of all the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, if it is the qahal Israel, the assembly of Israel by faith and by grace, if it really is the continuation of all of God’s people, the kingdom of prophets and priests that are already constituted by God in Israel, if it is the true Israel of God even that we claim, that really fulfills properly what God has done and how God has acted in the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets—how should people who are members of that assembly, members of that community, who are baptized into Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit, participate in the Holy Eucharist, eat the Body and Blood of Christ, offer their own bodies, their own blood to Christ together, to God together with Christ, in the Divine Liturgies and in the holy Eucharistic services of the Church—how should we understand and how should we relate to all other people?
First of all, how should we relate to other Christians, and then how should we relate to other people? We could name some people, like: how could we relate to Jewish people or to to Muslims or to atheists or to Buddhists? How are we to relate? That’s a very, very important question. I think the simplest answer that we could give is that we are to bring the truth and the love of God, as we understand it and confess it, as taught and given in the worship of the Orthodox Church, the Gospel, the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus, we are first and foremost to bring this good news to everybody. We are to be witnesses, martyres in Greek, testifiers. Like in a court of law, we are to bear witness, make testimony that this is true. And to do so not only by words—certainly by words, but certainly also by deeds, by actions, by how we act, by how we relate to people, by how we treat people.
So we have to be evangelists, evangelizers. Some people have this specific gift; actually their life’s calling is specifically to preach the Gospel as evangelists or perhaps to be bishops or priests or whatever. But every Christian, every baptized person, has this duty, this calling, this joy, this privilege, to bear witness to Christ, to the kingdom of God in Christ, to the Gospel of Christ Jesus. And we bring that to all people, by our activity and by our words, and our words are part of our activity: what we say, how we say it, in what spirit. In the New Testament in the letter of Peter, it says we have to do it on account of our hope, with all gentleness, with all tenderness and kindness to people, not arrogantly, not proudly, not lording it over it anybody, realizing that we are the greatest sinners of all ourselves, that we’re not preaching ourselves, we’re preaching Christ and him crucified, of [whom] we are the sinful servants; that has to be our task.
And then we have to love everybody unconditionally, absolutely the same as we would love each other in the Church, and we have to bring the love of God to everybody. We have to love one another and everyone, including our worst enemies, as we believe God and Christ have loved us: fully, completely, unconditionally, unqualified, to our last drop of our blood, to our last breath. We have to really show the love of God to everyone. We have to imitate God, as St. Paul and the Fathers would say. We imitate God. We act like God. We act like Christ.
Sometimes people wear that hat: “What Would Jesus Do?” They ask themselves, “What would Jesus do in this situation?” There’s a kind of a joke that I heard once that somebody asked somebody with a hat like that that said WWJD (What Would Jesus Do), so he said, “What does that mean, WWJD?” The person said, “It means ‘What would Jesus Do?” and the joke is that the person responded, “Well, I know one thing he wouldn’t do: he would not have paid $19.95 for that particular hat.”
In any case, what I think we must say more accurately is not what would Jesus do, but what would Jesus have me do? What am I supposed to do? I’m not Jesus. I’m a poor human being here in the 21st century, struggling to be human, struggling to be a Christian. What would Jesus have me do? How would he have me act toward other people. And certainly the teaching would be very, very clear: Jesus Christ would have me love everybody. He would have me bless those who curse me, pray for those who abuse me. If they asked for my jacket, he would want me to give them my shirt. If they asked me to go one mile with them, he would ask me to go two. If they sinned against me 70 times in a day, he would ask me to forgive them 70 times. He would ask me to be merciful to everyone—that means to do acts of kindness—no matter who that person is, and whether that person was a believer or an unbeliever, whether that person was a fellow member of the Church or not, whether that person was a Christian or not.
Whoever that person is, that they are to be unconditionally loved. That would certainly be how we are to relate to everyone: people in the Church, people of our own household, people who are believers, people who are not believers, people who bless us, people who curse us, people who help us, people who hate us, people who are kind to us, people who are mean to us, people who care about us, people who don’t care about us, people who neglect us, people who abandon us, people who hurt us, people who sin against us. We are to love those people. That is the teaching, a very, very clear teaching.
Anybody who reads the gospels and reads the writings of St. Paul and St. John and Peter and James in the New Testament, they know that this is true. St. Paul says, “If your enemy’s hungry, feed him; if he’s thirsty, give him drink. And by doing so, you will put burning coals on their head if they don’t repent, if they don’t change, and if they don’t become good, loving people themselves.” But there’s no condition, you see. We have to be kind and forgive everybody, without exception. So this is what we find.
An example of this would be an interpretation of the part in St. Matthew by St. John Chrysostom. St. John Chrysostom said, “In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Lord Jesus Christ said this: ‘If you have something with your brother within the Church, within the household of faith, and you can’t agree with that brother, and he won’t listen to you, you bring another member; you come with two or three, in secret. You talk with him two or three times. You try to tell him. You try to win him over. If that doesn’t work, finally you bring him to the Church, you bring him to the whole assembly. And if the person still doesn’t agree with what the whole assembly is saying (hopefully inspired by the Holy Spirit), then you treat that person,’ Jesus said, ‘like a heathen and a tax collector.’ “
Now, of course, this presupposes that the brother in the Church is right, because sometimes in Church history, the majority of people in the Church were wrong, and a few people were right, and only God knows who’s right and who’s wrong, and we’ll only know that on the day of judgment. We follow what we believe and hope, follow the Scriptures and the Fathers and the saints, but if we see somebody who’s not doing that, and is not accepting what the Church is teaching and praying and what’s written in the Gospels and preached in the prayers of the Church services, then we are to treat them, the Lord Jesus Christ himself says, like a heathen and a publican, a tax collector.
But St. John Chrysostom says, “Yes, that’s true. We don’t treat them as a brother. They are not permitted to come in and receive the sacraments of holy communion. They can’t come in if they’re not willing to say, ‘Amen,’ to the prayers, if they’re not willing to believe what is taught, they cannot offer the Holy Gifts on the altar and they cannot receive them when they are consecrated.” So put in technical terms, they’re excommunicated; they’re put out of communion. They’re not in communion. As it says in the letter of John, “They went out from us because they were not of us. If they had been of us, they would be with us.” But sometimes people go out from us, or they make their own church, or they make up their own version of Christianity. Well, then, we don’t have holy communion together. In that sense, we treat them as if they were heathens and tax collectors.
So John Chrysostom goes on to say, “Yes, but even heathens and tax collectors, even people who are sinful, even people who are harming us, even people who are not agreeing with us…” How do we treat them, though? And St. John Chrysostom says, “This is how we treat them: we love them unconditionally.” If they’re hungry, we give them food; if they’re thirsty, we give them drink. If they’re naked, we clothe them; if they’re homeless, we shelter them. If they’re imprisoned, we visit them. If they’re wounded and sick, we come and try to heal them. Because if we do this to the least of our brethren, we do it to Christ. And Christ said we have to do this to every person without condition or qualification.
To put it very simply, we would say we are bound as Orthodox Christians, or anyone who considers himself a true Christian, is bound, absolutely bound by the commandments of God to exercise mercy and philanthropia (love for humanity) to every single human being without exception. Jew, Muslim, whoever they are, a hated enemy, a person killing you—yes, indeed. And we’re not supposed to kill anybody; we’re supposed to be killed. We’re supposed to give ourselves.
So Chrysostom says when you treat someone like a heathen and a publican, you do two things: You witness to the Gospel to them. You don’t treat them as if they were a believer in the Gospel; you don’t receive them into the communion in the Church like a brother, but you still feed them if they’re hungry, clothe them if they’re naked, give them drink if they’re thirsty, visit them in prison or in hospital, try to give them housing and clothing and shelter. Yes, we are obliged to do that as Christians.
And then we are to pray for them. We are to pray for them at all times. And this is what St. John Chrysostom also teaches. For example, I would advise you to read Homily 6 of St. John Chrysostom on I Timothy. It’s the second chapter of Timothy; it’s Homily 6 of Chrysostom’s homilies, where he speaks to the priests as the common father of all. He says:
The priest is the common father, as it were, of the whole world, not just of the Church people. Therefore, for this reason, the Lord says to the leaders of the Christian community, the priests and the bishops, “I exhort you, therefore, first of all, to make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks (eucharists) to be made for all people. And from this two advantages result. First, hatred toward those who are without is done away with.
Because if you’re offering prayers and supplications and intercessions and eucharists for all people, for the whole world, you’re offering, as we say in the Divine Liturgy, on behalf of all and for all, how can you possibly hate somebody if that’s what you’re doing? he says. So if we do these prayers, we will show that we love them. And then he says, so first of all hatred is done away with.
No one can feel hatred for those for whom he prays. Then, again, they are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious dispositions toward us they may be converted. Nothing is so apt to draw people under teaching [of Christ and God] as to love and to be loved.
So we have to love and we have to be loved, and if we love others and are loved by others, then we are ready to follow the commandments of God. Then Chrysostom goes on and says:
Think of what this was when St. Paul wrote it! When St. Paul said this, he was telling people to love and to pray “for those who persecuted, scourged, banished, and slaughtered Christians,” because at that time, Christians were being slaughtered, banished, and persecuted. He said that those whom they treated so barbarously offered fervent prayers to God for them, so that the people were actually treating the Christians so ferociously badly and barbarously, they would know that these Christians are actually praying to God for them.
Observe how he (St. Paul) wishes a Christian to be superior to an ill-treatment. As a father who was struck on the face by a little child whom he was carrying would not lose anything of his affection for the child, so we ought not to abate in our goodwill and affection toward those who are outside the Church, even when we are stricken by them. Why does he say “first of all”? It means the daily service. And the initiated [that means the baptized] know how this is done every single day, both in the evening and in the morning, how we offer prayers for the whole world, for kings and all that are in authority.
Some will perhaps say, “Does he not mean all people? Does he really mean all people? Does he not rather mean all the faithful people?” Well, then, why would he speak about kings? For at that time, none of the kings were worshipers of God, for there was a long succession of ungodly princes.
And it was exactly those emperors and kings and governors who were killing the Christians, who were treating them badly, “ferocious dispositions,” as he says.
First of all, for all men, then for kings. Since the soul of some Christians might be slow at hearing this and reject the exhortation…
Then listen to this. Chrysostom says:
If at the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, that is the Holy Communion, it was necessary to offer prayers for the heathen king. By this, God shows them the advantages of such love, that we would actually intercede before God by those who are persecuting us, the heathen kings.
Then he goes on to say: God didn’t make the government so you could have stability and order, but we pray for the government whether or not they’re Christians at all, even if they’re persecuting Christians. And by the way, this is very important, because sometimes people say that we should pray in church only for the president of the United States, for example, if we agree with him. If we don’t agree with the president, then we should stop praying for him. That’s just not true. The president is the president of this country.
And by the way, he’s not our president. That’s a mistranslation in the English Liturgy. We don’t pray for “our president.” The Church doesn’t have a president. We pray for “this country and its president,” the country in which we live. Now, that happens to be our country and our president, but it happens to be that as citizens of this world, not as members of the Church.
But we pray for the president and the government and the armed forces no matter what they’re doing. Even if they’re doing an unjust war and doing all kinds of evils, we pray for them even more, St. John Chrysostom said. We should pray even more for the unbelieving because they are wrong-doing. He said the only thing we should be afraid of is not to pray against anybody. So he said:
Let every prayer of ours, then, as the expression of our love, be accompanied with thanksgiving (met’ evcharistian, with eucharist), and if we are commanded to pray for our neighbors, not only for the faithful, but also for the unfaithful and the unbelieving, consider how wrong it would be to pray against anybody.
Then he goes on and says this, and he ends this homily or he ends this part of the homily by saying:
Let us learn at last to be Christians, he said. Let’s learn at last to be Christians. If we know not how to pray, which is a very simple and easy thing, what else shall we possibly know? Let us learn to act like Christians. Let us learn to pray like Christians. Those are the prayers of Gentiles, supplications of Jews, that would pray against anybody or pray only for their own. The Christians’ prayers are the reverse. We pray for the forgiveness and the forgetting of offenses against us and against everyone.
Then he says:
Have you not heard it written? “Being reviled, we bless. Being persecuted, we suffer it, we endure. Being defamed, we entreat.” Hear how the first martyr, Stephen, said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Instead of praying against anybody, praying against them who killed him, he prayed for them.
So Chrysostom goes on and on, and I could keep reading this, but it’s very, very important that St. John Chrysostom is teaching us that we are to forgive and to pardon and to pray for everyone without exception, everyone. We are to bless the enemy. “When we bless the enemy,” he says, “we bless ourselves. If we curse our enemy, we are cursing ourselves. If we pray for our enemy, we’re actually praying for ourselves, because we’re following God’s will. If we thus act, we shall be able to reduce to practice this excellent virtue of love,” he says, “and so obtain the promised blessings of God.” That’s how he ends this particular homily.
St. Maximos the Confessor, he had 400 Centuries on Love, and in these centuries, listen to what St. Maximos the Confessor says. He says this:
When a person’s mind, the nous, is ravished through love by divine knowledge and stands outside the realm of created beings, it becomes aware of God’s infinity. It is then according to Isaiah that a sense of amazement makes it conscious of its own lowliness, and in all sincerity, the person repeats the words of the Prophet: “How abject I am! I am pierced to the heart. I am a man of unclean lips. I dwell among people of unclean lips. Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (No. 12 in the first century)
Then he continues with 13, 14, 15, 16, which I will now read to you. He says:
Such a person then loves God. He cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified.
And that means all other people. He means really the people outside the Church, every person who lives.
But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds.
A soul filled with thoughts of sensual desires and hatred is not purified. If we detect any trace of hatred in our own hearts against any person whatsoever for committing any fault whatsoever, we are utterly estranged from love for God, since love for God absolutely precludes us from hating any person for any reason. “He who loves me,” says the Lord, will keep my commandments. And this is my commandment: that you love one another, even I have loved you.” Thus he who does not love his neighbor fails to keep the commandment of God, and so he cannot possibly love the Lord.
Then, number 17: “Blessed is the person who can love every person equally.” Then later on, in the same first century on love, this is what St. Maximos says:
Let us love all equally. Perfect love does not split up the single human nature common to all. Perfect love loves every human being exactly the same. Let us love [all] equally.
Then he speaks about being united in perfect love, and then he speaks about this love being for everyone, and he says it very specifically. He says:
For believer and unbeliever, for those who are purified and those who are not yet purified or may never be purified, even for heretics, even for those who are against and fighting against the Church, these are people that are supposed to be loved totally and without condition.
In the second century on love, he says the same thing (number 30):
The person who is perfect in love has reached the summit of dispassion, and there is no difference between his own or another person’s. There is no difference for such a person between Christians and unbelievers or between slaves and free people or even between male and female, because such a person has arisen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of humanity. He looks on every single person in the same way and shows the same disposition to all, for in such a person there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bonded nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
In that Chrysostom homily (Homily 6) that I read earlier, he even has a part where the people say, “Are we to love the Jews?” He said, “Yes, the Jews!” “Are we to love heretics?” He said, “Yes, heretics even!” So this is how we are to treat everybody, especially, as we might say, Jews, Muslims, heretics, atheists, unbelievers. We are to bring the love of God to them and we are to show that love, which is the Gospel of God in Jesus, by everything we say and do and by everything we have. If we are to love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength, everything we think, everything we do, everything we have, everything we possess, all our possessions, all our strength—that’s how we’re to relate that to all people as well.
The question then comes up, of course: but [how do] we assess other people’s behavior when we look at them, if love is absolutely unconditional, without qualification, for everyone? And even, we can add, for every thing; we’re supposed to love the trees, the stars, the moon, as Dostoyevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov, “the sticky little green leaves,” every grain of sand, every little bird. We’re supposed to have love bursting for all of creation if we’re Christians.
We are also to be truthful people, and so when we relate to others according to the saints, we have to relate to them as people who are sinners, who recognize ourselves as sinners. We can’t lord it over anyone. We have to realize, as St. Paul even said, that we are the first of sinners. Everyone of us has to consider ourselves the worst of sinners. We have to judge no one for anything. We cannot claim that we’re holier than anybody in any way. We can claim that the consecration of God is given in the Orthodox Church, but at the same time we would confess our own failings, because that’s the truth.
The other thing that is said always, and even proven by [the] behavior of our saints, is that we are willing to affirm whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, whatever is lovely anywhere we find it, even if it is found in non-Christian people or non-believing people. This is read in our Church on Palm Sunday, the Festival of the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, the epistle reading is from Philippians, and in that particular letter, we read in church on the one day on earth when Christ was glorified on earth as the Messiah and the Son of God and the Savior and the King, and when the children sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!” to him, on that day when we go to church for our holy Eucharist, for our worship in spirit and truth in church, what we hear said is these words of St. Paul:
Finally, brothers and sisters (the Apostle says) whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, you do it, and the God of peace will be with you.
What that means is: we believe that within the Church, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to perceive, to understand, to discern what is good, what is true, what is pure, what is lovely, what is holy, what is worthy of praise, and to recognize it where it exists, and to not only affirm it but to delight in it, to be grateful for it, to say, “Yeah, ain’t that wonderful!” when we see it. So if we applied this to how we are to relate to all people, particularly for today’s reflection, people who are not members of the Church, but this applies even to people who are members of the Church, what each one of us is supposed to do is to be totally ready to affirm and to delight in whatever good, true, beautiful thing we see, anywhere we see it.
If, for example, as a concrete example, a non-Orthodox Christian—let’s say a Roman Catholic, for example—would say, “Jesus Christ is Lord! He is the truth! There is the holy Trinity! The holy Virgin Mary is the ever-virgin mother of God!” We would say, “Yeah! That’s true! That’s great! Isn’t that beautiful that you say that? We agree with you on that! Yes, we are one mind in that! Oh, how wonderful it is that we are united in this conviction and in this faith!” We would be happy about it. Now, however, if we were speaking to a Roman Catholic as an example, we would still have to say to them, “However, you know, we have to tell you that there are certain things that you folks do and say that we can’t agree with, that we’re not of one mind with.”
As an example would be, of course, the teaching about the infallibility of the pope of Rome, or that the pope of Rome has direct jurisdiction over all the Christians in the world including the other bishops, or that under certain conditions he may say something that’s absolutely true and must be obeyed. We would say, “We just don’t believe that.” In other words, we just don’t believe the dogma of Vatican I and how it’s even described in Vatican II. We just plain don’t believe it.
And there are other theological teachings that at least used to be taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Like, it used to be taught, at the Council of Trent, that grace was a created entity, that there was no real communion with God and knowledge of God through the divine energies. And here we would agree with Gregory Palamas, and we would say, “That’s not true.” We would say, “We’re sorry. We just don’t agree with you with that.” In the Creed when the filioque was added, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we would say, “Well, maybe there’s a way that can be explained which would be okay, but the way that it has been traditionally explained through history, for us, it’s not okay. We’re very sorry; God forgive us, we’re sinners, but we just don’t believe that that’s true.”
So what can we do? We just don’t believe it. So we’re divided on those points. Then we might even say that there are certain things that are kind of added, like these things, the infallibility of the pope was something added. We say, “Well, it shouldn’t have been added. It’s not right. It’s not a proper development.” But what we want to do, what I want to do right now is to be very clear: we affirm what we agree about, though, and we rejoice in it, we delight in it. We say, “Oh, how wonderful it is!” We don’t say, “Eugh, you’re a Roman Catholic; you’re a Papist,” or something like that. “You deformed the Faith” or something. We could say, “Perhaps in some areas we do think it’s deformed, but perhaps not in all.”
Then we can see among Roman Catholic people—let’s take, for example, Mother Teresa of Calcutta—whatever we want to say, it really looks like she was loving Jesus Christ in all the poor dead people, dragging them in off the streets, treating them with love, taking care of the poor and the needy and the lowly and the sick and the infirm. We would say, “Wow! That’s great! That’s beautiful! That’s wonderful! That’s what we all should be doing. Thank God you’re doing that! When we follow the teachings of our Church, we see that what you are doing is just what we are being taught to do ourselves. Isn’t it marvelous that you, being a Roman Catholic, are doing these wonderful things?” And we would love her for it, and honor her for it.
The same thing we could apply to Protestants. We might not be happy with certain Protestants that we believe are really deforming the Christian faith in our time, but there are many people in other churches, Protestant churches, who are good, holy people, and righteous, and help the poor and help the needy and love Jesus and believe in him as God and Lord and believe in the morality that is taught by Christ about marriage and family and would be against abortions of babies and so on. We would say, “That’s great, that’s marvelous.” So in other words, anything outside of the bounds of our Church that is of our Church, we would affirm and glorify.
St. Gregory the Theologian said about his father, Gregory the Elder, before he met Nonna and got married to her, he was a sectarian Christian; he was in a kind of a Christian sect. But he was such a good, holy, righteous man, he met Nonna, they got married, and he entered into the orthodox, catholic, one, true Church. But Gregory said about him in his eulogy at his funeral, “My father was of us before he joined us. The reason that he was able to join us was because he was of us before he was even with us.”
So the claim would be that there can be people led by the Spirit of God and the word of God who are already led by God before they enter the Orthodox Church. And they may never enter on earth because they may never have the opportunity to do so, or they might see us Orthodox as so pathetically bad and divided and stupid and crazy and unChristian ourselves that they want no part of us.
St. Paul said that in the letter to the Romans, where Isaiah the Prophet said that God said, “My name is blasphemed among the nations because of you.” Well, we could say maybe the name of Jesus Christ is blasphemed and the name of Orthodoxy is blasphemed among the non-Orthodox Christians and even among the non-Christians because of us: how we are, how we look, how we act, what we do, how we relate to each other. We’re just a scandal to them. They want no part of it. But maybe what they’re doing is really of God; it’s very possible. And it’s even truly the case in some instances; there’s no doubt about it.
St. Augustine said, “There are wolves within and lambs without.” In other words, there are wolves inside the Church, heretics and hypocrites and sinners, who distort Christian faith and act in a very ungodly manner, and they’re technically members of the Church. And then there are people outside who are like lambs, who are holy, who are really following what they know. And we should remember that in virtually all—not all, but virtually all—of the non-Orthodox Christian churches, they still read the same Scriptures that we read; they say the same Lord’s Prayer. Many of them recite the same confession of faith, the Nicene Creed. Even now, many of them do it without the filioque in it.
So things are changing; things are in flux, but what we want to say for now is that we should be ready to affirm whatever is good, true, beautiful, lovely, of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, wherever that is to be found. Let’s take an example of Jews. If Jews would say, “There is one true God; blessed be he. And blessed is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses,” we wouldn’t say, “No, that’s not true. You’re a Jew.” We would say, “Yes, that’s true. We believe that with you. Yes, friend, we believe that with you. On that level, we’re friends. On that level, we’re even brothers. But now let’s have a talk about Jesus of Nazareth: is he the Messiah or not? Is he God’s Son or not? Was he predicted in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets or not? Is he really the Word incarnate? Is he God’s devar Yahweh incarnated in human flesh or not? We believe he is; you believe he’s not. We differ on that, but still, we do believe there is the one, true, and living God.”
And even with Muslims, we may say that. Now, when a Muslim says, “God does not beget. He has no Son. Allah alone is God and there is no Trinity,” we would say, “No. We do not believe that. That’s wrong.” If they would say, “Jesus Christ is not divine, he’s not the Son of God,” we would say, “No, we disagree with you. That is wrong.” If they said, “Jesus, being very holy and a prophet of God, never died on the cross because God’s prophet can’t be humiliated,” we’d say, “No! He was even the very Son of God and he was humiliated and died on the cross,” because, according to the Koran, Jesus was so holy that God would not let him die on the cross and according to the Koran, Jesus was never really crucified, because they honor Jesus in the Koran, they do: Issa; they honor him.
But there may be places where we can agree with certain Muslims. If they say, “God is to be praised. We should submit to God”—that’s what “Islam” means: “submission”—we could say, “Yeah, we’re ready to submit! But it’d better be the real God, and it’d better be God according to what he really teaches us.”
And what about atheists? Sometimes there are atheists who are so mixed up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said in my life, especially to young people who tell me they’re atheists, I say, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in, because maybe I don’t believe in that god either.” Because there’s so many wrong teachings about God floating all over the place: God who would send unbaptized babies to hell and burn them, God who would only take to heaven the people that he decided to choose himself in his sovereign freedom, where there’s no freedom in the human being at all after sin. We would say, “No, that’s all not true. Double predestination is not true. God does not act like that. That’s not the way God is. That’s not the way we understand the Scriptures.”
But there can be atheists, because of all [these] strange teachings… Sometimes I think if I saw what those preachers on television say, I’d be an atheist myself, because it’s so despicable and unacceptable. And the behavior is even worse. So maybe there are innocent atheists around, and they really love their fellow human beings. They sacrifice themselves sometimes; they die for them. They feed the hungry, they clothe the naked, they work with sick people. And then they claim that they don’t believe in God. We’d say, “As far as we’re concerned, you’re not far from the kingdom of heaven, and it may be that you’re serving God better than I am.”
I recently said to Archbishop Anastasios of Albania about one of my grandchildren that he’s losing his faith, he’s saying he’s an atheist or something, and Archbishop Anastasios looked at me and said, “Maybe the young man says he’s an agnostic or an atheist, but you know, Fr. Tom, maybe in some sense he’s closer to God than we are.” Maybe we’re a bunch of hypocrites and he’s at least being honest, and he’s confused and he’s mixed up and he sees how we are; he sees how the bishops are, and so on. Can’t blame that boy. And only God anyway will judge him, not us, but we can see in people claiming to be atheists many true, good, beautiful, holy things, and if they are there, according to our teaching, according to Christian teaching, we should affirm them and delight in them.
So if there are atheists, I don’t know, visiting prisoners in jail and trying to comfort them and help them, or who are taking care of homeless people or sick people, we should join them. We should say, “Yes, we can participate, too. We will do it because we believe our God commands us to do it. Maybe you do it for other reasons, but the act itself we’re willing to join you in.”
When we relate to people outside Christianity, you could make some clear principles: [first,] we don’t relate to them as brothers in Christ and in Orthodoxy. If they come to our church, they would be willing to come and to stand there and to pray or to not pray, as long as they don’t make trouble, as long as they behave themselves, but we cannot invite them to offer the bread and the wine and to receive Holy Communion, because they don’t believe it. And unless they’re ready to believe it, according to the Orthodox teaching, well, that action cannot be real; it cannot be what it is. So when it comes to eucharistic discipline, when it comes to doctrine, yeah, we have real differences.
But another principle would be this: when it comes to action, when it comes to love, when it comes to care for each other, then we Christians are to love everybody the same way without discrimination at all. St. Maximos says we love everybody equally. We’re philanthropic to everyone, even heathens and publicans, according to John Chrysostom. We pray and love everyone, even people who are persecuting us, even people who are defaming our faith, even people who are heretical and deforming Christianity. To those people we have to show philanthropia. We have to be merciful; we have to show signs of mercy We have to do good to them in practical ways, even when we don’t recognize that we are one in mind and heart and soul before God Almighty.
And we’re certainly not one in Christ and not one in the Church, but our action toward them has to be totally loving, and, as St. John says in the Scripture, we don’t love just in word, but we love in deed and in truth. He says, “Not in speech or in word, but in deed and in truth.” Then as Chrysostom says, and that’s the way we might convert some people. And we know that many people were converted in early Christianity exactly because of how the Christians behaved. Many pagans were converted to Christianity because they said, “Look not only how they love one another: look how their women behave, look how their families are.” But they would say, “Look even how they love us. In the time of famine when we are hungry, they feed us with their food. They share their clothing with us. They give their lives for us and for our children.” And then they would be so impressed with that that they would say, “They must believe in a beautiful, loving God who can give them such power.”
In the earliest Church, many people were converted to Orthodox Christianity because of the behavior of Orthodox Christians. Then they came to see that Orthodoxy was orthodoxy. It really was true. It really was the Faith. It really was the Gospel. It really was the word of God inscribed in Scriptures and incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
We relate to everyone in love, in truth and in love. That’s what we must do, and that’s how we relate to everyone without exception. And that kind of relation begins in the Church. It begins in our homes. It begins in our families. But then it extends beyond that to all people. That’s the teaching of Scripture, that’s the teaching of the saints, and that’s the Orthodox teaching. And that’s the way Orthodox Christian people relate to everyone, including those who are not members of the Orthodox Church.