Tertullian and the Dangers of the Sectarian Mind-Set


Given the Orthodox Church's commitment to preserving its time-honored Tradition, received from the Lord Himself through His Apostles and continued in the lived experience of faithful Christians in every age, and its conservative, traditional moral values, there is the ever-present temptation to value strict outward obedience to the detriment of inner, vivifying and deifying obedience. He who truly keeps the Lord's commandments will look upon others with righteous discernment and mercy, but we have also seen throughout the history of the Church the opposite manifestation—of prideful judging and a readiness to separate oneself from the saving enclosure of the Church.

There have been many such examples—the Encratites, Novationists, Donatists, and Old Believers, to name a few. In our own times, with the Church's increased communications with other Christian confessions, including the recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis, and also considering the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council which will speak to the Orthodox Church's stance in relation to other confessions, the temptation to adopt a sectarian mind-set is as strong as ever. To be sure, defense of Orthodoxy is necessary and blessed, but always with humility and love.

In this sixth chapter of his book "Wisdom for Today from the Early Church: A Foundational Study," Dr. David Ford, professor of Church History at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, PA offers an indepth look at one of the earliest such examples in Church history—that of Tertullian, the first major Latin theological writer, who tragically was lured out of the Body of Christ by the rigid asceticism and supposed purity of the schismatic and heretical Montanists. By examining his life and writings both before and after his apostasy, Dr. David offers us insightful inspiration for staying on the royal path of holy Orthodoxy.

* * *

Tertullian's Life

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born around the year 150 in the city of Carthage, the leading metropolitan center in all of western North Africa—which ever since the middle of the second century BC had been under the authority of the Romans. Tertullian was most likely a descendant of the Latin colonizers of the region, but he may have picked up something of the fiercely independent spirit of the surrounding native Berber population.

He was raised in a pagan family of moderate means, as his father was a centurion of the proconsular cohort. He received a fine education in Carthage, and then went to Rome for further studies in literature, rhetoric, and law. He also became well-versed in history, archaeology, medicine, and philosophy. After finishing his studies, he entered the practice of law. The great Church historian Eusebius writes that he was “an expert in Roman law, and famous on other grounds—in fact he was one of the most brilliant men in Rome” (EH 2.2.4).

While in his mid or late 30s, Tertullian was drawn to the Faith of the Christians living in Rome. As Rudolph Arbesmann writes in his introduction to a volume of Tertullian's works,

His family was pagan, and he himself confesses that he followed pagan customs and drank deep from the cup of worldly pleasures until, as a mature man, he became a Christian at Rome. In his writings he does not give a clear explanation of the reasons for his conversion. It seems, however, that he was moved to embrace the Christian Faith by observing the perseverance of the Christians in the persecutions and the heroic courage of the martyrs. No early Christian writer has so emphasized the fact that the Church owed her triumph to [such] sufferings: “Crucify, torture, condemn, grind us to dust ... whenever we are mowed down by you, our number increases; the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”[1]

Soon after returning to his native Carthage, Tertullian began writing apologetical and anti-heretical works in which he defended and argued for the truths of Christianity with all the brilliant, relentless logic and cutting wit that he had previously used to win cases in the law courts. He ended up writing a great number of helpful works on many different themes. The most important of these are The Apology, A Treatise on the Soul, The Prescription against Heretics, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, and a magisterial refutation of the views of the leading Gnostic heretic Marcion in a very long work called Against Marcion. And since he was the first major Christian writer to write in Latin, he is considered to be “the Father of Latin theology.”

However, Tertullian, the former lawyer, generally wrote his works with a trenchant, harsh, argumentative, militant, rigorist, judgmental spirit that eventually contributed to his leaving the Church which had given him new birth and nurture in the Faith, and to his joining in about 205 a rigorist sectarian group known as the Montanists. It's true that the Montanism that had spread to Carthage was not as extreme in some ways as the Montanism in Asia Minor where it originated; for instance, it did not have the extreme apocalypticism that characterized the Pepuzites. Montanism actually never spread much beyond these two regions of Asia Minor and western North Africa.

Very ironically and poignantly, before he became a Montanist, Tertullian had a very clear understanding of the universality of the Church and the consistency through time of Her doctrine, with the Church in every place tracing Her heritage back to Christ and the Apostles. For example, in his work called Prescription against Heretics, he wrote that the Apostles,

after first bearing witness to the faith in Jesus Christ throughout Judea, and founding churches (there), next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same Faith to the nations. They then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the Tradition of the Faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches.

Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive Church, (founded) by the Apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, while they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality—privileges which no other rule directs than the one Tradition of the same mystery.[2]

In addition, Tertullian at first was very clear that the test of sound doctrine was always to measure any belief and/or practice against the unchanging doctrine of Christ and the Apostles as found in all the Churches:

Whereas all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those molds and original sources of the Faith—must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the Apostles, the Apostles from Christ, and Christ from God; and whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of contrariety to the truth of the churches and Apostles of Christ and God; it remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the Tradition of the Apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth.[3]

So this makes it all the more tragic that in his later years Tertullian, who always had a rigorist, purist kind of mentality with a sternly critical view of the surrounding society, was attracted by Montanism. What he found most appealing in Montanism was probably its emphasis on moral and spiritual purity, along with its strict asceticism, heightened eschatological expectations, and ongoing prophecy and other dramatic demonstrations of the gifts of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:8-10). Like the Montanists, he was scandalized by the hierarchical Church’s acceptance of the possibility of repentance for even the worst sins. For instance, he called the Shepherd of Hermas “the Shepherd of Adulterers”[4] because it allowed for a one-time repentance for adultery. He was also disturbed by what he judged to be growing laxity in the spiritual life of many of the laity and clergy in the established Church.

Still, it is hard to understand how someone as knowledgeable as Tertullian could have left the hierarchical Church—the very apostolic Church whose doctrine and way of life were the same as that of Christ and the Apostles, according to his earlier writing—to join a heretical sect that was condemned by that Church. For it had been officially condemned by local councils in Asia Minor in the 180s and 190s, and by the Church in Rome in the early years of the third century. But his decision was apparently well thought out. For example, hear how stringently he affirmed the Montanists’ complete rejection of second marriage:

Christ abolished the commandment of Moses [concerning the possibility for divorce; Matt. 19:3-8] ... why then should not the Paraclete [the Holy Spirit] have cancelled the indulgence granted by Paul ...? ‘Hardness of heart’ held sway until the coming of Christ; let weakness of the flesh bring its reign to an end with the coming of the Paraclete. The New Law abolished divorce ... the New Prophecy abolished second marriage.[5]

This quotation also reveals how Tertullian accepted the Montanists' view of history—that there has somehow been a new Pentecost with the Holy Spirit coming upon the Montanist prophets and prophetesses, and thereby inaugurating a new Age of the Spirit.

Furthermore, with startling judgmentalism, Tertullian made it very clear that he had fully accepted the Montanists’ two-tiered view of Christians, dividing them into the pneumatikoi (the spiritual ones) and the psychikoi (the soulish, or worldly, ones). He adamantly concluded that the established, hierarchical Church was in the worldly category:

Now what of that church of yours, worldly man? This power (of binding and loosing sin, in granting absolution) will adhere to spiritual powers, to an apostle or prophet as far as they show the personal qualities of Peter. For the Church is properly and primarily the Spirit, in whom is the Trinity of the divinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes the assembly of the Church ... Therefore the Church will indeed remit sins; but it will be the Church of the Spirit, by the agency of a spiritual man, not the Church as a number of bishops. For the right of judgment belongs to the Lord, not the servant; to God Himself, not to the priest.[6]

And with chilling hardheartedness, he declared:

But, you say, the Church has the power to remit sins? I have the more reason for acknowledging and asserting this, in that I find the Paraclete saying, through the New Prophets, “The Church has power to remit a sin; but I will not do it, lest they commit other sins.”[7]

So we see how thoroughly Tertullian had gotten convinced that through the various prophecies of the Montanist prophets and prophetesses, the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing in the earth, which the established Church was by and large ignoring, to the great detriment of the spiritual growth of its members, in his opinion. Indeed, as we have said, he got convinced that the established Church had lost the clear guidance of the Spirit and the fervent piety of the Apostolic age. He came to the opinion that most of the members of the established Church were not living according to the strict standards of prayer, fasting, personal asceticism, and moral probity that characterized the life of the first Christians. He then concluded that this Church was beyond hope of rejuvenation and transformation from within. Hence, he broke away, and joined the Montanists.

In the words of Roy J. Deferrari,

To be sure, Montanism did not bring about a radical change in Tertullian's moral teaching, because his asceticism was marked with a certain rigor and inflexibility from the beginning. Since his contact with Montanism, however, this rigor increased in strength until the ideal of austere virtue which he wanted to impose on the faithful as a whole became more Stoic than Christian.

We may well wonder how a man of so rare intelligence as Tertullian—a man, in addition, who had defended so vigorously the concept of Tradition and stressed so much the apostolic succession of the Catholic hierarchy—could turn his back upon the Church and be led astray by an Oriental sect whose frenzied excesses could hardly attract him. Once he saw himself rebuffed in his demands for a severer and more rigid asceticism, he discovered in the Montanist tenets some ideas that appealed to him. In the feverish expectation of the imminent end of the world and in preparation for it, Montanus and his associates, the prophetesses Maximilla and Prisca (or Priscilla), had demanded the most severe asceticism. Second marriages were forbidden, and virginity strongly recommended; longer and stricter fasts were made obligatory, and only dry foods (xerophagy) permitted; flight from persecution was disapproved, and the joyful acceptance of martyrdom advocated; and reconciliation was denied to all those who had committed capital sins [i.e., the worst sins—adultery, murder, and apostasy]. Here, Tertullian found a moral code that satisfied his own desires for a more perfect and purer life. He could give his adherence all the more easily as it was divine authority, the 'Paraclete,' who, as Montanus claimed, spoke through him and the prophetesses.

The memory of a brilliant man who had served the Church so well and then became her bitter enemy is always sorrowful. The ideal which Tertullian sought outside the Church proved to be a mirage. He died a disillusioned and embittered man.[8]

The Sectarian Mind-Set

Tertullian's willingness to break away from the established Church and join a sect is an example of the hallmark characteristic of what can be called the sectarian mind-set. Here is a list of other typical characteristics of this mind-set which has been a constant temptation for the members of the established Church through the centuries:

  • a lack of love for the established Church, and a lack of trust that She is always being guided by the Spirit of Truth and being protected and built up by Christ Himself;
  • the continuing existence of the sectarian group is justified/bolstered mainly by ongoing criticism and disparagement of the canonical Church;
  • pridefulness and self-righteousness;
  • judgmentalism of and even contempt for those in the established Church;
  • excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning penitence, fasting, asceticism, the adornment of women, second marriages, fleeing in times of persecution, reception of converts, length of the worship services, head coverings for women in the services, and certain moral issues;
  • a generally harsh attitude towards the non-Orthodox, spurning relations with them;
  • a generally negative attitude towards the world and human accomplishments;
  • a tendency to overly identify with one particular political and/or economic and/or social philosophy or movement;
  • an over-emphasis on the End Times, with an insistence that Christ will return within one generation;
  • the danger of the group becoming further extreme and even bizarre in practices and/or doctrine;
  • a tendency of the sectarian movement to break up into further segments (so typical of Protestant denominationalism), as the spirit of judgmentalism and criticism gets directed towards one's own group.

Tertullian and the Montanist movement which he joined exemplified many, if not all, of these typical traits of the sectarian mind-set. Since the lure of the sectarian mind-set is so strong in our day—especially, it seems, for new converts to Orthodoxy—I think it's prudent to take the time to show at some length how harsh and self-righteous this world-view really is, as seen in the extremely rigorous writings of Tertullian as a Montanist. And the lesson becomes all the more vivid for us when we see the tenderness and compassion that marked his pre-Montanist writings on certain selected themes, and compare those passages with what he wrote as a Montanist on these same topics. For example:

Concerning pridefulness and self-righteousness, and judgmentalism of and even contempt for those in the established Church:

Tertullian wrote as a Montanist:

This too, therefore, shall be a count in my indictment against the Psychics [meaning the ordinary, soulish Christians—the psychikoi], and against the fellowship of sentiment which I myself formerly maintained with them ... But repudiation of fellowship is never an indication of sin. As if it were not easier to err with the majority, when it is in the company of the few that truth is loved ... I blush not at an error which I have ceased to hold, because I am delighted at having ceased to hold it, and because I recognize myself to be better and more modest. No one blushes at his own improvement.[9]

We indeed, on our part, subsequently withdrew from the carnally-minded upon our acknowledgment and maintenance of the Paraclete.[10]

What harshness, therefore, is there on our part, if we renounce communion with those who refuse to do the will of God?[11]  

Correspondingly, in all of his Montanist writings, it is scarcely possible to detect any note of personal humility concerning his own weakness and sinfulness. Yet in his pre-Montanist days, he did express his own sinfulness quite humbly and openly. For instance:

That repentance, O sinner, like myself (... for pre-eminence in sins I acknowledge to be mine).[12]

inner as I am of every dye, and born for nothing save repentance.[13]

But so far as I, with my poor powers, understand ... Only, I pray that when you are asking, you be mindful likewise of Tertullian the sinner[14].

I fully confess unto the Lord God that it has been rash enough, if not even impudent, for me to have dared to compose a treatise on patience, for practicing which I am entirely unfit, being a man of no goodness ... So I, most miserable, ever sick with the heat of impatience, must of necessity sigh after, and invoke, and persistently plead for, that health of patience which I possess not.[15]

So it certainly appears that having adopted the two-tiered view of the Church held by the Montanists, Tertullian in his own life exemplifies the virtually inevitable danger of spiritual pride that goes along with this false, judgmental, sectarian understanding of the Church. How far has he departed from the understanding of the entire Tradition that “Humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue,” in the words of St. John Chrysostom!

Concerning excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning penitence:

A major issue which confronted the Early Church was whether or not after one's Baptism the possibility of repentance for the worst sins—generally considered to be adultery, murder, and apostasy—would be granted to Christians through the sacramental offices of the Church. At first, Tertullian agreed with the growing sentiment that such repentance would indeed be possible—but only once, and only if it were lengthy, heartfelt, and guided by the pastoral offices of the canonical Church. In referring to the repeated attacks of the devil, he says in his treatise On Repentance,

These poisons of his, therefore, God, foreseeing them, although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened up with the bar of baptism, has permitted it still to stand somewhat open. In the vestibule He has stationed the second repentance for opening to those who knock; but now once and for all, because now for the second time, but never more ... For is not even this once enough? You have what you now do not deserve, for you had lost what you had received. If the Lord’s indulgence grants you the means of restoring what you had lost, be thankful for the benefit renewed, not to say amplified. For restoring is a greater thing than giving, inasmuch as having lost is more miserable than never having received at all.

However, if anyone does incur the debt of a second repentance, his spirit is not because of this to be cut down and undermined by despair. Let it by all means be irksome to sin again, but let not to repent again be irksome. Let it be irksome to imperil oneself again, but not to be again set free. Let no one be ashamed. Repeated sickness must have repeated medicine. You will show your gratitude to the Lord by not refusing what the Lord offers you. You have offended, but you can still be reconciled. You have One whom you may satisfy, and He is willing.[16]

And further,

If you doubt, unravel the meaning of “what the Spirit saith to the churches.” He imputes to the Ephesians “forsaken love”; He reproaches the Thyatirenes with “fornication,” and “eating of things sacrificed to idols”; He accuses the Sardians of “works not full”; He censures the Pergamenes for teaching perverse things; He upbraids the Laodiceans for trusting to their riches. And yet He gives them all general admonitions to repentance—with warnings, it is true [Rev. 2:1 – 3:22]. But He would not utter warnings to someone unrepentant if He did not forgive the repentant one ... The heavens, and the angels who are there, are glad at a man’s repentance. Ho! you sinner, be of good cheer! you see where it is that there is joy at your return. ...

That most gentle father, likewise, I will not pass over in silence, who calls his prodigal son home, and willingly receives him repentant after his indigence, slays his best fatted calf, and graces his joy with a banquet. Why not? He had found the son whom he had lost; he had felt him to be all the dearer of whom he had made a gain. Who is that father to be understood by us to be? God, surely: for no one is so truly a Father; no one is so rich in paternal love. He, then, will receive you, His own son, back, even if you have squandered what you had received from Him, even if you return naked – just because you have returned. And He will rejoice more over your return than over the sobriety of the other.[17]

However, once he became a Montanist, the possibility of repentance for fornication and adultery is denied by Tertullian. Here is his reaction to the news that the Bishop of Rome—Bp. Zephyrinus at the time—had announced in his Church that the possibility of repentance for the sin of adultery would be granted by the Church:

I hear that there has even been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one, too. The Pontifex Maximus—that is, the bishop of bishops—issues an edict: “I remit, to such as have discharged (the requirements of) repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication.” O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, “Good deed!”

And where shall this liberality be posted? On the very spot, I suppose, on the very gates of the sensual appetites, beneath the very titles of the sensual appetites. There is the place for promulgating such repentance, where the delinquency itself shall haunt. There is the place to read the pardon ...

But it is in the Church that this (edict) is read, and in the Church that it is pronounced; and She is a virgin! Far, far from Christ’s betrothed be such a proclamation! She, the true, the modest, the saintly, shall be free from stain even of Her ears. She has none to whom to make such a promise. And if She had, She does not make it, since even the earthly temple of God can sooner have been called by the Lord a “den of robbers” than of adulterers and fornicators ...

We command excommunication for adulterers also and for fornicators, dooming them to pour forth tears barren of peace, and to regain from the Church no more return than the publication of their disgrace.[18]

In this same work On Modesty, Tertullian asserts that the parables of the lost sheep, the lost drachma, and the Prodigal Son all do not refer to Christians returning to Christ and being found by Him after grievously sinning after Baptism (chs. 7-9; pp. 80-83). He also bluntly states in this work that “the power of loosing and of binding committed to Peter had nothing to do with the capital sins of believers.”[19]


Concerning excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning fasting:

Tertullian the Montanist boasts about the “manful” way rigorist fasting is commanded among the Montanists, over against the laxity of those in the established Church, whom he asks rhetorically and sarcastically,

Men of soul and flesh alone as you are, naturally you reject spiritual things ... Why, then, do not you constantly preach, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die?” just as we do not hesitate manfully to command, “Let us fast, brethren and sisters, lest tomorrow perchance we die.”[20]

Concerning excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning the veiling of women:

Tertullian states, speaking as a Montanist,

Still, until very recently among us, either custom was, with comparative indifference, admitted to communion. The matter had been left to the choice of each virgin whether to veil herself or expose herself, as she might have chosen, just as (she had equal liberty) as to marrying ...

But when the power of discerning [i.e., the Montanist prophecies] began to advance, so that the license granted to either fashion was becoming the means whereby the indication of the better way emerged, immediately the great adversary of good things—and much more of good institutions—set to his own work. In opposition to the 'virgins of God,' the 'virgins of men' go about with their front quite bare, being excited to a rash audacity ...

If modesty, if bashfulness, if contempt of glory, if being eager to please God alone, are good things, let women who are scandalized by such good things learn to acknowledge their own evil ...

Every public exposure of an honorable virgin's flesh is, to her, the same as being raped.[21]

And he declares that married women should continue to wear the veil, and “not outgrow the discipline of the veil, not even for an hour.”[22]

Concerning excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning the adornment/attire of women:

In On the Apparel of Women, written in his Montanist period, Tertullian objects to Christian women wearing any dyed clothing, since God did not

order sheep to be born with purple and sky-blue fleeces! If He was able, then plainly He was unwilling to do so; and what God did not will of course should not be fashioned. Those things, then, are not the best by nature which are not from God, the Author of nature. Thus they are understood to be from the devil, from the corrupter of nature. For there is no other whose they can be, if they are not God’s, because what are not God’s must necessarily be His rival's.’[23]

In this same work, he says of jewels that since they are not used in the construction of houses, “The only edifice which they know how to build is this silly pride of women.”[24]

Concerning excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning fleeing in times of persecution:

Even though Jesus Himself said, concerning the time of great tribulation in the End Times, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains ... And pray that your flight may not be in winter (Matt. 24:16-20), for Tertullian the Montanist, true Christians will never flee in a time of persecution:

But it is said that the Lord, providing for the weakness of some of His people, in His kindness, suggested the haven of flight to them. For He [they think] was not able without offering flight – a protection so base, and unworthy, and servile—to preserve in persecution those whom He knew to be weak! Whereas in fact He does not cherish, but always rejects the weak, teaching first, not that we are to flee from our persecutors, but rather that we are not to fear them. Fear not them who are able to kill the body, but are unable to do anything against the soul; but fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell [Matt. 10:28].

And then what does He allot to the fearful? He who will value his life more than Me, is not worthy of Me; and he who takes not up his cross and follows Me, cannot be My disciple [cf. Matt. 10:38-39]. Last of all, in the Revelation, He does not propose flight to the “fearful,” but a miserable portion among the rest of the outcast, in the lake of brimstone and fire, which is the second death [cf. Rev. 21:8].[25]

Tertullian goes on to say in this treatise,

Paul bids us to support the weak, but most certainly it is not when they flee. For how can the absent be supported by you? By bearing with them? Well, he says that people must be supported, if anywhere they have committed a fault through the weakness of their faith, just as (he enjoins) that we should comfort the faint-hearted, but not to encourage them to run away ...   

He who bids us to shine as sons of light does not bid us to hide away out of sight as sons of darkness. He commands us to stand steadfast, certainly not to act the opposite part by fleeing; and to be girded [for battle], and not to play the fugitive or oppose the Gospel. He points out weapons, too, which persons who intend to run away would not require. And among these he notes the shield, too, that you may be able to quench the darts of the devil [Eph. 6:13-16], when doubtless you resist him, and sustain his assaults in their utmost force. Accordingly John also teaches that we must lay down our lives for the brethren [1 John 3:16]; much more, then, we must do it for the Lord. This cannot be fulfilled by those who flee ...

For indeed, it [the Montanist prophetic utterance] incites almost all to go and offer themselves in martyrdom, not to flee from it.[26]

Concerning excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning second marriages:

As a Montanist, Tertullian readily accepted their absolute prohibition of second marriages, thereby overturning the specific teaching of St. Paul who allowed for second marriage, especially for young widows with children (see 1 Cor. 7:8-9 and 39; 1 Tim. 5:14; cf. Rom. 7:3). As he states,

Christ abolished the commandment of Moses ... why then should not the Paraclete have cancelled the indulgence granted by Paul? ... 'Hardness of heart' [cf. Matt. 19:8] reigned until Christ's time; let 'infirmity of the flesh' [cf. Gal. 4:13] be content to have reigned until the time of the Paraclete. The New Law abrogated divorce ... the New Prophecy abrogates second marriage.[27]

Tertullian also writes, “accordingly, with the utmost strictness, we excommunicate digamists [i.e., those who have entered a second marriage], as bringing infamy upon the Paraclete by the irregularity of their discipline.”[28] In On Exhortation to Chastity, he calls second marriage “a species of fornication”[29] and “a species of inferior evil;”[30] and in On Monogamy he calls it “adultery.”[31] And in response to the charge that this mandate is too harsh, he accuses those in the established Church of a lack of willpower and a lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit—Who is now being poured out in extra strength—to help them abide by this new prohibition.[32]

According to William P. Le Saint,

In the Exhortation to Chastity his earlier counsel has already become an uncompromising demand, while in the work On Monogamy he speaks of all second marriage as adultery, and attacks, with savage violence, the ‘sensualists’ and ‘enemies of the Paraclete’ who justify it by appeals to Holy Scripture and especially to the authority of St. Paul. Thus, what should be a matter of personal preference or personal ideals is made a matter of conscience; ascetical is confused with moral theology, discipline with doctrine; and a way of life which in some circumstance is of value to some individuals becomes a strict and essential obligation imposed upon all Christians. It is well to remind ourselves that such warped and exaggerated views were not the views of the Catholics. These views were heretical errors and were condemned by the Church as heretical, along with similar excesses in the direction of an unnatural rigidity propounded by Marcionites, Manicheans, Priscillianists, and other avowed enemies of sex and marriage.[33]

Concerning a generally negative attitude towards the non-Orthodox (and towards those in the established Church):

The Montanist Tertullian accuses the women in the non-Montanist Church of

exhibiting in their gait the same appearance as the women of the nations, in whom the sense of true modesty is absent, because in those who know not God, the Guardian and Master of truth, there is nothing true. For if any modesty can be believed (to exist) among the Gentiles, it is plain that it must be imperfect and undisciplined to such a degree that, although it be actively tenacious in the mind up to a certain point, yet it allows itself to relax into licentious extravagances of attire in accordance with Gentile perversity (On the Apparel of Women, Bk. II, ch. 1; ANF IV, p. 18; my emphasis).

Concerning a generally negative attitude towards the world in general:

As a Montanist, Tertullian writes to Christians in prison about to be martyred:

Do not let this separation from the world alarm you; for if we reflect that the world is more really the prison, we shall see that you will have gone out of a prison rather than into one. The world has the greater darkness, blinding men’s hearts. The world imposes the more grievous fetters, binding men’s very souls. The world breathes out the worst impurities—human lusts. The world contains the larger number of criminals, even the whole human race.”[34]

Even before becoming a Montanist, Tertullian, was very critical of the non-Christian society around him, and its Greco-Roman philosophic and literary heritage. This attitude is clearly demonstrated in his famous rhetorical outburst, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”[35] As we also saw in Chapter Three, this is very different from the holistic, discerning approach of other Apologists such as St. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Minucius Felix (and Clement of Alexandria, and later, for example, of the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Photios the Great, St. Innocent of Alaska, and St. Nikolai [Velimirovich] of Serbia).

In this same passage in Prescription against Heresies, Tertullian says that all “heresies are instigated by philosophy,” and then he castigates Aristotle in particular:

Unhappy Aristotle! He invented dialectics for these philosophers—the art of building up and pulling down—an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh in its arguments, so productive of contentions, embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything and really treating of nothing! From where spring those “fables and endless genealogies” [1 Tim. 1:4] and “unprofitable questions” [Titus 3:9], and “words which spread like a cancer”? [2 Tim. 2:17] ... the Apostle Paul expressly names philosophy [as their source] [cf. Col. 2:8].[36]

Concerning the popular entertainments of his day, Tertullian's rigorist negative attitude is described by Roy J. Deferrari:

In view of Tertullian's uncompromising attitude toward everything that, in his opinion, was related to idolatry, it is hardly surprising that his treatise, On the Spectacles, contains an out-and-out indictment of the performances given in the circus, theater, stadium, and amphitheater, such entertainments being absolutely incompatible with the faith and moral discipline of Christianity.[37]

Deferrari also says that “in the treatise, The Chaplet, Tertullian declares unlawful not only military service, but also the acceptance of any public office.”[38]

Concerning a negative view of marriage and marital relations:

Tertullian strongly expresses the Montanists' sharply negative views concerning marriage and human sexuality in his work called On Monogamy, in which he absolutely forbids second marriage for any reason, as we saw above:

But (as for the question) whether monogamy [meaning only ever having one marriage] be “burdensome,” let the still shameless “infirmity of the flesh” look to that. Let us meantime come to an agreement as to whether it be “novel.” This (even) broader assertion we make: that even if the Paraclete had in this our day definitely prescribed virginity or continence to be total and absolute, so as not to permit the heat of the flesh to “foam itself down” even in single marriage, even then He would seem to be introducing nothing of “novelty”—seeing that the Lord Himself opens “the kingdoms of the heavens” to “eunuchs,” as being Himself, after all, a virgin. And seeing this, the apostle also—himself too for this reason remaining abstinent—gives the preference to continence [1 Cor. 7:8-9]. (“Yes”), you say, “but he still preserves the law of marriage.” Preserving it, plainly, and we will see under what limitations; nevertheless, he already destroys it, in so far as he gives the preference to continence. “Good,” he says, “(it is) for a man not to have contact with a woman” [1 Cor. 7:2]. It follows that it is evil to have contact with her; for nothing is contrary to good except evil. And accordingly (he says), “It remains, that both they who have wives so be as if they have not” [v. 29], that it may be the more binding on those who do not have wives to abstain from having them.”[39]

With similar invective Tertullian links marriage with fornication, as he claims that marital relations are inevitably tinged with concupiscence, in this passage from Exhortation to Chastity:

What is the thing which takes place in all men and women to produce marriage and fornication? Commixture of the flesh, of course—the concupiscence which the Lord made equal to fornication. “Then,” someone says, “are you now destroying first, that is, single marriage, too?” Not without reason, for it too consists of that which is the essence of fornication.[40]

Even when writing to his own wife, Tertullian can exclaim, “How far better it is neither to marry nor to burn!”[41] And in the same work, concerning the future life, he writes, “There will at that day be no resumption of voluptuous disgrace between us. No such frivolities, no such impurities, does God promise to His (servants).”[42]

Once again, we see that in his thinking on this topic as well, Tertullian was infected by his association with the Montanists, since before being influenced by them he had a distinctly more positive view of marriage and marital relations. For example, he clearly asserts in Against Marcion that marital relations do not by nature involve concupiscence:

concupiscence, however, is not ascribed to marriage even among the Gentiles, but to extravagant, unnatural, and enormous sins. The law of nature is opposed to luxury as well as to grossness and uncleanness; it does not forbid connubial intercourse, but only concupiscence; and it takes care of our vessel by the honorable estate of matrimony.[43]

Concerning a negative view of women

Tertullian the Montanist also succumbed to a negative view of women in general, linking each woman directly to Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden. He states that every woman should “go about in humble garb, and be drab in appearance, walking about like Eve, mourning and repentant, in order that by every bit of penitential clothing she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve—the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition.” He goes on to address each woman personally:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your deserved punishment—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and beyond your tunics of skins?[44]

The natural beauty of womanhood he sees preeminently as being dangerous for men to behold:

Even the real beauty of natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as equally dangerous to the glances of the beholder’s eyes.”[45]

And he goes on to say in this work,

because the use and fruit of beauty is voluptuousness ... [You may ask,] “May we not enjoy the praise of beauty alone, and glory in a bodily good?” Let whoever finds pleasure in “glorying in the flesh” see to that ... such exaltation [in the flesh] is incongruous for those who profess humility.”[46]

Concerning a negative view of children

With rigid consistency, Tertullian as a Montanist continues to rant against the natural rhythms of daily life, even though he himself was married!—in railing against the bearing and raising of children. For example, he exclaims, “No wise man would ever willingly have desired sons!”[47] In this same work he says sarcastically, “Marry we, therefore, daily. And marrying, let us be overtaken by the last day, like Sodom and Gomorrah—that day when the 'woe' pronounced over those who are with child and giving suck [Matt. 24:19] shall be fulfilled—that is, over the married and the incontinent; for from marriage result wombs, and breasts, and infants.”[48] And in On Monogamy, he says with great sarcasm, “Let them accumulate by their repeated marriages fruits exactly seasonable for the last times—breasts heaving, and wombs qualmish, and infants whimpering.”[49]

Very tellingly, in writing years earlier against the Gnostic Marcion, Tertullian wrote with great sensitivity and compassion about child-bearing and child-raising, as he addressed Marcion directly:

Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, heavy, troublesome, restless even in sleep, changeful in its feelings of dislike and desire. Inveigh now likewise against the shame itself of a woman in travail which, however, ought rather to be honored in consideration of that peril, or to be held sacred in respect of (the mystery of) nature. Of course, you are horrified also at the infant, which is brought into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb. You likewise, of course, loathe it even after it is washed, when it is dressed out in its swaddling-clothes, graced with repeated anointing, smiled on with the nurse’s fawning glances.   

This revered course of nature, you, O Marcion, (are pleased to) spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody? Yourself, of course, you had no love for, when you departed from the Church and the faith of Christ ... Well, then, in loving mankind He loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well ...

Our birth He reforms from death by a second birth from heaven; our flesh He restores from every harassing malady. When leprous, He cleanses it of the stain; when blind, He rekindles its light; when palsied, He renews its strength; when possessed with devils, He exorcises it; when dead, He reanimates it. So then, shall we blush to possess it? ... believing in a God Who has been born, and that of a virgin, and of a fleshly nature too, Who wallowed in all the before-mentioned humiliations of nature?[50]

Concerning an overemphasis on the End Times:

Undoubtedly, Tertullian's negative perspective on marriage, marital relations, child-bearing, and raising children was colored by the avid apocalypticism which characterized the Montanist movement—and which has been so typical of nearly every sectarian movement to this day. For if Christ's Second Coming is indeed expected to occur any day, why would one be thinking about having children?

Here is an example of his thinking concerning the imminent return of Christ and the resultant consequences for marriage, as he says sarcastically:

Let us marry daily, and in the midst of our marrying let us be overtaken, like Sodom and Gomorrah, by that day of fear! For there it was not only, of course, that they were dealing in marriage and merchandise; but also, when He says, “They were marrying and buying” [cf. Luke 17:26-30], He denounces the very leading vices of the flesh and of the world, which call men away the most from divine disciplines—the first through the pleasure of rioting, and the other though the greed of acquiring. And yet that “blindness” then was felt long before “the ends of the world.” What, then, will the case be if God now keep us from the vices which of old were detestable before Him? The time, says (the apostle), is compressed. It remains that they who have wives act as if they do not have them [1 Cor. 7:29].[51]

As he says in On Monogamy,

But now, when “the extremity of the times” has cancelled the command “to grow and multiply,” the Apostle Paul superimposes another command: It remains that they who have wives to be as if they do not have them,” because “the time is compressed.[52]

Furthermore, he refers to “Antichrist now close at hand, and gaping for the blood, not the money, of Christians.”[53] And also, with very little humility, he asserts, in reference to his own Montanist group,

We are they “upon whom the ends of the ages have met, having ended their course.” We have been predestined by God, before the world was, (to arise) in the extreme end of the times. And so we are trained by God for the purpose of chastising ... the world. We are the circumcision—spiritual and carnal—of all things; for both in the spirit and in the flesh we circumcise worldly principles.[54]

Concerning the tendency to divide into more, smaller groups:

There is some evidence that near the end of his life, Tertullian became disillusioned with the main body of Montanists, and broke away from them to form his own group, which became known as the Tertullianists. Again, such a pattern is quintessentially typical of the sectarian mind-set. But how ironic, tragic, poignant—and telling—it is that the “Founder of Latin theology” actually dies outside the Church, as a Montanist—or perhaps even as a Tertullianist—a member of a sectarian, schismatic group that was repeatedly condemned by the Church.

The Sectarian Mind-Set within Orthodoxy in Our Own Time

The ongoing allure of the sectarian mind-set is evident in the fact that within Orthodoxy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there continues to be noteworthy examples of this mind-set, including a certain strain within the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), and the Greek Old Calendarist Movement. Both movements emerged in the aftermath of World War I, with strong political motivation involved. The first one was dominated by a fiercely anti-Soviet position that favored the restoration of the Russian monarchy, and the second one was fueled in part by monarchist sentiment against the democratizing efforts of the Venizelists.

ROCOR was established to preserve a Russian Church free from the influence of the atheistic Communist government of the Soviet Union. Although administratively separated from its Mother Church in Moscow, ROCOR's official position remained one of hopeful anticipation of the day when communion would be re-established, although there grew up a strain that increasingly favored isolation, sometimes even denying the presence of grace in the other Orthodox jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the various Old Calendarists groups in Greece broke away from their Mother Church, with independent schismatic ecclesiastical structures of their own. And in varying ways and to varying degrees, each of these groups have been characterized by some, if not all, of the typical traits of the sectarian mind-set which we've identified in this chapter.

The sectarian mind-set of a sizable portion of ROCOR was clearly revealed after the reconciliation in 2007 of most of the ROCOR parishes with the Patriarchate of Moscow, as at least nine parishes or groups of parishes have refused to accept that reconciliation, and still abide in schism. And in Greece, the several Old Calendarist groups continue to abide in schism even from among themselves. One of them, the Matthewites, even claims that no other Orthodox body besides them has the saving grace of God.

So, may we all take to heart the vivid lessons that Tertullian and these modern movements give us concerning the dangers of the temptation to yield to the harsh, rigorist, judgmental, separatist, sectarian mind-set.

* * *

Dr. David's book Wisdom for Today from the Early Church: A Foundational Study is available for purchase from St. Tikhon's Monastery Press.

Dr. David Ford


[1] Tertullian, Apologetical Works, and Minucius Felix, Octavius, in the Fathers of the Church series, vol. 40 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950], p. viii; quoting Apology 50.12-13; my emphasis.

[2] ch. xx; Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, p. 252; my emphasis.

[3] ch. xxi; ANF III, pp. 252-253; my emphasis.

[4] cf. On Modesty, ch. 1; ANF IV, pp. 74-75.

[5] On Monogamy, ch. 14; Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers, p. 132; ANF IV, pp. 70-71; my emphasis.

[6] On Modesty, ch. 21; Bettenson, p. 133; ANF IV, pp. 99-100; my emphasis.

[7] On Modesty, ch. 21; Bettenson, p. 133; ANF IV, p. 99; my emphasis.

[8] From the Foreword, in Tertullian: Disciplinary, Moral and Ascetic Works, FC, vol. 40, pp. 9-10.

[9] On Modesty, ch. 1; ANF IV, p. 75; my emphasis.

[10] Against Praxeas, ch. 1; ANF III, pp. 597-598; my emphasis.

[11] On Monogamy, ch. 15; ANF IV, p. 71.

[12] On Repentance, ch. 4; ANF III, p. 659.

[13] On Repentance, ch. 12; ANF III, p. 666.

[14] On Baptism, ch. 20; ANF III, p. 679.

[15] On Patience, ch. 1; ANF III, p. 707; my emphasis.

[16] On Repentance, ch. 7; ANF III, p. 663; his emphasis.

[17] Ibid., my emphasis.

[18] On Modesty, ch. 1; ANF IV, p. 75; my emphasis.

[19] Ch. 21; p. 99; my emphasis.

[20] On Fasting, ch. 17; ANF IV, p. 114; my emphasis.

[21] On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 3; ANF IV, pp. 28-29.

[22] Ibid., ch. 17; p. 37.

[23] On the Apparel of Women, Bk. I, ch. 7; ANF IV, p. 17; his emphasis.

[24] Ibid., I.6; p. 16.

[25] On Flight in Time of Persecution, ch. 7; ANF IV, p. 120; FC 40, pp. 290-291; my emphasis.

[26] Ibid., ch. 9; ANF IV, p. 121; FC 40, pp. 292-294.

[27] On Monogamy, ch. 14; ANF IV, pp. 70-71.

[28] On Modesty, ch. 1; ANF IV, p. 75.

[29] Ch. 9; ANF IV, p. 55.

[30] Ch. 3; ANF IV, p. 52.

[31] Ch. 9; ANF IV, p. 66.

[32] Ibid., ch. 14; ANF IV, p. 71.

[33] Introduction to Tertullian: Treatises on Marriage and RemarriageAncient Christian Writers, vol. 13, p. 4.

[34] To the Martyrs, ch. 2; FC 40, pp. 19-20; my emphasis.

[35] Prescription against Heresies, ch. 7; ANF III, p. 246.

[36] Ibid.

[37] In the Foreword, FC 40, p. 8.

[38] Foreword, FC 40, p. 9.

[39] On Monogamy, ch. 3; ANF IV, p. 60; my emphasis.

[40] Ch. 12; ANF IV, p. 55; my emphasis.

[41] To His Wife, Bk. 1, ch. 3; ANF IV, p. 40; ACW 13, p. 13.

[42] To His Wife, I.1; ANF IV, p. 39; ACW 13, p. 10.

[43] V.15; ANF III, p. 462; my emphasis.

[44] On the Apparel of Women, Bk. I, ch. 1; ANF IV, p. 14; his emphasis.

[45] Ibid., II.2; ANF IV, p. 19.

[46] Ibid., II.3; p. 20.

[47] Exhortation to Chastity, ch. 12; ANF IV, p. 57.

[48] Ibid., ch. 9; p. 55.

[49] ch. 16; ANF IV, p. 72.

[50] On the Flesh of Christ, ch. 4; ANF III, 524; my emphasis.

[51] To His Wife, Bk. I, ch. 5; ANF IV, p. 42; my emphasis.

[52] ch. 7; ANF IV, p. 64; my emphasis.

[53] On Flight in Time of Persecution, ch. 12; ANF IV, p, 124.

[54] On the Apparel of Women, Bk. II, ch. 9; ANF IV, p. 23; my emphasis.

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Mark Citadel4/7/2016 2:35 pm
The aim should not be an ecumenicism of the here and now. We live in a black age where hostile forces aim to shatter our faith and our beloved Church! Instead, we should revitalize Orthodoxy where it is at its weakest. Address the internal problems, but keep channels open in the knowledge that when the current age passes, we will be looking at a very different world, one in which the Holy Spirit may move the East and West churches into alignment. I do think ecumenicism will happen, it has to happen, but it will only happen when Christ Himself wills it, and reveals the true path, which I of course believe is the Orthodox one. Who does not dream of a once more united Christendom?
Castrese Tipaldi3/14/2016 2:54 pm
There is no salvation outside the Church, indeed! Let's pray to the Lord that our hierarchs and shepherds will not leave Her, reneging the pristine Tradition they have received from the Apostles through the Holy Fathers by the love of God in Jesus Christ. Amen!
M. Edward3/7/2016 7:24 am
A good article with many valid points to consider, but if trying to squelch criticism of the upcoming meeting is the desire, I'm not sure that is wise. These are issues of great importance to the Church and need to be evaluated and not pre-judged. The history of Byzantium often shows the elected Patriarch going one way and the monks going another way. We should just not assume that the leaders in the Church are above any kind of action as well. Throughout the Church are problems of materialism, love of position perhaps, and priests with their own host of personal problems and issues. Those who have worked with the Russian Patriarch and local Bishops are also friends of the family and can tell in detail the state of things in various parts of the Church. I also, as and American know the ROCOR and OCA and appreciate both and find it a little bit much to lump the ROCOR as a fringe element-something that could be leveled at the OCA. Our priest in Florida went on an evangelical crusade with other Protestant groups because he missed that so much. This might be a bit too much. But to say that the whole Church just needs to not even think of saying anything or to lump them all together as schismatics even before the meeting happens, smacks of something very onerous. Why, the lack of caution? Very strange indeed.
Mike3/7/2016 6:08 am
Not a few also feel that the slightest critique of fr Schemmen is also heresy, so that goes both ways. And you make the argument too one sided as if this new meeting already took place and even the thought of criticism is for the fringe only. That is strange brother.
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