Fr. Srba has been serving the Church in Australia since 1983. He was Dean of the Serbian Orthodox St Stephen Church in Rooty Hill, NSW from 1994 to 2007, and is currently a member of the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate of Australia and New Zealand Executive Board.
Fr. Srba is the author of numerous Orthodox books and articles, including a history of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia and New Zealand.
The Orthodox understanding of the Church and of belonging to the Church is different from Catholic, Protestant, and other heterodox groups. Today, in the minds of the Orthodox people this distinction is fading, because our theologians, bishops and clergy rarely speak about it. Instead, the media increasingly report on various conferences, lectures, inter-religious meetings and engagements, making it known that “we should look for points that unite us, not the points that divide us” as “we have common problems, common challenges, as there are many more things that unite us than divide us.” These meetings and the ceremonies that accompany them send a message that “getting to know each other, living together in a multicultural and multi-religious society, as well as our co-operation would heal the wounds that divide us, that we have inflicted on each other through history.” Their position is clear: we will not through humbleness and repentance come to unity in truth and justice, but through learning from each other, friendship and cooperation we will reach “unity”. For this purpose, advocates of “unity” advise the Orthodox “not to close themselves off” and suggest that “it is better to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem”; however, they never specify exactly whose solution, and what problem.
Under the influence of these and similar ideas are those Orthodox who take care to keep apace with the world. Imitating Catholics and Protestants, and cooperating with them in modernism and ecumenism, some naively think that the ideas imposed by the West are in fact a “friendly helping hand”, and that our acceptance of these ideas will eventually bring about the Western economic standard together with its political and social systems. It is natural then, that they want to be mixed and merged with the heterodox wishing visible, administrative and jurisdictional unity with other religions and different faiths that they generously call “other Christians”. This ambitious desire of theirs, and their generosity at the expense of their faith and Church, they proclaim as Christian, ecumenical love.
In the same ecumenical spirit and collaborative mood, the Council of Crete issued its statement on “churches” and alleged “other Christians” struggling to explain how the Orthodox Church is supposed to accept “the historical name of other heterodox Christian churches and denominations that are not in communion with it”. This statement was issued despite many disagreements, warnings and decisions made before the Cretan Council, such as the unanimous decision of the hierarchy of the Church of Greece that heterodox communities in Conciliar texts can not be called ‘churchesʼ. The decision of the Greek Church hierarchy was simply ignored by the Cretan Council, just like everything else that was not in line with its decisions—which were set in advance.
On the other hand, Roman Catholics and so-called “Other Christians” have no problem with the name “churches”. In the spirit of global unity, the Pope welcomed the Cretan Council, sending to Patriarch Bartholomew a delegation with a special message that was read at the end of the Divine Liturgy in the Phanar. According to his own words the Pope has “confirmed the general desire for the restoration of the unity of Christians”, stressing the role of ecumenical dialogue, which “helps the Orthodox and Catholics to evaluate each other’s talents and cooperate in the preaching of the Gospel, to promote peace, human dignity, family values and care for our common home.” It was not specified which “Gospel” is to be preached—the one according to the Pope or the one known to us: the Gospel according to Jesus Christ?
The question of the true Church
What is the difference in the understanding of the Church and the Church affiliation between Orthodox and Roman Catholics? For other “Christians”, there is no clear and consistent teaching about it, so we will consider this particular difference, in hopes that the understanding of it will also make the other differences clearer.
The affiliation with the Roman Catholic “church” is perceived primarily as a notion of competence, a jurisdiction: spiritual, ecclesiastical, canonical and administrative, (which includes) the recognition of the Pope as “Peterʼs successor” and “Vicar of Christ”, as the chief, the supreme judge and high priest. For unity with that “church” it is enough that a community recognizes the Pope as its supreme authority in order to be an integral part of Roman Catholicism, over which the Bishop of Rome has full authority and jurisdiction.
Unlike the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church confesses the unity of faith and not the unity of the administrative jurisdiction. According to the Gospel of Christ, the Church is a correct and saving confession of faith in God. The question of true religion is the question of the true Church; ultimately it is a question of true religion, and not a matter of “right jurisdiction”. St Maximus the Confessor, when asked what jurisdiction he belonged to, testified what the Church professes from the beginning—that it was “God and Lord of all who said that the Catholic Church is a proper and saving confession of faith in Him!”
Bishop Athanasije (Jevtic) summarized: “The Roman Catholic norms and criteria for the Church and ecclesiality are not the same as the Orthodox because for them, the ‘supreme criterionʼ is The Pope and subordination to him and communion with him; and with us it is the Holy Spirit in the Church of Christ. Ultimately, the question of true faith is also the question of the true Church—that is, of the faith as God revealed the “Truth, the Way, and the Life.” (John 14: 6) When the envoys of the emperor and the patriarch came to St Maximus to convince him to agree to compromise on the heresy of Monothelitism, they asked Maximus: ‘What church jurisdiction do you belong to: Constantinople, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, or Jerusalem? Because all of these churches, with the dioceses that are under them, merged; so if you belong to the One Catholic Church, you too must unite!ʼ To this the Holy Confessor characteristically answered and reiterated in a letter to his student Anastasios: ‘The God and Lord of all said (‘απεφήνατο = expressed, ordered) that the Catholic Church is a proper (τήν ‘ορθήν = Orthodox) and saving confession of faith in Him, and that is why He called Peter the apostle blessed—because he had a good confession... and said that He is going to build the correct, right believing Church upon that which is confessed” (cf. Mt. 16: 16-18),
To the Roman Catholics, who have repeatedly, for a long time, and apparently even now, have listened to and heard this answer, it is not clear how the Orthodox can have the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and be its members without recognizing the Pope, and not be subordinate to “Peterʼs successor”. What kind of unity can there be without one leader and head!? Roman Catholics ask these and similar questions; although it is hard to believe that they do not know the answer and are so uninformed. It is possible that they do not want to hear, nor to know that the Orthodox have the one and only Leader and Head: our Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Hierarch, who is depicted as such—sitting on the throne in any Orthodox temple. For He Himself said: “Behold, I am with you always, even till the end of the world!” (Matt. 28: 20).
This response represents a double problem for Roman Catholics, because:
1) The Head of the Church is Christ and not the Pope
2) The unity of the Church and Her members, the Christians, can only be in Christ and not in a bishop, leader, hierarch—whether from Rome, Constantinople, or in any other man or institution of human provenance.
Legislative and executive power
From the very beginning, it was clear to the Apostles and Christians that the Church is the Body of Christ and that people are Her members: “Now ye are the body of Christ and members in particular.” (1 Cor. 12: 27) The body of Christ includes the Apostles, later the bishops and priests, and to this day all the faithful and all of the Church ranks—from patriarch to simple sacristan—because all ecclesiastical ranks are subordinate to Christ as members of His Body. The Bible says that the Lord our God according to the working of his mighty power which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at his own right hand in the heavenly places… far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1: 19-23). Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the Chief Corner Stone, in Whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord, in Whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph. 2: 19-22).
Not only the apostles and prophets, but every man who by faith and baptism follows after Christ, holds the faith of Christ, has the mind of Christ, becomes Christ-minded, only then becomes a child of God by the grace that Christ grants it. St. Justin (Popovic) testifies this in his works: “In becoming man and founding the Church by Himself and to Himself and in Himself, the Lord Christ as the God-man immensely exalted man. He not only saved man from sin, death and hell, but also raised Him above all the heavens, and over all the creatures and substances. The Pan-mystery of man in the Pan-mystery of the God-man, Who is the Church, and yet the body of the Church and the Head of the Church... A man—coexisting in the God-man body of Christ—the Church, the most sacred and dearest secret of God, the mystery of mysteries, and mystery above all mysteries. The Church is the God-man Christ extended through the ages and through all eternity; but also, the Church is the man—extended by the God-man Christ throughout the centuries and through all eternity.” Therefore Fr. Justin warns: “Let us be in awe of our Head, let us think of whose Head we are the body!”
It is the head that controls the body, and not the body the head. Thus the Lord reserves all legislative and governing authority in all matters of faith exclusively for Himself. To people who are communicants of the Body of Christ (= Church), the Lord gave only the executive power in matters of faith—but not the legislative.
On the other hand, the Pope confused his administrative legislature of human arrangements and turned it into—and expanded it over—matters of faith. Therefore, the Orthodox rejected the Pope, because they are not, and do not want to be the Pope’s body, but the Body of Christ! Do not obey a man—the Pope—but the One Who hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him (Christ) to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1: 23).
Bishop Irinej of Bachka witnesses to this in his dissertation, “Dialogue according to St. Mark of Ephesus”, where it reads: “Since the head of the Body (=the Church) is Christ, the Incarnate Logos of God and Hypostatic Truth of God, so the foundation and basis of unity and uniqueness of the Church is Orthodoxy, the right faith, the Truth. Christ, the Church, and Orthodoxy are synonymous. Therefore St. Mark in his reply to Manuel Kaleki, who attacked the Orthodox Church because it allegedly contradicted itself during different periods, says: ‘What then? Shall we wrap in wool those divine councils, and then drive them off into the desert because in the same Church on the same matter a contrary opinion was disclosed before them? Or shall we think that the Church is always one and the same—not according to the places but to the character of orthodox thinking, according to which the Church throughout the whole the universe is called the One Catholic and Apostolic Church? Or the ‘corrupters’, who at times penetrate into the Church, according to the apostles’ prophecy—don’t we reckon them as not being the fullness of the Church, or even pastors and teachers, but rather see them as angry wolves who do not spare the flock?ʼ Accordingly, all who separate themselves from the unity of the Catholic faith of the Church therefore also separate themselves from the Church; and these are the heretics—they fall away from the Church, they are outside of Her, but the Church remains One and Holy. The Church however remains wounded and damaged by the loss and waste of Her former dear children, but no less complete, and no less Catholic and universal than before. For St Mark and for the Church in general, ‘under the laws against heretics, a heretic is anyone who succumbs to the slightest deviation from the true faith’. According to St. Mark, heretics of various types are ‘counterfeiters of the divine dogmasʼ—and their common characteristic is that they, to their own hand, misinterpret the holy theologians and Church Fathers.”
Why are we disunited?
Bishop Irinej also testifies to this in the aforementioned dissertation on St Mark: “Not just today at the time of so-called ‘Ecumenismʼ but at the time of St Mark there were people who believed that Western Christians only ‘differently formulate’ the truths of God given faith; thus they do not make mistakes in the faith and therefore, are not heretics. But here is what St Mark says about that: ‘Some say that we have never viewed the Latins as heretics, but only as schismatics!’ Those who say this have taken it from the Latins themselves; because they call us schismatics—for they do not have anything to complain about in our faith; therefore they complain that we have not been obedient to them—which in their view, we were required to be.ʼ St Mark adds: ‘We first separated from them; that is, we separated ourselves from them—we cut them off from the common Body, the Church. Why, tell me? Is it because they have true faith, or because they have properly asserted a supplement (to the Creed)? Who could say so, unless he had a strong concussion? No, but we cut them off because they think inappropriate and impious matters, and because they unjustifiably inserted that annexation. That is why we turned away from them as from heretics, and therefore we are separated from them.ʼ Later St Mark writes, ‘If the Latins do not in any way err from the true faith, then we have, it seems, vainly rejected them from ourselves; and if they have gone astray in the theology on the Holy Spirit (and blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the worst of all the dangers), then they are heretics, and as heretics we cut them off.” Catholics, Protestants of various types and other heterodox faiths that are not in communion with the Church cannot be called ‘churchesʼ.
Alas, what are we seeing today from some people? Exactly the opposite. At the time when certain local Orthodox Churches became “an integral part of the World Council of Churches”, in their publications, in relation to Catholic and other heterodox, the term “church” with a small “c” initially timidly appeared. The explanation was that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is written with a capital “C”, unlike the others, whom we do not recognize as churches, and so we use the lower case “c”. During the last decade or so, the press of our Serbian Orthodox Church is writing about the Catholics and Protestant “churches” with a capital “C”. Then came the Cretan Council, which issued a statement—a decision on “churches” in the plural, of course with a small “c”. A capital “C” will probably be written when these “Cretan churches” are discussed in the singular. Itʼs their “historical name”, for Godʼs sake, same as the names of “other heterodox Christian churches and denominations that are not in communion with the Church”!?! I suppose, a normal person would only marvel at these Cretan explanations!
Should we therefore speak the truth, or we would we do better to flatter? Do we want to be honest, or shall we juggle and manipulate the words? Whose spiritual children will we be, and who will be our spiritual father: Niccolo Machiavelli or St Sava Nemanjić?
“Christʼs Church has once and for all determined its attitude towards heretics—and heretics are all who are non-Orthodox—according to the Apostles and the fathers, through God-revealed Sacred Tradition, unique and unchangeable. According to this stance, the Orthodox are prohibited to have any prayerful communion and fellowship with heretics. Rule 45 of The Apostolic Canons says: ‘Let a bishop, or presbyter, or deacon who has only prayed with heretics be excommunicated; but if he has permitted them to perform any clerical office, let him be deposed.ʼ This sacred canon of the Holy Apostles does not specify what kind of worship, but forbids any common prayer with the heretics, even individual (συνευξάμενος). Do we not see something even more extreme at the common ecumenical prayers?”
But, alas! More and more of those who fear the consequences of offending cunning enemies make compromises in order to preserve their peace, work, position, benefits, rank... But no one has the right to modify faith and dissipate the Church on the pretext that his life is threatened! However, they are afraid to hold to the truth and be honest, thinking that the truth is not worth it, and that honesty is a kind of weakness—but the holy apostle Paul says to us: God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind! (2 Tim. 1: 7). And St. Justin (Popovic) of Celije warns: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5: 29). “This is the soul, the heart of the Orthodox Church; It is its Gospel, its All-Gospel. The Church lives and works by it, and exists because of it. This is its immortality and eternity; this is its eternal value: obey God rather than people—this is its principle above all principles, the holy of holies, the measure of all criteria. It is the entire Gospel. This is the essence of all sacred dogma, and all the holy canons of the Orthodox Church. There, at the cost of all costs, on behalf of the Church there must not be any concessions made to any political regimes, or any compromises with people or with demons!”
Council of the confused
So, some sincerely believe that the Cretan Council was a “Wolves Council”. By all accounts it looks like there were wolves involved in its organization, especially behind the scenes. But as for the meeting itself, it looks like this was only a Council of the confused. Or maybe someone thinks that rank is a guarantee against confusion? Confused are all those who take this world and earthly powers more seriously than the God-revealed Holy Orthodox Faith and the Church, more than the words of Scripture and the Holy Fathers. Because “Her attitude towards heretics—and the heretics are all who are non-Orthodox—Christʼs Church has once and for all determined by the Apostles and the Fathers, through God-revealed Sacred Tradition, unique and unchangeable... These and, in this respect, all other rules of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers are applicable not only to ancient times, but are likewise fully applicable to all of us, modern-day Orthodox Christians. Undoubtedly they are applicable to our attitude toward Roman Catholics and Protestants; because Roman Catholicism is a manifold heresy, and of Protestantism it is better not to speak. Even St Sava in his time, seven and a half centuries ago, called the Roman Catholic church the ‘Latin heresyʼ. And how many more new dogmas have the Popes invented since then and infallibly proclaimed them as ‘truthsʼ!”
Where is the confusion? In the non-discernment of spirits, ignorance and misunderstanding of the Gospel of Christ, the Church and Christianity. People think God blesses even good works and intentions that are contrary to the Gospel. However we know, we are told that He will not, because there is a difference between the work of faith and human labor. The Lord asks of us the works of faith, and not the works of our fallen nature, our diplomatic wisdom. The foundation and the cornerstone on which the Church stands are not some kind of human good intentions, but the God-man Christ, the God-revealed Word that we know by the Spirit of faith according to the Gospel of Christ, and according to the words and deeds of the Fathers. In the words of Holy Scripture: The thoughts of mortal men are miserable, and our devices are but uncertain (Wisdom of Solomon 9: 14).
The Church cannot be built upon some inter-religious and ecumenical agreements, the decisions of various conferences and symposiums, or theological conclusions, because Christ is the source of truth, and we need to learn to stay within the limits that the Lord has set for us, for without these boundaries we are not Christians. For “Friends of God” are those who preserve the laws of that friendship and teach them to others. If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in His love (John 15:10). St Ignatius Brianchaninov laments: “You say, ‘Heretics are also Christians.ʼ Where did you get this? The Orthodox Church has always considered heresy a mortal sin, always realized that a man infected with the terrible disease of heresy is dead in his soul, separated from grace and salvation, and that he is in communion with the devil and his destruction. Heresy is a sin of the mind. Heresy is a sin more diabolical than human; it is the daughter of the devil, his invention, opprobrium close to idolatry. Fathers usually called idolatry unbelief, and heresy—evil-belief!”
Heresy therefore kills the soul for eternity! “Let me give you an example here. Let us imagine that a woman’s husband has fallen ill with tuberculosis, but he does not consider it a dangerous disease, and looks at his symptoms as the individual characteristics of man. He moves around the apartment, plays with the children, coughing here and there, while refusing to be treated. The woman takes the children and leaves him, saying that they cannot be together until he has been cured. Our understanding of this woman’s behaviour depends on whether or not we recognize TB as a deadly disease. If we do, then this woman behaved this way towards her husband because she wants to encourage him to be aware of the seriousness of the situation, and to get treatment. But if we believe that there is no such thing as tuberculosis, or that TB is in no way harmful to health, then this woman’s behaviour seems inappropriate, even bordering on mental illness. It is the same with the history of the Church.”
“If the Church appears to be ‘Oneʼ in the creed and the self-awareness of the Orthodox Church (Point 1 in releases from Crete), then how can we simultaneously talk of some other “Christian churches”? The Orthodox Church cannot accept any “historical names” nor any “other heterodox Christian churches and denominations that are not in communion with her”—as churches amongst the rest—for the same historical reasons: the Church has never in history accepted any idea of the existence of many churches. The gathering of the patriarchs in Crete issued a confusing and contradictory statement with which the bishops accompanying them did not agree, neither did all the local Orthodox Churches, much less all the clergy, monastics and Orthodox people.
Let us conclude with the words of St. Mark: “All fathers and teachers of the Church, all of the councils and all the Divine Scriptures teach us to flee from those who believe otherwise, to depart from communion with them. So do I now despise all of these fathers and councils who follow those who under the guise of a false peace call us to unite with those who ruined the sacred and divine Creed... Do not let it happen to me, O Gentle Comforter, that I should ever step away from Thee, the sound mind and sound faith, but let me always keep Thy teaching and that of the blessed men inspired by Thee, and that I may join my Fathers, taking with me from earth to heaven, if nothing else, the true faith (την Ευσεβειαν = Orthodox).”