Receiving Converts into the Orthodox Church

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The method by which the Orthodox Church receives converts is a very controversial topic, and one which has provoked much online discussion. Should a convert be received by baptism, by chrismation alone, or perhaps simply after a recantation of previously-held errors? All three methods have been used in the past. And which groups should be received in which ways? Should the Oriental Orthodox (such as Copts and Armenians) be received in the same way as Pentecostals? What about Roman Catholics? The issue is far from clear, and has usually generated much more heat than light.

Obviously the issue cannot be settled here in a blog post by a single writer. But I would like to make a tiny point about an elephant in the room, one that is often overlooked—as elephants in a room usually are.

Fr. Alkiviadis C. Calivas has an excellent review of the history of how the Orthodox Church has received converts in his essay “Receiving Converts into the Orthodox Church: Lessons from the Canonical and Liturgical Tradition” in his 2018 book The Liturgy in Dialogue. In this essay he abundantly demonstrates that the rigorist views of St. Cyprian (d. 258), and of the local synods of Carthage (held in 255 and 256) were not followed by the Orthodox Church in the succeeding years and centuries. Rather, the Church followed the lead of men such as St. Basil, who in his famous Letter to Amphilochius opined that different groups should be received in different ways, according to their proximity to Orthodoxy.

Thus groups that were very different from the Orthodox Church (such as the Gnostic Valentinians) were to be received by baptism. Groups that had separated from Orthodoxy “for ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual resolution” (such as the Cathari or the “purists”) were to be received by chrismation alone “on the ground that they still belonged to the Church”. Groups that were a part of the Church but were led by insubordinate clergy rebelling against their bishop (in Basil’s words, those “who assembled in illegal congregations”) could be received back simply through their expressed repentance.

This nuanced and discerning view about there being gradations of separation from the Church was followed by Church councils. The regional Council of Laodicea (held in the fourth century) decreed in canon 7 that groups such as the Novatians, Photinians, and Quartodecimans should be received by chrismation alone.

The Quinisext Council (or the Council in Trullo) decreed the same sort of thing. In its 95th canon, it repeated canon 7 of the Council of Laodicea almost verbatim, while adding the names of other groups to the list. Thus it declared that Paulianists must be rebaptized, while Cathari and Apollinarians should be received by chrismation.

It seems clear then that the later Church simply rejected the view of Cyprian and his African compatriots that outside the Church was undifferentiated darkness and that all non-Orthodox persons must be received by baptism. Certain groups, labelled as “schismatics” rather than “heretics”, (in the words of St. Basil) “still belonged to the Church” even though they existed in a state of separation from the Church. I suggest that this “belonging to the Church” means that some grace was still found among them, even though this grace could not function as it should have as long as they remained in a state of schism and separation.

By saying that grace can be found among schismatics today, I am distinguishing between the heretical groups of the past (which intentionally rejected Orthodoxy) and modern Protestants (whose original quarrel was not so much with Orthodoxy as it was with the medieval papacy). That is, I am saying that it is not legitimate to equate a Presbyterian with an Arian or a Donatist. That means, I further suggest, that it is possible for devout conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics to be saved, to experience Christ’s transforming power, and to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. It does not necessarily mean that those denominations are therefore a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And it does not necessarily mean that their baptism should be accepted. The authenticity of a sacrament is a different question entirely.

For example, to the best of my knowledge no one has declared that no grace came through my ordained ministry in the Anglican Church, but yet I was still (quite properly) re-ordained in Orthodoxy. Saying that God used my ordination in Anglicanism as a vehicle for His grace therefore did not imply that the ordination was somehow “valid” in Orthodoxy or that the Orthodox Church should accept that I was a priest and not ordain me again. The question of God’s generosity and of His grace given even to humble souls in schism does not predetermine the different question of whether or not schismatic sacraments should be accepted.

On what basis should decisions be made regarding how to receive former schismatics into the Church? Some would suggest: on the basis on the schismatics’ use of water for baptism and the correct baptismal formula, as well as their holding a Trinitarian theology.

This seems to be the general view of the British Antiochian Church, which recently issued a very useful policy statement and summary of the Church’s historical praxis in a document issued January 9, 2024. The document recognizes that some “progressive” Protestant churches have altered the baptismal formula from “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to a “more inclusive” formula such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” and on the basis of this alteration the policy statement rejects their baptism. As well as the correct formula, the schismatic group must also be Trinitarian to have their baptism accepted, and so the baptism of such non-Trinitarian groups as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, and Christadelphians is rejected.

The decision to base acceptance of a group’s baptism on correct baptismal formula and acceptance of the Trinity is, admittedly, in keeping with the praxis of the early church. That is why (for example) the 1667 Council of Moscow decided to accept the baptism of converting Roman Catholics and receive them by chrismation alone. But the times, they are a’changing, and the Christian ecumenical landscape now looks very different than it did in 1667—or even 1967.

That being so, we must compare the schismatics of earlier times with schismatics now.

In the days of the early Church there was a tremendous amount of common ground between the schismatics and the Orthodox. Indeed, in the cases of the Donatists, there was no difference at all between them apart from their opinion about the legitimacy of a certain bishop’s ordained status. Their views on such currently controversial matters as sexuality, morality, the authority of Scripture, and sacraments were identical.

A quick glance around at the Protestant denominations of today will tell anyone that this is not now the case. The elephant in the ecumenical room is that of liberalism—and in the case of Evangelical groups, the elephant of anti-sacramentalism.

Take first, for example, the Episcopalians or (here in Canada) the United Church. In these groups the authority of Scripture, uncontested in the past, has been definitively rejected, whatever lip-service might still be paid to it. These groups also openly defend abortion, endorse homosexual lifestyle and marry homosexuals. They are hardly alone: although such topics are still subject to debate within these groups, the mainline Protestant denominations have largely signed on to the secular understanding of abortion, sexuality, and gender.

One must also next look at the Evangelicals—admittedly a big tent, containing many sub-groups and many diverse opinions. Despite this diversity however, they almost all hold to an anti-sacramentalism which denies the regenerative power of baptism and its ability to bestow the remission of sins—an anti-sacramentalism which also denies that the Eucharist is the sacrificial rite in which we receive the true Body and Blood of Christ. Indeed, in many places, the minister while officiating at baptism or the Lord’s Supper makes explicit their rejection of these teachings.

My only point in focusing upon such liberalism and anti-sacramentalism is that these things make the modern schismatics dramatically different from the old schismatics considered by St. Basil and the ancient councils. The ancient Church would have received the Cathari convert by chrismation alone, for apart from a rigorism that refused forgiveness to those who lapsed or the possibility of a second marriage (thus St. Epiphanius in his Panarion), the Cathari were more or less indistinguishable in their faith and praxis from the Orthodox.

But what if the Cathari (as per impossibile) accepted and defended abortion and homosexuality, or denied the efficacy of the sacraments? Is there any doubt that these divergences would have caused the Church to receive Cathari converts by baptism? If divergences such as their refusal to tolerate a second marriage were sufficient to alienate them from the Church, how much more these other divergences from the Church’s praxis and faith?

The recent Antiochian policy statement admits that ancient groups such as Gnostics, Modalists and Arian extremists were problematic despite their use of the correct baptismal formula because “the theology of these groups was such that the Church could not recognize anything within it that it could embrace”.

Indeed. I therefore suggest that modern groups which openly embrace abortion, homosexuality, and transgender, and which further allow their clergy to deny the basic tenets of the Faith such as the divinity of Christ also have a theology which the Church cannot recognize or embrace. The same goes for Evangelical groups which embrace an anti-sacramentalism and repudiate such basic Orthodox piety as Marian devotion and recourse to the prayers of the saints. We should receive such converts by baptism—not because (as some say) “there is no grace outside of the Orthodox Church”, but because these groups have embraced a faith and praxis so foreign to Orthodoxy that we cannot discern our own baptism or faith in theirs.

In this matter, we still side with St. Basil over St. Cyprian. But St. Basil never met a Christian schismatic who was a lesbian bishop, or one who denied the regenerative power of baptism. If he did, after perhaps becoming a bit apoplectic, he would have received converts from that group by baptism. I believe that it is in his footsteps that we should follow today.

One final (and hopefully unnecessary word): to suggest that all such Protestant converts should be received by baptism does not at all mean that those who were received by chrismation alone were received improperly and that their chrismation must now be “remedied” by any “corrective baptism”. God’s generosity overcomes such things, and the divine grace fills up whatever is lacking. If you’re “in” by chrismation alone, you’re in. We must eschew a sacramental legalism which would give insufficient room for the boundless grace of God.

Polycarp6/28/2024 10:42 pm
Great article Fr Lawrence. In few and direct words, you have hit the mark and your reasoning makes sense to me. To clarify and continue your discussion, how would you suggest we receive converts from: Roman Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodox (Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian/Eritrean, Armenian)and the Church of the East (and Ancient Church of the East)?
Panagiotis6/28/2024 5:41 am
Thank you very much Father Lawrence. This article is very well written and documented. But more importantly, it is the truth. We warmly welcome all converts to The True Church of Jesus Christ, which is The Holy Orthodox Church, The Original Church. But if they come from a "church" that has been infested with no good liberalism, then they should be baptized. If they come from a "church" that condones defile sodomy, abortion, feminism, the mentally sick transgender nonsense, Etc, then they should be baptized. Also, although it was not addressed in this article, the converts should be thoroughly educated in the Conservative Orthodox Faith, so they do not bring any remnants of no good liberal beliefs and customs into our Church, which could plant seeds of doubt and sin among Orthodox. All glory to our True God Jesus Christ. Just my humble opinion.
Court6/27/2024 7:08 am
Father Lawrence Farley, great article and you mentioned it being hopefully unnecessary but I greatly appreciated the last point you made. Coming from a non-sacramental Protestant background but I was baptized Trinitarian, I was received into the Orthodox faith through chrismation. With some of the things circulating on the Orthodox internet it did cause me to question at a point if how I was received was valid. My priest did a great job dealing with that question when I asked him but I must admit seeing it written here, it just is a nice reminder.
Paul Bartlett6/26/2024 11:08 pm
As an infant in the 1940s, I received a Protestant "christening." As a young adult, I entered the Roman Catholic church, and due to a doubt I was "conditionally baptized" in a ritual that consisted of pouring a little water across the forehead. In 1974 I entered Holy Orthodoxy (in ROCOR) and was absolutely baptized by triple immersion. I have no regrets or hesitations about that Mystery. I myself, as a simple layman, was satisfied that heterodox "baptisms" were so questionable, that I took Orthodox Baptism pretty much for granted.
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