On the Presence of Dissent in the Church

Ambrose Andreano

The Orthodox Church must provide an unmolested space for individuals to wrestle with God (through doctrines, ecclesiastical politics, councils, etc). The idea that one can only be either ‘all in, no questions asked,’ or ‘all out,’ serves only to silence all honest inquiry. If someone happens to be wrong about something, the solution is not to brand them a heretic and kick them out, but to enter dialogue with them, pray together, and allow for the Spirit to work and have a place in the journey. We are all on a journey, and we are all at different stages of this journey, so we ought not act as if people are static rather than dynamic.

There is an account in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers where there was a disagreement among mutually respected parties on whether or not the Eucharist was truly the body and blood of Christ. They both decided to pray for a week asking God to unite them, and a vision united them:

This is what Abba Daniel, the Pharanite, said, ‘Our Father Abba Arsenius told us of an inhabitant of Scetis, of notable life and of simple faith; through his naivete he was deceived and said, “The bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol.” Two old men having learnt that he had uttered this saying, knowing that he was outstanding in his way of life, knew that he had not spoken through malice, but through simplicity. So they came to find him and said, “Father, we have heard a proposition contrary to the faith on the part of someone who says that the bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol.” The old man said, “It is I who have said that.” Then the old men exhorted him saying, “Do not hold this position, Father, but hold one in conformity with that which the catholic Church has given us. We believe, for our part, that the bread itself is the body of Christ and that the cup itself is his blood and this in all truth and not a symbol. But as in the beginning, God formed man in his image, taking the dust of the earth, without anyone being able to say that it is not the image of God, even though it is not seen to be so; thus it is with the bread of which he said that it is his body; and so we believe that it is really the body of Christ.” The old man said to them, “As long as I have not been persuaded by the thing itself, I shall not be fully convinced.” So they said, “Let us pray God about this mystery throughout the whole of this week and we believe that God will reveal it to us.” The old man received this saying with joy and he prayed in these words, “Lord, you know that it is not through malice that I do not believe and so that I may not err through ignorance, reveal this mystery to me, Lord Jesus Christ.” The old men returned to their cells and they also prayed God, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, reveal this mystery to the old man, that he may believe and not lose his reward.” God heard both the prayers. At the end of the week they came to church on Sunday and sat all three on the same mat, the old man in the middle. Then their eyes were opened and when the bread was placed on the holy table, there appeared as it were a little child to these three alone. And when the priest put out his hand to break the bread, behold an angel descended from heaven with a sword and poured the child’s blood into the chalice. When the priest cut the bread into small pieces, the angel also cut the child in pieces. When they drew near to receive the sacred elements the old man alone received a morsel of bloody flesh. Seeing this he was afraid and cried out, “Lord, I believe that this bread is your flesh and this chalice your blood.” Immediately the flesh, which he held in his hand, became bread, according to the mystery and he took it, giving thanks to God. Then the old men said to him, “God knows human nature and that man cannot eat raw flesh and that is why he has changed his body into bread and his blood into wine, for those who receive it in faith.” Then they gave thanks to God for the old man, because he had allowed him not to lose the reward of his labor. So all three returned with joy to their own cells.’ (The Sayings, 53-54)

One of the most important details to notice about this story is where it says, “knowing that he was outstanding in his way of life, knew that he had not spoken through malice, but through simplicity.” The two men acted charitably with the one who denied the real presence of the Eucharist. They knew he was a good man, acting faithfully to the best of his ability, who simply did not understand the real presence. This leads to a question: Why do we resort to contentious “heresy hunting,” name-calling, gossip, malicious accusations whenever we find disagreement on doctrine, instead of following the example of these monks (where both parties are strengthened in faith through prayer and love for one another)? Why do we see all dissent as an opportunity to be contentious and think the worst of others? As Origen said, of all the diseases of the soul, “contention” is the worst one. The contentious spirit is one of whom it is said “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” Through contentiousness, Origen says, every depraved deed is committed:

One should realize that one of the diseases of the soul, indeed the worst one, is contention. Through it heresies are born, through it schisms and all scandals in the churches are produced, so long as those who are prudent among themselves and wise in their own eyes defend, as law, whatever pleases them. (Commentary on Romans, Book 2, Ch. 6.)

Perfect love casts out fear, especially when that fear results in authoritarianism.

One might say, “that’s what the catechumenate is for.” However, this is not a valid argument, and for multiple reasons:

The typical catechesis given today is with regards to teaching a broad and general acceptance of things like Holy Traditions (ie: views on the Eucharist), Christological dogmas (ie: beliefs about the hypostasis of the Son) and its peripheral implications (ie: iconography). However, catechesis does not go into every single historical detail of every doctrine, council and synod, covering every topic, making every distinction between what constitutes theologoumenon (theological opinion), and having a back and forth over these things.

Cradle Orthodox Christians never formally become catechumens, having a catechesis that often involves sitting in on the same classes given to potential converts.

In other words, the vast majority of Orthodox Christians have not intentionally wrestled with the details and implications of a great many historical assertions. This also likely means that everyone is not actually on the same page with regards to most things. For example, do most Orthodox Christians know that original sin was affirmed at the Council of Jerusalem (1672)?

We believe Holy Baptism, which was instituted by the Lord, and is conferred in the name of the Holy Trinity, to be of the highest necessity. For without it none is able to be saved, as the Lord says, “Whoever is not born of water and of the Spirit, shall in no way enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.” {John 3:5Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)} And, therefore, baptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission. Which the Lord showed when he said, not of some only, but simply and absolutely, “Whoever is not born [again],” which is the same as saying, “All that after the coming of Christ the Savior would enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens must be regenerated.” And since infants are men, and as such need salvation, needing salvation they need also Baptism. And those that are not regenerated, since they have not received the remission of hereditary sin, are, of necessity, subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without Baptism be saved. So that even infants should, of necessity, be baptized. Moreover, infants are saved, as is said in Matthew; {Matthew 19:12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)} but he that is not baptized is not saved. And consequently even infants must of necessity be baptized. And in the Acts {Acts 8:12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available); 16:33Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)} it is said that the whole houses were baptized, and consequently the infants. To this the ancient Fathers also witness explicitly, and among them Dionysius in his Treatise concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; and Justin in his fifty-sixth Question, who says expressly, “And they are guaranteed the benefits of Baptism by the faith of those that bring them to Baptism.” And Augustine says that it is an Apostolic tradition, that children are saved through Baptism; and in another place, “The Church gives to babes the feet of others, that they may come; and the hearts of others, that they may believe; and the tongues of others, that they may promise;” and in another place, “Our mother, the Church, furnishes them with a particular heart.” (The Confession of Dositheus, Decree 16.)

The answer is, from what I can tell, “no.” Would most Orthodox Christians, when they become informed of this position and are made aware of the arguments for it, actually agree with it and say unbaptized babies cannot be saved? And what about the contradiction between this position in the abstract and the incarnated liturgical practices when an Orthodox mother miscarries her infant? Do we treat the deceased infant as if there is no hope? Surely we would not contradict the apostle Paul who says:

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. -1 Thessalonians 4:13

If these Orthodox Christians have a problem with this, what is the solution? Can the logic of the council be disputed? Can a faithful Orthodox Christian disagree with it? And if not, can there be conversation as to why the council is true? The only other option is to excommunicate what could amount to the majority of Orthodox Christians simply because they don’t want to send babies to hell. And if that’s the case, is this kind of Church even worth defending in the first place?

These are the kinds of questions, it seems to me, which must be engaged with decency and charity. One should not simply be harassed for asking these questions, or challenging the presuppositions with the intent of provoking a genuine and clarifying discussion.

It is my belief that it is not only possible to strike a balance between total unquestioning obedience and total rebellious anarchy, but that this is the space where the vast majority of the Church lives. None of us have a perfect obedience to Christ, the very Son of the living God, and yet we continue to share in the Eucharist. And yet some want to command, with threat of excommunication, a perfect obedience to church politics or a handful of deeply flawed bishops who argue with one another about where they ought to stand in a line. I would wonder if such people actually have children (knowing that no loving parent would kick their children out of the house simply because they do not have perfect obedience). Although, I suppose I should stop now, before I am once again accused of being “a Subversive” for afflicting the comfortable with difficult questions.

I find “chaotic good” to be a bit more accurate.

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