Ecumenism as Dialogue or Monologue? (Part Two: The Witness of Scripture)

Ecumenism as Dialogue or Monologue? (Part Two: The Witness of Scripture)

In the first part of this series, I offered an overview of the traditional Orthodox method for addressing non-Orthodox communities, highlighting two notable events in Church history.

In this essay, I’ll discuss the ecumenical method—that method of God’s covenant people interacting with those outside the covenantal body—as found in the Holy Scriptures.

Examples from the Old Testament

As one can imagine, while there are no direct examples of Old Testament ecumenical dialogues and monologues as we know them today, we can see clearly in various events some basic principles for addressing those outside the covenant community.

Cain and Abel and Their Two Different Offerings

We see as early as Cain and Abel (Gen 4:2b-16) – the first two sons of Adam and Eve – that God makes a distinction in the type of worship that he would accept. As may be familiar to the reader, we know that both Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice to God, the former of the fruit of the ground, the latter of the firstlings of his flock of sheep. As they were each making their respective offerings to the Lord, Moses writes that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” (Gen 4:4b-5a)

And what is Cain’s response?  Rather predictably, the firstborn of Adam, after carelessly offering his sacrifice and witnessing its divine rejection,1 adds jealousy and resentment to the original thoughtlessness of his offering: “So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” (Gen 4:5b).2 Rather than humbly accept God’s reproof for his sin in offering carelessly, Cain feeds his dark passion, stoking his own anger, most deeply at the Lord. Before he unleashes his anger, the Creator intervenes by questioning and challenging him to think about why he is wroth.

But in his blind hatred and murderous heart, the firstborn of Adam ignores the loving counsel of God, entices his brother on a pretext out to a lonely field, and there compounds his multiple vices with the ultimate earthly sin: murder—the first murder.

But beyond the rather straightforward narrative of the first murder in human history, what does this passage teach us about God’s attitude towards worship?:

First, that a covenant with God is always required for Him to accept human worship. We find this proto-covenant as far back as the sixth day of Creation, where the Creator reveals himself (Gen 1:26a); gives commands – to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, having dominion over the animal kingdom (Gen 1:26-28); cultivating the Garden of Paradise (Gen 2:15); eating and fasting regulations – all plants are good to eat, save the one Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:16-17); negative ethical sanctions for disobedience to the commands and regulations – death (Gen 2:17); community – the creation of a helper, Eve (Gen 2:18-24); blessings – placement in the Garden, all the other trees for food, a want for nothing, the light of glory in communion with the Creator.

Second, man is to offer his sacrifice of worship in accordance with the revealed covenant. In this account of Cain and Abel, we do not see God’s commandment for the pattern of worship, so we must assume that the two men learned the proper form of worship from their father Adam, who had passed it down to them.  After all, it was he – Adam – to whom the covenantal relationship had been directly given. One of the sons followed the Adamic worship tradition and was accepted, the other one did not and was rejected.

Thirdly, that covenant relationships have both external and internal signs and requirements. The Fathers, in commenting on this passage, mention both the outer form of Cain’s sacrifice (fruits vs. Abel’s flock) and his inner disposition while offering it (e.g., carelessness, anger, lack of a good will, etc).

Finally, that there is a tradition of worship that must be maintained for the righteous lineage of God fearers. This covenantal relationship between man and God is renewed when the sacrifice is offered by men according to God’s commands. And what is the negative sanction for offering incorrect worship?  Exile.  Adam and Eve had first experienced this exile from the Garden which would someday end in the ultimate exile: death.  And now, Cain, would be exiled from the covenantal people of God, the only ones to experience God personally: “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord.” (Gen 4:16a)

The Two Sons of Aaron: Nadab and Abihu

After the Exodus, Moses led the Jews across the Red Sea on dry ground, finally coming to Mount Sinai in the wilderness, whereupon, in the midst of flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, God revealed his glory and his law to Moses and to the people of Israel.  Beginning with the Two Tables of the Law given to Moses on the mount, God revealed a very extensive covenantal system of worship, ethics, dietary regulations, all containing blessings and curses for fidelity and unfaithfulness on the part of the people themselves.  In all, 613 statutes were given by God to Moses to regulate the social, political, and liturgical life of the Old Testament Jews.

In the early chapters of the book of Leviticus, we see very detailed and specific instructions by the Lord to Moses as to how the priesthood of Aaron and his tribe was to operate, how sacrifices were to be offered, and starting with chapter eight, Moses lays out the extensive divine commandments for the ordination of Aaron and his sons.

Leviticus 9 describes the actual ordination service of Aaron and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, with the following result:

Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting; and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat upon the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces. —Lev. 9:22–24

We are aware again of the positive results of divine worship performed properly and according to the command of God – blessing for the people, the manifestation of the glory of God, the people’s humble response, and, interestingly and similarly to the sacrifices of Cain and Abel in our previous story, fire from the Lord in heaven came down and consumed the sacrifice, thereby showing for all the divine acceptance of the offering.

Astoundingly, however, the two sons of Aaron immediately began to perform their sacerdotal service differently from the previously given commands of God:

Now Nadab and Abi′hu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. —Lev. 10:1–2

We note here the results of unacceptable worship: divine discipline and wrath in the form of fire, but instead of consuming the acceptable offering, it consumes the disobedient.  Instead of God’s glory and the people’s humility, divine wrath is poured out.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. —Lev. 10:3

Moses, the father of the covenant given here at Sinai, reminds the grieving father Aaron, that God’s judgment of his sons is just and that God means to display his holiness “among those who are near me” – that is, in the midst of the priesthood – and to show forth his glory to all the Israelites.

Here we see the first schismatics and heretics within the camp of Israel. Their offering of “unholy” – or strange or unauthorized – incense was a disobedient corruption of the divinely given commands concerning the priesthood, and by so doing, Moses intimates, they deny both the holiness of God and the holiness of the priesthood.

That we can rightfully see this event as analogous with our more current conception of schism and heresy, I offer two saints of the West in their commentary on this passage, the first explaining the failure of the inner disposition of Aaron’s sons, the second outlining the objective and sacerdotal failure:

This is not far from being a sign of our unhappy time, in which some who have attained positions as priests and teachers—merely to mention it is both distressing and sad enough—are consumed by the fire of heavenly vengeance because they prefer the fire of cupidity to the fire of heavenly love. Their eternal damnation was prefigured by the temporal death of Aaron’s sons.3

The same penalty awaits those who bring strange water to a false baptism. The censure and vengeance of God overtakes heretics who do, against the Church, what only the Church is allowed to do.4

Examples from the New Testament

The Great Commission

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” —Matt. 28:18–20

The new Lawgiver—from a different mount, and this time a God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ—sends his Apostles out into the whole earth, the “oikoumene”5. The “promised land” of Israel now expanded to cover the whole world, with his newly won authority.  Being in Christ, the Apostles possessed Christ’s authority, not just on earth – over matter, people, kings, and the environment – but in heaven – over heavenly realities and even the demonic realms.

With this authoritative power, the apostolic band was to go into the dark corners of the world, and preach the light of Christ, to wrestle against the dark powers of the spiritual places,6 to baptize those new followers into the Holy Trinity, teaching them to obey7 all that the new Lawgiver has commanded.

This unique and authoritative message came in the form of a covenant (“baptizing them”), revealing God (“all authority in heaven and on earth”; “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) with divine commands and ethical stipulations (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”), and containing blessings (“I am with you always, to the close of the age”).  Here there is a complete absence of equivalence for the other ‘belief systems’ of humanity.  The Apostles bring authoritative power—a great commission—to convert the nations from their false belief to the obedience of faith in Jesus Christ.

Pauline Epistles

As we move from the Gospel to the letters of St. Paul, we see the topic of schisms and heresies that arise within the Body of Christ—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—being addressed in terms more familiar.  Written towards the end of his life, Paul’s epistle to (Bishop) Titus was a brief offering of apostolic advice for his overseer on the island Crete.  The requirements for priestly ordination, the relationship between sound doctrine and good behavior, kindness with others, God’s grace in Holy Baptism, and the dealings with divisive men—these are the various subjects treated in Paul’s short letter.

Towards the end of this letter, the Apostle emphasizes the benefit of good works in the life of the Christian believer, contrasting that with the unprofitable nature of continued debate with schismatic and heretical people in the Church:

But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious8, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned. —Titus 3:9–11

Noting the danger for one expelled from the unity of the Church, St. Cyprian of Carthage reminds:

The church cannot be rent or divided against itself. It maintains the unity of a single, indivisible house . . . All who are to live and escape the destruction of the world must be gathered into one house alone, the church. If any of the gathered goes outside, that is, if anyone who once obtained grace in the church nevertheless abandons the church, his blood will be upon his head. He will have himself to blame for his damnation. The apostle Paul explains this, directing us to avoid a heretic as perverted, sinful and self-condemned.9

In his second epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle elaborates even further on the holiness that God wants his people to maintain, reiterating the uniqueness and separation required of the people of God.  In his famous passage, he writes:

Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Be′lial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will live in them and move among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch nothing unclean;
then I will welcome you,

and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.” —2 Cor. 6:14–18

Certainly, the most immediate application of this injunction is that of moral and spiritual purity, for the Apostle mentions “righteousness and iniquity” at the onset.  And this is often used in contemporary, Protestant, and fundamentalist quarters to persuade parishioners in avoiding marriages with unbelievers—and this is true enough.

But here, Paul elaborates by contrasting Christian believers—all members of the one Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–13)—with unbelievers in stark terms:  We are righteous in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21); unbelievers are iniquitous. We are light in the Lord (Eph 5:8); they are darkness. We (corporately) are the extension and presence of Christ; they are of the devil; of Belial. Our temple is indwelt by God; theirs is inhabited by idols.

Separation from unbelievers and their ways, that we voluntarily experience in light of the aforementioned realities, comes with great blessing. We experience God’s indwelling, his presence, his welcome, his Fatherhood, and our sonship and adoption in Christ. However, we should not limit the application of St. Paul’s exhortation here to mere moralizing.  Eighteenth century Athonite monk, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, sees in this passage a relevance not only to unbelievers in general, but also to heretical worship:

It behooves Orthodox Christians to shun heretics and the ceremonies and rites of heretics. They, i.e., heretics, ought rather to be criticized and admonished by Bishops and Presbyters, in the hope of their apprehending and returning from their error. For this reason the present Canon prescribes if any Bishop or Presbyter shall accept a heretics’ Baptism as correct and true, or any sacrifice offered by them, it is ordered that he be dropped. For what agreement hath Christ with the Devil? [O]r what portion hath the believer with an unbeliever? Those who accept the doings of heretics either themselves entertain similar views to theirs or at any rate they lack an eagerness to free them from their misbelief. For how can those who acquiesce in their religious ceremonies and rites criticize them with the view of persuading them to give up their cacodoxical and erroneous heresy?10

This uncompromising attitude, then—as we have seen from Cain, Abel, Nadab, and Abihu in the Old Testament, through the Great Commission and the Pauline letters in the New—is a biblical desire for the purity of the Orthodox Faith; for the sacraments, piety, the proclamation of God’s holiness among his priests; for a love shown towards both unbelievers and heretics, in order to convince them to abandon their erroneous beliefs and practices, with an aim to see them united to the Bride of Christ, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Show 10 footnotes

  1. St Ephrem the Syrian: “Abel was very discerning in his choice of offerings, whereas Cain showed no such discernment. Abel selected and offered the choicest of his firstborn and of his fat ones, while Cain either offered young grains or certain fruits that are found at the same time as the young grains. Even if his offering had been smaller than that of his brother, it would have been as acceptable as the offering of his brother, had he not brought it with such carelessness. They made their offerings alternately; one offered a lamb of his flock, the other the fruits of the earth. But because Cain had taken such little regard for the first offering that he offered, God refused to accept it in order to teach Cain how he was to make an offering. —Commentary on Genesis 3.2.1
  2. St Ephrem the Syrian: “Cain was angry because the offering of his brother had been accepted. Cain became angry on account of the fire that had come down and distinguished between the offerings. His face became gloomy because there was laughter in the eyes of his parents and his sisters when his offering was rejected. They had seen that Cain’s offering had been placed in the midst of the fire and yet the fire did not touch it. —Commentary on Genesis 3.3.3
  3. Venerable Bede, On the Tabernacle, 3.2
  4. St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Baptismal Controversy, 8
  5. Lit: “inhabited earth”; Gk: οἰκουμένη
  6. cf. St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 – “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
  7. cf. Rom. 1:5; 16:26 – “the obedience of faith”
  8. Lit: heretical, divisive
  9. Letters 69.4
  10. The Rudder, on Canon XLVI of the Holy Apostles, pg. 68