Orthodoxy Today
Making The Orthodox Church Smaller?

Maybe we should decrease the size of the Orthodox Church. Maybe I'm not even a member. At first words these words startle because they sound like a zealous secularist rather than a faithful church member. But the spirit behind them comes from none other than the great teacher of Orthodox Christianity, St. John Chrysostom.

Scholar Jaroslav Pelican (2001) describes Chrysostom's view on the undisciplined state of the Church in the late fourth century. Chrysostom lamented "the incursion of hordes of uncommitted new members in the Church and the breakdown of church discipline it presaged" — what today we would call nominal or "cafeteria" Christianity.

Nominal Christians flooded the Church during the reign of Emperor Theodosius after Constantine lifted the persecution against Christianity and made it the religion of the Empire. Imperial fiat conscripted citizens into the Church. Little care was given to their beliefs or morals.

Chrysostom objected to the policy:

For it is better to offer our accustomed prayers with two or three who keep the laws of God than to sweep together a multitude of transgressors and corruptors of others . . . For there is not, nay there is not, another life we may find free from all evils, but this alone. And you are witnesses who know the plots in king's courts and the troubles in the houses for the rich. But there was not among the apostles any such thing.

Contrast Chrysostom's complaint with the early years of the Church:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day-by-day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2: 41-47) .

Pelican continues with Chrysostom's reflection on the unruly lot that filled his parishes. "They shamelessly associate with all," "make awesome things contemptible" (referring to the Liturgy and sacraments), and "(during Liturgy) wander about and bring in on us turmoil of worldly business," Chrysostom wrote.

Chrysostom told his listeners that the liturgy should be celebrated behind closed doors and refused the inexperienced to attend, "(Not) for any weakness of which we have convicted our rites, but because the many are yet imperfectly prepared for them." He noted how the brash and undisciplined behavior of these new Christians contrasted with their silence and reverence when the letters from the Emperor were read in public theaters. Pelican concludes that Chrysostom attempted to hold the line against those who had "become Christians the easy way."

How much changed in the last 1700 hundred years? Would St. John Chrysostom feel at home in any modern Orthodox Church? Yes, unfortunately he would. It does not speak well of us.

Chrysostom's words compel us to examine our commitment to Christ and His Church. In modern psychology we call this process "values clarification."

First however, we need to heed a warning. The way values clarification works in practice is self-determining and devoid of any reference to God (Simon, Howe and Kirshenbaum, 1995). The Pontifical Council for the Family (1995) correctly notes, "One widely-used, but possibly harmful, approach goes by the name of 'values clarification.' Young people are encouraged to reflect upon, to clarify and to decide upon moral issues with the greatest degree of 'autonomy . . . '"

Orthodox Christians know that the Church Fathers describe self-directed autonomy as the sin of pride committed by our ancestral parents in Eden. Adam and Eve's desire for the knowledge of good and evil would make them gods unto themselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai stated, "We also know what fall Adam fell through pride" (Philokalia, III). St. Makarios of Egypt wrote, "Presumption is an abomination to the Lord, and it was this that originally expelled man from paradise when he heard the serpent say, 'You, will be like gods' (Genesis 3:5), and put his trust in vain hope" (Philokalia, III).

We need instead a kind of values clarification that is based on Christian truth. Two rules are needed to accomplish this. The first is a set of moral principles that will guide the outcome of any moral question, a lot like how the axioms of geometry work. For example, take the axiom that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Follow the logic and soon plane geometry comes into view. Moral reasoning can work in similar fashion.

We start with a principle. Take one we can call the "incarnational principle" for example. We draw the principle and meaning from scripture, particularly the visitation of Mary by the Archangel Gabriel:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her (Luke 1: 35,38).

At the time that the Holy Spirit "overshadowed" Mary, the Second Person of the Trinity became man by assuming human nature in a human body. Based on this principal we can draw concrete conclusions. For example, we can determine that abortion is immoral. The principle clarifies the value that we need to apply to unborn life.

Christian value clarification starts with the teachings of Christ and applies them to concrete situations. These values reference something beyond autonomous will and desire. They are not based on feeling, conjecture, or personal opinion. The process strives to be Christ centered.

But while the process eschews the autonomy associated with pride and other passions, it still remains subjective. This means that we have to understand and absorb the theology that informs moral reasoning. Moralistic value statements empty of any real meaning and pontifications void of any real understanding have no place here. Our commitment to Christ has to reside deep within us. It means living our lives in prayer, obedience to the commandment to love God and neighbor, and participation in the sacraments of the Church. Our goal is to move towards the Christianity of Acts rather than the Christianity of Constantine.

Who are to be the primary teachers of moral values? First the Apostles (" . . . we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" Acts 6:4); and second those ordained by them. In Orthodox practice this includes the Bishops and the priests they ordain. Bishops in particular are charged with protecting the integrity of the Gospel and the moral tradition that flows from it.

But the responsibility does not end there. The "Royal Priesthood," that is, the laity is also charged with a special ministry to teach, especially in their homes and with the people they encounter in everyday life. Olivier Clement (2003) wrote that the laity are "bearers of the Spirit" by virtue of their baptism and confirmation and likewise responsible for truth.

The second rule necessary in Christian based values clarification is derived from behavioral psychology. In scientific psychology it is called behavioral pinpointing and means that moral principles must apply to specific situations that people are likely to encounter; what is being said or done, and when or where it is said or done. Moral principles in other words, need a concrete context in order to be meaningful.

For example, in Acts we read that the early Christians gave what they owned to those in need with joyful and generous heart. What is the principle behind this? Agape (love) of the kind John described, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).

Once we grasp this process, we can apply it in concrete situations. It can also be beneficial in religious education because the model lends itself to "what if" exercises where moral quandaries can be contemplated before they occur.

So should the Church grow smaller? Not really. What it needs instead is growth in depth and commitment to Christ. Those who are authentic Christians — who live in Christ and the Spirit as St. Paul wrote - are the real guardians of Christian faith and morals. The Orthodox Christian life should be more lived more fully, deeply and profoundly so all who look at us can say "See how they love one another" (John 13:34). Clearer moral thinking will help us towards this goal.


Clement, O. (2003). You are Peter: An Orthodox theologian's reflection on the exercise of Papal Primacy. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting. Orthodox commentators. Retrieved January 25, 2006, from http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia: The complete text compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth: Vol.3. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

Pelican, J. (2001). Divine rhetoric: The Sermon on the Mount as message and as model in Augustine, Chrysostom, and Luther. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Rogers, C.R. (1973). Toward a modern approach to values: The valuing process in the mature person, In S.B. Simon, & H. Kirschenbaum, (Eds.), Readings in Values Clarification. Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press.

Simon, S.B., Howe, L.W. & Kirschenbaum, H. (1995). Values Clarification: A practical action directed workbook. NY: Times Warner.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: January 28, 2006

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