Reception of Non-Orthodox Christians in the Practice of the Russian Church

The Orthodox Church is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. As a pillar and ground of the truth (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), which preserves the fullness of Orthodoxy, our Church is destined to be the Ark of Noah, in which humankind can be saved. Many people who believe in Christ enter into this ark of salvation. However, there are Christians who have already come to believe in Jesus and perceive themselves to be baptized, but who are not Orthodox. According to Holy Apostle Paul, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” (1 Corinthians 12:3). There are Christians who confess Jesus as the Lord, and therefore have the birthmarks of the Holy Spirit, but do not visibly belong to the Church. How does the Orthodox Church, in particular the Russian Church, receive such Christians into the fold?

1. The Sacrament of Baptism. All those who believe in Christ join the Church through baptism. This includes all those who weren’t Christians at all, namely atheists, agnostics, members of other religions and philosophies such as Muslims, Judaists, Buddhists, Hindus, and so on. Believers in Christ whose dogmatic teaching is very different from the Orthodox doctrine must also be baptized. For instance, those who do not accept the Trinitarian dogma, as well as those who perform the Baptism of Christ incorrectly. Thus, the Orthodox Church does not recognize baptism not in the Name of the Holy Trinity or a baptism by means of a single sprinkling or immersion in water. Among those received into the Orthodox Church by means of the Sacrament of Baptism are Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not believe in the Holy Trinity, as well as those Christians who perform baptism in the manner described above.

2. Chrismation. Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity and whose dogmatic teaching is more or less sound and concordant with or approaching Orthodoxy in its basic tenets are received by chrismation. The baptism of such Christian denominations is recognized as valid, and if anyone accepts the true faith, they should be allowed to enter the Church not by means of Baptism but by anointing with the Holy Chrism. The reception of Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, the future Holy Martyr Elisabeth, is a striking example of such an admission to the Orthodox Church. Being a Lutheran, she became convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy and was received through chrismation. It is common practice in the Russian Church to receive converts from the Old Rite, who do not have their own hierarchy, as well as Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and non-canonical Orthodox groups through Holy Chrismation. The Catholics are also received through chrismation if they haven’t received confirmation (the analog of chrismation).

3. Confession. Christians who adhere to all the Seven Sacraments of the Church, but who have separated themselves from the Orthodox Church for some dogmatic reasons – for example, by introducing new customs and teachings that are contrary to the spirit of Orthodox piety – join the Church through sincere repentance of their doctrinal errors, by professing the Orthodox symbol of faith, and by receiving an absolution of sins through priestly prayers and forgiveness. The Russian practice includes among such Christians the Old Believers who have retained an ecclesiastical hierarchy, as well as the Catholics, members of the Armenian Church and other non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches.

The fact that the Orthodox Church has such a system indicates that, despite the uniqueness and completeness of Orthodoxy preserved by the Church, the Orthodox believe that “the wind bloweth where it listeth” (John 3:8) and that there is so much grace in the Church that it pours out of its overflowing bowl and reaches out beyond its canonical limits. This thought is confirmed by the Blessed Augustine: “The Church gives birth to some children by herself, from her womb, and to others from the womb of a maid.” This article deliberately concentrates only on the practice of the Russian Church. There are different opinions regarding the degree of grace or lack thereof outside the visible borders of the Church in the Greek tradition, hence their dissimilar approach to the issue of reception of the heterodox Christians to the Church. Overall, the issue of the reception of non-Orthodox Christians to the Church, and consequently the issue of the boundaries of the Church and the distance separating non-Orthodox Christians from the Spirit of Christ, still awaits a pan-Orthodox discussion and consensus. Meanwhile, we shall call upon all people to embark on the Noah’s Ark to reach the harbor of the Heavenly Kingdom.

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