From discussions with various people, chats in church basements, and random correspondences, a topic that seems to be important is differentiating being being “a fanatic”, and just being “a Christian”. There seems to be two polarly opposing groups: those who feel that we have a bunch of Pharisees being loud about their faith and forgetting what it means to be a Christian, and those who think that “in the end, we’re all the same”. There is a group in between, but it’s easier to discuss by studying the extremes.
Is it true that we have a lot of Pharisees? My own personal conviction is that, yes, it is true. We do have people in our Churches that will go to great lengths to prove a point, who will yell at a kid for having their palms flat on the ground while kneeling, or freak out that someone chewed gum after communion or, worse, was eating lib (something like sunflower seeds for our non-ethnic readers)! Meanwhile, gossiping about members of the congregation, relishing in others’ miseries, and having contempt for people who have perhaps “messed up” in life or look differently than the Egyptian norm (e.g. a male with long hair or an earring) somehow fails to provoke similar outrage. It is these kinds of behaviours that our Lord referred to when He spoke of the Pharisees teaching “the doctrines of men” instead of the commandments of God (cf. Matt. 15:3-9)
If the person who is standing and preaching these traditions outwardly lives a life that is really repulsive or mean, this person can actually alienate people from finding the love of God and the desire to be a member in Communion with the Church. It’s why our Lord kept repeating the same thing to the Pharisees, “Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites!”
Yes, we have our legalists today. They are those who think that it is their job to interpret and uphold the law for the whole Church. You’ve got some dudes who stand there and point out how wrong everyone and everything is. They will freak out if by accident someone said the Kiahk tune in the first two weeks of Advent before the month really begins, or lose it because someone had toast (because they are diabetic) instead of fasting 9 hours or longer for Eucharist, they will even notice and point out if the priest fractures the Body wrong during the Liturgy. They are obsessed with the upholding of the law.
Now, don’t get me wrong, a tradition of man is not necessarily something that is wrong. Our traditions have deep and pious meanings when understood correctly. If a person when kneeling realises that the symbol of not having their palms flat is victory over Satan, it points a person toward His victory in Christ. If a person honours the tradition of not spitting after Communion, he is pointed to a valuable lesson that there is something special about having Communion and that it should be cherished. In the same tune, the law is not wrong either! Remember that the Law that the Pharisees were upholding was given by God! So the issue is not whether or not the traditions of men are right or wrong, or whether the Law is good or not, the issue is whether or not that our religion becomes based on these things, instead of what they point toward –> the doctrine of God. Or as our Lord said:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
[A quick note to those reading (and to myself), we ought to accuse ourselves regularly and ask if we are hypocrites, Pharisees and lawyers who have forgotten about mercy, truth and justice.]
So, yes, we do have problems and yes, they should be addressed, but the solution is not the polar opposite. The solution is not to say that because there are flawed people in the Church, I will go where people are nicer — even though it is understandable how very tempting that may be. The reason is that, well, the truth matters.
Even though the Pharisees were messed up, show me a time when the Lord sent them out to another religion, or told them, “just pray and don’t worry about them mad Pharisees”. Show me a time where He encouraged anyone to forsake the very people who were clearly rejecting none other than Himself. It simply did not happen. Instead, He sent people to the temple. He told the Lepers to fulfill the law (and many Fathers commented on that point), and to present themselves before the Priests to be declared clean. He did not need or have to do that. He never worked against the Old Testament Church. The reason is because there was no denial that this Israel was indeed, Christ’s chosen people. The law and the prophets were revealed to them because of Him. In them was the right way, in spite of the people going astray. The same is true today.
The desire to just look at other Christian denominations and sects and say “we are all the same” is understandable, but unfortunately the statement is false. It may be true that we are one fractured body, but it is not correct to pretend that we are saying the same things. It is also not right to leave something just because people are messed up, not when there’s an issue of truth.
The problem I find, though, in these discussions, is that often the extreme that is saying “we’re all the same”, do not actually know what it is that we believe, or why it is that we believe it. That might be the fault of the Pharisees to some extent, but I would blame the person leaving for not asking the right questions as well. Basically, you cannot take an impulsive emotional decision when it comes to matters of doctrine, not if you care about truth, anyway.
A person who is thinking of leaving and who is saying that we are all the same must ask himself if he even knows that that is true, and if it is not true, the next question is, “Where do we differ?” And when you discover where we differ, then you must ask the question, what is the truth about these differences? Because the truth is NOT relative. There is a reason that all Orthodox Churches believe the same thing. You cannot enter one parish that believes in one doctrine and another that does not and call that Orthodox.
In those questions, you may struggle with certain aspects of the faith, but the solution is not to wave it away, the solution is to continue to struggle with it until you find out what is right. Where I feel sorry for some of these people, is that having so many Pharisees and Lawyers around can sometimes make the search difficult, but you have to search anyway, because our Lord promised that “If you seek, you will find”.
For those of you who are on that journey right now, and I know from discussions that there are many of you, I invite you to search with an open heart. You need to learn a little bit about history: to know what happened and where that led to all of these churches and where we all come from. You need to understand what Tradition is, and why it’s not a dumb idea and how even those claiming they have none actually do. You need to know where the Bible in your hands actually came from. You need to ask does the Bible support all the things that we say and do in the Church? You need to know where we disagreed with others and what happened as a result. You need to know how it is that every person who calls themselves a Christian today must confess the Creed, and where that Creed even came from. You need to go through this process so that you understand who you are today and what it means to identify as a Christian.
When you reach this understanding, perhaps you will be able to find the honour and respect that must be given to the Law, but while living a life “worthy of the vocation to which you were called”, and then you will become the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth” that our Church has and always will need. Once again, these things you ought to have done, and not to neglect the other.
Perhaps on this blog we can explore some of those questions and concepts.