Glory to God for All Things

Means and Ends

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St. Seraphim of Sarov is quoted as saying, “You cannot achieve good ends through evil means.” I have taken this to be a given since I first read it. It does not mean that God does not work all things together for good. But it does mean that I must consider carefully how I go about seeking to do a “good” thing. In the history of Christianity there have been many tempatations to use evil means to achieve good. More than one leader of the Church, bishop, pope, General Convention, Synod, etc., has defended a bad decision by the good he or they thought it would achieve. These are tragic moments in the life of Christianity.

One of the great modern tragedies in Christianity has been the mistaken understanding of evangelism. “I have become all things to all men if by any means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22),  is St. Paul’s famous self-description. It has been lifted out of its context for a number of years (as well as similar passages) to justify any number of actions by Christians in order “to save some.” Most particularly in our modern world, some denominations (and “non-denominations”) have themselves become a members of the market, recognizing the unbeliever as a consumerof religion, and itself as a purveyor. God, or salvation, becomes the commodity.

Besides the obvious errors in that calculus, the is the failure to recognize that the nature of the market is that it is governed by the “passions.” Thus, particularly in our modern world of sophisticated advertising, our basest instincts are used to sell anything and everything to us. Whatever works. Sex sells – and thus automobiles somehow become entwined with sex in the eyes of consumers. Young girls are marketed into anorexic neuroses by the manipulation of their passions. Virtually nothing is sold to us that has not made some appeal to our passions.

It is interesting that the early Church generally practiced a three-year catechumenate, the better part of which was spent in spiritual formation (and this prior to Baptism). The entry into the Church was an entry not through the passions, but in spite of the passions.

There is something disordered in the marketing of the gospel by an appeal to a baser instinct (success, happiness, or free candy and bicycles). I might add (stepping on the toes of some of my fellow Orthodox) that there are similar questions to be asked about fund-raising through games of chance and the like. Stewardship is a fundamental Christian virtue and should be taught and inculcated in our members. “Raising money” is, in fact, not the point.

As a side note to any who wonder, my Archbishop practices and teaches the tithe and encourages only this Biblical teaching in the area of stewardship. I follow his lead. 

If we teach that human beings are saved by grace (which is indeed correct), why is it that we believe that the gospel must be marketed as though it were a commodity? Are we saved by the same forces that sell a Chevrolet? This not only demeans the gospel, but, in fact, denies the doctrine of salvation by grace. We cannot achieve good ends through evil means.

When St. Paul said he became “all things to all men,” he did not indicate that he in any way became a sinner in order to save sinners. Instead, he was an “ambassador for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). None of us are called to be anything less. Strangely, it is illegal for American companies to use bribes overseas in order to sell American products. May God give us the grace to believe in grace.

14 Responses to “Means and Ends”

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  1. neil says:

    Is there any such thing as organized evangelism in Orthodoxy then? It seems to me the best way to reach out and invite people to “taste and see” is through personal relationships of one person to another. I assume this a question for many former Portestants who are used to a large focus on strategic evangelism.

  2. I’ve heard of various means. It’s not unusual to have a special speaker or program.

    My parish started in a warehouse 10 years ago. We have a website and a notice in the paper. We’ve grown slow and steadily over the years. No mega church stories. And I surely could have done a better job as priest. I certainly believe and practice preaching the gospel, and using every opportunity given me. But there has been no use of gimmicks. Indeed, I believe it’s good to be patient with those who visit. Grace will do its work and I need to trust that.

  3. neil says:

    That’s refreshing. Ambassador versus Salesman.

    Another question:
    You wrote “…a three-year catechumenate, the better part of which was spent in spiritual formation…” What was/is there in catechism besides spiritual formation? Theology?

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more, Father Stephen, but I wonder about the statement about achieving good ends through evil means. It is a question I wrestle with when reading about the wholesale slaughter of the Midianite women and boys by the Israelites in order to defend against idolatry. This is definitely something a Christian would never do, following the example of his Lord’s mercy to even the idolatrous Romans as they nailed him to the cross. And yet the conquest of Canaan was certainly to the service of God’s redemptive purpose in the end, and instructions of laxity in the fierce context of the former slaves would surely have been read as permission to engage in idolatry. Is it really possible in this broken world for one’s means to truly be pure? Or can we only offer up the best we have to the Lord, hoping his Spirit can make something eternal out of our corruption?

  5. The traditional patristic interpretation of such passages would have been to have “spiritualized” them to an extent. The Church has always seen taking a human life as a violation of the commandments even when it has been “necessary” in defense of one’s home or homeland.

    It’s often not possible for our means to be pure. We are sinners and live in a pretty messed up world. But, by prayer, we move forward as purely as we can and beg the mercy of God.

    The Fathers would have seen Israel of the Old Testament as lacking in revelation in some key ways, though being used of God for the preparation of our salvation. But how literally to take certain passages in their historic depiction of God order wholesale murder was certainly questioned and frequently treated in something other than a literal manner.

    All Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of the teaching of Christ. We cannot “correct” His teaching by citing Old Testament examples. This has led to some horrific behavior on the part of Christians in certain times and places.

  6. William says:

    I recently read an example of how a Church Father interpreted Old Testament passages that might seem to excuse evil means. St Irenaeus of Lyons, in his “Against Heresies,” tells Christians that when they see Old Testament saints committing actions that would seem to be sinful but are not condemned by God, that they should look at those actions as types of things that were to come and that “we should give thanks to God in their behalf, inasmuch as their sins have been forgiven them through the advent of our Lord.”

    Quoting a presbyter who had taught him and then using the story of Lot and his daughters as an example, Irenaeus wrote:

    “With respect to those actions, again, on which the Scriptures pass no censure, but which are simply set down [as having occurred], we ought not to become the accusers [of those who committed them], for we are not more exact than God, nor can we be superior to our Master; but we should search for a type [in them]. For not one of those things which have been set down in Scripture without being condemned is not without significance.”

  7. William says:

    Oops. I misquoted the final sentence. It should read: “For not one of those things which have been set down in Scripture without being condemned is without significance.”

  8. asinusspinasmasticans says:

    Ever since becoming Orthodox, I have noticed that people just “wander in” and become catechumens. At my current parish there doesn’t seem to be a month go by that someone doesn’t enroll as a catechumen. When I ask Fr. Jacob about it, he just shrugs and says “The saints bring them in.”

  9. William,

    Good citation. He does not dismiss those things – but believes their meaning is seen only in Christ (their types). This was something of a small crisis in early Christianity. An extreme position was that of the heretic Marcion who condemned the Old Testament. But it was precisely these Scriptures of which Christ is the fulfillment. But only when read “through Christ” can they be rightly understood. All anyone has to do is read through the Great Canon of St. Andrew to see excellent examples of this.

  10. Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    You have touched here on a subject that is very near and dear to me. It was in fact this insidious comodification of the Gospel that drove me from the Evangelical Protestant world into Holy Orthodoxy. I say this not to indict Evangelicalism, nor to justify any of the scandals of Orthodoxy, ancient or modern, rather to say that I find Orthodoxy’s approach to be mor in harmony with the Gospel than many other contemporary expressions.
    The Church, at it’s core, is not a business, and we do it a huge disservice when we try to run it primarily as such.
    Again, thank you for an important and thought provoking post!
    His unworthy servant,
    Eusebios

  11. stamati says:

    This is a very thought provoking post, and i’m thankful for the insights y’all have provided on some of the more questionable actions in the Old Testament; they ring of grace towards sinners, and that is refreshing.

  12. Long ago when I was in the Baptist tradition we had Tuesday night visitation. Being the shy introvert that I am I dreaded these nights. I felt like a salesman with no inventory.

    On one occasion my partner and I were following up on a family that had visited our congregation. They husband and wife answered the door together and seemed a bit anxious about our showing up unannounced. My partner told them they had nothing to fear because we were not there to proselytize them. By the panicked look on their faces it was clear they did not meant what proselytize meant but suspected it was immoral, unnatural, painful or any combination of the three.

    As the previous post states, better to an ambassador instead of a salesman. Let us live our lives as holy ambassadors. That is true evangelism.

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