Speaking Ecumenically


A recent note from a young Orthodox acquaintance referred to me as “irenic” in my writings. I was grateful for the description and glad that something I actually intend is also actually conveyed. I learn a lot from other Orthodox bloggers or frequent posters on other sites where the discussions can get heated (I think especially of my dear Catholic friend, Fr. Al Kimel’s Pontifications).

I have always intended to write and respond in an irenic (it means “peaceful”) manner primarily because I doubt the efficacy of anger or diatribe. Don’t get me wrong – I believe in defending the faith – but I believe it is best defended irenically. Sometimes you have to wait and cool down before you write something. When I am writing in a “defender of the faith” mode, I tend to mash the delete button several times before I’m finished.

Having said all of that – what about dialog with other Christians? Specifically dialog that is looking at differences between Orthodox and others. I had a professor who once offered the following observation (the topic was marriage counseling but it applies to ecumenical dialog as well):

As long as one person perceives there to be a problem, then there is a problem. It’s not unusual in a situation of marriage counseling to have one person say, “We don’t have any problems,” while the other spouse says, “Oh yes we do!”

In those counseling situations it is at least true that one or more persons are not listening very well. If someone perceives that a problem exists then they should be given the chance to describe their problem.

This is frequently true in conversations with others about doctrine. Some Orthodox can be overly critical of anything “Western,” which is probably overstating the Orthodox case. But it can also be frustrating to have someone tell you that the problem or difference that you perceive isn’t really there. If I perceive a problem then there is a problem – even if the only problem is within my perception. Sometimes I perceive things incorrectly.

Orthodoxy has a long habit of not articulating certain matters of doctrine. Our habit has always been to avoid Ecumenical Councils (which is why the last one was in the 8th century). Though we celebrate the Seven Councils with their own feast day, we do not look to repeat them. Councils are the result of failure on someone’s part. If it’s a heresy we are addressing, then woe to us all that some of us have fallen into heresy. And in this matter we should be like God who only chastens us for the purpose of bringing us to salvation. Councils and their decisions do not exist to condemn the unfaithful (I say this being fully cognizant of the “anathemas” pronounced at all of the Councils). But if we do not love heretics, then we are demonstrating that we do not know God – for He makes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Which brings me back to being irenic. I know many stories about saints who spoke and acted in a less than irenic manner. Their conduct does not negate what I have said. Several serious ruptures, even schisms, in the life of the Church through the centuries have been far more the result of belligerent behavior and so-called “bad blood” than true truth-denying heresy. This was certainly the case in the early split with the so-called Monophysites. The lack of love between Christians renders it impossible for us to even say the Creed properly.

“Brethren, let us love one another that with one mind and one heart we may confess God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” This is the Deacon’s bidding to the Nicene Creed in all Orthodox liturgies. Even within the household of faith, within the same parish, we must speak irenically and strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Without such actions and speech we will not be able to properly confess God for Who He is. We may say the words, but they will be empty within the hardness of our hearts.

Thus it is that we should speak irenically. State the truth – defend the faith. This is a Godly thing to do. But doing so in peace is as important as doing it at all. According to St. James, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

But within the boundary of peace we can do much good, and even benefit others and ourselves when we disagree.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





22 responses to “Speaking Ecumenically”

  1. November In My Soul Avatar

    I deal with the same issue in a slightly different way. Many times I write concerning Orthodoxy and the denominations of which I was a part before coming to Orthodoxy. Eventually I realized that what I was really doing was just putting down the other beliefs and believers. And it was never really so much a theological dispute (I am far too unlearned for that) as it was me touting the superiotity of Orthodoxy. Thankfully, I was convicted by the Holy Spirit to reconsider and also make liberal use of the delete button. Otherwise, I am exactly what I am railing against, basically a hypocrite. Now I try to focus on how being Othodox makes me a better man, husband, father, Christian, etc. instead of how the other faith traditions fell short.

    This also happens in other aspects of my life where in the past I would almost instantly lash out at people, but now I at least try to hold my tongue and to see how my failings led to the misunderstanding.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    My wife just brought to my attention a large number of needed corrections in my text. It’s what I get for writing late at night. Forgive.

  3. Coroebus Avatar

    Dear November — believe me, I share your struggle. May God make us grateful to these traditions from which we have emerged into Orthodoxy. Grateful for preserving, however imperfectly, Christ’s image. Grateful for our own sakes as well for those of these traditions’ adherents who remain content within them. I have found that praying for gratitude tempers, if it does not altogether smother, the self-inflating disdain to which I am tempted. Lord have mercy.

  4. Benjamin Avatar

    “To whom much is given, much is expected”, as the Scriptures say. If Orthodoxy is what Christianity is supposed to be then Lord have mercy on us who have entered into it, for much is expected of us, and scorn and disdain for those who have not been given as much only makes our task much harder. Also it is good to remember that God rejoices in the weak, the sickly, the outcast and ultimately, the crucified. This helps me when I am intoxicated by the Orthodox triumphancy that rears its ugly head from time to time.

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar


  6. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Christ is Risen!
    This I think is the struggle for converts; we came into the fullness of the faith and we are expected to defend the faith, yet we have bad habits to drop. In our newbie zeal, that we all get and that we all must overcome, and to be fair, we all do at some point; we put on the phronema of Orthodoxy, we develope the Orthodox mindset and get over the Protestantism that we left.
    Yet I must add, I think it is wrong to sit back and get comfortable and not be willing to point out where the Protestant and/or Catholics might be in error, if and when they are. When did we become relativist? The Orthodox way of speaking to those differences is to use love, humility and not to bludgeon people, we must continue living the Gospel. Still we haven’t given up the ability to say that someone/group is wrong in their thinking. I am sure someone will point out my errors here 🙂
    Putting together the Orthodox mindset and then learning to state one’s beliefs with humility and love are the hallmarks of a Christian progressing in their faith.
    We fall, we get up.
    Truly He is Risen!
    the handmaid,

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I agree – the defense of the faith or pointing out disagreements is entirely proper and even required of us when we are able. Humility and love, as you say, is the key.

    Sometimes, I must confess, I am not nearly learned enough to answer some questions or to argue a point. That doesn’t make me concede a point if my instinct tells me there’s something wrong. But my ignorance requires even more humility (and I hate to say I don’t know something – but there is so much that I do not know).

    Indeed, on a few discussions I’ve seen, I think there may only be a half-dozen or so Orthodox in the country who have the training to speak with authority.

    Fortunately, my interests are far less lofty. I’d rather speak of prayer, or the things with which we all struggle day to day and leave the more abstract for other appropriate times (sometimes it is quite appropriate).

    Thanks for the note. Well put.

  8. November In My Soul Avatar


    Well said. I agree we must defend the faith entrusted to us without hesitation. Most days I struggle just trying to be a decent example of that faith.

  9. cp Avatar

    (I replied to this once, but my response disappeared into cyber-space, so I’ll give it another shot…)

    As a new Orthodox Christian, I prefer to concentrate less on the differences I have with other Christians and more on what we have in common. I don’t think I’m in any position to tell another Christian that they are wrong in their thinking…they are just not where I am, that’s all.

    The truth is, I was Lutheran for 46 years, until my chrismation a couple of months ago. I have worked for the Lutheran Church for 22 of those years. Lutherans taught me to love God and to love worship. None of my Lutheran friends or acquaintences has been compelled to tell me how I am wrong in my thinking or that my leaving the Lutheran Church was the wrong thing to do. Rather, they have continued to accept and embrace me as a fellow Christian. Thanks be to God! How, then, can I do less?

    Their God is my God, too – their Savior is my Savior, too. From time to time, I sing with them and I pray with them. Most importantly, I pray for them and I always thank God for them. Because without those Lutherans, I would not be an Orthodox Christian today.


  10. Benjamin Avatar

    There is a gift if discernment which allows a person to know if their impetus to put forth a defense is one that is rooted in defending a clear exposition of the faith rather than being rooted in a subtle need to defend oneself, ie, justify one’s place in the Church, one’s decision to join, one’s theological acumen, etc. For me, this is a very very fine line indeed. But, of course, by the grace of God nothing is impossible – not even an unselfish defense of the faith. But woe to the one who goes looking for arguments! As it seems to me that the ones most likely to do that in the Gospel were the angsty pharisees or the bickering apostles.

  11. David_Bryan Avatar

    “Don’t get me wrong – I believe in defending the faith – but I believe it is best defended irenically.”

    Absolutely. I’ve long been a believer in the idea that what one says should never suffer because of someone else’s feelings, but in determining how one says it, one must always take those feelings into account. I’m left wondering, after writing some blog or article, if I’ve spent more time going on about what Protestantism is not, what Orthodoxy is not, and less time proclaiming the glory that is our Orthodox faith.

    The latter is more effective, imo, than the former; y’catch more flies with honey than y’do with vinegar….

  12. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    Is the beef between Pontifications and Energetic Procession personal or something? Energetic Procession is one tough crowd; I tread lightly over there. Fr. Kimel seems like a decent chap; smart, pious…… but he is what he is…… RC convert, priest, etc. I’ve always sensed that I’m missing something; a personal beef.

    The EP blog is theological combat, and when there is no fresh meat some of them venture out into the countryside in search of big game to drag back to the den for the cubs to feed on. It is what it is. Benjamin hit it closest; they are working out the salvation of their minds, to know, to exorcise personal demons.

    I weep not for Fr. Kimel. If you put yourself out on the internet as he does, you’re going to get hit. He knows that, yet puts himself out there anyway. He may be a nicer guy, but the same reason the EP guys do what they do is the same reason Fr. Kimel does what he does.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think they discuss and argue on a level beyond my competency. I learn some things by reading them. I happen to know Fr. Kimel, but I’m sure if I knew his Orthodox correspondents I would like them as well – indeed, I rarely disagree with anything they say of Orthodoxy, though I would probably say things more irenically – but that’s my trademark….

  14. Margaret Avatar

    Speaking irenically is a gift from God, Fr. Stephen, thank you for sharing it.

    For awhile after I converted to Orthodoxy I was trying to speak irenically with bloggers on a popular site associated with my former church, ECUSA/TEC. However, currently I do not believe this is God’s will for how I should spend my time; although He was good to keep me kind for the most part, I end up very sad and frustrated.

    I do pray that if/when the time comes for me to defend the faith verbally to anyone that I will remember “God will provide the words.” And I imagine they will be spoken irenically.

    Thank you for setting the good example!

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I think there was a time, shortly after my conversion that I would have been simply too depressed by the conversation to have said much to my former colleagues. But Christ seems to have opened that door for me and I am able to speak, and to speak kindly now.

    Trust me, I was an angry man there for a while.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I must disagree strongly with your statement on the Monophysite schism, as irenically as I can. As confusing and complicated as the nature of the schism was and is, it is not,nor has it ever been merely a matter of semantics and competeing egos producing and defending essentially co-equal interpretations of the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ Jesus.

    Are you aware that Pope Shenouda, the current Coptic Patriarch, recently made the statement that the doctrine of Theosis was a heresy and even the very word itself was heretical? Are you aware that in the 1970’s reunion conferences the representative of the Oriental Orthodox communions in attendance specifically denied the validity of not only the Fourth Ecumencial Councial, but Councils 5, 6 & 7 as well? The differences are profound and deep. They do not shy away from announcing the differences they see that are important to them. Why should we?

    They are much as the Samaritans were to the Jews. Jesus in His approach to the Samaritans was throughly irenic, much more so that he was with the Pharisees. He told them the truth about their false belief yet in love called them to follow Him by revealing to them who He really was/is. The Monophsites simply do not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man but that He is part God and part man a chimera instead of the Theanthropos who saves us.

    If we do not witness to those who reject Chalcedon and the subsequent Councils that they do not believe what the Holy Spirit revealed to the Church, through the Church, what good are we?

  17. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Father, I accept your word, and thank you for the correction. I agree that our conversations with them should be irenic, but, of course we must not deviate from the Truth as we have received it.

    But when I read Church history, my sense of things is that the schism could have been less severe or even healed had personalities involved been more charitable to one another. That healing was a very important goal for many (especially Byzantine Emperors) and became a great tragedy, opening up Christian lands to the invasions of Islam, etc. I believe it is not the best example of Orthodox history.

    But we won’t move forward (if there is to be such movement) without speaking the truth to each other – so, please forgive me for not being clear enough about that. There were more than semantics – but the words were exceedingly important.

    But, thank you again, I stand corrected.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you are correct. The history of all the schisms are littered with examples of un-Christian behavior and we should acknowledge that. Personally, the schism of 1054 is the one I feel the worst about. These schisms are a tragedy and perhaps could have been avoided. We must pray that such arrogance does not lead us as into false union or keep us apart without cause.

  19. Stephen Avatar

    Whether able to be “irenic” or not, the most impossible thing to do these days is to not offend somebody, especially on the Internet. Given how so very important it is to “experience” Christianity in the work of the Church, and given how so few groups other than Orthodoxy have a full liturgical cycle in which to experience, I often wonder if it’s not just better to simply invite non-Orthodox to our services, and say nothing on the Internet.

  20. Coptikos Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    Your very willingness to stand corrected publicly is a virtue to be respected and commended; it is an indication of your profound humility. Nevertheless, I, as a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church, must, out of fidelity to conveying the truth as to the nature of my Church’s perspective on the issues which Michael Bauman has raised, urge you to not let your meekness and humility allow you to be susceptible to being easily swayed by misinformation which is rampant on the online world.

    First, I must raise the general issue of the need to consult those with the credentials to speak on the profound matters in question, when concerned with those matters. Many learned and wise men of your Church, academics (e.g. the late Juroslav Pelikan), priest-theologians (e.g. Fr. Romanides, Fr. Meyendorff), Bishops (e.g. Bishop Kallistos Ware), and Patriarchs (e.g. the EP, the Greek Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch), have dedicated invaluable time studying the issues that apparently divide our Churches, in consultation of primary text material, serious academic research, and in the spirit of humble dialogue with our heirarchs; their conclusions differ significantly from that of Michael Bauman, and I cannot help but make the safe assumption that such a divergence of conclusions results from the fact Michael Bauman has not invested the same amount of serious research and spiritual investment into the issues in question as they.

    I invite you to consider the official Agreed Statements of the Joint Commission which reflect what some of the above-mentioned figures have agreed upon in dialogue with our Fathers and Clergy, here: http://orthodoxunity.org/statements.html

    Regarding the charge that our Coptic Patriarch has had issues with the notion and even language of theosis; such is true, but must necessarily be qualified if it is to be appreciated in its proper context and not left to be susceptible to the unwarranted inferences of the imagination.

    The first point that needs to be stressed, is that our ecclesiology does not declare any one individual of the Church to be considered infallible. Pope Shenouda III is neither infallible, nor the spokesperson for the Church. He is the Patriarch of but one local Church (i.e. the Coptic Church) which is in communion with 5 other local Churches (Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syrian, Indian, Armenian) each headed by their own Patriarchs, and which together constitute “the Orthodox Church” on our terms, and “the Oriental Orthodox Church” on ecumenical and academic terms. There have been many instances in the history of the Church (even if we go back before the schism at Chalcedon) where Bishops have fallen into error or even heresy, with their errors or heresies even being upheld by local Synods; yet such errors or heresies did not automatically become representative of the entire Church. In due time, the Holy Spirit resolved the issues at hand, yet the question of “how” and “when” was always anyone’s guess. It was to take St Athanasius the Apostolic to be exiled five times (thrice by local Synods, and twice by the Emperor) before the Arian controversy was to be resolved within the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Thus, even upon the assumption that the Pope is preaching heresy, this cannot be deemed reflective of the Church nor have any implications with respect to the legitimacy of the Church; rather, it could at worst be interpreted as the sign of a turbulent stage in the Church’s life that we pray and hope for the Holy Spirit to resolve as He has with every other controversy that arose within the Church. An analogy can easily be made to the Eastern Orthodox Communion. During the iconoclastic controversy, Bishops and Patriarchs of your Church upheld iconoclasm. Our Church never suffered from such iconoclasm and has always remained faithful to Icon veneration. Would it be fair, if I were existing at the time of the iconoclastic contoversy, for me to observe the fact some of your Bishops (who had yet to be ex-communicated) were in error to use against the legitimacy of your entire Communion? I don’t think so; thus, let the same empathy be shared in respect to us in this regard.

    On a more important note, having studied this recent controversy, it appears that the problem lies in the fact that in the Arab-speaking nation of Egypt, language of theosis is not conveyed as effectively or as well as it is in the Greek. Combine this linguistic dillemma with the fact that the Pope is not a very educated man, and you get the case of a Patriarch unwittingly rejecting a legitimate concept (theosis) for legitimate reasons (to avoid notions of man having anything to do with the essence of God) which illegitimately apply to that legitimate concept (since theosis does not implication creation in any sort of relationship with God’s essence). In other words, His Holiness clearly accepts the concept underlying theosis i.e. that our natures become perfectly renewed unto God’s perfect Image and Likeness in perfect union with His Divine Grace, he is simply intolerant of a certain manner of conveying that truth. Needless to say, he has nevertheless been staunchly opposed by a number of people from the Church–particularly the Coptic monastic community of the ancient monastery of St Makarios the Spirit-Bearer in Wadi El Natrun.

    On a final note and no less significant note, it must be stressed that in spite of what the Pope is saying, and in addition to the monastic community of St Makarios, many of our Bishops (and remember, our Pope is nothing but an arch-Bishop–we have no concept of Roman papal supremacy or infallibility) of all eras have proclaimed theosis, and quite explicitly at that. Take for example the response of His Grace Bishop Youssef of the diocese of the Southern United States which can be viewed here: http://www.suscopts.org/q&a/index.php?qid=649&catid=383

    As for another example amngst man, one of our great Copto-Arabic Fathers of the 14th century, wrote a profound treatise on theosis which has been discussed by Professor Stephen Davis in his recent book. Not to mention the fact our Liturgical worship expresses the concept of theosis. In the Coptic Theotokias of the Vigil Praises, we say: “He took what is ours, in order to give us what is His”, and the Syrian Orthodox liturgical texts are replete with even more explicit proclamations of our divinisation. Speaking of our sister Churches, neither the Syrians, Armenians, or Ethiopians et al, have expressed agreement with His Holiness on this matter. In fact, I have read a number of works of each which have explicitly taught theosis. Take for example, His Paulos Mar gregorios who speaks at length on the subject of theosis in his texts “Cosmic Man” and “A human god.”

    With respect to the claim that we reject your 4-7(8?) Ecumenical Councils, a little clarification is in order that you may appreciate what that means and not impute unintended interpretations of what that means. As far as the most recent Agreed Statements go, we have declared acceptance of substance of those Councils as expressed by your leaders i.e. we are content with the way your Church today explains the meaning of what those Councils taught. Nevertheless, we dispute their ecumenicity, obviously because they are not a part of our ecclesiology and we did not have anything to do with them. We obviously consider ourselves to be the Church, and no Council which convenes outside of the boundaries of the Church can be considered ecumenical regardless of how Orthodox it may be. With regard to Chalcedon in particular, we maintain that in its historical context, we had good reason to believe that the implications of that Council were far-removed from the implications stipulated by your heirarchs today. We nevertheless accept the inferences made by your heirarchs today as Orthodox and as acceptable to attribute to Chalcedon retrospectively.

    The issues raised in Councils 5-7 are of no concern for us for we have never had need to convene councils with respect to those issues precisely because there was never any contoversy over such issues as there was in your Church. Our Church always accepted the perfect unity of Christ, and hence did not need to counter the dualism that your fifth council was determined to address. Our Church has always accepted the fact Christ has a natural will, and as such did not need to counter monothelitism which was strictly a problem for the Chalcedonian communion. Our Church has always upheld the validity of Icons and has has never had the need to counter any sort of iconoclasm with any particular Synod.

    Does the Church teach the perfect Humanity and Divinity of Christ? Our Church has never been more explicit about it. I can give you a number of references from our Fathers, our Liturgical texts, our Synods, which explicitly declare Christ’s consubstantiality with man in respect to His Humanity, and with God in respect to His Divinity. With all due respect to Michael Bauman, no one who has seriously attempted to read the primary text material of the Oriental Orthodox Church–her patristic writings, liturgical texts, Synodal decrees etc. could ever come to the conclusion that we reject the perfect humanity or perfect divnity of Christ.

    I hope this serves to clear up some of the issues at hand.

    In IC XC

  21. fatherstephen Avatar


    I do not mean to be swayed by every wind that blows through our comments – but I must say thank you for your words and your clarification. The clear case of the relationship of Oriental Orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy is manifest quite well on the local level. For instance, I know of numerous examples where Oriental Orthodox are permitted to use an Orthodox Temple for their services – a courtesy that I could hardly imagine for any other group of Christians. I could cite many other such examples (not the least of which being the attendance at EO seminaries by OO students).

    I am particularly aware of some of the dialogs and theological work initiated by Fr. Georges Florovsky during his lifetime, which did much to further understanding between Oriental and Eastern Orthodox.

    My prediction would be that if any major schism within the Church would be healed in our lifetime, the likeliest candidate would be that between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox.

    May God ever leave me open to correction. I am frequently in need of it.

  22. Coptikos Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    I must stress, as much as it can be stressed, that I certainly did not mean to imply (and I sincerely apologise if I happened to unwittingly give the impression) that you are in any sense naive and hence susceptible to being “swayed by every wind that blows,” I was simply trying to persuade you to be more critical of Michael Bauer’s disagreement with you, for I, as one who has spent much time studying these issues, strongly believe there to be no fault in your initial observations.

    I am very familiar with the many concrete examples that exemplify the very close relationship between our Churches (and I happen to be one of those OO who attend an EO seminary–one which additionally appears to be rather exclusive). One of the most fascinating examples, and yet one which has unfortunately scandalised many EO, is the 1991 agreement between the Syriac and Antiochian Orthodox Churches of Antioch which permitted the practice of communing members of the other Church. In fact many stipulations of that 1991 agreement are quite profound indications of just how close we are (e.g. one point stresses the need to respect the Fathers of each other’s Church and to incorporate an appreciation and understanding of them in each Church’s education system.)

    I would love to share your optimism with respect to future prospects of ultimate and final re-union, but, as warranted as I believe it to be theoretically, my concern for practicality leaves me pessimistic. On the grassroots level, and I know this is a bit of a generalisation, but I do believe it holds nevertheless (at least according to my own subjective experience–which, as subjective as it may be, is nevertheless rather broad), OO laity seem more inclined to submit to their heirarchs than EO laity are. In my rather long experience of discourse with EO I have been suprised, and at times shocked, by how willing many EO are to criticising and disagreeing with their heirarchs, even charging them with heresy over rather trivial matters. Of relevance to the EO/OO issue, I have seen this general observation manifest itself in the predominant opposition amongst EO laity to the Agreed Statements of the Joint Commission, in spite of the fact those statements have been upheld by Patriarchs, Bishops, and even Synods of the EO Church (OO’s are, on the other hand, quite content with the findings of our Synods and heirarchs, which is why you will find very little, comparatively, opposition to the idea of EO-OO re-unity or polemics against the “Orthodoxy” of the EO). It seems to be that the EO Church would potentially be fraught with internal schism were it to re-unite with the OO Church on the terms and conditions that the most recent dialogues seem to tend towards, and yet I cannot see my Church re-uniting with the EO Church on any terms and conditions other than that which those very agreements are tending towards.

    Forgive me for my rather lengthy replies; brevity is a most valuable and admirable gift that I have evidently and unfortunately not been blessed with.

    In IC XC

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