Did Christ command global unity?

Do the Orthodox need unity with other Christians, or should the latter return to Orthodoxy? Photo: UOJ

There is a growing urge for unity of all Christians. At the same time, to talk about the errors of Catholics and Protestants are deemed bad manners. What about Orthodox?

In recent years and even months, we have seen more and more facts of interfaith contacts. Catholics give Eucharist to Protestants, they hold joint services, while the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew make regular statements about the future unification. In Ukraine, ecumenical services are frequented between Uniates and members of the OCU.

In defense of their opinion, supporters of ecumenism cite the words of Jesus Christ about the unity of His followers as an indisputable theological argument. Since it is very likely Ukraine will be the one to host the "running-in" of the unity of the Orthodox with the Catholics, it is very crucial for us to clarify the question: what did Christ actually say? Did he really command unity? What did the holy fathers mean by this unity?

Main trends in the religious sphere

The developments in the religious sphere make it possible to single out two trends in which the main Christian confessions are involved to one degree or another, or rather, to follow which they are forced with varying degrees of success by the powers that be. This is a change in attitudes towards LGBT people and ecumenism. Moreover, in defense of these tendencies, it is the words of the Gospel that are often cited, proving that this is fully consistent with what our Lord Jesus Christ taught his followers. We analyzed the change in an ecclesiastic view of LGBT people as a dramatic swivel from Christianity in the article “Recognition of LGBT rights: ‘love’ for people or renunciation of faith?” trying to delve into the patristic view of unity of believers in Christ and finding out whether modern ecumenism matches this understanding of unity.

Objectively, the overall ecumenical movement takes place not at all in the context of the Gospel, but in the context of the global process, which is commonly called globalization. In different spheres of human life, globalization has its own manifestations: in politics – the emergence of universal international institutions that enjoy more and more powers, in the economy – the creation of transnational corporations, in the field of finance – the freedom of capital flow and the same transnational banking structures, and so on. In each of these areas, globalization is advancing based on internal prerequisites and aspirations. In politics, this is an effective resolution of contradictions, in economics and finance, it is maximizing profit, i.e. supporters of globalization find “fulcrum” points everywhere. The question of whether globalization is truly about helping to achieve the goals that exist in each mentioned area is usually not discussed. As regards the religious sphere, this tangent line is the natural striving of Christians for unity, the motto of ecumenism being the words of the Lord from the Gospel of John: "That they all may be one" (John 17:21). These words are perceived as a kind of commandment of Jesus Christ to his followers, which must be fulfilled or at least strived for.

For example, the document of the Russian Orthodox Church "Basic principles of the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church to non-Orthodox", adopted at the Council of Bishops in 2008 (in general, rather a conservative document) calls the restoration of unity "commanded by God" and refers to the words from the Gospel of John: The restoration of the God-commanded unity of Christians (John 17:21), which is part of the Divine plan and belongs to the very essence of Christianity, is a church with non-Orthodox Christianity." And then follows a stern warning to all who dare to disagree with this interpretation: "Flouting of this task or its rejection is deemed as a sin against the commandment of God about unity." 

What kind of unity did the Lord speak of?

Christ's words about unity are words from the prayer of Jesus Christ to God the Father, which in theology is called the High Priestly: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17: 20-21).

First, the fact that these words are addressed to God the Father, rather than the disciples, makes one wonder: is it correct to call them a commandment given to Christians, or is it still a prayer?

We have a commandment or petition for unity expressed by the holy Apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4: 1-3). He says the same in other epistles: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor.: 10), and “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15: 5-6 ).

Secondly, did the Lord mean the unity promoted in a way pursued by modern ecumenists? Let's see how the Holy Fathers interpreted this passage of the Holy Scripture.

St. Athanasius the Great: “By saying this, he made nothing less than the following: With our unity, let 'them' become one with each other, just as We are one in nature and in reality, otherwise they will not become one unless they learn the unity ‘in Us’ <...> the unity of the Son and the Father for all serves as a model and lesson from which, looking at the natural unity of the Father and the Son, people can learn how they should become one with each other in the way of thinking."

Further, the saint argues that "without God it is impossible to become ‘one’ and "so that through Him the Spirit may be given to believers." But St. Athanasius does not even hint at some kind of unity of confessions with different faiths. Moreover, the fact that this interpretation is contained in his Third Word against the Arians generally suggests that there can be no unity with the difference of faith.

St. John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, already speaks of divisions in faith, which are opposed to unity: “And what does it mean: ‘in Us’? By having faith in Us. Since nothing tempts everyone so much as strife, He tries to make them one. What do you say, did He achieve this? Yes, He achieved it considerably, because all who believed through the Apostles are one, although some of them have separated. However, this (separation) was not hidden from Him; on the contrary, He predicted about it and showed that it comes from human neglect." Here, again, we will not find any call to unite with secessionists.

From the interpretation of the blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria, it follows that speaking of unity, Christ assumed unity in faith, rather than unity with the preservation of a difference in faith: “The way He entrusted them enough to the Father so that He sanctified them by faith and made a holy sacrifice for the sake of the truth for them, says finally, again about like-mindedness, and from where He began, that is, speaking about love, He also ends his speech and says: ‘that they all may be one’, that is, let them have peace and like-mindedness, and in Us, i.e. by faith in Us, may they keep their full agreement."

Other holy fathers pay attention to certain meanings of the words of Christ from the High Priestly Prayer, but no one interprets them in the sense of modern ecumenism. The unity that is mentioned in the Holy Scripture is unity in the true, i.e. Orthodox faith, which modern ecumenism neither sees nor foresees.

Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage on unity

"Whoever can no longer have God as a Father, does not have the Church as a mother."

Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage

One of the most significant treatises on the unity of the Church, both among the early Christian Fathers and the Fathers of the Church in general, is the treatise "On the Unity of the Church (De Unitate)" by the Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage, who lived in the 3rd century. The main point of the treatise is that the Church of Christ is one and only, all who have separated from Her are outside of unity. The quintessence of this creation of Saint Cyprian of Carthage is reflected the following passage:

“The bride of Christ cannot be distorted: she is pure and uncorrupted, knows one house and chastely keeps the holiness of one bed. She watches over us for God, prepares us for the kingdom of those born by Her. Anyone who separates from the Church joins the adulterer wife and becomes alien to the promises of the Church; he who leaves the Church of Christ deprives himself of the rewards predetermined by Christ: he is alien to her, obscene, he is Her enemy. Whoever can no longer have God as a Father, does not have the Church as a mother."

Based on this point of view, all who do not have the Church as a mother cannot call God as a Father. On what basis, then, is it possible to strive for unity within the framework of the modern ecumenical movement? In this case, points of contact in the religious dimension are simply not found for unity. In fact, there are lots of such points in the everyday, universal human dimension. But then such forms of communication as joint prayers or other sacred actions, as well as statements about the desire for Eucharistic communion, should be completely excluded from ecumenical cooperation. However, these forms are present and burgeoning.

Whoever does not have the Church as a mother cannot call God as a Father. On what basis, then, is it possible to strive for unity within the framework of the modern ecumenical movement?

Archpriest Georgy Florovsky on the search for unity

One of the most famous theologians of the XX century, Archpriest Georgy Florovsky, wrote a lot about ecumenism and had an in-depth study of this issue. His own views of the Church are expressed in the following words:

“As a member and minister of the Orthodox Church, I believe that the Church in which I was baptized and raised is truly the Church, i.e. the true Church and the only true Church. I believe in this for many reasons: by personal conviction, and by the inner testimony of the Spirit that lurks in the Sacraments of the Church, and by everything that I could learn from Scripture and universal ecclesiastic tradition. Thus, I cannot but consider all other Christian churches inadequate, and in many cases I can identify these shortcomings quite accurately. Therefore, for me, Christian reunification is simply a general conversion to Orthodoxy. I am devoid of confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs exclusively to Una Sancta."

“The Church in which I was baptized and raised is truly the Church, i.e. the true and only Church. Therefore, for me, Christian reunification is simply a general conversion to Orthodoxy."

Archpriest Georgy Florovsky

In this case, we are interested in the question of the nature of the modern ecumenist movement. On this occasion, Fr. Georgy writes: “The ecumenical issue is a painful matter for Orthodox theologians. To be honest, this is not their problem. It arose on a different theological basis, in a different historical setting and climate. In its present form and content and in its immediate reality, the ecumenical problem is a problem of the Protestant world. <…> In this situation, the main issue is "denominationalism". And "denominationalism" as such and "denominationalism" as a trial and hardship are obviously the product, or perhaps an unwanted by-product of the historical Reformation. This is, in essence, a Protestant phenomenon."

Consequently, the origins of the problem of ecumenism lie in the fact that Protestantism, which began 500 years ago with the separation of Luther and his followers from Catholicism with subsequent splitting into thousands of dissenting denominations, eventually came to the need to somehow return to unity or its semblance ... It is quite obvious that Orthodoxy cannot participate in this essentially Protestant ecumenical movement simply because Orthodoxy does not have the problems that exist in Protestantism and there are no arguments with which Protestants are trying to solve these problems. It's like trying to play a game whose rules are unfamiliar or incomprehensible to you. In this case, the probability to lose is one hundred percent.

It is quite obvious that Orthodoxy cannot participate in this essentially Protestant ecumenical movement simply because Orthodoxy does not have the problems that exist in Protestantism.

Vatican-Phanariote ecumenism

This type of ecumenism is part of the general ecumenical movement, the essence of which is described above, but this one has its own unique characteristics.

First, these are actually discussions on only one issue – primacy in the Church. Repeated statements from both the Vatican and the Phanariote hierarchs testify that one of the main issues discussed on the path of unification is the issue of primacy in the future unification. Both sides stated that this issue can be resolved. Its outlines are as follows: the Vatican pope has the primacy of power in the conventional west, while the Phanariotic pope, respectively, in the east. But how these pope are going to share their job is a subject of discussion.

Secondly, all other differences between Orthodox and Catholics are put out of brackets and appear to be so that they do not interfere with Eucharistic communion. Yet, these discrepancies are very, very significant. You can get acquainted with them in detail in the article "What is wrong with Catholics". In this article we just list the main ones:

  • the issue of the origin of the Holy Spirit (from the Father vs from the Father and the Son);
  • the issue of visible primacy in the Church (Christ vs Pope);
  • the issue of understanding the essence of salvation (soul healing vs "get as you earn");
  • the issue of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos (whether the Blessed Virgin needed a Savior or not);
  • the issue of purgatory (yes or no);
  • the issue about the method of prayer (spiritual vs exalted);
  • the issue of spiritual delusion (Orthodox fathers teach how not to fall into delusion, Catholics extol it as the truth);
  • the issue of dogmatic evolution (denied by Orthodox deny, approved by Catholics).

The opinion that they are now trying to impose on believers is that the union is possible "in the name of love" with all the above discrepancies. Mentioning or focusing on them among the supporters of ecumenism is now considered bad manners. Even if they can be mentioned, then they try to belittle their significance in every possible way.

So far, only the Vatican and the Phanar participate in this type of ecumenism, but very soon other Local Orthodox Churches will also face a difficult choice: opt for or opt out. This choice will be especially difficult for those bishops of the Alexandrian, Greek and Cypriot Churches who recognized the OCU and thereby showed their loyalty to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As you know, if you said "A", then it is very difficult not to say "B" then. It's much easier not to say "A" right away.


First, it is completely inappropriate to base modern ecumenism on the words of the Lord from the Gospel of John: “that they all may be one” (John 17:21), as well as similar words of Holy Scripture. This means distorting their meaning, completely ignoring the understanding of these words by the holy fathers.

Secondly, our Lord Jesus Christ really commanded his disciples to have unity through the Holy Scriptures and the works of the holy fathers, but this unity is fundamentally different from the one modern ecumenism leads to.

Thirdly, there is one Church, it is the Orthodox Church. Therefore, the striving for unity must be the striving for reunification in this Church.

Fourthly, communion, and even more so Eucharistic communion with heretics who continue to adhere to their heresies is not the restoration of unity, but something completely opposite.


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