Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Baptisms on paper and in reality

( - "The Auditing of our Sacramental Life" by Bishop Thomas (Joseph) and Fr. David Hyatt

“Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2)

There has been much discussion in recent days about whether people who enter the Orthodox Church later in life should be received only by baptism with triple immersion or whether immersion or sprinkling from another Christian tradition is sufficient to be received through chrismation only. The intention of this article is not to choose one side or the other but rather to encourage the clergy to take seriously what we will accept and what we will not accept ‘as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.’ It is certainly a hot topic of my catechumens and college-aged parishioners of late.

The term ‘steward’ refers to a manager (Gk. οἰκονόμος) who was typically a former slave who had been given his freedom and charged with the responsibility of managing the household of the owner. He had to be prepared to give an account at any time for how he had managed or stewarded these resources. In the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus referring to his disciples as stewards, says, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Lk. 16:10-11)

During my time in the Antiochian Archdiocese, I have known of several efforts to put together texts to guide us as stewards regarding what we can receive and use in the Orthodox Church as baptism and what is not acceptable. The efforts of several of our clergymen have been sincere and, in my humble opinion, have been well thought out. However, I do take exception to the idea that we utilize these lists of denominations without investigating the actual practices of the church in each given situation. In fact, the only document I have of this type bears the name of the Antiochan Archdiocese on it. While the intention of their official denominational position on baptism may be admirable, the actual practice of each diocese or parish is actually not immersion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There are a number of parishes and dioceses of other denominations that we know exist that do not use the Trinitarian formula even though the issued certificate may state that the baptism was done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I believe it's our responsibility to audit or investigate what goes on in these churches versus what they may put down on paper as their official position. And I would contend that, if we feel we have to do this much at the parish level, that such a study would often be an educated "best guess" and that we should abandon adventures in baptismal sleuthery. Parish priests are not well placed to do this work and you can expect inconsistencies in findings from two priests in the same town.


There are very sincere people who attempt to audit the financial books of churches and other organizations but are somewhat lacking in the ability to perform this task with perfection. We do not accept their reports by simply saying, "Well, it was their intention and not their end result that matters." In the field of education, we have some very kind and wonderful people who attempt to teach. Standardized tests and observation sometimes prove that these people are not successful in educating our children or the students in our academic institutions. We do not accept their substandard performance by simply saying, "It was their intention that counts, not the actual finished product."

How much more important to us is the service of the mysteries? What I am suggesting here is that as we develop these lists, which determine whether we will accept what was done by some other religious group under the heading of "sacraments," they should not be determined only by what is on paper but by a serious effort to inspect and audit what actually goes on in the churches of these denominations. Again, fine for Sherlock Holmes, but who wants a swoosh of riassa-clad men clandestinely recording how a church "really" does their baptisms.

Many years ago, I worked with the late Archimandrite John Namie on a number of projects at the Antiochian Village, as well as outside the Village, after he retired. Fr. John and I were attempting to start a mission in Kingwood, Texas, utilizing a church facility that was not Orthodox.  As it happened one day, we arrived at the facility early and were told that a baptism was being performed in that church. Fr. John turned to me and said, "Let's go inside and see if they know what they're doing." So as not to speak harshly or badly about a group of people, I'm not going to tell you what we found. What I am telling you is that an effort was made to see if this was something that could be accepted in the process that the Church blesses for bringing people into the Holy Orthodox Church. 

If you look at the lives of the saints, such as the Protomartyr Thekla, you will find that in unusual circumstances a baptism was blessed which did not resemble what we normally accept as baptism in the Orthodox Church now. While these kinds of exceptions do not create a new norm, they do indicate that the Church has exercised economy even in the exercise of holy baptism. This approach can also be seen in Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council, in Canon 95 of the Council of Trullo, and Canon 1 of St. Basil the Great’s Letter to Amphilochius, all of which provide entrance into the Orthodox Church from a variety of groups (heretical, schismatic, unlawful congregations) – some through baptism, others through rebaptism, and still others through chrismation along with recanting their former views.

It is not my place to decide what my Patriarch and my Metropolitan tell me is acceptable at the present time in our Patriarchate. I have my own opinion about what should be done, but that opinion must always take a secondary place to what the Church tells me needs to be done in these situations. I am not a Patriarch. I am not a Metropolitan or an Archbishop, and I do not speak on my own as a Holy Synod. I do, however, maintain that, as an overseer of the Church the expectation is for me to make an even greater effort than a financial auditor makes in reviewing books, and an even greater effort than a school district makes in examining teachers, in evaluating the use of what another religious group proclaims as baptism. After I do this, then I can report back to the Archdiocese what the results were of the litmus test that I applied regarding the usability of the baptisms of the various churches or religious organizations that have been placed on a list. 

To conclude, ‘as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God’ we cannot simply accept the good intentions of various religious groups in the practice of their baptisms as we receive people into the Orthodox Church. We must carefully investigate the actual practice of the rite that was used to know whether we can receive a person through Holy Chrismation only, or if the mystery of Holy Baptism must be served first. May Christ our God find us to be faithful stewards of his kingdom on that great day of his return.


  1. In general I think that Catholic and Oriental Orthodox baptisms are probably close enough that whatever may be lacking can be covered by economia. Everybody else, just baptize. Once upon a time I might have been inclined to cut some slack for the mainline Protestant sects that were confessionally trinitarian and had a sacramental understanding of baptism. But pretty much all of them have gone so far off the rails that you just don't know what they are doing anymore. And even when they adhere to the outward forms of a trinitarian baptism, you don't know what the clergy/person doing it actually believes.

    If somebody comes in and can show a certificate stating they were baptized Episcopalian back in the 1950s using the old 1928 BCP, I'd probably let that slide. But, and I am sorry to say it; the situation among our Protestant brothers and sisters has deteriorated to a degree that we just can't make the kind of assumptions about their sacraments that we used to. Absent rock solid evidence of what went on at someone's Protestant baptism, I think the general rule should be to err on the side of caution and baptize properly.

    1. Without judging my (protestant) brother and his/her church, I think Bishop Thomas is on to something. Yet having been chrismated as a convert in his diocese some 16+ years back, we were told at the time that chrismation wiped the slate clean and made holy and whole in the fullness of our faith ....all those things that may have been deficient in our previous state.... and we weren't to worry about it any more as though to question whether the Holy Spirit were somehow not up to the job of fixing things. And that's where I leave it - STILL.

      Bishop Thomas is always careful with his words, and it's as important what he's NOT saying as what he is. And given that especially in Lent, it might be unseemly to judge our protestant brothers and sisters I want to be clear that I don't read him here as doing or condoning that so much as noting that we may need to consider these issues more deeply. And were I to guess, there might come a time when in the name of simplicity we stop playing inquisitor and just ponder the path of baptising and chrismating those from outside the Orthodox Church when they come into the fold. Sure glad that these things are above my pay grade!