This Sunday, the first of Great Lent, is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, otherwise known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The celebration of this Sunday as a feast goes back to the year 843 and the final victory of the veneration of icons over the those who had destroyed icons and persecuted, imprisoned, and killed those who venerated them. A traditional part of the services for this feast is the procession with icons and, in churches where a bishop serves, the solemn proclamation of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, a lengthy statement honoring the memory of the defenders of the Faith as well as the cursing - anathema! - of the heretics.
In the secular climate we inhabit today the idea of anathematizing anyone, even heretics (false teachers), is, to put it mildly, frowned upon. Even otherwise happily Orthodox folks grimace when the subject of the anathemas comes up. We would much prefer to be conciliatory and chalk our differences up to misunderstandings. Anathematizing - cursing - heretics seems downright unkind and judgmental. And given the many heresies that diverged from the Church in the first millennium alone we might almost - but only almost - be justified in thinking that all of this comes from a period when the Church, by defining dogmas, was just splitting hairs over arcane matters of theology.
The problem with this notion is, quite simply, that it is wrong. In fact, the basis for anathematizing false teaching is not to be found in the ninth century with the battle over icons, but much earlier. It is to be found, in fact, at the very beginnings of the Church, in the New Testament, with the writings of the Apostle Paul. To the churches of Galatia, he wrote:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Not once but twice St Paul says that if anyone preaches another gospel let him be accursed. And the Greek word translated “accursed” is - you guessed it - anathema.
Now this passage is instructive not only because it twice contains the word anathema but, even more significantly, the reason it does so: because there were those who came to the Galatian Christians preaching another gospel. But, as the Apostle says, there isn't really another gospel. There can’t really be two or three different gospels because there aren’t two or three different Christs. As he writes to the Ephesians, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.” And it follows from this that there is only one Gospel. So, what these false teachers were offering the Galatian Christians was not the Gospel or even another version of the Gospel - Gospel version 2.0 - but a perversion of the Gospel. They were not giving simply another take on Christ or another angle on the Gospel: they were perverting the teaching of the Truth, twisting the preaching of the Cross, to fit into a mold of their own making. And the result was not the way of salvation to eternal life in Christ but a dead end, destruction, and death. A “Christ” of our own making is a deadly delusion. And the response of the Apostle Paul to that - and any - false gospel was simple and clear: anathema!
In light of this the Synodikon with its anathemas makes more sense. It is not name-calling, judgmentalism, or even meanness to anathematize heretics. It is rather, as St Paul did before, to identify false teachers as perverters of the one Gospel of Christ and, thus, as those who lead people away from life into the paths leading to spiritual death. And it is not insignificant that the Synodikon was promulgated in association with the victory of the icons. The dogmatic teaching regarding icons, after all, is not merely that icons are acceptable religious art, but rather that they are essential to upholding the very dogma of Christ as the Son of God come in the flesh for the salvation of the world.
The fact that our modern secular world is repelled by the Church’s anathemas doesn’t change our faith in the Gospel one iota. And honestly, if we hold out hope for the salvation of the world, we must have the courage to say “Anathema!” to every false teaching. For in a way that the world will never understand, the Church’s “Anathema!” to every perversion of the Gospel is, at the same time, Her confession of Christ, the salvation of the world.
With love in Christ,