24 January 2007

Principle Issues: Understanding Mark 9

The following item is excerpted from the "Reflection" published in this week's edition (28 January) of The Observer, the weekly bulletin/newsletter of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Troy.

In the Gospel according to Saint Mark, St John the Theologian tells Jesus that he and the other disciples have seen a man performing miracles. This man is not an apostle or one of Jesus’ disciples. St John says, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, who followeth not us, and we forbade him.” (Mk 9.37) It appears that St John and the others are irritated by this man because they tell him to stop. But Jesus offers this surprising reply: “Do not forbid him. For there is no man that doth a miracle in my name, and can soon speak ill of me. For he that is not against you, is for you.” (Mk 9.38) What Our Lord is saying is that this man, who is not part of the apostolic company, is still working and speaking by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And with His reply, Our Lord demonstrates His mercy and compassion toward those who know of Him but may not yet walk with the Holy Apostles.

We may understand that St John and the other apostles represent the Holy Orthodox Church. For the Church rightly claims to follow the teaching of the Holy Apostles and to walk in the same Faith that they taught. In other words, the Church is in the apostolic company—in communion with those holy men who walked with Our Lord. The man who performed miracles but was not one of the apostles or disciples—we may understand that he represents all those who know of Christ, who speak of Christ and offer His holy sacraments, yet not within the Holy Orthodox Church. In other words, we may understand that the Holy Spirit is with this man, even though this man is not in the Church. Why and how this is done is something we cannot understand. It is strange to us. Yet it is also wondrous. It is a mystery.

If this is how we understand this brief episode in St Mark’s Gospel, then we may see something else. The Lord desires this man to be with the Holy Apostles—to join their walk with Him. And so perhaps in His reply, Our Lord is telling St John and the others to go fetch this man, let him know about the Church, and bring him in. Then he will no longer need to cast out devils independently, but may work and speak by the Spirit within the warm embrace of the Holy Orthodox Church.

This interpretation helps illustrate how I, and some members of the parish I served, saw ourselves during our last months as Lutherans. We rejoiced that the Holy Spirit had not abandoned us. And so, by the Lord’s mercy, we celebrated together the holy mysteries. However, we became increasingly aware that our celebration was apart from the Church. We and our families knew of the Holy Apostles, and yet we become convinced that we were not in the apostolic company. We did not fear that we were against the Lord and His Church. But we also came to believe that we were not yet in the Church. So we felt like they were on a life-raft in the midst of a great storm-tossed ocean.

By the mercy of God, we were finally able to see our way into the Holy Orthodox Church. This mercy of God was demonstrated in many ways during our journey. Most particularly, we have seen it in the gentle kindness of Bishop MARK, the sturdy generosity of Father Joseph, and the warm embrace of the parishioners of St. George. And it is these concrete manifestations of Our Lord’s compassion that give us the courage, the confidence, and the hope to form a Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church on the west side of metropolitan Detroit.


Brett Cornelius said...

This is maybe the best isogesis I've ever seen done. Congratulations.

Ezekiel said...

Very good, John.

This makes great sense, and illustrates the nature of the Holy Catholic Orthodox Church of the Apostles.

There is gentle warning: one must not take God's grace for granted and figure that, after seeing His Church, they can merely go on as usual (at least in my opinion).

Your thinking also directs us away from the "denominational" "your church, my church" notions that permeate our society.

My priest puts it this way, "It isn't 'your Jesus' and 'my Jesus'! Jesus is Jesus, Christ our God, and we are to be united in Him!"



FredricJEinstein said...

Do you include the Roman Catholic Church in the "Mark 9 guy" categorization? The Roman Church considers you Orthodox to be schismatic just as you Orthodox consider them to be schismatic.

The Roman Church abides by the decrees of Scripture and the Seven Ecumenical Councils and certainly has Apostolic Succession (and thus are "members of the Apostolic Congregation").

In fact, where do you draw the line? Are the Lutherans in Sweeden and Latvia "outside the Church"? They have Apostolic Succession too!

If you want to argue that the Eastern Orthodox require that the hierarch maintains Orthodox Church doctrine in addition to historic transmission, then many of your hierarchs have "broken Apostolic Succcession" by their sins. Take the Midwestern Antiochian's previous bishop, the Arab who was caught with his pants down in Traverse City.

Is Apostolic Succession in ROCOR who was fighting with the Soviet Church????

Thus, your thesis is somewhat lacking that "being within the band of Apostles" is only present in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Chris Jones said...


Fr John didn't mention "Apostolic Succession" in his post. If you think Fr John is making Apostolic Succession or the lack of it the principal marker of the Church, you are reading that into his comments, not from his comments.

Fr John has become persuaded that the Orthodox Church is concretely the same Church that the Saviour founded; and thus he has joined himself to it. "Apostolic Succession" may be one factor that has led him to this belief, but I doubt it; and in any case it is not the only reason nor the chief reason.

The unfortunate case of the bishop that you referred to has nothing to do with the continuity of the orthodox faith in the Church; but only with one hierarch's fall into sin -- a sin of which he has repented, and which cost him his episcopate. The fact that he sinned neither invalidates his ministry nor shows that he was a false teacher. The Orthdox are not Donatists. Neither are Lutherans, so your suggestion that cases like this cast doubt on the doctrinal continuity of the Orthodox Church make no sense.

Chris Jones said...

Pastor Cornelius,

Fr John is hardly the first person to read Mark 9 as indicating that the Holy Spirit can and does work outside the canonical boundaries of the Church. I don't think that constitutes eisegesis.

Barnabas Powell said...

Well, some mighty interesting assumptions in the combox today!

Father John, I believe the lessons you mention above are exactly what the Spirit would have us see here. In fact, didn't Jesus tell Nicodemus that the "wind blows where it will?"

I am currently researching a series of articles on ecclesiology, and the more I read, the more I am convinced that the Mystery of the Church is meant to force us to deal with actual people rather than some dusty "rule book."

That means, as with Orthodoxy in general, the apparent paradox of ecclesiology is purposeful. It is meant to force us to love one another AND contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.

This is not easy, but it is meant to work the grace of God deep within each of us.

Gregory Chudy said...

Interesting eisegesis indeed. I am curious where receiving a pay check, health insurance, free housing, and funds for continuing education from the false, "non-apostolic" church for more than a decade (all the while believing in one's heart a different doctrine)fits into your reading of this pericope?

FredricJEinstein said...

Thanks for your comments about my post, which I expected. I am making the connection between Apostolic Succession and the Orthodox claiming to be "The Church" simply because that's exactly what soon-to-be-Fr. Fenton did.

Read St. Mark 9.37 exactly and carefully "who followeth NOT US." What signs did the Apostles have that this guy "followeth not us???" Simply that he wasn't a member of "the Apostolic group"! What does "Apostolic Succession" assure the Church through her history? It assures the Church (and I include the Roman Catholics in this) that the succession of bishops, priests, and deacons are "part of the same group as the Blessed Apostles". The Messiah of course assures them that they are exegeting the Scripture incorrectly (where the "ger to'shav" is given a lesser status in terms of being able to approach God than a member of
the "Children of Israel").

I certainly believe the rebuke of Messiah and do NOT hold the opinion that Orthodoxy is "exclusively the Church" and that Roman Catholicsism, Lutheranism etc are "lesser in status" in their ability to bring the Sacrifice of the Mass because they don't belong to the man-made national boundries (ie, Greece, Arabia, Turkey, Russia etc) which define the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, it seems that soon-to-be-Father Fenton does hold this and so does his bishop since they in effect said "okay, because Jesus allowed the guy in Mark 9.37 to continue, we'll deign to let your Sacrament continue to be valid at Zion until you convert to our "Apostolic group".

My challenge to soon-to-be-Fr Fenton is, where and how do you make the distinction as to "what is truly membership"???? The Orthodox Church throughout its history has certainly done things as stupid as the Roman Catholic Church is doing now and her bishops and priests have committed as many or more atrocities and violations of Christ's Law as have the Roman Catholics. However, the Roman Church considers herself to be the "true church" and the Orthodox Church considers herself to be the "true Church" (and so do the Lutherans, Assembly of God'ers etc). Thus, if soon-to-be-Fr. Fenton's 'mark' of being in the true Church is the same 'mark' that the Apostles mistakenly were looking for (that is, "being a member of the Apostolic band-- ie the Eastern Orthodox Church", than his interpretation is wrong. The sacraments were administered correctly at Zion, they are administered correctly at St. Jehosephat, they are administered correctly at St Paul's WELS Church in Belleville. Is not THAT the sign of the True Church? Not membership in a church organization delimited on national cultural boundries?

Evagrius said...


That the Holy Spirit works "outside" the Church is seems hardly the issue...of course He does. He draws all to the Church or else there would be not a single convert.

That the Holy Spirit resides or works "in" any communion, as He does in Holy Orthodoxy, is really the question...isnt it?

Is it not true that Orthodoxy, according to their own understanding, may rightly say that they know where the Church is...but pass this it is all speculation, meaning the canonical boundaries are known but to try and discover or identify the spiritual boundaries is impossible, so why attempt?

In connection with this, the Orthodox Church has never made nor taken a dogmatic stance regarding the validity of sacraments in non-Orthodox confessions. The bottom line is, the Mysteries exist within the Church, outside the Church there is no way of Knowing and cannot be known as this has not been revealed.

If the Lutherans are not the Church and are not Donatists...what are they?

Emily H. said...

Father Fenton,

Thank you for sharing your Principle Issues with us. I look forward to reading the rest of the "series" and the discussions that follow.

Evagrius said...

Are we able to find any Church Fathers and or Saints that understand Mark 9 as Father Fenton does here? Im trying to discern the connection between God effecting a miracle through the "Mark 9 guy" and also being able to offer the Holy Mysteries.

Chris Jones,

The canonical boundaries have changed throughout the ages for the Orthodox (in and out of communion)yet even so how can we even speak of the "spiritual" boundaries of the Church when this is something that has not been revealed?

The Holy Spirit indeed works outside the Church to draw all those to the Son (how else would conversion take place?), but is this work or drawing the same grace that is present in the Church and Her Mysteries?

Do the Orthodox believe in "partial grace"?

The "Wind blows where It will" is true enough but, Is it possible for God to work a miracle, of whatever nature, through an unbeliever without saying that this "mark 9 guy" is filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit the same way one in the Church is?

William Weedon said...

An interesting contrast to the Mark passage cited is Matt 12:30. What accounts fro the diff? I think it is the "us" vs. "me." As though our Lord warns the disciples in Mark 9 against equating the (admittedly important) relationship with them with the alone-saving relationship with HIM.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Perhaps these words of St Augustine apply:

It is indeed true that the Lord says in the gospel, "He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad."(16) Yet when the disciples had brought word to Him that they had seen one casting out devils in His name, and had forbidden him, because he followed not them, He said, "Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us. For there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me."(17) If, indeed, there were nothing in this man requiring correction, then any one would be safe who, setting himself outside the communion of the Church, severing himself from all Christian brotherhood, should gather in Christ's name; and so there would be no truth in this, "He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad." But if he required correction in the point where the disciples in their ignorance were anxious to check him, why did our Lord, by saying, "Forbid him not," prevent this check from being given? And how can that be true which He then says, "He that is not against you is for you?" For in this point he was not against, but for them, when he was working miracles of healing in Christ's name. That both, therefore, should be true, as both are true,-both the declaration, that "he that is not with me is against me, and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad;" and also the injunction, "Forbid him not; for he that is not against you is for you,"-what must we understand, except that the man was to be confirmed in his veneration for that mighty Name, in respect of which he was not against the Church, but for it; and yet he was to be bland for separating himself from the Church, whereby his gathering became a scattering; and if it should have so happened that he sought union with the Church, he should not have received what he already possessed, but be made to set right the points wherein he had gone astray? (NPNF I.IV.1.7; p. 416; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf104.v.iv.iii.vii.html)

NB: The gentle reworking of the latter half of this passage in ACC NT II.129 might be more accessible for some.