January 19, 2021

Liturgical Gangstas 7: Can the Church Require Fasting and Other Spiritual Disciplines?

Welcome to IM’s popular new feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion among different liturgical traditions represented in the Internet Monk audience.

Who are the Gangstas?

Father Ernesto Obregon is an Eastern Orthodox priest, who as a result of this IM feature, now has a fan club of several million :-).
Rev. Peter Vance Matthews is an Anglican priest and founding pastor of an AMIA congregation.
Dr. Wyman Richardson is a pastor of a First Baptist Church (SBC) and director of Walking Together Ministries, a resource on church discipline.
Alan Creech is a Roman Catholic with background in the Emerging church and spiritual direction. Alan Creech Rosaries is an IM sponsor.
Rev. Matthew Johnson is a United Methodist pastor.
Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of The God Whisperers, which is a podcast nearly as good as Internet Monk Radio.

Here’s this week’s question: I (Michael) recently published two posts on “A New Covenant Lent.” The responses have been animated, and several have asked me to “gangsta-ize” one of the issues. So…

To what extent can a church (and this context will vary from gangsta to gangsta) mandate personal spiritual practices? For example, what is your perspective on mandated fasts at particular times of the Christian year or for other causes? More importantly, what theology of Christian spirituality lies behind your reasoning?

Readers: This was an outstanding response, and please don’t miss the Baptist response. Wyman is in rare form.

Father Ernesto/Orthodox: I fear you asked no short question this time. Let’s first look at a couple of key Scriptures:

Our Lord Jesus Christ received his authority from the Father: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Note that the Mark 16 parallel late addendum clearly speaks of the Church as having been given clear authority over demons, authority to heal, etc. That is, the authority received by Jesus is passed on to the Church

Christ’s authority is exercised in the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit. “And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Notice that the parallel Scriptures are even broader and say that what the Church binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what is unbound on earth shall be unbound in heaven. Authoritative teaching, miracles, the driving out of impure spirits, forgiveness of sins, the incorporation of people into the Body of Christ by evangelism and sacrament, the feeding of the people of God with word and sacrament, and, yes, authoritative guidance in the living of the Christian life is delegated to the Church in a way parallel, but not equal to, the way in which the Father delegated authority to the Son.

But, but, but, the purpose of the authority of the Church is to gather all of humanity into Jesus Christ, “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” No, I do not believe that all shall be saved, but I do believe that the Church’s job is to desire what God desires. “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Authority in the Church is not for the sake of authority, it is to bring humanity to union with God. And it is to be exercised as servant authority.

Nevertheless, it is real authority, and there are several clear warnings in the New Testament that point to that real authority. Let me allude to several Scriptures that are often conveniently overlooked when we talk about the subject of Church authority. I will simply list them for the sake of keeping this post a little shorter.

Ananias and Saphhira in Acts 5 — there was no requirement that they give all the money from the sale. But, when they lied, St. Peter pronounced a judgment on both of them and they died.

The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 — proclaims several rules of behavior to be obeyed. As late as the Apostolic Constitutions, one can read how it is forbidden to eat meat sacrificed to idols, in spite of the fact that St. Paul had already argued in an earlier writing that ultimately it did not matter whether one ate meat sacrificed to idols or not. Nevertheless, St. Paul was present at that Council and agreed and promulgated a disciplinary restriction agreed upon by the Holy Spirit and the Church in order to more faithfully order the life of the Body and to preserve peace, in spite of his earlier arguments about meat sacrificed to idols.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 pronounces a judgment on someone committing sexual immorality and clearly expects that the Church judgment will be reflected in the heavenlies as they, “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” That is, not only are they throwing the person out of the community here on earth, St. Paul fully expects that, as a result of that decision, God will withdraw His hand from that person and allow Satan to destroy him for the sake of his salvation. It would be an understatement to say that this is tough love, as well as Church authority binding things in the heavens.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 makes it clear that, in several ways, they are violating traditions, both natural and Church. But, having said that, he clearly points out that he has received certain Traditions, regarding the Lord’s Supper, that they are to follow. Moreover, he makes the startling statement that their failure to handle the Lord’s Supper correctly, that is to follow what they have received in the manner in which they have received it has resulted in some people being sick and some having died.

Having said all that, God will not back the Church in anything contrary to His will. There are ample evidences from Church history to demonstrate that. But, to argue that the authority of the Church is purely persuasive, and that people may, in good conscience, disobey the Church without any spiritual repercussions, is the other, equally incorrect, pole of the discussion.

Hmm, I need to stop now, but with a mild frustration. This is not a simple subject with simple answers. And, one of my personal frustrations is that it took me a long time to learn that there is a major difference between the East and the West with regards to their approach to Church regulations. A canon (means something closer to principle, precept, regulation) is not a nomos (nomos means law). There is a reason why a person who does not obey the law is called an antinomian and not an anti-canonian. There is a different approach between East and West to Church precepts.

So, iMonk, color me somewhat frustrated. Hmm, by the way, ALL the Early Church Fathers unanimously spoke of fasting as something that the Church requested of all Christians, during certain events and certain seasons. I would take that seriously..

Matthew Johnson/United Methodist: Matthew is quite the spiritual fellow, and I expect that he is probably fasting from the internet and email, and hasn’t gotten the question. Or perhaps his church won’t allow him to answer. He does have a nice new picture though.

Peter Vance Matthews/Anglican: Anglicans do not require anyone to believe or do anything that is not explicitly required in scripture. So then, there are no canons that tell communicants when or when not to fast.

At the same time, Anglicans follow the liturgical calendar and in the calendar there are Holy Days and traditional days of fasting. Thus, it is allowable to encourage people to practice fasting and other spiritual practices on these days, but an Anglican clergyman must be sure to clearly communicate these are not required practices. For example, I usually encourage everyone in our parish to join me in fasting on Good Friday, but I never inspect whether or not anyone has followed me in that and I would never condemn nor criticize anyone for not doing so.

This is where Anglicanism gets fuzzy. We really do think highly of the traditions of the Church and in most cases seek to follow them. (For example a lot of Anglicans will pray through the Stations of the Cross during Lent.) But an Anglican clergyman would be clearly out of line to teach that these things are required or that they earn some sort of merit for the one who practices them.

Here are some relevant statements from the Articles of Religion, one of the doctrinal formularies for Anglican Churches.

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

XIV. Of Works of Supererogation.
Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

XX. Of the Authority of the Church.
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Alan Creech/Roman Catholic: OK, now who else does this, honestly? Fr. Ernesto, are we in the cross-hairs? I particularly sense a little red laser target on the back of my head on this one – hmmmm. I promise, I won’t mention purga… NOOO – this time. 🙂

To answer, from my perspective, the first part of the question – “to what extent CAN a church mandate personal spiritual practices?” Well, Any church that feels froggy enough can leap into mandating all manner of things for it’s members I reckon. Perhaps you mean “should” instead of “can.” Churches can do whatever they think is right and good. They even can do a lot of things they may even know aren’t that good. Now, whether they should or not, that might be a better question.

Also, is there a difference here in what we’re calling “personal spiritual practices” and “communal spiritual practices?” Is any practice that a Christian undergoes ever really solely “personal?” If WE are the Body of Christ, I am always a part of WE. OK, OK, sure, I am an individual person, we’re not the Borg here – BUT, the spirituality behind what I’m beginning to talk about does not see all aspects of “Borg-ian” life negatively. God speaks to us in Scripture about one, unified Body with many parts and one head (yes, I’m talking about Jesus, settle down). Our Christian life as the Church, therefore, is a communal life, not merely an individual life of relationship with God. So, even our so-called “personal spiritual practices” are ultimately communal. They not only effect me, but also the whole Body of which I am a part.

What does that have to do with any of this? Just a bit of philosophical underpinning. It speaks to how we think about spiritual practices. Generally speaking, philosophically, Catholics would think of spiritual practices, even if personally undertaken, as a part of a whole, as communal practices as well. We are all interrelated as a family of God. We are all members of the family, equally loved by God, but there is an order put in place to help the family function because of our differing levels of union with the Head. I’m boiling down here. The “parental” figures in the Church can, and sometimes should, say to the whole family something like, “hey family, we need to do some things together as a family, for the health of the family, for our common good, so let’s all do this…” Generally speaking, I think this is good – that a church would call a “community fast” say, for the season of Lent, say – lay down some general things we will all do together, over top of that, do whatever you feel led to do, but at least do the minimum with all the rest of us.

Fine and good. There is a definite good there, as I see it, within the context I’ve laid out. Even these general minimums given to us as members of the “family” can be very personally spiritually fulfilling and formational. There is something about obedience to something like this which is “will breaking.” I mean our often-times very selfish wills are molded, in part, through obedience, even to human rules – to a degree and within a certain mental and spiritual framework. I won’t get totally into how that might be a very bad thing for one’s spiritual development.

And certainly, there are very good, formational things which can happen on your spiritual insides via personally chosen practices and disciplines, perhaps to an even greater degree than by doing certain things because, for instance, a fast was called from on high. That is not to negate, though, what I’ve already said. There will be degrees of how effective something can or will be inside a person depending on the person, there state in life, “where” they are spiritually in their relationship with God, etc., etc. But again, even when we choose to do this or that by way of a spiritual practice or discipline, it is not only “our thing.” It belongs to the whole Body of Christ, because we belong to the whole Body of Christ. We are not a whole within ourselves.

Where things get problematic for me is when penalties are attached to these mandated practices and disciplines. Sure, keeping with the familial analogy I wrote about before, the “parents” can discipline their children for not taking out the proverbial trash, I suppose. How, though? To what extent? You decide not to take the trash out, so I (the Dad) kick you out of the house and refuse to feed you dinner any more? Say what? We need a whole Council to discuss what “grave matter” is – perhaps. Analogies, alas, do break down after a bit, even the good ones, even those that God gives us to explain our relationship with Him. They can never be perfect in how they explain things. St. Augustine said something once about how if you “do good for fear of punnishment, then you are a slave and not a son.” He went on to speak about how the more perfect way was to be a son to God and not a slave. We should be doing good for love of God, not for fear of punishment. The funniest part of his little statement, though, which is probably very wise, is that he said at the end, “if you can only do good for fear of punishment, then at least do that – eventually Love will come in and teach you the better way” – that’s from memory so likely not a perfect quote. Good stuff. I would like to see mandates like this aim toward leading all “the children” into a deeper Love and not work, if even passively, to perpetuate fear.

Wyman Richardson/Southern Baptist: Any attempt to “mandate personal spiritual practices” in a Baptist church is likely to go over like a pregnant high jumper. In fact, most Baptists view the word “mandate” in about the same way they view the word “heroin”: we know some people do it, but we think they shouldn’t.

I may be exaggerating a bit…well…no I’m not.

Now, certain civic practices are essentially mandated by the congregation. Ask any Baptist preacher who has forgotten to recognize the veterans on Veteran’s Day or any preacher who has, even worse, forgotten to recognize mothers on Mother’s Day. I tremble as I type. So there is an implicit mandate from the congregation based on its own idiosyncratic and, largely, civic traditions. But that’s not even liturgy. That’s syncretism.

Now, what many Baptist pastors do in an attempt to see their people “buy into” a particular devotional practice is either (a) guilt the people into it, which works in more sado-masochistic churches or (b) buy it in an over-priced, glossy, packaged, pre-fabricated format and then hope to dress it up with enough carnival atmosphere that the people will think it’s possibly more entertaining than the new episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County…which none of us watch, of course, we just stop “for a few minutes” while channel surfing.

You must understand: worldwide, intergenerational, transcontinental liturgical consensus and tradition cannot accomplish in over a thousand years what the latest Christian marketing gimmick can accomplish in a fortnight in a denomination that has learned to buy into almost anything so long as the workbook eventually has a final page and its presented in 150 font.

You can get Baptists folk to do just about anything (except fast) so long as you slap “40 Days Of…” before it.

Some of this is due to our penchant for what Tom Oden called neophilia (love of the new) and some is due to our truncated historiography which pretty much thinks Christian history started with Billy Graham. But whatever the reason, the average enculturated SBC church doesn’t get goosebumps over the thought of joining with the great cloud of witnesses in the rhythms of the Christian calendar, certainly not to the point of tolerating any kind of mandate! Oh, maybe on occasion, but only then in order to placate, at least for a year or two, a perceived tangent that some seminary-educated pastor seems to want everybody to follow him on. We get goosebumps over potlucks and church fights.

But I’m not bitter.

On the other hand, there are a growing number of Southern Baptist churches that are beginning to think that that “new church smell” we all pant over really makes us a bit nauseous, and that there is something strangely aromatic in the wonderful and strange world of ancient Christian customs like Lent, to take one example.

But let me say this: as a committed congregationalist, I myself am weary of “mandating.” But I will, despite my ranting, conclude by putting the blame on my own shoulders. Perhaps if we Baptist pastors began to intentionally educate our congregations in the logic, and beauty, and wonder of the classic Christian disciplines and in their wonderful liturgical manifestations, and, better yet, perhaps if we modeled them in our own lives and personal practices, then we wouldn’t be so frustrated.

As for fasting, one would think that a people who call themselves “People of the Book” would be compelled by the Biblical examples of and teachings concerning fasting to embrace that particular discipline. But, ironically, one recent study judged SBC folks to be the fattest Protestants in the United States, and one trip to your local SBC gathering will likely confirm that.

But, then again, I’ve just lost 30 lbs. and am only about halfway there, so who am I to talk?

William Cwirla/Lutheran: This is a timely question as some of us embark on the season of Lent, our “40 days of purple.” It’s also a great opportunity for the Lutheran to sound like a good old sola Scriptura Protestant for a change, though I’m quite aware of fellow Lutherans who have developed a hankering for corporate fasting and want everyone else to fall in line (always “in the Gospel,” of course).

Here’s the Lutheran take in a nutshell: Personal spiritual practices such as fasting are just fine and dandy, only keep them between you and God, don’t judge others, and they earn you no divine merit badges. Corporately mandated spiritual practices (excluding those specifically mandated by Christ, of course, like “Do this in remembrance of me”), are beyond the bounds of church authority. Of course, the churches need to have some agreed upon rules for the sake of order (for example, having set gathering times, rites, readings, seasons, etc), but even these are viewed as human arrangements not divine mandates. (That would include even Sunday, Christmas, and Easter, by the way.)

Lutherans officially consider fasting to be a “fine outward, bodily discipline” (Small Catechism). Jesus anticipated that His disciples would fast just as they would give alms and pray, but that these things would be done en crypto “in secret” away from the eyes of men (Mt 6:16-18). He warned His disciples to be careful lest their hearts become weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness (Luke 21:34). The apostle Paul speaks of subduing his body (1 Cor 9:27), though he himself recognized that outward discipline does little to restrain the sinful flesh (1 Tim 4:8; Col 2:23). (Origen learned the hard way that castration did nothing to curtail sexual lust. Ouch!)

This sentence from our confessional writings says it well: “Thus fasting in itself is not rejected, but what is rejected is making a necessary service of fasts on prescribed days and with specified foods, for this confuses consciences” (Apology to the Augsberg Confession, XXVI.39) So much for fish on Fridays or giving up chocolates for Lent. Prescribed fasts, with all the weight of church authority behind them, tend to bind consciences and lead people to believe that they sin if they do not go with the prescribed program.

The underlying theological principle is our blood-bought liberty in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). This is a strong and consistent theme with the apostle Paul both against the Judaizers, who wanted to establish practices of the Mosaic covenant among Christians, but also the various proto-gnostic “spirituals,” who were quite enamored of rigorous fasts and days. Paul would not allow anyone to be judged regarding food or drink or festival, recognizing that the reality of these things had come in Christ (Col 2:16-17). Moreover, these exercises of physical rigor and self-imposed worship may have the “appearance of wisdom,” but they “lack any value in restraining the sinful flesh (Col 2:20-23).

Romans chapter 14 is an excellent treatment of this topic. The apostle leaves matters of food and drink and days entirely to the individual under the umbrella of Christian liberty. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5). One person fasts, another eats whatever he wants. One person keeps various days and seasons, another treats all days alike. It’s all done with thanks to God, and it’s all good. As long as it proceeds from faith, knock yourself out. But don’t judge another or look down on another for doing more, less, or not at all. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). The only boundary to Christian liberty is the law of love that does nothing to cause a brother or sister to stumble in the faith. The rest remains en crypto. “So whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God” (Rom 14:22).

So how does it go with me and my own? Someone is sure to ask. As a pastor, I commend fasting as a fine personal discipline but make no rule about it. Personally, I fast non-religiously. My constitution prefers the discipline of intentional moderation to the see-saw cycles of fasting and feasting. I will intentionally forego things for a while that might be grabbing an unhealthy hold on me, just to get things under control. Lent can be a good season to take inventory of one’s addictions.

Would I ever impose a fast on my congregation? No. Would I participate in a fast imposed on me? No. Beyond that, it’s none of anyone’s business but God’s.


  1. And by the other way, it was the Catholic boy up there (namely me) who originally brought up any objection to “penalties” attached to mandated fasts. And there is no canonically established temporal punishment for not obeying mandated fasts, that I know of. It is stated, though, that it is “gravely sinful” – read that “mortally sinful” if you will, not to obey. The same is said of no fulfilling one’s obligation to go to Mass on Sunday. I’m saying that as a Catholic, I have a problem with how seriously these things are stated. It’s not necessary that the Church classifies these things in such serious and “grave” territory.

    Now, generally speaking, Catholics don’t go around thinking they are in fear of eternally separating themselves from the Life of God for infractions in these matters. But the stated “penalties” are still “on the books,” as we say. And as such, they still have a tendency, in some, to elicit fear and not love. I say this with respect for what the Church has mandated. I would not say that they shouldn’t be mandated. I’ve already made my case, such as it is, for that. On the matter of penalties, etc., though, I would only say that I believe it is perhaps time for an intensive rethinking of these things in our Western Catholic Tradition.

  2. One of the most attention getting Catholic convert apologist pieces I ever read basically said “When I gave up believing I knew I was going to heaven, then I became a real Christian.”

    I know exactly what this guy is saying….and I see it in other Catholic friends I know. They actually LIKE the church’s ability to say missing mass is a mortal sin, etc. I’ve bumped into this one more than once.

    Forgive me, friends, but I’ve given a lot of time to reading the Bible’s threats and promises, and if this is the energy the Christian life runs on, I am turning in my membership card asap.

    If that works for others, good for them. Really, I’m quite happy. But when I bump into this in Calvinism- and it’s all over guys like Piper- it’s a descent into hell for me. Introspection = despair. Look at and confess Christ’s person and work = assurance.

    No middle ground. But as I said, I understand that this appeals to some people, and we may be discovering that different traditions appeal to different people.

    I tell my students, if you can read the Prodigal Son and come out with anything short of a God who is overwhelmingly gracious to you when you really, really screwed up….then I can’t be of assistance.



  3. Alan and Martha, let me just say that on the point of Catholic canons, I am much much closer to iMonk. GRIN. That was why my comment that there is a deep philosophical divide between East and West on the subject of canons.

  4. iMonk, there is no middle ground between Catholic and Protestant because of the presuppositions of their arguments. Have some different, though similar, presuppositions, as the Orthodox do and it becomes, uhm, interesting. That is why we sometimes sound Protestant, sometimes sound Catholic, and sometimes simply sound like we are wwwaaaayyyyy out into space cadet country (mysticism). GRIN.

  5. PatrickW says

    I wonder how much of this discussion is due to the fact we are Americans, who grow up immersed in a culture of personal liberty, individual autonomy, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and all that.

    We’re glad to do virtuous things, but the idea of someone telling us we have to do them is unacceptable.

    Ask a group of Christians in Nigeria and I bet you will get quite a different response.

  6. Looking back at my Anglican post, I realize I should have been more clear about a few things.

    Anglicans do believe the Church has authority to dictate rites and ceremonies. In this case Church means the national Church or province. For example, the Provincial Synod of the Church of England decides what liturgies are used in its Churches. Any cleric who does not follow these requirements is liable to get in trouble with the Bishop or other ecclesiastical authorities. So Anglican churches go beyond the explicit statements of scripture in terms of what is required in worship.

    What’s distinctive is that Anglican’s are never supposed to say that these Canons are required to be followed for one to attain salvation in Christ. When it comes to things like fasting, Anglicans do declare fasts and we do have traditional fast days and we ask people to follow these. In fact we see them as normal Christian practice. But if someone in the parish does not fast on good Friday, they will not be put under the ban!

    My guess is the Anglican way isn’t tight enough relative to Rome or Constantinople and it is too tight for the free church tradition.

  7. wmcwirla says

    “That sounds to me like being taught by the disciples; almost like receiving something *through* the church *from* the Lord”

    “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)

    “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread…” (1 Cor 11:23)

    No, this is NOT about being “Protestant,” “anti-Catholic,” or “American.” It’s about this:

    “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

    It’s stuff like this that keeps me safely on this side of the Tiber and Bosphorus.

  8. Michael said

    “But when I bump into this in Calvinism- and it’s all over guys like Piper- it’s a descent into hell for me. Introspection = despair. Look at and confess Christ’s person and work = assurance.”

    Amen. To steal a quote from my Pastor, when I hear that stuff I lose the will to live.

  9. Yeah, I thought I sensed that laser target on the back of my head – the bullet just went through. Unfortunate.

  10. Michael, I see I have failed to make my subtle Jesuitical distinctions clear enough for you. Perhaps a more deeply Curial approach is necessary (pay no attention to that black van pulling up on the street outside. Those albino assassin friars aren’t looking for you. There is nothing to worry about.) 🙂

    Nowhere am I saying that Canon Law is on a level with, much less replaces, the law of God. What canon law is, is the rules for running the organisation. Same as I’d imagine your school has a code of conduct for how it expects its students and teachers to behave while on the grounds and in the classrooms, yes?

    When you get a whole bunch of people gathered together and organised and in a group and supposed to be working together, you find out you need some kind of guidelines as to what happens. Because it is inevitiably going to happen that you will get a complaint about how come that guy gets away with doing that when I did something much less and I got hammered and it’s not fair and I’m going to hold my breath until I turn blue!

    That’s what canon law is about: so an erring brother has to be be rebuked. How do we do this? How do we ensure that the brother gets fair treatment? How do we ensure that it doesn’t depend on which bishop he has – Bishop X being notoriously strict while Bishop Y is notoriously lenient? How do we assure the rest of the congregation that Brother Z is not being either persecuted or let off scot free? Yes, you say “start off with mild rebukes”, but what does that mean, exactly? How do I apply it when I’m dealing with cases of public scandal?

    And that last is very pertinent – see all the pro-choice Catholic politicians and the calls on one hand for their bishops to publicly denounce them and excommunicate them and refuse them the Sacrament, and on the other hand the calls to let them alone and don’t you dare do or say anything, you mediaeval witch-burners!

    Excommunication is the last resort.

  11. “I’m debating which is more horrifying: Codes of Canon Legalese or the Minutes of a Presbyterian Judicial Hearing in the OPC.”

    Michael, please note the following: “Can. 1313 §1. If a law is changed after a delict has been committed, the law more favorable to the accused is to be applied.

    §2. If a later law abolishes a law or at least the penalty, the penalty immediately ceases.”

    Are the Presbyterians that soft on sin? 🙂

    And to be more serious for a moment, taking your example of the pastor who comes to a church and rams through amendments to the constitution off his own bat for his own aggrandisment – that’s part of the purpose of canon law. It means that Father Pat or Monsignor Lou or Bishop Tom or Archbishop Joe or Cardinal Frank can’t put on his biretta, mitre or galero, mount the pulpit, and unilaterally declare that every parishioner must from henceforth under pain of damnation consume hazelnuts alone and unalloyed as the Official Nut of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

  12. OK….it’s getting a bit hot in here. Let’s open a window, shall we?

  13. That’s what John XXIII said. 🙂

  14. Michael, would do a post on the value of fasting?

  15. ??

    Would I?

    Not in this discussion. And I think Isaiah 58 and the example of Jesus speak clearly enough.

  16. iMonk – I tend to bring up both Isaiah 58 and St. John Chrysostom’s Easter sermon at the beginning of every Great Lent in order to set proper attitudes for fasting.

    Martha – to us Orthodox to refer to Church canons as law, and to apply them by following juridical principles, is sssssooooo wrong. That is part of the philosophical differences to which I have alluded between East and West.

    Pastor Cwyrla – no one denies that St. Paul received a direct revelation from the Risen Christ about the Gospel. But, I pointed out that most scholars, of many stripes, do not say the same about the Corinthian Scripture, given its structure and the particular words used by St. Paul to denote received/delivered. Are you then saying that the Lord directly taught St. Paul the details of the Lord’s Supper as well as how to celebrate it? And are you then setting up a contradiction between the Jerusalem Council which forbade certain types of food and St. Paul? If so, which one of the two was truly from God and to be followed as Scripture? Hmm, I know many liberals who set up apostle against apostle. 😉

    Alan – tag you’re it! 🙂

    Peter – in some ways the Orthodox views are not as far away from Anglican as you think. We also would never hook our canons to loss of salvation. To declare certain disobediences to be grievous sin (meaning mortal) is, uhm, way out of our sphere of thought. Canons have to do with growth in holiness, and bringing all into union with God (yes, again, I know not all shall be saved) not with salvation, in the narrow sense of the word. But, we do give more authority to the Church than you do.

    iMonk – when you bump into a Calvinist, you can know it was meant to be.

    And, from St. Augustine, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!’ (Homilies on John, 45, 12)” Believe me, we Orthodox know that there are many sheep outside of Orthodoxy and many wolves within her. In all my discussions here I am always so conscious of the failures and imperfections of the Church. I defend the ideal but am fully conscious of how short we all fall from that ideal.

  17. I had a discussion with Dr. Rosenbladt about his life’s work.( an exhaustive annotated bibliography compiling books from Lutheran, Wesleyan, Calvinist/Reformed, and the RCC according to doctrinal categories.) He told me that on subjects like soteriology, christology, anthropology etc. that his lists of sources were 250 to 350 pages long regardless of the tradition or the doctrine.
    EXCEPT when it came to the subject of ecclesiology. Those lists ran 450 to 600 pages long across the board in every tradition for which he was compiling sources. Apparently the church is its’ own favorite subject…

    Speaks volumes to me…

  18. It might help if I say why the Orthodox have such a strong emphasis on fasting. Below is a post I wrote on Aug 9.


    Here is a small tidbit for you. What was Adam and Eve’s sin?

    OK, here are answers that, while true, do not capture the question I am asking. Yes, they did disobey God. However, every sin is a disobedience of God. Yes, they did rebel. However, every sin is a rebellion against God. Yes, they did lie. But, that lie took place after the sin they had committed, thus it could not be the sin they had committed. Yes, they thought they could be like God. However, that was not the actual sin, that was the temptation to commit the actual sin. What request of God did they actually break?

    God asked them to refrain from eating of the fruit of a certain tree. When we are asked to refrain from eating a particular food, it is called abstinence. Actually, in Orthodox terminology, we call it fasting. Besides “be fruitful and multiply,” which some debate was not so much a commandment as a blessing, the first commandment from God, according to St. Basil the Great, was that we fast. St. Basil says, “Because we did not fast, we were chased out of Paradise; let us fast now, so that some day we return there.”

    This means that fasting, as a means of growth to maturity, was part of God’s plan from before the entrance of sin. Does that give you a different view of fasting?


    You see, for us, to not fast or to not do it rarely with no self-discipline, to find excuses not to fast, is to commit the same type of error that Adam and Eve committed. And, no, if you read the rest of St. Basil’s writing, he was not saying that we are saved by fasting, far from it. He was asking us to return to a similar obedience to that expected in the Garden of Eve. We do not abstain from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil since we have no access to it. But, we do practice fasting.

    This does not go to the question as to whether the Church can schedule fasts and expect obedience. But, it gives you an insight into why it is so important.

  19. Can someone provide a concise list of denominations that require scheduled fasting …?

    That might help the discussion.

  20. The easiest answer comes using the meta-categories of The World Christian Encyclopedia. They list four to eight meta-categories because scholars disagree on classifications. I will use the longer list for better clarity. Remember, all Christians encourage fasting, but may not require it. I have listed the groups with their current worldwide membership.

    Those who do not require fasting:
    Anglican Communion – 77 million members
    Pentecostals – 129 million members
    Protestantism – 555 million members
    Restorationists – 6 million members

    Those who require fasting:
    Eastern Orthodox – 260 million members
    Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches – 82 million members
    Roman Catholic – 1.2 billion members

    They have a final category called “Others” which means they defy classification, but are not a large part of Christendom.

    In passing the World Christian Database run from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary shows the USA as having the highest number of Christian denominations within its national borders. The second highest number of denominations is India, a well-known mission destination, and they have only 1/2 the number of denominations. We are far and away the country that has least been able to express the unity of the Body of Christ in any viable way.

  21. Hmm, a typographical error in my previous post. India only has 1/3 the number of denominations as compared to the USA, and is in the number 2 spot for number of denominations.

  22. I THINK the Catholic Church used to say it was a mortal sin to miss any weekly mass, but are they STILL teaching that as someone above states? If so, my soul is in mortal danger! (I did find that I can attend some masses early on weekdays and went twice this week. They are small and “cozy.” I am missing out on the singing of the big weekend masses though. I am afraid that even as I get more re-involved with the Catholic Church, I will always not be a “good” Catholic because my conscience will not allow me to agree with ALL the teachings. As long as we can stick with Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, saving grace and his coming again to judge the living and the dead, I will be OK.)

  23. “While he and others might give a nod toward it and say it has value, where are those posts describing and talking about its value?”

    The OP dealt with mandated fasts not the intrinsic value of fasting as a spiritual discipline per se. The question posed to us was: “To what extent can a church (and this context will vary from gangsta to gangsta) mandate personal spiritual practices? For example, what is your perspective on mandated fasts at particular times of the Christian year or for other causes? More importantly, what theology of Christian spirituality lies behind your reasoning?”

    The underlying issue is church authority; mandated fasting is only an incidental example. The Gangstas, and the highly informed comment stream, have done a great job in addressing this question from the perspective of Scripture, tradition, canon law, and even religious polling data.

    I’m sure if Michael would ask us, we Liturgical Gangstas would be more than happy to wax eloquent on the virtues of fasting, tithing, Bible verse memorization, 40 days of purpose, or even spinning seven times round quickly like Christopher Smart’s pious cat Jeoffrey in Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb.”

  24. “Hmm, I know many liberals who set up apostle against apostle. ”

    Nice ad hominem. Let’s take a moment and admire it.

  25. I do not write posts by request. And I’m not going to be taunted.

    I’ve got nine days off, and I plan to use it to clean up the comments on this blog.

    The moderation list is going to get much larger.

    Commenters: Talk about the subject. Cut out the personal taunting and disrespectful shots. Get the difference between learning about other traditions and prideful preening.

    Yes, a couple of commenters have got me thoroughly annoyed.

  26. >….Im — Not that you said the fasting is abusive — I’m taking your statement to mean that the requirement is an abusive wielding of religious authority.

    What could the possible bad motive be? Why should we not be trusting them in their decisions on this that it is for the good?

    Here we go.

    I never said fasting was abusive. You suggested I did. I said it’s not part of the New Covenant. I then said that pragmatic reasons for whatever can justify abuses.

    I’m just about done with this entire act.

  27. This is a link to an article about why Catholic’s fast.

  28. If you look at “by what authority” the Church tells people to pray it is in its authority as a mother and teacher. A mother insists that her children eat balanced diets, get exercise, and limit TV. The laws of the church have more in common with the laws of a family and the enforcement used by parents than they do the laws of the government and enforcement by police.

  29. No one is questioning the value of fasting. Catholic or otherwise.

  30. Pastor Cwirla – you are correct, and I apologize. I gave in to temptation.

  31. Fr. Ernesto – Apology accepted; ad hominem forgiven. All in the heat of spirited conversation.

  32. Fr. Ernesto

    “…Church administered punishments. I recognize that this is a leftover from the Middle Ages in the West, but such was not the Early Church stance.”

    I thought there were some cannons in the early Ecumenical Councils that mandated a certain frequency of communion and/or assisting at Divine Liturgy in order to remain in the Church. Is not this the same principle? Do X, Y, Z or you’re out!

  33. I think the last part of Wyman’s answer is the most important issue to consider. If the pastor is not practicing the spiritual disciplines then it will be almost impossible to find many congregants practicing them. Its the same with sharing the gospel – if the pastor is not doing it personally there is a high probability that the congregants will not be sharing the gospel either.

    I do not think some of these things should be mandated as much as they should be modeled. There is a greater chance of congregants fasting if the pastor is doing it, he speaks about it in such a way that it is evident he is doing it (knows about it from 1st hand experience), and he speaks under the authority of Scripture in order to challenge them to do it.

  34. When Lutherans state the whole story on where they stand on various issues, they usually end up not making either Protestant or Roman/Eastern Christians entirely happy. Here is a post on fasting I put up today that is an attempt to tell the whole story:


  35. Joshua D. says

    I love this topic (Anglican here), because it shows how weirdly we are both rebellious and legalistic in the same breath within the Body of Christ. Fasting, sacrifice, consecration, and salvation are all elements of the Body of Christ and therefore are promulgated to the world by the Body of Christ. These things are given to us as gifts of the Holy Spirit to minister to our fellow Christians and to a lost and dying world. Instead of treating them like legalistic acts or things to deny or dilute because they seem to constricting, we should embrace them out of love for our Lord and Savior. I spent six years in various SBC churches during my spiritual exploration and one thing that strongly stood out was a worship of the sense of propriety and not a worship of our Lord Jesus Christ. I had an ecstatic vision of our Lord’s journey down the Via Delorosa (Road of Sorrows) in the middle of a SBC church camp worship service, yet I was given some very odd looks whenever I mentioned it to friends in private. Yet these same people would talk about going to graveyards in the middle of the night to try to experience a dead person’s spirit. It was as if the things of God were not welcome because of how they looked in public, but the things of Satan were just fine as long as they were done under the cover of night. One of the struggles of the Baptist denominations is their lack of acknowledgment of God’s Real Presence among His people and this shows when things like fasting and discipline, which show this acknowledgment, are discussed as something for the whole church body to perform. The topic is poopooed as something that’s either too Catholic or too legalistic. The denial of God’s Presence can be construed as an implied denial of God’s existence for many, and so I’m led to believe that perhaps this is one reason why so many do become Catholics/Anglicans and alternatively, atheists.

  36. Fr. Ernesto, your presence on this blog is a blessing!

    I observe that those coming from a forensic legal model of how to understand Church “mandates” to fast will likely never comprehend the Eastern Orthodox mindset unless they are willing to call into question these forensic presuppositions. As formerly a longtime evangelical (going through various of its many camps over my 40 or so years under that banner), I seldom, if ever fasted (since it was not mandated), and derived little or no discernible spiritual benefit when I did. In contrast, I experience the “mandated” fasts in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as its other structures (i.e., Liturgical cycle of prayers and services, Confession, etc.) as an unmitigated blessing for my wandering soul and look forward to them already (this is only my second year as an Orthodox Christian) and have heard other Orthodox of many years say the same–a joy that only increases through the years. They are a blessing since I am abominable at structuring myself, and I know many others who have similar struggles. Now, I do not yet observe the full strict fasting rules because I am a beginner and there is much economy (as Fr. Ernesto has explained) to adapt rules for various individual personal aptitudes and needs under the guidance of one’s Priest. The spiritual disciplines, properly applied, are a means to fuller intimacy and communion with Christ (which I have definitely experienced since becoming Orthodox). They are not the end of the spiritual life in themselves and if practiced as such will benefit no one. I hope this is a helpful perspective for some.

  37. My last posting on this topic. GRIN. I have been way too busy they last four days!

    The difference between kanon (canon) and nomos (law) in Eastern thought is very strong. For almost any rule, you can find an Eastern Father explaining why in this particular case it should not be enforced and why in this other case it should be even more rigorous. That is, while the rule, if read juridically, would appear to mandate certain observances with certain punishments, in an unthinking manner, when one reads the Eastern Fathers and their written guidelines for application, one realized that a kanon is not a nomos.

    Read St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon and you will see kanon being expressed. GRIN.

  38. I wrote about the principles of fasting in a chapter in my book “Isaiah Insights to Teenage Temptations”, which is posted online here. http://scriptorium-blogorium.freehostia.com/Site/Chapter_4.html

  39. Awesome discussion.

  40. Larry Geiger says

    “I’m debating which is more horrifying: Codes of Canon Legalese or the Minutes of a Presbyterian Judicial Hearing in the OPC.”

    Ouch, ouch!

  41. My friend on Facebook shared this link and I’m not dissapointed that I came here.

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