Orthodox Christian Fundamentalism and the Western Latinized Phronema

By dogcatcher on July 1st, 2023

Gotruthreform.org Editor’s Introduction:

We are pleased to offer you one of the best articles that has ever been published on this website. It is written by a learned clergyman from the St. Louis Missouri area. His name is V. Rev. Fr. Steven C. Salaris M. Div., Ph.D. He is both an academic and a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. At the end of this article, we will provide his background information. We thank him for efforts to stem a form of fundamentalism that has taken hold within Orthodoxy. Our Editors and many others simply refer to those who follow this perversion of our Faith as “Ephraimites”.


Within the Orthodox Church, there is an ongoing battle between genuine Orthodoxy and the fundamentalist version of our faith. This aberrant version of Orthodoxy is being promoted by various monasteries and clergy in America and around the world. It has several characteristics that betray the teachings of the Orthodox Christian faith because it does not represent the genuine phronema of the Church. This article hopes to shine a light on certain fundamentalist teachings and how they are a product of a “Western Christian phronema.”


What is phronema? The term phronema refers to the “mindset” of Orthodox Christianity. It is the difficult-to-define way in which the Orthodox understand “Tradition” and points to realities beyond our comprehension.1 The phronema of the Orthodox Church2 is characterized as a multi-faceted approach to theology which includes the consistent use of ancient sources (i.e. Scripture and Patristics), our avoidance of having a rigid definition of things, our unity of faith despite a lack of centrality (Papacy), and lack of doctrinal development to name just a few.3 Modern Western Christianity does not have the authentic Orthodox Christian phronema (and probably never will). The phronema of the post-Schism and post-Reformation Churches of the West have evolved their own phronema with its unique characteristics. Three western phronema characteristics particularly important to this discussion are 1) development of doctrine, 2) legalism, and 3) natural law. Certain fundamentalist teachings can be rooted in the western phronema. Clergy and laity alike must learn to recognize this and seek to correct heretical teachings with the genuine phronema of the Orthodox Church. This discussion hopes to pastorally demonstrate clear examples of the errant Western phronema in fundamentalist Orthodox teachings.


Development of Doctrine: In her outstanding book on the Orthodox phronema, Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind, Presbytera Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou discusses how the Western Church (both Catholics and Protestants) theologizes and elaborates every minutia of theological detail. Two obvious examples of this desire to explain everything in the West is seen in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” and the “Confessions of the Lutheran Church,” both of which are around 800+ pages in length! No such attempts exist in the Orthodox Church despite many failed attempts to do so, such as the Calvinist-leaning Confession of Patriarch Dositheus in the 17th century. This is because the Orthodox phronema cannot be reduced to mere philosophical and theological “box” that can be elaborated in a multi-volume publication.


Incorporating this concept of development of doctrine, Western Christianity teaches that God reveals more to the Church over the centuries.4 As new revelations come to the Church, old truths are oftentimes “retired,” and new truths come to fruition. Two examples of the development of doctrine arose out of Vatican I in the late 19th century: 1) Papal Infallibility and 2) the Immaculate Conception (sadly, this is often misunderstood as the Annunciation by many Roman Catholics). Less than two centuries old, these Roman Catholic innovations are not part of the two millennia old apostolic faith nor of its phronema. Even before Vatican I, centuries of medieval theology formed via the Western phronema gave us Purgatory, indulgences, the filioque clause, penal substitutionary atonement, and eventually the teachings of the Protestant Reformation.


In contrast, the Orthodox Church teaches and believes that the fullness of the faith was delivered in its fullness to the Church at Pentecost. Scripture states, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).5


The apostles were not left on their own at Pentecost. Jesus had promised his disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit who would “…teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26). John does not teach that the Holy Spirit will teach new things over the centuries ahead. Instead, the Spirit will guide the Church to remember and engage in what was once deposited for all time. The next verse elaborates why Jude emphasized this:

“For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1:4).


Even the Apostles had to battle erroneous teachings in the early Church. The first centuries of church history are full of non-Orthodox mindsets that led to the heresies of Docetism, Gnosticism, adoptionism, etc. The battle for the phronema of the Church continues to this day when it rightfully defends the Church against the errant teachings of the modern Orthodox fundamentalist movement.


Within Orthodoxy, doctrinal development is exactly what has happened with the teaching about the “aerial tollhouses.” A nun, Theodora, centuries ago, revealed her journey through the tollhouses to St. Basil the New (10th century A.D.) in a dream. While this is not the place to undergo an elaborate description of the tollhouses, they are “weigh stations” where one is tested for sins like gossip, heresy (ironic enough), and a whole plethora of sexual sins. Failure to “pass the tests” with good works (already the Pelagian heresy of “works righteousness”) results in one being hauled off to eternal damnation. Fundamentalists use this teaching, along with the sacrament of confession, to scare unknowing Christians under their spiritual control into absolute obedience lest the tollhouses get you!


This teaching is not found in the Scriptures, nor is it found in any of the earliest of Church writings no matter how much mistranslating or purposely misused Scripture proof texts are cited. For example, fundamentalists use the text of Ephesians 6:12 which reads, “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” as proof of the tollhouses in Scripture. Their claim is that this verse is about the tollhouses. This is not an acceptable interpretation. Rather, it is correctly understood as a follow-up to Ephesians 2:1-4 which states,


“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”


St. Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians that before they were born again of water and the Spirit in the sacrament of baptism, they walked according to the world following Satan, the prince of power, and his minions. Ephesians 6 serves as a prelude before telling the Ephesian Christians to put on the armor of God so they can readily battle these aerial demonic forces in this life. These verses are not just for the ancient Ephesian community; they are also about the daily spiritual battle that every practicing Orthodox Christian must be engaged in today.


Further evidence against the fundamentalist teachings about the tollhouses (relative to Ephesians 6) is found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. In the section ironically labeled “Not Legalism, But Christ” in some Bibles, St. Paul reminds the Colossian community that in baptism we are united to Christ who took the,


…handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:14, emphasis mine).


If Christ defeated the principalities and powers on the Cross, how can they now “judge” us at the tollhouses?


The Tollhouse teaching is not a part of the faith once delivered to the saints; it is a new doctrine introduced post-Pentecost and post-Ecumenical Councils. It ranks with other erroneous doctrinal developments in the West. Therefore, according to our Orthodox phronema, this is unacceptable as a teaching, dogma, theologoumenon (theological opinion), or even a “pious opinion.” The Ecumenical Councils demonstrate this fact in that over the course of eight centuries, they did not produce new doctrines (sorry Dan Brown and “The DaVinci Code”). Instead, under the power and operation of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils defended the faith once delivered to the saints. They elaborated upon and explained the true teachings of the Church such as the Holy Trinity and the divinity and humanity of Christ that were already part of the apostolic kerygma6 from Pentecost to today. Many icons of the Ecumenical Councils show the Holy Spirit hovering over the council. This reminds us that these were times when the Holy Spirit brought to remembrance the true teachings of the Church over and against heresies. St. Paul tells all Orthodox Christians to “…stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). Therefore, we must reject any development of strange doctrines in our One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Orthodox Church. Since the tollhouses are a sure example of the Western Christian phronema of development of doctrine, on that point alone, they should be universally rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Church.


Legalism: Merriam-Webster online describes legalism as a “…strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” This is another characteristic of the Western Christian phronema common to both Protestants and Roman Catholics .7 For example, Protestant legalism is characterized by specific beliefs and behaviors for one to be recognized as “saved” such as speaking in tongues and saying The Sinner’s Prayer.8 In both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, legalism manifested in medieval times as penal substitution atonement theology where Jesus receives the punishment due to us to appease the divine wrath of the Father. This teaching has been repeatedly rejected by the Orthodox Church.


The Roman Catholic teaching on Purgatory is another Western manifestation of legalism. After death, a person must “pay off” their debt of sin in Purgatory. Connected with this teaching is that of the merits of the saints. Merits are difficult to define (thanks to the phronema of Western Scholasticism) as any internet search will reveal. For now, think of them as an overflow of mercy and grace that comes from the Virgin Mary, Christ, or the saints themselves. One does something such as a pilgrimage, indulgences, etc. to earn merits that can be used to pay off spiritual “debts” such as time off from Purgatory. See the legalism? In Orthodoxy, Purgatory and merits manifest themselves in the tollhouses. At each station, one’s bad deeds are measured on a scale, then an angel comes with a bag of gold (consisting of good deeds and/or merits) to counterbalance the accusations of the demons. Where in Orthodox Christian theology or the Bible does it say that we are judged by the demons? St. Paul states, “…we shall judge angels (I Cor. 6:3). Wouldn’t that also include the fallen angels? If so, how then can the demons judge us at the tollhouses? Consider the bad deal Adam and Eve got from Satan in the Garden of Eden.


Lastly, on the eve of the feast of the Ascension of Christ, one of the Vesperal Old Testament readings is from the Prophet Isaiah. He states,


Not and elder (πρέσβυς) or an angel (ἄγγελος), but the Lord Himself saved them from all their tribulation because He loved them and spared them. He redeemed them and took them up, and lifted them up all the days of old” (Isaiah 63:9 LXX).


Why would our God turn His back on His creation and leave it and all of us to demonic judgment? If the tollhouses exist, then why did Jesus die on the Cross? Why is there no Biblical record of Jesus Himself passing through the tollhouses after His death on the Cross?9 Why do we receive communion for the “forgiveness of sins and life everlasting?” So many questions that the fundamentalists must answer! Orthodox clergy must rightly teach that the tollhouses are an Orthodox version of Purgatory and that this heresy be rejected by the Orthodox Church.


Natural Law: Adherence to this teaching according to the western phronema is another hallmark of Orthodox fundamentalism. A full discussion of natural law is beyond the scope of this article because it is so complex and multifaceted (yay western development of doctrines!). For Christians, this teaching is partially based upon St. Paul’s discussion in Romans 1. St. Paul states that the Gentiles should have known God by just observing the created natural world. He In chapter 2, St. Paul teaches that some Gentiles actually followed the Law because it was “written on their hearts” even though they were not Jews themselves (re: Romans 2:12-16). The Roman Catholic Church has expanded this teaching into marriage. According to their phronema, if a certain human behavior (sexuality) is part of nature, then there are laws of nature – given by God – that govern its natural function. Marital relations fall under Natural Law since, according to the Roman Catholics, it has but one function and that is biological procreation. As a result of this “natural law legalism,” the Roman Catholic Church universally condemns the use of all forms of birth control. For them, birth control of any form violates “natural law” by interfering with the natural function of sex, i.e. procreation. Orthodox fundamentalists utilize this teaching and likewise use it to condemn the use of birth control. They follow the same teachings as the Roman Catholic Church because they back it up with Natural Law. The Church fathers are not silent on this subject. The ancient church knew only of chemical abortifacients and did properly condemn them. However, mechanical prophylaxis such as condoms, etc. or pharmacologic interventions that prevent release of the ovum did not exist at that time those Church fathers were writing. Modern issues need to be addressed by our modern Church Fathers (clergy and theologians) using the phronema of the Orthodox Church.


Addressing this issue of birth control, Fr. Stanley Harakas wrote:


…if a married couple has children, or is spacing the birth of their children, and wishes to continue sexual relations in the subsequent years as an expression of the continuing love for each other, and for the deepening of their personal and marital unity, the Orthodoxy of contraception is affirmed.10 (emphasis mine)


Similarly, the late Metropolitan Kallistos Ware stated:


“Many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers consider that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is not in itself sinful. In their view, the question of how many children a couple should have, and at what intervals, is best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own conscience.”11 (emphasis mine)


It is the teaching of our Church that, excepting the tragedy of infertility, having children is considered part of Orthodox Christian marriage. The husband and wife, however, can decide how many children to have and when they will have them (well, most of the time) and what is the proper spacing of those children to provide the best domestic conditions for a successful family. This requires Godly family planning. The Orthodox Church clearly teaches that the husband and wife are in control of their own family (their own “home church”), not some fundamentalist monk or clergyman.


What if husband and wife have sex but no child results. Is that a sin? Heavens, no! Even St. John Chrysostom, the “Martin Luther” of the fundamentalists, states that sex without conception is not wrong:


“…the woman receives the man’s seed with much pleasure and (…) [it] is mingled with her own substance and she then returns it as a child! (…) But suppose there is no child; do they then remain two and not one? No; their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.12 (emphasis mine)Chrysostom clearly teaches us that the sexual union of husband and wife is not only for procreation, but for the effectual bonding of the couple as one flesh. It’s called “making love” for a reason. In the same homily, St. John Chrysostom instructs his flock to, “…silence those heretics who call it [marriage] evil. God’s gift is insulted.”13 Philip LeMasters writes:


Marriage is the unique context for sexual relations; here the bodily union of man and woman becomes a means of salvation through which sexual passions are purified and the spouses grow in communion with the Trinity. St. John Chrysostom teaches that the sexual desire of the spouses for none another is not evil. (…) Indeed, Chrysostom criticizes men who do not come to church for fear of uncleanliness after having relations with their wives, reminding them of the Pauline saying that, “Marriage is honorable, and the marriage bed undefiled.”14


The Orthodox Church will always uphold the truth that human sexuality is only expressed in man and woman united as one flesh in the sacrament of marriage. That union is not just spiritual, but also physical. Chrysostom himself says that sex is honorable in Christian marriage and that it functions to unite the husband and wife as one flesh regardless of conception. As the opening chapters of Genesis tell us, all things created by God are “good” and that includes marriage and all the joys and pleasures that are associated with it. God does not need the “traditions of men” interfering with the Godly exercise of that sacrament by husband and wife.


As the Orthodox Christian Church finds itself in a Western Christian milieu, it is vitally important that we Orthodox understand and proclaim the correct phronema of the Church. This responsibility falls upon the leaders of the Church. Clergy must teach and show how our phronema is radically opposed to that of the Western Christians. Fundamentalism and theology built on the sandy foundation of the Western phronema run counter to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church. This is the ultimate blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – the unforgivable sin. Not only that, but erroneous teachings such as the tollhouses completely ignore Christ’s saving Passion, Crucifixion, and His Resurrection. It mocks the Cross; it mocks Christ. Those who push these westernized teachings are nothing more than Catholics or Protestants in cassocks. Let us, with prayer to the Holy Spirit, seek to remove this incursion of the Western phronema from within the Orthodox Church. In conclusion, I leave you with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth….” (John 16:13). May the Holy Spirit guide all of us to His truth so that we may “…with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6) for “…there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:4).


1 Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind. (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Press, 2020), pgs. 34-35.,/p>  

2 This includes the ancient Church of western Europe before the Great Schism of 1054 A.D.


3Scarvelis, pgs. 56-74.


4Scarvelis, pgs. 40-55.


5 All biblical quotations, both Old and New Testament are from The Orthodox Study Bible(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008)


6 Kerygma refers to the preaching of the Apostles as found in the New Testament.


7Constantinou, pgs. 38-39, 50-53.


8Constantinou, pg. 38


9The Psalmist says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” (Psalm 22(23):4 LXX). He does not say, “yea, though I walk through the valley of the demonic tollhouses!”


10Harakas, Stanley. Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian. (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1982), pgs.81-82


11Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pg.296.


12Chrysostom, St. John. On Marriage and Family Life. Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson, trans. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), Pg.76.


13Ibid, pg.76


14LeMasters, pg. 59

Recommended Reading:


Chryssavgis, John. Love, Sexuality, and the Sacrament of Marriage (Boston: Holy Cross Orthodox Press), 1998.


Constantinou, Eugenia. Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind (Chesterton, Indiana: Ancient Faith Press), 2020.


LeMasters, Philip. Toward a Eucharistic vision of Church, Marriage, Family, & Sex (Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing), 2004.




Chrysostom, St. John. On Marriage and Family Life. Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson, trans. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 1997.


Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind. (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Press), 2020.


Harakas, Stanley. Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing), 1982.


LeMasters, Philip. Toward a Eucharistic vision of Church, Marriage, Family, & Sex (Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing), 2004.


Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books), 1997.


Information about the Author from his Parish website:


V. Rev. Fr. Steven C. Salaris M.Div.,Ph.D


“I was born in Gary, Indiana. When I was four years old, my family moved to the small mountain town of Granby, Colorado where I lived until graduating from Middle Park Senior High School. I returned to Indiana to attend DePauw University and graduated with a B.A. in Biology. After that, I received a Ph.D. in mammalian physiology from the Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology at Purdue University. My doctoral research project involved studying the initiators of lipid peroxidation in liver tissue due to oxidative stress during reperfusion or following trauma.


After graduate school, I moved to St. Louis, Missouri to take a position as a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Cardiology at Washington University School of Medicine. For two years, I investigated ways to attenuate ischemia/reperfusion injury in the heart via the modulation of anaerobic glycolysis. I also began teaching biology courses at various campuses in the St. Louis area. That same year, I married Sheryl at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in St. Louis, MO. Later we moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I taught biology at St. Joseph’s University.


In 1997, as a result of a personal journey that began several years earlier, I began work on a Master of Divinity degree at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Christian Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY. While in seminary, I continued teaching biology part-time at local colleges. My M.Div. thesis examined the eucharistic typology of Hannah’s sacrifice in the Septuagint version of I Samuel 1:24. After graduating cum laude from seminary, I was ordained as a deacon and then, on July 9, 2000, I was ordained to the Holy Priesthood.


For the next five years, I served as the part-time pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Albany, NY while teaching at various colleges and universities such as the College of Mt. St. Vincent in Riverdale, NY and Concordia College in Bronxville, NY. I was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor and I received awards for working with both physically challenged and minority students. In the summer of 2005, I “retired” from teaching in order to pursue full-time ministry and was assigned to be the first full-time priest of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church (a mission parish started in 2003) in St. Louis, Missouri. On June 6, 2010, I was elevated to the rank of Protopresbyter (Archpriest).”


Here is the link: https://www.allsaints-stl.org/#OurClergy