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OCMC News - Discipline of the Secret

by Anastasia Pamela Barksdale (Posted 10/11/2009)

Disciplina Arcana: The Secret Discipline

By Anastasia Pamela Barksdale, M.Div.

The Orthodox faith is sometimes called the "the best kept secret" in the Christian world because we seem reticent to speak about our faith. What is it about the Orthodox ethos and phronema that appears to de-emphasize the need to proclaim the "Good News" in word and deed? The Lord commanded His disciples to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). In the face of this Great Commission, how is it possible that we have become so quiet, so seemingly hesitant to share the Good News?

Orthodoxy is steeped in mystical theology, and an attitude of awe and silence before the presence of God encompasses the liturgical life. The early Church knew this practice of reverence and mystery as disciplina arcana, the secret discipline; and it manifested itself in two specific forms: (1) An attitude of silence about the doctrines of the Christian faith with non-believers; and (2) the instruction or training of catechumens to turn introspectively within themselves during the time of catechesis, that they may begin to perceive the inner voice of their consciences, "one's inner thoughts" or "private ear."

The practice of shielding the faith from unbelievers developed partly in response to the persecution of the Church by the pagan world and partly from the religious attitudes (Greek and Jewish) of the early Church. It is difficult to decipher whether the practice set the tone for the theological approach to catechesis that developed or whether it reflected the theological ideas of a particular age in history. We can detect the remnants of its existence in our spiritual practices today in the great emphasis upon the mystery of God, in the use of apophatic theology, in the Jesus prayer and silence of the Hesychasts, and in the profuse use of symbolic language in our liturgical life. The formal practice of disciplina arcana died out in the 5th and 6th centuries, and yet the profound influence it wrought upon the early Church is immeasurable.

Does the practice of disciplina arcana exist in the Church today? Have we confused our understanding of maintaining an attitude of holiness in the face of the great mystery of God with "keeping our faith secret" from people who desperately need God’s truth and love? This is a question that requires thoughtful study and attention to the tenets of our faith and how they are lived and shared in the contemporary context of a pluralistic and secular society. There is much to be learned from the history of the Church, and if we look briefly at how the ethos and phronema - the mind of the Church - developed in relationship to the practice of disciplina arcana, we may find a deeper understanding of how to nurture and witness to our faith in the contemporary world.

Disciplina Arcana in the Life of the Early Church

Jesus walked among and taught the multitudes, "but Jesus did not trust himself to them… for he himself knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25). Jesus understood the fallen nature of man and the problem of sin and evil in this world and our need not only to learn to discern good from evil, but to choose the good. His parables depicted concrete situations and people making moral choices based upon their understanding of good and evil. Jesus directed people to the "kingdom of God," to the treasury of righteousness within their own hearts, to their free will, to their consciences.

Challenged with the commission to evangelize "all nations," His disciples faced the dilemma of both sharing and shielding the Faith from non-believers. St. Peter, in a lecture entitled "Pearls before Swine," spoke about the need to discern when and to whom to speak about the Christian faith:

"Nothing is more difficult, my brethren, than to reason concerning the truth in the presence of a mixed multitude of people.… Shall he conceal what is true? How, then, shall he instruct those who are worthy? But if he set forth pure truth to those who do not desire to obtain salvation, he does injury to Him by whom he has been sent, and from whom he has received commandment not to throw the pearls of His words before swine and dogs… Wherefore I also, for the most part, by using a certain circumlocution, endeavor to avoid publishing the chief knowledge concerning the Supreme Divinity to unworthy ears."

Rufinus, in the 4th century, provided insight into the understanding of the early Church regarding disciplina arcana, the uninitiated, and the Apostolic Creed. Rufinus regarded the Creed as a kind of "password" and explained that it is part of the oral tradition of the Church and must be kept secret and unwritten.

The apostles therefore prescribed the Creed as a badge for distinguishing the man who preached the truth about Christ in harmony with their rule. Then, if someone of doubtful identity turned up, he could be asked for his password and would be revealed as friend or foe. Furthermore, the story continues, the reason why the Creed is not written down on paper or parchment, but is retained in the believers’ hearts, is to ensure that it has been learned from the tradition handed down from the Apostles, and not from written texts, which occasionally fall into the hands of unbelievers.

The early apologists like St. Justin Martyr appear to be acting in sharp contrast to this practice of secrecy; his apologies were written in defense of the Faith. He wrote two apologies, the first to Antonius Pius, Emperor of the Roman Empire, and the second to the Roman Senate, defending the faith and accusing the Romans of failing to adhere to their own system of law and justice.

Disciplina arcana took the form not only of secrecy but also of the use of symbolic language. Clement of Alexandria, founder of the Christian School of Alexandria, which was known for perfecting the "allegorical" form of interpretation of Scripture, used disciplina arcana as a catechetical tool to obscure the teachings of the Faith from the uncatechized. The practice of allegorical interpretation developed partially from this practice and partially from the Hebrew traditions, as archetypical symbols from the Old Testament were transmitted to the early Christians and the events of the New Testament were shown to be the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies.

Christians were persecuted from the outset by the Jews and pagans of the Greco-Roman world and were required to obscure the symbols of faith so that they would not attract unwanted attention. Thus many of the early Christian symbols were also symbols which are shared by pagan religions. However, the Christian meaning of the symbol was kept secret, and only those who were knowledgeable about the Faith could decipher their true meaning: For example, the good shepherd, representing Christ, was made to resemble the shepherd god Hermes; the banquet of bread, wine, and fish was similar to the Roman funeral meal; the 12 Apostles coincided with the 12 major gods of the pagan worlds. And so it is with the symbols of the fish, the anchor, and the palm of victory: each have corresponding pagan meanings.

To a certain degree then, disciplina arcana fostered the development of a symbolic liturgical language because of the persecutions which forced Christians to act in secrecy, and the use of allegorical interpretation contributed to the development of a distinctly Christian symbolic and mystical language.

Disciplina Arcana and the Catechumen

Catechetical education became more formalized by the 5th century. St. Cyril of Jerusalem has left the clearest picture of a type of early catechesis. His lectures, delivered i

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God of truth and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Hear our prayer for those who do not know You. That they may come to a saving knowledge of the truth, and that Your Name may be praised among all peoples of the world. Sustain, inspire, and enlighten Your servants who bring them the Gospel. Bring fresh vigor to wavering faith; sustain our faith when it is still fragile. Continually renew missionary zeal in ourselves and in the Church, and raise up new missionaries who will follow You to the ends of the world. Make us witnesses to Your goodness full of love, full of strength, and full of faith for Your glory and the salvation of the entire world. Through the prayers of all the missionary saints, Have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
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