The Church of the Second Storey (And Why There Isn’t Really One)

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For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,  I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,  that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,  having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,  and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might  which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places,  far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come;  and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,  which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:15-23).

One of the great tragedies of the constant reinvention of Christianity over the past several centuries has been the tendency to forget very important parts of Scripture and to simply substitute human and cultural models for the revealed knowledge given to us by God in Christ. Perhaps the most obvious of these has been the complete forgetfulness of what the Scripture has to say about the Church.

In the multiform, constant chimera that has become the norm for Protestant Christianity, it is difficult to have a serious doctrine of the Church – the Church having been wrenched into forms and shapes that bear no resemblance to that which was established by Christ and which abides to this day. Instead, there has been the need to create abstractions such as the “invisible Church” where theoretical notions are made to substitute for the very concrete reality described in Scripture. The “invisible” Church is a pure modern fiction without warrant in the Scripture existing largely to cover the deformation of the Church that has happened at modern hands.

That which St. Paul would describe as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” is now spoken of as a “mere human institution” and such notions. Thus, “the Church,” like so many other realities of our faith, has by some been relegated to the “second storey,” a convenient place to store things that can be spoken of in ideal and abstract terms but which are preferred not to litter the landscape of the secularization of the first storey in which we live. (See my earlier articles on the “second storey“).

Thus the Church that inhabits this first storey is constantly being “reformed” in order to conform it closer to the theoretical model that mystically hovers above us. Thus such two-storey Christians never attend a real Church, only a human institution. All relationship with God is second-storey and theoretical.

Though certain events such as the Cross are recognized as historical, even they become removed to a second storey where they can be more conveniently discussed in abstract terms. Thus second storey Christians will sing about the “cross of Jesus,” but would shudder at the idea that there might still be relics of that true Cross among us. Indeed, if confronted by such a relic, they would gladly choose the abstract over the hard wood in front of them.

This second-storey Christianity is disincarnate. The scandal presented by the claims of the Orthodox Church are that it dares to speak of the Church in terms as concrete as the incarnation of Christ and assumes that our salvation is worked out in just such a concrete setting. Items such as candles, icons, incense, liturgies, doors, curtains, relics, vestments, water, wine, oil, etc., will all be dismissed as “empty ritual.” And yet nothing could be emptier than life in the first storey where everything of meaning has been relegated to the second floor.

Christ became man and dwelt among us. He took flesh of His mother, the Virgin Mary. He traveled with His family to Egypt to avoid a very real persecution. They returned later to a very dusty, quiet Nazareth. Before He began His ministry He went to see His cousin, John the Baptist, son of Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth. This same John had lept in the womb of his mother at the very sound of the voice of the Virgin Mother of God. Christ stood before His cousin and asked for Baptism – in water – wet and dripping – in the Jordan. There was a revelation of the Holy Trinity in that very event (not in the second storey but here). Christ continued his ministry, fasting for 40 days and being ministered to by angels at the fast’s completion. He called 12 men, with names and occupations, and made them into Apostles. One of them betrayed Him. Christ turned water into wine, healed the sick on the sabbath, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, cast out devils – all in the context of this first storey of our universe. Here he was vilified. Here he cleansed the Temple. Here he was arrested and tried and here He was crucified, dead and buried. In the mystery of the ages He descended into Hades and set at liberty those who were held in bondage, trampling down death by death – but His resurrected body bears testimony that even that event is within this first storey (not in some spiritual never-never land). He taught His apostles, who traveled and taught and were all martyred with the exception of St. John. They administered the sacraments He gave them, Baptizing, Communing, Healing, Ordaining, etc., all in this world. They appointed Bishops to head the local Churches and to carry on the work of the ministry. That Church, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all, is the only Church that has ever taught, preached or practiced the gospel. No theoretical “invisible Church” has shed its blood. The members of the Church who now reign with Christ and await the end of the age pray for this first-storey Church, surrounding it like a great cloud of witnesses. This Church has remained. It has seen its own betrayers as Christ saw his (though the betrayer did not suddenly render the faithful apostles into invisible apostles). But this Church has remained. It has resisted the blandishments of Emperors and the false claims of some Bishops. It has preserved what was delivered to it. If there are some who fail her now, may God have mercy on them and not hold it against them on the day of judgment.

But it is all here – not somewhere else. The fullness dwells among us. What else would the incarnation have done?

Comments

  1. says

    Such a profound testimony. But a testimony echoed by others outside your communion.

    If others have once been separated (some for hundreds of years) from Orthodoxy (I have read of some churches, unlike the Anglicans or Lutherans, in the east have found a restored communion); and then are restored, are they not then the Church?

    Perhaps some future day hundreds of years from now, the Campbell churches will see what they have been looking for in Orthodoxy. Then for me, what is the need to shed blood and tears to walk ahead of my brethren?

    How can I put myself above my family? Does not Paul say that he would give up his own salvation if only the Jews would repent and be saved (Rom 9:3)?

  2. says

    David,

    If I may offer a bit of wisdom, not original with me (it rarely is, come to think of it). St. Dorotheos of Gaza wrote that the closer one gets to the core (God), the more one loves his neighbor (and family, of course). Trying to balance devotion to family and God generally leads to “loving the one, and hating the other.” Loving God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul, I think, leads to the most profound love possible for one’s family and neighbors (and enemies): a divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

    without belittling the turmoil of your situation, I can see that perhaps the greatest love you could show your family is to follow the truth, to follow where Christ leads you. St Paul did speak very longingly for the salvation of his family, but it did not prevent him from following where Christ led.

    in Christ,
    Kevin

  3. says

    Steve, Cambellite (Restoration Movement) founded by a Presbyterian minister and some others in the 19th century to bring about unity. It became the Church of Christ, Christian Church, etc.

    David,

    Only God can tell you what to do – I can’t presume to. But above all else seek to serve God, without a rationalized plan about how your life is supposed to work out. If we seek God and His kingdom … the rest will be added.. as you know. May He be with you as you seek Him day by day.

  4. Margaret says

    Fr. Stephen, thank you, again! Your ability and willingness to describe aspects of the Church succinctly and simply is a gift which I rejoice in accepting!

    Thank you for addressing the questions concerning the Cambellite movement. As a child I attended the Church of Christ and I have an awareness of the situation. For all of us it is good to read in the Psalms, Delight yourself also in the Lord and He shall give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

  5. Anna says

    Fr Stephen, thank you for this post. I linked to it on my little blog–I hope you don’t mind?

  6. says

    “…the tendency to forget very important parts of Scripture and to simply substitute human and cultural models for the revealed knowledge…”

    So true! That is why good basic sermons on the power of the Blood of Jesus or on the bodily resurrection of those in Christ actually seem innovative to people. Many are shocked to discover that the Church has always spoken of these realities.

  7. says

    >And yet nothing could be emptier than life in the first storey where everything of meaning has been relegated to the second floor.

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for the wonderful post. I can’t even begin to express how much I indentified with what you wrote. I’m still wading into and exploring orthodoxy, but my reflections on Protestantism is almost exactly like what I quoted above. It makes life here and now at times so utterly empty and meaningless because “God’s already done His work by saving your soul.”

  8. says

    Thank you all for the kind comments. I am as much in debt to the insights I’ve shared (I’m only a collector and a sharer – not an innovator). I have been thinking a lot each day about the understanding of what I have expressed as a “one-storey universe,” and keep finding things opening that had been shut. Thank you again.

  9. says

    This second-storey Christianity is disincarnate.

    I think that sums it all up.

    David,

    Conversion is hard for many people. Only convert if it is what you want to do and you are prepared to take the consequences whatever they may be.

    A friend of mine came near to divorce because he wanted so badly to be in the Orthodox church, but his wife did not. He no longer attempts to attend the liturgy or any other services.

  10. Ryan says

    Father,
    What do you mean by “the invisible Church”? When I’ve heard that term used (in a Protestant setting) it meant that there is a faithful remnant of true Christians within a larger body of people who call themselves Christian, but really aren’t. This extends to people outside one’s denomination (or group), so it’s an ecumenical notion too. Do you disagree with the idea of a faithful remnant or that there are true Christians among Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant groups?

    Also, what are some of the forms and shapes the Church has been wrenched into? I share your concern that too many Christians abandon traditional ecclesiology in favor of conforming to the culture and fads of the day, but I’d like to know what kinds of things you’re thinking of.

    I’ve never heard anyone conceive of reformation in terms of trying to match up to a mystical ideal model, either–unless it be something like trying to make a local congregation into a multi-racial, multi-age, multi-economic and social status one because that’s what the Church as a whole looks like. How do you see this attempted?

    I agree there is a lack among those who reject physical rituals (like the icons, candles, etc.), but I don’t know any Christians who go so far as to say the Church isn’t physically manifest and present on this earth. I also don’t know any who recoil from the concrete historicity of Jesus’ life, ministry, etc. (I must admit, though, that my lack of experience with people who hold such ideas doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.)

    I would tentatively put certain relics in a different category. I think there is a legitimate skepticism because of the claims of the Roman Catholic church to have three foreskins of Christ and such things. But maybe those who know much more about relics than I do are able to clearly discern between the fabricated relics and true ones.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months now, and have especially enjoyed your “two-storey Christianity” posts, but I’m having a hard time getting on board with this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  11. says

    I appreciate the spirit of your advice Mark, but I think I cannot take it as presented. What I want, may have little to do with what God wants.

    From the beginning of my inquiries, I have been confronted with Orthodoxy as “The Church”. I have a broader ecclesiology (visible vs invisible). But the claim remains. I have come about as far as I can come in terms of “learning from Orthodoxy” without “becoming Orthodox”. Like a plant that won’t grow taller until it’s placed in a larger pot, I’m rather stuck.

    But at what price? Not for me (no price for me should be too great). But for others whom I know and love and have fellowship in Christ.

    I have become convinced of a great many things about Orthodoxy. But I am not yet sure of that claim of visibility via apostolic succession. If I were, then I would have to then be convinced that visibility isn’t just superior, but that it necessarily excludes invisibility. Then finally, I would have to be convinced that heresy is worse than disfellowship.

    To be Israel is to struggle with God. If I come to Orthodoxy it will not be because I want to, per se, but rather because I am ready to come to obedience.

  12. says

    Ryan,

    The idea of an invisible Church is much as you have described. It is an effort to avoid the problems created by multiple denominations (created by Protestants) while retaining the idea of Church. The visible Church is thus relegated to a very relative status.

    The Church is One and Visible. The Fathers knew nothing of an invisible Church (for they did not need to). God alone knows who the faithful are, but the faithful are visible. Are their faithful within the Roman Catholic or Protestant, etc. (the non-Orthodox) there are certainly those among them who are more faithful than some Orthodox, and the Orthodox would maintain that it is possible to speak of these (indeed finally everyone) having some sort of relationship to the One, Visible Church, that is not well defined (and we have no definition for it – God knows).

    But we cannot invent a new notion of the Church, unknown to the Scriptures or the Fathers. My understanding, as I have heard it, in speaking of an invisible Church, may mean to include in it many visible members, but in any practical terms, the Church has passed into theory and out of any practical reality. This is not Scriptural.

    As for relics, the abuses certainly have existed from time to time, but were greatly exaggerated. But relics are Scriptural (think of the bones of Elisha) and to fail to honor them is to despise the saints. I have my own doubts about certain relics. But I do not fear to honor them. But they have always been treaures of the Church. I understand your reluctance.

    By those who show reluctance about Christ’s physical ministry among us, are those who refuse to honor His mother and the sacramental character of that ministry. They want to make everything “spiritual” and mean by that something removed from the concrreteness of our existence. Some Protestants (Church of Christ and some Fundamentalists) would even teach against miracles occurring in the modern age. Claiming that all we need is the Bible.