I have written previously of boundaries and their essential nature in our spiritual lives. This can be described by the boundaries we experience within ourselves (certain ones must be maintained) or the boundaries we experience in an Orthodox Temple (such boundaries serve to teach us about ourselves and the Truth of our relationship with Christ).
One boundary which is perhaps the most essential, and yet contrary to much modern thought, is the boundary at the Cup of Christ. In Orthodox terms there is an absolute boundary set at Eucharistic fellowship that can only be crossed by those who share the Orthodox faith, life, and churchly communion. We never cross that boundary for “eucharistic” fellowship, or to promote “ecumenical” harmony.
Many who first visit an Orthodox Church, particularly if they are used to a communion with no boundaries, find Orthodox eucharistic discipline to be jarring and even “hostile.” Of course, nothing of animosity is intended. The Orthodox are only stating the obvious with the Cup. “You are not one with us in Christ.” That unity presupposes unity of doctrine, discipline, unity of worship, unity of submission to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church.
Though the Orthodox have traditionally avoided pronouncements about other Christian groups, the Orthodox cannot but believe that the Church is “One,” just as we have received it in the Creed. There cannot be two Churches, because Churches only come in “ones.” Neither can there be some overarching “invisible” Church – this is simply a modern fiction that seeks to remove boundaries that are necessary to our existence.
If the Church is not defined by its communion with Christ, what else would give it definition? Doctrine? Of course true doctrine gives the Church definition, but in most matters, the majority of Protestant churches would have no existence – for very few have any expectation of unity of doctrine.
Can institutional unity define the Church? Only if the Church is reduced to the level of a modern corporation. This, indeed, is the unity that most modern Churches have. They share a label and the right to that label exists like a local franchise. Pay your dues and you get the name. The sacraments are reduced to mere products offered to those who happen to be at any given sacramental service.
The Orthodox understanding of the sacraments and of the nature of the Church always makes it vulnerable to schism. There must be unity of faith and doctrine between Bishops (and with their people and priests) or communion, the living boundary of communion in Christ, is breached and schism results. Orthodox history is replete with the stories of schisms, both of some that continue to last, and some that have been healed, and some that are soon to be healed. But the virtue of the Church’s boundary existing at the edge of the Cup is that communion itself is never reduced to a mere ceremony, a token of hospitality, or something less than essential to the Church’s very being.
As recently as 50 years ago, almost all of the churches in the world, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant practiced communion discipline that understood that communion requires unity of faith. That consensus was shattered by the ecumenical movement as churches became convinced that “open” communion would soon result in unity within the Churches. The unity that has resulted has been a unity that has eviscerated Eucharistic Doctrine. No longer a sign of unity, it has become a matter of private piety between the believer, his or her conscience, and Christ. That is one way to do things, but it has no warrant in Scripture.
My first encounter with the Eucharistic discipline of the Orthodox Church did not offend me. It reminded me at the time that I was not Orthodox (not even orthodox if I were honest). It was a call to repentance and to a searching of heart. It gave me a boundary that invited me to approach – but in approaching it invited me to change – to believe the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles and recognize that many things in me had to change (or at least embrace the willingness to be changed).
I pray for all those who struggle amid impending schisms, and those who struggle with the understanding of the Cup having a boundary. Without that boundary, the Eucharist would lose its meaning, being relegated to the private imaginations of the individual members of invisible Churches.
These are boundaries that God has set. They are not the invention of man. Like the angel at the gate of paradise, they are a gift from God.