I have added Fr. Georges Florovsky’s seminal article, “The Limits of the Church,” to the Pages section of the blog. This article is one of the most thoughtful and oft-discussed treatments of St. Cyprian’s statements on the Church and the limits of grace. Florovsky’s understanding both takes St. Cyprian seriously as well as the canonical practices of the Church through the ages in the matter of the reception of converts. If you have thoughts or questions in this area – Florovsky’s article is a must read.
Some ten years ago, I recall reading Fr. Florovsky creative attempt to employ Bl. Augustine’s ecclesiology as a key for cutting through the gordian knot created by the apparent incompatibility between St Cyprian’s ecclesiology and that expressed in Basil the Great’s First Canonical Epistle. At the time, some ten years ago now, I felt that Fr. George’s work seemed to be onto something, but ultimately dissatisfying. Still, it did seem better than Nicodemus’s attempt in the Pendalion to harmonize Cyprian and Basil’s approaches. Indeed, the Pendalion systematically reversed what had been the normative practice of Orthodox since at least the 4th century (and most surely earlier), thereby solely on Nichodemus’s incorrect notion that the typically rigorous, North-African, Latin, juridical approach of Cyprian enjoyed greater antiquity than Basils. Thus, Nichodemus unilaterally “reinstated” Cyprian’s conciliar legislation on (re)baptism despite the fact that Byzantine canonists had understood Cyprian’s procedure as superseded by later practice and also had interpreted the Apostolic Canons in the light of the rulings of Basil the Great, the Synod in Trullo, and other authoritative texts expressing the more ancient ecclesiology of the Church.
Upon re-reading Florovsky, and the pertinent portions of the Pendalion commentaries, my disquietude remains about using either Augustine or Nicodemus as the key to unraveling to the apparent ecclesiological inconsistencies found within Orthodoxy to this day — in large part because of both seem to use a Latin, juridical approach to the whole matter. We must recall that Augustine, though not the only juridically minded thinker in Christian antiquity, is the Father par excellence of that characteristically Latin theological ethos. Furthermore, we must recall that Nicodemus first published the Pendalion in 1800 A.D., well before the Orthodox Neo-Patristic Movement arose to fight against the (in)famous “Western Captivity” of the 17th and 18th century Orthodox methodological mindset. And — as I am convinced of the general correctness of the Orthodox Neo-Patristic Movement, which helps express and recapture the historically “therapeutic phronema” of Holy Tradition — the juridical tenor of the approach of both Augustine and Nicodemus natural seem alien to the recovery of an authentic Orthodox ecclesiology.
Of course, as a preeminent figure in the Neo-Patristic Movement himself, Florovsky was generally no fan of Augustine’s overly juridical tendencies. And, as I read him, Fr. George was attempting to “baptize” or redeem the outcomes of Augustine’s ecclesiological views because they, rather than Cyprian’s, seemed closer to the perennially and universally praxis of the Church, which accepts the baptisms of separated Trinitarian Christians — a practice that Cyprian could never have countenanced. Nevertheless, though correct in his goal, I believe that Florovsky simply comes up short as he was striving to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse — only the Lord himself can do that. As between Cyprian, Nichodemus, and Augustine, I would chose the Augustine’s ecclesiology. But this trichotomy is false, as a a more ancient, fourth way exists.
Indeed, instead of Florovsky’s close-but-no-cigar attempt to redeem Augustine’s juridical rationale for recognizing schismatic baptisms if Trinitarian, I believe that it is past time that we simply bite the bullet and admit that, regardless of his other virtues, St Cyprian’s puritanical approach to ecclesiology was simply wrong head as was Nicodemus’s recasting of it. Indeed, by his own admission, Cyprian’s black-and-white ecclesiology was a novelty, inconsistent with ancient prevailing practice, when he unveiled it. And, its difficult to see how an ecclesiology propounded for the first time in about 230 A.D., admitted by its author to be in contradiction to prior practice, could possibly constitute an authentic statement of Holy Tradition. Moreover, we must keep in mind that Cyprian advanced his novel theory of bright-line ecclesiological exactness in the heat of an almighty row regarding who ought be deemed the true Bishop of Rome. And, this was hardly the sort of calm atmosphere conducive to reflection upon, and reiteration of, the ancient, consistent, and universal approach of the New Testament Church to defining its earthly parameters.
Furthermore, when St. Cyprian’s form-over-substance, logically rigorous ecclesiology — Cyprian is (in)famously quoted as saying that the Orthodoxy of a man’s beliefs and practices are utterly irrelevant and utterly void if he has irregular ecclesial standing — simply pales in comparison to the older, more “proportional” ecclesiology found in Basil the Great’s First Canonical Epistle. Indeed, Basil’s sought bring those once in good standing with the Church back into the fold by avoiding any rigid or strict approach that might have the tendency toward hardening of hearts, creation of intractable separations, and the entrenchment erroneous views in the mind of the separated. As long as separated Trinitarian Christians (of which he accounted even those whacky charismatic Montanists!) sought to surrender and to return to the bosom of the Church, Basil was against imposing the “harsh peace” of rebaptism. In sum, Basil’s proportional ecclesiology for the Church Militant, which unlike Cyprian’s rigorously logical in-or-out of the Church classification systems, seems envision three categories of those purporting to be disciples of Christ. First, there are those in good standing of the canonical, Apostolic Church. Second, are Trinitarian Christian’s that have separated themselves over a secondary matters and thereof are in bad standing — but with efficacious sacraments. Third, there are non-Trinitarians, claiming to be Christians in that they purport to follow Christ, but who are by their own professed, formal heresy outside even the outermost parameters of the Church and therefore have no efficacious sacraments.
In further explanation of Basil’s ecclesiology, and demonstration of the superiority of thereof, I offer for your the reader’s consideration (should Fr. Stephen consent) the following passages quoted from the “Agreed Statement on Baptism” produced in 1999 by the standing and still functioning North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation:
* * * * * * *
In the Orthodox Church, a consistent position on the reception of those baptized in other communions is … difficult, though not impossible, to discern. On the one hand, since the Council in Trullo (692), the canonical collections authoritative in Orthodoxy have included the enactments of third-century North African councils presided over by Cyprian of Carthage, as well as the important late-fourth-century Eastern collection, The Apostolic Canons. Cyprian’s position, supported by his contemporary bishop Firmilian of Caesaraea in Cappadocia, was that salvation and grace are not mediated by schismatic communities, so that baptism administered outside the universal apostolic communion is simply invalid as an act of Christian initiation, deprived of the life-giving Spirit. Influential as it was to be, Cyprian and Firmilian both acknowledge that their position on baptism is a relatively new one, forged probably in the 230s to deal with the extraordinary new challenges presented by Christian sectarianism in an age of persecution, but following logically from a clear sense of the Church’s boundaries. The Apostolic Canons, included in the larger Apostolic Constitutions and probably representative of Church discipline in Syria during the 380s, identifies sacraments celebrated by “heretics” as illegitimate, although it is not clear in what sense the word “heretic” is being used; the following canon brands it as equally sacrilegious for a bishop or presbyter to rebaptize someone who is already truly baptized, and to recognize the baptism of “someone who has been polluted by the ungodly.” Both Cyprian and the Apostolic Canons, in any case, draw a sharp line between the authentic visible Church [Militant] and every other group which exists outside its boundaries, and accords no value whatever to the rites of those “outside.”
On the other hand, continuing Eastern practice from at least the fourth century has followed a more nuanced position. This position is reflected in Basil [the Great’s] First Canonical Epistle (Ep. 188, dated 374), addressed to Amphilochius of Iconium, which claiming to follow the practice of “the ancients,” distinguishes among three types of groups “outside” the Church: heretics, “who differ with regard to faith in God;” schismatics, who are separated from the body of the Church “for some ecclesiastical reasons and differ from other [Christians] on questions that can be resolved;” and “parasynagogues,” or dissidents who have formed rival communities simply in opposition to legitimate authority. Only in the case of heretics in the strict sense, those with a different understanding of God, among whom Basil includes Manichaeans, Gnostics, and Marcionites, is baptism required for entry into communion with the Church. Concerning the second and third groups, Basil declares that they are still “of the Church,” and as such are to be admitted into full communion without [re]baptism. This policy is also reflected in Canon 95 of the Council in Trullo, which distinguishes between “Severians” (i.e., non-Chalcedonians) and [so-called] Nestorians, who are to be received by confession of faith; schismatics, who are to be received by chrismation; and heretics, who alone require baptism. Thus, in spite of the solemn rulings of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils [apparently] against their christological positions, “Severians” and [“]Nestorians[“] are clearly reckoned as still “of the Church,” and seem to be understood in Basil’s category of “parasynagogues;” their baptisms are thus understood–to use scholastic language–as valid, if perhaps illicit.
In an atmosphere of heightened tension between Orthodoxy and Catholicism following the Melkite Union of 1724, and of intensified proselytism pursued by Catholic missionaries in the Near East and in Hapsburg-ruled Transylvania, the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril V issued a decree in 1755 requiring the baptism of Roman Catholics, Armenians, and all others presently outside the visible bounds of the Orthodox Church, when they seek full communion with it. This decree has never been formally rescinded, but subsequent rulings by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (e.g., in 1875, 1880, and 1888) did allow for the reception of new communicants by chrismation rather than baptism. Nevertheless, these rulings left rebaptism as an option subject to “pastoral discretion.” In any case, by the late nineteenth century a comprehensive new sacramental theology had appeared in Greek-speaking Orthodoxy [but not amongst Slavs] that provided a precise rationale for such pastoral discretion; for the source of this new rationale, we must examine the influential figure of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1748-1809).
The Orthodox world owes an immense debt to this Athonite monk, who edited and published the Philokalia (1783), as well as numerous other works of a patristic, pastoral, and liturgical nature. In the Pedalion (1800), his enormously influential edition of, and commentary on, canonical texts, Nicodemus gave form and substance to the requirement of rebaptism decreed by Cyril V. Thoroughly in sympathy with the decree of 1755, and moved by his attachment to a perceived golden age in the patristic past, he underscored the antiquity and hence priority of the African Councils and Apostolic Canons, and argued strenuously, in fact, for the first-century provenance of the latter. Nicodemus held up these documents, with their essentially exclusivist ecclesiology, as the universal voice of the ancient Church. In so doing, he systematically reversed what had been the normative practice of the eastern church since at least the 4th century, while recognizing the authority of both Cyprian’s conciliar legislation on baptism and the Apostolic Canons. Earlier Byzantine canonists had understood Cyprians procedure as superseded by later practice, and had interpreted the Apostolic Canons in the light of the rulings of Basil the Great, the Synod in Trullo, and other ancient authoritative texts.
Nicodemus was clearly obliged, however, to reckon with the approach of Basil the Great and the ecumenically-ranked Synod in Trullo to baptism “outside” the visible Church, different though it was from that of Cyprian. His attempt to reconcile his sources with each other drew on a very ancient term, oikonomia, used in the New Testament and patristic literature to denote both God’s salvific plan and the prudent “management” of the Churchs affairs, and employed in later canonical literature as roughly the equivalent of “pastoral discretion” or stewardship. In adapting this term to differentiate between what he understood as the “strict” policy (akriveia) of the ancient Church and the apparently more flexible practice (oikonomia) of the Byzantine era, Nicodemus inadvertently bestowed a new meaning on the term oikonomia. By means of this new understanding, Nicodemus was able to harmonize the earlier, stricter practice of Cyprian with that of Basil and other ancient canonical sources; so he could read the fathers of the 4th century as having exercised “economy” with regard to baptism by Arians in order to facilitate their reentry into the Church, just as the Synod in Trullo had done with respect to the “Severians” and Nestorians, and could interpret the treatment of Latin baptism by Constantinople at the Synod of 1484 and later Orthodox rulings as acts of “economy” designed to shield the Orthodox from the wrath of a more powerful Catholic Europe. In his own day, he argued, the Orthodox were protected by the might of the Turkish Sultan, and so were again free to follow the [supposedly] perennial “exactness” of the Church. Latins were therefore now to be [re]baptized.
After the publication of the Pedalion in 1800, backed by Nicodemus’s formidable personal authority, the opposed principles of akriveia [strictness] and oikonomia [in the sense of dispensation] came to be accepted by much of Greek-speaking Orthodoxy as governing the application of canon law in such a way as to allow for either the rebaptism of Western Christians (katakriveian), or for their reception by chrismation or profession of faith (katoikonomian), without in either case attributing to their baptism any reality in its own right. This is the understanding that underlies the “pastoral discretion” enjoined by the Synod of Constantinople of 1875, as well as by numerous directives and statements of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since then. In the work of some modern canonists, oikonomia is understood as the use of an authority by the Church’s hierarchy, in cases of pastoral need, to bestow a kind of retroactive reality on sacramental rites exercised “outside” the Orthodox Church — rites which in and of themselves remain invalid and devoid of grace. The hierarchy is endowed, in this interpretation, with a virtually infinite power, capable, as it were, of [retroactively] creating “validity” and bestowing grace [in a rite] where they were absent before.
This new understanding of “economy” does not, however, enjoy universal recognition in the Orthodox Church. We have already noted that the East Slavic Orthodox churches remain committed to the earlier understanding and practice of the Byzantine era, which does not imply the possibility of making valid what is invalid, or invalid what is valid. Even within Greek-speaking Orthodoxy, “sacramental economy” in the full Nicodemean sense does not command universal acceptance. As a result, within world Orthodoxy, the issue of “sacramental economy” remains the subject of intense debate, but the Nicodemean interpretation is still promoted in important theological and monastic circles. Although these voices in the Orthodox world are significant ones, we do not believe that they represent the tradition and perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church on the subject of baptism.
The [ecclesiological] “inconsistencies” to which we referred at the beginning of our second section turn out, on closer inspection, to be less significant than they might appear to be. Granted, a vocal minority in the Orthodox Church refuses to accord any validity to Catholic baptism, and thus continues to justify in theory (if less frequently in fact) the (re)baptism of converts from Catholicism.
The influential theory of “sacramental economy” propounded in the Pedalion commentaries does not represent the tradition and perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church; it is rather an eighteenth-century innovation motivated by the particular historical circumstances operative in those times. It is not the teaching of scripture, of most of the Fathers, or of later Byzantine canonists, nor is it the majority position of the Orthodox churches today.
Let us note, here, that Father Florovsky offered his comments in this inchoate and rather incoherent article, written very early on in his career (1933), in a heuristic spirit. Its subsequent reprinting in a number of different publications was, in fact, a cause of concern for him later in life.
After serving in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Serbia, where he was awarded the gold pectoral Cross and where he embraced a more cautious and conservative ecclesiology, he went on, as one of the founders of the World Council of Churches, to argue rather vociferously for the primacy of the Orthodox Church and to insist that Her ecumenical witness be clearly defined in terms of Her sole claim to the legacy of the Apostolic Church. Not only did he write ensuing articles that expressed this far different and more conservative ecclesiology, but he publicly expressed his regrets about his earlier views, drawn from the doctrines of St. Augustine, as well as
about the general course of the ecumenical movement, at a Patristic symposium at Princeton University in 1975. His original English article on the limits of the Church appeared in The Church Quarterly Review, Vol. CXVII, No. 233, pp. 117-131. Readers should consult Constantine Cavarnos, Father Georges Florovsky on Ecumenism (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox
Studies, 1996), for a clearer understanding of Father Georges’ overall understanding of the rôle of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement. (“Ecumenism and ‘Baptismal Theology’: The Protestant ‘Branch Theory’ of the Church in a New Form”, fn. 3)
I have a great deal of respect for Fr. Florovsky; but his “famous and crucial assertion” (as you call it) that “[St. Cyprian’s] unproven equation…has not been confirmed by the communal consciousness of the Church” does not hold up to close scrutiny, nor does his belief that “‘oikonomia’ does not (can not) create something out of nothing.” (And one might step back and ask, if God can create the world ex nihilo, why can’t the Holy Spirit fill an empty form with Grace upon reception into the Church?)…”
Heresy vs. Truth, Part II:
A Reply to Dr. Bouteneff’s “Open Response to Patrick Barnes”
I think it is most helpful to point out the place this writing holds within the history of Fr. Georges’ work. Even in this early article he is quite insistent on the Orthodox Church as the true Church. There is no hint of branch theory within it. Heuristic as it is – it nevertheless is an important part of present conversation. I’ll be looking for other material as well. I am not a canonist – but the questions effect us all – and understanding is important.
““[St. Cyprian’s] unproven equation…has not been confirmed by the communal consciousness of the Church” does not hold up to close scrutiny.”
I respectfully disagree. For the reasons noted in my long-winded post, I believe that Florovsky was spot on when he wrote that sentence. It would still be true even if we were to pretend that communal consciousness of the Church only began in 1775.
It is beyond my ability to fit the contents of the article you cite into the limits of my intellectual frame of reference. Also my knowledge of church history and the pertinence of ancient theological disputes to current problems in the Church is inadequate.
Could you please provide a synopsis for those of us who still occupy the room of the unlearned and touch upon the relevance of what is being said by the author to an America in which there are something over 500 different Christian denominations.
deathbredon and katia,
The question of St. Cyprian’s contention that the limit of the Church and the limit of charismatic grace are the same is indeed an open question – or at least is certainly being discussed as an open question by very serious and holy Orthodox people. If it were utterly clear (confirmed by the communal consciousness of the Church) then there would likely not be such a wide variety of practice with regard to the reception of converts at present. It is a difficult question – one that will require charity and kindness as well as discernment. I think the Church is better positioned to come to a consensus on this matter now than it has been for the past 200 or more years, for a variety of reasons. Writings on the topic are worth reading and praying over – though the matter lies in the hands of bishops. May God give them grace!
The long and the short of it, for the Orthodox, is how to treat those who convert to the faith. Traditionally there are three ways to receive converts, depending on a variety of things: Baptism, Chrismation, or Confession. Some Orthodox urge that we receive only through Holy Baptism (the limits of the Church and the limits of grace are coterminous – ie. St. Cyprian’s “no grace outside the Church”). Others would take a more nuanced position (as Florovsky is here suggesting). It’s a lively bone of contention at present within the Orthodox world. I thought Florovsky’s article to be interesting – even if a bit obscure to those outside the discussion.
I think Father Stephen that this is potentially messier than whether I, protestant, should have been baptized, or my wife, born Catholic.
I have no understanding of the Church’s position in this matter apart from what was required of me in obedience. I do, however, have a background in mathematics and this reminds me distinctly of a fractal. So much of Church life seems to reveal more detail (and possibly ambiguity after a certain fashion of that term) the more closely one observes it.
Personally, I have seen all sorts of bizarre and conflicting data from around the world as the Church operates today. I’m not bothered by that. The Church is an organic, living, Spirit-moved thing. But it does leave certain questions uncomfortably unanswered.
Particularly uncomfortable, if one is trying to draw a “bright line” about anything. If we posit that Baptism lacks no grace if the Priest forgets a particular word, then we might play the game of exactly how many words can he leave out before it isn’t a valid baptism. Isn’t this the essence of scholasticism?
This seems an un-Orthodox view of what it means for something to be “graced” in the first place.
It appears that the only real solution is to accept that a certain degree of ambiguity is not only impossible to avoid, but in fact, efficacious itself! Perhaps ambiguity (again for want of another more appropriate word) is a part of the operation of the Spirit, forcing us to recognize our own collective folly at trying to unravel the mind of God further than revelation intends.
The practical problem remains, but as the Church is axiomatically unbreakable, then the practical problem will not do the work that the gates of hell have failed to do for 2000 years.
It seems to me that a lot of times the reaction to “western” scholasticism in the East (like with St. Nicodemus), though called “neo-patristic thought” is in itself just another form of Scholasticism with a different name. It is still argued in terms of validity and legitimacy, just as scholasticism did, and segregates a wall of those who are ‘outside the church’ and those within.
Often, I find in ‘neo-patristic’ thought a movement of reaction (and sometimes open hostility) that doesn’t always foster love of and in the human person. Perhaps this is just one reason that I can’t find myself conforming to it, because, though I can’t vocalize it thoroughly, “it just doesn’t feel right.”
If Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first, and if indeed, ‘they who are not against you are for me’ then perhaps there is the possibility that, like St. Augustine among the heretical manicheans and misguided neo-platonists, God could have all the while been guiding us towards salvation within the Church. (Some, may in fact, not even reach this goal until after death, through Christ’s mercy). This necessitates God’s grace being imparted (though not always though ‘licit’ sacraments) into the human person in some way shape and form. This also allows Christ to be the ultimate arbitrator of our salvation.
As for the fact that scholasticism focuses only on legal standing and not on fixing the human person, perhaps this is a little uncharitable. Even though penance and confession, indulgences and the like were termed in ways that fit the scientific curiosity of the time (just as Paul adapted Roman legal terminology to explain the faith to those in Rome) does not mean that the ultimate aim is not to heal the human person into the untainted image and likeness of God. But then again, I can only say this now, prior to the Roman Catholic Council of Vatican II, where they entered a ‘post-scholastic’ way of speaking of the faith (much like post-modernism is to modernism perhaps).
Those are just some of my own incomplete thoughts on the subject though.
Just a clarification, I am not positing predestinarianist Calvanism btw. I cannot be so vain as to claim to know the mind and agencies of God.
I think it is important in studying “neo patristic” thought to carefully delineate what is meant. It is Florovsky’s own term for what he himself was doing. It also describes an important “project” of a number of modern Orthodox thinkers but not all. There are many who are less than careful in the volume of their criticism of the West. I would be quick to point out that criticism of the West is itself a hallmark of much current Western thought to which Orthodoxy does well to add its own voice where helpful.
Florovsky was largely concerned to recover something that had been overlooked, suppressed and almost forgotten. In everything we should pray and forgive everyone for everything.
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Dear Father, bless! Thank you. Very helpful background–demonstrating clearly how complex and nuanced is this issue and that I do well to listen rather than speak about it! 🙂
David, it seems to me you have made some excellent points, and I especially appreciate your conclusion. Thank you. Like you, when it comes to these kind of matters, the Holy Spirit keeps redirecting me to my own obedience, prayer, and active trust that He and the Bishops will do all the rest, as is needful, and all in His good time.
Thank you, David Dickens, for this comment!
David Dickens, may I quote what you wrote on my blog and elsewhere? I will understand, of course, if you’d rather I didn’t.
I don’t mind.
Thank you, David.
Davd’s comment reminds me of a Leonard Cohen song…shared here not to undermine the importance of the conversation.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Reject your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
I’ve always loved that Leonard Cohen song. I think it conveys a lot of truth.
Have you by any chance read “On The Unity of the Church” by St. Hilarion (Troitsky)? If so, I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on it.
As I understood him, he seemed to be saying that the historical differences in the modes of receptions of converts into the Church was not based on some theory of sacramental grace being present outside the visible bounds of the Church, but rather on the belief that it is communion with the Church that ultimately matters, not the form of the sacrament or anything else. Thus, it is not wrong to rebaptize converts, whatever their origin, but it also acceptable to receive them by chrismation or confession, because it is communion with the Church which makes valid that which was not valid before.
To me, this explanation (if I have understood it correctly) is doubly astute, as it is both unyielding on the matter of dogma and very generous in its application (he even suggests that heterodox clergymen could all be received into the Church in their orders without reordination, the question of whether or not their ordination was valid before hand not even arising). This clears up a lot of confusion for me, but I would like your view on this as well.
I will take a look at the article in the near future. Sounds interesting. I have seen it referenced in some discussions.
Some how this all reminds me of something my father (very protestant) used to say. I cannot say how Orthodox this is so feel free to discard.
He used to ask, “When were you saved.” Most folks would say something like, “When I was baptized” and He would answer (twinkle in his eye), “Yes and when were you baptized?” and they would say the date, and he would say, “No, you were baptized 2000 years ago when Christ went into the grave and rose again!”
Despite all his Scottish rationalism, he very firmly believed something mystical. That we are not baptized “chronologically” but “Christologically”. (Died and buried with Christ and raised again with him. In every real sense, 2000 years chronologically before we were born.)
Perhaps this solves the riddle of bishops making baptisms valid post-facto. Baptisms that are joined to Christ, are valid and it does not matter “when” because they all take place at the same “time” when they are joined to Christ by the grace of the Church.
Well put. The consubstantial unity of Father and Son is either visible in the Church, or it is not.