Churchly Humility

img_1204_2There are many Orthodox bumper stickers and internet memes that seek to portray the excellence of Orthodoxy. Some compare us to the “marines,” others to various kinds of extreme sports. There’s the one that declares the Orthodox Church to have been founded in 33 a.d. I understand such boosterism in a culture where proclaiming the excellence of your football team or other product loyalty is seen as important. We use brands in order to establish an identity and a sense of belonging. And that same sense of belonging is strengthened when you think that your team/denomination/etc. is simply the best there is. But there is a very deep fallacy in this when thinking about Orthodoxy. So I want to offer some corrective suggestions in this article.

First, the Orthodox Church is not better than some other Church. If you declare such a thing to be true, then you have actually denied the truth of Orthodoxy. We believe the Church to be One. We believe the Church is One because God is One. And, as in the case of God, it is One of which there is not two. If Orthodoxy is The Church, then it’s not the better Church. It is not something that can be compared to anything else.

This is extremely important. As soon as comparisons are made, the Church is reduced to one among the many and the concept of “many churches” is granted, denying the declaration of the Creed. The Orthodox Church is not better – it simply is what it is. The notion of the “better” Church is inherently Protestant. The purpose of reform was (and remains) to make a “better” Church. Ending abuses, correcting doctrine, changing liturgy, etc. – all were done in the name of betterment. Thus, why be a Lutheran and not a Roman Catholic? Because Lutherans are better, and so on.

The Orthodox consciousness is not properly part of this conversation. Orthodoxy does not require the presence of the non-Orthodox. Indeed, for the larger part, it gives them little thought.  Is it possible to have a “better Orthodoxy?” The history of the Church is, from the beginning, marked by failures and faults, controversies and corruption. These troubling aspects of the Church, however, do not make it less than the Church. They are, like sin in our private lives, simply a hallmark of life in a broken world. And like sin in our private lives, these aspects can be the object of repentance and correction. But they will not, short of the eschaton, be the object of abolition.

Because the Church is the Bride of Christ, His Body, etc., its failures and faults are all the more egregious. But our own lives, where sin too often reigns in His Temple, our bodies, are no less egregious. The dynamic of reform, however, too often removes our eyes from the humility that should accompany our faults and turns them to an idealism that judges, condemns and ignores life as it is actually lived.

The Sacraments, repentance, prayer, thanksgiving and generosity are the normative marks of the Orthodox life. These contain everything necessary to the life of grace. Church reform is not a hallmark of the Orthodox life. The insight of Orthodoxy is that only holiness changes anything. If sin reigns in the structures around us, then the first response must be our own repentance, and our repentance on behalf of everyone. The structures of our lives (and the Church) are as corrupt and distorted as they are because of my sin – and your sin. There is an old Orthodox adage, “You get the priest you deserve.” Fortunately, grace is far more generous!

There is, however, a fundamental mindset that is required in the midst of these realities. That mindset includes letting go of “improving” the Church. And though scandals happen, we have to learn to a degree not to be scandalized. The true stumbling block is our own sins, not those of others.

Related to this is renouncing the notion of progress. We are not going somewhere. The journey of the Church through history is only a journey to the Cross. We are promised nothing more. Modernity loves the idea of improving the world and making it a better place. The truth is that we are not in charge of the world and generally have no idea of what would make it a better place. In our efforts to design and control we ignore the most common things that are immediately at hand. We plan to feed the poor, but we don’t feed them now.

The Church in the present season bears scars and even open wounds from all of its history. Those scars and wounds include the difficult centuries of schism and heresies. We are also marked by problems of the Byzantine legacy, and the centuries of Turkish oppression under the Ottoman Empire. The administration of the Church in those places where the Ottoman Empire once held sway has yet to truly recover. We also bear the wounds of the Communist Yoke as well as the hope that has been born anew after its demise.

But the Modern world doesn’t like history and would like to pretend that when things are past we should quickly be rid of them. It is a delusion. If you feel that the Ottoman Empire should have no effect on your local Church (we’re in America after all), then you are simply ignorant of the evil role played by your own nation in the failure to assist oppressed peoples as they sought their natural freedom. The Western powers sold out the Orthodox in the 1920’s (and not for the first time). The sins of Orthodoxy are not unrelated to the past sins of the West. They are not a peculiarly Eastern problem.

And so with Orthodoxy, you live with the many consequences of historical existence. Just as the language we speak bears witness to the coming and going of other peoples (leaving behind new words and grammar), so the life of the Church carries with it the remembered experience of 2,000 years. Modernism would improve us primarily by enforced amnesia.

To bring this article full circle – Orthodoxy means an abandonment of the “better Church” argument. Orthodoxy is what it is, because it is what it is. It can rightly claim to be the continuously historical Church without the evolution of a papacy or the vast reform projects of the ages. We should resist the temptation to argue that this is much better (doing so can make you argue favorably about some fairly silly things). Apparently, our salvation is not predicated on a better Church – just on the Church. Be steadfast in the sacramental life. Say your prayers. Repent everyday for everyone and everything (especially for yourself). Give thanks always and for all things. Give away stuff, practicing an audacious generosity. That’s pretty much the Orthodox life.


  1. Are you saying Father that there are no Christian churches outside the Orthodox church?

    If we can’t make comparisons (i.e. “better than..”), then this would seem to logically follow. There’s no comparison, because there is no other (to compare it to).

  2. Father, your writing are always efficacious, but this one really showed me much that I need to change. there’s no place for pride in being Orthodox is there.

  3. Wonderful, Father! One of the main things that brought me to Orthodoxy was the idea of humility. I have found that it is one of the most difficult things to foster in my life. Many thanks for this writing!

  4. George, one cause of pride is comparing others unfavorably with yourself. One way to avoid this is to declare that others don’t exist. Then there is no danger of the comparison that leads to pride.

  5. Father, Thank you for writing this. As a convert, the attitude that has most troubled me from my Orthodox friends is the idea that “we” somehow have an edge up over others because ours is the Church of the Apostles. It didn’t feel good to be one of the “in-crowd.” Your written words helped articulate why it doesn’t feel good. Glory be to God in all things, and certainly this article helps me do just that.

  6. Leonard,

    I suppose I was thinking something along those lines, but really I’m looking for clarification so there’s no place for misunderstanding.

  7. The priest who serves as my confessor has on relevant occasions told me that it is not only possible, but probable that at some time I will be scandalized by something or someone in the Church. But he follows it with this advice, “Don’t let anything come between you and your relationship with Jesus.”

    I don’t really understand how I came to be (am becoming, really) Orthodox – it’s a mystery. It certainly wasn’t because the Orthodox Church, in the unfortunate denominational sense, was better. In fact it was rather more like a small wandering tributary flowed into a river. I suppose I could say it was “better” for me. Despite things that, at least initially, ran counter to the way I had lived as a Christian ’til then, something else drew me in. It wasn’t (just) intellectual. For the Narniophiles among us, it was like Aslan saying , “Farther in and higher up!” It wasn’t really my doing; a latchkey kid was graciously adopted-what do I have to be proud of?

  8. Thànks Fr. Stephen, your last Paragraph dedcribes Orthodoxy in a person seeking Sàlvation in Christ, as I also see it. Thank You & Blessings to all mankind.

  9. Robert,
    We use the language of “Churches” out of convenience (that’s how they self-style themselves). But, theologically, it is not accurate. The Church can only be One. That is the dogma of the faith as made known in the Creed. The denominations have separated themselves from the One Church. In the 19th century a theory evolved of the “invisible Church,” positing that “invisibly” all the “churches” were one, and that there should be work to make them “visibly” one. That is the beginnings of the Ecumenical Movement. However, it is false. It presumes that each group is true and the way forward is through a sort of politial compromise, etc. Orthodoxy has never separated itself. It remains what it has been, however flawed. There is no dogma of the Orthodox Church that could be changed or altered without it ceasing to be Orthodox.

    The Orthodox approach to the problem is not to declare everybody to be Church and to find some way towards compromise. Dogmatically (which is not the usual way of speaking), we can say that there is obviously some kind of relationship with the One Church in these separated groups, but that there is something lacking. They do not have the fullness of the faith. And the Church is the “Fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23). The Orthodox Church is indeed that fullness, despite our sins and failings.

    It is for this reason that we either Baptize or Chrismate or Confess those Christians who come to us (by use of economia). If they had the fullness, this would not be required. These are not mere man-made distinctions. They are realities. The sacraments of the Church are not the tools of man-made distinctions.

    In our contemporary conversations, we avoid the careful use of the term Church. It has, I fear, given the wrong impression many times, sounding as though the false ecumenism of the 19th and 20th centuries were, in fact, true. They are not. We do not mean to “un-Church” anyone – they have a relation to the One Church. But our desire is to unite them to the One Church.

    In the service of making a Catechumen, when we enroll converts we say, “Blessed is God who desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.”

    For every denominational background, there are errors to be renounced. These errors are not the hallmark of the One Church, but of various human inventions. We refrain, out of respect, from using language that is too confrontative, etc.

    If you want to use the word “Church” to describe a denomination, that is ok. But it cannot mean what the word “Church” means in the Creed. For that Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

    Our conversations with Catholics, and Oriental Orthodox, have a somewhat different nuance to them, though, even there the language of “sister Churches” (invoked by both Pope and Patriarch) has be rather roundly rejected by the Orthodox faithful. It is a novelty of speech and not quite accurate.

    But please note that this is not the point of the article.

  10. Leonard,
    I think your comment is an unkind twist of what I have said. Essentially, what i am saying is that comparison is an inappropriate thought and conversation. It is right not to say certain things. But that silence is then being taken into positive statements. But the positive statements are not quite accurate. The insistence on drawing those conclusions “they do not exist” is simply forcing the conversation. It is a demand that the Orthodox not speak as Orthodox.

    The status quo is a sinful, broken situation. We cannot use the language of the Creed and Scriptures to describe what is, in fact, neither creedal nor scriptural. That is the error of ecumenical speech.

    Orthodoxy does not hold that there are simple “misunderstandings” between us and others. There are, in fact, errors that must be corrected. You seem committed to forcing language to say something that is not true, and banging on the Orthodox for insisting on what is true. It would be more polite, no doubt. But it would not be true, no matter how much you want it to be. We’ve been over this many times.

  11. Mark,
    To be candid, when I converted I mostly didn’t like Orthodoxy. There was a schism in which a local monastery bolted from my jurisdiction leaving a royal mess in our area. We were in disarray. I was often clueless. There were bad relations locally with the Greeks, etc. Most of my “not liking” was bound up in my personal experience. But I knew that Orthodoxy was the truth and worth putting up with the local mess.

    Over time, these things have settled out. Relations are good and healthy, the schism was healed. Slowly, the grace of the Church has made things whole. It was more than worth it. It has changed me in many ways. It was a tiny, little “white martyrdom,” and God honored it.

  12. This is really convicting and relevant for me; I find myself reverting to this logic often, comparing the Orthodox Church to my evangelical background and feeling good about it. What should I say when explaining my reasons for converting to my friends, or when they draw comparisons of this kind between the Orthodox Church and their own church?

    I also have a feeling a Protestant would say it’s even more arrogant to claim that the Orthodox Church is the only Church than to say it is the “best” Church. How would you respond to this?

  13. David P.
    Father did say above that other churches have a relationship of some kind to the one Church. With some it is rather close, with others it would be very tenuous. I think St. Cyprian (not sure) said that we can tell where the Church is; we cannot say where it is not. And again as Fr. Freeman noted it is the prayer of the Church, as it was the prayer of Christ, that all come to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, that all may be one.
    Fr. Freeman, thanks for this article. I grow very uncomfortable when I hear a note of triumphfulism with certain Orthodox. I don’t think that this kind of one-ups-manship endears anyone to Orthodoxy.

  14. David P, I agree with you. Protestants do think it’s arrogant because it is. I grew up riding around in cars with the “Orthodoxy: proclaiming the truth since a.d. 33” bumper stickers. That was arrogant. Going around proclaiming ours is the only true faith to others and that there is no other church is arrogant. I grew up orthodox, i love the orthodox faith and want nothing more than my wife to become orthodox, but I will not tell her that her faith in God is incomplete, or that the Presbyterian church we went to Sunday was a false church. Its not my place to do that. Instead I try to do what fr Stephen said in the last paragraph and, maybe over time, she’ll see the beauty of orthodoxy. I think we as orthodox, especially in “convert churches” like mine, could take it easy on the rhetoric.

  15. Father, it is my belief that since the 1000 year old split between Rome and The Orthodox church neither church is the fullness of the Church. That fullness was lost. I was once in the “Church of Christ” and when people would say I was a protestant I would say not so I’m not protesting anything. I was in the “True Church” and Rome did not exist as a church. I was wrong then and who knows what I’m wrong about now. Certainly not me!

  16. Thank you, Fr. Stephen,

    How timely these words are for me in my present circumstances!

  17. Fr Freeman:

    I am very interested, as an Armenian, knowing whether you consider Oriental Orthodox to be part of the one church. If not, how would you sort them? IMO, what difference there is between the Christologies is more of a difference “on paper”. The lesser importance of icons in that communion is due to there never being an iconoclast controversy there to react against.

    How would you answer Old Calendarist perfectionists who think of the Church not as eminently human and even flawed, but a “spotless bride”. It doesn’t ring true, of course, but I want to know what you would say.

  18. Leonard,
    I understand. I think, however, that you notion of the “fullness no longer exists,” is facile and primarily something to assuage your own troubled heart. “Nobody’s right!” kind of makes nobody exist, which solves the problem in an even-handed ecclesiological nihilism. I do not believe the fullness can disappear. If the Church is not the fullness, it is not the Body of Christ. The historical realities of the Christian Church are very troubling and make it difficult to speak. Again, in line with the article, I do not say what I do about Orthodoxy in any form of triumphalism. I think that some of these questions can be discussed in a truly historical manner.

    But I don’t care to get into arguments of what is better. I have simply stated the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church. That self-understanding is itself an inherent dogma of the Orthodox faith, not a matter for debate.

    You no longer believe in the fullness. Thus you are neither in agreement with Rome or the Orthodox. What are you?

  19. Andrew,
    The One Church is manifest in the One Cup. At present the One Cup is not shared between Eastern and Orthodox Christians. But there is very little indeed that separate us. This is witnessed by the fact that in Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodox (alone among other Christians) are received into communion by confession alone. If I were Armenian Orthodox, I would believe that the fullness dwells in the Oriental Churches alone. That, in fact, would be the proper way for any Orthodox to understand themselves. The Chalcedonian schism is, I think, a very deep tragedy and I long for its healing.

    Again, I think it is correct to speak of the Church in positive terms, and to refrain from comparisons. But the Church is One and not in some hybrid modern notion. Because this is true, proper union is a right goal. That union must be in the fullness of the faith and in one mind. I pray for the day to come.

    As for the “spotless bride,” it is an eschatological vision in Scripture, something yet to come.

  20. David,
    Well, as to arrogance, it’s similar to the Christian belief that there is only One God, and only salvation through Christ. The Church is One. That reality (it’s not a dream but a present reality) has been jettisoned by most Christians and has led them to an increasing madness.

    Speak positively about Orthodoxy. When I converted, I had enjoyed a bit of notoriety as an Anglican (a bit of press coverage and the like for some things I was involved in). I was approached by several writers wanting to “do my story” viz. my conversion. I told them, “No. I’m entering Orthodoxy as a penitent, not as some brave conservative hero.” My life as an Anglican was filled with half-measures, compromise, lies and other things. I did real damage to my soul for a number of years. It’s not a pretty story and I have little pride in it. Orthodoxy is simply about salvation. There are some conversations that are not worth having. It’s ok not to have them.

  21. Thank you Father for taking the time out to clarify. And Amen!

    It’s a difficult and often a touchy subject. As you indicate, there’s a pastoral and dogmatic approach to this (both are valid and necessary).

    “We do not mean to “un-Church” anyone – they have a relation to the One Church. But our desire is to unite them to the One Church.” The nature of that relationship seems to me to be worthwhile to explore. A follow up post perhaps? 🙂

  22. Fr Freeman,

    Of course, if I were Christened into the Armenian Church, it would be perfectly Orthodox for me to say that I am in the One church, and the Greeks have a little repentance to make in our direction. Before modern times the OO normally held the EO as erroneous as the OO did the EO although attempts at reconciliation were made, while today it is more acceptable to fudge the Patristic legacy from the disadvantaged OO side, as the desire for reunion is stronger there. Unfortunately, I am pretty much unable to persuade myself into such a frame of mind (ie the Orthodox one) that flatly calls myself the member of the Only Church. My mind, though male, is frankly kind of female in a way, and is given to ecumenical sympathies, to comparisons and blendings of distinction (there’s many practical reasons that women cannot attain authority in Orthodox Christianity that are not only physical). It is easier for me to agree that Chalcedon caused a divide of epic proportions in the Christian world (that really hurt its defenses against Islam) far, FAR outweighing the theological gravity of what is argued. But I’m not crazy: I know the difference between Rome and Constantinople is already large, and probably cannot be reconciled if the latter remains what it is. It’s fashionable for Rome to say it accepts all the Ecumenical councils, but they see them as hand-me-down guidelines (which have been fudged many times over with many councils of their own) more than timeless canons and that is a vast difference.

  23. Fr. Stephen,

    That is very true and something I have to remember. Christians who are just fine with Christianity being the only “true” religion or Jesus being the only way to salvation tend to change their tune when the subject turns to the singularity of the “Church” as something that might not include all those they consider “Christian”. The problem is many people simply think I’m mistaken if I suggest that the Church might be a definite, visible, institutional body ; they’ve convinced themselves that this is not how it was in the first century.

    I’m converting to Orthodoxy out of great confusion and doubt arising from the teachings of my evangelical background, and out of a strong conviction that the teachings and tradition of Orthodoxy are true. So I feel drawn more to making assertions of this kind than other converts might be. I want to avoid the triumphalism you describe, but I certainly don’t want to make my conversion simply sound like a matter of individual preference. What would this humility look like in my case, if not an admission that the teachings or foundations of the Church might not be THAT true?

  24. David P,
    When I converted and people would say, “Well, I’m glad it makes you happy.” or “Well, I’m glad you’ve found where you feel you belong…” Sometimes I was tempted to say very shocking things so they would understand the nature of this. But that has to be in God’s hands. Whatever makes Him happy.

  25. Father you said… I have simply stated the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church

    here is something about Elisabeth Behr Sigel. Her biography was written by Olga Lossky the great grand daughter of Vladimir Lossky

    Elisabeth’s ecumenism was not simply theoretical. She moved with ease among the different Christian traditions, always seeing the positive, always curious and ready to learn. Her 95th birthday was celebrated in the Carmelite convent of St. Elie in Central France with the presence of two Orthodox bishops, a Greek Catholic Bishop, the vicar generals of three Catholic dioceses and several eminent Protestant pastors.

  26. The case of the Oriental Orthodox is interesting, given virtually all Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions offer Communion to OO lay persons under the same terms as anyone else – one must be properly prepared, but at no time have I ever heard of anyone being asked to renounce their Christology. And this is true in OCA, Greek, and ROCOR parishes that I have been in. It seems to be an implicit admission that there is but one Cup between us, even if priests cannot concelebrate.

  27. Greg,
    My instructions in this matter were to hear confessions but not to ask about Monophysitism, etc., since no one would understand what I was talking about. This was a situation where there were simply no OO parishes or priests. That is changing rapidly in the US and is thus coming up less often. I think what you have seen is also driven by a pastoral necessity that is a bit more economia than otherwise.

    If an Eastern Orthodox person comes to my parish and they are in regular communion, I would not ask them to confess before communion, unless they felt they needed to do so. That would not be the same with Oriental Orthodox, so there is some small distinction regardless.

  28. Tim, I sort of laughed when I read your comment. You used the word “rhetoric.” For me, the extreme level of rhetoric in my former Evangelical church was one of the main reasons I left it and began to seek out Orthodoxy.

  29. I can say after 1.5 years of learning many things about Icons, and now having a few of my own, that it is not easy to go back to western art with the same fascination, and the same vanity. With the exception of some prophetic types like William Blake and Hieronymus Bosch, it’s now so much more crystal clear that even the great masters were under the force of cultural, political, and sociopolitical factors (not that iconography isn’t to a degree, but there is always something True holding every era of it together) and when depicting religious subjects always did worse in terms of “fullness” even where they exceeded in expressiveness or realism. Something in me has changed.

  30. Alan,
    Ha, probably the wrong word. Just want to find a way to approach differences between orthodox and others in a softer tone that actually promotes our “Churchly Humlity.”

  31. My Father in Law was a godly man, a Baptist. But one of the most holy that I have known. When confronted with things like arguments and such, we would politely say, “Well I know that God is good. But I don’t know about that.” The number of times he said, “I don’t know about that,” to me are a dear reminder of how silly I am. I later found the same statement in the Desert Fathers.

  32. I have been blessed by this thread.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for speaking truth with humility.

  33. Fr. Stephen,
    My understanding is that the Orthodox assertion that it is the only true Church comes from the belief that it is free of heresy, change of dogma and adherence to the Ecumenical Councils. But what happens when error and change are demonstrated in the Church? For example, the Orthodox Church blesses remarriage in violation of Luke 16 and Matthew 19, therefore this practice of the Orthodox is not orthodox. Doesn’t this disprove our claim to the the only Church?

  34. Patrick,

    That’s a question lately bugging my mind, too. Isn’t this the rare example of Roman Catholicism being more strict and Biblical?

  35. Patrick,
    The Orthodox do not say that this is the “right” thing to do. Indeed, it even requires a blessing for a second marriage when the first spouse has died. Instead, it extends economy under certain circumstances as an act of mercy because someone cannot accomplish the letter of the commandment. But we do not set aside the commandment.

    Rome essentially does the same thing in its annulment practice. The only difference is that we do not annul, but instead extend an exemption for pastoral reasons.

    It is under the commandment to show mercy. There is no change of dogma, etc.

  36. Having received a blessing such as Fr. Stephen mentions, I guarantee you that I had to face my own weakness and sinfulness in the process. I was excluded from the Eucharist for 9 months.

    My priest initially counseled me not to do it and suggested I breakup with my wife to be.

    Nevertheless, the Church did show the mercy of God rather than demanding sacrifice. We just celebrated our sixth anniversary. Six years of wonder, love and good fruits because of His mercy.

  37. The longer I live in the Church the more clearly I see that His law is love and mercy and my small hearted legslisms are not part of His law.

  38. Tim,

    Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. I guess, based on the extreme level of arrogance I saw from the staff of my former Evangelical church, I’m always a bit befuddled when I hear of “Orthodox arrogance.” In terms of arrogance, I’ve seen nothing at my Orthodox parish that even comes remotely close to the level I witnessed at my former E church.

    I believe that the Orthodox should not shy away from the truthful claim that they are the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church. But to your point, there’s a way to do that with humility.

  39. It’s a failure of mine to become upset whenever it is claimed that “my” church is not the true church. I had to think about it and while I was thinking this story came into my mind……..

    There were two old monks who had lived together in peace for many years and they never quarreled. Now, one day, the one turned to the other and said: O.k., let’s try just once to have an argument like other people do. But his brother replied after a moment: “I’m not sure I know how.” The other replied: “Look, it’s easy” – I will put a brick on the floor between us. I say – “This brick is mine”, and then you say, “No, it’s mine”, and after that we get into an argument. So they took a brick and put it on the floor between them and one of them said: “This is mine”, and the other said: “No sir, this brick is mine” and, answering him, the first said: “You’re right. It’s all yours. Go ahead and take it with you if you like.” And, after this, each went his way unable to fight with the other.

  40. Greetings. I found this post refreshingly provocative. Perhaps you will indulge a few of my qualms:

    I must admit that I have a strong inclination toward the ecumenical mentality. I suppose I don’t quite understand how one could circumscribe the body of Christ (the Church manifested in time and space) with any sort of epistemological certitude. I feel as though this would be to deny the universal reach of the Incarnation, and the deep interconnectedness of all humanity. What are the criteria by which the “historical” Church is to be measured against its “ontological” prototype? Such a measuring must be possible to even conceive of a Orthodox/heterodox dichotomy. Is it an issue of Sacrament? What would it take for a non-Orthodox Church to become Orthodox?

    Would it not be better to speak of a hierarchy of ecclesial being (not unlike the platonic hierarchy of being) rather than resorting to an either/or (either Orthodox/or everthing else?

    These are just some thoughts of mine. Once again, thanks for triggering them. Forgive me if I have framed your argument un-generously, or taken this article out of context.

  41. Kaleb,
    Good questions. I would agree that the Church includes all of creation. It does not begin at 33 a.d. but at the words, “Let there be light.” Ephesians 1 says that God has purposed to gather together into one all things in Christ Jesus. Thus, there is a relation between everything that exists and the One Church. As I noted, there is a relation of every Christian in the world with the One Church, though in many cases that relation is less than the fullness and remains somewhat undefined.

    But the historical character and even circumscription of the Church are there in the same way that they are there in the Incarnate Christ. The Church is not an abstraction. Every attempt to deny the historical nature of the One Church becomes a sort of Gnosticism, the substitution of an abstraction.

    Whole Churches have become Orthodox – quite a few, in fact in the past number of decades. I worked with one such congregation that was part of a larger entrance. The people are instructed, catechized, baptized or chrismated, admitted to communion, and in time their clergy are trained and ordained, if possible. Over 2,000 Protestant leaders and their congregations entered Orthodoxy in a single service in 1987. This is being repeated by the thousands in Africa today.

  42. Kaleb, it is precisely because of the concrete and particular incarnation that it is possible and necessary to speak of A Church.

    God is not an amorphous gas. Truth is not anything I may want it to be. Many are the ways that lead to death.

    The blessing of Christ on particular people outside the specific boundaries of the Church does not mean there is a fullness in the particular body.

    I can say that I have met and honor men of Christ who are not Orthodox. I can also say that one of the most despicable people I have ever known was a man who was titularly Orthodox from his baptism and Chrimation as an infant to the day he reposed. –May our Lord have mercy on him.

    Ideas have consequences. Wrong ideas about God lead towards death. I have seen the corrosive power of heretical beliefs destroy people body and soul. I had no refuge or healing until I was brought bleeding into the Orthodox life.

    The egalitarian ideology behind ecumenism is nihilist as is the strident legalism that purports to combat it.

    The Orthodox Church is the cup of transfiguration and the mercy seat. It is through her that the grace of the Incarnation flows to all. Try as we might in our sinfulness to stop it, we cannot. Try as others might to claim the prize, that cannot be done either.

    Seek Jesus Christ and follow where He leads and sooner or later you will end up on the Orthodox door step– in spite of ourselves.


  43. I am a late coming member of one of those churches that entered in 1987.
    My wife and I converted after 35 years of Protestant church failures and church hopping, or should I say hoping! We are so grateful and fulfilled after so many years of church splits, INSANE, non Christ like behavior and terrible legalism and what I call posing as Christians! Sure there was lots of positive and inspiring experiences and friendships, but too many unanswered questions and never quite right. We literally fell into Orthodoxy, completely ignorant of the truth and the goldmine it truly is! It is “life abundantly” in a way that is sometimes very difficult but after 2 years of study and 3 after conversion and baptism, now behind us, we are amazed on a daily basis of the fullness and have truly come home to where we belong and what we were truly created to be! It is a wonder and we are extremely graeful! I kept trying to scrutinize and find loopholes, and of course there are failures and people are, like me flawed, but there is no “better” place to be, because it is in fact, the “only” place to be! It is the true reality and the path is ALWAYS leading “Onwards, and Upwards”. (CS Lewis). This is said in all humilty and gratitude! And thank you Fr and all your loving contributors here! We eagerly await these regular posts and appreciate the winnowing of clarity! God Bless and Gracias! Again we will sleep soundly, resting in faith!

  44. Fr. Stephen, I hope you are not feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of responses, but after more reflection I have another question on a statement from your last paragraph: “[Orthodoxy] can rightly claim to be the continuously historical Church without the evolution of a papacy or the vast reform projects of the ages.” How can I defend or support (not “prove”) this claim to my Protestant friends without getting into the kind of church-comparing you say is inappropriate for Orthodox?

  45. David,
    I think we can assert it. If they want to argue otherwise, I think there is little we can do. Although, you can speak simply for Orthodoxy itself, without comparison. A question would be, “Where has Orthodoxy contradicted itself or become something other than what it has always been?” The foundational teachings of Orthodoxy are illustrated quite well by the early 3rd century – Ignatius, Irenaeus, etc. When the Apostolic Fathers and the Fathers of the first 3 centuries are read, they are simply of a piece. And they in no way conflict with Scripture. Their readings are certainly more likely to be consistent with the generations before them (Irenaeus knew Polycarp who know John for example) than any later reconstructions might possibly be.

    All that we do as Orthodox is, it seems, pretty much there from the start. But encourage them to read and think. This part is simply an historical assertion and the facts are pretty much out there and clear (unless they are reading a polemical attack version).

  46. Father,

    Thank you for your response. I agree that the Church is not an abstraction and cannot be torn away from the flesh and blood of history. But neither can she be deprived of her implicit universal presence. I found your comparison of the Church with the Incarnate Christ to be helpful in this regard. Christ is “simultaneously” the eternal Logos, constituting the universal ground of being, and a particular human person: Jesus of Nazareth. He is fully human and fully divine. Your (re)statement/clarification that “there is a relation of every Christian in the world with the One Church, though in many cases that relation is less than the fullness and remains somewhat undefined” clears up some of my qualms. I would want to affirm that, among historical churche(s), or claimants to collectively represent the “one Church,” there are closer and further approximations of the eternal Church. I could hypothetically recognize (and perhaps really do believe) that Orthodoxy represents the most faithful approximation of this type in history, but I suppose I am still wary of drawing the Orthodox/heterodox line too sharply. I would maybe want to use the language of “degrees of participation.” Is this at all in line with what you’ve been presenting?


  47. Michael,

    Thanks for your response. I must admit that, while not Orthodox, I have long felt myself drifting Eastward.

  48. Kaleb,
    No. It remains too vague. “Degrees of approximation” is the stuff of diplomacy – nothing there to shock anyone. But Orthodoxy simply is what it is – the Orthodox Catholic Church. Other groups may indeed have degrees of approximation, the canons recognize that in the economy of how converts are received. But the scandal of particularity simply abides. That is the Orthodox self-understanding. And, in line with my original article, I’m not saying it in order to say that Orthodoxy is perfect, etc. But, for example, its ecclesiology has not change. It remains truly Conciliar (and it’s a pain in the neck, it’s hard to get anything done). I think the Western evolution of the Papacy is an historical aberration, driven largely by the politics of the Frankish Empire in early Middle Ages. There’s no need to say anything about Protestantism – other than that it has no historical claims.

    And though for diplomatic reasons, Rome never says things quite like this anymore – it’s what she really thinks. And if she doesn’t, then she’s gone deeper into error.

    My thinking really isn’t about dissing any group. But it is simply to embrace the Church as the Church and not bring some new, ersatz ecclesiology into the conversation. The world outside of that confession is tragic, and there’s plenty of tragedy within Orthodoxy itself. But it’s not an option among options. It is what it is. And if it’s not, then either Rome is correct, or the extreme liberal modernists who say that there really has never been A Church are right. There’s not much of an alternative.

  49. Someone wise mentioned to me years ago that as Orthodox Christians, we know where the Holy Spirit is. We do not know where He is not. I keep that in mind whenever discussion about the One True Church arises as it is very helpful in leaving arrogance at the door.

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