Throughout the years, I have had the privilege of receiving a number of people into the Orthodox Church—indeed, our own little mission consists overwhelmingly of converts and their children. Most of the converts come from various kinds of Protestantism, with Evangelicals predominating. Before receiving them into the Church, obviously some catechesis was required. One must teach them the differences between Orthodoxy and the churches from which they came—differences such as our views regarding baptism, the Eucharist, the Theotokos, prayers to the saints, fasting, soteriology, and the importance of calendar. But I have come to see that the biggest difference of all—and for some the biggest hurdle to true interior conversion—was our different understandings of the Church itself.
Orthodoxy’s ecclesiology is dramatically different from that of everyone else in the Protestant world, and unless this difference is understood and embraced, conversions will be incomplete and half-baked at best. It is important, in other words, that the former erroneous ecclesiology of Protestant converts be decisively dismantled. If it is left intact the door of apostasy from Orthodoxy may be left invitingly ajar.
What is this erroneous ecclesiology? In a word Protestantism regards “the Church” as the conglomeration of all Trinitarian denominations. Every denomination confessing that the one sole God subsists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is regarded as a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. This of course excludes the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unitarians. It of course includes the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Methodists, and the Baptists. (It leaves odd groups as the “Jesus Only” Pentecostals in a kind of ecclesiological “No Man’s Land”, but the Jesus Only Pentecostals are too tiny to make much of a splash in the wider Protestant world.) Basically then, every mainline denomination possessing an historical confession of God as Trinity is regarded as a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, regardless of whether or not that historical confession has any contemporary reality or relevance.
In Canada, for example, the United Church of Canada includes such a confession, but that is effectively irrelevant, for no one denying the divinity of Christ (or, more recently, the existence of God) would be instantly excluded from the United Church on the basis of this denial. These creeds have historical value, but no actual relevance. On the basis of this theologically generous ecclesiology, the United Church of Canada would still be included as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—not necessarily in the conservative vanguard of that Church, but still somewhere within its ranks.
This is not the ecclesiology of the Fathers or of the Orthodox. For the Fathers and for their Orthodox heirs, substantial divergence from the Faith of the Church constituted heresy, and groups which had the integrity and honesty to split from the original apostolic Church on the basis of this divergence and go into schism (defining themselves as rival bodies from this original group) were no longer regarded as part of the Church.
In His final high priestly prayer recorded in John 17, our Lord asked the Father that His disciples would remain one, united to one another in the same unity that united Him to the Father. This prayer was immediately fulfilled; it does not refer to a future reunion of all the denominations, for when Christ prayed this prayer those denominations did not exist. Rather, the prayer referred to the unbreakable unity which was bestowed upon the Church on the Day of Pentecost.
This means that Christ’s Church forever remains one church, with its members united to one another and to God. It is incapable of substantial division, for it maintains the unity for which Christ prayed. Substantial division of His Church is therefore impossible: one could split from the Church, but the Church itself could not be split or divided. In the early church, heresy and the consequent establishment of a rival altar constituted not a split within the Church, but the setting up of a group apart from the Church.
This is what was meant in the Creed by the confession that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”: the Church cannot lose its holiness, or its catholicity, or its apostolicity and still remain Christ’s Church. Neither can it lose its essential unity; by creedal definition the Church remains one. This was the emphatic teaching of every Church Father; there was no dissenting voice regarding the Church’s unity within Christian antiquity. Then came our modern period with its assertion that schism and separation from the historical Church did not possess the same significance assigned to it by the Fathers.
Given the problems afflicting the western church in the medieval period following its schism from the Orthodox east, one understands the insistence of the Protestant Reformers that separation from the papal west was imperative. The early Reformers regarded the Pope as the eschatological Antichrist, and this could not help but make schism from the papal church an urgent necessity. Nonetheless the ultimate result was the acceptance of schism as a defining feature of the Protestant churches. That is, schism from the papal church was accepted as normal and necessary, for the papal church (they thought) was not the true Church, but Babylon the Great, the Mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth (Revelation 17:5). For them the choice seemed to be either schism or apostasy.
Protestantism thus gradually came to lose the primitive Christian horror of schism. As time went on, with the continuing multiplication of Protestant denominations, what now matters among them is purity of doctrine, not unity—and sometimes doctrine takes a back seat to lesser things. The concept of schism has all but vanished from the theological glossary of Evangelicals: if they don’t like their church, they simply leave and start another one down the street. What the Fathers decried as schism is now regarded as normal church growth. So long as the new church does not make a point of denying the Trinity, it remains a part of the una sancta.
This minimalistic view of ecclesiological unity has little in common with the approach of the Fathers, who insisted on a substantial unity of both faith and practice in local communities before they could be accepted as part of the una sancta, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. For the Fathers, substantial divergence in matters of faith separated that community from the body of the one Church, with the result that the members of that community were no longer in communion with the rest of the catholic Church. Restoration to the unity of the Church depended upon the divergent body’s renunciation of its error and its return to catholic unity of faith and practice—otherwise it remained in schism, standing outside the unity of the one Church.
This understanding of ecclesiological unity remains normative in Orthodoxy today. Orthodoxy regards the Protestant denominations (and, come to that, our Roman Catholic friends as well) as in schism from the one, united, and indivisible Church. The root ecumenical problem therefore is not simply difference of doctrine, but schism. The Orthodox believe that they are the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church confessed in the Creed. Converts to Orthodoxy are not only invited to agree with its teaching, but to join its family. In converting to Orthodoxy they are not simply joining a different denomination, but returning from schism.
It should hardly need stating that all this does not mean that the Orthodox are better than others, or that there is no grace or salvation found outside its borders, or that they have nothing to learn from other Christians. To err is human, and there is more than enough humanity in Orthodoxy to go around. The issue here is not one of merit, but solely of the nature of the Church and of its unity.
This, I suggest, is the fundamental task of those converting to Orthodoxy and the necessary interior revolution they are called to undergo: to realize that they are not simply leaving one denomination to join another one, but rather leaving schism to enter the one true Church. As said above, that does not mean that the group they left had no saving grace or value. But it does mean that the group was in schism, and that Christians ought to unite themselves to the original Church which Christ founded. For whatever the value of the other Christian groups, the Lord has promised to guide and protect His Church and He made no similar promise to guide groups separated from it. The Orthodox Church, for all its faults (and they are many), abides under that protection. For conversion to Orthodoxy to be complete, the convert must understand that he or she is coming home.
Fr. bless! A few questions, if I may. Let’s say I am an Australian aborigine, or a man from Mars, and I’ve just arrived on the scene and no know nothing about Christianity. Where would you direct me to know about Christ and the Gospel, and how Orthodoxy is different than other communions which also call themselves Christian?
I would invite them to come to a healthy Orthodox congregation (alas, there are some unhealthy ones!) to hear the Gospel, meet Jesus, and join His family of love. The first task for our Martian visitor is not to learn the differences between Orthodoxy and the other churches, but to have a saving relationship with Christ. Our message is not,”Orthodoxy is better”, but “Jesus loves you: repent and be baptized and live as His disciple”.
I am encouraged that you would recommend immersion into the communal prayer life of the Church. But you just got done finished talking about how important our ecclesiology is relative to other communions, but I’m glad that, as a matter of first introduction to our Martian, you did not point to our ecclesiology, but to our worship. And that, I hope, is because you recognize that our worship NEVER gives us pause or reason for embarrassment, but our ecclesiology does. So you might want to be less quick to present our ecclesiology at the same level as worship, because the former is, by its nature, less pristine than the latter. Unless of course, you can defend the actions demonstrated over time and in the present day of our churchmen and our church structure as on par with the Sacred Liturgy.
You are drawing unwarranted conclusions from my brief reply. All I am saying is that the first thing to teach an inquirer from Mars is about Jesus. But eventually questions of ecclesiology must be faced and answered–if only to explain to our Martian friend what we mean in our worship/ Creed by the phrase “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”.
Indeed. I can certainly understand what “holy” and “apostolic” means in the creed. But the “oneness” and “catholic” certainly is more confounding. The anaphatic formulations of church councils tell us where the Church is not, and these are very precise; where the Church is exactly, is not so easily addressed, is it, by the Church fathers? For this reason, I always thought Fr. Hopko’s humble approach was an excellent formulation – Orthodox make claim to having “all the fullness of God.” Wouldn’t you agree?
Saying that the Orthodox Church is the one Church and that the ecumenical task involves overcoming schism is consistent with saying that other churches have some degree of ecclesial reality in them. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware affirmed both, as do I. Thus from his The Orthodox Church: “The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’ of which the Creed speaks…There are divisions among Christians, but the Church itself is not divided, nor can it ever be”. He also said a few pages later, “There is only one Church, but there are many different ways of being related to this one Church”. The difference between the Orthodox and the other churches is not the difference between a “full” denomination and other “less full” ones, but between the Church founded by Christ and those who have left her. I believe Fr. Hopko (of blessed memory) believed the same as did Metropolitan Kallistos. Thus Hopko wrote (in his “rainbow series”), “In non-Orthodox groups the Orthodox claim that there are certain formal obstacles which if accepted and followed will prevent their perfect unity with God and will thus destroy the genuine unity of the Church”.
Given the degree to which human capriciousness can so easily dull the shine of our – or anybody’s – ecclesiology, we often hold up the purer adage of “the rule of prayer determines the rule of faith ” as an axiomatic rule of thumb that can enable our man from Mars – or anybody, of course – to learn what it is the Church believes. Go and hear what we publicly pray, and our Martian will know over then course of a year what the Church believes. Implicit in this axiom is that, by extension, any non-liturgical belief requirements would be of less weight if they have no liturgical foundation, link or encouragement. What elements of non-Orthodox public prayer, esp. Roman Catholic, do you object to most? (other than the filioque, which is too easy an answer). I find, for example, that the The Book of Common Prayer suffers greatly from Cranmer’s removal of much related to the Theotokos. Such a deficiency, in contrast, does not exist among Roman Catholics.
I don’t know how capriciousness could dull or confuse one’s ecclesiology; the Orthodox have been clear about it for two millennia now. And I am reluctant to produce a list of RC errors. Perhaps I might refer the interested reader to Strickland’s recent volume “The Age of Division” at: https://www.amazon.com/Age-Division-Christendom-Protestant-Reformation/dp/1944967869
Well, when the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow do not commemorate each other in their respective Divine Liturgies, how does that fit into the ecclesiology you’ve described? I don’t know the details, but I would guess that human capriciousness had some role to play in this lack of commemoration. They have, in some cities, parishes relatively close to each other. How does one know which is The Catholic Church and where one should go for the Eucharist, as would have been asked in the fourth and fifth centuries?
The long-standing quarrels between the Patriarchs is a matter of politics, not ecclesiology. Presumably both of them would agree that the Orthodox Church is the one church of the Creed and that other confessions are in schism.
Please help me here, because I don’t see where the politics stops and the ecclesiology starts. You may have seen this and other statements from the ROC, where elsewhere they command all ROC clergy and lay to NOT commune with the Greek Orthodox Church. Again, how does all this fit into the ecclesiology you’ve described, and where is a lay person to go to commune with the Church of Christ?
https://mospat.ru/en/news/60699/ “Metropolitan Hilarion: Restoration of unity in our common Orthodox family is possible only through the denial of false ecclesiology”
You are comparing political apples to ecclesiological oranges. The sole point of my piece was that the Church of Christ is the Orthodox Church, not a confederation of denominations. The fact that Patriarchs quarrel and break communion with each other does not alter this; both this is an in-house quarrel.
Greetings to you Father.. Would you please elaborate about unhealthy Orthodox Congregations..?! 🙂
VERY briefly: some congregations are emotionally and spiritually toxic, and will make those who join them spiritually unwell if they join them and absorb their life. Fr. Hopko (of blessed memory) referred to such places as “synagogues of Satan” (referencing Rev. 3:9).
So are you saying that the only way the Church can achieve unity would be for her family that had left home come home like the prodigal? In that parable, the Father meets the prodigal half way … outside the Gate… as the prodigal is on the way home. The Father doesn’t wait for the Prodigal to embrace the righteous brother who never left. The Father may have been somewhat of a prodigal himself … the parable does not say….for a time dead to his family… like LAZARUS.
No, I am saying that the Church already has its unity, which it can never lose. Some of those within the Church are indeed going outside to find, greet, and embrace our brothers and sisters outside her to help bring them home. I would not call our separated brethren “prodigal sons”; the prodigal son left his father’s house, and our beloved separated brethren were born in the house of another. But because they belong to Christ, they belong in His original Church as well.
I am Greek Orthodox with the Julian calendar and experienced a schism within my church some years back, where the fathers (and subsequently the parish) were divided on some theological perceptions that may be important, but (in my opinion) not worth dividing over.
This was the only experience I had with divorce of any kind, and, as a child of the Church it was saddening to hike through the forest of that separation. I had no idea until it “was too late.”
It’s clear that your position is that salvation can be found in many Christian denominations, however, I can’t help but think if armies of angels could fall because Lucifer decided he wanted something other than what he was given, are we in danger of following the wrong leader?
God bless you! For us non-angels, the task is to follow the truth wherever we think it may be found. One born in Saudi Arabia who was given Islam by their parents must look for truth elsewhere, as must a Mormon born in Utah. I know of Baptists who left their Baptist inheritance to become Presbyterians because they felt that the Reformed tradition had the truth in a way that their Baptist inheritance did not. Everyone, therefore, has an obligation to seek for the truth. Lucifer, on the other hand, was not looking for truth, but rebelling against it.
Dear Fr. Lawrence,
This is a very good and interesting article. The first twenty years of my life were spent as a RCC; the next twenty-five as an American Baptist. Now I’ve been Eastern Orthodox for 16 years. Time flies! Yet, I remain unpacking the schismatic baggage and will be for the rest of my life probably. LOL! Though, I have seen with more and more clarity how God was preparing me from childhood until my reception into Orthodoxy for that very step. I am deeply grateful for those 45 years on the road to Home.
During my time with the American Baptist’s, many “regular joe’s” didn’t necessarily believe that the RCC was anything but a glorified cult and housed the anti-Christ. Most of that notion came from ignorance of the RCC traditions and, definitely, of church history. There was often great rejoicing when a RCC person joined our congregation because they were finally “saved.” LOL!
What I have discovered in these 16 years in the Orthodox Church is the lack of understanding and belief amongst *cradle parishioners* that the Orthodox Church is the one, united, indivisible Church. And even have heard some Orthodox and Protestant alike say, “The Orthodox are not united. Look at all the jurisdictions in the United States! It’s just like Protestantism., divided.” Though, I know this misses your point.
There are some Orthodox I know who receive communion in the RCC and in their home parish, believing “it’s all the same God.” Do they not understand they excommunicate themselves by doing so? This a lot of bristling when a priest speaks the true teachings of the Orthodox Church. But we need much more of that type of teaching instead of the loose pandering I hear coming from the Ambo in certain parishes.
Thank you for this article Father Lawrence, and for all the podcasts, articles and blogging. Know that this Orthodox woman appreciates them more than you know.
Thank you for your kind and encouraging words.
Overall I think I agree with this accurate post of yours. And I know it cannot or try to be exhaustive. But in paragraphs three and four, I think you were in a rush, perhaps. The average Evangelical’s ecclesiology would NOT include the United Church of Canada or any other liberal denomination. For most Protestants do not hold to a “visible church” ecclesiology. They hold to an “invisible church”. So some individuals in the UCC would constitute the Church, most others would not. And likewise most within their home church would be included, but some few might not. Herein lies the defining difference, not institutional doctrine, but individual.
Yet I believe in the Creed, and in a visible apostolic Church. But I see and know true Christians outside this visible Church. Another topic…
Shannon, your statement depends entirely on what you mean by “true Christians”. From an ecclesiological perspective a “true Christian” is one who has been Baptized (or Chrismated) into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church AND lives a life of prayer, fasting and alms giving participating in the Sacramental life of the Church.
Much of what people tend to go by, including me, is a form of sentiment. Jesus can love these folks and look after them through His mercy but that does not make them “true Christians”.
I see in many of the comments here the truth of what Father is saying.
The Modern Mind, i.e., the mind of the world, does not allow for such hierarchy. Everything is fudged, barriers are not really barriers. Standards especially turn into “guidelines”. They can always be gerrymandered. . The end point of this is a denial of our actual humanity. There is no difference between idolatry and the full Sacramental Worship of the Church.
You are NOT doing that, I am just saying that it is a very easy mindset to slip into. “Who am I to judge” being a mantra. Statements of actual truth are not “judgement”.
Ultimately, it is the willingness to embrace the Cross for the love of Jesus, that determines, I think.
Thank you, Michael.
But actually I was addressing Fr. Lawrence.
And no, I meant ‘true Christians’, from any perspective.
The Orthodox Church herself concedes that salvation is possible outside her confines. I have non-Orthodox friends and family for whom, second only after my confidence that Christ is indeed Who and Everything He says He is, I am utterly confident are one of His, and whose current (or past) paths (trajectory) are eternal life. They know/knew their Redeemer, and He knows them, and I know they know/knew more than I know the sky is (sometimes) blue.
I have the same experience, Shannon. I believe they are in schism from the Church, and that their ecclesiology (whether Reformed or Baptist Evangelical) is wrong. But I have no doubt that they belong to Christ and have eternal life.
I have seen poor ecclesiology led people into significant errors in belief and practice that end up making it impossible for them to be in the Church. I was received 34 years ago, I got virtually no catechesis but one thing I have always understood is the Orthodox Church is THE One, Holy and Apostolic Church. Even with our jurisdictional nonesense. Unfortunately the Greeks seem hell bent to propagate schism.
Without a settled understanding of the ecclesiality as you describe it all manner of mischief arises. For one the faithful is much more open to strange doctrines of soteriology and anthropology that are everywhere.
I am a convert from a Reformed background, I assume you’ll recognize my name posting here. This is my personal thesis: if catechesis did a good job explaining Orthodox soteriology, and dismantling bad soteriology, ecclesiology will fall into place because it is a necessary extension of our soteriology. It may be under-appreciated at first, because of its newness for the catechumen/convert, but it will inevitably be so logically necessary that it would be akin to a denial of the gospel to live without our ecclesiology.
And I blame it all on Original Sin and Guilt by and large. I’d like a short comment if you have a second.
You would think that people would connect the dots between soteriology and ecclesiology, but I found have that many do not. I don’t blame it all on original sin; most of my converts are too busy just trying to survive to do much heavy theological lifting. I don’t blame them; but I find that I do have to instruct them.
I have this hypothesis, that if Original Sin was fully dismantled in catechesis, people would pick up Orthodoxy naturally. I understand what you’re saying and I’m known to talk over people’s heads – which leads me to think it has to be a systematic undoing. Once the Eucharist is tied to soteriology, or Baptism, you have to ask – who can administer these things/mysteries? When salvation is done after faith, everything that follows is icing on the already baked cake. Even when people embrace Orthodoxy – the journey/war towards salvation, even if it is affirmed – in my estimation, they have already been so indoctrinated with assurance of salvation which flows from OS/OG that while they believe there is a struggle, they may largely be keeping the notions of progressive sanctification – rather than believing your initial salvation was primarily movement out of Satan’s domain, into the arms of the Church where every means of salvation is available. Anyway, I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I have thought these things through in depth. Just the other day I was thinking, OS actually sets up a defense for and the offense against infant baptism. Same with the Eucharist and Baptism in general. If Christ is present in the Eucharist – you have to ask why. And when the why contradicts your soteriology, you minimize/memorialize. The same thing is true with priests and bishops. If the bishop does not contribute anything to your salvation – because you have faith, or even because you are now Orthodox – then they are superfluous except that they are professional administrators. Once OS is gone, theosis in place, bishops/clergy, become (like Paul) builders, fathers, etc. – people necessary to your salvation – and removing the individual notion alone of salvation – and putting in place the Christian parish as an eschatological-hoping/realizing community – the desire to be saved together – the focus narrows and widens at the same time. I have realized in conversation with Orthodox converts suddenly questioning their conversion that they are just too Reformed. And Evangelicals are just Reformed-lite. Evangelicals, usually never question their past. So, getting off my box in a second – I think this combination of systematic dismantling, combined with American Church history and the issues surrounding various Fundamentalist controversies, the splintering over soteriology – this all may be much more useful than a standard intro to Orthodox – while working in the Orthodox views during the catechesis. Early catechesis did just this. The heretics were examined with their beliefs to the catechumen.
Love the post, and I heartily agree. I have a question about the perennial issue of “no salvation outside the church.” You mentioned in your last two paragraphs, and in some of the comments, that there is indeed grace and salvation to be found outside the borders of the Orthodox Church. I have heard some contrast the consensus view of the first millennium with that of the later Vatican II understanding. The former asserts the model you present above concerning one true visible Church and departure from the Church constituting schism. The latter asserts a series of concentric circles wherein gradations of churchliness exist on a more invisible, spiritual level. Two different understanding of salvation’s relation to the Church are mapped onto each model—the first model having more affinity to the patristic teaching of “no salvation outside the church,” with the caveat that God may choose, in the mystery of His mercy, to save some outsiders.
What is your understanding of “no salvation outside the church” in the holy fathers? Is there a good resource you could recommend that expresses well the Orthodox mindset on the issue? And finally, what is the impetus and urgent necessity (if there is one) for inviting non-Orthodox believers into the fold if saving grace is amply available outside the visible Church? Please know, Father, I ask these questions with a deep appreciation for your ministry.
Yours in Christ,
Your excellent question deserves more response than can be given here. But let me offer this: the Fathers recognized degrees of schism and separation, some more grievous than others. Some outside the communion of the Church needed baptism to reconcile them; others chrismation alone; still others mere renunciation of their errors. In the first millennium, schismatics were rejecting the Church itself, whereas in the second millennium the question is more complicated, with some outside Orthodoxy not rejecting the Orthodox Church, but errors in the western church that the Orthodox Church also rejects as erroneous. Concerning the slogan “no salvation outside the Church”: Metropolitan Kallistos wrote that “the point of the aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation because salvation is the Church. Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not…There may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense we cannot always say.”