Glory to God:
I ask forgiveness for any offense that this podcast might give to some; it’s never my intention to offend. However, in recent days, in correspondence with different people, I’ve had some correspondence about very central doctrines of the Orthodox faith that were questioned in a number of comments, especially regarding certain aspects of the Church.
Probably, few things are as misunderstood as the Church, by people who are not Orthodox, when Orthodox speak about the Church. And so, I will be speaking very clearly about the Church and the nature of the Church, in this podcast, so listen carefully. Some of it will have some criticism of things that I see about us in culture, or in churches of the culture, that leave them in stark contrast with the Orthodox Church. It’s to these differences that I want to speak today, and, hopefully, this will make some sense to you, and be clarifying as well.
I grew up in the Deep South where “getting saved” was part of everyday speech, and everybody knew what we meant when we said it. It was evangelical shorthand for accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Even though we didn’t always know what that meant, everybody knew that that’s what “getting saved” meant. It was something that was usually done at church after walking the aisle at the end of the service.
I did this at age seven. This action was followed by baptism, which was considered simply an outward obedience to Christ. Of course, I was raised, in my early childhood years, in the Baptist Church, and so this is certainly different from what some Evangelicals and some other Protestants understand, but this is the way it was taught to me.
It did mean, having accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and gone through the outward obedience of baptism, that I could start to take communion on one of the four Sundays a year that communion was served, though again, communion, itself, was only meant as a meal to remember something Jesus had done once upon a time. That was made very clear. “Do this in remembrance of me” meant [to] do it just to remember him. In giving such a description, I am simply relating what I, and any other member of the Southern culture that I grew up in, knew. We could cite a few Bible verses that spoke of what we were doing that seemed to make everything legitimate.
Of course, in such a context, speaking about the Church in anything other than mere fellowship, or accountability, terms, is foreign. Verses such as those in the first chapter of Ephesians (Ephesians 1), where the Church is called, “the fullness of him that filleth all in all,” either made no sense in that context, or had to be relegated to some Church of the future, an eschatological future, about which we could only dream. Usually, when those passages were read, they referred to a Church that was not yet, but not to the church we knew.
Of course, all of this rural Protestant understanding presupposes human life defined in purely modern terms. We are individuals whose relationship to one another is, at best, emotional, psychological, or affectional. We went to the same church because we believed some of the same things, or for reasons that were even less noble than that.
Having been saved, there were really only two things left to do: Help other people get saved—that is, evangelism—or become a more moral citizen, which could be put under the general heading of “sanctification.” Sermons usually talked about one thing or the other.
Of course, all of this is actually completely foreign to the Orthodox catholic faith of the Fathers—the inheritance of the Church as given in Scripture, and in the writings of the centuries. Anyone transported from our modern world into the 4th century, and speaking of their salvation in the modern manner, would have been judged a heretic, and of a strange variety never seen before, and would have been disciplined accordingly.
Several key elements here should be underlined. First—these are making distinctions again—salvation—especially as understood in the ancient Church, and in the Orthodox Church—is not something that happens to you as an individual in isolation from others. Second, salvation is not a legal settlement between you and God, in which, having your sins remitted, you are now permitted to enter heaven when you die.
Third—listen to this carefully, I’ll explain it in more detail—the Church is what salvation looks like. I’ll explain this. The Church is what salvation looks like, because salvation is not a momentary matter, but a lifelong event. It may be initiated by our acceptance of Christ, just as a battle against cancer may be initiated by a diagnosis and first dose of chemotherapy, but the sin which affects us is not a mere legal problem. It is existential. It is ontological; that means it goes to the very core of our being. It is deep, in the very center of us, and only a lifetime in Christ, bathed continually in grace, only in that context will we find a beginning to the healing of the destruction that has been at work in us through sin and [that will] prepare us for the life God is giving us.
What does St. Paul mean when he says in Romans 13:11, “Besides this, you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed”?
Or, in II Corinthians 7:8-9, Paul will write and say, “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting, for you felt a godly grief so that you suffered no loss through us, for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation, and brings no regret. But worldly grief produces death.”
Or, very famously, St. Paul says in Philippians, the second chapter (Philippians 2:12-13), “Therefore, my beloved brethren, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will, and to work, for His good pleasure.”
Or here, in this scripture from I Thessalonians, chapter five (I Thessalonians 5:8-9), Paul says, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In none of these cases is “salvation” used to describe a past experience. The word actually has a very broad use of meanings in the New Testament, but these kinds of examples that I have given here today can be multiplied over and over to demonstrate that the parlance of many modern cultural Christians is simply not at all in line with the Gospel as proclaimed in Scripture. It is truncated; it is a virtual version that does not express the fullness of the faith.
The idea of the salvation of an individual as an individual is also a modern idea. It is a modern idea, for the very concept of a human being existing as a self-existent, self-contained individual, is itself a very recent idea.
Charles Taylor, writing in the book, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, carefully illustrates, in over 500 pages, the slow process whereby man, as an individual, came into modern consciousness. Taylor was a professor of philosophy at Harvard. It’s not surprising that the concept would come to dominate popular preaching, but it is, we must understand, a very modern concept.
Preaching and preparation that has been cut off from the history, doctrines, language, and Fathers of the Church, is absolutely vulnerable to every pop-cultural notion that comes down the pike, and so it is that American evangelicalism is mostly Americanism with a Jesus veneer. In some cases, it can be as unashamedly American as Mormonism, which is a purely American phenomenon.
These are strong words, and they are meant to be. The Gospel is a precious treasure and should not be made captive to the cultural forms of any land, whether America, Byzantium, or Russia. At present, the worldwide danger is the complete and total captivity of the Gospel to American culture.
American culture makes the Hellenization, that is, the Greekization, if I can make up a word—the Hellenization of the ancient world—it makes it seem mild. Our culture, our American culture, is conquering the world. Even where they hate us, our culture is conquering the world, and our ideas are taking the place of almost everything that [they come] in contact with, and that includes religious believing.
Thus, to maintain a proper Christian understanding of what it is to be human is particularly difficult, because our modern culture, itself, is changing the definition of what it is to be human, at least as the Church and its Christian doctrine has taught it.
We are taught, in Christian doctrine, that we are created in the image of God, and even in that creation, we are told—it’s declared, at first, when God finishes creating Adam—we are told that it is not good. As I remember one Russian priest saying, it was the first “no good” in the Bible. He said, “Adam was a ‘no-goodnik.’ ” God looks at Adam, and unlike everything else in creation, he did not say, “And it was good.” He looks at Adam and says, “It is not good.” And that was so until he created woman, took her out of Adam’s side, and, together, looking at the two of them, God may say that it is good.
The truth is: because my life is not my life alone. Indeed, sin can best be understood as the rupture of communion between myself and God, between myself and others around me, and if this is sin, then salvation will be the restoration of communion, both with God and with others around me.
Thus, the Church is what salvation looks like. It is here that we are baptized into the very life of Christ, into his body. It is here, in the Church, that we are fed on his body and blood. It is here, in the Church, that we are restored to communion with God and communion with others, and it is here that the battleground to maintain that communion takes place. Thus, God has given us the means to correct one another, to heal one another, to aid in the salvation and the complete restoration of one another in Christ.
Anyone who does not know that the Church is what salvation looks like has not begun to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling.” Again, I know that is a very strong statement, but anyone who does not know that the Church is what salvation looks like has not begun to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling.” God may already be at work in him, but he has not yet consciously begun to work together with God, when he does not understand this.
We cannot love one another unless there is another to love. Indeed, the New Testament, with the exception of the Book of Philemon and the pastoral epistles, is written only to the Church, and even those exceptions are written to men only in regard to their place within the Church. The New Testament belongs exclusively to the Church. If you are reading it as an individual, and not as a member of the Church to whom it was written, then you are reading someone else’s mail.
Finally, the Church has always understood itself to be the one, not an abstract “one,” dwelling mystically in some second story, but a very concrete one. Those who establish “fellowships” and ordain “leaders” have not been given authority to do what they do. Reading the letters of Abraham Lincoln does not make you a U.S. Senator. Those who have authority in the Church were appointed by Christ, and by those whom Christ appointed.
Apostolic succession is real, and not merely mechanical. Those who sit in the seat of the bishops must, in fact, teach what the apostles taught, but to ordain men apart from this divinely appointed means comes dangerously close to the make-believe of cult-like groups, who think nothing of proclaiming prophets and the like.
Of course, the Orthodox Church treats with deference and respect those who lead Christian communities that are not Orthodox, and in most cases has graciously received converts from that number with a great deal of respect, though some, like myself—having been an Anglican priest, I had to submit to re-ordination. I made no complaints; I understood what was going on. I did not take this as an insult, but instead, as a very generous action, inviting me into the very truth of apostolic succession.
According to Scripture, it is only in the Church that we will find “the fullness of him who filleth all in all.” The question, of course, is why would we want less than the fullness? And how could we dare to create our own organizations and claim such a divine reality to be its constitution? Those who have inherited their church from their own fathers stand, perhaps, in a different quandary. But it is still a quandary to be pondered, and not merely justified simply because it exists.
God has called us into union with him and gave us a life here on earth. That life the Scripture describes as the Church. It was not to be reinvented in every generation. It was given, as the Scripture says, “as the faith once, and for all, delivered to the saints,” and that same life continues, and has continued without interruption. It has had its battles. It has had its persecutions. It has gone through a veritable hell, and yet survived, as Christ promised, that “the gates of hell would not prevail against it.”
It has seen schisms, and yet it has remained. It has done so without a central controlling authority, other than God himself, and this is the reality that we are invited into in Orthodox Christianity. We are invited into the very heart of that life of God which is the Church, to whom all the promises have been given, that we are “the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” The Church is, itself, “the very pillar and ground of truth,” to quote Scripture. Glory to God!