Ecumenism: The Autoimmune Disease in the Body of Christ

January 22, 2018 Length: 29:36

As Orthodox Christians in a non-Orthodox culture, we have questions: Who are we? What is "the Church"? What is our relationship to friends and family of other faiths? What is ecumenism? Who will be saved? In this special edition of Hearts and Minds, Fr John Oliver offers a few reflections.

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Ecumenism: The Autoimmune Disease in the Body of Christ

There we were, huddled with wonder in Jerusalem’s upper room, among 120 disciples and the Son of God’s own mother, air in the room charged like particles of light. We hung dazzled with the resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven of our Master, our Teacher, our Savior. He told us to wait for “the promise of my Father.” We didn’t know precisely what he meant until, shaken with the power of that mighty rushing wind of Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, not some creative gift from a remote God, no adrenaline bath or emotional state, but the actual and deifying presence of the Holy Trinity.

The Holy Spirit comes with his own gift, an incomparably greater embodiment of the Church as cohesive Christian community, as unprecedentedly material immateriality. The Church existed in the pre-Christian era of the Old Testament in the experience between the prophets and God. In the Father-originated, Christ-established, Spirit-inspired fullness of him who fills all in all, however, the world discovers the Church to be the palpable, purifying path toward not merely a moral but a personal perfection. For the perfect is the Person of the Christ. Now it’s possible: his life for mine, mine for his. His glory for my ashes, his anointing of gladness for my mourning, his apparel of glory for my spirit of indifference.

The Church is how and where we not merely imitate but participate in Christ who is the way, precisely because he is the truth and the life. As uncreated reality, with created expression, the Church, as whole, unified, and integrated as the Christ, who organically identifies with her as head identifies with body, pulsates with transfiguring grace. Christ assured he would build his Church built upon the apostles’ confession of Jesus as the Christ. St. Paul proclaimed the Church the pillar and foundation of the truth, and that, through the Church, the wisdom of God is made known, which is why the Bible comes through the Church and is rightly enthroned within it and not above it.

He reminds us that the Church has no other head but Christ, while the Apostle John notes that the Church is guided by the voice of the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Church emerges in sharper relief through another name by which it is known: the community of deification. Deification describes that process of growing beyond forgiveness of sin and cleanliness of conscience and toward the staggering privilege of becoming partakers of the divine nature, exemplified on Mount Tabor in the radiant Transfiguration of Christ, in the spirit and soul and body of his human nature, thereby revealing the purpose of being human and the goal of our existence.

The Church, then, is a dynamic organism of the only fixed and peculiar transfiguring grace, a still place of ceaseless motion toward the singular goal of deathless life in Christ. Not a calendar item for Sundays, not a social organization, nor a shop for moral tune-ups—the Church is sweet and shattering confrontation with God, is divinity expressed through physicality, which is why, when describing the Church, the Apostle Paul conjoined the corporeality of “pillar and foundation” to the incorporeality of “the truth.”

Indeed, what matters in Buddhism is not the Buddha but his teachings. In the philosophical system of Platonism, not its namesake Plato, but his teachings. In Daoism, not the figure of Lao-Tsu, but his teachings. Christianity’s entire structure, however, rests upon and derives its very life from the Person of Jesus Christ. The Man is the message, and the message is the Man. And no less than its cornerstone, who is recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The Temple raised upon him cannot but bear a fully harmonized interpenetrative unity of realities uncreated and created, divine and earthly. This unity is its healing gift to the world. Pentecost becomes personal.

Christians of all kinds share a common vocabulary, but often not a common dictionary. God, faith, salvation, heaven, hell, tradition, grace, theology, heart, symbol, Christ—these are among the terms begging for clarification in our peripatetic age of growing linguistic confusion. To these, add church. What is it? Where is it? What is it for? In the popular religious marketplace, answers are as numerous as listings for houses of worship in a Google search. Consider ecumenical and ecumenism. Both come from the same Greek root, but diverge toward different meanings, different categories of thought, and toward different visions, one dignified while the other dangerous, one basic to the calling of the Christian while the other toxic to that calling, one reflecting the life as the body of Christ while the other ravaging the body of Christ without which there is no life.

We may think of ecumenical as basically of the whole habitation of the Church. It is to be about the business of this community of deification and its fundamental unity, its [invigorating] pulse in Christ, its vivifying preservation in the Holy Spirit, to evidentially affirm through good faith and right practice its trustworthiness as that pillar and foundation of the truth. By participating in the Church, one is being ecumenical. And, by bumping elbows with anyone else, wherever he resides, in the numberless religious and non-religious neighborhoods outside the visible boundaries of the Church: to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, clothe the bereft, serve the poor, visit the imprisoned—which are basic missions of the Church—one is being ecumenical.

St. Thomas in Nashville, Baptist in Knoxville, Methodist in Memphis, St. John’s and Mary in Chattanooga—all these Christian hospitals in Tennessee, from theologically conflicting confessions, are yet joined ecumenically in the singular task of caring for the sick. Such ministry? Yes. Joined charity? Please! Dialogue and dinner with our various neighbors? Certainly. Raising a mug of beer or cup of tea to cheerfully toast a mutual agreement not to condemn or kill each other or bust up each others’ property? Absolutely.

Beyond that, though? Because ecumenism is different. The -ism should grab our attention immediately, for an -ism is often an ideology, a rigid vision or prescription for how something should be that quarters no other mission than to perpetuate the vision. Think of the difference between vegetarian—I don’t eat meat—and vegetarianismeveryone should not eat meat. Or between science—what can be proven by observation—and scientism—nothing is real if it cannot be proven by observation.

Ecumenism twists mere perspective into ideology that includes this: All individuals and groups that self-identify as Christian, or even simply as spiritual, together make up the invisible body of Christ, or the Church. From this comes the popular branch theory, the presumption that though the body of Christ may have fallen into divisions, that may be out of communion and cordiality with each other, each is yet a branch that together merges into the one big tree of Jesus Christ.

Ecumenical stands as the high calling of all who follow Christ. Ecumenism may be the most dangerous of all heresies. Why? Imagine a large, round table. You sit with eleven other individuals seated around you so that together you make twelve, a number that recalls the apostolic college who lived and died for the fullness of the truth. You represent an orthodoxy that represents the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed—“We believe in one God the Father… in one Lord, Jesus Christ… in the Holy Spirit… in one holy, catholic, apostolic Church…” To your right sits an individual professing a credal statement close to this, but also that God brings some souls into existence for the purpose of sending them to hell.

To his right is one representing a group teaching that God doesn’t send anyone to hell but also that Jesus is only one way, and not always the best way among many, to heaven. To her right is one professing that Jesus is the only way to heaven but also that he really isn’t God but only God’s Son. To his right is one professing that Christ shares one essence with his Father but also that sacraments are misguided inventions of sick men inspired by demons. To her right is one who believes that sacraments are biblical but also that all authority over all Christians on earth is concentrated in one vicarly figure. To his right is one who teaches that God speaks not to one figure only but to all spiritual people, but also that marriage and sexuality are fluid according to how one identifies and that Jesus cheerfully blesses and presides over all their LGBTQ+ expressions. To her right is one who teaches that marriage and sexuality are defined not by culture but by the church, but also that anyone not a member of his group is damned.

To his right is one proclaiming that salvation is open to all but also that the Bible is an outdated relic of the past that needs filtering through modern science and common sense. To her right is one arguing the Bible is the good book for today but also that because of religionless spirituality, candy and soda-pop are just as valid for the Lord’s Supper as bread and wine. To his right is one who teaches that holy Communion is important, but also that physical sickness and lack of wealth are proofs of insufficient faith and God’s disfavor. Finally, the individual to her right and to your left, closing the circle of twelve, professes a belief in the Trinity, in some sacraments, in the Bible, in apostolic succession, in traditional views on marriage and sexuality, in helping the poor, but also loudly tells the other ten that your Orthodox group is man-made tradition poisoned with anti-biblical, works-based, soul-destroying ritualism.

Here you sit, all of you, like the fights of the round table: wildly conflicting beliefs, conflicting teachings, conflicting lifestyles, not only conflicting interpretations of the Bible but conflicting opinions on if the Bible even matters. Now scoot back and look up. Over the center of the table, visible to vast crowds of starving souls, contemporary and ancient, desperate for some guidance through the existential crises in life and death, hangs a wide sign that reads, “The Church.” Functionally, that is ecumenism.

Why may ecumenism be the most dangerous of all heresies? Because in an interfaith effort, it welcomes all heresies under one big tent. Any proposition or lie one wants to believe about God or history or the human being. It welcomes both the Arianism of both those who deny that Christ is of one essence with the Father and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the Sabellianism of those who deny that Christ is of one nature with humanity and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the Nestorianism of those who reject the union of natures within Christ with that union’s resultant veneration of his God-bearing mother, and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the Macedonianism of those who reject the divinity and divinizing energies of the Holy Spirit and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the Montanism of those who favor the Holy Spirit to the exclusion of the other two Persons and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the Antinomianism of those who deny any moral component to salvation and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the iconoclasm of those who reject a material dimension organic to faith and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t; both the Gnosticism of those who reject a sacramental expression organic to the Incarnation and the Orthodoxy of those who don’t.

Then all sitters at the table rise, and as a capstone toast to this carnival of chaos—the Eucharist? But how can we have a common cup when we don’t have a common Christ? How is any eucharistic subjectivism of “we respectfully leave it up to whatever it means to you” reconcilable with the scandalous claims of Christ to his own exclusivity? and then of Paul to the holy terror intrinsic in the Bread, because of Body, and the Wine, because of Blood? How can the Church breed the very spiritual diseases it was established to cure? Like a hospital that gives chemotherapy with one needle and cancer with another. How can one dignify with the title of “the Church” a seething collection that, because of its antithetical theologies and doctrines and practices and visions, unlike yesterday’s consort of prophets and apostles and martyrs and fathers, with their hesychastic experience of the word of God, could neither produce the New Testament that we have today nor liturgize for helpless mankind the saving events of Christ’s life?

Ecumenism rips and refashions, tearing the Church from moorings—historical, theological, Christological, soteriological—that give it precision and contour and embodiment in our world, preaching a Christless Church and a Churchless Christ and redefining the body of Christ as a table of occasionally agreeing, often contradicting constituents, as if Jesus himself could come down sickly with an autoimmune disease, parts of himself in conflict with and eating away at other parts of himself.

Christ refers to a conflicted kingdom—“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand”—but emphatically not his own. Fascinatingly, the Orthodox Christian Divine Liturgy refers to a “divided Christ.” As the celebrant parts the divided Lamb, he offers, “Divided yet not disunited is the Lamb of God, ever eaten yet never consumed,” in this act dividing, not disuniting, the whole embodied Son and Word of God rests, not fractured nor splintered, but distinguished on the diskos, so that the particle placed in the mouth of the infant contains all the fullness, all the divinity, all the abundant life as the piece placed in the mouth of the adult. Each fullness agrees with every other fullness.

On this principle, too, rests Orthodox ecclesiology. The small, struggling parish contains all the fullness, all the divinity, all the abundant life of the Son and Word of God, as the large, thriving cathedral. Each part contains the wholeness, and the wholeness is present in each part. The expressions of the Church are distinct, but not disunited; one, not disintegrated or contradictory; holy, not psychological or man-made; catholic, not partial or fragmented; apostolic, not changing or innovative. As the living continuity of the faith and life established by Jesus Christ, given to his apostles, described in the Bible, practiced by early believers, defended with the blood of martyrs, and passed on by those Christians associated with the ancient centers and earliest centuries of Christian history.

The Church, always in her inner life, if not always in her outer expression, is the place of harmonized wellness. Early Latin-speaking Christians described this as totus Christus caput et corpus: the whole Christ, head and body. Preach Christ alone and he dissolves into abstraction, a flexible figure co-opted by various ideologies through the centuries, a champion claimed by wildly contrasting causes, a malleable mystic who floats above the ground and grounding of history. Preach Christ alone, and he is vulnerable to the same misinterpretations that distort holy Scripture when one preaches a Churchless Bible. Preach Church alone, and it degenerates into a social club or a mechanism for the preservation of culture or a mob of shared superstitions. Preach Church alone, and it warps into a synagogue of Satan, a system of power and of power abused.

But preach the total Christ, head and body, and we enter embodied healing, fullness and right order, and the salvific stability of something unstable man did not invent, with the virtues of Christlike humility and Christ-centered truth filling every part within the whole. To preach the total Christ, head and body, is to discover both who saves us and how we are saved; who died for us and how to carry our cross; who reconciled us to the Father and how we appropriate that reconciliation for ourselves; whose immortality we need and how to exchange our mortality for it. Anything short of the Church-ful Christ and the Christ-ful Church poisons an already parched world, like giving shipwrecked souls nothing but sea water to quench their excruciating thirst—this crucial.

With equal conviction we profess both the knowability of the one, true Church and the unknowability of who is safely part of it. Simple observation from history and headlines reveals the Church to stand in radiant glory while we ragged attendants, sullying its reputation, remain wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. With the discerning Paul, we do not presume to judge the essential condition of anyone, including ourselves.

In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this. But he who judges me is the Lord. Therefore, judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.

A clear conscience is a coveted thing but does not itself determine innocence. The field of faith cradles both wheat and tares together. The dragnet gathers both the good and the bad. Separating one from the other will be the sole and solemn assignment of none but the angels. Suspension of all judgment should especially frighten the Orthodox, for whom the most buoyant words in the Divine Liturgy—“We have seen the true light, we have found the true faith…”—are also the most brutal. Buoyant, because this really is the ark in the storm of the world, the flesh, and the devil; brutal, because the ark’s founder and head mandates: “For everyone to whom much is given, from whom much will be required. And to whom much has been committed, of him will be asked of the more.” Poor the soul who settles into a local Orthodox parish in search of nothing more than the feeling of a psychological guarantee of salvation. None should work out salvation with greater fear and trembling than those who presume they’re snuggled comfortably in the ark. Woe to you Orthodox, for if the mighty works which were done in you had been in Geneva or Grand Rapids, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Rome and Canterbury in the day of judgment than for you.

Why did Jesus tell the religious Pharisees that “repentant prostitutes and tax-collectors are entering heaven before you”? “It is because you, who have much, produced little, while they, who have little, have produced much.” Heresies are to Christ’s Church what holes are to Noah’s ark: ruptures in integrity that may appear small and inconsequential, but in fact let in powerful forces of great destruction and malevolence. Deceptive is any consideration of the sighs of heresy, since heresy often hides in personal opinion contrary to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Yet we must talk and reason and debate and grow and profess, only to retract, and profess again. We must live. But when personal opinion rises from a launchpad of ego and creates a blog or writes a book or records a podcast or ignores a history or starts a church or counsels a fragile soul—that offering can become a dish of confusion or a portal of the demonic. It’s heresy’s halting effect on spiritual healing that’s inadmissable and its capacity to open the way for more heresy.

Christ’s warning to his disciples is that they beware of not the loaf but the leaven of bad teaching, roughly the size of a quarter coin in the whole bread. The Orthodox, then, conclude Divine Liturgy with an appeal to God: “To preserve the fullness of the Church,” as Noah might appeal to God to preserve the integrity of the ark. If the Church allows holes or heresies, it becomes not the community of deification but a commonwealth of the damned. For all who shall be saved, salvation comes through the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. For neither is there salvation in any other, no other name under heaven given among men whereby we may be saved, either by baptism by water, as ascetic participants of the mysteries of the Church; baptism by blood, as martyrs or confessors for the good, the true, and the beautiful; or baptism by desire, as good souls who would join her if they knew of her accessible existence.

For any cultural ridicule or rejection of Christianity, followers of Jesus need blame none but ourselves, really. Good intentions granted, we’re such a scattered bunch, in global expression and personal example, so that God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of us. Hiding in this disarray, however, is at least this glorious hope. Many who appear lost today for a defiantly antagonistic posture toward Christianity will be saved at the judgment seat because, in fact and perhaps unknowingly, they had rejected not Christ, but all false Christs; not his body, but all deformed and disappointing presentations of it. For all who’ve endured shaming or shunning or sacrifice because they would not settle for counterfeits, how merciful to reward with the real thing in his real kingdom!