The following are a few thoughts I wrote down as I explored Orthodoxy. The first briefly lays out the realization that first really struck me and marked the point of no return on my journey to Orthodoxy. The second is an excerpt from an unsent letter I wrote for my family.
I hope these are of some use to someone. Feel free to steal from them; the keystrokes are mine, but the truths are God’s.
If the Church is the Body of Christ, ecclesiology is
soteriology. To disagree on the nature of the Church is to disagree on the nature of Christ Himself. I do not accept the division of the church into invisible and visible. You cannot divide the Church. It's in the Creed: the Church is One. This is an essential point. The Church is One. Further, as the Church is the Body of Christ, to disagree on the nature of the Church is to disagree on the nature of Christ Himself. To divide the physical Church from the spiritual Church, the visible from the invisible, is to assert that Christ is so similarly divided. That is gnosticism and denial of the incarnation. The Church is One. It is not two, it is not many. Christ was fully man and fully divine, two natures in one person. So too, then, is the Church, His body, a spiritual communion with a physical manifestation. If you make the Church only a physical entity or only a symbolic or spiritual one, then you confess either that that Church is not the Body of Christ or that Christ himself was only man or only God. Or if you assert that the Church is separable into spiritual and physical parts, you say the same of Christ. All of these are heresy. The same goes for the Eucharist. What is Christ? What is the Church? What is the Eucharist? - These three questions are really one and the same. And in them is expressed the mystery of the incarnation, the means of our redemption, and the truth of Christianity. The Church is One.
(2)So why Orthodoxy?
The answer to this question is the heart of this letter and has been the focus of our journey these past months. The short version is: to be united in body and soul with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Of course, the other answer one gives when joining a church, really the only acceptable answer, is, “Because it's true.” To explain what I mean by that is to walk you through what my heart has been pondering during this time. It starts with the correlating question, “Why do you believe what you believe?”
For Christians, any answer to this question can only be grounded in faith. And as our name reveals, the foundation of our faith is Christ. Christ is the center and the focus of all. To seek truth, for us, is to seek Christ Himself. So how do we seek Christ?
This is where Christians, to our perpetual shame and sadness, divide. The answer we have reached is that we seek Him, and are joined to Him, through His Church. Others have adopted different answers, the most common being exclusive reliance on scripture, or sola scriptura
Yet, there is an immediate difficulty in adopting the sola scriptura approach, namely that it itself isn't found in scripture. Rather, scripture gives us several examples of The Way, as the early Christians called it, being found beyond the bounds of its text:
“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” - 2 Timothy 1:13-14
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” - 2 Thessalonians 2:15
“...knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” - 2 Peter 1:20
“But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” - 1 Timothy 3:15
Where is this “good deposit” of which Paul wrote? Where are the traditions? Whose interpretation of scripture are we to follow? For, surely, if we think we ourselves to be the deposit, to have the traditions, and to know the correct interpretation of scripture, we are no different than the Pope who first broke away from the Church because he believed in his own superiority over the rest of the body of Christ.
Fortunately, we do not have to look far, for Christ has Himself given us the answer: the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. Better yet, we don't need to consult Acts or the epistles to reconstruct this church, as it continues to this day, unchanged. We have come to believe that the Orthodox Church is that church.
Now, this is a startling conclusion. At least it was for me, for the ramifications are great. It means that I am not the measure of all things. It means that my own preferences cannot be the standard for truth. It means that if I want to admit that I need God's grace, that I must also abandon the idea that I know what that grace looks and feels like.
This is at once a terrifying and liberating realization. It is terrifying because it entails, perhaps, the consummate dying to self: the sacrifice of my pride and the acknowledgment that the truth lies outside me. But in this it also liberates, for in dying to self I empty myself and make room for Christ. And with Christ comes the truth, for He is the truth (John 14:6).
That has been the underlying message in this journey: that acceptance of Christ means wholesale acceptance, and not one made on our own terms. To join ourselves to Christ is to do so as He sees fit, not we. And the way He saw fit was through the church He founded after His resurrection, the church which His apostles explained is the very Body of Christ (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12, Colossians 1:24, et al), with He as its head (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:18), against which the gates of hell shall not prevail (Matthew 16:18). To join yourself to Christ is to join the Church.Does Orthodoxy claim to be the 'One, True Church' like the Catholics? Can we share communion?
The answer to these questions is: Yes and no. Here, I rely on the words of others. On the church, from Metropolitan Kallistos (a former Anglican):
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this 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; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church,” yet 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.
On communion, from Frederica Mathewes-Green
(also a former Anglican):
Visitors are sometimes offended that they are not allowed to receive communion. Orthodox believe that receiving communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshiping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited to make this commitment to the Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding.
And on both, together, from Peter C. Bouteneff:
As is well known, we Orthodox identify our church with the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We further hold that there is but one church of Christ, and that there is no division within this body, but only from it. And yet there are different extents of separation. As the dictum goes, we know where the Holy Spirit is, but we do not know where the Holy Spirit is not. So here again, while acknowledging a certain range of views from exclusivist to inclusivist, most contemporary Orthodox theologians who have considered the question from within the canonical Orthodox churches acknowledge sacramental reality outside the canonical boundaries of their church. This holds for both baptism and the Eucharist, and not by virtue of a simplistic notion of oikonomia
My expectation is that these two things, even as delicately put as they are in these passages, will be the hardest for many of you to accept. Indeed, they long posed challenges for us.
Yet, in them is expressed the singular beauty of Christ's incarnation, resurrection, and mystical communion with those who believe in Him. What does Met. Kallistos mean when he says that “salvation is the Church?” It is only that which Paul means when he says of the Church that She is the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5). For if Christ is our salvation, and the Church is His Body, then the Church is the body of salvation itself. As for the marital metaphor, Christ Himself tells us, quoting Genesis, that bride and groom unite to become one flesh (Mark 10:
. This the Church accomplishes in holy communion, the wedding feast of the lamb (Matthew 22). As Christ said,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever (John 6:53-58).
Thus Paul urges us “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6). Unity is imperative because the Church is one (we confess this in the Creed), and the Church is one because Christ is one, both God and man, two natures united in one person. There are not multiple churches because there are not multiple Christs; as Christ was both fully divine and fully human, but one person, so, too, the Church is not separated into physical (visible) and spiritual (invisible), but is fully spiritual and physical together as one body.
All of this is not to say—and I cannot stress this enough—it is not to say that someone who is not Orthodox does not have Christ or is not saved; recall Met. Kallistos’ words above. No one can say where Christ and the Holy Spirit are not. But we do know where the Spirit is and we do know where the body of Christ is. And knowing that, how could we go anywhere else?