The Scriptural, Patristic, and Orthodox View of the Church

The Church“Outside the Church there is no salvation.” (Saint Cyprian, 258)

Outside the catholic Church, one can have everything except salvation.” (Saint Augustine, 371)

Hebrews 12:22-23 NKJV  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels,  (23)  to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect

“No teaching can be received as apostolic other than what is currently proclaimed in the Churches of apostolic foundation” (Tertullian, North Africa, 225)

“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.” (Origen, Egypt, 250)

All Christian groups in one sense argue that they are “The Church.”

The Roman Catholic Church claims that it alone is “The Church” because all their parishes are in communion with each other and under Christ’s appointed Vicar, the Pope of Rome. Romans Catholics therefore say that Eastern Orthodox are in schism with “The Church” because they are not in communion with the Pope of Rome.

Protestants say they are “The Church” because they are part of a greater “mystical reality” of a “one invisible Church” concept despite all the seeming visible divisions between Christian groups (other Protestants !!) on earth.

The Eastern Orthodox Church claims to be “The Church” alone because they claim apostolic succession, claim to have kept or maintained all of the apostolic “Tradition” unchanged and unaltered, and are ‘One’ because of the Eucharistic communion among themselves. They see other seemingly “christian” groups such as Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Coptic Orthodox as outside of “The Church” because they do not share this canonical Eucharistic communion they claim to alone have.

And, to reiterate here, I (RAS) was an official member of the Eastern Orthodox communion of chuirches and I became Orthodox after being a Calvinistic Baptist Pastor, because I found among her a fullness of the Apostolic Christian Faith that was missing from my brand of Protestantism. But I am not comfortable historically nor scripturally in affirming or confessing that ONLY the Eastern Orthodox communion of churches is ALONE “The Church” or the obvious implication of that claim that “God’s ecclesial grace is working among the Eastern Orthodox churches alone” and that all others are therefore “outside of the Church.”

Yes, everyone today is talking about the word “church.” But what do we mean when we say ‘Church’ today? We often hear or use such expressions as: “There is no salvation outside the Church,” “The Church of Russia,” “The Greek Orthodox Church,” “The Roman Catholic Church“, “The Church is the Body of Christ,” or “I go to Church!” All contain the term ‘Church,’ but obviously in a very inconsistent way.

It can be very confusing and I have had my thoughts for a couple of years (which came to a climax after I visited a Coptic Orthodox Cathedral) but was unable to articulate my thinking and could find no work that shared my thoughts until I came across Eastern Orthodox Laurent Cleenewerck’s incredible thesis entitled  “His Broken Body.” I am fully convinced that his thesis is clearly the biblical and patristic, and “Orthodox” understanding of what “The Church” is. His thesis basically is this :

By catholic Church, I mean ‘catholic’ in the sense used by the ecclesiastical writers of the first three centuries. Specifically, I shall contend that ‘catholic’ refers to the holographic nature of the local Eucharistic assembly. In other words, what we now call ‘diocese’ or ‘eparchy’ is what Early Christians called ‘the catholic Church’ . . .  The Church, strictly speaking, is the Body of Christ, the eschatological unity of all those who have been united to Christ’s life in all times and places. This is the foundational use of ‘Church’ in the New Testament. The other proper use for ‘Church,’ in a way that connects with our realm, is in reference to the gathering of Christians from a specific area to celebrate the Eucharist. If in Matthew 16:18, the meaning of Church is uncertain, Matthew 18 undoubtedly uses the same word to describe the local community. This “whole Church” is the manifestation of the eschatological Church in our world, in our town. Beyond that, we have “Churches.”

The rest of this post consists of excerpts from Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck’s “His Broken Body” – which I believe is the Orthodox view.

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First of all, we all understand that properly speaking, the word ‘Church’ refers to people, not to a building. Secondly, we can probably agree that the meaning of ‘Church’ should be defined by the Scriptures and its apostolic interpretation found in the writings of the Early Fathers, not by modern usage.

If we search the New Testament for every occurrence of the word ‘Church’ (or ‘Churches’), we can get a clear picture of what it is that God established :

Act 20:28 “Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood.

Essentially, the Church (singular) is an eschatological reality that transcends space and time. It could be said that God knows, foreknows and has a relationship with our eternal self. He knows his elect from “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). The early Christian (and therefore orthodox) doctrine of the ‘pre-existence’ of the Church is well established.

For instance, the Shepherd of Hermas teaches that

“She [the Church] was the first of all creation and the world was made for her” (Hermas, Vision, 2:33)  

The early homily known as 2 Clement is even more explicit:

“Moreover, the books and the Apostles declare that the Church belongs not to the present, but existed from the origin [beginning, source]” (2 Clement 14:2)

In order to understand reality properly, that is according to the mind of the Spirit, we must discern within time and creation a dynamic movement towards its telos or end. Our human consciousness experiences the universe as “purpose-driven,” but could it be that our experience of the arrow of time is only an icon or foretaste of the reality that already exists in God?

In his classic Being as Communion, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon makes the point that the Eucharistic liturgy is also “a remembrance of the future,” because the Church below is a manifestation of the Church beyond. The great theologian compares us with trees “with branches in the present and roots in the future”

This is why the great prayer of consecration of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom can say:

Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior, and all that has come to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of the Father, and the second and glorious coming… “

In the Church, we are already “new creatures in Christ” and even in our present chronos (time), we are revealed as foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified (Romans 8:29-30). The apparent contradiction between ‘pastoral free will’ passages and those stressing eternal divine election simply reflect the tension between equally valid perspectives on reality.

[All the verbs in Romans 8:29-30 are in the past tense (aorist) and therefore clearly shows a final "snapshot" of the Church (singular) --that eschatological reality that transcends space and time -- from God's vantage point. There is no other reasonable way to look at these particular verses since all the verbs are in the aorist tense - RAS]

These words of Clement of Alexandria aptly summarize this relationship between the Church of the elect above and the (catholic) Church below:

“The earthly Church is the image of the heavenly.” (DECB, p. 147)

In the perspective of our experience of time, of our eon or ‘age,’ the Church is “the body of Christ ,” the means by which temporal creatures can be united to the eternal God-Man, and become “partakers of the divine nature ”now and in “the age to come.” The purpose of the Church is that the many creatures would be one with God the Father in Jesus Christ, so that “God may be all in all.” The Church is the means by which human beings can enter in this new mode of existence not “born of the flesh” but “of the Spirit” (John 3:6). This is what I call “the eschatological, pre-eternal, fulfilled or supra-temporal Church.”

[It is this eschatological Church that we confess in the Nicene Creed "I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." Equating the "One" eschatological Church with "local churches" or "groups of local churches" is where the problem begins. I do not, for example, confess "I Believe in One Holy Eastern Orthodox Church" only when I say the creed - RAS]

I am keenly aware that this definition can sound identical with that of  ‘Universal Church.’ For instance, the Catechism of the Orthodox Church has this question and answer:

Q. Why is the Church called Catholic, or which is the same thing, Universal?

A. Because she is not limited to any place, time, or people, but contains true believers of all places, times, and peoples.

In this sense, both concepts are identical, even though the early Church use of ‘catholic Church’ was reserved for the manifestation of the pre-eternal Church in space and time. The problem is that ‘Universal / Catholic Church’ is mainly used, in Roman Catholic terminology and theology (and adopted by Protestants and some Eastern Orthodox), to refer to all believers now alive on earth. The point is that the ‘universal Church’ is not a eucharistic gathering and therefore not properly speaking ‘The Church’. . .

[Theologically speaking, there is no such thing as the ‘Russian Orthodox Church’ or the ‘Greek Orthodox Church.’ The official terminology, as found in the annual directory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, would be that of ‘Local Churches,’ in this case: ‘Church of Russia’ and ‘Church of Greece.’ Yet even this language is ‘economical,’ not ‘ontological:’ the best (and theologically accurate) expression would be ‘catholic Churches of the Orthodox faith’ in Russia or Greece, or indeed ‘Moscow Patriarchate’ and ‘Archdiocese of Greece,’ respectively.]

As we reflect on what makes the mystery of the Church (which is the mystery of Christ himself), we can understand that the Eucharistic gathering is what constitutes and manifests the Church. In the Eucharist, we experience an intersection of the eternal “lamb slaughtered from the foundation of the world ”and our temporal present. The very institution of the Eucharist makes the connection, indeed the identity Eucharist-Church obvious: “this is my body” refers to both interchangeably. In 1 Corinthians 11, a chapter entirely  dedicated to the Eucharistic life of “the Church of God that is at Corinth,” we find this significant expression: “when you come together as [a] Church.”

In other words, it is the gathering of the people of God to celebrate the Lord’s Supper that makes the Church be – in the sense of a manifestation of the eschatological Church and Lamb. It is the same Holy Spirit who is called upon to manifest the Christ, both in the waters of Jordan and in the Eucharistic assembly.

In the liturgy of St. Basil which is both a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgical text, we pray:

“That thy Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon these gifts here set forth, and bless them and hallow them and show this bread to be itself the precious Body of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, and this cup to be itself the precious Blood of Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ… “

We now understand why St. Paul uses the expression “the whole Church” to refer to the local Church. The local Church is the whole Church, and Paul always uses the singular (“to the Church of God that is in Corinth”) when he mentions the local Church. By contrast, Churches (plural) refers to regional or organizational groups.

Act 9:31 Then the churches throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had rest and were edified, and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.

Rev 1:11 NKJV  saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

And to the angel of the church in . . . . . ” (Rev 2:1 – 3:14)

In other words, 1 “whole Church” + 1 “whole Church” + 1 “whole Church” = the “whole Church” in 3 places or 3 “Churches.” Paul does not say “the Church in Galatia” or “the Church of Achaia (Greece)” because it is improper terminology!

There is no one Eucharist in Galatia or in Achaia and therefore we cannot consider all the Christians in those areas ‘in bulk’ and call them ‘a Church.’ “Exiles” and “saints” in Asia or Galatia certainly, but not as Church.

The same can be said of our modern use of ‘Church’ to refer to a worldwide communion of Churches, what we call ‘the universal Church.’ As in the case of regional Churches, there is no ‘universal Eucharist’ and because of this, the term ‘universal Church’ is at best improper, and I think misleading

[whether claimed by Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox communions –RAS] 

OC ModelAllow me to summarize what we have so far. The Church, strictly speaking, is the Body of Christ, the eschatological unity of all those who have been united to Christ’s life in all times and places. This is the foundational use of ‘Church’ in the New Testament. The other proper use for ‘Church,’ in a way that connects with our realm, is in reference to the gathering of Christians from a specific area to celebrate the Eucharist. If in Matthew 16:18, the meaning of Church is uncertain, Matthew 18 undoubtedly uses the same word to describe the local community. This “whole Church” is the manifestation of the eschatological Church in our world, in our town. Beyond that, we have “Churches” as evidenced by the scriptural testimony.

[And so a question arises, can Christ’s Church experience local schism and yet remain one eucharistically with Christ? Yes  - RAS]

‘Schism,’ is any disagreement or event leading to a rupture of Eucharistic communion. This can happen internally, within the (local) catholic Church, as is the case when there are two competing bishops, or externally, between catholic Churches.

[I believe this is also the case between Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox local “churches” – RAS]

Christians as individuals and as a corporate body are called to be ‘witnesses to the Truth.’ Yet, it is plain to see that Christians and the visible Church are not always perfect witnesses to the “Truth of Gospel,” as in the case of St. Peter in Galatians 2:14.

Most Eastern Orthodox would admit that the local councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672) have produced decrees that are not ‘perfect witnesses’ of biblical and patristic Orthodoxy. Likewise, most Roman Catholics realize that the decrees of the councils of Lateran (1215) and Florence (1439) should be considered with caution and in context. Even Pope Benedict XVI, when still Cardinal Ratzinger, admitted that the decrees of Vatican I were “harsh” and that the council fathers were “not successful” with their language.

This sense of human imperfection does not mean that theological truth cannot be arrived at and that everything is ‘up for grabs.’ What remains problematic is the precise articulation of certain points of doctrine for which there is no explicit biblical or apostolic testimony. These are areas where we tend to find ongoing controversies and variations of expression. In spite of this, we can say that the Church is infallible and inerrant in a soteriological sense. If a Eucharistic community is the Church at all, it truly unites human beings with Christ; it does not and indeed cannot err when witnessing to Christ as Truth and Life. By its very identity as Body of Christ, the Church cannot fail in its struggle against the gates of death: anyone who is truly ‘in the Church’ is ‘in Christ’ and therefore saved.

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“Make schisms in the Church to cease” (Eucharistic Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, Anaphora).

St. Basil was referring to schisms within the (local) Church, as was the case in Antioch during his lifetime, not schisms within the universal communion. However, the overall intention is the same.

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