The concluding post of my series comparing Orthodoxy with Protestantism. Though obviously not my last post on Orthodoxy! I may do another one on Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
When I originally listed the main differences between the two traditions of faith, I neglected to mention one big difference: How they view the Church and what they believe “The Church” to consist of. Orthodoxy especially is concerned with the questions of what, where and who the Church is. And in both traditions, the definition is very different, and very complicated.
Protestantism defines the Church as the full body of saved Christians, including those who are not part of any individual churches. It then becomes a matter of what a “saved Christian” is. Often it will come down to simply “believing that the Bible is the inspired Word of God”, and whatever group of Christians do that, then that is the Church. But of course it is more complicated than that, and there are also standards of (“little-o”) orthodoxy that come into the equation. Of that group of “bible believers”, some would consider Mormons to be part of the Church, others look at their lack of belief in the Trinity and Christ’s nature, the addition of the Book of Mormon to the Canon, and their strange views on the afterlife and say no. Some look at Catholics and Orthodox and regard them as idolaters for their prayers to Mary and the Saints, and would exclude them from the Church. Beyond the Bible itself, there is no hard and fast standard. It ranges from the idea that anyone who believes Jesus died and rose again is a Christian and part of the Church, no matter what outlandish ideas they add to that; through to the other extremity of those who believe their Protestant denomination or church is The Only True Church, and all others are lost to the fires of hell!
Orthodoxy does take a similarly exclusionary view of what the Church is, namely that no church other than the Orthodox Church, its Bishops, and its visible and invisible (ie. passed on) members is the Church. They believe this because all Orthodox Bishops are preceded by a line of Bishops going back to the laying on of hands by the original Apostles, and because they have kept the “right beliefs”, those held “everywhere and always, by all”. But this is not a condemnatory stance – remember that in Orthodoxy salvation is not a contractual arrangement that predetermines the final destiny of the soul. A humble pagan living by faith based on his limited knowledge of God may receive God’s grace at the last, while the strictest, baptised at birth Orthodox monastic may yet fall from grace and not finish the race he has begun.
Being in the Church is not a guarantee of God’s mercy, and being outside of it is not a guarantee it will be withheld. Rather, Orthodoxy sees the Church as the vessel of salvation – it is the Way, not the destination. And its claim to be the One True Church is a positive one only, not a negative one. As the English Bishop Kallistos Ware says: “We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not; and so we must refrain from passing judgment on non-Orthodox Christians.”
A good analogy of how Orthodox Christians view the Church is that of marriage. A couple may live together, and consummate their relationship, and spend the rest of their lives together in complete happiness and fidelity to one another in an identical fashion to a married couple. But they are not married. They need to actually hold a ceremony for that to happen. It is not a judgment on their relationship to say they are not married, merely an observation. So it is with the matter of the Church, and what is the True Church. It is possible for God to work in your life outside of the Church if you “fornicate” with Christianity, and God will bless you and bestow His grace if you know no better. But just as only marriage allows one to experience the full blessing of a relationship, so the Church is the only means of experiencing the fullness of Jesus Christ and His salvation.
I could write screeds of theological detail on the Orthodox view of the Church – it is an almost inexhaustible subject. But if one were to boil it all down, the Orthodox Church is the Eucharist – the imbibing of the real Body and Blood of Christ in communion with those of the same “orthodox” faith. Rather than the Protestant view of Communion as a unifying ritual whereby they partake in holy symbols of Christ’s saving acts, Orthodox see the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as literally Christ’s Body and Blood, and their participation as literal salvation. This is in keeping with the Orthodox view that Christianity is not just the intellectual exercising of faith in the metaphysical, as Protestants usually view it, but something that can also be seen, touched and tasted. It is also entirely Biblical, as detailed in John 6.
Because Orthodox see Communion this way, they guard it zealously. You can’t just rock on up to an Orthodox Church and take it. You must be baptised in the name of the Trinity, chrismated with oil from the Bishop, and have made a recent confession verified by a Priest. In short, you must be all square before God and already in Communion with the Church intellectually before participating in reality. It’s a big deal. After eight months attending an Orthodox Church I still cannot partake of the Eucharist, and will not be able to do so until the Priest deems me ready for chrismation. Which is fine by me – it is not unusual for catechumens to wait up to two years in a church before they are deemed ready for baptism and/or chrismation. My Priest likes to joke that if he can’t have sex with your wife, why should he let you take the Eucharist? Both are covenant relationships that are exclusive to those who are in them and have formalised them before God.
This all causes Protestants to come back to the basics of their tradition – aren’t we all saved by grace through faith, not through our own effort? Aren’t baptism, chrismation and confession merely outward works that do not save in and of themselves? And why should these rituals, and the consent of a Bishop through his Priest, be a “barrier” to God? The answer is that, first of all, if our faith is there and found to be true, the invitation is always extended to us to partake, and if we hunger for God, there is no other Way offered, either in the Bible or in the rest of the Holy Tradition of the Church. The Way is Jesus, and Jesus is the Way. We must be baptised into Him, receive His Spirit, confess our sins to Him, and imbibe His Body and Blood. This is what we stake our faith in. Secondly, neither we, nor the Church by itself can ultimately save our souls, but we are saved, and undertake the journey to salvation, through the Church. God uses these things, the water of baptism, the oil of chrismation, the transformed bread and wine of the Eucharist, to purify us, to seal us with His Spirit, to revive us and work from within us, so that we are pure, holy and fit for the Life to come. We can partake falsely, by deceit instead of faith, in which case these acts condemn us. But to partake truly is to receive eternal life.
If the Church is the Eucharist, and the Communion of orthodox Christians, then what makes bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ? Only the consecration of the Bishop, or his appointed Priests. The word “bishop” simply means “overseer”, and it is clear that, just as Jesus separated the twelve Apostles from the rest of his disciples and gave them divine authority, so the Apostles in turn passed on that authority by the laying on of hands and appointed Bishops to safeguard the faith wherever they founded churches in their missionary travels of the 1st Century. One of these Bishops, Ignatius of Antioch, was a contemporary of the Apostles and latterly a disciple of the Apostle John, and it is from him that we see much of the theology surrounding both Bishops, and the Eucharist, established at the turn of the 2nd Century. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans c110AD, he states:
“Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid…
…Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
So Christ’s Church was from the earliest, and still is today, a Church of Bishops, of orthodox faith, and of the Eucharist. It still invites all those who seek God today to receive Christ in all His fullness, for the salvation of their souls. For me personally, Orthodoxy has been an illumination – it has tied up all of what I had perceived to be the “loose ends” of Christianity and made it all make sense. In every sense of the word, it “completes” Christianity and rounds it out from being a mere “textbook” faith of a Holy Book dropped from the sky in isolation. All that remains is an invitation, for Protestants and “Bible-believing Christians” especially, to explore the true history of the Church, examine the doctrinal claims of Orthodoxy, and especially experience a Divine Liturgy service for themselves (since Orthodoxy is lived and experienced, not just thought through). From there it can be decided if this ancient tradition of faith is merely antiquated custom, or if, in fact, it does represent the completeness and fullness of Christianity.