Ecclesiology - The Orthodox understanding of the Church

Ecclesiology is the Theology of our faith concerning the Church. As we believe that the Church is the body of Christ (and the vehicle of Holy Revelation), the understanding of Christ goes hand in hand with our understanding of the Church. Likewise, an improper view, treatment, and understanding of the Church can affect our beliefs and understanding of Christ. This is a malady of the Christian faith I believe we witness today across the Protestant milieu.

The Church is affirmed and identified by the marks of the Church, which are One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. These are words that are affirmed every Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. The Church is One in that she is not divided nor many, but one body in a unity of faith and teaching. She is Holy in that she is set apart for the work of God, who acts through the Church, a living conduit of His Holy revelation. She is Catholic in that her teaching is universal, accepted by all, and unchanging in doctrine across the whole of her assembly. She is apostolic in that her duty is to go out into the world to baptize all nations, but also in that she has charism of the Apostles continuously passed down through their many disciples and in unbroken succession.

There is no salvation apart from Christ, and in turn this leads further to the understanding that there is no salvation apart from the Church, which is the body of Christ. The Church serves as the vehicle of Holy revelation, and the abode of the Holy Spirit for the transmission of truth and understanding as revealed to us and to all men. Through our participation the Holy Spirit unites us into one reality, both physical and spiritual, with the Son of God, where we become by our participation and adoption the sons and daughters of the Father.1 In this way, the Church is sacramental, for change takes place within us. The Church is both recognized and realized within her sacraments, for it is through her sacraments that myriad graces of God are received. The Church exists within a sacramental life, consecrating her life and existence to the glory of God, and by extension, the lives of those within by their participation with the life of the Church.

The Church is a divine-human organism, meaning that it is both equally and fully human and divine. Within the Church is contained the fullness of God, and the fullness of man, "but also in the frailty and brokenness and insufficiencies of man, and in that sense the Church is already at home and still becoming."2 It is within the Church that man encounters God, both spiritually and physically through her sacraments. It is through man's participation with the divine nature of Christ, and the sacramental life and rhythm of the Church. that man is healed of his infirmities and becomes that which he was created to be.

We are summoned into this Church by Christ through the grace of God into an eschatological path of asceticism and denial of self. It is within the Church that the disciples of Christ are “ingodded” through the sacramental life of the Church, wherein we attain a better understanding into the fullness of Christ, his teachings, the Law of the Spirit of Life, and the Love of God. It is within the sacraments of the Church, more importantly the Divine mystery of our faith, that the Catholicity of the Church is fully expressed. For, the Church is the bride of Christ, a mystical union of the divine and the human, of Christ and his followers, united to Him in faith and participation in His divine will (for those who love him obey His commandments), as well as a partaking and participation with His body and blood, the spiritual food and medicine for our souls, for indeed "whoever eats of His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life, and will be raised up in the last day."3 By this partaking and participation, the Church is a theanthropic (divine-human) communion of Jesus Christ with his people.

The Orthodox Church sees the whole Church as a living icon of the triune God. Just as the three persons of the Trinity are a mystery of unity in diversity, three distinct persons existing in one Godhead of one essence, the Church is likewise a unity of diverse persons existing in unity. The Church as a whole is a mystery of unity in which the individuality and identity of persons as not distorted or destroyed, but are united by virtue of their participation within the mystery of the Eucharist, “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Eucharist is a bonding element within the body of Christ, around which all the sacraments revolve and participate, and towards which the entire life of the Church is oriented.

The Church is a theanthropic institution not divided by space, time, or even death. As such, we hold no separation between the visible and invisible, the Church triumphant or the Church militant. She is composed of visible Churches living in communion and complete unity of faith and belief with one another; but, the Church is also composed of the invisible Church in heaven, that of the saints and angels, with both being united by Christ as the sole head of the Church. Yet, Christ as the head does not infer or insist upon an invisible and mystical leadership of the Church, something to which many Protestants claim to. As many over subscribe to the invisible aspect of the Church to justify the prevalent disunity within mainline Christianity, the same people also claim Christ as the rudder of their Church. This is often done to the exclusion of any visible human leadership over the whole, in essence committing an ecclesiological Nestorianism of sorts by forcing a division of the divine and human aspects of the Church, treating them as two seperate things when they are in fact the same in unity.

The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church appears to be a middle road between that of the Catholic Church and the protestant milieu. While one is over-institutionalized with a singular head, and the other is over-democratized with every Church being decided by the many, the Orthodox Church is conciliar in nature. She is ruled by a collective conciliar voice of Bishops, for whom each could not exist without the Church, nor could any Church exist without her Bishop. The Bishop is the visible and human leadership of each Church gathering, a living icon of the invisible head of the Church: Christ. Yet, these men are still human, and as such are still fallible. As long as the human element of this divine-human institution we call the Church remains, there will always remain a need for governing laws and boundaries which establish the limits of the Church, her clergy, and the laity they both embrace. The Canonical Tradition of the Orthodox Church fulfills such a purpose.

[1] - Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. God and Man. (Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 53

[2] - Ibid., 53.

[3] - John 6:54