14 May 2011

Attributes of the Church

Its unity.

In the Greek text the word “in One,” is expressed as a numeral (en mian). Thus the Symbol of Faith confesses that the Church is one: a) it is one as viewed from within itself, not divided; b) it is one as viewed from without, that is, not having any other beside itself. Its unity consists not in the joining together of what is different in nature, but in inward agreement and unanimity.

“There is one body and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4-6).

Depicting the Church in parables, the Saviour speaks of one flock, of one sheepfold, of one grapevine, of one foundation stone of the Church. He gave a single teaching, a single baptism, and a single communion. The unity of the faithful in Christ comprised the subject of His High Priestly Prayer before His sufferings on the Cross; the Lord prayed “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).

The Church is one not only inwardly, but also outwardly. Outwardly its unity is manifested in the harmonious confession of faith, in the oneness of Divine services and Mysteries, in the oneness of the grace-giving hierarchy, which comes in succession from the Apostles, in the oneness of canonical order.

The Church on earth has a visible side and an invisible side. The invisible side is: that its Head is Christ; that it is animated by the Holy Spirit; that in it is performed the inward mystical life in sanctity of the more perfect of its members. However, the Church, by the nature of its members, is visible, since it is composed of men in the body; it has a visible hierarchy; it performs prayers and sacred actions visibly; it confesses openly, by means of words, the faith of Christ.

The Church does not lose its unity because side by side with the Church there exist Christian societies which do not belong to it. These societies are not in the Church, they are outside of it.

The unity of the Church is not violated because of temporary divisions of a non dogmatic nature. Differences between Churches arise frequently out of insufficient or incorrect information. Also, sometimes a temporary breaking of communion is caused by the personal errors of individual hierarchs who stand at the head of one or another local Church; or it is caused by their violation of the canons of the Church, or by the violation of the submission of one territorial ecclesiastical group to another in accordance with anciently established tradition. Moreover, life shows us the possibility of disturbances within a local Church which hinder the normal communion of other Churches with the given local Church until the outward manifestation and triumph of the defenders of authentic Orthodox truth.

Finally, the bond between Churches can sometimes be violated for a long time by political conditions, as has often happened in history (Two examples from recent church history may serve to illustrate the character of these temporary divisions. In the early 19th century, when Greece proclaimed its independence from the Turkish Sultan, the parts of the Greek Church in Greece itself and in Turkey became outwardly divided. When the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was still under Turkish authority, was forced by the Sultan to excommunicate the “rebels” in Greece, the Orthodox in Greece refused to accept this act as having been performed under political coercion, but they did not cease to regard the Patriarch as a member of the same Orthodox Church as themselves, nor did they doubt that his non-political sacramental acts were grace-giving. This division led to the formation today of two separate local Churches (in full communion with each other): those of Greece and Constantinople.

In the 20th century Russian Orthodox Church, a church administration was formed in 1927 by Metropolitan Sergius (the Moscow Patriarchate) on the basis of submission to the dictation of the atheist rulers. Parts of the Church in Russia (the Catacomb or True Orthodox Church) and outside (the Russian Church Outside of Russia) refuse up to now to have communion with this administration because of its political domination by Communists; but the bishops of the Church Outside of Russia (about the Catacomb Church it is more difficult to make a general statement) do not deny the grace of the Mysteries of the Moscow Patriarchate and still feel themselves to be one with its clergy and faithful who try not to collaborate with Communist aims. When Communism falls in Russia, these church bodies can once more be in communion or even be joined together, leaving to a future free council all judgments regarding the “Sergianist” period.). In such cases, the division touches only outward relations, but does not touch or violate inward spiritual unity.

The truth of the One Church is defined by the Orthodoxy of its members, and not by their quantity at one or another moment. St. Gregory the Theologian wrote concerning the Orthodox Church of Constantinople before the Second Ecumenical Council as follows: “This field was once small and poor . . . This was not even a field at all. Perhaps it was not worth granaries or barns or scythes. Upon it there were no stacks or sheaves, but perhaps only small and unripe grass which grows on the housetops, with which 'the reaper filleth not his hand,' which do not call upon themselves the blessing of those who pass by (Ps. 128:6-8). Such was our field, our harvest! Although it is great, fat, and abundant before Him Who sees what is hidden . . . still, it is not known among the people, it is not united in one place, but is gathered little by little 'as the summer fruity, as the grape gleanings of the vantage; there is no cluster to eat' (Micah 7:1). Such was our previous poverty and grief (Farewell Sermon of St. Gregory the Theologian to the Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council).

“And where are those,” says St. Gregory in another Homily, “who reproach us for our poverty and are proud of their wealth? They consider great numbers of people to be a sign of the Church, and despise the small flock. They measure the Divinity (the Saint has in mind here the Arians, who taught that the Son of God was less than the Father) and they weigh people. They place a high value on grains of sand (that is, the masses) and belittle the luminaries. They gather into their treasure-house simple stones, and disdain pearls” (St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily 33, Against the Arians).

In the prayers of the Church are contained petitions for the ceasing of possible disagreements among the Churches: “Cause discords to cease in the Church; quickly destroy by the might of Thy Holy Spirit all uprisings of heresies” (Eucharistic Prayer at the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great). “We glorify Thee . . . Thou one rule in Trinity, and beg for forgiveness of sins, peace for the world, and concord for the Church . . . Grant peace and unity to Thy Church, O Thou Who lovest mankind” (Sunday Canon of Nocturne, Tone 8, Canticle 9).

Its Sanctity.

The Lord Jesus Christ performed the work of His earthly ministry and death on the Cross; Christ “loved the Church... that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph.5:25-27). The Church is holy through its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is holy, further, through the presence in it of the Holy Spirit and His grace-giving gifts, communicated in the Mysteries and other sacred rites of the Church. It is also holy through its tie with the Heavenly Church.

The very body of the Church is holy: “If the firstfruit be holy, the lump it also holy; and if the root be holy, so are the branches” (Rom. 11:16). Those who believe in Christ are “temples of God,” “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). In the true Church there have always been and there always are people of the highest spiritual purity and with special gifts of grace . martyrs, virgins, ascetics, holy monks and nuns, hierarchs, righteous ones, blessed ones. The Church has an uncounted choir of departed ones of all times and peoples. It has manifestations of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, both visible and hidden from the eyes of the world.

The Church is holy by its calling, or its purpose. It is holy also by its fruits: “Ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (Rom. 6:22), as the Apostle Paul instructs us. The Church is holy likewise through its pure, infallible teaching of faith: The Church of the living God is, according to the word of God, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

The Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, concerning the infallibility of the Church in its teaching, express themselves thus: “In saying that the teaching of the Church is infallible, we do not affirm anything else than this, that it is unchanging, that it is the same as was given to it in the beginning as the teaching of God” (Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarch, 1848, par. 12).

The sanctity of the Church is not darkened by the intrusion of the world into the Church, or by the sinfulness of men. Everything sinful and worldly which intrudes into the Church’s sphere remains foreign to it and is destined to be sifted out and destroyed, like weed seeds at sowing time. The opinion that the Church consists only of righteous and holy people without sin does not agree with the direct teaching of Christ and His Apostles. The Saviour compares His Church with a field on which the wheat grows together with the tares, and again, with a net which draws out of the water both good fish and bad In the Church there are both good servants and bad ones (Matt 18:23-35), wise virgins and foolish (Matt. 25:1-13). “We believe,” states the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, “that the members of the Catholic Church are all the faithful, and only the faithful, that is, those who undoubtingly confess the pure faith in the Saviour Christ (the faith which we have received from Christ Himself, from the Apostles, and from the Holy Ecumenical Councils), even though certain of them might have submitted to various sins.

The Church judges them, calls them to repentance, and leads them on the path of the saving commandments. And therefore despite the fact that they are subject to sins, they remain and are acknowledged as members of the Catholic Church as long as they do not become apostates and as long as they hold to the Catholic and Orthodox Faith.”

But there is a boundary, which if sinners go past it, they, like dead members, are cut off from the body of the Church, either by a visible act of the Church authority or by the invisible act of God’s judgment. Thus, those do not belong to the Church who are atheists or apostates from the Christian faith, those who are sinners characterized by a conscious stubbornness and lack of repentance for their sins, as it says in the Catechism (ninth article). Also among those who do not belong to the Church are heretics who have corrupted the fundamental dogmas of the faith; schismatics who out of self-will have separated themselves from the Church (the 33rd Canon of the Council of Laodicea forbids prayer with schismatics). St Basil the Great explains:

“The ancients distinguished between heresy, schism, and an arbitrary assembly. They called heretics those who have completely cut themselves off and have become foreigners in the faith itself; they called schismatics those who have separated themselves in their opinions about certain ecclesiastical subjects and in questions which allow of treatment and healing; and they called arbitrary assemblies those gatherings composed of disobedient priests or bishops and uninstructed people.”

The sanctity of the Church is irreconcilable with false teachings and heresies. Therefore the Church strictly guards the purity of the truth and herself excludes heretics from her midst.

Its Catholicity.

In the Greek text of the Nicaean Constantinoplitan Symbol of Faith (the Creed), the Church is called “catholic” (in the Slavonic translation, sobornaya). What is the significance of this Greek word? The word catholikos in ancient Greek, pre-Christian literature is encountered very rarely.

However, the Christian Church from antiquity chose this word to signify one of the principle attributes of the Church, namely, to express its universal character. Even though it had at its disposal such words as cosmos (the world), or oikoumene (the inhabited earth), evidently these latter words were insufficient to express a certain new concept which is present only to the Christian consciousness. In the ancient Symbols of Faith, wherever the word “Church” appears, it is unfailingly with the definition “catholic.”

Thus, in the Jerusalem Symbol of Faith we read: “And in one, holy, catholic Church;” in the Symbol of Rome: “In the holy, catholic Church, the communion of the Saints;” etc. In ancient Christian literature, this term is encountered several times in St. Ignatius the God bearer, an Apostolic Father, for example when he says, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church.” This term is constantly to be found in the Acts of all the Ecumenical Councils. In the direct translation of the word, it signifies the highest degree of all-embracingness, wholeness, fullness (being derived from cath ola, meaning “throughout the whole”).

Side by side with this term, there was also used with the meaning of “universal,” the word oikoumenikos. These two terms were not mixed The Ecumenical Councils received the title Oikoumenike Synodos, from oikoumenikos, meaning from all the inhabited earth . in actual fact, the land which belonged to Greco-Roman civilization.

The Church is catholic. This corresponds to the Apostolic words, “The fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23). This concept indicates that the whole human race is called to salvation, and therefore all men are intended to be members of the Church of Christ, even though not all do belong to her in fact.

The Longer Orthodox Catechism, answering the question, “Why is the Church called catholic, or which is the same thing, universal?” replies: “Because she is not limited to any place, nor time, nor people, but contains true believers of all places, times and peoples” (Eastern Orthodox Books ed., p. 50).

The Church is not limited by place. It embraces in itself all people who believe in the Orthodox way, wherever they might live on the earth. On the other hand it is essential to have in mind that the Church was catholic even when it was composed of a limited number of communities, and also when, on the day of Pentecost, its bounds were not extended beyond the upper room of Zion and Jerusalem.

The Church is not limited by time: it is foreordained to bring people to faith “unto the end of the world.” “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). The Spirit, the Comforter, “will abide with you forever” (John 14:16). The Mystery of the Eucharist will be performed until the Lord comes again to earth (1 Cor. 11:26).

The Church is not bound up with any conditions of civil order which it would consider indispensable for itself, nor with any definite language or people.

The Apostolic Church.

The Church is called “Apostolic” because the Apostles placed the historical beginning of the Church. They spread Christianity to the ends of the earth and almost all of them sealed their preaching with a martyr’s death The seeds of Christianity were sown in the world by their word and watered with their blood. The unquenched flame of faith in the world they lit by the power of their personal faith.

The Apostles preserved and transmitted to the Church the Christian teaching of faith and life in the form in which they had received it from their Master and Lord. Giving in themselves the example of the fulfillment of the commandments of the Gospel, they handed down to the faithful the teaching of Christ by word of mouth and in the Sacred Scriptures so that it might be preserved, confessed, and lived. The Apostles established, according to the commandment of the Lord, the Church’s sacred rites. They placed the beginning of the performance of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ, of baptism, and of ordination.

The Apostles established in the Church the grace-given succession of the episcopate, and through it the succession of the whole grace-given ministry of the church hierarchy, which is called to be stewards of the Mysteries of God, in accordance with (1 Cor. 4:1).

The Apostles established the beginning of the canonical structure of the Church’s life, being concerned that everything should be done decently and in order; an example of this is given in the fourteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which contains directions for the assemblies where church services are celebrated.

Everything we have said here concerns the historical aspect. But besides this there is another, inward aspect which gives to the Church an Apostolic quality. The Apostles were not only historically in the Church of Christ; they remain in it and are in it now. They were in the earthly Church, and they are now in the Heavenly Church, continuing to be in communion with believers on earth. Being the historical nucleus of the Church, they continue to be the spiritually living, although invisible, nucleus of the Church, both now and forever, in its constant existence. The Apostle John the Theologian writes: “…Declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

These words have for us the same force as they had for the contemporaries of the Apostle: they contain an exhortation to us to be in communion with the ranks of Apostles, for the nearness of the Apostles to the Holy Trinity is greater than ours.

Thus, both for reasons of an historical character and for reasons of an inward character, the Apostles are the foundations of the Church. Therefore it is said of the Church: It is “built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The naming of the Church as “apostolic” indicates that it is established not on a single Apostle (as the Roman Church later taught), but upon all twelve; otherwise it would have to bear the name of Peter, or John, or some other. The Church as it were ahead of time warned us against thinking according to a “fleshly” principle (1 Cor. 3:4): “I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas.” In the Apocalypse, concerning the city coming down from heaven it is said: “And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb” (Apoc. 21:14).

The attributes of the Church indicated in the Symbol of Faith: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” refer to the militant Church. However, they receive their full significance with the awareness of the oneness of this Church with the Heavenly Church in the one Body of Christ: the Church is one, with a unity that is both heavenly and earthly; it is holy with a heavenly-earthly holiness; it is catholic and apostolic by its unbroken tie with the Apostles and all the saints.

The Orthodox teaching of the Church, which in itself is quite clear and rests upon Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, is to be contrasted with another concept which is widespread in the contemporary Protestant world and has penetrated even into Orthodox circles. According to this different concept, all the various existing Christian organizations, the so-called “confessions” and “sects,” even though they are separated from each other, still comprise a single “invisible Church,” inasmuch as each of them confesses Christ as Son of God and accepts His Gospel.

The dissemination of such a view is aided by the fact that side by side with the Orthodox Church there exists outside of her a number of Christians that exceeds by several times the number of members of the Orthodox Church. Often we can observe in this Christian world outside the Church a religious fervor and faith, a worthy moral life, a conviction — all the way to fanaticism — of one’s correctness, an organization and a broad charitable activity. What is the relation of all of them to the Church of Christ?

Of course, there is no reason to view these confessions and sects as on the same level with non Christian religions. One cannot deny that the reading of the word of God has a beneficial influence upon everyone who seeks in it instruction and strengthening of faith, and that devout reflection on God the Creator, the Provider and Saviour, has an elevating power there among Protestants also. We cannot say that their prayers are totally fruitless if they come from a pure heart, for “in every nation he that feareth Him. . . is accepted with Him” (Acts 10:35). The Omnipresent Good Provider God is over them, and they are not deprived of God’s mercies. They help to restrain moral looseness, vices, and crimes; and they oppose the spread of atheism. But all this does not give us grounds to consider them as belonging to the Church. Already the fact that one part of this broad Christian world outside the Church, namely the whole of Protestantism, denies the bond with the heavenly Church, that is, the veneration in prayer of the Mother of God and the saints, and likewise prayer for the dead, indicates that they themselves have destroyed the bond with the one Body of Christ which unites in itself the heavenly and the earthly. Further, it is a fact that these non-Orthodox confessions have “broken” in one form or another, directly or indirectly, with the Orthodox Church, with the Church in its historical form; they themselves have cut the bond, they have “departed” from her. Neither we nor they have the right to close our eyes to this fact. The teachings of the non Orthodox confessions contain heresies which were decisively rejected and condemned by the Church at her Ecumenical Councils.

In these numerous branches of Christianity there is no unity, either outward or inward. either with the Orthodox Church of Christ or between themselves. The supra-confessional unification (the “ecumenical movement”) which is now to be observed does not enter into the depths of the life of these confessions, but has an outward character. The term “invisible” can refer only to the Heavenly Church. The Church on earth, even though it has its invisible side, like a ship a part of which is hidden in the water and is invisible to the eyes, still remains visible, because it consists of people and has visible forms of organization and sacred activity. therefore it is quite natural to affirm that these religious organizations are societies which are “near,” or “next to,” or “close to,” or perhaps even “adjoining” the Church, but sometimes “against” it; but they are all “outside” the one Church of Christ. Some of them have cut themselves off, others have gone far away. Some, in going away, all the same have historical ties of blood with her; others have lost all kinship, and in them the very spirit and foundations of Christianity have been distorted. None of them find themselves under the activity of the grace which is present in the Church, and especially the grace which is given in the Mysteries of the Church. They are not nourished by that mystical table which leads up along the steps of moral perfection. The tendency in contemporary cultural society to place all confessions on one level is not limited to Christianity; on this same all-equalling level are placed also the non Christian religions, on the grounds that they all “lead to God,” and besides, taken all together, they far surpass the Christian world in the number of members who belong to them.

All of such “uniting” and “equalizing” views indicate a forgetfulness of the principle that there can be many teachings and opinions, but there is only one truth. And authentic Christian unity — unity in the Church — can be based only upon oneness of mind, and not upon differences of mind. The Church is “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

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