This article first appeared in the Adbook for the
1996 Midwest Region Parish Life Conference hosted by
St. Elias Orthodox Church in Sylvania, OH
On Unity and Unity of Faith
by Archimandrite Nicholas E. Pissare
The question of unity of faith in the context of the Christian church is difficult to understand, especially in American culture which proclaims both boundless diversity and total acceptance of the “other.” For unity, if understood as the common consent of purpose, goal, or desire, is clearly not the design of our society. Our society appears not to seek unity; instead it seeks individual self-fulfillment. It is not our human commonality which we seek to preserve; it is, rather, the reality brought about by sin of separation from each other and from God. Unfortunately, we magnify this separation and sin as our individuality and freedom.
The question of the unity of faith – and consequently of the faithful – must be seen other than through the world’s view. The difference of perspective that is required comes from the ontological reality of the church. While the unity of Christians and of the church may superficially appear to be dependent on the consent and will of the faithful, this is not the case. The unity of Christians and of the Christian church is grounded solidly on God, not man, and therefore has as its ultimate source the divine essence of God and the reality of the resurrected Lord, whose body is the church.
Thus, the source of unit within the church is the very reality of God. It is the fact that creates a certain amount of tension for Christians. The problem is that we as Christians are at once the same and different. We all call ourselves Christians, and yet we all go to different churches. We all believe that we proclaim the truth of the Gospel message, and yet we preach differently to our faithful. Christians are both united and separated.
Because we call ourselves Christians, any casual observers, especially non-Christians, would believe that there is an objective means by which we can be grouped together. People of non-Christian faith rarely recognize nor understand the differences separating Christians.
But among ourselves we know our differences. We qualify our description of Christian in order to differentiate and articulate our individual and specific Christian-ness. Whenever we meet other Christians, we use precise terminology to put aside our sameness and to express our differences. One is Orthodox (of any ethnic or national church); others are Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic. Indeed, some people, such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, define themselves as Christian, although a significant percentage of Christians do not consider them to be Christian at all.
What is it, then, that makes us different and testifies to the reality of our separateness as Christians? Clearly the answer must be that our knowledge and experiences of God are different, since God is the unique source of our unity as a people and as the body of Christ. We are united first with God and then with other people.
It is not possible that God’s church, the body of Christ, be divided in its nature. From a purely Christian perspective we are united to other people not by language, culture, gender, or nationality; “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).” We are united to each other through our faith in God the Father, and in our knowledge and true experience of Him, as revealed in Jesus Christ and as confessed in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Our separation and lack of communion with others is a reflection of our lack of a common unity in God. This is not to imply that other Christian denominations may not have a legitimate experience of Christianity through their localized traditions. Instead, this means that the full and catholic experience of Divine Life, which is the true, divine, and apostolic inheritance of the Orthodox Church, is not a common treasure held by all.
Because we are not united as Christians in our faith, knowledge and experience of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we cannot be in communion with other Christians. For to be in communion implies a common cup of faith, knowledge, experience and belief which is not presently shared. Being in communion is not a matter of our personal will or choice; being in communion is the reality of our full and common bond in God. Being in communion is achieved when we universally and equally proclaim the fullness of truth, faith and practice. The Christian message as lived upon the earth is most full, complete and catholic when it is Orthodox.
Does this mean that the non-Orthodox world cannot and does not proclaim the message of Christ? No. What it means is that the non-Orthodox world cannot proclaim the message of the Gospel in all its fullness; there is something lacking in the message, regardless of how well it is presented. So even though we may sense similarity with such Christians, we nevertheless do not share the same cup of True Faith, the very Body and Blood of our Lord.