Word Magazine September 1959 Page 5-8/10
THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
By Father Michael Azkoul
Spring Valley, Illinois
The Church is very difficult to understand. It is not entirely due to the logic involved, but rather the ideas necessary to the explanation may rub us the wrong way. The modern mind with its beliefs about “equality”, the rights of the individual to think whatever he wants — even if he can’t think — makes the communication of explanation difficult. It is not tolerant, it is narrow-minded and makes demands. It will not accept the false notion that one religion is just as good as another. Furthermore, unlike the scientist and technician who has our undying devotion, we can not use many diagrams and cartoons to put across our message. And finally, the ideas involved in our explanation of the Church are not scientific or sentimental, but mystical.
Mysticism is the doctrine that God and men are united, or that man shares in the Life of God. Orthodoxy is an extraordinary way of life. She claims to impart truths which could not otherwise have been obtained had God not revealed them to us. Christ said, “Abide in me and I will abide in you (JOHN XV, 4). That is the essence of Orthodoxy. We live in Christ, He lives in us and gives us an understanding which could not have been given had He not united Himself with us. We live in Him by living in his Church, His Bride and our Mother; He lives in us because we are the Church.
Now, we know the Church of Christ is one (EPH. IV. 4). “The Unity of the Church follows of necessity from the Unity of God,” wrote Alexi Khomiakov in 1844. Since She is the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells in Her, the Church cannot err in Her teachings (MATT. XVI,13-18). Since the Orthodox, the Catholic and the Protestant do not teach and believe the same thing, one of them is right. All three cannot be right unless we are willing to admit that the Church of Christ can err. We will assume for now that the Orthodox Church is the true Faith. Khomiakov writes:
“By the will of God the Holy Church, after the falling away of many schizms, and the Roman Patriarchate, was preserved in the Greek Dioceses and Patriarchates, and only those communities can acknowledge one another as fully Christian which preserve their unity with the Eastern Patriarchates, or enter into the unity. For there is one God and one Church. . . And therefore the Church is called Orthodox or Eastern or Greco-Russian: but all these are only temporary designations. The Church ought not to be accused of pride for calling Herself Orthodox, inasmuch as she also calls Herself Holy. When false doctrines shall have disappeared there will be no farther need for the name Orthodox, for then there will be no erroneous Christianity. . .” (The Church is One. p. 47).
We will consider then the nature of true Christianity or the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. The explanation refers both to the Church collectively and individually in their mystical identity with Christ, i.e., each local Church, such as St. George Church in Spring Valley or St. Nicholas in Brooklyn, each and individually, contain the fullness of Christ, each is the Body of Christ. As Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them.” (MATT. XIII, 20). Christ is totally in each local Church, as well as in all of them together. Originally, each Church had a Bishop who was the visible representative of Christ, but later the Bishop sent his representative, the Priest, to act in his place. Amongst the Latins, each local parish is only a part of their Church with each priest responsible to his Bishop but ultimately to the Pope who is the only visible head of the Church. You see as the Church is both visible and invisible, She requires both a visible and invisible head and body. Each Bishop in the Orthodox Church is the visible head of his Church, but in the Roman Catholic Church, since the local parish is but a part of the Church, a part of the sum total; it requires a single visible leader. The Orthodox Church needs no Pope, because each Bishop is a kind of Pope.
We are concerned here with what the Church is internally, essentially, mystically, though it is true that the Church is an organization possessing a code of laws, a government with officers (ACTS V, 13: VI, 2), and institutional structure (ACTS XV, I COR. VII, 17). The key is the Person of Christ. Christ has identified Himself with a group of people chosen to be His Own People (ecclesia). The Son of God is both human and Divine, both visible and invisible, both historical and eternal. Therefore, the Church is both human and Divine, visible and invisible, historical and eternal.
Contrary to the Protestant belief, which denies the visibility of the Church, the Church described in the Bible and by the Church Fathers is visible. Protestantism declares the Church is a number of individuals known only to God and exists only in the mind of God. It is not a historical, mystical entity. However, our Lord continually referred to the Church as visible, objective. She is not something merely “in the heart”, a vague hope, but something visible. Jesus compares the Church to a “Kingdom” (MATT. IV, 23: XII, 24); to a “Field” (MATT. XIII, 24); to “a grain of mustard seed” (MATT. XIII, 31); “a city seated on a mountain” (MATT. V, 14); a “sheepfold” (JOHN X, 16); to a “flock” (ACTS XX, 25). St. Paul compares the Church, among other things, to a human body ( EPH. V. 22-32 ). St. John Chrysostom expresses the faith of all the Fathers when he says: ‘‘It is easier for the sun to out than for the Church to become invisible.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote at the beginning of the second century: “an invisible Church is the same thing as no Church at all”; without the hierarchy which is its point of crystallization, its organizer and its guide, “there can be no talk of the Church.” The early Church, in a representative voice, confesses the visibility of the Church. To deny that the Church can be seen, as Protestants do, is to deny that Jesus Christ was visible, not really human, a historical Person, because the Church is His Body. If the Church is not visible, then, the Virgin Mary did not hear a real Person. The Church is not really human.
But what was Jesus Christ doing then? The Church is the unity of men with God. This unity is accomplished by our incorporation into the Body of Christ. If Christ had no Body, there would be no incorporation into Christ and no union with God. To join ourselves to the humanity of Christ is to come in contact with the divinity of Christ, since Jesus is both human and Divine. We cannot deny the visibility of the Church no more than we can the visibility or humanity of Jesus Christ.
The Church has an invisible counterpart, because She is the source of virtue (GAL.V, 24) justification and sanctification (I COR. VII, 11), “new birth” (TIT. III, 6) and because God is spirit (JOHN IV, 24).
The visible and the invisible aspects are not separated any more than Christ was, because His Divinity was united to His Humanity (JOHN I, 14), The Bible makes no division between the invisible and visible dimension, but calls Her ‘‘one” (I C0R. XII, 13: EPH.III, 6 ). Moreover, the Old new New Testament pictures the intimacy of God with His People as the closest possible. In the Old Testament the prophets taught that Israel was the “wife’’ of Jehovah. Testament belongs to Christ. Now, man and wife have one common life, so Christ and His Bride also ( EPH. v. 22-32). In Eph. v, 31, the word which describes the relationship of husband and wife, Christ and Church, is ‘‘proskollesetai which is composed of two Greek words: “pros” (to and ‘‘kollo’’ (stick ) , hence ‘‘to stick to’’, Christ and Church, husband and wife, head and body, “stick together”. They are “one flesh.”
The Church is therefore visible and invisible, historical and eternal — and indivisible. She is visible because Christ was a historical person with physical, concrete human attributes; She is invisible because Christ is God, unseen and spiritual with divine attributes. These two dimensions are united even as the human and Divine are united in Christ. If they were not, then, man and God would not be united and man could not be saved. Salvation means, as you know, union with God.
We said also that the Church is the Bride of Christ and His Body, even as the wife, is the body of her husband. Christ is the Head and the Church, His Body. Christ was real, living and personal, thus, His Body is real, living and personal. Thus, the Body of Christ is essentially an organism, an extension of that very same Body that was born of the Virgin Mary. The Church is not a mere collection of individuals with no real relationship, but She is like a vine with branches (JOHN xv, 1-5). Those who are members of the Body of Christ are actually joined, grafted to Christ.
In Ephesians (1, 23) it is written: “. . . and He (the Father) gave Him (the Son) to he the Head of all the things of the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him, in all things His complement”. The Church is the fullness of Christ, a sphere which He inhabits entirely. The Body is like a vessel into which the fullness is poured, like water into a glass; and the Church is His fullness because that fullness can not be given to men apart from the vessel which contains it.
The Church is a Body, a real Body, Christ’s Body. Because it is a holy vessel, because the Holy Spirit dwells in Her, in Christ, the Church is called a “Temple”. Christ called Himself the Temple which was to replace the Temple of Solomon ( MATT. XII 6; JOHN II, 19-22 ) . Christ is the new Temple, the eternal Temple in which the Holy Spirit resides. The Holy Spirit, therefore, inhabits all the members of Christ (ROM. v, 5). Thus, St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians:
‘‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the spirit of God dwells in you” (III, 16-17).
The Holy Spirit is in Christ and we are Christ’s. Our bodies are, in a sense, bodies of Christ.
In the same Epistle (I COR. VI, 15) Saint Paul writes:
‘‘Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ’’. There are many members but only one Body. He continues: “For as the body is one and has many members and all members of that body, being many, are one body; so also with Christ.’’ (XII, 27). So it is written in Ephesians III, 6 that we are “syssomon’’, “made part of the same body.”
What does this incorporation into Christ mean? What does it mean to be ‘‘in Christ’’, in His Body, the Church? Of course, union with God, but what does that mean? The expressions ‘‘first born of the dead’’ (COR. I, 18) and “first born among many brethren” (ROM. VIII, 29) gives us a clue. They refer to Christ as ‘‘the beginning of the new creation and the first fruit of the resurrection’’ (I COR, XV, 20, 23). Now, in Adam’s sin all men were effected. All men are his children, Sin is spiritually hereditary. Adam lives on in men. He is head of the first human race. When Christ came and took upon Himself the sins of all those who would become members of His Body, He made good what Adam failed to do. He took the place of Adam and was obedient, even unto death. Those who join themselves to His Body, who identify themselves with Christ share in the bounty of a “new creation” with Christ as its Head instead of Adam. We are partakers of His death and resurrection. Thus, Saint Paul writes: ‘‘I am crucified with Christ’’ (GAL. II, 20). We are mysteriously on the Cross with Christ, we are co-crucified with Him. But just as we are crucified with Him, we will be co-resurrected with Him. Christ was crucified and died and rose from the dead. He was the first of the “new creation” to do so. He is the “first born of the dead ant the ‘‘first born of many brethren’’ who will do likewise.
Why is Christ called “the beginning of the new creation?” He came to change the world, to reconstitute humanity, or as Saint Paul writes in Ephesians I, 10: in the ‘‘fullness of times he (The Father) might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth.’’ In His Church Jesus begins all things anew. He begins it by His life, death and resurrection. Those who join themselves to Christ become a part of “the recapitulation of all things”. The word here is “anakephalaiosasthai” (taking up again and summing up of the whole history of humanity marred by Adam in its first beginnings, but resumed and brought to perfection in Christ. Christ takes up again and gathers into one all things). Adam was the head of the old creation. Christ is the head of the new creation which began when he rose from the dead. Therefore, Christ is the “second Adam” (I COR. XV, 22). He started the “new creation” by showing what would be the destiny of those who live in His resurrected Body (JOHN XI. 25).
Again, Jesus is the “first born of many brethren” because we are “sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (GAL. III, 6). We are the “adopted” sons of God (EPH. I, 5). Christ is the only natural Son of God, but we become “sons of God” by identifying ourselves with Him. We are sons of God and therefore adopted brothers of Christ. The Church is our mother from whom we are born by our baptism. This is the explanation of St. Cyprian’s phrase: “He who has not the Church as His Mother, has not God as His Father”. This is the real meaning of the brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God. We are brothers to Christ by the Church, the Orthodox Church, and God becomes our Father. It is under these circumstances that we pray: “Our Father who art in heaven…”
All of this is what Saint Paul calls “the Mystery” (EPH. V, 32). Christ is the Mystery in which the Church necessarily participates. In the Church, God the Father speaks through God the Son and the Church speaks through the Apostolic ministry which proclaims the Mystery. Her decisions are guided by the Holy Spirit who guides Her into all Truth (MATT. XVI, 18-19; JOHN XV, 26). This mission of the Church was given first to the Apostles who were to extend the Trinity’s work (MATT. XVIII, 18). Obviously, the Apostles could not convert the world in their lifetime, so they handed their authority on to successors (ACTS VI. 6: XIII, 3; XIX, 6)
Amongst the Apostles, Peter was the leader, but not the visible head of the Church. The Roman Catholic idea of Pope is utterly false. Peter was the spokesman of the Apostles, and mentioned first in the list of the Apostles, but he was not the only representative of Christ. Christ is the “cornerstone” upon which the “foundation of the Church” or the Apostles is built (EPH. II, 13-22; REV. XXI, 14). No place in the Bible (Cf. LUKE XXII, 32) is Saint Peter given any special privilege. John XXI, l5-19 does not refer to any special authority but Peter’s reinstatement. The classical passage of MATT. XVI, 18 does refer to Peter primarily, not exclusively. He was the first to confess that Christ was the son of God. But the Church, is built also on all of those who have the true faith (I PET. II, 5 ) not Peter alone.
We know that in the early Church there was no central authority, but a communion of many churches, that is, many local churches with their bishops; and for the first 300 years there was no central ecclesiastical authority, except locally. And we know that the Bishop of Rome had no exclusive authority before the Great Schizm (1054). Clement, the third Bishop of Rome after Peter, when writing to the various churches, requests, he never demands; Saint Cyprian not only contradicted the Pope in the controversies over the date of Easter and the admission of persons into the Church, but plainly states in his treatise on the Unity of the Church that all Bishops are equal and ought to help each other; no early canons and nothing in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325) mentions the infallibility of the Pope or any special power. St. Augustine finds the rule of the whole Church binding, not the Pope. When the Pope tried to give the Bishop of Arles special authority, the Church there refused, because there was no such tradition in Gaul. In the case of Ecumenical councils, it was the Emperor that called for them and not the Popes, and so on. Thus, it is evident that neither Peter nor his successors had any special, exclusive power in or over the Church.
The Church is “The Body of Christ”. This “Body” is an organism, an extension of that same Flesh and Blood that was born of the Virgin Mary. The key to the understanding of the Church is the Person of Christ. Christ is both human and Divine, the human united to the Divine. Thus, “the Body of Christ” or the Orthodox Church is united to the Divinity of Christ and is likewise human and Divine, visible and invisible, historical and eternal. This is what the Church is essentially, internally, mystically. What more can be said of the Church? Are there attributes which make our present understanding more explicitly. There are: and these were collected in the Creed composed mainly at the Council held in 325 A.D. They are called “notes” or “marks” of the Church: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. As with everything about the Church, these words are also understood in terms of the Person of Christ.
Christ is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”, therefore, His Church is His Body. Christ is one: He is the one God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the one Son of God, the one and only Savior of man, the one King, the one High Priest, the one and only Head of the Church. Christ is holy: He is the “Holy One” (MARK 1, 24): He is from heaven (JOHN I, 13) and is “separate” from the world [“holy” in Greek is “agios”: “a” (not) “gios” from “ge” (earth): “not of the earth”] : and Christ is morally perfect. Christ is catholic: the word “catholic” is from the Greek “katholikos” composed of two words: “kata” (according to or in relation to), and “olos” (the whole) hence, Christ is related to the whole of the Church. He is with it always and everywhere (MATT. XXIII, 19); His purpose is to save the whole of mankind; and He has all the equipment (truth and grace) to do so; He contains all of the Father’s power and love, etc. Christ is apostolic: the word “apostolic” is from the Greek word “apostello” (sent forth) : God the Father “sent forth” God the Son: the Father “sent forth” the Son to save men and to gather them into a single brotherhood.
The Church is “the Body of Christ”. What applies to Him applies to Her. Christ and the Church are “one flesh” as husband and wife. Therefore, as Christ is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” so is the Church. What are the implications of these “marks” for the Church and how are they applied to Her?
Unity or Oneness: “The unity of the Church follows of necessity from the unity of God”, wrote Alexei Khomiakov.
‘‘The Church is not a multitude of persons in their separate individuality, but a unity of the grace of God. . . In fact, the unity of the Church is not imaginary or allegorical, but a true and substantial unity, such as is the unity of many members in a living body..:’ (Church is One, p.17).
The unity of the Church includes those in heaven and those in earth. God, men and angels (EPH. I,10). As Saint Pope Gregory says: “The holy Church has two lives: one in time and the other in eternity”. Father Delicacy warns, however, that “We must always keep a firm hold on the continuity of the one Church in and through the diversity of her successive states. . .” (The Splendor of the Church, p.5l). Saint Augustine writes: “The Church of Jesus Christ which is on earth and that which is in heaven are not two Churches but one sole Church”. She is two streams which flow from one Ocean. She is coin of two sides, She is one Divine Society, one Brotherhood; She recites the same Creed and lives by the same Sacraments; She has the same Tradition; She may be called Syrian, Greek, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Serbian, etc., but at bottom they are all the same religion. She is “one body” with one Holy Spirit, just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in us all” (EPH. IV, 4-6).
Holy: The Church is “holy” because She is separated from the world (JOHN XVIII, 36), and filled with the Holy Spirit (I COR. III 16-17) and Her purpose is to make men morally holy (EPH. IV, 1-3). When we say “holy” in the moral sense, we do not mean that everyone in the Church is perfect. Christ came to save sinners who live in Him. Of course, all those in heaven are perfect, but their earthly brothers must seek the moral perfection they have attained. Again, if the Bible calls all members of the Church “saints” (e.g. I COR, I, 2), it is not because we on earth are perfect, but because the word “saint” is a translation of the Greek word “agios” which means “set apart” by God to accomplish His purpose on earth and because God’s purpose is to make us “saints” or morally holy. Listen to what Father DeLubac ( The Splendor of the Church, p. 71) has to say about the holiness of the Church:
“We say that we believe our Church is holy — “credo sactam Ecclesiam”— and that she is the Church of the holy — “ecclesia sanctorum”. This does not mean that all her leaders are themselves among the just, or that she has no sinners in her midst. But it does mean that she is both the sanctifying Church and the Church sanctified by the Holy Spirit, the Church of the sanctified — that is, of those who are “called to be saints” and have in fact become such in Christ, all this always by reference to Him who alone is “the holy one”. She is the Church that gives the Baptism of regeneration and the Church that receives it; an hierarchal society of which certain members are put “in possession of sacred powers,” by a choice which is not of God alone, so that they may perpetuate amongst us the very functions of Christ; but also a community of grace in which exists another hierarchy, this time wholly interior and the result of divine choice along — the hierarchy of sanctity. She is a reconciling power and the family of the reconciled; a double mystery of communication and communion, since by the communication of the sacraments — holy things (sancta) — she is a communion of holy ones (sancti). She is sheepfold and flock, mother and people; the mother who bears us into divine life and the reunion of all those who, by participating in the life to varying degrees, make up the “people of God”. The Church is at once our mother and ourselves; a maternal breast and a brotherhood.”
It is by participating in the Life of God through the Church that we become “holy” in both senses of the word.
Catholic: The Church is called “catholic”, writes Father Nassar, because, first, “She was not intended to be confined to one place, time, or nation; and secondly, because she comprises and embraces wholly all the correct teachings, propagated in all parts of the inhabited world, through transmission from the Apostles and preserved at all times and by all peoples as received by Her and as taught to her children for salvation” (The Orthodox Prayer Book, p. 1031). See also ISAIAH II, 2-3: MAL.I, 11; MATT. XXVIII, 19; MARK XVI, 15; ACTS I, 8. Furthermore, She is Catholic because as St. Cyril of Jerusalem said:
“The Church is called Catholic because she teaches all doctrines which mankind needs to know about things visible and invisible, about thing’s heavenly and earthly, and, in general, without omitting anything.” He continues: “The Church is called Catholic because of her subjugation of all mankind to true religion…; and because she treats and cures every sort of sin committed by the soul and body, and contains within herself every conceivable thought of virtue, in word and deed and all time various spiritual gifts” (Sermon 23). Thus, we see the word “catholic” has two senses: the qualitative sense of wholeness, entirety and comprehensiveness which is the primary sense; and the quantitative sense of geographic and temporal universality. The quality of Catholicity is first because the Church was “catholic” even when She was not all over the world : with Christ and the 12 apostles.
Apostolic: The Church is “apostolic’’ because She was “sent forth” by God to save the world, and secondly because She was originally planted by and in the Apostles. She proclaims the faith received from Christ which was first given to the Apostles and transmitted to their successors, the bishops of the Church. ‘‘The apostles’’, says St. Clement of Rome, before the end of the first century, “appointed the first-fruits of their labors when they have provided them by the Spirit, as Bishops and Deacons of those who should believe. . . and afterwards issued a direction that when these all asleep other approved men should succeed to their ministry.” It is necessary that apostolicity be a mark of the Church because Orthodoxy is a historical religion, not only because She was founded on historical facts, but because She must always keep historical connection with them. Hence, She is continuously “sent.” The Church possesses Her mission from Christ through His apostles ( JOHN XX, 21 ), but furthermore, the entire Church is apostolic, because the entire Church is “sent forth” by God. Each person in time Church is “sent forth” by God. Each person is an “apostle.” Each of us is “sent forth” to do the work of God (I Cor. III, 9) . The difference between clergy and laity is a matter of function, the clergy having a higher function (EPH. IV, 11-14, 15-16). The highest position belongs to the Bishop, the successor to the Apostles.
The unity of the Church is preserved in the Episcopate. The Bishop is the bond of union which links the entire Church together in time and space. In time he is the visible sign of continuity; every part of the Church is governed by the Bishop whose descent goes back to Christ and the original twelve. In space, the Bishop is the visible sign of fellowship; every member of a Church are linked with each other by means of the Bishop. As Saint Cyprian said:
“The episcopate in the Church an