Does Orthodoxy Really Think It Is the "True Church"?
When Peter Guilquest gave a talk at our church around the beginning of 1997, he commented that the question he was most often asked was how the Orthodox Church could consider itself "The Church". Indeed, this is not only a common question among inquirers to Orthodoxy, but a critical question to understand Orthodoxy itself. If there is one subject that Protestants have the hardest time coming to grips with, it is this claim of Orthodoxy to be The Church.
Within Protestant denominations, there is a wide cross section of ideas when it comes to what the Church is. It can be summarized in two general basic views.
First, the most common understanding is that the Church in its essence is spiritual, is primarily built by adding to its numbers people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God as their personal savior and who have their names written in the Lamb's book of Life spoken of in Revelations. This Church is one, connected by their devotion to Jesus Christ, and will only be fully manifested as such in the last days when Jesus Christ will return for His Church. Until then, the visible manifestation of the Church on Earth is divided by differing theologies on various points, various governing bodies and groups which in and of themselves are known to not be the fullness of the Church. They are only partially the Church in as much as there are true Christians in them, in as much as their theology reflects true Biblical theology, and to the degree that God can be seen to work in and through a particular group bearing the name "Christian".
Secondly, there are some groups who bear the name "Christian", while in the minority, consider themselves to be the Church and the sole people who will be "saved" in the end. To be part of the Church and to be saved one must join their group or participate in their rituals. This is the basic antithesis to the other view that no one group can claim to be "The Church".
Within these broad categories, various groups will "draw the line" at different points, excluding some groups that others might include. It is a mixed bag and there are no hard and fast rules as to where one might find the "Church" on earth. Part of this comes from a very personalized relationship with Christ in many quarters of Protestantism, so much so that a corporate Body is a secondary, and in some cases, an unnecessary issue.
It should be evident to most Orthodox, if they readily understand this divergence, why it so goes against most Protestants to say that the Orthodox Church is the fullness of The Church. On the one hand, to say that goes against the Protestant foundation of what it means to be the Church and is usually interpreted as "you are on the outside and will not be saved unless you join our group." For the others who believe they are the Church, it is like two children saying "I'm the Church," "No, I'm the Church!"
These reactions, while understandable for one coming from a Protestant background, are reacting to Protestant understandings superimposed upon Orthodoxy, and not upon Orthodoxy's understanding of itself. So it is critical that we look at what the Orthodox understanding is. Before we do that, however, it will be helpful to look at what the Orthodox understanding of the Church does not say.
When the Orthodox Church says that it is "The Church", they are making no pronouncement upon the salvation of anyone inside or outside membership in Orthodoxy. This may be hard for Protestants to grasp since being saved and being part of The Church is practically synonymous when linked to the spiritual Church. The knowledge that not everyone, let's say, in the Baptist Churches will be saved only serves to reinforce the fact that the Baptist Church cannot say it is "The Church". Yet, they also firmly believe that there are many who will be saved, so neither can one say that any other group is "The Church."
While Orthodoxy does believe that ultimately to be saved means being in the Church and those outside the Church will not be saved, that issue is not fully decided until judgment day. Because salvation is not looked at within Orthodoxy as either an in or out position but a journey into God. We readily recognize that anyone inside or outside the Church at any particular point in time can be in the currents of salvation or not participating in it. Thus, there is no ability to point to any one person either inside or outside the visible Church and say they are saved or not saved. Whether any one particular person is going to make it to heaven we leave in God's hands. We cannot know the heart of the person, much less the disposition of God towards a particular individual short of God revealing that to us.
Orthodoxy also does not say that the visible governing body of hierarchs and the organizations that are called the Orthodox Church are in and of themselves "The Church". This is an understandable confusion because what is generally labeled as synonymous with the visible church in Protestant circles, if they have any concept of that, is the governing body, the denomination or local church. It is by becoming a member of such-and-such group that one attaches themselves with like-minded Christians and is called "a church" in a visible aspect. Therefore, when a group says it is "The Church", Protestants will tend to think that the group is claiming that their fellowship, their organization, their denomination or local church body is a one-to-one equivalent to all those names written down in the Book of Life.
Given what we just discussed above, it should be evident that this is not the case within Orthodoxy. This will become more apparent as we say what the Church is. The organizational aspect of the Orthodox Church is part of the Visible Church and is part of The Church, however it does not define the Church, as we shall see. To then equate the organization itself as "The Church" is to miss-represent the Orthodox view.
Now we need to move toward an understanding of what the Church is. I must say that I cannot do such a subject justice other than to give a brief overview. There are many avenues to explore and books written on this subject. On top of that, there is also some disagreement upon certain points within Orthodoxy today. One may very well get two different answers to such a question, especially as it relates to how those outside the visible Orthodox Church, who are called Christians, are related to the Orthodox Church. I'm going to do my best to state the basics that I believe all Orthodox have understood and taught.
To get a full view, it is best if we focus our attention on St. Paul's description of the visible Church in Ephesians 2:18-22. In the previous verses St. Paul has been giving us a run down of what Christ did for us and how our salvation is realized within ourselves. There you find Eph. 2:8-9, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." But this leads St. Paul to the point of discussing what has taken place when we take this gift of grace:
For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. (Eph. 2:18)
Herein lies the foundation of what the Church is, and to this I doubt even very many Protestants would disagree. The Church, at its essence, rest upon the reestablishing of our relationship with God the Father via what God the Son has done and its application to our lives via God the Holy Spirit. To use the vine and branches allegory in John 15, we become connected or in communion with the Vine as a branch. The whole concept of what "Church" means rest upon this communion, this fellowship that we have with God in Trinity.
This communion also means something else as well, however. This is spelled out more clearly in the next verse:
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God… (Eph 2:19)
It naturally follows that if I am in communion with God in this fashion, and others are also in communion with Him, that I am thus in communion with each person who is connected to Christ in this fashion. As a branch on the Vine, I also am one with every other branch on the Vine. Notice, however, that the emphasis is on the communion with individual persons. There is a unity, denoted here by the words "fellow citizens" and "members of the household of God." St. Paul in many places makes a point of speaking of the "one" body of Christ. We cannot get away from the fact that for those who are connected to Christ, there necessitates a unity to be evident among them. If not, then the reality of one body does not exist spiritually either.
It is this point specifically that must be kept in mind. We have a tendency to separate the spiritual from its physical manifestation. Whether this is a product of secularization or personal disconnect; we need to come to the point of realizing that the spiritual and physical are deeply connected. A lack of unity outwardly reflects a lack of unity inwardly. If there is unity on the spiritual level, then it will manifest itself on the outward level. Those united to God and thus each other would not allow worldly values and influences to keep us divided and separate. It is Satan's design that we stay at odds because He knows that this pulls people away from this oneness in God. It must become clear that the more we see outward disunity, we know this reflects the inner image of our condition and our internal separation from Christ and His Body.
But it must be kept in mind that this is not a one-to-one correspondence. We are not saying here that this one group is 50% the Church because there is 50% unity. Rather, those individuals who are connected with Christ will reflect that unity. The less of that we see, the less we see of the Church as a visible reflection.
To understand this, we need to have a sense of what it means to be an image, or in the Greek, the word is transliterated as "icon". If we go to Hebrews 9:23-24 we read:
Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us….
Notice that the early temple and the earthly sacrifices were only "copies" or the Greek word here is an icon or image of that which was in heaven. We have the record of how God gave specific instructions to Moses on how He wanted the temple to be built. This is the pattern by which we see the heavenly realities being constantly revealed on the earthly basis. Even Jesus Christ said that He was the image/icon of the Father to the extent that He could say to His disciples, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." (John 14:9)
It must become clear, if we are to remain true to Biblical theology, that the visible Church is to be an image, an icon of the reality as it is in heaven. We know that there are tares among the wheat. We know that in the last day there will be a more fuller manifestation of the Church which will be pure, without spot or wrinkle. There is also a valid sense in which the inner spiritual reality of the Church within each person is not defined by the specific instances of disunity that might be experienced on the outside. An image is not an image if it is totally incongruous with its reality even if we realize it will not be an exact replication of the image. Therefore, it is only Biblical that the body of people who reflect that unity will be the Church in its fullness. They will know we are Christians by our love, which is the highest form of unity as one body, indeed, the very real manifestation of it.
It is for this reason that those who followed St. Paul, like St. Clement and St. Ignatius of the first century, emphasized the need for unity within the Church so much. If one was to become disunited with it, then one became disunited with Christ. St. Paul makes this clear in the analogy he gives in the next verse.
…having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord… (Eph 2:20-21)
Jesus Christ, who is the cornerstone, holds the whole thing together, provides its support. In another place St. Paul likens Christ as the foundation itself. Here, however, we see him placing the Apostles as the foundation along with the prophets. It is upon these specific people in the history of our race which God has placed all the other members and saints down through history. Yes, there have been those who have laid other foundations, who have built new buildings. There is only one foundation, one building, one household which are a continuous group of people who are in full communion with each other, from St. Peter to the present. The simple fact is that if we are not in communion with this same group of people, we are not in communion with Christ. To state it more plainly, if my faith and communion is not linked to that of St. Peter's, then neither am I in the same church as St. Peter and one of us is in trouble. I am sure it isn't St. Peter.
This concept of "being built upon" is reflective of the fact that we are dealing with a continual linage, a visible discipleship. This is at the root of apostolic succession. For it was not too long before groups sprang up who taught different things and the only way to verify who was teaching the correct doctrine and life were those who derived their teaching from the apostolic fountain. While this is no guarantee that any particular person will teach the right thing, one can have much more confidence that they were teaching the same things as the Apostles did than the guy who had not been trained in that teaching, but had come up with something from somewhere that seemed to resemble it in some ways. While one can say that such a lineage is no guarantee against false teaching, accurate and faithful teaching requires that it be in that lineage. Not only that, but having the Apostolic teaching widely known among many people prevented deviations from it even when someone within the apostolic succession taught something wrong.
This is not to say that those outside the body don't have any truth. Yet, we know from experience when people attempt to recreate something that is complex by instructions that are incomplete or not clear (i.e. subject to interpretation), that it often gets warped from the original, even with the best of intentions. The primary reason for the rise of heretical teachings is pride, a pride that refuses to submit to the teaching of all those who have preceded them. Satan uses our pride to bend the truth a little, just enough that we miss the true target and meaning.
This unity within the community, which constitutes the Church, is also a unity in teaching. As St. Paul said, we have "one faith." (Eph. 4:5) It is a unity of love in communion. If one begins to place themselves in any other "household", they are also no longer being placed where Jesus is the cornerstone. It will be on a different foundation than the one already laid. Yes, there may be some good stones in such a building. Yes, it may perform many wonderful functions. But the fact of the matter will be it is separate from the building that Jesus Christ Himself started. Without connection to Jesus Christ, no matter how much truth such a building may contain, it is not "The Church."
This is no way saying that such people who find themselves outside the Church are lost, without any grace of the Holy Spirit, or not in some sense "Christian" (which literally means a little Christ, or more pragmatically, a follower of Christ). The Church has recognized people as saints in the Old Testament that were never part of the "New Testament" Church on earth. There was a sense where the Old Testament figures were a "church", but it was not on the same level as the New Testament where the Holy Spirit was no longer just "with them" as it was in Old Testament times, but "in them." There are examples of people like Cornilius, who was "God-fearing" and righteous…but he was not in the Church. One could not say he was "lost". At some point due to the attitude of his heart, he would have been introduced to Christ. That indeed happened.
However, we must also make another distinction. When we talk about passing along a "teaching", it will often be assumed that we are speaking of a list of doctrines to accept and believe. While that is part of it, it is not the essence of the "teaching".
Jesus Christ began not by writing a book, nor by giving lectures on theological doctrines to the masses. Rather, He gathered around Him a few people and "taught" them by transmitting to them not just some things to believe, but His heart and life. He created "disciples" who not only were taught what He believed, but took on His life, His methods, and His inner spiritual peace. Constantly throughout the New Testament the Gospel is reflected as not just something to believe in an intellectual sense, but a life to be lived, a method of healing the soul, a transformation of our character and who we are.
This must be kept in mind, for when we begin talking about the Church, those gathered to exist as the Body of Christ, we must realize that first and foremost this is not an organization bound by laws and bylaws or by a "cause" or by some political system. It is a group of people bound together by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit into a manner of life that is "not of this world." Therefore, it is imperative that the Church be concrete and real even in this fallen world, else what one ends up with is abstract ideas, doctrines and absolutes which fail to incarnate themselves into our lives as Jesus Christ envisioned.
It is in this understanding that we come to see the essence of what Orthodoxy means when it says it is "The Church". It simply means that it is the continuation of that manner of life, that method of healing the soul, that unbroken communion which began with Jesus Christ and the Apostles. It is this that the Orthodox Church claims it is when it says it is the Church. Not a boundary built with membership roles, but with the Book of Life. Not a group defined by a set of doctrines, but a life to which our doctrines reflect the truth therein. It is not defined by an organizational structure, but by a common communion in the unity of the Spirit reflected in a unity around the bishop. It is the joining of Heaven with Earth in individual persons within a community, who make up the one Body of Christ.
The "non-denominational" movement within Protestantism was an attempt to move away from the "organizational" view of the Church which denominations tended to foster. They hoped to get away from the divisions in order to get back to the way the Church really began and was. However, the result has been the realization that one cannot get away from having an "organization" of some sort, and in many of these groups the need for accountability has been lacking which the denominations at least had.
Yet how does one become "non-denominational"? It is in recognizing that there cannot be divided denominations and moving oneself back to the concept of one concrete fellowship and communion. This is what we are speaking of here. Some want to view Orthodoxy as just another "group" amongst many. But the name "Orthodox" is simply a name given to those who hold to the "right belief," "right teaching," "right worship" or most literally, "right glory." In other words, the right way of life which has been handed down. One cannot recapture the life of the Early Church by going back to only a part of it, but it must be the whole ongoing life through history of the Body of Christ. Not about a group with a name, but the solid visible household of God unbroken. Anything less is not the Church and its manifestation in this life.
Allow me to illustrate with a simply analogy what I'm saying here. Take a company like Wendy's, a well-known hamburger chain. They have a certain method and way of cooking their hamburgers. They get their meat from a certain source. They have a training program to train their managers so that the outcome will be fairly consistent over the whole chain of stores. This whole process and ethos has been passed down since it began.
If a person, because they felt Wendy's should do something a little better in one way or another…and perhaps having been frustrated at the management for sticking with the company's way of doing things, decided to go out and start his own restaurant and call it "Wendy's", would it really be a "Wendy's"? Quite aside from trademark infringements, since he is using a different method of cooking or whatever changes he felt should be made, it would not turn out the same as a "real" Wendy's even if the décor looked the same or the fries tasted the same. He would not really be connected with Wendy's and its ethos, but would in all honesty be starting a new company. If this is true on an organizational level, then how much more on the level of the Kingdom of God! The name "Church" never had a trademark protection, and has been used freely to speak of any number of various groups. If, however, we are talking about "The Church" that started with Christ and the Apostles…where is it today? Would it not be with the communion that is in full communion with all those down through history?
Now allow me to make a few comments about this understanding to questions or objections that might be in the minds of some of the readers.
One of the primary and common understandings among Protestants that goes against this understanding of the Church is the idea that corruption occurred at some point and thus the official governing bodies in power diverged from the true nature and teaching of the Church. However, the "true" church still resided in independent groups which were considered "heretical" by the church authorities in power.
There are variations on this theme. There is the idea that the governing bishops deviated even within the first century. Others point to the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Still, others at the fall of the empire when so many problems cropped up and the Pope ended up taking on secular political power. There is also the thought that continuity existed even within a corrupt church, which gradually departed on an official level. The basic theme is that at some point, the official Church departed which made it necessary for the Holy Spirit to "cut a new channel" as my Protestant history professor use to say.
No doubt much of this comes from the experience of the Protestant Reformation, which was a reaction against what was perceived to be an unbending corrupt Church hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church. It seemed to some then that the Pope had simply become politically powerful as an organization and was so controlling that when certain people who complained were excommunicated, it ended up creating a new group of Christians in opposition to the Catholic Church. Of course, there had been many others in this situation through the history of the Church. However, the state politics had changed which allowed such reformers to gain support from the nation-states, and so the change ended up being a major break with the Roman Catholic Church.
Having broke with the Bishop of Rome, it became evident to them that such organizations should not be trusted to be uncorrupt and to teach the truth. There was the sense that at some point the continuity with the Early Church had been broke, especially when people began reading the Bible in their own language, and felt that the Catholic Church had deviated from it on key points.
But how do we know that the Orthodox clergy won't head down the same route? How do we know we can trust the Orthodox Church any more than we could trust the Roman Catholic Church?
I would follow that with another question of equal importance. How can you trust the Bible you read and carry to be the word of God? After all, we are talking about various documents written over thousands of years, some of it in oral traditions long before it was written down. Of those we know to be letters (epistles) written by an Apostle, we have no original copies, just copies of copies. These, we know contain copy errors, and some strongly suspect that certain phrases were added in during this process. On top of that, what most of us read is not the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text, but a translation of it. We all know that something is lost in translations because there are some things that simply cannot be translated into another language adequately due to differences in sentence structures, meanings of words, etc. Add to that point the fact that translators will tend to fall back on their own theological orientation when translating passages that are not clear in their meaning or could be translated validly in more than one way, and suddenly this book is shown to have had plenty of opportunities for "corruption."
Add into that mix that when the Church finalized what we now have as the New Testament in the latter part of the 4th century, well after many groups would claim the official Church was corrupt, they would have chosen the books which agreed with their theology. In the natural course of human corruption, you end up with a book in your hands that is highly suspect. You really have no real solid reason to believe that the Bible we have today is not highly corrupted. Yet, you trust it to contain the words of God, to guide you into all truth. Why?
One could give a bunch of academic answers why one would trust in the Bible, but each of these has a hole in it, as all academic answers will. The bottom line in the end is faith. Faith that God via the Holy Spirit would preserve the message through the oral telling, the writing down of it, the copies, the translation, in order that the Gospel message will get through in an infallible manner. If we didn't believe that, then the whole concept of the Bible as the word of God is false. Indeed, it is primarily the fact that we can claim a real continuance with the original letters and writings of the Apostles and those close to them that the book in our hand holds any validity as being the true teachings, and even this continuance is done with some amount of faith in God, since we don't have the originals as hard evidence of the fact.
After all, there have been other groups who have produced their own "Bible". There were many Gnostic text in the early days of the Church when there was not even a defined canon of the New Testament. Then Mohammad came along and said that an angel of the Lord dictated a book to him. In more recent days we have the Jehovah's Witnesses who have their own text, and the Mormons who say that an angel led Joseph Smith to the spot where these ancient tablets were, which make up the book of Mormon. Supposing that an analysis had been done on them and they were of ancient origin...it would make the Book of Mormon academically easier to support as the word of God than the Bible.
OK, you would then point to the consistency in the message, how well the whole message of the Bible is integrated into one story and movement despite being written by two different religious bodies, over a period of 6000 years or so. One would expect such a work to be a hodgepodge of thoughts and teachings conflicting and contradicting one another. Yet, because we find a consistent message detailing God's redemptive acts towards mankind, you see the hand of God moving, keeping the message at a minimum from being corrupted.
So, we have here two basic reasons why we believe that the Bible we hold in our hand is the word of God as opposed to some others who lay claim to this authority. One, it has a consistent teaching and message over diverse peoples, religions and 6000 years of writings. Two, having believed that God's hand is in this, we trust that He would not allow His message to be corrupted by human errors or intentional attempts to pervert the truth. If so, why do we not apply these same concepts to the Church?
Jesus did say to the disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, as a body of believers. (John 16:3) If the Holy Spirit is in it, we would expect there to be a consistent message, a consistent teaching, a consistent way of life within the Body of Christ. Jesus is the foundation of the Church, and the Church is one. Paul tells Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth. (1 Tim. 3:15) If so, the Holy Spirit will not tell one person in 385 AD one thing, and then another person in 1550 AD another. So the first factor to look for is a body that holds and teaches all that the Apostles taught and lived, and which has consistently and visibly done so over the entire history of the Church.
One of the problems that some groups who seek to find that continuity to the early church within groups that were considered heretical by the Church in the first 500 years, is because they were indeed heretical. Any of the groups that one could identify outside the Church in the first 1000 years of its existence taught things which no Protestant would be able to accept. We cannot go into all of them here, but suffice it to say that these groups were not declared heretical because of persecution, but because they did indeed teach unchristian and unbiblical ideas.
Protestants then run into two major problems. Either they have to believe that the Church as a visible entity simply did not exist for a major period in time, or they have to say it did but was invisible, existing in individuals here and there but with no clear gathering or body. That is, these are the only two options if one wants to do away with the idea that the Church has existed as a visible body. Neither of the first two support the idea that the Holy Spirit has been at work keeping the gates of hell from prevailing against the Church, at least for a good period of time. Neither of these two grant and fulfill the idea that Christ came to earth to establish an incarnate Body of believers, or a "called-out" group of people who within them contain the Holy Spirit working and moving.
If one accepts the fact that there will be a consistent teaching, then one has only to look and find those who teach, live and believe the same as those who did so from the Apostles on. However, we do need to deal with those who depart from the Faith.
There are bishops and priest who have gone into heresy and have lead other with them. We have some advantages in this regard and some disadvantages than they did in the early years. Advantages because we have more history to look back on and see what has been taught, what has been decided in councils. With each passing council and period of time, there is a greater witness against those who might forge a new path into heretical beliefs.
Disadvantages because there has also multiplied such a great number of heretical or partially similar groups who have some truth, but also some deviation from apostolic teaching. Some of these are cloaked in language and practices that look vary similar or seem right in some ways, and thus they pull in many. Others have simply grown up with a certain way of teaching, and they automatically view everything from this perspective. However, in one way or another you will find that these groups depart in some significant way from the early Church, from the Apostolic teaching and Tradition.
Thus, when it becomes obvious that a particular group that one might be associated with has departed in one form or another from the early Church teaching, then one has to take a closer look if the group really is linked fully to the same communion as St. Peter in faith, historical reality and spiritual reality. To lose any of these is to not participate in the fullness of the Church as Jesus Christ established it.
So, the inquirer looking into this might then ask, "OK, if I'm not in the Orthodox Church, does that mean I am not considered a Christian? Does that mean that I have no hope apart from joining the Orthodox Church? How do Orthodox look at non-Orthodox?"
One can, of course, find plenty of opinion on these issues. Most everyone recognizes that the Holy Spirit works among everyone drawing them to God. Some point to patristic references that the version of the "Church" a Protestant is in is more analogous to the Old Testament Church as seen in Israel, in that the Holy Spirit is "with" them but not "in" them as happened at Pentecost. Some Protestants would of course have a problem with that, even if it doesn't mean the Orthodox don't view you as out right pagans. Yet, it is a valid distinction that the Fathers have made, and is definitely one aspect of those who are not in the fullness of the Church.
Perhaps a better way of looking at this issue, however, is the marriage analogy used by St. Paul and many of the Fathers. St. Paul talks about the Church as being the Bride of Christ, and relates earthly marriages as being similar to our relationship to Christ and the Church. Thus, I think it can tell us a lot.
As most know, traditionally marriage has been effected and sealed by a marriage ceremony. Some in our current society have abandoned that idea, but most Protestant Christians would not be in that category. Yet, one has to admit, on a purely rational basis, what difference does a wedding ceremony make? Legally you don't have to have one, you can just go to the judge, get the papers signed and witnessed, and then your married as far as legal requirements go. Yet, even there we have a ceremony of sorts, something one has to go through before one is considered "bound".
Does this mean that marriage consists solely of a legal document or going through a marriage ceremony? Does the ceremony itself make one "married?" Yes and no. First, one realizes that we are trusting in the grace of God to make the two into one flesh. We also know that in the relationship, the foundation of the marriage is a truly self-sacrificing love for one another, and that love will probably not be very different minutes before the ceremony that it will be minutes after the ceremony. However, it will take on a new depth and dimension as time goes by. It is more along the lines of being freed to take on that depth. Whether it does or not is up to the couple working together to make it happen. We all know of hollow marriages, where the husband and wife do not love each other, even though they are married outwardly, they are not inwardly. They have failed to become "one". Yet, getting married frees one to become more fully one with the other than could be done without it.
From the Orthodox perspective, those who are attempting to follow Christ in other traditions with sincere and humble hearts are analogous to those who are infatuated, dating, or even going steady with Christ, but have not yet really gotten married. Obviously such persons can have a very close and good relationship to Christ, maybe more so than some who are married. Such people can have a great and wonderful love of Christ and do wonderful and great things for Him. Does this mean that these people have married themselves to Christ? Are they in the "fullness" of that relationship as Christ intended it to be?
Marriage involves submission on the highest degree, out of love. It is self-giving if it is to work. The Family of God becomes a real community bound together in Christ, in His faith, and in His family. In this marriage we continue to draw into a deeper relationship with Him, a deeper union. In marriage, the two are to become one through God's grace. In our marriage to Christ, the same thing happens.
Therein is the difficulty. Submission is not a strong trait among our culture. Submission is usually a word that indicates weakness, a slave, a throwing away of individual rights, a puppet that doesn't think for him or herself. Just look at all the problems we have had, especially in the last few years of our history, trying to explain the verse which says that wives should submit to their husbands. We don't want to submit out of fear that we will be taken advantage of, that we will be led astray. In relation to the Church, there is the fear that one might have to get a divorce because one can't stomach some teaching or practice.
How then are we going to learn to submit to Christ? If we fail to submit to others in this life, if we are use to judging the validity of something by our own criteria, what is to stop us from being one of those who say to Christ "Oh? When did we see you naked and didn't cloth you…?" Submission to Christ means submission to something more than an abstract deity up there somewhere. As St. Paul says in Philippians, you must treat others as more important than yourself. That means submitting to others, especially in the body of Christ. Naturally this does not mean we accept as the gospel truth everything said by a priest or bishop. When it is obvious and outright heresy, there are provisions within the Church for dealing with it. However, all too often, the potential convert comes into the Church with some type of prenuptial agreement to protect their rights. What this says is that they are not ready to be judged by the Church, but are judging the Church by what makes sense to them. This frame of mind has caused much frustration to the potential convert once they get into Orthodoxy. At its core, Orthodoxy is about our submission to Christ as we become united to Him, just as Christ was fully submitted to the Father in all things and as the human will of Christ is fully and completely united in submission to the divine will. The early Fathers like Clement of Rome clearly make the point that our submission to our bishop is the same as our submission to Christ. Christianity is, at its heart, about our submission to Him and everyone else. In obedience we learn humility, and in humility we are open to God's grace in our lives.
To then look at the in or out of the Church issue from the standpoint of "Do I have to join the Orthodox Church to be saved" is to look at the question from a purely Protestant standpoint. Rather, the real question we are to ask is concerning our salvation, our union with God, and what will further that along. In that deepening union with God, we will by nature submit ourselves to Him and His Body because our healing is taking place in that context. Love becoming more real will demand that there be unity with His whole body and the person will not want to miss out on the fuller marriage with Christ in order that a deeper and more intimate relationship with Christ might be possible even in this life. However, it requires a commitment, a marriage, and a readiness to work out our salvation with fear and trembling within the Body we are married to.
The bottom line is that everyone who is a sincere follower of Christ is on a journey to God. There in do we have "salvation" because we know that those who come with humble hearts, as the Bible has stated many times, will not be turned away. God will hear their prayers, forgive their sins, and heal their "land", that is our hearts, body and soul. (2 Chron. 7:14) Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. (Matt. 5:6) If that is taking place in the heart, one is on the road to salvation.
This doesn't mean they will end up there, but it does mean they are currently on that path. Christ can lead. Orthodoxy does not deny any of this to those who are not within its fold. Yet, in the end, salvation on judgment day will mean either in or out of the Church; you are either married to Christ or you are not. Will God, on that day, call it the "Orthodox Church"? I don't know what actual name He will use, but He will be referring to that same body in historical communion with the Apostles and all the saints down through the ages. What He will do with those who in this life never became part of the Orthodox Church? That will be his call. We honestly don't know because we honestly cannot say what God's plans for this are since He has not revealed that to us. Perhaps He has some way of uniting those of humble and sincere hearts to the Church fully in the next life. We don't know. We do trust, however, that He will have mercy on those who come to him in humility and submission to Him. Just joining the Orthodox Church will not save a person who is prideful.
Jesus said, "Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these other things will be added unto you as well." (Matt. 6:33) One joins the Orthodox Church not simply because it is right on doctrine or because they have a historical connectivity or because they have a wonderful worship service that has such depth or because of the great saints and wonder workers it has had down through its history. Those are important, but one does not join because one has become convinced of that, rather one joins the Church for one primary reason: To get married to Christ, to have a greater depth of relationship with Him, to really seek to become one with Him and His Church. Those other things are the vehicles and guides that allow this to happen and that is why we believe in them. They are the means to reach the purpose and goal of being one with Christ.
Naturally the inquirer has to have most of his or her major questions answered so that they know they are not getting into some strange heresy. Yet, even then it is for the purpose of union with God, because one realizes that within the Orthodox Church there is the time-proven method for our healing as it has been passed down from the beginning so that we can stand in God's presence with joy instead of fear. Seek first Him, and one will, if one is humble, find one's self moved to the Church in as much as it is possible in this life.
If, however, we are seeking a church that has all their doctrine right, or the right worship, or has a valid historical continuity, or any of the other things one could point to as lacking in Protestant churches but one finds fully in Orthodoxy, then it becomes a judgment on our part of whether this or that group has it all right, whether or not the group fits our definition of what a Church should be. We begin judging by external factors instead of the heart, which we all know was what almost caused David to not be king of Israel because his father didn't think the Prophet Samuel would be interested in Him. Even Samuel was looking at the other boys thinking this must be the one, but God had other plans. That is why we must seek first His kingdom and righteousness, because if we earnestly do that and trust in God, then He will add all the other things to us as well. When we come to this point, we are ready to get married. Before that, one is really not ready to get married.
The Church is one. The real question is whether we will be a part of that same Church or not? Will be be in union to Jesus Christ as fully and completely as we can in this life? To seek this unity is to seek a real concrete, incarnate unity with the Body of Christ existing here and now. Anything else reflects a lack of real unity with Christ in the heart and soul. The main benefit of joining the Church is the great wealth of tools and spiritual benefits one obtains to enable and free them to more fully seek that unity with Christ in a more intimate manner than can be had staying on the outside. Becoming a member of the Orthodox Church does not mean you are then saved, however, it does mean you are more completely united to Christ and enabled to more freely seek first His Kingdom and righteousness because we have become one with Him and His Body as a whole person, spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially and mentally.
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