What is the Church?

Not too long ago, a friend of mine who is not Orthodox challenged me with the following question: he wondered why Orthodox Christians couldn’t just get back to the Bible and use it as a means, like other Christian denominations had, for agreeing over what Christianity truly is. This same friend was concerned that many of the teachings and traditions that we, as Orthodox Christians, profess were not found in Holy Scripture. In the end, his feeling was that the true Christian faith had been corrupted and lost by the Orthodox Church and that a return to the Bible and its teachings would help us Orthodox separate those incorrect teachings and traditions we hold from what he deemed as “true, Bible-based Christianity.”

Today, many share my friend’s opinion, and it is not difficult to notice that there is a proliferation of churches in America that claim to be Bible-based. Many of those who attend such churches are extremely faithful and wonderful people who are truly seeking to know Jesus Christ. Their sincere desire to walk with our Lord has prompted them to join a certain congregation, and through it, connect with their Savior.

Many of our own parishes are full of similar people, men and women who want to follow Christ. In fact, many of our parishioners at one time belonged to another church or have family members who attend churches other than the Orthodox Church. Their journey to know Jesus just so happens to have brought them to the Orthodox Church, but we could argue that other peoples’ journeys have led them into the Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian churches.
Without a doubt, all of us have friends who are not Orthodox Christians but who love Jesus and want to live a Christian life. This reality raises another question that I know many of us have struggled to answer. Namely, does it matter whether or not someone is an Orthodox Christian? Surely, Christians of other denominations are being saved and the truth that all of us are children of God is firmly established, so does it really matter what church you belong to, or is it just important that you belong to a church?

To answer these questions, as well as the one raised by my friend, it is important that we first understand what the Church is. Scripture tells us in Colossians chapter 1 verse 18 that, “[Christ] is the head of the body, the Church.” We also learn from scripture that each of us, once baptized becomes, “. . .members of his body,” (Ephesians 5.30). This same point is made in 1 Corinthians 6.15, when the Apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” The Church, therefore, is Christ; He is its body, and each one of us are members of that body, the one body of Jesus Christ. Again, we can look to scripture for this exact definition, which can be found in 1 Corinthians 12.27, St. Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” There is one last point, however, that comes from scripture that we must investigate, and once again, this point relates to how we understand what a Church is. St. Paul asks the Church of Corinth the following question in 1 Corinthians 1.13: “Is Christ divided?” The answer, of course, is no. Christ is not divided; His body is whole. So we have learned from Holy Scripture that the Church is made up of Christ, who is its head, as well as each of us, who are members of that one undivided body.

These statements St. Paul makes regarding the Church have enormous implications for those of us who live in the twenty-first century. For it is plain to see that the Christian faith is anything but whole; rather, it is splintered into thousands of expressions. In America alone, some estimate that the number of Christian traditions exceeds 5,000. Thus, the circumstance in which we find ourselves begs the question, “How did we get here?” How did Christianity become so fragmented, so divided, when Scripture tells us that there should be one Body? Even Jesus prayed that the Church would remain united. He said, “And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one, (John, 17.11).”

When Jesus died, he did not leave us a book. He didn’t even leave us the New Testament, and as far as we know, he never wrote down a single thing on paper. What he did leave us, however, is His Church, a Church that He promised would never fail, a Church that the very gates of Hades would not overcome, Matthew 16.18. This means that if the Church had ceased to exist even for one moment, as some people propose, Christ would be a liar! More importantly, since the Church is headed by Christ Himself it is, therefore, Christ. So, if the Church had become corrupt, or even ceased to exist, Christ Himself would be corrupt or non-existent. Thankfully, this is not the case. Rather, we know that Christ’s Church has continued to exist, and its existence can be traced to the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. An unbroken connection exists between the first Church in Jerusalem, which was headed by the Bishop James, and our own parishes here in the United States and our beloved Bishops.
Therefore, the unity of the Orthodox Church for 2000 years stands in stark contradiction to the fragmented Christianity of our modern century. It is interesting to note that the fragmentation of Christianity, the emergence of denominations and expressions, is rooted in my friend’s desire for us to return to just the Bible. In 1517, Martin Luther would post his thesis and set in motion the Protestant Reformation. At the center of Reformation was the concept of Sola Scriptura, only scripture (of course the concept of sola scriptura cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the opposite argument is made by St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians, 2.15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” St. Paul commands the Corinthians to hold to those things they were taught by word-of-mouth, and those things they were taught by the written word. Throughout the centuries, the Orthodox Church has faithfully kept these traditions. For example, the Orthodox Church still professes the belief that the Eucharist is indeed the Body and Blood of Christ. This tradition is confirmed by Scripture in 1 Corinthians 10.16, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not communion in the Body of Christ?” Or Matthew, 26.26, where Christ commands his disciples to, “Take, eat; this is my body.”

In working against the developments of the Catholic Church, the Reformers believed that a return to the scriptures alone would return the Church to the true faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, a movement was started that eventually led to the proliferation of denominations and interpretations of Holy Scripture. Once Holy Scripture was divorced from the Church and her traditions, its exegesis, or explanation, was left up to the individual. Missing from the Protestant’s mindset was the concept that scripture was never to be taken out of the context of the worshiping community. St. Peter had warned against such an abuse of scripture in his second letter 1.20, when he wrote, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Notice how St. Peter switches from the singular, man, to the plural, men, when speaking about proper interpretation. The community of the faithful was always the measure stick by which scripture was to be interpreted. Once this was removed, any one interpretation became valid.

Today, you’ll find hundreds of interpretations of the same passage of scripture, and as a result, you’ll find thousands of different churches teaching different things. The irony is that all of them point to the Bible as the sole source of their interpretation! Once again, contrary to this fact, the Orthodox Church stands united in her witness to the faith and in the teachings she professes. Whether you attend an Orthodox Church in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, or Cape Town, South Africa, the teaching and the worship of these parishes is the same. This does not mean that the Orthodox Church looks down on other Christian expressions, nor does it mean that the Orthodox Church teaches intolerance or that she passes judgment on people who are members of other churches. Rather, the Orthodox Church simply witnesses to what she is by grace: the Church of Christ, established by her Lord, Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church does not deny the activity of the Holy Spirit (or even salvation) cannot be found elsewhere beyond her walls, for God is great, and His love endures forever. However, she is assured of the Holy Spirit’s activity within. Finally, the Church knows that elements of the Truth can be found everywhere, but she alone possesses the full deposit of the faith, the entire inheritance of the sons and daughters of the Lord, is found only within her embrace.

In the letter of Jude, we read in 1.3, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” This letter, which was written by St. Jude, the brother of St. James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, appeals to Christians to hold onto their common faith — the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints, a faith rooted in the teaching of the Apostles, and a faith that is not subject to development or change. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Hebrews 13.8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Unfortunately, my friend’s appeal is an appeal that leads to disaster, for it has resulted not in unity but disjointing. A simple return to the scriptures has resulted in the loss of the full deposit of faith for many. Our Protestant brothers and sisters are correct to encourage each Christian to learn scripture, to study God’s word, to commit their lives to Christ, and in a sense, to return to the Bible. However, each of us must do so under the guidance of the Church, which was established by Christ. Only then can we be assured that our own interpretation will be in line with that of the community established by Christ and cultivated by the Holy Apostles.

In the end, the most convincing aspect of our faithful witness to Jesus Christ will be found in our ability to love. This means our argument for the Lord will be measured by the amount of love we show one another and those outside of the Church. If we do not open our hearts and love, any measure of disrespect, intolerance, or hate will totally destroy all messages that the Church might express. May your love for our Lord provide an ample witness that you are indeed one of His children.

(For further study see, the website of the Greek Archdiocese of America, www.goarch.org, The Faith, understanding Orthodox Christianity, an Orthodox Catechism, by Clark Carlton, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA, The Orthodox Way, revised edition by Bishop Kallistos Ware, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, Introducing the Orthodox Church, its Faith and Life, by Anthony M. Coniaris, Light and Life Publishing Company, Minneapolis, MN).