By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this article I want to begin to speak about the characteristics of the Church which are described for us in the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, and which are foundational for our Orthodox understanding of the Church. These characteristics are found in the passage in the Creed which says…
We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
In this article I am going to consider that the Church is One. What does this oneness mean? What was the intention of the Fathers of the Councils in describing the Church in such a way? How should our understanding of the Orthodox doctrine of the Church as being One influence our thinking?
The teachings found in the Creed are dogmatic statements. They are theological definitions with particular meanings which are non-negotiable. They are not open to a wide variety of personal opinions. There are aspects of the Orthodox Faith which do remain rather loosely defined, or even where there is no particular and authoritative definition. There are aspects of the Orthodox Faith which remain a matter of humility and silence in the face of mystery. But the Creed is intended to explain, describe and define that which has always and everywhere been believed and confessed as the Orthodox Faith.
Nor does the Creed create some new faith and introduce novel ideas. On the contrary the intention of those who framed it in these words was entirely to express with clarity what had always been believed and taught in the Church from the beginning. To be Orthodox is to hold this faith and none other. Indeed, the Orthodox Church has always insisted that to be Christian requires the confession of this faith and none other.
The oneness, or unity, of the Church is not a human aspiration but it is a theological reality. This means that it is rooted in the divine life of the Holy Trinity and is not simply an expression of a human organizational structure. God is one, yet the unity of God is expressed in the three divine persons who share the same divine nature. The unity of the Holy Trinity is not one of will, or of emotion, or of organization, as if there were three Gods who had come together to work as a team. On the contrary the unity of the Holy Trinity is found in the one divine nature which is shared by the three divine persons.
The Church, as the Body of Christ, is not essentially a human organization that could take any number of forms, or be based on a variety of uniting opinions, as if it was a sports club, or a student’s society at a university. It is a divine-human organism, a living community that has its origins and its essence in the activity of God not that of man, and which is given life and being by the presence and divine power of the Holy Spirit. It is the place where men and women are united with God, and are transformed and renewed by the divine presence of the Holy Spirit, so that they are formed by the Spirit into the divine-human Body of Christ. Not that we cease to be of human nature as God has made us, but so that our human nature, united to the divine presence in the Church, is glorified and gives glory to God, and is built by God, by the Holy Spirit, into the eternal Temple of God made of living stones.
Our Lord Jesus Christ himself speaks of this unity of the Church as an expression of the unity of the Holy Trinity. In John 17 he says…
Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me that they may be one even as we are one.
St Cyril speaks of this passage in his commentary on the Holy Gospel of St John. He explains that this passage is speaking of the unity which not only was the will of Christ for those who believed, but also came about in the life of the Church from the beginning. He says…
The Lord Jesus wishes the disciples to be kept in a unity of mind and purpose, being merged, as it were, with one another in soul and spirit and in the bond of brotherly love; so as to be linked together in an unbroken chain of affection, so that their unity may be perfected so that it resembles the natural unity which exists between the Father and the Son.
There are lots of other passages in the New Testament which describe this same spiritual unity. St Cyril refers to some of them in his commentary. In the Acts of the Apostles the early Church is described as being of one heart and soul in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And a little later in the Gospel of St John our Lord Jesus speaks of this unity again, saying…
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Our Lord is not speaking of an organizational unity, or an agreement brought about by human effort, but of a spiritual unity brought about by the Holy Spirit in which a perfect unity of love and life is expressed, a unity which reflects the natural and divine union between the Father and the Son.
St Cyril explains what this means when he says…
This is what St Paul meant, when he said: One body and one Spirit; for we who are many are one body in Christ, for … we have all received the anointing of one Spirit, that is, the Spirit of Christ. Since they were to be one body, and share in the same Holy Spirit, He desires His disciples to be preserved in a unity of spirit which nothing could disturb, and in an unbroken singleness of mind.
If anyone supposes that the disciples are united as the Father and the Son are One, not merely in Substance, but also in purpose (for the holy Nature of God has one Will, and one and the same purpose altogether) he will not be wide of the mark.
What do we learn from St Cyril? It is that the unity of the Church is established by receiving the same Holy Spirit, and this unity is expressed in having the same purpose and singleness of mind and will, just as the Father and the Son share the same purpose and mind and will.
This is a theological truth. It is a dogma. It is non-negotiable, expressing a spiritual reality that cannot be denied by those of us who are Orthodox. It is the substance of that phrase in the Creed, which we recite at every Liturgy and in our daily prayers, saying…
We believe in One Church.
This unity, as our Lord Jesus and the Fathers of the Church explain, is not a unity of friendship, or affection, being brought about by our own feelings, emotions and opinions. It is a unity brought about by the Holy Spirit and expressed in a unity of belief, life and purpose among those who have received the Holy Spirit.
Of course it is good and necessary to have a human unity with others in many different circumstances, at work, at school, in clubs and societies, even in our service to the local community. But this is not the same unity of which the Creed speaks, and for which our Lord Jesus Christ prays. This spiritual unity which establishes the one Church is found in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God, transforming those who participate in this Spirit of God.
If the presence of the Holy Spirit leads to unity and establishes one Church then we will want to ask where this one Church is. In modern times it has been suggested that the one Church is composed of all those who have some belief in Jesus Christ, or consider that they are following his teachings. This is not what the early Church understood when they spoke of believing in one Church. We have already seen that St Cyril understood this unity as reflecting a common confession of faith. Indeed the New Testament speaks of the members of the Church as having one mind.
St Paul speaks in several places of those who hold to different teachings than those he has preached. He says…
After warning a heretic, or someone who holds different opinions, once or twice, have nothing more to do with him.
And to the Galatians he speaks very strongly saying…
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
What is St Paul saying? He is not speaking of those who teach a different message and suggesting that they also are part of the Church. He does not say that we should receive everyone who speaks of Jesus as if they were also of the Church. On the contrary, he warns that those who teach something else are presenting a false Gospel and are to be anathema. It is difficult to imagine a harder sentence.
And even St John, in one of his letters, writes…
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
None of this gives us any justification for the modern idea that everyone can be called a Christian, and a member of the Church whatever they believe. It could not be clearer. It is possible to preach another Christ and another Gospel, and these are a false Christ and a false Gospel. The theological and dogmatic basis of the Christian Faith; that which has been believed from the very beginning until the present time, requires us to insist that there is one Gospel, one coherent teaching which all Christians are to confess and express in their own lives. To preach another teaching is to preach error, and error is not Christian, and is not Orthodoxy, and is not Christianity.
I am convinced that this is the Orthodox and Apostolic meaning of belief in One Church. It is what we find in the New Testament and in the writings of the Fathers and in the content of the Ecumenical Councils. But what does it mean in practice.
In the first place I believe that we are to receive and welcome all those who use the name of Christian and are well disposed to our Orthodox Church with warmth and generosity. We are all of us born into certain circumstances that we can do nothing about. I was, for instance, born into a devout evangelical protestant household where God was worshipped sincerely. My life has been one of seeking more of God, and by his grace and mercy I have been brought to the fullness of the Christian life in our Orthodox Church. I am corresponding with and meeting many people who are also seeking more of God, and find themselves in other Christian groups. I commend their commitment to seeking Christ. It is necessary for each of us as Orthodox Christians to bear witness in love and kindness to all those in other Christian groups who are seeking that which we believe we have already received. We can certainly speak of all of these as being believers in Christ, of being Christians in some sense, yet we must insist that while these dear ones are outside the unity of the One Church, the Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church, there is more, much more, that God would pour out in grace upon them.
In the second place we must insist that while many individuals are seeking Christ and are Christian, in all manner of groups, nevertheless those groups are not the Church. These groups teach error, and are separated by error from the life of the one Church, which is expressed by union in the Holy Spirit and in unity of belief. The group among which I grew up had many faithful believers in Christ who were an example to me. But the teachings of this community were very far from those of the one Church, preserved faithfully and with integrity to the present time.
We did not believe in the sacraments according to the teaching of the Church, even though we practiced baptism and celebrated the Eucharist. But these had very different meanings for us. We were not born again into unity with Christ through baptism, nor did the bread and wine we shared become the Body and Blood of Christ. Nor did we practice an anointing with chrism for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We ordained no priests, had no bishops, and did not recognize the authority of the Apostolic Church as it has been preserved by the Holy Spirit in the ancient and Orthodox Churches. Indeed we considered Orthodox Christianity to be full of error and superstition. We did not have any practice of fasting, we had no tradition of spirituality. We rejected monasticism and celibacy. The Virgin Mary was not held in any great honour, nor were any of the saints ever asked to intercede for us.
In almost every aspect of the Christian Faith the community I belonged to rejected the teachings and practices of the Church from the beginning. In what way is it possible to consider a group to be the Church if it rejects the teaching of the Church? I say this with much affection for those I grew up among. They were believers in Christ, but they had adopted so many errors, so many false teachings, that they cannot be considered to the Church, because the mark of the Church is that it is One, and has one coherent and consistent body of doctrine and practice.
The idea that every group which uses the name of Jesus must be considered the Church is a very modern one. It is associated with the secular, individualistic sense that everyone must be free to believe and act as they wish. This is not an Orthodox view, and therefore it is not properly a Christian view. The Church is One, and therefore we must be careful to ensure that we are united and being more closely united with this one Church, which we confess to be the Apostolic and Orthodox Church.
There is no other Church, though there are certainly faithful believers who are seeking Christ in every place. And if there is no other Church then we must be careful not to isolate ourselves from the life of the Holy Spirit in this one Church. We are in danger of this when we begin to listen to those who preach another Gospel. We are in danger of this when we allow ourselves to believe that we can judge for ourselves what we will believe, instead of receiving with humility and obedience the teaching of the One Church in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, who establishes and has established this unity of the Church in Christ from the beginning.
I am sure of this. I have not yet exhausted the riches of the spiritual tradition of the one Church in our Orthodox community. How can I look elsewhere for a superficial satisfaction on my own terms and according to my own fallible understanding, when the depths of the spiritual life offered to me in the one Church, the Orthodox Church, are so far beyond my experience and understanding. There is one Church, this is a theological reality. It is not a matter of opinion. The teaching of this one Church is that which has been taught from the beginning and it still taught and lived out and experienced in the Orthodox Church. If we wish to be Orthodox, if we wish to be truly Christian, then we must embrace the fullness of this life and teaching, avoiding those who teach error, however well-meaning they may be, for the sake of our salvation and the unity of the Church of Christ, the one Body and the one Temple, being formed by those who have received new life and the anointing of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the Church.
May this be our desire and may God preserve us from all error for his glory and our salvation. Amen