Originally published in the Charleston, SC, POST AND COURIER, on 8/7/07, as "What is the Church that Jesus left us?"
The recent release of the Vatican’s seven questions and answers entitled, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church” has raised much concern across the spectrum of self-professed Christians. Where is the Church? Does it matter?
I write from a unique position as an Orthodox priest, since, according to the document, the Orthodox Churches (unlike the Protestants) can properly be called Churches, yet we “lack something”, namely a supreme pontiff subsisting in the person of the Pope of Rome. I suspect we should be grateful that the Vatican recognizes us Orthodox as a church. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t move us or flatter us. It neither enrages nor engages us, since we believe that the history of the Christian Church shows a different—though related—reality. The Orthodox Churches are as old as the Roman. After all, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians (to name a few), who are still Orthodox to this day.
The battle for “Church” is not a battle of “valid” versus “invalid”; “visible” versus “invisible”; “scriptural” versus “traditional”; “Protestant” versus “Roman Catholic”. These are the sixteenth century battles of western European Christianity, already 500 years removed from Orthodox Christianity. The real question is “what did Jesus actually leave with us?” More historically phrased, “what has always been believed?” Biblically stated, “what is the faith once for all delivered to the saints?” Theologically asked, “what does it mean to be ‘in communion’?”
As Father Kirby wrote in his irenic column a few weeks ago, our Lord Jesus Christ did found only one Church. Christ is not and cannot be divided; a head cannot have many bodies. Jesus is the head of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Church is holy in that she is divinely established and sustained. She is catholic in that she is whole and complete in every local church in every time and place, and faithfully teaches what all Christians have always believed. She is apostolic in that her bishops (episkopoi, over-seers), are ordained in the same line as the bishops first appointed by the apostles and teach the same doctrines as do the Twelve.
Reading the documents of the Church from the first century forward through the eleventh, laying aside our present day preconceptions about “church”, we will find this true Church. We will even find a great deal of honor paid to the Bishop of Rome, who from the beginning was considered to be primus-inter-pares (chief among equals) of all the Bishops. This cannot be denied historically.
However, through the history, we will not find the infallible, supreme pontiff the papal office has become. The pope was for a long time the honorable chairman of a group of bishops seated (figuratively) at a round table, around which the Orthodox Bishops are still sitting.
It is not until post-eleventh century western Christianity that the Pope sits (again, figuratively) at a rectangular table, he alone occupying the head. Don’t take my word for it; read the history! The Charleston County library holds a 38 volume collection entitled the Antenicene, Nicene, and Postnicene Fathers which contain, in English, the most significant writings of the first Christian millennium. It can also be read, in full, online at http://www.ccel.org/.
The history is critically important, but there is a deeper reality which must always remain intimately linked to the Church’s historical lineage: by our sins, every man, woman, and child is terminally ill and desperately needs spiritual medical attention. The Church is, theologically and historically, the hospital in which are found the doctors who can rightly identify the reality of the disease and who dispense the only tonics which can heal this infectious and vicious malady.
Jesus Christ instituted and entrusted his medicines (the Sacraments—baptism, Holy Communion, confession, unction, etc.) to his apostles and through them, to the Bishops. It is through this succession that the medicines can be both rightly administered and guaranteed. More directly put: the Church is the hospital which has board-certified physicians-of-the-soul and medicines which have been carefully preserved under the strictest supervision.
If you knew you were terminally ill, would you prefer to visit a true hospital or an individually and recently established clinic, run by a fellow who printed his MD on his laserjet? The gifted and well-studied clinician might save you. He might just be talented enough to pull it all together. But the hospital’s methods, medicines, and personnel are time-tested and sure. This is the case with the Church, only moreso, because it is also one, holy, catholic, and apostolic!
So, we dying men and women, if we hope to live, must seek and find Jesus Christ in his Church which has never been anything other than visible, living, and active. As the Vatican has rightly taught, the Church’s touchstones include bishops in apostolic order who, to quote St. Paul to Timothy, “rightly divide the word of truth”. These bishops, though, have never been subjected to the universal jurisdiction of an infallible Pope. As Jesus said of divorce, so too the Orthodox have always taught about this false teaching, “from the beginning it was not so.”
Rather, the bishops, as brothers in council, are the guardians of the medicines of the hospital for sinners, without which we die. (Our Lord did say, for example, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.”) We can be confident of the medications, meals, and remedies here in the Church. God is certainly free to move outside the boundaries of his own creation, but why put him to the test?
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.