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Fr. Thomas Hopko on "Are Protestants in the Church?"


The following question was asked by me (Patrick Barnes) at a lecture given by Fr. Hopko on November 2, 1996 at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption, Seattle, WA. I have highlighted the areas that caused a stir here in Seattle amongst those who are aware of what our Tradition teaches. The most unfortunate thing about his answer was the fact that he explicitly stated (as he always does when he speaks) that he never teaches his opinion but only clear and irrefutable dogma. His views, however, are at best heavily disputed by others within the Church (at worst, completely wrong, even opposite to what our Tradition teaches—see, for example, his definition of economy, below). After doing some research I discovered that his opinions had been answered in print years ago. Many articles have been written showing the weakness of his position. He is therefore quite aware of the fact that many in the Church find his views unTraditional.

Q: If I (speaking as a Protestant) have put on Christ through baptism (Gal. 3:27), and thus am a member of His Body (Eph. 5:30), and if His Body = the Church (Eph. 1:22-23), then am I not also a member of the Church? And if the Orthodox Church is the "one True Church," how can I not be a member of it?

Hopko: The answer depends on how one uses the term "church"; you need to know that this term has been used in a variety of ways throughout church history. For example, sometimes it is used as the object of our faith [in the Creed] that we believe in, that has a human-theandric form as a concrete historical reality; or, you can have the term "church" simply as a group of people, you know, like this parish, or this or that church, or the OCA, etc., which has more of a sociological connotation. In recent times, particularly in the ecumenical movement, the Orthodox did not want to use the term "church" except for itself; because, they reasoned, we know that this is the Church, and technically speaking, if you are going to use the term as the object of that which we believe in, and it has a human-theandric form [the definition of the Church flowing from the definition of Christ—one Person in two natures (see the Chalcedonian Definition of 451)—because the Church is His Body. PMB], then I do not believe in the Lutheran "Church" and I do not believe in the Anglican "Church" and I do not believe in the Roman Catholic "Church", I believe in the Church that is the Orthodox Church, and we don’t want to confuse people with a wrong use of this term. And therefore, using the term in this way, you would have to speak of non-Orthodox as being outside of the Church.

But you would have to immediately follow this with a qualifier that this does not mean they are excluded from knowing God, doing good, etc.; we just don’t want to use the term "Church" with those various groups of people because we don’t believe technically that it is the Church because it is not in the apostolic succession through history, because the Church is not a Platonic ideal or an invisible reality, it’s an absolutely historic, concrete, continuous reality. And so we know where it is; you can trace it through history. Thus, if you are going to use the term in that way you must be ready to say that there are Christians outside of the Church, that their baptism can be a real baptism, that God really acts there. If a person in good faith believes in Jesus as their Lord, gets baptized into His death and follows the Scriptures, we Orthodox are not going to say, "oh nothing happened, that Mother Theresa or the Pope are just a couple of heathens, etc." So how one answers your question depends on the use of the terms. The terms must be defined.

Other people would use the terms this way: the churches which clearly and historically do hold to the apostolic tradition, that is the main apostolic sacraments and teachings, could somehow be considered to be "church" in a way that others that would not be, nor claim to be. Using the term that way, one could say that Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Copts, Ethiopians, Indians—those in the "classic" tradition, with an episcopate, sacraments, yet arguing about specific doctrines that have led to schisms within "the Church"—as opposed to "classical Protestants" who believe, according to their own catechisms, that the Church is invisible, that it is a "spiritual reality," that any creaturely form of the Church is defective and even has sins in it. No group within the "classical apostolic Tradition" would ever say that, as their understanding of the nature of the Church is fundamentally different. We say that the Church is made up of sinful people and that everyone in the Church is a sinner, but the Church itself is not sinful! The Scriptures, sacramental rites, etc. are not sinful. The Church’s "words" (dogma, liturgy, etc.) are indeed human words (as the Church is divine and human—Chalcedon), but inspired by God and totally dependable. Thus, those who don’t claim that, or affirm that, though they may believe it in a "spiritual" sense, are not believing as the Church has always taught and held, and thus are not in it (in the historical concrete sense).

Now, there is a third way of using the term "Church." And this would be simply speaking about the de facto Church. Using the term that way you can speak about the divisions in the Church, schisms in the Church, the Church being sinful, etc. St. John Chrysostom at times used the term this way. He would say, "the Church is supposed to be the Body of Christ, but the Church today is a ‘headless corpse’ ... the Church is the Bride of Christ, whom He loved and is faithful to even unto His own death in the flesh for Her; but the Church is a ‘husbandless whore’." In other words, you can sometimes use the term "Church" when you are speaking about the actual people not following God in that way if you want to. But this hasn’t been the typical Orthodox way of using this term because it can lead to the teaching not that we believe in "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" but "many, sinful, defective, inward looking churches", etc., etc. Now Protestants historically have affirmed that when the Church formulated and confessed the Nicene Creed that they meant the Church as that "invisible reality of the saints who accepted Jesus as their Savior that can be identified with no concrete historical community in history" because they are all somehow defective, made up of sinners and saints, and so on. This is the classical Protestant teaching and is why the Orthodox from the very beginning of the ecumenical movement refused to use the term "Church" in that way. They preferred to follow St. Paul’s use in 1 Corinthians, which is the same way it was (and is) confessed in the Creed. When talking about the divisions in the local Corinthian parish he says, "Is Christ divided?" In fact, do you know that the Good News for Modern Man Bible actually translates this as if St. Paul were saying "Christ is divided"? But the whole point of the sentence is that Christ is not divided and cannot be divided! You can divide yourself from if, you can be in it and sin against it, but you cannot harm it itself. St. Paul continues, "don’t you know that you are the Body of Christ?! How then can you go unite yourself to a prostitute?" He doesn’t say, "since you go to a prostitute you are not in the Body of Christ because the Body of Christ is indivisible . . ."; no, he says, "the bread that we eat, is it not the Body of Christ? The cup that we drink, is it not the Blood of Christ?" It is! And it doesn’t depend on whether you are holy or not, it depends on God. So, that’s why when we say that we believe "in the Church" we mean that we believe in a concrete historical human-theandric body of people that is, because God is present in Her, totally holy, totally godly, totally dependable and absolutely from God, though we may sin against it a thousand times a day. This is even why our confession prayer says "reconcile and unite him (or her) to the Holy Church." Because your sins put you out of it. And here is another example of the clash of terminology; for when an Orthodox Christian sins, it is still a member of the True Church that sins and puts himself out of it.

It is popular today to use the term "Church" in the second way mentioned, thus including all Christians with a proper baptism, and to say they are "somehow" in the Church by virtue of their really having been baptized. It would be on that ground that a person who is a Christian but not in the Church can still have the Holy Spirit, preach the Gospel, do good works, love God, and even perhaps be saved on the day of Judgment; whereas a person who is a member of the Church may go to hell. But this is problematic because it leads to a certain kind of vagueness that you can be sort of baptized "in general" but not baptized into anything, that is, into a body of people who confess the Trinity. The Orthodox Church has always held that baptism and chrismation should lead immediately to the Eucharistic meal where the Church is chiefly actualized in space and time, where you knew where it was, who went there, what was confessed, prayed, and taught there, etc. So, baptisms are meant to be ecclesial acts—one is to be baptized into a rightly-believing community. Then the question becomes "what community?" and this leads back to the question "What is the Church?".

So I think it is better to use the term "Church" in the first sense but then to immediately qualify it by saying that God can and does act outside the canonical boundaries of the Church, and the Church is even capable in certain conditions of recognizing a real baptism outside her boundaries when that person decides to join the Church. Then the Church makes the decision as to whether God has really acted in this person’s life, the "validity" of the baptism, etc. Up until very recent times, beginning with the canons of the Nicene Council, the Church has affirmed that God has really acted in baptisms outside Her folds. That’s why the canons of the Nicene Council did not even call for the rebaptism of Arians who wanted to be reconciled to the Church. The people who were baptized into the Arian groups were mostly victims of subtle heresy as the Arians baptized in the name of the Trinity, they believed Christ was their "savior", the people sincerely thought they were being joined to the Church, etc. and it was obvious that God acted in their lives. Economia does not mean "making something present that is not there" but rather "affirming that something was present even in the divided circumstances" and therefore can be "validated", fulfilled, and sanctified when brought into the Church [!]. And the teaching that is becoming popular today, that the Orthodox should baptize everyone who was not baptized by immersion in an Orthodox Church (because everything outside Her canonical boundaries is absolutely nothing, dark and graceless)—all I can say is that this is a radical innovation! It is being presented as if it is a conservatism , but it is in fact an innovation. Because throughout history the Orthodox Church was willing under certain circumstances to recognize the real activity of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the rites and teachings of other ecclesial communities with which it is not in communion because it felt they were, to one degree and way or another, defective, though not totally and completely defective so as to not be Christian. It’s an issue of truth. An example of this would be something Fr. Peter Gillquist once told me. He was talking to an Orthodox bishop overseas before being received into the Church. And this bishop said to him "outside the Church there is no Holy Spirit, and no grace." And Fr. Peter responded, "well then what Spirit brought me here today, your eminence?" What Spirit inspired Cornelius to call for the apostle Peter? God is not a prisoner of His own Church! [Here Hopko confuses the issue, failing to distinguish between ecclesial grace and the general salvific activity of the Holy Spirit outside of the Church. For more on this see my essay "On the Status of Non-Orthodox Christians"—PMB].

So when you deal with the term you have to be really careful how you use it. And I think it is best to say that the Church is the concrete historical community through faith that has kept the Faith from age to age (1 Timothy 3:15) and we believe that is the Orthodox Church. And the other ecclesial communities are "churches" in a sociological way, can have many good and wonderful things in them that are really of God, and He really does act in them—we see holy people in them; we’ve even canonized and put in our calendar people who were never technically Orthodox. Constantine the Great, for example, was baptized on his deathbed by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. He never for one minute of his life, was a member of the Orthodox Church. Isaac of Syria was a Nestorian bishop who quit his see and lived in solitude, prayed, and wrote many things which got into our Church, and now he is on our calendar as a saint. His writings were the most read (by quantity) of any writings in the Russian Orthodox Church during the 19th century monastic movement, and he technically was not a member of the Orthodox Church. Almost certainly the author of the Dionysian corpus was a monophysite. So we do believe that God acts outside the Church.

And to answer your question more directly, yes, someone with a true baptism is "somehow" a member of the Church, united to the Church, joined to it, etc.; but it’s very difficult to find a way to speak about this "somehow" without falling into one trap or another—that it doesn’t matter, the Church is defective, invisible, etc. No! We need to protect the full meaning of the word "Church" and how we have always viewed it. On the other hand, we don’t want to claim that "outside the canonical boundaries of Orthodoxy there is only ‘undifferentiated demonic darkness’" [again, see my "Status" essay—PMB]. That is just not true. There are many Christians, and we would say even technically non-Christians or atheists perhaps in whom God Himself is really acting, and they may even be loving God in a real way, and in fact, want no part (to their credit) of the Church that they have seen or come into contact with, or think it is; and they could even be in better shape in God than many in this church right now; and thus St. Paul says this in Romans 2: "my name is blasphemed among the people because of you." And it may well be that there are people who, what they see of Christianity, what they see on TV, what they see in our Orthodox communities, that they want no part of it; and it may be to their glory. But that doesn’t make the Church false.