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Orthodox Ecclesiology in Outline

by Fr. George Dragas

Western Christians often speak of the Orthodox Churches, rather than the Orthodox Church. From the Orthodox perspective, the Church is one, even though She is manifested in many places. Orthodox ecclesiology operates with a plurality in unity and a unity in plurality. For Orthodoxy there is no ‘either / or’ between the one and the many. No attempt is made, or should be made, to subordinate the many to the one (the Roman Catholic model), nor the one to the many (the Protestant model). It is both canonically and theologically correct to speak of the Church and the churches, and vice versa. This is impossible for Roman Catholic ecclesiology because of the double papal claim for universal jurisdiction and infallibility. The same must be said of the Protestant ecclesiologies, which connect the notion of the Church with denominationalism, and which make a distinction between the one and the many in terms of the invisible and the visible Church. From an Orthodox perspective, the Church is both catholic and local, invisible and visible, one and many. To explain what lies behind this Orthodox ecclesiological unity in multiplicity, one has to deal with the Orthodox understanding of the nature of the Church.

The Church of the Triune God

The nature of the Church is to be understood as the Church of the Triune God. The Holy Trinity is the ultimate basis and source of the Church’s existence and, as such, the Church is in the image and likeness of God. This being in the image of the blessed Trinity constitutes the mode of the Church’s existence, which, in fact, reveals her nature. Being in God, the Church reflects on earth God’s unity in Trinity. What is natural to God is given to the Church by grace.

The grace of the Trinity is the starting point for understanding the nature of the Church, and especially for her unity in multiplicity, as the Holy Spirit shares one life and one being. The three distinct and unique Persons are one in life and in nature. Similarly, the Church exhibits a parallel multiplicity of persons in unity of life and being. The difference between God and the Church is that, in the former, multiplicity in unity is the truth, whereas in the latter, this is only a participation in the truth. In patristic language the former is ousia, while the latter is metousia. The unity of the three divine Persons in life and being is, therefore, the prototype of the unity of the Church’s persons in life and in being. As Christ Himself says in His prayer for the Church: "even as Thou O Father are in me and me in Thee, so they may be one, that the world may believe that Thou has sent me." The mark of unity is collegiality and love, and not subordination. Orthodox Triadology, based on the grace of the Trinity, supplies the basic ontological categories for Orthodox ecclesiology. The Church is an eikon of the Holy Trinity, a participation in the grace of God.

The Church of Christ

How does the Church participate in God’s mystery and grace? How is metousia Theou ("participation in the essence of God") achieved? How does the Church become an eikon of the Holy Trinity? The answer, in its simplest form, is contained in the phrase "in and through Christ." Christ has established the bond between the image of the Triune God, and that which is made after the image, namely, the Church, mankind. In Christ we have both the eikon and the kat eikon ("that which is according to the image"). Hence, we must say that the Church is the Church of the Triune God as the Church of Christ. The link between the Holy Trinity and Christology, that is, between theology and economy, demands a similar link in ecclesiology. The Church is in the image of the Triune God, and participates in the grace of the Trinity inasmuch as She is in Christ and partakes of His grace. The unity of persons in life and being cannot be achieved apart from this economy of Christ, and we here encounter what the New Testament calls the "Body of Christ."

Christ is the Head of the Church and She is His Body. It is from this Christological angle that we better understand the multiplicity in unity which exists in the Church. This angle of the Body of Christ is normally connected with the divine Eucharist, because it is in the Eucharist that the Body is revealed and realized. In the divine Eucharist we have the whole Christ, the Head, and the Body, the Church. But the Eucharist is celebrated in many places and among many different groups of people. Does this then mean that there are many bodies of Christ? This is not the case because there is one Head, and one eucharistic Body (His very body which He took up in the Incarnation) into which all the groups of people in the different places are incorporated. It is the Lord Himself who is manifested in many places, as He gives His one Body to all, so that in partaking of it they may all become one with Him and with one another. "In that there is one bread, the many are one Body, for we all partake of the one bread." The many places and the many groups of people where the eucharistic Body of Christ is revealed do not constitute an obstacle to its unity. Indeed, to partake of this Body in one place is to be united with Him who is not bound by place and, therefore, to be mystically (or "mysterially," or "sacramentally") united with all. This is how St. Athanasius explains the prayer of our Lord that the apostles may be one. "... because I am Thy Word, and I am also in them because of the Body, and because of Thee the salvation of men is perfected in Me, therefore I ask that they may also become one, according to the Body that is Me and according to its perfection, that they, too, may become perfect having oneness with it, and having become one in it; that, as if all were carried by me, all may be one body and one spirit and may grow up into a perfect man." And St. Athanasius concludes: "For we all, partaking of the same, become one Body, having the one Lord in ourselves." What is given in one specific place is something which also transcends it, because of its particular perfection, that is, its being Christ’s risen body. The different eucharistic localities, with the eucharistic president (the bishop), the clergy, and the participants (the people) constitute or reveal the whole Church. It is a local church, and yet she reveals the catholic mystery of one Church. The one Church of Christ is equally and fully in all these localities because of the one, perfect Eucharist, the one Lord, and the one Body. This equality of the presence of the one Christ in the local churches is the ground for what is often called "Orthodox eucharistic ecclesiology" and its logical implication, the autocephaly of the local bishops and churches, which is rooted in, and springs from, the equal share in the fullness of the great eucharistic sacrament. Autocephaly is not autonomy. It must be understood in terms of the equality of bishops, and the participation of all in the one Body of Christ. It is their equality in grace which binds them to one another.

In Orthodox ecclesiology there is no difference in status between the bishop of a small place in Cappadocia and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. As eucharistic churches established upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, they are equal. This order of equality and its corollary, communion in the one Body of Christ, pertains to the very nature of the Church, that is, it constitutes the ecclesiastical ontology. It is this order which gives rise to the hierarchical, or ecumenical, order (or order of seniority, "ta presbeia") which pertains to the historical structure of the Church. But there is no antinomy between the order of equality and the order of seniority in Orthodox ecclesiology. Catholicity (the equality of the local churches as participants in the grace of Christ and the Holy Trinity) and ecumenicity (the order of seniority among the bishops as participants in the mission of the Church to the world in history) are not antipodes. From the Orthodox perspective, it is the development of such antipodes which have resulted in the historical divisions within Christendom. The Roman Catholic claim of universality and primacy on the one had, and the Protestant claims of individual or local autonomy on the other, are, in fact, contradictions between catholicity and ecumenicity, since they claim that the integrity of the local churches of God is not guaranteed by their participation in the one grace of Christ and the Trinity, but by their acceptance of the one local church (the church of Rome) and by one local bishop (the pope of Rome) as their absolute head. The Protestants, on the other hand, in their attempt to reclaim catholicity on the basis of the free grace of God in Christ, have ignored the historical order established by the catholic churches, and, as a result, have often confused the autocephaly of the local church with autonomy. The strength of the Orthodox vis-a-vis the other Christians is their fidelity to the mystery of the catholic Church, the Body of Christ, as it has been established and manifest in history. The Orthodox alone have kept in their full integrity both the catholic mystery of the Eucharist, and in the ecumenical order of seniority among the catholic Churches (ta presbeia) which springs out of the mystery of the Eucharist. This is why they claim to be the one Church of God, founded upon Christ, and keeping the historic canonical order of seniority which constitutes the Church’s response to the challenges of history. The Orthodox believe that there is always room for development in the Church’s historic response to the world, provided that it is consistent with the established canonical tradition, but they remain absolutely adamant on the essential belief of catholicity and unity.

The Church of the Trinity and the Church of Christ

Some theologians speak of Orthodox ecclesiology in terms of two models: the triadological and the Christological. In fact, there are not two models, but one. The Church is both the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Church of Christ. It is true that only in Christ is the second person of the Holy Trinity incarnate. Yet, the entire fullness of the Godhead dwells in the body of the incarnate Son, as in a temple. This is clear from the teachings of the New Testament and from the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. Christology is inseparable from Triadology. No adequate doctrine of the Son can be developed without the Father. At the same time, the gift of the incarnate Son to humanity, both His incarnate presence and our incorporation into His Body, are unthinkable without the Holy Spirit. It is true that Orthodox theologians have made different attempts to interpret this interpenetration of the Trinitarian and the Christological dimensions of Orthodox ecclesiology. Some, for instance, would see the work of Christ as referring to the unity of nature, and the work of the Spirit to the diversity of persons, whilst both Christ and the Spirit bring the whole of humanity, nature and persons under the monarchy of the Father. Others, however, would point to the biblical pattern of the revelation of the Trinity in salvation history and would see the beginning of the Church in the Father. They would also see in creation the establishment or revelation of the Church in history, in the Incarnation of the Son, and, finally, in the growth and perfection of the Church in the economy of the Holy Spirit, which reaches its end in the final resurrection. This strictly biblical pattern seem to be closer to the ethos of the liturgical traditions of Orthodoxy, but the other model (which is more dogmatic and ontological) also seems to have its basis in the Church’s mind concerning Christ the Lord. The triadological and Christological dimensions cannot be divorced in Orthodox ecclesiology, because the Church is the Church of the Holy Trinity insofar as She is the Church of Christ, and vice versa.

The Church of the Fathers

The Orthodox Church is also the church of the Fathers. By Fathers, we mean the bishops, and those who preside over the Eucharist. That is, those who serve the mystery of the body of Christ to the local churches. Not everybody serves the mystery of Christ to the local church—not everybody celebrates the divine Eucharist, or performs the Christian sacraments of initiation and growth. In the first instance, it is the bishop who does this. The presbyters are his assistants, who participate in his episcopal function through the celebration of the Eucharist and through their ministry to the congregation of the local church. The bishop is the specific focus of the life and existence of the local church. He is the eikon of Christ for the whole diocese, not in a merely symbolic way, but in a real and living way. As Saint Ignatius said: "where the bishop is, there is Christ." This patristic order of the local church was instituted by the Lord Himself in the establishment of the holy apostolate, and was continued in the successors of the apostles, the bishops, and the presbyters. Whatever the questions about the historical origins and the precise way in which this order evolved, it is clear that its root is to be found in Christ and in the apostles. In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, the patristic dimension of the Church is a sine qua non. Hence, we must speak of the Church as the church of the Fathers, as the Church was, indeed, founded upon the foundation of the apostles, Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. But it is in the Fathers that we have the maintenance of the apostolic heritage, as the Fathers maintain the integrity of the Church by keeping the apostolic Faith and tradition. The dogmas of the Fathers, whether their accredited writings, or in their local and ecumenical synodal decisions, have no other intention but to keep the truth which the Lord gave and the apostles preached. Orthodox dogmatics and doctrine are thoroughly apostolic and patristic. They are not abstract ideas divorced from the persons of the Fathers, the apostles and Christ. Doctrine is the expression of this unbroken line of existence which belongs to the very being of the Church. The guarantee of this unbroken line of holy tradition and existence is none other than the Holy Paraclete given by Christ Himself to His Church, the Spirit of Life who grafts us all on to the one Body of Christ and makes us reside in the one Truth.

In the Orthodox tradition all bishops and presbyters, and even deacons, are called Fathers, because they serve the mystery of Christ and, thus, give birth and food to all Christian existence. In other words, there is a three-fold patristic order in the local churches. As all local churches are equal, because they receive the same grace, so the three-fold local patristic dimensions is equal from one locality to another. The other titles, which relate to the order of seniority, and which normally imply certain prerogatives for the persons who bear them, are, in fact, secondary elements which relate to the Church’s response to the world. Such prerogatives exist not only among bishops but also among presbyters and deacons. The supreme prerogative in the Orthodox tradition is that of the ecumenical patriarch, which was synodically and canonically given to the bishop of Constantinople, New Rome. Then the Orthodox observed a whole order of seniority which corresponded to the historic expansion of the Church in history. After the ecumenical patriarch the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and then the modern patriarchates, such as the Russian and the Serbian, as well as all the autocephalous churches, such as the Church of Cyprus and the Church of Greece, followed. Within these boundaries there has been a further extension to the order of seniority. Generally speaking, the order of ta presbeia in the Orthodox Church, which finds it ultimate expression in the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, reveals a harmony which has a natural evolution inasmuch as it follows the chronological pattern of the Church’s history. A closer look, however, indicates that the basis for this pattern is not merely historical but also spiritual. It is, in fact, the sacred history, not divorced from the secular, that has imposed its own natural pattern of order. Had it been merely an external historic principle which determined the ‘historic’ evolution of the Orthodox order of seniority, this order would not have outlasted the external changes. The order of seniority in the Orthodox Church has been kept, in spite of external changes in history, because the Church in history is like a family which grows and gives birth to new children. This is a holy family where the children do not reject the parents, the daughters do not forget the mothers, and the mothers do not neglect the distinctive charisms of their daughters. We may say then that the patristic dimension of the Church, especially in its ecumenical structure, rests on the fact that the Church is like a family which grows in history from generation to generation, and from one people to another. The Fathers who have fallen asleep are, in fact, sleepless guardians of the Church. The Church in heaven is united with the Church on earth, and that which our Fathers have established on earth is binding for us because they are still alive. To keep company with them is to keep their work in our heart and practice. It is also to keep the historic perspective which is governed by the sacred history, and is rooted in the service or diakonia of the great mystery of the Body of Christ, the mystery of the divine eikon of the Holy Trinity reflected and realized in the life of mankind. The acceptance of the historic order of seniority, established by the Fathers of the catholic Church, is the way in which Orthodox Christians make sure that merely external historic considerations do not determine the Church’s response to history. The Church follows her Fathers who are not dead, but living, and who are praying for us and celebrating with us until the final consummation and renewal of all history.

The Church of the Saints or Those Who are Called To Be Saints

In the Orthodox perspective of the Church there is no separation between the clergy and the laity. The clergy serves the laity, and both participate and grow in the fullness of Christ’s Body. The apostolic patristic order of ministry was established for the people so that all the people of God may receive the new gift, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. There are many ways in which this relationship between clergy and people in the one body of Christ is realized and revealed in the Orthodox Church. Both the liturgy and the offices have distinctive parts for the clergy and the laity, but this also is the case in the dimension of the Church’s witness, teaching, and general mission to the world. The monastic order, with its single devotion to prayer and to Christian perfection, is one of the most eloquent links between the manifestation of this inner unity of clergy and the people in the Body of Christ. There are also other orders, such as the confessors and martyrs, or those who spend their lives serving the needs of the poor and the sick. The Orthodox Church, as the Church of the saints, is, in fact, the Church of the people of God. Here there is no tension between the shepherds and the flock. Those who minister, and those who are ministered to, pursue the same aim: participation in the grace of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The call to holiness binds them all into one Church. Whatever one’s position in the Church on earth—clerical, ascetical, or lay—it is the one Body of Christ and the one grace of the Holy Trinity that remain the central focus. Each person is appreciated fully as a person in his relation to this one Body and to the one common life and witness. Everyone is called to be a saint and, as such, to serve the mystery of Christ. Therefore, everyone, whatever his place or capacity, will be equally asked to give an account of his response to this calling on the day of judgment. Hence, all Orthodox Christians pray together for "Christian ends to their lives, and a good apology before the judgment seat of Christ." The Church is holy, or called to be holy, and this is an essential characteristic of Orthodox ecclesiology.

Conclusion

What then is the Church in the Orthodox perspective? She is the Church of the Triune God, the Church of Christ, the Church of the Fathers, the Church of the saints, and the Church of the people of God. She is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Perhaps the best and clearest eikon of this manifold perspective of the Church is to be seen in the seal of the holy prosphora. Here we have the Church in focus in the personal, the historical, the theological, and the anthropological dimensions. Here we have unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Here we have the celebration of the whole mystery of the Church.

In summary, Orthodox ecclesiology is holistic and does not tolerate any arbitrary division between the one and the many. She is not tied to external uniformity or to pluriformity, but she is unity in multiplicity. As such, She asks all divided Christians who have tasted the power of God’s goodness and grace to unite with Her, because She does not seek Her own glory, but the glory of the Lord and His saints as it has been and is still being communicated to us in history, that the world may be saved and renewed.

From the Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 26-3, 1981. Emphases mine.