Saturday, August 25, 2018

Thoughts About the Church

Before I became an Orthodox Christian I was taught the Church is properly invisible. I was taught that the Church is something you can only see here and there in the world, wherever God's Word was rightly taught and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution. But from where do right proclamation and Sacraments come? The Apostles mediated to us through the Scriptures alone. 

Sola scriptura serves as a replacement for the authority of the institutional Church. It is the reduction of ecclesiology to a reference manual. Those who apply the manual in genuineness of heart by proclaiming its message and performing its rites expect to get the result described in the manual: forgiveness, rebirth, salvation, and inclusion in the Church ... the Church referenced in the first century manual. The first century Church is the only authoritative Church, according to this model, since she is the only Church described by the Scriptures. 

So we see this leaves a gulf between the authoritative Church and us today who wish to join this Church. In the first century I could find the Church by finding one or more of the Apostles. Where do I go today? In lieu of an institutional Church that claims to be the unbroken continuation of that first century Church, the Protestant model I received accessed the "true" Church by applying the manual as mentioned above. In this way the Church would make an appearance as Word and Sacrament were rightly used. Outside those moments the Church could not be seen, and therefore its existence was taken on faith. She was present only secretly in the hearts of those who received the Word and Sacraments.

The various Protestant groups seem to have their own ways of manifesting continuity with the New Testament Church in the here and now. For some it is in the moment of giving your heart to Jesus. For some it is where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name. For others it is establishing a formal congregation that calls a minister to proclaim and administer the Sacraments. However, because of sola scriptura the idea of continuity with the original Church remains among Protestants, expressed in various degrees of repristination. This is a good thing.

When the article pertaining to the Church was added to the Nicene Creed at the Second Ecumenical Council, no one had any doubt the Church was visible, though. What was harder to maintain was that she is one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. By appearances she is rent by the Arian heresy, torn by the Meletian schism, profaned by the Pneumatomachians, and smeared by conflict. Yet the holy fathers asserted there is only one Church, which they were laboring to manage as good stewards. The institutional Church of the Second Ecumenical Council was as much the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to these holy fathers as was the Church of the Apostles' day. The only difference is that care of this one Church had succeeded from the Apostles down to them in that time and place, just as they would be succeeded by others after them until Christ returns.

Those living in the sola scriptura house and maintaining adherence to the Nicene Creed often carry the burden of compensating for the loss of their church's historical continuity with the fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council. It's a very difficult burden, made more burdensome in that it is an impossible task. No matter how much a pastor or layperson or congregation does to fill the gap - no matter how many fathers are quoted, no matter how liturgical the worship, no matter how authentic the vestments, no matter how sincerely devoted to the cause one is - it will never be enough. These are secret attempts to create the Church for yourself, perhaps even a perfect Church for yourself or for those you love. 

What the fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council knew, though, is that the perfection of the Church is her communion - that is, a communion that brings the perfect (i.e. full and complete) life of the Holy Trinity to bear upon all the imperfect people gathered into Her. These fathers bore witness to the visible character of the Church's communion by laboring to demarcate and defend her visible boundaries together in council. The horizontal (earthly) elements are maintained so as to maintain the vertical (heavenly) elements, and vice-versa.To think that 1200 years later their work would be overturned out of desperation to escape the tyranny of an episcopal see that should have been their chief successor. What a terrible result that has been sown among us. 

The real struggle for modern man, especially in the wake of the most recent abuse charges stemming from the Roman Church, is that any truly visible church could be the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, His very Body and Bride on earth in whom He abides and manifests Himself to the world. For those coming from the house of sola scriptura it requires a leap of faith, that the Lord Jesus really is in charge of His house.