Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

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Å. The structure and the organizing of the Church

By divine coincidence, today is the day we commemorate Saint Ignatius the God-bearer, who constitutes one of the basic sources of Ecclesiology, and in fact, the way that we perceive it here. Therefore, today we shall talk about the structure of the Church. Until now, we have tried to describe the Being of the Church; to seek Her identity and Her relation to the mystery of Salvation in general, and more broadly, to Divine Providence. We shall now examine what the Church is like in Her structure and how She is assembled.  As a first and basic observation, we must place the following: the assembling and the structure of the Church cannot but be considered a consequence of what we called the ‘Being’ or the ‘identity’ of the Church. In other words, the manner in which the Church is organized, the way She is structured, is not irrelevant to that which the Church is by nature.  This is of great importance, and of course applies to everything, and even more to the Church: whatever we do, whatever we apply in practice, must be an emanation of what we are within our identity. In other words, it must be something genuine otherwise we risk falling into two traps. One trap signifies a schizophrenic rift, between what we are and what we do. Thus, our real being is one thing, and our behavior is another. The second danger of course is that of hypocrisy: when we present ourselves differently to what we are.  The Church must, in Her structure, reflect Her true being, Her true identity the way we described it.  This is why we need to quickly refer to the basic ecclesiological principles which we already outlined, and which will now comprise the basis for our examination of the structure of the Church.

The first basic ecclesiological principle, which we insisted on, is that the Church is the recapitulation of the Mystery of Providence, in other words, She is the finale, the objective of entire Providence, and not simply an objective that is to be realized sometime in the future. And this Mystery of Providence, which is recapitulated in the Church, is rooted within the very love of God. The volition, the “love of God and Father”, is that which moves the mystery of Providence, and subsequently, the Mystery of the Church.

 «The grace of Jesus Christ», the Son of God, which is needed for composing that body which will realize, which will incorporate that recapitulation of the Mystery of Providence, is the second leg –so to speak- of the basis of Ecclesiology.

The third principle is the communion of the Holy Spirit, in other words, that the Holy Spirit, with His presence in this Mystery of Providence, makes possible the communion of the created with the Uncreated, as well as between the participant beings. 

Thus, Ecclesiology has its basis in the Triadic life of God, which is summarized –as I stressed earlier- so beautifully in the words of the Apostle Paul, with which he closes his second Epistle to Corinthians:  “The love of God and Father, the grace of Jesus Christ (i.e., the ‘vacating’ of the Son becomes grace – a free gift by God), and the communion of the Holy Spirit (which implies, as I have already underlined, the transcendence of the limitations of beings).  Beings place boundaries around themselves, so that they can discern each other.  The created needs to be discerned from the Uncreated, because these two cannot remain indiscernible.  Person A demarcates himself opposite person B; everything is demarcated so that they can comprise individual hypostases, however, woe betide, if those boundaries are not overcome, in order to create a society of beings and a communion between the created and the Uncreated. And this is precisely the job of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Holy Spirit is linked par excellence to society.

This is the Triadic basis upon which Ecclesiology is built, and this basis must always exist in our thoughts, when we talk about the structure of the Church, its specific form of organization as we shall see further along.

The second basic ecclesiological principle that we defined, and which must also influence the organization of the Church, is that the Being of the Church resides in the Kingdom of God. That is where the true Being of the Church is; not in that which the Church is presently, in History, but in that eschatological form which is to be revealed.  Her true identity therefore is there; the Church is by Her nature the community of the Time to come, or in other words, the Kingdom of God, and Her organization must necessarily reflect that eschatological hypostasis of Hers.

The third basic ecclesiological principle is that the historical Being of the Church, (i.e., the way the Church is at present, within History, and not how She will be in the future), is determined by that which we have named “virtual ontology”. In other words, the Church as She is within History, is a virtual image of the Kingdom of God, and, as History evolves, She provides a fixed point of reference, which is the Kingdom of God. In other words, She pre-portrays the Kingdom that is to come; She establishes it within the course of History – the consequence of which is a conflicting with that flow of History.  The Kingdom - and the Church that portrays it – are in conflict with the flow of History.  The Church is constantly in a situation, not of identifying with History, but on the contrary, in a crisis situation with History. That is also why the Church cannot, by nature, ever find Her expression amongst secular, historical realities with which She will more or less always find Herself in a certain dialectic situation, regardless how many times She encounters them; She will always be in a conflicting relationship with them. Consequently, the Church cannot be transformed into a State; She cannot be expressed by a political party. She cannot coincide with a particular social structure or organization. And not only can She not coincide, but this also means She is in constant friction with History.  The Church remains forever a stranger within History; She does not find Herself, Her home, within History.  She always seeks the End Times, and is a stranger and a sojourner here. It is very important to remember that since the beginning, the Church was called “a sojourner in the world”, which is why we call Her “foreigner”: in Clement’s first epistle, and even in the epistles of the New Testament, She is mentioned as the “Church, the existing or sojourning one” in a city.  We need to see this fact through this prism; i.e., that the Church is a stranger and one who is just passing through History, as Paul had said. The Church can never be identified – and never should be – with Historical realities, because She is the image of the eschatological community; hence the reason that the fourth ecclesiological principle has equally a lot to do (as we shall see) with the organization of the Church, because that is where the image of the End Times is expressed; the way in which the Church materializes this image in Herself is only through the Sacraments of the Church, and especially in the Divine Eucharist.  This is the par excellence image of the End Times, and consequently, the organization of the Church  ( if it is as we previously mentioned, and is expressed as the true Being of the Church should be expressed ) must be rooted in the structure of the divine Eucharist, where we have the structure of the Kingdom, the structure of the eschatological community.

With these basic ecclesiological premises, we can now examine in detail how the function of the Church is structured, assembled and organized.

First of all, let us take a look at the Church as a whole.  The Church is one.  The Lord did not found many Churches; only one.  And this One Church identifies with the Body of the One Christ.  But, because this One Church is realized, is expressed and portrayed in the Divine Eucharist, that is why it necessarily appears as a Eucharist community; that is why She necessarily appears as many Churches.  Because it is unthinkable for one only Eucharist community to exist for all of the world, for all of Creation.  So, wherever the faithful assemble for the same reason, to comprise the Eucharist assembly, that is where the overall Body of Christ is realized; that is where the mystery of Providence is recapitulated, and where the Kingdom of God is fully portrayed. We have, therefore, One Church, which however consists of many local Churches. And precisely because each local Church (where the Divine Eucharist is performed) constitutes an image of the eschatological community, and also comprises the complete Body of Christ, that is why every such Church is (and must be) regarded as the whole Church. And that is why She was called from a very early stage “the catholic-overall Church” – Saint Ignatius being the first one to name Her thus.  The “catholic” Church is, therefore, each local church that has that fullness which the Eucharist assembly provides to the Eucharist Body of Christ; the fullness of the recapitulation of everything, and the portrayal of the Kingdom to come in a specific place..

The Church, therefore, (the One and Catholic-overall one), is composed of many catholic-overall churches. This is also why the term “catholic” was used in the plural, even up to the time of Augustine, following which, its meaning was changed: the “catholic” Church was no longer that which I just described, but it took on the meaning of “Ecumenical Church”, in other words, the One Church that is scattered throughout the world.  Augustine, in his attempts to strike at the “localism” of the Donatists whom he was opposed to, highlighted the universality of the Church, and identified Her with the notion of catholicity (universality).  Consequently, for Augustine, “Catholic Church” is for the first time in Patristic literature, exclusively the worldwide Church.  This element, like many others, also infiltrated the theology of the Orthodox East, thus drawing us also into this mistaken viewpoint.  When we say:  “…..I believe in One,  Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church….” , we usually mean the worldwide-universal Church.  This is of great importance for the organization of the Church, and it becomes obvious, when we realize how it appeared and how it was applied in the West, where Augustine’s theology prevailed.

The Church in the West was organized as one, uniform whole, with such a structure that would ensure what we call a universal Church, with one, universal head – the bishop of Rome. On the contrary, in the East such an Ecclesiology on organization could not be formulated; the Church could not be regarded as a universal organization, which has a head and a center.  In the East, we have a different kind of structure in the Church.  What we must stress is that the thing that differentiates us so much from the West is that perception that we have of the Church as an image of End Times, which is realized with the Divine Eucharist. This is what allows us to regard every assembly that performs the divine Eucharist (we shall mention under what conditions, later on) as a complete Church, because what takes precedence for us is the presence of the whole Body of Christ.  Just as the divine Eucharist realizes the Whole Christ and not a portion of Christ, so it is with every local Church.  In view of the fact that –for us- the term “Church” is based on the experience and the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist, it is acknowledged as the complete Body of Christ, and not just a part of it.  An Ecclesiology such as this, therefore, speaks of one Body of Christ in the entire world, and of the individual Churches as ‘members’ or ‘parts’ of that one Body.  Perceptions such as these exist among the Orthodox also, but it is clearly a Western perception.  Our view is that every Church is a complete Church; a catholic one; the whole Body of Chris, because the notion of “Church” is based on the divine Eucharist. That is the only reason.  If you take away that reason, you will not be able to explain why he local church should be “catholic”.  It was because this Ignatian Ecclesiology of the Eucharist had waned in the West and other kinds of ecclesiological premises were imported, that each local Church was no longer rgarded “catholic”. Instead, the notion of “catholic Church” was identified with the notion of a worldwide organization.

We need to open a very important parenthesis at this point.  The Roman Catholic Church – clearly under the influence of Orthodox theology – revised its position regarding the universal Church during recent years, with the 2nd Vatican Synod, and it introduced the notion of the Church’s catholicity in relation to the local Church. In other words, from the 2nd Vatican Synod onwards, it began to speak of the catholicity of the local Church. This is surely a very important step, but, as everyone observes, the initial Roman Catholic Ecclesiology -which had spoken of a universal Church- has not receded, but has merely remained as something parallel to the Ecclesiology of the wholeness of the local Church.

This is why the 2nd Vatican synod creates very serious problems to those very Roman Catholics, and, as the Roman Catholic students of this ecclesiology have observed, the 2nd Vatican Synod has two (irreconcilable between themselves) ecclesiologies. And this is the crucial point that Orthodox theology finds itself today, with regard to its relations with the Western and especially the Roman Catholic theology.  How can we find the perfect balance between an Ecclesiology that highlights the fullness and the catholicity of each local Church, and an Ecclesiology that regards catholicity as an issue of universality?  We therefore have here a very serious problem.  We shall examine further along how we could somehow place ourselves on this problem, naturally in the light of Orthodox Ecclesiology.  At any rate, I shall repeat, that the organization of the Church is such, that it can never make any allowance for a universal organizing of the Church.


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Transcript: Anna Navrozidou and Nick Zarkantzas

Proof-reading: Stavros Yiagazoglou

Typing: N. P.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 6-2-2007.

Last update: 15-2-2007.