Glory to God for All Things

Boundaries Which God Has Set

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I have written previously of boundaries and their essential nature in our spiritual lives. This can be described by the boundaries we experience within ourselves (certain ones must be maintained) or the boundaries we experience in an Orthodox Temple (such boundaries serve to teach us about ourselves and the Truth of our relationship with Christ).

One boundary which is perhaps the most essential, and yet contrary to much modern thought, is the boundary at the Cup of Christ. In Orthodox terms there is an absolute boundary set at Eucharistic fellowship that can only be crossed by those who share the Orthodox faith, life, and churchly communion. We never cross that boundary for “eucharistic” fellowship, or to promote “ecumenical” harmony.

Many who first visit an Orthodox Church, particularly if they are used to a communion with no boundaries, find Orthodox eucharistic discipline to be jarring and even “hostile.” Of course, nothing of animosity is intended. The Orthodox are only stating the obvious with the Cup. “You are not one with us in Christ.” That unity presupposes unity of doctrine, discipline, unity of worship, unity of submission to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church.

Though the Orthodox have traditionally avoided pronouncements about other Christian groups, the Orthodox cannot but believe that the Church is “One,” just as we have received it in the Creed. There cannot be two Churches, because Churches only come in “ones.” Neither can there be some overarching “invisible” Church – this is simply a modern fiction that seeks to remove boundaries that are necessary to our existence.

If the Church is not defined by its communion with Christ, what else would give it definition? Doctrine? Of course true doctrine gives the Church definition, but in most matters, the majority of Protestant churches would have no existence – for very few have any expectation of unity of doctrine.

Can institutional unity define the Church? Only if the Church is reduced to the level of a modern corporation. This, indeed, is the unity that most modern Churches have. They share a label and the right to that label exists like a local franchise. Pay your dues and you get the name. The sacraments are reduced to mere products offered to those who happen to be at any given sacramental service.

The Orthodox understanding of the sacraments and of the nature of the Church always makes it vulnerable to schism. There must be unity of faith and doctrine between Bishops (and with their people and priests) or communion, the living boundary of communion in Christ, is breached and schism results. Orthodox history is replete with the stories of schisms, both of some that continue to last, and some that have been healed, and some that are soon to be healed. But the virtue of the Church’s boundary existing at the edge of the Cup is that communion itself is never reduced to a mere ceremony, a token of hospitality, or something less than essential to the Church’s very being.

As recently as 50 years ago, almost all of the churches in the world, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant practiced communion discipline that understood that communion requires unity of faith. That consensus was shattered by the ecumenical movement as churches became convinced that “open” communion would soon result in unity within the Churches. The unity that has resulted has been a unity that has eviscerated Eucharistic Doctrine. No longer a sign of unity, it has become a matter of private piety between the believer, his or her conscience, and Christ. That is one way to do things, but it has no warrant in Scripture.

My first encounter with the Eucharistic discipline of the Orthodox Church did not offend me. It reminded me at the time that I was not Orthodox (not even orthodox if I were honest). It was a call to repentance and to a searching of heart. It gave me a boundary that invited me to approach – but in approaching it invited me to change – to believe the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles and recognize that many things in me had to change (or at least embrace the willingness to be changed).

I pray for all those who struggle amid impending schisms, and those who struggle with the understanding of the Cup having a boundary. Without that boundary, the Eucharist would lose its meaning, being relegated to the private imaginations of the individual members of invisible Churches.

These are boundaries that God has set. They are not the invention of man. Like the angel at the gate of paradise, they are a gift from God.

15 Responses to “Boundaries Which God Has Set”

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  1. EYTYXOΣ says:

    1 Corinthians 10:17 οτι εις αρτος, εν σωμα οι πολλοι εσμεν, οι γαρ παντες εκ του ενος αρτου μετεχομεν. “Because [there is] ONE LOAF, we the many are ONE BODY, for we all partake from the ONE LOAF.” Do we share one loaf because we are one body, or are we one body because we share one loaf? My understanding is that Orthodoxy sides with the former – i.e., participation in the Eucharist is a sign of an already-existing unity, not a means of achieving that unity, though I think one could take this statement from St. Paul as supporting the latter. I think, though, he is just stating a fact, not creating a doctrine on how to achieve or demonstrate unity.

  2. Phil says:

    It’s an important question, EYTYXOΣ. “Progressive” Christians of the type that have done so much damage to Anglicanism argue the latter, that essentially everyone (even non-Christians) should be allowed to particpate in the Eucharist. To do otherwise is to break what they call “table fellowship.”

  3. Michael says:

    My first encounter with the Eucharistic discipline of the Orthodox Church did not offend me. It reminded me at the time that I was not Orthodox (not even orthodox if I were honest). It was a call to repentance and to a searching of heart. It gave me a boundary that invited me to approach – but in approaching it invited me to change – to believe the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles and recognize that many things in me had to change (or at least embrace the willingness to be changed).

    Yesterday was my second time attending an Antioch Orthodox Christian Church in my neighborhood—I’ve been drawn to the Orthodox faith as of late—and I had a similar feeling or encounter as they communed.

    I remember pouring over one of the prayers in the liturgical book of worship, completely aware of my unworthiness to drink of the cup and the desire inside to seek the answers to “what must I do to be saved?” Of course I grew up Lutheran and have been plugged into various forms of Protestantism over the years, and believe that Jesus has saved me…but there was just something different, about this encounter at communion. I guess I was more aware of my sin and the serious act, that is communing with Christ and with the Orthodox Church.

    Thanks for your blog entries and all the thoughts you’ve shared as of late. Your blog has been one of the motivating factors behind my decision to look to the Orthodox Church for what I’ve been missing in all the other churches I’ve belonged to over the past couple decades.

  4. Chris Jones says:

    EYTYXOΣ,

    I don’t want to speak for Fr Stephen, especially because I am not even Orthodox. But the Church to which I belong has the same teaching that the Orthodox Church has about this matter, and I was discussing this same subject on another weblog not too long ago. I made a comment there which I think is relevant to the discussion here. Here is what I said:

    “We practice closed communion because it is through partaking of the Supper that the Church is united into one Body (Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 1 Co 10.17); and it is not fitting that we be made one sacramentally with those with whom we are not, in fact, united in an orthodox confession of faith. To receive the sacrament at the Church’s altar is itself a confession of the faith of the Church; and to invite the heterodox to commune at our altar is to ask them to confess a faith in which they do not believe, and thus to make them into liars.”

    (Of course, when I said “We practice …” I was referring not to the Orthodox Church, but to my own Church. But if I am not mistaken the Orthodox would say the same.)

    When you say “participation in the Eucharist is a sign of an already-existing unity, not a means of achieving that unity,” I think that is a false dichotomy. Participation in the sacraments is the means by which unity is brought about, but at the same time it is based on an actual unity in the faith. Christ makes us into His body by feeding us with His own body; but it is precisely those who confess their faith in Him who are capable of being made one with Him and with each other as His body.

    If we do not confess the same faith, we are asking Him to make us one body on the basis of a lie, not of the truth.

  5. EYTYXOΣ says:

    [quote]When you say “participation in the Eucharist is a sign of an already-existing unity, not a means of achieving that unity,” I think that is a false dichotomy. Participation in the sacraments is the means by which unity is brought about, but at the same time it is based on an actual unity in the faith. Christ makes us into His body by feeding us with His own body; but it is precisely those who confess their faith in Him who are capable of being made one with Him and with each other as His body.[/quote]

    I was just repeating/stating something I believe our priest has said about why the Eucharist is restricted to Orthodox Christians (he also adds: who have had a recent confession and have kept the fasts that week, i.e., Wednesday & Friday, and from midnight Saturday until the Eucharist).

  6. Fatherstephen says:

    Forgive me if I use a slightly crude example. Husband and wife are “one flesh” thus their physical union is utterly exclusive. Communion is not “open” for the same reason that marriages are not “open”. But some of the Churches that practice so-called open communion are, not surprisingly, becoming more tolerant of “open marriage” as well, or practices that are at least as offensive.

    I tell people that Orthodox communion is not closed – it is open to all Orthodox who have made proper preparation. If someone wants to take communion in the Orthodox Church and they are not Orthodox, the first step is to become a catechumen, and begin the process that will lead them to the Cup of Christ. It’s that simple and it’s that hard.

    But I would say the same thing to someone who wanted to be with one of my daughters. There’s a process – that culminates in marriage. Nothing less.

    But anyone who wants communion with something less than becoming truly Orthodox either has an incorrect understanding of communion, or despises the true holiness of the Cup.

    Interestingly, when I was not Orthodox, but would visit services from time to time. I always kept the eucharistic fast very strictly. I thought to myself, “If I cannot take the Cup, at least I can share in the suffering of those who are voluntarily hungering for it.” I found a unity of sorts there. And I think that unity also helped bring me to the later unity of Chrismation, etc.

  7. Lady MacBeth says:

    Father, Bless!
    There is a connection between “open” communion and the openness of a church to other changes. When I first attended my sister-in-law’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in a small conservative community, the church had closed communion (stated in the bulletin). Ten years later, the church now has open communion, women serving communion at the communion rail, and their new pastor will probably be a woman, as over 50% of the seminarians are women. Also, as far as I have read about the ELC, they are pretty squishy on homosexual marriage, etc. My sister-in-law does not know what to think. I think Martin Luther would be rolling over in his grave.

  8. Fellow Sojourner says:

    Father Stephen,

    You state, “Forgive me if I use a slightly crude example. Husband and wife are ‘one flesh’ thus their physical union is utterly exclusive. Communion is not “open” for the same reason that marriages are not ‘open’.”

    Some may see the one flesh union of a husband and wife as being a crude example, and therefore we must guard how we talk about that which is meant to be private. However, rather than being a crude example, I find it to be a most beautiful and instructive sacrement, and one who’s boundary and sanctity we must guard ferociously as its perversion robs us of a beautiful picture of Christ and His church.

    Fellow Sojourner

  9. Fatherstephen says:

    Fellow Sojourner,

    I obviously agree. Marriage is a wonderul icon. I have to confess sometimes passing my wife in a room, a feel my hand moving towards the sign of the cross. I venerate her (I’ll stop on that).

    But there could hardly be described a better Scriptural image to use to understand the nature of sacraments (marriage being a sacrament itself).

  10. reid says:

    Please forgive my simplicity, or lack of understanding, but that is why I ask the question. You state, “The Orthodox are only stating the obvious with the Cup. ‘You are not one with us in Christ.’” Are not all who have truly believed in the Lord Jesus Christ one? Depending on your answer, this question raises many more in my mind regarding the Church.

    In the next sentence you say, “That unity presupposes unity of doctrine, discipline, unity of worship, unity of submission to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church”.It is easy for me to understand the legitimacy of the “boundaries” you describe based on ones lack of “submission to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church”. But the boundary set at the lack of submission to the authority within the Orthodox Church would seem to be a boundary within the greater boundary of those who are in Christ – they do not seem equal boundaries. I hope I have expressed my question clearly.

    I eagerly look forward to your help.

  11. Fatherstephen says:

    Reid,

    I would agree that “all who have believed in Christ are one” in some limited sense. There are places where this becomes fuzzier and fuzzier. Do Mormons believe in Christ? Most Christian Churches would say that Mormon teaching places them outside the bounds of the Christian Church. Orthodoxy does not say that others who identify themselves as Christians are not Christians, but would say that they are at least in schism from the One Church founded by Christ (though there would certainly be a whole range of responsibility in the sin of schism). Christ only founded one Church, and the Orthodox beleive themselves to be historically, doctrinally, and sacramentally that one same Church.

    Again, this is generally muted in Orthodox conversation since efforts towards unity are more important than efforts towards identifying problems (sometimes).

    But the “boundary” at the Eucharistic Cup does indeed mean to say, “There is a problem here.” That’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end. The nature and extent of that problem will vary. But Orthodoxy does not teach that there is such a thing as the “invisible Church” as many Protestants do. We believe the Church is visible and identifiable.

    These aspects of Orthodoxy are completely consistent with the practice of the Church from its earliest centuries. Orthodoxy would have to change its canons to act in a different manner, that is, they would have to give up the faith that was delivered to them and embrace something else – which we will not do.

    I’ll readily agree with anyone that the modern “church” scene is a mess. There’s a lot of history and over 20,000 Protestant denominations (just to cite one of the messes). It’s easy to want to create a doctrine of the Church that makes the mess disappear by redefining the Church (“everyone who has accepted Christ”) but that is a new definition, very much in harmony with our American individualism, but not in harmony with Scripture or the historical Church.

    For me, anyone who accepts Christ is certainly a Christian, but lacking in the sacramental fullness of the Church if they are not an Orthodox Christian. I would quickly add that it’s possible to be a member of the Orthodox Church and be as big a sinner as anyone else. It’s not perfection that I’m talking about, but the visible, historical body of Christ (which can’t just be invented in upstate New York, Kentucky, or wherever various churches have invented themselves.)

    I don’t know if this is a helpful explanation. I certainly don’t mean to be argumentative in my answer. But that the Church (visible) is One, is a matter of faith (taught in Scripture and Creed). I don’t get to change it. I would recommend an article by Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, on the subject of The Limits of the Church.

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