The Pillar and Ground of Truth


Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






39 responses to “The Pillar and Ground of Truth”

  1. Scott Lyons Avatar

    Fr Stephen, thank you. Your blog is a treasure.

    I reverted to Catholicism in the spring of this year from evangelical Protestantism, but I also am in love with Orthodoxy. Your love and humility – your silence – loudly proclaims Christ.

    Christ is among us!

  2. Benjamin Avatar


    I appreciate these words and the others you’ve written.

  3. dilys Avatar

    Thank your for this. It chimes beautifully with the essay by Anthony Esolen in the new Touchstone, Thank God We’re Not Equal, on the joy of being “less than.”

    There’s something about some of these posts I’ve taken to calling [my invented term] “Orthodox fragrance” when I link to it on our church’s web site. Something subtle, almost palpable, and characteristic of what I discovered nowhere other than approaching the Orthodox Church. Thanks be to God for such fragrance!

    Part of which is not bragging and talking about and congratulating ourselves on the fragrance. The paradox of The Tao that can be described, and all that….

  4. […] Fr. Stephen has this recent post on the “Pillar and Support of the Truth” from 1st Timothy.  I excerpt some below: The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology. […]

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, what I’ve written sort of begs the question about apologetics, which, after all, are quite Patristic (think St. Justin). The question I would ask, however, is what apologetics should look like if they are conducted from the perspective of being crucified. What would apologetics sound like if they were words spoken from the cross rather than disciples arguing in an upper room with the doors locked? Just a thought…

  6. undegaussable Avatar

    Thanks Father for yet another great post! I’m a Roman Catholic interested in learning more about the Orthodox church. Could you recommend a good introductory book on the subject of the Orthodox church, esp. vis-a-vis Roman Catholicism?

    God Bless

  7. Douglas Ian Avatar

    Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform.

    Thank you for this. It helps me understand better why I end so often with a bad taste in my mouth whenever I get into heated apologetic discussions with Protestant family members. How can I expect them to take Orthodoxy seriously if they’re taking it my lips? They know me too well. There is room for words wisely chosen, certainly. But better to love and pray.

    My wife’s sister and brother in law gave us the most difficulty when my wife and I approached chrismation almost three years ago. We had serious arguments with them. I exchanged thirty page letters with my brother in law. The biggest issue, surprise, was Orthodox claims to be “The Church.” In the end, we had to simply give up arguing with each other and return to loving each other instead. They had to realize that nothing they could say would dissuade us from our path. We had to realize that nothing we could say would cause them to embrace the same path. -And nothing did. But while we were busy praying and loving each other over the past two years something happened, by God’s grace. My wife’s sister and nephew and brother in law are all being chrismated and accepted into the Orthodox Church (Carpatho-Russian archdiocese) this month.

    Sorry to go on like that, but it seemed somehow relevant.

  8. Ad Orientem Avatar

    If I might offer a suggestion in response to your question posted to Fr. Stephen, IMO the best one volume introduction to Orthodoxy is probably Timothy (now Bp +Kallistos) Ware’s The Orthodox Church. Most well stocked libraries will have a copy of it or can get one for you on inter-library loan. I would also suggest The Orthodox Faith by Fr. Thomas Hopko now available online at the OCA Website.


  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar
    Fr. Stephen Freeman


    (sometime you’ll have to explain that title to me) I agree with John that Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church is the best single volume intro to the Orthodox Church and faith. Hopko’s stuff is also good. On the subject of Rome and Orthodoxy, I don’t really know that I like anything out there. Either sort of beside the point, or mostly theologizing. There is a difference in ethos (though some Roman sources are more compatible to Orthodox ethos than others). I think, however, that the further you move away from theory and into the practice and the life of Orthodoxy, the differences become more stark. I’m not sure that this would be necessarily so, but it is so. Some of this has to do with the radically different histories of Orthodoxy – the heroes seem different in many ways. But I would read Ware for information. For ethos, I would read Father Arseny (a modern saint’s life – there’s 2 volumes). I would also read Mountain of Silence – occasionally a little odd in his wording, but he frequently communicates the ethos fairly well.

    Thanks for the note.

  10. dilys Avatar

    Even being so very American and all, like, vox populi cyber-democratic, I wonder (I think one of Paul’s epistles says this) if "contending for the faith" is not intended to be the role of bishops, rather than every Army of the Lord foot-soldier who can reach a keyboard. We are to be "ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us," but the toxic aftertaste from public controversy about apologetics by all and sundry — that is, including me — is palpable.

    Benedict XVI has said saints, and art, are what convert. I’d like to stop thinking it’s my business to formulate & promulgate truth-formulas, and simply enjoy my fellow man; or cooperate with him/her to some productive end; or point him to taste-and-see that high art of Divine+human genius, the Divine Liturgy.

    IMO, engaging in clashing public or private apologetics risks a spirit of OCD & rigid self-regard. In past contexts Evangelical, New Age, and the Episcopalian fracture, reducing the "spiritual" to a clash of abstract or opinionated words-words-words however accurate has vividly demonstrated itself a reliable recipe for exhaustion and desolation of spirit, as well as repulsion between personalities and temperamental factions.

    Somehow, cheerful phatic communication, words that serve a practical end, or a silent green walk like that in the masthead picture is looking more and more like the appealing and fruitful alternative.

  11. Pat Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thanks for your beautiful reflections. I believe they capture the right tone we need to have for dialogue. You are correct, it seems to me, in pointing out that what you have written begs the question about apologetics. For me I would simply recommend a prayerful reflection of the 21st chapter of John’s gospel. I do not have the necessary skills to articulate the profound impact this chapter of Sacred Scripture has had on my walk with Christ and subsequent understanding I have come to regarding ecclesiology and “the pillar and ground of truth.” I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this chapter of Sacred Scripture as it relates to ecclesiology for the One Church which necessarily exists and must be locatable in the visible,physical, human realm.


  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar
    Fr. Stephen Freeman


    John 21 is indeed a great chapter of Scripture – I’m not sure ecclesiologically how I would interpret it other than Peter’s need to die for the sheep (which he does, of course, in time, in Rome). As an Orthodox Christian it does not carry much import for me viz. Petrine doctrine – other than what the Orthodox would say of Peter always – and that is that to serve the brethren, to feed the sheep, you must be servant of all and serve from the Cross.

    In terms of apologetics – we must be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us. This is very far removed from many verbal battles that Christians enter into. My parish has a fairly steady stream of inquirers. Some eventually decide to become Orthodox. The apologetic that seems to matter the most to me – other than answering questions (that is an answer for the hope within us) – is for myself and my parishioners to be about the serious business of the salvation of our souls (in Orthodox phraseology). If there is no truly viable Orthodox Life to be had at little St. Anne’s, no one would bother to become part of the Church.

    The weakness of Orthodox Ecclesiology is just as present in the local parish as it is between Bishops. Unless I am crucified with Christ, and those around me embracing the cross as well, then there won’t be any hope within us to answer for.

    The priest who Chrismated me and my family, knew me for seven years, and never once tried to convince me of anything (I was probably too busy talking to ask questions). He later told me that his calling in Christ was to practice hospitality and that conversion was God’s work. It was quite effective for me.

  13. Pat Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response re: John 21. I’m tempted to disregard any attempt to “convert”, if you will, because, as you so wonderfully point out conversion is God’s business. However, I will put my foot in my mouth anyway -lol-and say that John 21, specifically versus 1-14 seems to give a context to the remainder of the chapter. Also, the entire chapter when seen in the light of Matt. 16, Luke 22 and other Petrine texts indicates by my understanding that Peter is the fulcrum for the entire Apostolic College. His role as Shepherd is not one of a particular church or See, but one of Shepherd of the other Shepherds (Bishops) as well in being crucified with Christ. For me verse 11 of John 21 is profound in that Peter was literally given supernatural strength to do what he and six other Apostles could not do in verse 6. Now, maybe too much is being read into this text and all the others related to Peter, but it’s hard to fault someone for making these connections when there are so many. In other words, the exegesis used by Orthodoxy (and Catholicism) to support and defend Apostolic Succession is the same type of exegesis used by Catholics to support the Petrine ministry within the Apostolic Succession. I know that the thrust of this discussion is meant to be on the “serious business” of saving souls, but, always in the background are these larger issues which are not trivial and left as they are stifle our effort in the”serious business of saving souls.(John 17)” In other words, in my view the Protestant revolt of the 16th century is as much an attack on Orthodoxy as it is on Catholicism. Precisely because the Authoritative and Divinely constituted Church established by Christ-ie, Apostolic Succession is denied and outright rejected by Protestants. Protestants basically teach that Apostolic Succession is a man made and false doctrine. Clearly, this undermines the faith at its very foundation. I am not aware of much literature on anti-Orthodoxy by Protestants; most likely because the Reformation happened in the western Church. However, the central issue is Authority in the One Church which Orthodoxy and Catholicism share and agree on. Thus,as you point out, the business of saving souls is God’s business,however, our ecclesial cooperation is still a bit fractured in a manner that can not be defended Biblically in my humble opinion.

    In Love,

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed we cannot defend ourselves, and probably shouldn’t try. The material in John 21 is obviously Petrine. I wouldn’t think Orthodox and Roman Catholic would disagree about that. The crux of the conversation between Orthodoxy isn’t the fact of Petrine ministry, but its character and development – which becomes a complicated conversation, indeed.

    I would want to say, in keeping with the thoughts within the article, that whatever Petrine ministry exists, it should be “cruciform” in its character, and maintain the weakness of the Church, its vulnerability and utter dependence on God. I do not believe that God has given us an ecclesiology that is meant to survive our failure to love. Again, how that is actually lived out or shaped in the Church’s ecclesiology viz. the Petrine ministry, is yet more conversation.

    If anything, I would suspect that the sufferings of the Church, and the nations, over the past century or more, might make us more aware as Christians of the cruciform shape of the Church’s life. The official language coming from both Rome and Orthodoxy is much less triumphalist than in earlier centuries, though there is plenty use of such language among us poor folks.

    The mystery that is the Church has not been completed in history as of yet, at least not in a way that can be discerned. My conviction, firmly held, is that whatever that mystery is, it will look like the Cross.

  15. Pat Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Wonderfully stated! Thanks for your insight and may God continue to bless your ministry.

    In love,

  16. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    Father bless.

    The joyful sorrow of these words once again call me to conversion. As a convert to Orthodoxy myself, I never cease to be amazed at the ground I’ve covered and even more amazed at the distance still to go.

    Thank you for your words. Perhaps one day I will have the grace to hear them. But I have known Him to turn and have mercy before. Perhaps He will turn and have mercy again.

  17. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen


    Good to hear from you, I also enjoyed perusing your blog. May God bless you with your new child (it’s been almost 16 years since my last one was born, but not so long to have forgotten). May God turn and have mercy on us all.

  18. albert Avatar

    As I have major disagreements with Catholicism in general w/ regards to its system of hierarchy, orthodoxy, and orthopraxis, I will be following your blog and/or responding to this post in the near future.

    Hope you’re open to criticism, Father. I invite you to do the same on my blog.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m open to conversation that maintains respect for others and is reasonable. I’m not interested in conversations that are verbal assaults or disrespectful. Those are the rules that obtain here. Play by the rules and everyone’s welcome. I also expect genunine conversation. If you have a question or an observation (including disagreements) well and good. If it’s just an argument, I don’t need any.

  20. albert Avatar

    F. Stephen,

    I believe our goals are one and the same – to give God glory.

    My goal is not to engage in polemics. Although I can and at times do, I usually try to stop as soon as the number of ad hominems ratchet up (as this is an indicator that civil debate has ceased).

    I’ll also mention that I’ve had problems with “verbal assaults” before, and that this is something I’m currently working on. But in the case of the reference, I argue that the problem wasn’t due to the issuance of an ad hominem attack or desire to argue, but rather a threefold problem:

    1. lack of stated definition of “verbal assault”/”disrespect”
    2. lack of familiarity with the blog
    3. interpretation of my comment as a personal attack instead of a positional one.

    So for the sake of civil dialogue, please clarify the following words/phrases:

    1. respect
    2. reasonable
    3. genuine
    4. argument

    If you could give examples, that would be great.

    In Christ

  21. fatherstephen Avatar


    1. Respect – assuming the best about someone even if you disagree with them, not attacking their motives or intelligence. Ad hominem is disrespectful

    2. At least having a decent effort at stating the reason for an idea or critique. Simply saying, “I believe Catholics are going to hell,” for instance, isn’t reasonable, it’s not even interesting. I’m not Catholic, by the way, I’m Orthodox.

    3. Genuine. The point of the discussion is because you actually want to have the conversation (which assumes that others may have something to say that you don’t know or haven’t considered). If the website is a place to troll for converts, do it somewhere else.

    4. Argument. Pursuing a discussion in an effort to “win” the debate. I’m not keeping score on the blog, and neither is God. Winning debates is interesting but not what this site is about. If you’ve shared your thoughts or disagreements and someone hasn’t found them convincing, then drop it.

    The internet is full of argument and opinion, most of it is just noisy. This is an Eastern Orthodox site that is glad to be friendly to Christians who are not Eastern Orthodox and welcomes conversation that is mutually beneficial. I don’t mind explaining the Orthodox faith, but I’m not interested in defending it against attack or arguing about it. A primary reason is that as useful as words are, they are very poor in such an isolated setting as the internet, to serve as a medium for establishing truth. Words have to be enfleshed to have any value. So, our conversations here will have their limits. We can only do so much in this setting – most of it is to share. Again, there are plenty of places to have arguments – this is not one of them.

    I hope that’s of help.

  22. Barnabas Powell Avatar


    Thank you for your words. I am thankful for the wisdom of the Church that now will help me raise this precious daughter of mine.

    I look forward to reconnecting with you.

    As my spiritual father always says “May paradise consume us.”


  23. Stephen Avatar

    Well done, Father! But I hope you’re display of reticence to engage in the public square is not just one more reason, excuse really, to withdraw into a ghetto. If anything, Orthodox in America don’t even hit the radar. Yes, within the blogosphere and certain conferences, Orthodox are well known, yadda yadda, but for the most part I’ve never run across a church (Greek, Russian, Syrian, I’ve been in all parishes) so afflicted with either low-self esteem or ethnic stinginess.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar


    My parish is not ethnic, particularly,so I can’t speak for those that are. The radar in America cannot be measured by the media or the larger public awareness. The only one that matters if before God, if you will. My reasons are as I have stated, and not a way to avoid anything other than unChristian behavior, if I can. I have enough of that already in my life, without adding needless diatribles. Conversations are good. And may God bless them. Thanks.

  25. eric Avatar

    albert wrote: “A recent goal of mine has been to root out heresies from the church. Granted, this has been a rather large task, but the multiplicity of errors I’ve seen are just too blatantly out of sync to ignore, lacking resemblance to a heart, soul, strength and mind in geniune worship of God. This is because I see myself as a teacher of sorts, although I lack what is seen as “credentials” – Ph.D/Master’s of Divinity. (That’s a partial reason why I’m back in school right now).”

    Kyrie, eleêson.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar


    I don’t know about the call to root out heresies. But this website will not be a place to do it. I suggest you look elsewhere. I’ll take care of my own site. Thank you.

  27. Fr. S.J. Avatar
    Fr. S.J.

    I hope it will not be out of order, and I do not want to make this discussion polemical, but if I could comment on John 21. It has always seemed to me that rather than showing a special position for St. Peter, what is going on here is his restoration to the Apostleship. The key is that he denied the Lord three times, and now the Lord asks him three times if he loves Him, thus undoing the sin of the denial. I think this explains why St. Peter was grieved when he was asked the third time, and this explanation is supported by St. Ambrose, St. Bede, and Blessed Theophylact among others. So rather than showing a special position for St. Peter, it is actually his restoration to his previous membership in the company of the Apostles. It shows the Lord’s mercy even to those who deny Him, but it does not suggest (at least to me) that St. Peter is given a position of special headship here.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. SJ, I think your point is well made. The Roman Catholic answer to it, I would think, would be to ask, “And what is his role within the company of the Apostles?” I’m not trying to argue the Catholic position, but I’m willing to cede that the passage legitimately raises “Petrine” questions.

    I really appreciate the patristic citations as well. Thanks.

    I am working on a follow-up article on the role of the Cross in ecclesiology that I hope will be of interests to those who have read this particular post.

  29. Pat Avatar

    RE: John 21,
    Of course John 21 alludes to Peter being reinstated. But, is this the only meaning we can take from it? After each question regarding Love Jesus tells Peter to feed His lambs and sheep and the second time to tend His sheep. What does this unique commission given to Peter alone have to do with being reinstated? This, especially in light of Matt.16 and Luke 22 and the numerous other Petrine texts must be accounted for. John 21. versus 1-14 set the scene well. Peter,by himself, brought the entire catch of 153 large fish to shore in verse 11. Peter and six other Apostles could not lift it out of the water in verse 6. Every Christian I have ever heard on this section of scripture sees clearly that the net (which did not break) represents the Church and the fish represent christians. Well, what does Peter represent? To Catholics Peter represents the universal shepherd of Christ’s Church. Peter is singlehandedly empowered by Christ to do what no mere human can do. As for the Patristic Fathers; they are well known for taking more than just one view of a text.
    I encourage anyone to check out Catholic exegesis on the Petrine Ministry. You don’t have to agree with it. But, at least realize that it’s not made up out thin air. It is thoroughly Biblical. Also, as Father Stephen has pointed out, the issue is not if the Bishop of Rome has a Primacy it is how to understand this Primacy.

    God bless,

  30. […] own understanding of ecclesiology, refecting on Orthodox works and writings, is well documented on this blog: the series of articles […]

  31. […] earlier postings on the “ecclesiology of the Cross” I have argued that the Church can only be the Church if it embraces the emptiness and […]

  32. joel Avatar

    Bro. Pat,

    to give Protestants their due, their classical branches, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed, have also maintained a kind of apostolic succession of ministry. It is the task of the Orthodox or RC apologist to show why Anglicans do not have a legitimate episcopal succession and why it is not enough for Lutherans and Reformed to have a presbyterial succession.

    On your exegesis of the great Petrine texts, the case is compelling but, I’ve always had a hard time accepting the defining RC ‘sola’, solus Petrus. Other great texts on church authority, Matt. 18:18, John 20:23, 1 Cor. 5:4, etc., seem to show the other apostles possessed the keys along with Peter. It seems more likely that Peter’s primacy in the Gospels is there so that the Church will have an example of what a pastor is supposed to be and do rather than to indicate that Peter (and his successors) alone could be and do the things he did.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy traditionally looks at both an historical succession but also a succession in the Truth – that a Bishop teaches that which was taught before him. From an Orthodox perspective, that succession has only been “fully” maintained within Orthodoxy.

    R.C. and “Oriental Orthodox” are not reordained when they convert. As an Anglican who converted, I was reordained. I accepted that as the Church’s statement on Anglican succession. There certainly was no continuity of doctrine within the Anglican communion. By 1980 (when I was ordained) it would have been impossible to make a case for continuity.

  34. […] Much of Orthodox ecclesiology depends on this central concept of “communion.”  I resist calling communion an “idea” because it’s a lot more than a single idea.  Communion involves the sharing of the mind, the will, and the heart.  The Orthodox Church exists as a communion precisely because Her people at all levels commit to the process of loving and forgiving each other, even at the level of Her bishops.  Fr Stephen Freeman, in my mind, has described this reality rightly as the “weakest ecclesiology of all.” […]

  35. […] Orthodox author and podcaster Fr. Stephen Freeman has this post on what it means for the Church to be the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. […]

  36. Burckhardtfan Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    As you know, I read your blog frequently (and ask you questions even more frequently!) Anyway…I have another question, if you don’t mind my asking.

    I come from a fundamentalist Baptist background, and one of its central teachings is that all churches must be independent local assemblies. In other words, they MUST NOT have a outside overseer such as a bishop; all churches must be completely hermetic like Greek ‘poleis’. They justify this by appealing to the Greek word ‘ekklesia’, which means a local assembly. They extend this argument by saying that any external governing body that controls a local church is illegitimate; in fact, any denomination that has this structure (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, even Anglican and Presbyterian) is violating the word of God! My pastor takes this a step further, saying that only Baptists are part of God’s true church, while all the others – even evangelical Anglicans! – are not. This is a curious argument to make, since he says that only local assemblies are true churches, which means that there can be no ‘church’ (singular) in the collective sense. Does he mean one ‘type’, i.e. a collective noun? Who knows? (Then again, he’s one of those Baptists who believes that only the King James Version of the Bible is the inspired word of God. When I contested his claim that the Bible prohibits all alcohol, citing the original Greek, he said told me that he doesn’t consult the Greek, since only the English of the King James is the inspired Word of God! Yet at the same time he uses the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ to buttress his case for ‘local-church-only-to-the-exclusion-of-anything-else’! He’s like the Red Queen, who made it her duty to believe six impossible things before lunchtime!)

    Again, sorry for the rant! (That’s the second rant I’ve posted on your site) As an Orthodox priest, what would you say to this?

    By the way, I’m considering looking into Eastern Orthodoxy. Father, please pray that God will lead me in the right direct. God bless you father!

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am very loathe to criticize a pastor – but what you describe is simply nonsense. First, the KJV was not translated until 1611 which would mean that for 1600 years there’s no “inspired” Bible? No translation can claim to be “inspired.” Besides, it was Anglicans, not Baptists who translated the King James. It’s also called the “Authorized” version, meaning it was authorized by the King to be used in the Anglican Church, of which he was the “Supreme Governor.”

    Since Baptists did not exist before the late 1500’s to 1600’s, then where was the Church before then? The Church that wrote the New Testament, that certified what would be read as Scripture, etc., was the Church established by the Apostles which had Bishops, etc. Your pastor is simply wrong, not just about the meaning of the word ecclesia but probably about much else. For indeed, he is not even a well-educated Baptist. I trained under Baptist scholars when I was in undergraduate school (Furman University). Those men at least were honest about history. He is making things up because he wants them to be true – not because they are.

    There are some Baptists who hold to a theory called the “Trail of Blood,” a makeshift load of historical nonsense that claims that Baptists descended from the Apostolic Church (and they trace themselves through a lot of various heretical groups that they claim weren’t heretics but really Baptists maligned by the Catholic Church as heretics). It’s historical nonsense, not recognized by any historical scholars worth their salt.

    From the Wikipedia article on Trail of Blood:

    The Trail of Blood (1931) is a booklet by the Baptist minister, Dr. James Milton Carroll. It is a collection of five lectures he gave on the history of Baptist churches, which he presented as a succession from the first Christians.
    The full title is The Trail of Blood -: Following the Christians Down through the Centuries – or, The History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day.[1] Carroll presents modern Baptists as the direct succession of a strain of Christianity dating to apostolic times, which was a Landmarkist view first promoted in the mid-nineteenth century by James Robinson Graves. He started an influential movement in Tennessee and the western states. The Landmark controversy divided many Baptists, and ultimately led to the formation of the American Baptist Convention in 1924, as well as Gospel Missions and unaffiliated churches.
    Carroll claims a descent by modern Baptists from such earlier groups as the Waldensians, the Cathari, the Paulicians, and the Donatists. Carroll acknowledges a number of other writers, including G.H. Orchard and John T. Christian. The title is taken from James Robinson Graves’ The Trilemma.[1] The book was published in the year Carroll died. Today the copyright to Carroll’s book is held by Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.

    Most Baptists would agree that this is uneducated, uninformed nonsense.

    As uncomfortable as it is for many, Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are the direct historical descendants of the original Church. The Orthodox (rightly, I believe) say that Roman Catholicism began to evolve towards a different view of Papal authority and a schismatic view of the Church that starts manifesting itself around 800 A.D. (particularly in the coronation of Charlemagne). The Church in the West (under the papacy) became increasingly political in character and doctrine began to evolve in a manner that the Orthodox see as an essential move away from the earlier understandings of the faith. Finally, in the 11th century, the Church in the West (today called Roman Catholic) and the Church in the East (Orthodox) broke communion with each other. That rupture has not been healed. Orthodoxy would not say that Rome has no direct historical connection with the early Church – only that Rome has made serious modifications to the faith (and those would be matters for discussion). Orthodoxy maintains that it alone represent the historically continuous witness to the Apostolic faith.

    Having said that (that’s a fairly literalistic account of an historical view that doesn’t do justice to the understanding of the Church as “mystery”) the uncomfortable part is that modern groups, such as the various forms of Protestants and their offspring, have difficulty explaining their own existence in terms of the New Testament itself. They have to invent new theories in order to present themselves as “the Church.” All of these theories eventually manage to make “the Church,” into something other than what the New Testament teaches.

    Ecclesia means “assembly” but carries no sense of size or location. It’s the word the early Church used for itself (and is still the word that the Orthodox use for Church). But it is also the “whole” assembly (as in Hebrews 12:23 where 2 different words for assembly are used). But from the earliest times, the “local” Churches maintained communion with one another, and practiced mutual submission (through the persons of their Bishops) to one another for unity of faith and practice. That is still the Orthodox pattern.

    May God help you in your journey, and deliver you from anyone who wants to teach private opinion and uninformed nonsense in place of the truth.

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