The Ecclesiology of the Cross – The Pillar and Ground of Truth – Part 4


We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

 The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






11 responses to “The Ecclesiology of the Cross – The Pillar and Ground of Truth – Part 4”

  1. […] I have posted the last in my series on the Church as the Pillar and Ground of the Truth – an Ecclesiology of the Cross. Comments are welcome. […]

  2. […] Refreshing imagery on Father Stephen’s blog today along the lines of “do unto others”. The language of “emptying one’s self” as Christ emptied himself takes it to a new level though, and I think, attatches more signifigance. There is a difference between being nice to someone and pouring yourself out for them. […]

  3. Joel Avatar

    Btw, wonderful morning prayer in the following post. I’ve been looking for something to alternate with Luther’s morning prayer from the Small Catechism. Thanks for making it available.

    “Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture.”

    “Rightly lived”–that’s a big condition though. Doesn’t it rather reinforce the distinction between Church and Scripture? Here’s the thing: The Scriptures are God’s word, pure and simple. The Church is Christ’s epistle only insofar as God’s word is reflected in her life. This side of heaven, the members of Christ’s body do show forth His word in their lives, to be read and known by all men, but unlike Scripture, they do so imperfectly and fallibly. I like to think Christ’s glory is all the greater because of His word can be known and read despite that weakness.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ah, but Joel. An unrighteous man is just as likely to “wrest the Scriptures to his own destruction!” I think it’s a pretty seamless garment. Distinctions are by and large a product of medieval scholasticism. They’re not nearly so Biblical. If you can see the distinction I’m making 🙂

  5. Joel Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for your reply. I’d prefer to make less of a distinction and consider the Church’s word as inerrant as the Scriptures, but I don’t see from the Bible where God promised infallibility to post-apostolic bishops. The words of Scripture are pure, like silver refined seven times, but is this true of the utterances of bishops? I’ve read the acts of some of the early ecumenical councils and they do not claim inspiration for themselves (unless I missed something somewhere–please correct me if I’m wrong). Can there be inerrancy or infallibility present without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (such as was the case with the apostles, the New Testament prophets, and the clergy assembled at the Jerusalem Council)?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    The Orthodox certainly do not claim infallibility for bishops – nor even for councils (many councils were heretical). But he promised to preserve His Church and He has done so. I understand what you are saying viz. Scripture, but they cannot stand apart from the Body of Christ (they must be read and interpreted – they don’t interpret themselves – see Acts 8:31). The Orthodox Church, not by any infallible human being, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, has been preserved as Christ promised and has remained faithful to the Apostolic rule of faith, and kept the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

    But the Scriptures are given by God to the Church, His body, and not the other way around. The work of properly dividing the word of truth does indeed belong to the Church, chiefly in its Bishops, though not through them alone. There’s no theory of how this works (such as the Roman magisterium and infallible Pope) but God has preserved the Church from error, despite many hardships. This we believe.

    Of course none of this is possible without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (but the Church is not the Church apart from the Holy Spirit). Just as the Apostles spoke, so the Church continues to speak. It’s the same Church. There is certainly no division in Scripture between the Apostolic Church and the Post-Apostolic Church. Indeed, how could the post-Apostolic Church have recognized the authentic voice of the Scriptures and refuted the heretics time and again if they did not have the Holy Spirit? God preserved them, as He promised, and He continues to do so. This we believe.

    It’s not an argument to be proven (anymore than one can “prove” the Scriptures). If you don’t believe it, then you don’t believe it. But God has kept His word and preserved the Church.

  7. Joel Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I appreciate your thoughtful reply. Let me ponder it a bit more. I agree with you for the most part and look forward to your future posts on ecclesiology.

    Btw, I just read your “About” article. I’m from Bluff City myself, home of the world’s best barbecue. Where in East Tennessee is your church? I’ll be visiting the area next week.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    My parish is in Oak Ridge – Barbecue is not so great here – I’m a native of South Carolina, where Barbecue is wonderful. I haven’t been to Bluff City – but if the Barbecue’s good it would be worth the trip.

    If you’re in the area, drop around. The St. Anne Orthodox Church on the “blogroll” will take you to our parish site, with all the pertinent info.


  9. Teacher Steve Avatar

    Explain. Why on Pontifications is this series of postings tagged “Why the Orthodox should refuse to fight.” What’s the laying down of arms.

  10. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Teacher Steve,

    This is a “laying down of arms” in the verbal warfare between Orthodox and Catholic as it so frequently occurred on Pontifications. It is to say that the very things that Orthodox are tempted to try and defend (our weaknesses) are in fact our strengths and need no defense. Thus, no need to fight. Hopefully it was also a catchy way to get people to read an article on ecclesiology that might otherwise be ignored.

  11. Steve Golay Avatar

    My wife and I had worship with an Orthodox community for 12 years.

    There is also, Father, the laying down of arms among the Orthodox, the daily “Forgiveness Sunday” exposure of weakness with the brethren.

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