The Ship of Salvation


One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation. The mediaeval church as they understood it, a corporate body in which some, more dedicated, members could win merit and salvation for others who were less so, was anathema to them. There could be no such thing as more devoted or less devoted Christians: the personal commitment must be total or it was worthless…. for Protestantism there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat.

Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard, 1989)

I first read Taylor’s magisterial book on the Making of the Modern Identity when I was working on my thesis at Duke. I am not generally a reader of philosophy – but I have long been interested in the history of ideas. Ideas come and go. Some rise to the top and become cultural metaphors – ideas that everyone takes for granted even though no one can remember when they first thought the idea. Taylor’s examination of the history of the concept of the self – particularly in Western Civilization is a study in an area important for Christians. For central to the Christian faith is the existence of the Church.

I can say this now, as an Orthodox Christian, though such an idea would not have been shared by the Protestants among whom I grew up. Church was a fellowship – hopefully a beneficial fellowship – but salvation was strictly a private matter – between the individual and God.

There was great suspicion of sacramental acts, such as communion or Baptism. Any idea that an action that involved anyone other than God and the self could be important to one’s salvation was to be rejected. The most that could be said was that “someone led me to Christ.” But even that statement could come under criticism.

Taylor’s tracking of the history of this idea is useful at least in revealing that Christians have not always thought this way. Reading the New Testament alone should have told us. There, what we encounter is the Church, “the Bride of Christ,” “the many-membered body.” There we learn that “if one suffers all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

Such imagery abounds throughout the New Testament epistles. It is clear that the Church does not exist simply for the well-being of its members, but is instead how the members exist in the first place. This is perhaps the steepest “learning curve” in all of Christianity. Our existence is one that is created in the image of God and Baptism into the Body of Christ is meant to restore that image. In particular it restores our image as no longer living life as though it were ours alone, but rather that the life of the Church is mine, and though I am a person who participates in that life, I cannot be considered utterly apart from that life.

There is a German proverb: Ein Mensch is kein Mensch – “One man is no man.” The existence we are given in the Church is not just as passengers on the same ship – we become the ship itself.  And it is as simple as love itself. “God is love,” perhaps the single most revelatory statement in all of Scripture. But it also is revelatory of those who are created in His image. This “ship” upon which we sail the journey of salvation exists only because its members have love for one another.

If love fails (to put things simply) the ship begins to sink. Thus the life of forgiveness and prayer become utterly, and existentially necessary and not merely part of a list of nice things to do.

The Liturgy itself makes this quite clear to us: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence, and undivided.” This is the only manner in which the faith that saves us can be confessed. We may say the Creed in other states of being, but we do not properly confess it until we confess it with one mind.

Even that simple question at Baptism (“Do you unite yourself to Christ?”) is clearly not a question about “have you got your doctrine straight?” but a question of the manner or mode of our existence. Are you now willing to live in such a way that your life is not your own?

Interestingly, in Orthodox weddings, we do not ask many questions. There is no taking of vows. This absence of vows can be traced back through a study of the development of the marriage rite. You can see that the West tended to view marriage more and more as a contract between man and woman, blessed by the Church. In an Orthodox wedding, we ascertain that the man and the woman are there of their own free will and that they are not “promised to another.” But then the Church simply blesses them to be what they were always created to be. They are already one in Christ (we cannot marry a non-Christian) and the prayers of marriage cannot make them to be more one than they already are. But there is a new mode of this oneness – they will now live a life of faithfulness and mutual submission for the procreation of children. It is this oneness of life that requires a Bishop’s economia if the marriage is to be with a non-Orthodox Christian. For there is already, at its beginning, a note of disunity that can endanger the ship in which they sail. Thus they should take greater caution.

But we should not trouble one another, but pray for one another. Many, especially those who have converted to the faith, have not been able to arrive under the most ideal of conditions. The previous articles about conversion amid strife in the family elicited a very heart-felt response from many. Such situations should elicit the prayers of others and the kindness of the whole Church. The last thing any marriage needs to be is a couple alone in a rowboat.

Instead the cry comes to us: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided!”

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.





14 responses to “The Ship of Salvation”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: A recent wedding at St. Anne’s in Oak Ridge.

  2. Alyssa Avatar

    “Each believer rows his or her own boat.”

    That pretty much sums up the problem, huh?

    It’s interesting how the evangelical circles I was in for the past 20 years really tried to promote deep community, serious commitments to one another, the use of all the gifts of the Spirit for the benefit of the entire body… (clearly good things). But really, all the while, these were fundementally at odds with protestantism’s basic tenet. This would explain some of the struggles I witnessed/experienced before Orthodoxy.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Good observation. Some of the best “body theology” I ever experienced (though we were young and inexperienced) was in a non-denominational Church. Some of us lived communally, and we did extraordinary things for one another. I could tell you the long story of how we rescued a young woman from a contemplated abortion/suicide and brought her back to a sane place as a young productive mother – who eventually married and found a saving place in the Church.
    And yet, what we were practicing was sadly neglected in our theology. There were at least six of us in that house church who wound up as Episcopal Priests – at least moving towards tradition. But, of course, it wasn’t enough.
    The tragedy is that being Orthodox, one has the theology. It’s practice remains difficult. Sometimes made difficult because I am now in my 50’s and not my 20’s and am married, etc. Though I do not find a lack of opportunity to die for others.
    The “hearts true home” is a correct appellation for Orthodoxy – but getting the rest of us to our heart is the present struggle.

  4. kevinburt Avatar

    Alyssa (and Father),

    If I may press the analogy of “boats” even further…

    In Evangelicalism and also in my own heritage (the Stone-Campbell movement which resulted in the Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, etc.), there is a great emphasis, or at least an awareness of the need of such emphasis, on “community.” “We need each other,” is common terminology, and we were constantly trying to find ways ecclesiologically to “involve” each other and “help each other grow.”

    But, as Father said, we each rowed “our own boat.” So, you have this huge “fleet” of small rowboats, trying ever so hard to keep pressed tightly together, while together moving forward. One of the largest naval battles of all time, Salamis, which pitted the Persians against the Greek city states, saw the Persian fleet destroyed when it became trapped by its own numbers, unable to maneuver.

    I think that this is what happens in Evangelicalism…. when you have so many rowboats trying to work together, it just doesn’t maneuver well. Of course, at times, there are seeming benefits to individual maneuverability, but at a risk. In Orthodoxy or Catholicism, when people are “in the same ship,” there is a safety and ability to move together, without leaving behind weaker rowers.

    I’m sure that analogy could be turned against me by someone, but the only generality I mean to make is that individuality carries a risk of confusion and unintentional opposition between fellow rowers.

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    To me its most serious consequences are not necessarily the practical (though as Americans we are quick to look there) but the fact of grasping that in Christ, my ontology has changed. Don’t mean to use a theological term when it’s not necessary – but – in plain English – my manner of being has been changed.
    Biological existence, is obviously individual in character. Someone else’s cancer does not mean that my body has cancer. But when we examine the life we have been given in Christ, it is now true that when one suffers we all suffer.
    I knew the story of a priest whose wife was diagnosed with cancer. He apologized to the congregation for what was going to be a major drain on his time as he was the primary caregiver. The congregation’s answer was, “No you are our priest, and you must continue to be, we will be caretakers.” And they lived up to the offer. He suffered, his wife suffered, but the whole congregation suffered as well, and together they survived, and, I would say, flourished in Christ.
    We’re far from there, but we must not allow our Orthodox faith to simply become another way of doing Protestantism, only this time with more incense and different music. It denies everything we say in Creed, and elsewhere if we do not live like the body of Christ.

  6. kevinburt Avatar


    Thank you for reminding me of that. I sometimes forget and allow my focus to drift toward the “practical” as you called it. In reading Orthodox writers over the past year, I am repeatedly reminded of the shift in thinking that must take place as I move into Orthodoxy. Zizioulas’ “Being In Communion,” a struggle for me to get through, has been repeatedly calling me to see things, as you said, “ontologically” differently, not just different on the surface.

    I didn’t mean to imply that Orthodox just have “better bells and smells,” but I imagine my pragmatic holdovers from my past come to the surface more than I realize. Thanks for reminding me of that.


  7. Justin Avatar

    Wow. That picture is beautiful. I can’t even imagine the beauty of seeing an entire Orthodox wedding.

  8. Mary Bethany Avatar
    Mary Bethany

    When I was first discovering Orthodoxy, concerned about my daughter’s “defection from protestantism”, I read the book, “Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells”. The statement from that book that grabbed my conscience and heart was, and this is a paraphrase with apologies to the author, every protestant Christian feels the right to re-invent the church as he chooses. I knew that to be the truth, knowing how many new churches sprang up every year, and indeed having been tempted to start one myself in my home, so we could . . . What? do it right? I couldn’t honestly answer that, and so did not yield to the temptation, thanks to God. It was the knowledge of the wrong thinking that fed that independence that made me look more honestly and openly at Protestant thinking and then at Orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit graciously allowed me to convert, yet I still find myself often practicing my faith from my Protestant mindset, and know the conversion is still taking place. What a switch in thinking to think of myself as part of the Ship, as passengers all together and what that means in day to day living as we lay down our lives for each other. I need the prayers of all the saints living and reposed!
    Mary Bethany

  9. Coroebus Avatar

    Mary Bethany, Father, do you each recommend this book? If so, any reservations? Anybody else out there among Father’s readers with thoughts to share on it? I often find myself at a loss when responding to questions from protestants about Orthodoxy, and generally feel that my words add to rather than mitigate the nascent distaste most of these folks tend to have for the asceticism our Church enjoins on us and for its liturgical fixity; might this book assist me in such Q&As?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thirsting for a land.. seems to be useful.. it depends on the evangelicals. Becoming Orthodox is also good, as are Clark Carlton’s books. It’s hard to point to any one thing.

  11. C Grace Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I understand what you are saying here about being part of one another and “Are you now willing to live in such a way that your life is not your own?” Also I relly appreciate how “Living Large and Love” has expanded on this theme.

    As a Protestant who is probably more Orthodox then Protestant in thinking and doctrine at this point but who is not involved in the OC church or praxis, I have a question.

    How under the OC system does one get past the mediatorial role of the Church in order to reach Christ Himself? It seems to me that it would be very easy to get bogged down in becoming dependent on your priest and the Church’s dogma’s and rules and never gain the strength to grow the wings to fly toward the higher plane. In the Orthodox discussion board I am on it seems that many are afraid to make any decisions on their own without asking their spiritual father.

    For me the PC system has less barriers in the way in seeking a realtionship with Christ, for we understand that we belong first to Christ, then to each other. It is only in Him that we can truly be one body and love one another.

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar


    On what basis do you think it is possible to have Christ and not have the Church? Either it is His body, or not. Either we have made one Spirit with Him or not.

    Much that is described as “relationship” can also just be delusional. The Church does not mediate Christ – it is one with Him. And that is the Scriptural witness.

  13. mrh Avatar

    C Grace – I for one do not experience the church as being in any sense “in the way”. For me the church is more like the friends of the paralyzed man who opened up a roof and lowered him down to Jesus. YMMV.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    C Grace,

    Sin is present everywhere we go. I see Protestants clinging to the words of their clergy (if you can pack in 20,000). We cling to all kinds of things. If the priest is a good priest, he’ll stay out of your way and only help you come to Christ and know Him.

    But Christ did not intend for us to have spiritual life apart from the Church. Why should we refuse what He has given? It would be ungrateful.

    But in my experience, everything gets in the way of Christ – because I am a sinner and I can use anything for my selfish purposes. But, God is merciful and saves me anyway and uses such broken things as a priest, or brothers and sisters in Christ to save me. Without them, how would I learn to love my neighbor? You cannot say that you love God if you hate your neighbor. The Church is God’s gift to keep us honest (at the very least). Being in the Church helps me to know what a sinner I am and that I need God above all else. Without the Church I might start to think that I was making progress.

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