A Further Thought on Failure and the Church

A priest much beloved to me wrote to me privately (among other things) these thoughts on my article on the “Failure of the Church.” He is entirely accurate and his words bear posting here lest I be misundertood. May God bless him in his ministry.

It’s tempting when we see scandal and sin in Church life to attribute these things to the Church Herself. But there is no time or place in the history of the Church where the Church can be shown to have sinned, or to have failed to save Her members. Emperors, hierarchs, priests, deacons, monastics, laypeople all sin, all fail. But the Church does not, becuase She is not a human institution, She is a sacrament, or rather, *the* sacrament. Protestant missionaries couldtoday, but they will be hungry tomorrow. Only the Church feeds people with the Bread that came down from Heaven, and the Living Water that springs up unto life everlasting. So long as the Church accomplishes these things, we shouldn’t presume to say that She has failed. So long as She continues to offer the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world upon Her altars, She continues to be triumphant, accomplishing in Her Divine Head the re-creation and renewal of the universe and the redemption of the fallen human race. So long as there are saints, the Church has not failed.

To which I can only say, “Amen.”

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.






8 responses to “A Further Thought on Failure and the Church”

  1. Andreas Avatar

    The gospel of Jesus has the power to feed the people with the Bread that comes from Above. The slain Lamb renews the Universe and redeems the human race. But the concrete church we know and live in is not an abstract She that leads to salvation. There are a few whose life gets renewed. But alas, they are a small minority. There are many that lead their lives in a religious way. but so do people of other faiths. There are others that are indifferent. And there are others that remain in a mess throughout their lives, and die without their mess being healed by God through Jesus.

    So long there are saints, the gospel has not failed. But why must we make the church abstract to “protect” her from failure? The gospel alone is of solely divine origin. The church is Christ’s to the extent we allow her to be, to the extent we, her members, are His.

  2. hughstan Avatar

    The challenge to most with divine interpretations of words like ‘church’ is that they are so constructed as to become self fulfilling. It is not possible to reasonably understand what they mean without accepting some implied logic without which they mean little, except to those who believe in the implied logic.

    Is your friend, with whom you entirely agree, saying that the called out people as an entity can do no wrong, or that the fellowship of believers is essentially blameless?

    He may be, and as an abstract thought there can be no argument with that, but how much resonance does that achieve with those who understand the ‘church’ to be represented by an institution of systems and procedures?

    You are obviously, without any doubt, sincere and honest in your beliefs. More than that, you clearly attempt to explain those beliefs to others. But I am sure that this explanation of infallibility will remain a mystery to most of those with whom you are communicating.

  3. David Avatar

    Among all the Glories of God, the one I find most glorious is that He can accomplish His goals in perfection though His plans depend on imperfect beings. He can do this because their imperfections are not counted (2 Cor 5:19). Sin simply has no impact on God’s plans. They are sin-proof.

    Truly evil is very small, if I can use some thinking I believe Fr Stephen has offered before.

  4. Mark Avatar

    I think it was Reinhold Neibuhr who drew a distinction between being a “fool for Christ” and being a “damn fool.”

    Similarly, there’s certainly an important distinction, as you’ve amply illustrated, between “cruciform failure” and “sinful failure.”

    By God’s grace, may we strive for the former and repent of the latter!

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    No indeed, my beloved priest friend reminded me that the Church is itself a sacrament. Can the True Body and Blood of Christ on the altar be in error? The Church, as the Body of Christ, exists without error. In Orthodoxy, there is less confusion between the sinners within the Church (who are there to be healed) and the Church itself, into which we were Baptized. He was simply reminding me of basic Orthodox theology, which the Fathers taught, we believed, and is the salvation of the whole universe (to paraphrase the 7th Councl).

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    We did not invent the Church. Christ created it – born from the blood and water that flowed from His side. From it, the Church, the New Eve, His bride was taken. Or do you not know the meaning of the story in Genesis as interpreted by the Fathers.

    There is no moment we can point to at which man invented the Church. The Church is the gift of God and dwells among us (not in an upper storey).

  7. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for passing along these wonderful words. Many thanks also to your priest friend for taking the time, making the effort. God is truly blessing this life.

  8. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    “The gospel alone is of solely divine origin.”
    Andreas? Surely you didn’t mean to limit the Triune God in such a way? He Who created and fills all things? Your comment confuses me, but that is of no moment, I am often confused about lofty matters.
    That is why I need Fr Stephen, to spell it all out for me… 🙂
    Thanks for being willing to do so.

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