How to “Read” the Church

If, as I have wrtten, the Orthodox Church itself is the proper interpretation of Scripture – then one might ask, “How am I supposed to read the Scriptures if their interpretation is the Church?” It is a good, even an obvious question, but one which points us to the very thing at hand: the nature of interpretation.

In general usage, to speak of interpreting something is to speak of explaining and commenting and seeking questions of meaning. Of course, this presupposes that the answer to the question is something that can be spoken, explained, commented, etc. Thus, interpretation is seen as essentially a literary question.

I have taken my lead from two verses of Scripture – both of which illustrate how I am re-presenting interpretation. The first is St. Paul’s statement to the Christians in Corinth:

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 Cor. 3:2-3).

And St. John’s description of Christ as the exegesis of the Father [John 1:18]:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared (exegato) him.

(Exegesis is the technical term that theologians use when they speak of explaining a passage of Scripture.)

Thus the question can be pushed back and asked, “How are the Corinthians an epistle?” and “What does it mean that Christ exegetes the Father?”

In both cases the answer is not a literary event, but a matter of a life lived. Christ so exegetes the Father that He can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9). God did not make Himself known by giving us words about Himself. Those who think the Scriptures are the revelation of God are sadly mistaken. Christians are not Muslims. Christ Himself is the Word of the Father and it is through Christ that we know God, not through the Bible. The Scriptures have their place of great importance and are an essential part of the life of the Church, but that place is precisely that of which I am writing.

The revelation of God to the people of Corinth is not to be found in St. Paul’s two epistles written to the young Church in that city, but in the Church itself. They are God’s revelation to Corinth, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the Living God; not in tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of the heart.”

If the people of Corinth do not see and come to know Christ in and through the Church, His Body, which has been established in that place, then Corinth will not know God.

Some of this goes to the very heart of the Church’s existence. It has become a commonplace in modern Christianity to reduce the Church to a fellowship of convenience, existing only to encourage and strengthen individual Christians (this is particularly true in Evangelical Christianity but has spread as a larger cultural understanding as well). Whereas the Scriptures speak quite differently of the Church.

The Church:

Is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15);

Is the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23).

Is the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and other places).

Is the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2 and elsewhere).

Such descriptions in no way fit an organization whose purpose is to encourage and strengthen individual Christians. The modern understanding of the Church is blasphemous in its denial of God’s own description of His Bride, His Fullness, His Body, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.

The Church is an epistle just as Christ exegetes the Father. Christ said, “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). In the same manner, Christ is the life of the Church. The Church does not exist merely to speak words about Christ but to manifest the very life of Christ among mankind. The Church has no other life.

“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 2:2-4).

Thus we do not “read” the Church as though we were reading a book. We “read” the Church as its life impacts and informs our own life. If we are part of the Church, then our life itself is to be increasingly the life of Christ, an epistle written on the fleshy tables of the heart. But this is not for us to do as individuals, for we cannot do this outside the Church and without the life that is lived by the whole Church. We do not Baptize ourselves.

The great challenge to the Orthodox Church in the modern world is to remain the Church, to be God’s faithful epistle to the world and not simply an exotic brand of modernized Christianity. For we are an epistle, written by the Spirit of the Living God, not an organization whose programs entertain the interested.

Let the dead bury the dead. The Church has to be about living a Life.

Please forgive me if the force of my writing in this post is in any way scandalous. I do not mean to cause someone to stumble, but rather to point the way to the truth of God’s Church and the place of Scripture within it.

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.


13 responses to “How to “Read” the Church”

  1. William Avatar

    As I read this and the related posts, it dawns on me that this is similar to the idea of recapitulation found in St Paul and expanded on especially by St Irenaeus. Christ has recapitulated all things in himself, all that is true of creation, of the Old Testament, of the Father — it has been all summed up succinctly in the person of Christ. Irenaeus especially uses the term recapitulation in its literary sense as in the restating of a long and more complicated discourse in a short and comprehensive word statement that contains in itself the meaning of all else that has been said. For him, Christ is that statement, who in himself restates and sums up all that has been said in scripture and in creation, all truth. In the same way, the Church, being Christ’s body, his incarnational presence on earth, does the same thing because of Christ’s life within it.

    Similar to all this, I suppose, is the teaching that Christ is the logos that contains the logoi of all things, of all creation and of scripture.

  2. Bill M Avatar
    Bill M

    Thank for taking the time to keep working at this topic. I was brought up in an anabaptist church setting (Mennonite), and my studies and ministry have been well-steeped in the evangelical worldview. Over the years I’ve grown more aware of the limitations of that version of “church” and of the misplaced emphasis on scripture (that is, on personal interpretation of scripture). Your comments here point to a different way, and as I read about “living epistles” and the life of the Church, I feel a hearty “Amen!” welling up within me. But perhaps that is still too evangelical…. 🙂

    (I had a long paragraph of questions that I decided would take things too far off the topic, and I wasn’t expressing myself very well anyway. So I edited it out. Perhaps I will try again some other time… )

  3. The Scylding Avatar

    Excellent post. The church is not reducable to a bulleted list. The church is not a cartesian exercise. But contra the “personal needs serving” megachurch, neither is she there solely for the benefit of individuals. All this to say, she is not of our creation, neither intelectually, not emotionally. But you say this much better than I do….

  4. tduffie Avatar

    It seems to me that all this points to experiencing Christ in the Church, and that is the ‘reading’ of the ‘Living Epistle’. Or is that oversimplifying things a bit?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s not oversimplifying – particularly if we mean Christ in His fullness. The experience is both the encounter with Christ in the heart and all of that into which we are immersed in the life of the Church. I experience many things of which I have no conscious awareness, that are nevertheless important. Grace is frequently beyond our conscious involvement.

  6. C L Avatar
    C L

    I would just like to share something that occured to me the morning before my recent Chrismation (Theophany): I have come to the place, not where I hear of Christ, or even to a place of inviting him into my heart, but yet even more powerful. I stand, or rather fall before Christ, Himself, my King and my God. The Liturgy is Christ’ Life, The Liturgical year is Christ’ Life. All too profound even to expound upon, yet it is palpably there.

  7. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    As a catechumen I worshiped, I studied, and I desired the life of the church. To finally be a part of His body in the church all became real at Chrismation. There was an unexpected deep change and an awareness of the profound fullness of the taking of His body and blood. This was not comparable in the least to when “I” decided “I” had accepted Christ into “my life” as “my savior”. How little did I know. It is hard to explain to others without it sounding gnostic.

  8. […] Church at Corinth Filed under: Booklist — Thomas @ 5:30 am In a recent blog entry, Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

  9. Mother Clement Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father! Most illuminating!
    As one who has travelled from an evangelical background through the Old Catholic and Anglican spiritual traditions, I can say now that orthodoxy has truly gotten into my heart and I am trying to live it.
    I suppose what poses the most difficulty for me, being somewhat of a “dogmatic apologist” is understanding how the “juridical” aspect of the church is best expressed within the mystical nature of the church.
    In other words, it is one thing to say we are “God’s faithful epistle to the world”, but quite another to try and explain to someone why they should accept, as authoritative teaching, the doctrinal position of the Church on such specific issues as marriage and sexuality when the church of the holy convenience down on the corner says something different.
    Increasingly, what I hear is, ‘Why should believe that the Orthodox Church is the true church?’ and ‘Why should I play by those rules?’

    Forgive me if I didn’t make much sense here, but your articles make a lot of sense to me and I thank you for them.

    Mother +Clement, OCB

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Generally, I would say that the answer to the questions of authoritative teaching, etc., is whether you want to live or not. I think that the answer is spiritual/existential for lack of a better term. To live apart from God is to live in to death. The doctrine of the Church, in the words of Fr. Georges Florovsky, is a “verbal icon” of Christ. They are not rules or even laws about behavior for which we will be punished if we break them – they are descriptions of the Lord of Life expressed in doctrinal fashion. To live against them, is not to incur punishment, but to exile ourselves from life, to invite the “living death” that is the hell we have created for ourselves.

  11. Brian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I was pondering your comments on this post as I was attempting to understand the general themes of 2 Cor. 3, and I came across the following quote regarding 2 Cor. 3:2 from an unexpected source.

    “Professing Christians are the Bible that men read and know.”

    A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol.V c1932, Vol.VI c1933 by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 2 Cor 3:2.

    Thanks for your thought provoking commentary.

  12. Steve Avatar

    Thank you for this exceedingly timely and profound post, Father Stephen. It occurred to me (on reading this) that the correct exegesis of this most holy Christian Day should contain elements of the Resurrection. To yourself, your family and all your readers, a most blessed and holy Nativity!

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