On Behalf of All and For All – A Family Reunion

OneTable 07-16As a child one of my more common experiences was the gathering of my extended family. My mother was one of twelve children, my father one of five. Their siblings largely settled in the same South Carolina county that was home. There they settled into their careers and set about having their own families during the time known as the “baby boom.” Theresult of this stability was a very large extended family. Most of my aunts and uncles had three or more children (some with less). There were also descendants of my grandparents’ brothers and sisters – some as close as anyone in the family.

These gatherings were largely on Sunday afternoons and involved very large meals, conversation and children playing in the farm fields and at the creek. I did not see myself as only a part of my immediate family – but simply one of a very large crowd we called ‘family.’ Nothing should sound unusual about this were it not for the practical disappearance of the extended family in much of America. People have fewer children (generally for very poor reasons) and the average American family moves once every five years. The result is isolation (even in a crowd).

Being part of a larger family not only gives a proper sense of belonging to something larger than yourself – but also a sense of belonging to something you did not choose – and in many cases might have chosen otherwise. Such large ‘tribal’ associations teach us something of what it means to belong to humanity itself.

The cult of individualism that dominates much of Western culture today helps produce and is reinforced by the breakdown of the extended family. As my own extended family began its breakdown (in the late 60’s and 70’s) my life changed from large family gatherings to having cousins whose name, existence and location were largely lost to me. It is hard for a human being, socially constructed in such a manner, to understand certain aspects of the gospel.

Those forms of Christianity that emphasize the individual (including individual salvation) are well-suited to the deformities of modern culture – though they are not aware that the gospel delivered in such an individualized form is itself deformed.

In the Eucharistic prayer of the Orthodox Church, the Eucharistic offering is elevated by the Deacon, while the priest sings: “We offer you these gifts, on behalf of all and for all.” There is an understanding that what Christ did for each man, He did for every man. Indeed, there is an understanding in Scripture and in the classical doctrines of the faith that we share a common humanity – not just simply that we are “like” one another – but that we participate in a common nature. Our lives have a share in one another – which – though distorted by the fall – is the proper mode of existence for mankind. Christ did not have to be incarnate as each individual man – but simply as man – and by that incarnation took upon Himself our common human nature. What He accomplishes on the Cross, He accomplishes not just for each but for all.

Dostoevsky, influenced by the thought of the Slavophile movement, wrote occasionally about the “universal man,” by which he did not mean an abstract humanity but a common humanity in Christ. St. Silouan, particularly in his poem, “Adam’s Lament,” echoes some of the same sense of a universal man – and his disciple, the Elder Sophrony, writes on the topic as well.

Learning to hear a phrase such as “On behalf of all and for all,” and to allow it to have meaning is difficult for the modern ear. We hear “all” and we think, “the Crowd.” We do not think of “all humanity” as having something that organically and spiritually unites us – and yet it does. The Scriptural image of the “Body” of Christ carries an inherently organic and participatory element in its meaning:

if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Cor. 12:26).

Paul’s statement is not a moral injunction meaning, “If one member suffers the rest should suffer with him.” His statement is a simple assertion that if one suffers – all suffer.

By the same token, Christ’s offering “on behalf of all and for all,” is more than a moral offering in which he intends good things for everyone – but is literally an offering on behalf of all and for all (it is more than a little strange that we tend to treat metaphorically those things that are more literal and literally those things that are more metaphorical).

There is a Protestant doctrine among some who belong to the Reformed tradition that the atonement is limited: Christ died for the elect. I am certain that I am unable to do justice to a Reform doctrine. It’s counterpart can sometimes be found in Orthodox circles in which the Prayer of the Church is limited to the Church in some manner (though this becomes somewhat vague). However, Christ’s offering is not on behalf of all the Church and for all the Church – but on behalf of all and for all. 

I am aware of the verses in St. John’s Gospel where Christ prays for His disciples and not the world – and yet those same verses should not be used to correct the plain sense of other places where the intention is clearly directed to the whole of humanity (as in John 3:16). 

One of the things I learned in being part of a large extended family was that the family and its members were not chosen by me nor I by them. Had choice been involved, surely some of us would not have been invited. But God has not so constituted humanity that we are defined by our own will. My will, as a family member, had much to do with what kind of a family member I might be – good or bad – welcome or unwelcome. But my will did not have the capacity to remove me from something I did not choose. It is also certainly the case that the human will plays a significant role in our relationship to God and His Church – and yet there is much (perhaps very much) over which the will has no dominance. I did not choose to be born – my existence is a gift from God. I can will myself harm, but non-existence is not within my power. I can refuse the love of God but I cannot make the love of God to cease. God loves me whether I want Him to or not. I did not choose for Christ to die for me – but while I was yet a sinner, “Christ died for me.”

A year and a half or so ago, I was invited to speak at a Colloquium for Anglicans interested in the Orthodox faith. I was one of many speakers – most of whom, like myself, were adult converts to Orthodoxy. As our sessions went on, the various speakers frequently used the terms “converts” and “cradle-born” to differentiate between those who had converted to Orthodoxy as adults and those who had been born into Orthodox families. As I listened and thought a different understanding began to form within me. 

If Christ is fully God and fully man (indeed Met. Kallistos Ware says that Christ is the only fully man), then it must be the case that I was born to be conformed to the fullness of the image of Christ – in Orthodox parlance, I would have to say that all are born Orthodox. To be Orthodox is be converted not to a religion, but turned away from destruction and set on the path towards our true humanity.

Thus, when I introduced myself in my talk I said, “It may surprise you to know that I was born Orthodox.” There was a look of consternation around the room, for my conversion is fairly well-known. I quickly added, “However, I lived in schism from myself for 43 years.”

I think this humorous turn of doctrine is, in fact, quite revealing of the Truth. Such an understanding drove St. Silouan to pray for all people – including those in hell (which is also done by the Church in its prayers on the day of Pentecost). Adam’s children is a family that includes all. Our reunion is found at the table of the Second Adam who has invited all. It is an invitation to share in a meal that is offered on behalf of all and for all. 

Let us keep the feast.

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.





20 responses to “On Behalf of All and For All – A Family Reunion”

  1. Lyle Mook Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Could you comment on the degree to which Orthodox theology accommodates a brand of Universal salvation. I know B. Kallistos in the first vol of his works has a closing chapter on “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”
    Your thoughts or could you point to authors.

    Very blessed by your ministry.

    LM – an evangelical steeped in EO spiritual reading and podcast world!

  2. Darla Avatar

    I was reading the reviews of a particular Bible translation last evening and one person commented that he didn’t care for how one particular verse was worded “The kingdom of God is among you” in this translation when the version he was used to says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” He admits that the Greek word could be translated either way, but it seemed very important to him that people read “within you” — that the kingdom is between you and God.

    An Orthodox believer answered with his opinion regarding this individualistic thought-path, and said that this is a specific, representative case as to why he likes this translation — that the translator expressed the idea of AMONG you instead of with WITHIN you.

    Thank you Fr Stephen for this post.

  3. Mike Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I’m curious about what the prayers to those in hell look like for the Pentecost service. Do you have some of the prayers that are said then handy?

  4. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar


    I think it probably makes a huge difference whether the “you” is singular or plural – a distinction in Greek, King James English, and modern southern English. “The kingdom of God is within y’all” is a different statement than “the kingdom of God is within you personally”.

  5. Scott M Avatar
    Scott M

    I suppose I would call the family and family-like relationships within which I grew up complicated. But it was nothing like the extended family you describe and which has formed the basis of human experience for most of our history. As such, though I can grasp it in intellectual terms, the idea remains somewhat abstract for me.

    My spiritual formation and journey was similarly complicated, but I did eventually turn to Christ. In many ways, it seems more appropriate to say that he found me for I certainly was not seeking him. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with the image I had in mind of the Christian God.

    I’m not Orthodox and with the normal complications of life and family don’t know how all that will work out. I don’t sense any need to rush and try to make immediate changes. But I will say that as I’ve encountered the modern Orthodox manner of speaking of God these past few years, I don’t have any sense that it has radically altered the way I see God. My first and continuing sense has been relief that there are still Christians who describe and speak of the God I encountered, the one I’ve been trying to follow. I felt so … alone, I guess, before. As just one example, I never accepted the idea of a God who would transmit or transfer guilt from a parent to a newborn (or still unborn) child in the sense you hear it described in most places. Yes, things are broken and we all share and participate in that, but it’s not the same. Yet I felt isolated in that understanding of God and so mostly said nothing at all. I have found better language from the Orthodox for saying the things about God I’ve always wanted to say more than anything else.

    Lyle, I’m not Father Stephen but the question you ask is complicated by the perceptions of God of many Christians. By ‘saved’ many non-Orthodox ultimately mean that God won’t punish or torture a person. The Orthodox largely do not believe that God intends, is required, or is any way going to torment anyone. The fires of hell are the fires of God’s love, that is to say the energies of God himself, experienced by those who have sought annihilation instead of God and thus cannot bear the unveiled love of God. The often used analogy of fire and light in Scripture is most apt. The same fire that can warm and comfort can also burn and consume.

    Therefore, from an Orthodox perspective (at least as well as I understand), the question of ‘universal salvation’ is really a question of whether or not God can save everyone from themselves without contravening the will of the beloved. (A God that would act coercively is not a God of love. Besides, if God were willing to simply override our will, such as it is, why the charade of the Incarnation?) It’s not the same question that it is in the West because the perception of both God and man are different. Until you understand the difference in the nature of the question, you can’t really understand the answer. (This was another area where I was relieved to discover I wasn’t crazy to think of God the way I do.)

    With that said, the official dogma of the Church (again as I understand it) is that we tend to fix our orientation, the way we face, over the course of our life. As the Didache says, there is a way of life and there is a way of death. Since Jesus walked out of that tomb, breaking the gates of hades and trampling down death by death, it is no longer in the nature of man to die. All will be raised or the Resurrection of our Lord did not mean what it meant. But we can become so fixed and hardened, so consumed by our passions, that we are unable to experience God as anything but torment and we become unable to break free from the prison we have constructed for ourselves. The danger is very real.

    However, there is a stream within Orthodoxy which finds it impossible to imagine that the love of God would not eventually win out. The idea here is that the unending torrent of sacrificial, transformative, servant love of God made known so beautifully in the kenosis of the Incarnation must eventually, somehow, warm even the most hardened and wicked of hearts. You find this idea in different forms in those like St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Isaac the Syrian, and others. It’s a minority stream and not dogma, but is permitted as a pious hope. The danger is real. But even veiled, the energies of God’s love (or grace or simply that of God which we can experience – words fail) are mind-staggering. If there is any way that God can warm the heart of man without destroying his image in man through coercion, I trust that he will.

    But we do not need to be saved from God.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy does not teach universal salvation, though there is a minority of about 2 Church fathers who hint at such and were and are not condemned for having done so. It is very problematic discussing this in the West, where salvation is primarily viewed in a forensic manner and where the ultimate disposition of persons and their salvation is seen as depending upon God’s yes or no.

    In Orthodoxy, salvation is the will of God. God “is not willing that any should perish…” Thus the one constant point in consideration of matters of ultimate salvation is that God is utterly consistent, merciful, good and loving. There is no darkness in Him.

    The problem lies with us – with those who are being saved. Though God gives His Light and love to all, we respond to Him differently. Some hate God and His kindness, and experience His love as torturous, though it is no different than the Love experienced by a Saint. Thus the question becomes – will this always be the case? Is it possible for it to be different? This mystery remains a mystery and thus the Church maintains a respectful silence in the matter.

    Met. Kallistos chapter is not a teaching of universal salvation, or a prelude to reaching a firm conclusion. Instead it is precisely as the chapter is entitled, “Dare We hope for the salvation of all?” What we might hope for is not the same thing as saying the Church definitively teaches because it knows. This is not just the present state of the matter in Orthodoxy – but will remain the state of the matter in Orthodoxy because we do not know some things and will not know them. We know the goodness of God – His kindness and His mercy and His love. It is the mystery of man that we do not know nor will we know in this life.

    I find in Met. Kallistos a man who is himself kind and merciful – and thus I am not surprised at his hope. He is not a “liberal” or heterodox in his thoughts. He simply has a good heart. “Love hopes all things…”

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    The only translation I have found on line is Melkite – though I did not see anything particularly different about them and the Orthodox prayers. Some translations will have “hell” where here it reads “hades” but this is not a great distinction in Orthodoxy. On Orthodoxy and Hades, Archb. Hilarion Alfeyev’s article on Christ’s descent into Hades


    is an authoritative treatment. The Melkite text for the third “kneeling prayer” of Pentecost:

    O CHRIST OUR GOD, ever-flowing Fountain, Giver of Life, Light of us all, mighty Creator coeternal with the Father : You fulfilled the plan of our redemption in the most magnificent fashion; You broke the indestructible chains of death and trampled the evil spirits; You offered Yourself as a blameless sacrifice for our sins and procured eternal life for us; You went down into Hades to raise the souls that had been wrapped in its darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, powerful Helper of the Distressed, Light of those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death: You are the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High, Eternal Light of Eternal Light. Hear our supplications and grant repose to the souls of your servants, our fathers and brothers, our relations by blood, and all those who professed the Faith whose commemoration we celebrate today.

    O Master Almighty, God of our Fathers, Lord of all mercy and Creator of all things living and non-living and of all the nations of the world: You have power over all, You are the Lord of life and death, You have counted the years of life and appointed the hour of death. You order the things of life according to their needs and fittingly dispose what is to come; You raise the dead, returning them to life : You are indeed the Master of all men, our God and Savior, the hope of the world, the safety of those at sea. On this last day of the feast of Pentecost, You have revealed to us the mystery of the Holy Trinity, one in essence, coeternal, undivided and yet distinct. Through the descent of your Holy and Life-Giving Spirit in the form of tongues of fire, You poured out faith upon your apostles and made them witnesses and teachers of the Word of God. On this perfect and salutary Feast, make us worthy to utter supplications in favor of those imprisoned in Hades, O Lord, for You promised to grant relief to the dead from the afflictions besetting them, and to send down consolation and repose upon them. Accept then our prayers, give rest to the souls of your departed servants, in a place of delight and refreshment, where there is no pain, sorrow or sighing; establish them in peace and joy in the mansions of the just. O Lord, the dead send up no praise to You, nor do those who dwell in Hades dare to offer glory to You: but we the living will bless You, and send up our supplications and sacrifices for their souls and our own : for You are the Peace of our souls and bodies, and we send up glory to You, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever.


  8. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! It seems to me Met. Kallistos is much in the spirit of St. Silouan (his spiritual grandfather?), who in unceasing prayer continued to pray for the salvation of all men and said of the thought that some might end up in the suffering of hell, “Love could not bear that!” In this, he was not denying the Church’s teaching that there is a real possibility because of man’s free will that the Presence of God will indeed be hell for those who do not want it. As I see it, St. Silouan merely gives voice to the longing of the Holy Trinity that no one perish.

  9. Lyle Mook Avatar

    Thanks so much for the thorough responses.
    I have taught consistently from the Orthodox perspective of God’s love and light being constant and against the forensic-only view of atonement. It has resonated deeply with our church community as has the Resurrection/Plundering of Hades icon and the theology behind it. The rendering of 1 Thes. 1:9 that the torment comes FROM the presence of the Lord vs. “away from” the Presence is very important exegeticly.

    Though I appreciate the Western vs. Eastern eyes reminder – my Orthodox friends may not be aware of the drastic shift going on in the broader ‘evangelical’ world, especially among those appreciating the “Ancient-Future” emphasis within what has to be called “post-evangelicalism”. For example, Scot McKnight’s excellent book , “A Community Called Atonement” draws heavily on the Incarnation as the starting point of atonement discussion. Our Ev. Covenant denomination has from the start challenged the “God is angry with you” atonement theology.

    Father Stephen, your emphasis on the one story universe is so appreciated and important to combat the Gnostic tendencies in the church and that message is being sounded quite broadly. Again thank you.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good points. I remind myself of the privilege I enjoyed some years back to be the “point man” so to speak with an “Evangelical Orthodox Church,” a group of protestants who were making a journey into Orthodoxy. I had the privilege to receive the entire congregation as Catechumens and to travel regularly to catechize. The great day of receiving by Baptism or Chrismation an entire Church is among the most joyous days of my priesthood. Thus I do not begrudge those who are exploring the ancient faith. If they continue to ask enough questions, they may come to see that there is an ancient home God has prepared for us that can indeed breakdown the walls. May God bless you and your community and all those who are coming to love the Tradition of the Church and its fullness.

  11. Mary Avatar

    Once you know the answer, it’s easier to make an intelligble question. Like “Jeopardy”. I’ve had an answer, from reading Archimandrite Sophrony’s “His Life Is Mine”. Perhaps someone can help me understand better.

    “The Lord justified and sanctified the line of His forefathers. Likewise, every one of us, if we follow Christ, can justify ourselves in our individual being, having restored the Divine image in us through total repentance, and by so doing can help to justify our own forefathers. We bear in ourselves the legacy of the sins of our ancestors; and, by virtue of the ontological unity of the human race, healing for us means healing for them, too. We are so interjoined that man does not save himself alone.”

    Just as my sin is a burden to all the world, so too my repentance is not only about me today. It seems a tiny frail thing in all the world and in all time, but it is offered up to Christ. What Archimandrite Sophrony says, it is a great comfort when my family and my foreparents and most of the world are not Orthodox. Also a great responsibility for not losing the precious gift of Orthodoxy.

  12. To Be or Not To Be Avatar
    To Be or Not To Be

    Dear Father Stephen-

    I can so relate to your statement of being in schism with yourself. I was raised cradle Episcopal, but was married in and have been attending the Orthodox Church for about 20 years. I can’t seem to make that leap to conversion. What was the clincher for you? I feel in my heart it would be right, but in my head it would be wrong and never the twain seem to meet. Any illumination would be appreciated.

  13. Joanna Avatar

    “It may surprise you to know that I was born Orthodox.” There was a look of consternation around the room, for my conversion is fairly well-known. I quickly added, “However, I lived in schism from myself for 43 years.”

    I love this. It took me 51 years to stop being in schism with myself. 🙂


  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    The clincher for me was that I simply believed Orthodoxy to be the Truth, and recognized that Anglicanism never wanted to have Truth, but only a political compromise for the sake of England. Either we believe the faith given to us by Christ and give ourselves to Christ, or we give ourselves to man. I do not want God to abandon me to the hands of men (there is a specific prayer in Vespers asking God not to do this…)

    Choose God and let man be man. But I could never have argued that I was an Episcopalian out of obedience to God. It simply wasn’t the case. I understand about being born Anglican – but your deep Anglican ancestors (in the first millenium) were Orthodox, and would prefer that you be united with them in the Truth today. In that millenium the Royal Family had 28 canonized saints from its ranks. Times have changed. Google the site Orthodox England.

  15. Jeffrey Avatar

    A truly beautiful prayer.

  16. Epiphanist Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. As usual, you have managed to cut to the heart of the issue.

  17. Hanni Avatar

    hey i’ve been following you for a bit now…you have a fierce site guy =)

    “Such large ‘tribal’ associations teach us something of what it means to belong to humanity itself.” Yeah it is hard for shiz!!!!!!!!! People wind you up so badley it is where you can either bust it or not.

    I’ve been converted into the new church and i hate it!!!=( Like way away from the truth so i am looking for something else without the faf and emotionalisem which seriously drives me up a tree!!!

    “There is an understanding that what Christ did for each man, He did for every man. Indeed, there is an understanding in Scripture and in the classical doctrines of the faith that we share a common humanity – not just simply that we are “like” one another – but that we participate in a common nature. Our lives have a share in one another – which – though distorted by the fall – is the proper mode of existence for mankind. Christ did not have to be incarnate as each individual man – but simply as man – and by that incarnation took upon Himself our common human nature. What He accomplishes on the Cross, He accomplishes not just for each but for all.”
    Aint that the truth!! The church i got converted in backed up there stance by misquoting scripture all over the friken place so badley that even i can see it and i was only like 7 months converted from , well nothing really. No one is an island we are parts of a wider body and everything and like The Butterfly Effect, one small thing that one person does has consequensis for everyone weather we like it or not. and mostly we don’t like it.

    You have a really tight blog and i’m enjoying reading it. Write something about being culturally relevent eh? Thas another thing that drives me up a tree!!!!!!! HA!

  18. Patrick Avatar

    Let us keep the feast.


  19. […] *****   **  ****** Thus, when I introduced myself in my talk I said, “It may surprise you to know that I was born Orthodox.” There was a look of consternation around the room, for my conversion is fairly well-known. I quickly added, “However, I lived in schism from myself for 43 years.”  Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

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