The Temptations of Church

I have sometimes said (in a light-hearted manner) that God gave us the Church to keep us honest. The truth is, that God gave us the Church that we might be saved. The failure to see why and how the Church is the ark of salvation is a failure to understand some of the most fundamental parts of our Christian faith – and often a failure which transforms Christianity into an ersatz religion that knows nothing of the Church.

The Scriptures describe the Church as the “Body of Christ,” the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” It is nowhere described as a mere bene esse (something given to us only for our “well-being”) much less as a mere locus of “fellowship.” As much as it is possible to say that Christ died for our sins, it is also necessary to say that Christ died that the Church might be born. It is an inherent part of His resurrection. For human beings, the Church is what salvation looks like (if that disturbs you then it should serve as a barometer for how deeply the inroads of heresy have made their way into the Divine teaching on the Church).

The Church exists by the grace of God and is dependent for its very existence on the love of each for each and the love of each for all. Forgiveness is not a moral act – it is an existential act. Goodness, meekness, kindness, generosity and the like are matters of our true existence and not the mere moral obedience to some outward norm.

The Scriptures teach us that “God is love.” We ourselves only exist to the extent that “we are love,” and so Christ gives us His Church – the locus and the very nexus of His love.

It is possible for us to avoid this inevitable stumbling block by declaring the Church to be “perfect” in some other sense (essentially a “two-storey” arrangement) or simply to redefine the Church and make her of less importance than is declared in the Scripture. The Church, and the marvelous claims made for her within the Scriptures are simply a scandal within the historical context. We seek to rid ourselves of the scandal rather than accept the reality that Christ is indeed saving us through just such an apparently weak vessel.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote a small history of Orthodoxy entitled The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. My first reading of it some years ago was a revelation in itself. I had never read such a frank and accurate account of Church history, particularly by someone who was such a devout son of the Church. Any reading of his journals offers the same loving, accurate and insightful account of contemporary Church life.

Orthodoxy is very easily seen through the lens of naivete – with an assumption that only the imagined perfect can be the true. The result can be disappointment, even anger, when reality fails to match expectation. However this is not a failure which renders the claims of the Church to be false – they are failures that reveal the nature of what God has given us (rather than our own expectations).

St. Paul tells us in his writings that “God made [Christ] to be sin, that we might become the righteousness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That same “exchange” is continually happening in our lives. The Church is the locus of this change (or certainly the arena in which it takes place). Thus every gathering of the Church, whether for Eucharist or for Council, inevitable means an assembly of sinners, those who, at best, have become righteous with the righteousness of Christ (though not their own). Our sins do not constitute the Church, but the Church offers sacraments that precisely confront us at the point of sinfulness and brokenness (confession, healing, the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.).

My experience of life in the Church is that I am not only in the company of sinners such as myself, but that those very encounters are not occasions of lamentation, but occasions in which love, forgiveness, kindness and generosity, etc., are the only way forward. It is not for nothing that we find constant exhortation to such virtues within the epistles of the New Testament. A local Church either embraces Christ’s way of the Cross, or it becomes just one more outpost of hell.

I do not mean to disparage the Church as the Body of Christ, nor as the Pillar and Ground of Truth – rather – I want to detach such language from the “institutional” aspects of the Church. The Church is certainly the Body of Christ, but Christ remains hidden within her as the mystery of His life, death and resurrection. Christ nowhere promised us that He would become an institution. History makes such a mistaken notion obviously erroneous.

And so it is in the life of the Church that “one can only be saved.” In the life of the institution one can do any number of things (even in the name of Christ) that have nothing to do with Christ nor the Kingdom of God. The key is for none of us to lose his way. The easiest of all the “lost ways” is to idealize the Church or its history (and its institutions) and mistake those for the Kingdom of God itself. If what I am encountering and living is truly the Kingdom of God, then it will and can only ask of me obedience to the gospel of Christ. Those images and ideas that tell me that the less than good thing I am doing will, in the end, work an even greater good, are lies of the enemy and have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God, and thus the true life of the Church, is coming forth and being manifested utterly apart from human permission. That “permission” has already been found in the humility of the Virgin Mother of God. Christ has come, entered into the depth of our suffering and hell and come forth resurrected, making all things new in Himself. We cannot aid that work, nor hinder it. We can be part of it or not – but it never depends upon us.

The mystery of Christ in the Church eludes us, I suspect, because we are always looking for the triumphant, resurrected Christ. St. Paul rather says:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

This is more than a declaration of the historical crucifixion of Christ. St. Paul sees the crucifixion of Christ in cosmic terms as well, stretching not only into the present but into the very end of things.  And thus it is that the Christ whom we know in the Church, is primarily manifest to us as the crucified Lord (indeed in the Resurrection appearances themselves, Christ still bears the marks of His crucifixion).

It is the manifestation of the crucified Christ, I suspect, that makes many people judge the Church incorrectly, or fail to see it for the fullness that it truly is. The mystery of the fullness of the Church (“the fullness of Him that filleth all in all”) is that this fullnes of Christ, this Pillar and Ground of Truth, is manifest to us as the Crucified Christ.

Like the disciples who questioned Christ after the resurrection, we too expect Christ to manifest Himself in some form of glory, of triumphalism. But such is not the case – nor, I suspect, will it ever be so. The revelation of God on the Cross is the same as the revelation of Christ in the Resurrection, if we have eyes to see – and both are the fullness of the revelation of God. The crucifixion of Christ is no mere “sideshow” in the economy of salvation, but it the very fullness of the manifestation of God.

And so it is that when we encounter things within our experience of the Church that disappoint and hurt (such as the sins of others and ourselves) – we are able to encounter the crucified Christ by the extension of His love and forgiveness of all. We encounter Christ not because we have purged the Church of every sinner (then it would be empty) or have corrected everything we perceive as lacking. We encounter the Crucified by embracing the weakness of love (which is stronger than death).

The fullness of the Church is always made manifest, when, in the lives of various saints, Christ Crucified meets anything which exalts itself against His weakness. Martyrs reveal the fullness of the Church. Those who speak dangerous truth, with love, manifest the fullness of the Church. Peace that radiates from the knowledge and love of the risen Lord, manifest the complete confidence found in the crucified Christ. “If Christ be for us, who can be against us?”

It is this search for union with the Crucified Christ that marks the heart of the Christian vocation. We will find Him in the heart of the Church – not by any virtue of argument or force of arms – but by the weakness of His crucified flesh. All who live by the weakness of His crucifixion, will know the power of His resurrection (and know, as well, that these are largely one and the same).

O Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world, have mercy on us sinners, and grant us knowledge of your weakness in the midst of our sinful lives, that we might find the power of your weakness, and love everyone and everything. For great art Thou, O Lord, and there is no word to hymn Thy wonders!

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.





63 responses to “The Temptations of Church”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    As I read this, I was reminded again and again of what someone said to me when I left the Catholic Church: “You can search and search for the perfect church, and the minute you join it, it’s not perfect anymore.” (I later learned that this was a quote from Billy Graham.) It wasn’t a search for the “perfect Church,” but for the place where God could be worshipped most fully. It’s only as I have lived life in the Church, these past 20 years, that I’ve come to understand that She is “made perfect in weakness.” Thanks for this post, Father!

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you. May God grant us all grace to find Him in the Crucified Lord.

  3. Yannis Avatar

    Your post seems to touch a number of themes i discussed in an earlier comment, and i thank you for it, as well as for your honesty.

    If the part that says “the scandal is that we see no further than that (ie the weakness, the sinfulness etc)” is partly addressed to me (as it may well be : ), all i can say is that you are right – but then again not all Christians are as honest or insightful as yourself. In sum, making these observations – namely that people hide their sins using spiritual moralism rather than fighting them through it – all i mean is to find the truth and not to make excuses for myself to avoid it, although as you say, this is certainly a danger if one becomes too disillusioned or reactionary.

    In fact, a lot of it hinges in finding an appropriate spiritual director and i will keep looking long and hard for one. It is actually far from an easy thing achieved by a standard proceedure and far more like an uncertain and difficult quest, and i need to step up my efforts in that, and hopefully, by the will of God i may eventually bump into one (or one may bump in me) : )

    Again, thank you for this.

  4. XC China Avatar

    Christ is in our Midst!

    Dear Yannis,

    In your search for a spiritual director a reminder of something you probably already know, if you read Mrs Mutton’s post and exchange spiritual director for Church you are one step closer.

    May God grant you the Grace and the Faith to suffer the sins others, particularly those of your spiritual director.

    1 Peter 2:21-25 “for you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”

  5. Martin Flower Avatar
    Martin Flower

    […] weakness, sinfulness, arrogance and pride, false judgement and betrayal, denial and false assertions of power. These things are not the Church itself, but rather are the human encrustations that obscure the Crucified Christ. It is not so much a scandal that such things occur […] – the scandal is that we go no further – that we do not reach beneath these things to grasp the goodness of God made manifest in His crucified Son.

    You write that these things obscure the Crucified Christ.

    My own temptation is towards an ecclesiological docetism, to which I find the antidote is an emphasis on incarnation. So I wonder whether the difficulties you identify in the Church bring us closer to the Crucified Christ, rather than obscuring him ?

  6. Steve L Avatar
    Steve L

    Very sad. Very disappointed.

  7. […] Orthodoxy is very easily seen through the lens of naivete – with an assumption that only the perfect can be the true. The result can be disappointment, even anger, when reality fails to match expectation. However this is not a failure which renders the claims of the Church to be false – they are failures that reveal the nature of what God has given us (rather than our own expectations). […]

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’ve reread and made some corrections that perhaps clarify my thoughts here. Hope they are of use. Father Stephen +

  9. Yannis Avatar

    Its indeed hard China because often we confuse the Way and the people who teach it. Its certainly a difficult and common issue but then again not so many people take pains in undertaking spiritual discipline beyond Church participation.

    I don’t mean to undervalue Church participation in any way, the Mysteries matter and being present in them certainly accounts for many things as they have a power of their own “built in” them, but i see many participating in a sleepwalking fashion or in a social/cultural club fashion or in a “let’s get together with our people/mates” fashion.

    Many are members in a way that differs little from being members of a game community or a fan club, but i have no interest in that. I am looking for a Way to reach the roots of my ego and crack it decisively so what Is beyond can be revealed, not a way to paint Orthodox Chrstian (or any other Church or religion for that matter) layers on top of my ego and masquerade it thus.

    In my view, the best of things can turn into the worst of things when at the service of the ego, including religion. Christianity, at least today, overall seems to me entrenched in that in many ways; its adherents are often confusing doctrinal details and scriptural accounts with spiritual essence and in that way they often turn them into ego growing mans instead of ego subduing means.

    The results are spiritual intolerance, a bad type of exclusivism and even nationalistic and racistic at extreme cases discrimination that makes titles lke “ecumenical” sound like a farce. I heard conversations by pilgrims (but not monastics) in busy days at monasteries that sounded so one sided and anti-spiritual that make you feel “what am i doing here?” a little too often. Wishful thinking and make believe that F.Stephen frequently and correctly attacks in regards to the secular illusions are also part of this in a religious manner in that context.

    In my experience, many (but not all) people that are deeply spiritual in the Church are aware of these things, and i would say that F.Stephen, to his credit, is one of such people.

  10. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I think this is the best posting on your blog (for me, it is). I will copy and paste it into Word Pad, study it, and perhaps comment later. Right now, I have nothing worthy to add. Beautiful illustration!

  11. Steve L Avatar
    Steve L

    I’m not sad because of your post. I’m sad because of what is going on out there. I’m sorry I was not clearer.

  12. Steve L Avatar
    Steve L

    I just want to clarify: I’m disappointed, not disillusioned. Thanks, Father for the kind words.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks, Steve. That helps a lot. It was, perhaps, largely in response to “what is going on out there” and my own meditations (sad and disappointed among them) that this post addressed.
    I think to myself that of all Christians, the Orthodox have a difficult history, as well as a difficult present. Our ecclesiology (though true) nonetheless allows our weaknesses to be seen by all. But I think this has also been our salvation. Through history, we have lived the Church rather than fixed the Church. Strangely, this has kept us faithful rather than otherwise.

  14. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Mrs Mutton when we leave the Roman Catholic church and become Orthodox perhaps We seek to rid ourselves of the scandal rather than accept the reality that Christ is indeed saving us through just such an apparently weak vessel.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    It depends upon why someone leaves Rome and enters Orthodoxy. If they perceive the Orthodox faith to be the fullness of the truth, well and good. My difficulties with Rome (of which I’ve never been a member) are doctrinal and such. It’s immoralities are not an issue other than being tragic.

  16. Doug C. Avatar
    Doug C.

    I love the post, great stuff! I was surprised at the phrase that jumped off the page and assaulted my intellect. “A local Church either embraces Christ’s way of the Cross, or it becomes just one more outpost of hell.”
    This phrase sums it up so well. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to write that. Thank you Father Stephen for your honesty.

  17. Chelsea Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I appreciate this post a great deal. My only question is why the Church is primarily manifest to us in the crucified Lord rather than in the resurrected Lord? I don’t mean this question critically. I’m just wondering.
    Thank you for the time you take to post!

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    My basis for such a statement was the quote in St. Paul that I cited. But I also think it is primarily because what is revealed to us in Christ’s crucifixion is, in many ways, the deepest revelation we are given of God. “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” God said to St. Paul. I mean in no way to take away from the resurrection – but I do not utterly separate it from the Cross. The resurrected Christ is still the crucified Christ (his scars remain).

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The main problem seems to be when I mistake my will for God’s will and act on that delusion. When a bunch of people in the Church share the same delusion and act against others in a similar delusion quite literally–all hell breaks out.

    At some point, IMO, those who recognize the delusion must stand up and say STOP even at the risk of entering into the deulsion oneself (from which we are never completely free).

    Only evil and satan consume their own.

    Quietism in the face of active evil is no virtue.

  20. Durk Avatar

    Hi, Fr. Stephen, Bless!

    Thanks for this great post — perfectly expresses, I think the Orthodox understanding. I’ll refer to it often, I think; it’s inspiring. I have another question, though, which is not easily avoided when one discusses “Church”: what about the relationship with other Christian bodies who call themselves “Church?” I ask this for practical reasons involving my driving time, my limitations in terms of speaking only English, my family, my community, etc. etc. etc.

    Standard answer for most Orthodox is: it’s none of my business what goes on between churches; I’m watching my own sins. But evidently, it’s SCOBA’s business, and they are our bishops. Do you think what SCOBA suggests below can also articulate your ideas of what Church is? SCOBA suggests, in this document, that:

    “To prepare for an eventual restoration of full communion within a reunited Church formed from the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, a number of steps might be helpful.

    a) Delegations of Orthodox and Catholic bishops in a nation or region could begin to gather regularly for consultation on pastoral issues. Patriarchs and representatives of the autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches could also meet with the Pope and leading Catholic bishops and curial officials on a regular basis for consultation and planning.

    b) The Pope and the Orthodox primates could invite all the faithful under their jurisdiction to recognize each other’s Churches as “sister Churches” that fully realize the Apostolic faith in doctrine, sacraments and ecclesial life, despite the historically different forms in which our liturgy is celebrated, our doctrine taught, and our community life structured.

    c) Special liturgical services and activities of common prayer and social ministry, involving lay people of both communions, could be organized as a way of drawing Orthodox and Catholic Christians into a deeper practical awareness of their common faith and dependence on God.”

    SCOBA seems to be saying that the Christ crucified principle and way of life can be equally followed in other Christian bodies. What do you think?
    Sorry if I’m a pest. Again, I ask out of practical considerations.


  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not advocate quietism – but I do advocate discernment – which can be quite difficult at times.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not sure that I’m competent to respond to the question. I know Orthodoxy, and I know some of various other groups. I only understand communion as something we have with full and true union, which we do not as yet have with the non-Orthodox. I think the SCOBA document is a bit “dated” and might be stated differently at present.

  23. Durk Avatar

    Thanks, Fr.Steven. You’re probably very competent, but that’s okay. I do appreciate your blog. I’ve also happily reconciled myself to remaining Orthodox in spite of the practical considerations I mentioned. The document is dated October 2010.

  24. Darlene Avatar


    You said, “Those images and ideas that tell me that the less than good thing I am doing will, in the end, work an even geater good, are lies of the enemy and have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.”

    Could you please elaborate on this theme a bit more? I don’t quite understand what it is exactly that you are getting at here. Do not all things work together for good for those that love Him and are called according to His purpose? What would not constitute “all things?”

  25. Darlene Avatar


    There is something else you said that did not resonate with me.

    “Like the disciples who questioned Christ after the resurrection, we
    expect Christ to manifest Himself in some form of glory, of triumphalism. But such is not the case – nor, I suspect will it ever be so.”

    Perhaps you are speaking of triumphalism here in the negative sense, in which a person can beat their chest and humiliate their opponent when they have beaten them. But Christ will be TRIUMPHANT over His enemies. In fact, He was triumphant over the devil in destroying death and sin. And one day He will return in GLORY to take those who are eagarly waiting for Him – that time when the graves will be opened and the bodies will be resurrected.

    So I am at odds with what you have said. Christ is now a merciful Savior waiting for His creation to repent. But one day, He will return in majesty and glory with a winnowing fork in His hand. And every eye will see Him and every knee will bow. This is not mere human triumphalism, but the triumph of a mighty God who will make right all that has been made wrong and will recompense each person for the deeds they have done in the body.

    So while it may not be the case now – that is, Christ is not seen nor has He manifested Himself to His creation in the fullness of His power and glory – one day He will be seen by all, not as One who will be spat upon and mocked, but One who will be worshipped.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    My prose was indeed a bit tortured there. But, St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “You cannot do good by doing evil.” God, in His mercy, may redeem our “less than good” actions and make all things work together for good – but not necessarily the “good” we sought. The good that God works is our salvation and the healing of all things.

    It is frequently the case that, because the Church is good, many will justify their actions for what they imagine to be the Church’s good, even if their actions are less than good or less than noble.

    To fear, and seek to “control history,” is, to a degree, to lose God. One who seeks to control the outcome of history is acting dangerously close to atheism. It is not quietism that I advocate – but that we obey the gospel. “Overcome evil by doing good.” But that “good” should be truly good and not a mere utilitarian definition of good, i.e., useful towards the outcome I desire.

    Orthodox history, contains the story of Sts. Boris and Gleb, holy passion-bearers, who, knowing that their brother was coming to kill them, submitted rather than be the cause of a civil war. It is not necessarily a commandment (Sts. Boris and Gleb’s choice) but it was a holy action.

    We live in difficult times – and the times are as they are – at least because we do not pray and fast and forgive and love. We live like unbelievers whereas the world is held together, through the mercies of God, by the prayers of the righteous.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not mean to deny what you have affirmed – they are the words of Scripture. I was stating that we may be surprised what it is to behold the triumphant Lord of Glory. The hearts that will not spit on him, will not be hearts that fear his power and glory, but hearts that love his beauty and meekness. For He is indeed “meek and lowly of heart.”

    But this is a bit of a mystery that I am suggesting. Forgive me if I caused a scandal.

  28. Darlene Avatar


    As to that SCOBA document, I would say that a misguided ecumenism is at work within its statements and goals. The current climate of ecumenism that is being pushed by some in the Orthodox Church is one that is willing to lay aside real and actual differences as being insignificant and rather, finding “unity” in things which do not find their common purpose in the truth. It is a politically correct, diversity sensitive liberal agenda which does not have the good of the Church nor glory of God in mind. Such is no unity at all.

  29. XC China Avatar

    Christ is in our midst!

    I spent many years searching to find Christians that believed what I believed, not really thinking or believing that there was the “Church”.
    I finally found the Orthodox Church, where I heard it said “the Church is not holy because man is holy, the Church is holy because God is holy.”

    During this journey there was a constant message of “don’t judge my people”, followed by “do you love me? they are at least are trying to love me” This mesage continued despite the fact of all the obvious sins of the people and the shallowness of their faith. This message did not change or fade when I became Orthodox.

    Jesus said unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but through me.

    Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

    For this [is] good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
    Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

    Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

    Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the LORD will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising.

    Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have Mercy on Us!

  30. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Durk, this quote from the document you cited is something that I believe with every fiber of my being:

    The fact that our two Christian families have been separated in some central points of theology and Church discipline for almost a thousand years, and as a result no longer share in the sacramental communion that bound us together during the first millennium, is not only a violation of the will of God, as expressed in the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper that his disciples “may be one” (John 17.21), but is also a serious impediment to effective Christian engagement in the world, and to the effective realization of our common mission to preach the Gospel.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I don’t want to take this off somewhere, but one of the great tempations of the Church is to hold to doctrinal truth without waivering and still retain one’s humility. A reciprocal is to waiver on the truth to achieve what seems to be a larger aim, i.e, unity.

    We do not share communion with the Roman Catholics for very good and well established reasons. We must consider those reasons deeply without causing antagonism in our heart for those who hold to the Roman Catholic version of the faith.

    We do not share communion with Protestants for myriad more reasons.

    Ecumenism should not be a process of looking for the lowest common denominator so that we can achieve so-called unity. St. Mark of Ephesus stands as a witness against that kind of endevor. Nor should it be an exercise in heresy hunting and condemnation or demanding obedience and submission. The 1000 year schism is proof that such an approach does not work.

    Ultimately it is a process of preaching the truth in word and deed so that we can say with humility and charity: come follow me into the Bridal Chamber.

    I remember Fr. Thomas Hopko recounting a discussion he had with a Protestant at some ecumenical gathering. The Protestant man was advocating the branch theory of the Church (we are all different branches on the same tree). Fr. Hopko kindly and gently rejected such a notion. When queried further on the state of the non-Orthodox, Fr. Hopko said, “You are the nuts that fell off the tree”. Said with humor and a twinkle in his eye even many years later.

  32. Yannis Avatar

    Like others i think that there is a limit up to where making recessions for the sake of unity can be taken, and that limit has been long crossed between the orthodox and the catholics and even more so between the orthodox and the protestants.

    In cases where there was scope within the framework of a common theology and spiritual approach the Orthodox Church has made the necessary maneuvers for keeping unity, as in the case of the Three Hierarchs that share a feast precisely because their respective admirers in the 11th century were so polarized in their zeal for each of them that they threatened to dettach from the Church and seriously undermine its unity.

  33. Darlene Avatar


    Thank you for expressing this issue of ecumenism in a spirit of charity and kindness. I believe the disunity that exists among Christians, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants, is a very sad reality, but a reality none-the-less. Yet compromising on the truth for the sake of some superficial “unity” will benefit no one and actually be scandalous to many.

    That said, I have friends and family that are Catholic and Protestant. (atheist and agnostic as well). In these relationships I seek to lift up Christ crucified and find common ground without compromising in how I live the Orthodox faith. I have no doubt that I have compromised on the truth/Truth in this endeavor, and in this I ask for forgiveness and call upon the mercy of God. Lord have mercy on me and each one of us!

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Darlene, there is a BIG difference between hierarchs making concessions for the whole Church and a person who, out of love, may not express precisely and completely the distinctness of the doctrines we hold.

    Only you and God know for sure about your actions, but I doubt you have much cause for concern.

  35. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    I was talking to a friend last night and I told him that if someone asked me “Who do you think is right the East or the West?” My answer most likely would be that I think the gentiles have failed!

  36. Prudence True Avatar

    I’d like to share this understanding of Church from Vladimir Lossky:

    “Personal experience and the common experience of the Church are identical by virtue of the catholicity of Christian tradition. Now tradition is not merely the aggregate of dogmas, of sacred institutions, and of rites which the Church preserves. It is, above all, that which expresses in its outward determinations a living tradition, the unceasing revelation of the Holy Spirit in the Church; a life in which each one of her members can share according to his capacity. To be in the tradition is to share the mysteries revealed to the Church.

    Doctrinal tradition – beacons set up by the Church along the channel of the knowledge of God- cannot be separated from or opposed to mystical tradition: acquired experience of the mysteries of the faith. Dogma cannot be understood apart from experience; the fullness of experience cannot be had apart from true doctrine” (Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church).

    The Church is comprised of us ordinary folks wandering along seeking God . . . and then it gets deeply complicated along the way by doctrine about us and our simple relationship with God.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Leonard, on one hand I would say in response: “Of course we’ve failed, we are sinners, what else could be expected.” On the other what you say could be interpreted as saying that the Church has failed–a direct contradiction of our Lord’s promise.

    The Church cannot fail because she is the Bride of Christ. Our journey is to seek that same union.

    In the Orthodox Church Lent ends and Holy Week begins with the celebration of Bridegroom Matins. An achingly beautiful and evocative service. The troparian (primary hymn) of that service sung in a slightly minor tone: “I behold the bridal chamber. Richly adorned for my savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, oh giver of Light and save me.”

    We only fail when we turn aside from the Cross and go our own way.

  38. Durk Avatar

    Hi, all,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and charitable considerations on ecumenism. I’d say what I struggle with on a daily basis is the tension between what my cousin calls finding either a “doctrinal” or “covenantal” community. I don’t mean to suggest that the two are mutually opposed. The problem is that in my case it’s been extraordinarily difficult to find an Orthodox community in which I feel at home — and I’m a pretty easy-going guy.

    It seems that as I journey along, living an Orthodox life in some ways becomes much harder. Getting to and from a church in a different community, dealing with language and cultural differences (used to be fun, but it can be wearing after a while), the reactionary political views, the lack of any kind of fellowship outside of church services… all of these have become more difficult for me as I get older.

    I know in my heart that (I’ll risk being “relativist” and say, “for me”) the Orthodox Church is the Body of Christ — and I’m further convinced of this, for instance, by intelligent commentary such as Fr. Steven produces. But if in the long run, our bishops tell us there’s essentially no difference between Orthodox and Catholic or even some other Christian body… well? Why then can’t I find a community closer to home?

    My answer to myself has been that only the Orthodox Church can really teach the MEANS for cleansing oneself of the passions (or of becoming more real, as Fr. Steven would say… the whole Pinocchio thing). But is that really the case? Are we so sure that the means isn’t taught in some other — more convenient and “homey” — place?


  39. Yannis Avatar

    Durk said:
    “My answer to myself has been that only the Orthodox Church can really teach the MEANS for cleansing oneself of the passions (or of becoming more real, as Fr. Steven would say… the whole Pinocchio thing). But is that really the case? Are we so sure that the means isn’t taught in some other — more convenient and “homey” — place?”

    From the Orthodox’s Church point of view, yes its absolutely certain, but bear in mind that the Church cannot be half measured in what it teaches neither relativistic ie this is ok and that is ok and the other is ok. It’s business is to maintain and promote the means of salvation it has available to as many as possible not to say what is or what is not spiritual outside its domain.

    However as far as you are concerned, you are free to follow the path to reach God according to your own experiencees, best judgement and conscience. It could be that in your life circumstances don’t help even if as you say, you reckognise that doctrinally speaking as well as in terms of the efficiency of the salvific means it has at its disposal, the Orthodox Church is “superior” to others. There is of course here something to be said about times of dryness that are a normal part of the spiritual journey andone should persevere.

    However, there are cases of people that find salvation by following people of other Churches and even other religions.

    What is important is to be dedicated and keep looking seriously and conscientiously for salvation and people that can make it happen for you.

    You could make an effort to find people that resonate with you within the Orthodox tradition; visiting Orthodox monasteries somewhat regulrarly (say every 4 or 6 months) might open possibilities in meeting people that do hard spiritual work and may be able to help in ways you perhaps can’t imagine before you meet them.

    However, and not all (if any) Orthodox priests may of course agree with what i write, especially ex-ufficcio, F.Stepehen included, i’d say keep your antennas open for trully spiritual people from other churches in your path IF that is you sense there are any.

    Good luck : )

  40. Karen Avatar

    Durk, I have a great Orthodox parish very close to home, and I’m sure I don’t take nearly as much advantage of that relationship as I could at this point. Still, even if I were able to do so, I suspect some of your experience would still be the case for me as well.

    Some years ago, I read a book by Alexander Men (the Russian priest martyred under Communist rule in Russia in the last century) where he encouraged Orthodox who were leaving the Church in Russian for Baptist and other non-Orthodox churches there, to go ahead and attend such fellowships if their faith was being encouraged there, but not to revoke their Orthodox Church membership–rather to remain Orthodox. IOW, it seems to me he had a realistic sense that in a fallen world where Orthodox parishes vary in their health and in how well they live out the faith and support the faith of their members (especially at that time under Communism), it is not without benefit to take advantage of relationships with non-Orthodox Christians where we can deepen our knowledge of the Scriptures, perhaps, and be spurred on by the prayer and encouragement of others to love and good works. Certainly Fr. Stephen has acknowledged the place for this with the story of his godly Baptist father-in-law. This doesn’t replace; however, the role of the Orthodox Church in our lives in connecting us in a real way with the grace of Christ through its Liturgy and Mysteries.

    I pray with a group of non-Orthodox moms in a “Moms in Touch” group in our community. It is a spiritual companionship I value greatly, and seriously don’t know where I’d be without these Christian women who share my struggles and godly desires for our children and their public school communities.

    Also, by agreement with my non-Orthodox family, we divide our Sunday attendance between my former Evangelical Church (still “home” for my husband and children) and my Orthodox parish. It’s not the ideal. I would be very happy to be involved 100 percent in my Orthodox parish, but my husband and children’s connection to their church is very important to them. They are most definitely being drawn into relationship with Christ there, and they have long-standing relationships with loving Sunday school teachers, youth pastors, pastors, and other members that are a support for their faith. It is not the fulness of Orthodoxy, yet I feel it is an important part of what Christ is doing to grow their faith at this point in their lives, and important that I respect that. It is sometimes difficult to be patient with the process because it requires a constant balancing act (for all of us really), but God is gracious–I have very understanding Priests and a large, diverse, open and welcoming Orthodox parish, where the Rector sets this tone in a very intentional way. My burden would be much greater if this were not the case (and I recognize things could be much different).

    Having said all that, I don’t think there is a risk anytime soon of Orthodox Bishops deciding that there is no difference between the Orthodox Church and other communions of Christians–at least not until those other communions bring their dogma and praxis fully into alignment with the Orthodox! It’s not surprising to me that Orthodox practice is getting harder for you. Even when I was Evangelical, there was a common experience and understanding that there was usually a honeymoon period for new converts, followed by much more difficult testing periods for the maturing of faith. As difficult as it can be, I believe if you persevere and give yourself to the struggle, Christ will meet you at just the right time at your point of need, bless you, and show you where to find the right kind of encouragement from His true friends along the way. I admit that I have found many of Christ’s true friends in the pages of books–most especially in the lives of Saints and contemporary Elders of the Church. I am currently reading The Ascetic of Love about Mother Gavrilia of Greece. I would say she is also exemplary of the proper Orthodox attitude and posture among and toward those “friends of God” outside the Orthodox Church.

  41. Durk Avatar

    Thanks, Karen and Yannis. I do have, I should mention, a very good priest who is my father confessor, and also spiritual companion (in addition to a good friend). The parish I attend is good. My wife, an “un-churched Episcopalian” I think I’d call her, is totally supportive of my Orthodox faith. It’s even funny… every time I tell her I’m “trying to convert to Episcopalianism,” she begs me not to. She thinks the Orthodox Church is good for me — even though she shares the Episcopalian viewpoint on most social issues. I think I just miss the warmth and feeling of belonging I felt when I was growing up in my mainline Protestant denomination.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Durk, I have had similar feelings as you express related to me by a number of former Protestant friends.

    We share a community and fellowship with the saints, all other Orthodox believers past, present and future through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That is not just a pious expression of faith but a present reality.

    Protestant’s seem to lack such an experience (even if they are liturgical) and tend to replace it with human interaction. Its not bad, and we do need to develop that to a better degree I think, but in itself, it is incomplete.

  43. Yannis Avatar

    In that case Durk,
    it definitely seems to me like you should persevere.

    It sounds like your very attachment to belonging is challenged and its pretty important to break through it once and for all and see spiritual discipline more than just a homy sense of belonging.

    In fact, if i were you, i’d be convinced all the more that i need to stay by my very feelings. All growth, including spiritual one, is achieved at the point of resistance. If your journey is too comfy, you’re going nowhere in your path towards God. Just strengthen up resolve and be immovable from the temptation to “arrange” your life more comfortably for you.

    Regards and good luck, may God be with you.

  44. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Yannis I think there’s a book written by Jean Pierre de Caussade that addresses some of what you’ve talked about

  45. Yannis Avatar

    Thank you leonard for the suggestion. If we are talking about the same one i may have read it.

  46. Durk Avatar

    Thanks, all. This conversation has been incredibly helpful to me. So was Great Compline and the Canon tonight, as it has been for the past 25 or so years: dark, peaceful, substantial. I can’t find that kind of worship anywhere else. There’s something real there.

    Karen, Yannis, Leonard and all — thanks for your support, really really very helpful. Yannis, I especially have seen that “all growth is achieved at the point of resistance.”

  47. Yannis Avatar

    Indeed Durk,
    its a universal principle applicable in all human endeavors because essentially it is an inner principle – its part and parcel of our inner world/make up.

    As you said: dark, peaceful, substantial.

    Glad we were able to help – take care : )

  48. Bill M Avatar

    Again, what a feast I find here, both in the original post, and in the charitable conversation that follows. Thanks Fr. Stephen for your teaching, and thanks, all, for your loving interactions.

    (Yes, I know it can get heated in here, too, sometimes. 🙂 But not like I’ve seen elsewhere…)

  49. Yannis Avatar

    There’s certainly difference in trolling and flaming piously Bill M, perhaps so much so that, who knows? maybe the Church might consider making a small blessing around it in the future (sprinkling holy water on your pc and modem etc).

    But i’m afraid that like in other such matters of important contemporary affairs as for example organising christian missions for suspected existing alien races and the like, the Catholic Church is probably way ahead of us Orthodox lot.

    Nice site by the way, i love clouds and i was barely able to hold on to my chair with the bear’s prayer ; )

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    While it is certainly easy to think way too highly of oneself in terms of our spiritual attainment, etc. It is also easy to not realize the change that occurs in us over time. While we struggle with many of the same things that those not in the Church stuggle with, the effect of grace and the teaching of the Church often times makes our struggle on a different level if we allow our heart to be gradually softened by the presence of our Lord.

    We take the Church for granted.

  51. mike Avatar

    …Thanks Durk for raising some very relevant issues pertaining to the Orthodox church today that not many ‘insiders’ are willing to hear much less discuss…for me its very disturbing to witness the denial and subsequent ‘cover stories’ and even more disturbing when im somehow made out to be a bad christian for even raising them since the old admonitions to sit down and shut-up dont work on people like me anymore…The Orthodox church NEEDS Durk and me and anyone else who dares not to be intimidated into silencing some of the disappointing realities of life within its doors… …”the degree of dysfunction within a family can be seen by the secrets they keep”……

  52. Yannis Avatar

    Do you mean these “dissaponting realities”? :

    Durk said:
    “I should mention, a very good priest who is my father confessor, and also spiritual companion (in addition to a good friend). The parish I attend is good. My wife, an “un-churched Episcopalian” I think I’d call her, is totally supportive of my Orthodox faith. It’s even funny… every time I tell her I’m “trying to convert to Episcopalianism,” she begs me not to. She thinks the Orthodox Church is good for me — even though she shares the Episcopalian viewpoint on most social issues. I think I just miss the warmth and feeling of belonging I felt when I was growing up in my mainline Protestant denomination.”

    I can’t see a single one such reality mentioned there. By Durk’s own words everything is ok only he just missed being part of a more mainstream, more widely accepted worship group, which has nothing to do with the Church or its dysfunctions.


  53. Durk Avatar

    Maybe I should start a forum or something elsewhere… but again I thank everyone…Michael I think I forgot to thank you for your comment about communion with the saints. Yannis, thanks for all; but it’s not so much wanting to be part of a “mainline” church. It’s wanting to be part of church with parishioners that actually live in the same town as the church!

    Our congregation is large enough; but about 90% of the parishioners live elsewhere. The original immigrant community has moved on, and the newer one doesn’t live in town. That’s what I miss: community. People getting together. Lights on in the building after 5 p.m. The feeling that there’s someone THERE (Remember that old joke about the kid who said it was fine talking to God, but he wanted to talk to someone “with a face?”).

    Okay, enough. Fr. Steven’s original point is quite lost here, and I feel sheepish about that! But thanks again, everyone, for the encouragement. I wonder if I should try to start a group in my own town that says Small Compline once a week? Just to get together?

  54. Yannis Avatar

    I apologise if i used your words wrongly or put meanings of my own making in them Durk. It was certainly a mistake on my part, and please forgive me.

    In my experience there are always problems on a practical level in spiritual communities, and they do matter as you say. I could list my own alongside yours, and probably everyone else can as well – and tehy do have them even in countrieswhere Orthodoxy is the dominant tradition, and trust me on this, as i come from one such country.

    I also agree with mike in general that there are things about the Orthodox – and any other in fact – Church that aren’t as good as they should be, or even not good at all, and if you read my rather long comment on F.Stephen’s relatively recent post “The Edge”, you’ll see that i am certainly not at all intent in blanketing them up.

    However, i have noticed in my self the rather disturbing tendency to overmagnify these negatives and use them as an excuse to myself for avoiding real spiritual work on me, time and time again. And to be honest with you, at the times i do actually resolve in doing that work, external circumstances matter very little.

    That work consists mainly in recitation of the Jesus Prayer and in developing through it self-insight and inner balance which i then try to extend to all my life dimensions. Whan i do so, whatever the external conditions are in my parish, job, marriage etc i seem to be getting somewhere spiritually, but when i don’t, even if i attend every service in a lively community, or am surounded by many loving friends, have a great time at work etc i feel as i am going nowhere and i probably am.

    A spiritual guide/confessor is an absolute pre-requisite, exactly because as an outsider he can see these things in me more objectively – when i would be only too happy to succumb to my own self excuses – and you said that thankfully you have one and are satisfied by him, it would seem. All beyond that for me would be extras, very important of course, but extras nevertheless. But i am not qualified of course to speak for all this – i just relate from my own – poor no doubt – experiences.

    Regards and again please accept my apologies.

  55. handmaid leah Avatar

    Thanks Father Stephen for a wonderful post and for the photo of the Pantocrater from my Church- a view I dearly love to see.

  56. Darlene Avatar

    Speaking of a spiritual confessor/guide, (Yannis), how do we encounter such a person? I don’t consider my parish priest, who I confess to, to be such a one, although I mean no insult in saying this. I have had a desire to find such a guide since becoming Orthodox, but have no way of knowing what to do or how to go about it. Would my parish priest be rightly offended if I did such a thing? Should he “feel” offended?

    Right now, I must confess (pun intended), that my non-Orthodox husband is the closest person to me that I would consider a spiritual guide. He is consistent in prayer, trusting in God’s promises, always willing to pray and read the Scriptures with me, focuses on reading those things that are beneficial to his spiritual growth, and patient with me in my weaknesses. But, he doesn’t know how to guide me in the Orthodox way of life.

  57. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Darlene: I think it could be questioned if there are any true spiritual guides nowadays. I suppose there are–but I suspect there are very few. I would be very careful with anyone claiming to be a spiritual guide, and probably also careful with anyone who agreed (or, at least, readily agreed) to become a guide. Your life could be much, much worse under the guidance of megalomaniac priest or other such person.

    Most parish priests probably would not qualify as true spiritual guides–their calling is different and they have many other types of responsibilities in their parish. As you said–not to insult them–because they are priests and capable of good instruction through confession and sermons. However, if you have some basic questions, you might make an appointment with your parish priest and just have a talk.

    I am not giving advice–I just get a little protective sometimes and I don’t like to see people get harmed. I am not sure–perhaps Fr. Stephen could offer some clarification–if a spiritual guide is a prerequisite. You can pray, read the Bible and appropriate books, talk to trusted friends who are on a good path. I have read somewhere–can’t remember exactly where–that in the absence of a spiritual guide, God will send circumstances/people into your life which will both correct and support your spiritual development.

    Again, I read it somewhere–some of the desert monks only needed “a word” from a spiritual father to point them in the right direction. Sometimes, I find that somebody will say something–even on a blog–that will give me insight into my struggles, sins, direction, purpose, etc., and it takes me deeper and further toward truth and love.

  58. Father Stephen Avatar

    It is true that great “guides” are hard to find. Generally, what we need, we find in the sacraments of the Church (and your local priest). God provides. I see in my own life that it is not great wisdom and insight that I need, so much as encouragement to be faithful in the small things that come my each day. Pray, fast, be generous, forgive, be kind, etc.

    When we go to confession, it is good if we are able to speak from the heart. May God give to each of us what is needed for salvation.

  59. Yannis Avatar

    i have no clue how other than keep looking. There is no method or place or guarantee. Even if one finds such an available person you may not suit each other or life circumstances may not allow frequent enough contact from either or both sides.

    Monasteries are a good place to visit in search for people that do hard spiritual work and seeing how they are drawing lessons, inspiration and perhaps a bit of the grace they are bestowed upon.

    One such place in the US, is St Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona. It was founded by an Athonite elder, Elder Ephrem. Visiting monasteries in any case makes for a very nourishing spiritually experience for any believer in my opinion, and the best way to go about it is to do so with an open mind and not looking for something in particular to get out of the experience.

    I think that people who are temperamentally inclined towards devotion will generally find enough spiritual nourishment and means of salvation from Church participation alone, but not all people are inclined thus. That doesn’t make some “better” than others. Its just a matter of finding an approach to discipline and so salvation that resonates with one’s being, otherwise the way to salvation cannot become a vocation and we remain strangers to it. Of course there is common ground to for all of us.

    Having said all this, it is important to cultivate nepsis (inner watchfulness) and thourgh it noesis (an awakened spirit, in a way) for oneself to a certain extent.

    One of my favorite books, is the “On the Prayer of Jesus” by St Ignatius Brancianinov. In it, he quotes from the Fathers:
    “Many, having no practical knowledge of noetic activity, erroneously judge that noetic activity is suitable only for dispassionate or holy men. For this reason from outward habit, they keep only to psalmody, troparions and canons. They do not understand that the hymns and prayers that have been handed down to us by the Fathers are only for a time, on account of the weakness and childishness of our mind, so that by gradually training ourselves we may mount to the degree of noetic activity, and not stay till our dying day merely in psalmody. What is even more childish is when we read with our mouth our outward prayer and are carried away by the joyful thought that we are doing something great, consoling ourselves merely with quantity and thereby nourishing the inner Pharisee.”

    Long story short: the goal is an inner transformation and not merely conforming to an outward form. If one’s Church participation transforms him innerly according to the Law of God, then i agree with F.Stephen that participatin in Church is “90% of salvation”. But if not, and there are many such cases i see, it amounts to nothing in my view.


  60. Yannis Avatar

    Just for the sake of completing the reference, the quote is from the chapter “Human Opposition”, page 96, and i have the IBIS Press edition – i think there is another out but i don’t know the differences (translation or otherwise) if any.

    The book is fairly easy to read, short and to the point but very dense in its wisdom and in a sense complete. As far as i understand it, it was written for laity too. There are other works of the Saint that are far more tchnical, as they were written for monastics exclusively.

  61. Karen Avatar

    Darlene, how about asking your priest if there is a member of your parish he could recommend developing a relationship with to deepen your understanding of Orthodox faith and practice or a monastery/monastic he would direct you to? I have often thought I should do this myself. In my case, there is a nun I know who was once part of our parish. Likely, I could begin a correspondence with her that would be quite helpful. Ultimately, I have realized, however, that I need to be receptive to those Orthodox God has placed in my life–even my priests, though the advice they give me may seem very basic or routine. If I am asking God to speak to me through my Confessor, perhaps the advice I am getting is exactly what God wants me to work on (even though I may be tempted to dismiss it as not deep enough, etc.). Istm, there is a discipline of obedience that can be followed even here that can yield good fruit.

  62. […] Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest who was an Anglican once upon a time, does an excellent job in this magnificent and beautiful post. I encourage everyone to read this. […]

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