A Cosmic Salvation

pantokrator_elia.jpg.scaled1000The conversation about Church often turns on history and doctrine. Each ecclesiological claim is shored up or torn down. In the middle of the fray, it is very easy to lose sight of what is being discussed. Church is reduced to its most institutional form. I want to suggest a larger view.

My first thought is to understand the true nature of the Church. I have seen bumper stickers that proclaim, “Orthodox Christianity, since 33 a.d.” Of course, viewed in a certain manner, this is correct. It is our trite American way of saying, “My Church is older than yours!” But it also diminishes the Church. A more accurate statement would be to say that the Church begins when God says, “Let there be light!”

This understanding is made manifest in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

And this from Colossians:

For it pleased the Father that in [Christ] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Col 1:19-20)

This is a vision of the Church as a cosmic unity. That which we name “Church” is the instrument through which God gathers and reconciles all things to Himself. Thus naming “Church” should not be an effort to create division and separation. The purpose of God is the gathering together of all things in One.

Of course, that cosmic unity is not something we see at present. Simply declaring, “We are one!” does not make it so. The divisions and separations that exist on account of sin cannot be abolished through mental gymnastics or by force of the will. It occurs through the reconciling work of the Cross.

It is correct to declare that the Orthodox Church is the One Church (the Church can only be One, as we confess in the Creed). But this is not a declaration of competition or an excuse for triumphalism. The divisions that exist in the world are the result of sin, the same sin that infects every life of every member of the Orthodox Church. Taunting the sins of others only serves the purpose of sin itself. Being gathered into the One Church should never be an occasion for shouting, “I’m gathered and you’re not!”

In this cosmic vision of the Church, it is possible to say that all of creation is “Orthodox,” although such a statement could immediately be misunderstood. Perhaps it would be better to say that all creation is destined for unity in the One Church.

Equally important in this vision is the understanding that the Church includes all of creation. All of the sacraments of the Church involve the material of creation. Wine, oil, bread, water, incense, fire, wax, the minerals of pigments, wood, metal, trees, dirt, flowers, etc. are all incorporated into the fullness of the life of the Church. In this, the life of the Church extends to the whole of creation. The life of the Church is the life of the whole world.

This cosmic unity also makes sense of Christ’s commandments regarding the love of enemies. Our refusal to forgive, our clinging to resentments and injuries are manifestations of the division and separation of sin. Rather, when we pray, we should stand in unity with the whole of creation and every human being, particularly our enemies. To “forgive everyone for everything” is an essential act in fulfillment of the final union of all things.

I am not suggesting in any of this the blurring of lines in the nature or integrity of the Church. However, it is to say that the primary direction and focus of our lives should be towards union with God. It is clear that for many the center of attention is on the boundaries of the Church – those points at which we must say, “I am not this,” or “This is not us.” This is a spiritual mystery. Obviously, we are aware of the lines and boundaries, and yet the lines and boundaries are themselves occasioned by sin. If they become the focal point of our spiritual existence we will discover them to have been a means of death in our lives.

The mystery of our existence then is found in moving ever closer to God, carrying within ourselves the whole of creation. And though boundaries and lines exist, they must not consume us. I have frequently encountered people who seem to be on permanent border-patrol in the Orthodox Church. Something always seems to be missing (most often it is joy).

God grant us to joyfully unite ourselves to Christ as Christ unites all things to Himself.

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.


33 responses to “A Cosmic Salvation”

  1. ajt Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for this nugget. Balm for my soul.

  2. Dean Avatar

    Father…your Orthodox “Border Patrol” brought to mind something I hadn’t thought of in a while. A friend in college from Jamaica was having dinner with us one evening. We were talking about his church back home. In the course of the conversation he mentioned that the matrons in his church were sometimes called not so affectionately, ” The Watchdogs of Zion!” Ever vigilant I’m sure over every seeming transgression.

  3. Byron Avatar

    Balm indeed! Many thanks, Father. It is so easy to lose the proper focus in life. The reply of Moses the Black when he was called to judge his brother immediately came to my mind here….

  4. Andrew T. Avatar
    Andrew T.

    I have trouble with Orthodox theology in this regard. I tend to view things more as a struggle between powers of Light and Darkness … The Church Fathers didn’t know about supermassive black holes, but to me they don’t seem to have many redeeming qualities. 😉

  5. Michelle Avatar

    This is timely, I was just having a discussion with my brother, a Lutheran Pastor, on this very topic of unity of the Church. He sees the Church as including all denominations and church bodies that have valid sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and do not distort the doctrine of the Trinity, or proclaim any other thing that would deny Christ’s Gospel as it was given to the Church by the Apostles. In essence his argument is that if each of these church bodies are eating the actual Body and Blood of Christ then they all are actually One, despite their sinfulness that insist on being considered separate. So, for example, any Episcopal Church that has not distorted the Gospel in a heretical way, and therefore has valid Sacraments, has unity with Christ, and thus unity with the Orthodox Church (and the Catholic, and Lutherans, etc) because they both partake of the Eucharist. But any Episcopal Church that denies the Trinity has in essence denied Christ’s Gospel, and therefore denied Christ, and no longer have valid Sacraments, and are not apart of the overarching Church.

    So, my question is, what is the explanation as to why is it true that only the Orthodox have valid Sacraments, and are the only ones who actually partake of the Holy Mysteries? I did not know how to explain to him why the Lutheran (Catholic, Anglican, etc.) sacraments are not valid. His argument was that the core, essential doctrines of the Gospel exist within certain church bodies, and the differences that exist do not have the power to break communion because they do not actually constitute heresies.

    He believes that most of the differences are due to cultural, and linguistic barriers that have developed over the centuries that make communication between various church bodies difficult. Like the language barriers that existed during the 4th Ecumenical Council that caused the separation of the Oriental Church from the rest of the Church. Now, he says, looking in retrospect we can see that the problem was a language barrerier caused by differing cultural norms, and not an actual difference in doctrine.

    Not only that, but even where sin does cause errors, these errors do not constitute a break in communion. So, for example, the proclamation of the idea of the Pope’s ability to speak Infallibly under certain circumstances is a false doctrine, but not one that could properly be called an outright heresy, such as Arianism. Arianism denies the Trinity, and therefore the entire Gospel, and thus they do not know Christ. Catholics, he would say, still know Christ, though imperfections exist in their doctrine.

    So, again, how would I explain to him that the Orthodox Church is the One Apostolic and Catholic Church? He agrees with me on the Cosmelogical nature of Unity, and Christ being all in all, and is even open to the idea that Orthodoxy is a fuller expression of the Kingdom of God, but obviously disagrees that the Orthodox Church is the only one actually celebrating the Eucharist.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I tend to stay away from the language of valid/invalid. It’s much more the language rooted in the Western experience. I also tend to remain agnostic about what does and doesn’t take place outside the boundaries of Holy Orthodoxy. We have received a theology of the truth, not a theology of half-truths or distortions. So, sometimes, we simply lose these arguments.

    For many years this was the Orthodox approach to other Christians. Our growing experience in evangelism and apologetics, however, has increasingly brought us into debate. I’m not sure it’s helpful.

    Though my Anglican experience was marked with difficulties surrounding doctrine and discipline, I became Orthodox out of a genuine love of Orthodoxy, and the conviction that it was indeed the true historical Church that had alone maintained faithfulness of truth and experience.

    When I was ordained as an Orthodox deacon and priest, I had, of course, been an Episcopal priest for 18 years prior. I had married, baptized, confessed, given communion, etc. I certainly believed those sacraments to be true and real throughout that ministry. No one ever asked me to think differently, nor did I feel that my Orthodox ordination was a comment on any of it.

    It is why, as in the article, I suggest less attention to the boundaries and more attention to the direction of our salvation. The boundaries are real. We do not commune outside the Church, etc. But the greater concern is to rightly commune with Christ within the Church and in all our lives. It’s ok to lose a few arguments.

  7. Xenia Avatar

    From many of the comments on AFR, I am not alone in being geographically isolated from an Orthodox church. I am 100 miles from the nearest Orthodox Church and because I am getting older and travel is less and less appealing, it is very difficult to get to Liturgy and impossible to be a functioning part of an Orthodox Church. What are we to do – those of us who do not live near an Orthodox Church? My husband is a Protestant and I go to church with him, but it is not where I long to worship. If it were not for my personal library of the church fathers, books by current Orthodox theologians and the Saints, and AFR, I would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

  8. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen, thank you for your response. It’s helpful knowing that its ok that I lost the argument, lol. I didn’t tell him that the Lutheran Sacraments were invalid. I thought about it, but it felt mean and unnecessary at the time. To be honest I just assumed that the position of the Orthodox Church was that only its Sacraments were the True Body and Blood of Christ, because they are the True Church. But I must say I feel uncomfortable making that judgment myself. Its a strong judgment, and I am not illuminated or holy enough (not even close) to go there.

    My argument to him was basically that God is leading everyone to Orthodoxy, and the more illuminated a person’s heart is then the more revealed it is to them that the Orthodox Church is the True Church. He then preceded to ask me how I know that the Orthodox are the illuminated ones and not the Pentecostal, lol. He seemed to think that trusting in a percieved illumination was to subjective. So, I explained further that while we fallen humans have a gnomic will that leads us astray, we also are made in the Image of God, and thus are naturally desirous of God, able to recognize Him and naturally attracted to His Goodness, and that this is why all people are, in a sense, on the path towards Orthodoxy. I told him I can’t explain how to differentiate between the differing subjective experiences that people have to weed out the Truth, because that’s impossible, but that he’d just have to take my word it that the presence of God is naturally experienced as Truth to all people. I’m not sure, but I think he may have started to get what I was trying to say.

    In the end I gave up and simply stated that while I left Lutheranism for Orthodoxy because of “doctrinal errors” I had perceived, that in the end that’s not why I stay Orthodox. Even if all of the errors were resolved and I found no fault in Lutheran doctrine I would still stay in the Orthodox Church, because I fell in love. I love the Church, I love the Liturgy, and the beautiful Saints I’ve come to know. I feel sadness in my heart when I think of what my brother is missing out on. I believe he is Orthodox in his heart, and I am homesick for him.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A few additional thoughts… Let’s take the example of the 2 “breakaway” Churches in the Ukraine (those who have separated themselves from Moscow). They are truly Orthodox in doctrine, etc., though they are not currently in communion with any of the Orthodox Patriarchates. They are in schism. But no one would say that their sacraments are invalid. They will likely be restored to communion in the future (may it please God), and when they are, there will be no re-ordinations, etc. Just happy concelebrations. That, of course, is an easy example. But there is no theology of what goes on in the life of a Church in schism. There is just the acknowledgement of schism.

    To a certain degree, schism is the case for most of Christendom. Gosh, even Lutherans aren’t in communion with other Lutherans. The case of the non-Orthodox is complicated. The canons, for example, recognized three ways to receive the heterodox back into the Church: simple confession, chrismation, baptism. And it describe in the circumstances of the time who was to be received how. Today, for example, the Oriental Orthodox (Copts, etc.) are received into the Church by simple confession. Catholics and many Protestants are chrismated. And some groups are required to be Baptized. The application of this principle currently varies in its application. For example, ROCOR (I’ve been told) baptizes everybody – but they’re pretty much the only jurisdiction that does this.

    We have to infer from this canon that the Fathers saw and made distinctions – it was not a black or white “one size fits all” approach. Primarily, it should be understood that this was an exercise of “economy” or “pastoral discretion,” a description of agreed practices whose goal was not to define the legal or ontological status of the non-Orthodox, but an agreement on what practices would best bring about their conversion and reunion with the Church with the least scandal. The goal was union – not definition.

    Here is a link to an article by Fr. Georges Florovsky that is worth the read.

  10. Athanasios Avatar

    Thank you for your comments on this, Father. I have always struggled with this – I am a former Lutheran who converted to Orthodoxy amidst great struggle. My wife and children are still Lutheran, and they attend the same church that I attended for many years, where her family attends, many friends attend, etc.

    I have had friends and family ask me if I believe they are members of Christ’s Church – especially when I was in the process of converting. I have never been able to say anything. Sometimes I’ve said, “I don’t know,” but even that seems too strong. The truth is: I cannot say anything.

    I especially appreciate your statement: “We have received a theology of the truth, not a theology of half-truths or distortions.” That is probably the best I can say from my experience (not, of course, that my experience constitutes truth): I came to recognize my Lutheran background as a distortion of the truth, and so at a certain point I simply couldn’t say anything about it at all. Even less about those close family and friends who are Lutheran.

    At the same time, my wife and children are still Lutheran. I have always believed that the family is a “little church,” and yet there is some amount of schism within our own little church. Despite this, I’ve found that the best I can do is to encourage my wife and children as much as I’m able, without getting into arguments or pressuring them to become Orthodox. I just want them to cling to Christ, to seek God, to live a life of love and forgiveness and repentance – all things they also desire. This desire remains whether they are Orthodox or not, whether they will ever be Orthodox or not – and I know they have the same desire for me.

    My life as an Orthodox Christian in a “not-exclusively-Orthodox” household has not given me the words to speak about the Church’s borders. But it has given me perspective. If I am to love my family, to encourage them in their seeking Christ, to be a support for them in as much as I am able, to not pressure and argue but to simply be there for them, to forgive them, to repent when I do them wrong… why wouldn’t I do that for everyone else?

    I have found it helpful in many situations to think of how my family and I relate to one another. It is a helpful “thought experiment” I suppose.

    None of this is to say that sometimes sterner language may not be appropriately used by those called to defend the Church’s teaching in the face of certain heresies. I’ve come to see, though, that how that teaching is applied in our lives is critical. The application can be itself the difference between truth and falsehood, hope and despair.

    If I were to focus on the “borders” in my own life, I would undoubtedly be in near constant despair. As would, most likely, my family. But when we live our lives (insofar as we are capable) in love, forgiveness, and repentance, seeking union with Christ together, even with our rather obvious and at times strong differences, we find hope and grace.

    This has helped me many times when my thoughts have turned to those who are not Orthodox. And I believe your article has given words to “impressions” I’ve had for a long time, but was never able to really express. Thank you.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One great relief I experienced coming into the Church is that the Orthodox Church seems to apply both of the approaches St. Paul used:
    1. He declared the right way to believe to which there were no exceptions
    2. He declared God’s mercy and grace when anyone was unable to meet those demands and urged everyone to go boldly before the throne of grace.

    Going too far in either direction causes problems. Leaving one out at the expense of the other causes problems.

    Compared to some there is actually very little dogma in the Orthodox Church and a lot of room for addressing each person’s unique circumstance within that dogma. Still, not everything is or can be an exception. Knowing where and how to draw the line takes a lot of discretion.

    I once had a conversation with a Protestant minister who I knew was a lover of Christ the moment I saw him. The Light of Christ was evident in him.

    The conversation began with us simply sharing our story with one another–basics about how and why we followed Jesus Christ. We listened to each other, really listened. At the end of the conversation he asked me if everyone must believe about Mary as we Orthodox do in order to be saved. The ultimate theological answer, IMO, is yes, but that was, I felt, a bridge too far. I went with the Scriptural basis that everyone must at least call her blessed as she herself tells us. We parted friends encouraged by one another’s faith. I still pray for him.

  12. Athanasios Avatar

    “Compared to some there is actually very little dogma in the Orthodox Church and a lot of room for addressing each person’s unique circumstance within that dogma.”

    Michael, this is something that actually impressed me when I discovered the Orthodox. I belonged to a communion that had an enormous book (on the shelf, it’s larger than the Bible) which was required for pastors to subscribe to in order to be pastors. Lay people were supposed to subscribe to a smaller (yet still substantial) document. And yet there was and is a plethora of differences regarding actual teaching and doctrine, preaching and practice, etc. What was supposed to unite became a point of division.

    The Orthodox don’t really have anything quite like that. I thought at first that this must mean there would be an even greater deal of disunity, in-fighting, disharmony in preaching, etc. While obviously these things exist in some measure (we are all sinners), what I found was a communion far more unified in preaching, teaching, and pastoral practice than anything I’d ever before experienced or seen.

    “Still, not everything is or can be an exception. Knowing where and how to draw the line takes a lot of discretion.”

    I agree. Sadly, I am afraid I frequently lack such discretion. As such, I’ve found in my own life that keeping my mouth shut is the best course of action. I frequently regret what I say. I rarely regret what I don’t say. Of course, if our lips our shut, our actions have to speak all the louder… this isn’t my greatest strength, either.

    But everyone is different. It’s one of the great things about being a member of the Body of Christ. We are members of a true body, in which we all bring our own abilities and skills – and for those of us who lack all ability and skill, we receive the great joy of being carried in our weaknesses by the grace of God and His saints.

  13. Byron Avatar

    “Still, not everything is or can be an exception. Knowing where and how to draw the line takes a lot of discretion.”

    I agree. Sadly, I am afraid I frequently lack such discretion. As such, I’ve found in my own life that keeping my mouth shut is the best course of action.

    Athanasios, I have found that “discretion” can often be better described as “common courtesy”. Keeping quiet is one way of being courteous; being careful to not enter into argument is another. I have discovered over time, when speaking online with a variety of atheist/humanist folks, that once they realize you are not engaging them in argument, they relax their own argumentative manner and some very solid–and often fruitful–discussion/dialogue can take place.

  14. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Florovsky’s article was interesting; I always enjoy reading St. Augustine. I’ve had the opportunity to translate a very small amount of his work from Latin and, despite how various groups have attempted to usurp his writings and distort his teachings, I am always delighted to find in him a thoughtful, balanced, and zealous [Western] Orthodox Father.

    Anyways, I wonder if the questions of “How do we treat/receive/X people outside of the Church?” are not themselves the wrong—or, at least, less than ideal—questions. Rather, we should be asking something closer to “How do we treat/receive/X people with love and, in accordance with God’s will, draw them into fuller communion with Him?”. I would take your analogy further and not just apply it to creation, but to humanity: mankind is the Church. Now that, too, can easily be misunderstood, so what I mean is this: Christ united Himself to human nature. His Body, His physical manifestation, is thus humanity as a whole. But what is humanity? That is where it gets interesting. Christ is not just truly God, but truly man. He is the very definition, prototype, and fulfillment of man. Thus, as has been discussed even here on some recent posts, we do not just become like God when we enter into Orthodoxy, we become human. I don’t think this can be looked at in some kind of Boolean, black-and-white manner, however: just as there are degrees of reward in Heaven, we can’t apply an artificial dualism to someone’s status as human/Orthodox; the truth is closer to something like fuzzy logic. Yet, at the same time, because of our own limits, we have to. And, from my perspective, *this* is where the economy is. “Separating oneself” from heretics, excommunication, anathemas, etc. are not the norm and, like the more modern “Orthodox” schismatics seem to think, Grace “elsewhere” the exception. Quite the opposite: God works through all people at all times and in all places. And having to set up boundaries is for our own protection: God is not going to be harmed by loving a heretic, but we almost certainly will if we try (and we will probably cause some amount of harm to the person, too); that is the deviation from ideal Christ-like love, that is the economy for our fallenness. I think the various canons regarding false teachers are much easier to understand from this perspective.

    This has important implications: like Metropolitan Philaret’s label of “not purely true”, I think we should [if we are able to] use that truth, however obscured and distorted it may be, as a starting point. This is how St. Herman and the rest evangelized Alaska. And I think it is really the only way Orthodox evangelism can succeed. We can’t deny God; that should be obvious. But if we wave our hands and deny His work in others, this is exactly what we are doing. And whether or not we realize it for what it is, the other person usually does, and promptly closes their heart to us; this is not necessarily because they are against God, but precisely because they have seen God, even in some small way, and they perceive *us* as the one trying to take Him away. I think the better approach is simple: instead of denying God, use the opportunity He has provided. Love them, confirm the truth they do know, and work with them there. It is not wise to force our own timescales or think that getting them “into the Church” will magically save them—this is, I think, baggage from Protestantism more than anything. As St. Augustine [and the rest of the Fathers] taught, they have to reciprocate that love. Hell isn’t “Oops, I just missed Heaven because I didn’t get baptized/chrismated/received in time!”, but the inability to reciprocate the love of God, regardless of whether or not the person is within any sort of canonical boundary. We have to remember Who Is Head of the Orthodox Church and that there is only One Church. If anyone really loves God, He will make sure they get here, one way or another. And regardless of where we think they’re at (canonically or otherwise), that doesn’t change the basic commandment we’ve been given: to love them as ourselves, as our very existence, as someone who we cannot even live without. This seems to imply that we should also see them as more human, more Christian, “more in the Church” than us—not in a way that renders the visible unity of the Church meaningless or trivializes Truth, but in a way that forces us to reconsider just what we think of ourselves and weigh what we are really doing, saying, and thinking about the other.

    Now, if someone gets to the point where they wonder why they’re not in communion, I would invite them in! Like leaving the language of valid vs. invalid behind, I think it is very useful to reframe the conversation in this way. God died for us all and the Church doesn’t turn anyone away who seeks Christ. If they choose to actively participate in the Body of Christ—to truly become a member of humanity—then glory be to God! If not, then it will not be us, nor God, who has shut them out, but they themselves. Schism is leaving the Church: not us forcing someone out, not us denying them something, but them leaving. Whatever canonical boundaries have been set up are not to keep people away, but to ensure the spiritual safety of those inside. They may not understand what that means or what they are saying, but we must be sure to communicate our openness to them: humanity only truly exists within the Church, and we eagerly desire them to join as human beings in Christ.

  15. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    Father, I believe the Patriarchate of Alexandria also requires all converts from whatever religion to be baptized.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks. It is higgledy-piggledy out there!

  17. Eric Jobe Avatar

    I really liked this. Thank you for it, and I would love to see you flesh out this concept even more. It plays into one feeling that has always irritated me, namely that “Orthodoxy” has the connotation of a gnostic-like “we are special and different,” or a “unique kind of Christianity.” I prefer the old connotations of “Catholic” and “Orthodox” which was more like “default” or “normative Christianity.” Rather than being some small, esoteric group of navel-gazers, Orthodoxy should be understood relative to the universality of its “all-in-all” scope, which you articulated admirably.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Whatever canonical boundaries have been set up are not to keep people away, but to ensure the spiritual safety of those inside. They may not understand what that means or what they are saying, but we must be sure to communicate our openness to them: humanity only truly exists within the Church, and we eagerly desire them to join as human beings in Christ.

    Brother Joseph, how well said. The boundaries are for our safety — absolutely.

    Yet, it has been my experience that those boundaries are not always precise as they seem. I have been fortunate to know a number of Christ lovers who were not an probably will never be in the Orthodox Church. At the same time I have also known some ‘inside’ the Church who do not seem to. That is also deceptive in many cases.

    There was a man in my parish who was quite well known as a prickly and contentious fellow with quite a few dings on his soul because of his behavior. Yet, he always came to Liturgy. In the final years of his life he engaged in a deep and protracted confession. The only personal contact I had with him occurred when I asked him to move his car from our parking lot as our annual big dinner was about to commence and all the space was needed. He brusquely told me he would park anywhere he wanted any time he wanted and walked away. However, the next morning before Liturgy he sought me out and apologized for his behavior following the Scriptural command. One of the few people whom I have ever known to do so. When he reposed, our bishop gave the eulogy and said he was a Christ-like man.

    We simple do not know the state of someone else’s soul and rarely the state of our own. I do know that if we do not listen in love to others, we often loose our way.

    Jesus Christ on the Cross draws all men to Himself. All men, not just a few.

  19. ajt Avatar

    “I prefer the old connotations of “Catholic” and “Orthodox” which was more like “default” or “normative Christianity.” Rather than being some small, esoteric group of navel-gazers, Orthodoxy should be understood relative to the universality of its “all-in-all” scope, which you articulated admirably.” Eric Jobe

    Yes. How I wish Orthodoxy were simply the normative faith, not the ‘look how unique and different I am’ faith. When I first became Orthodox I was up front with my parents about the transition and they thought I was joining some type of cult. They were concerned that they wouldn’t get to see their grandchildren and at first I laughed, but they were quite serious. It has taken a few years for them to realize that I am still me, and am in most ways less concerned about “errors in doctrine” than I was when I was protestant (at least in the freakishly argumentative sense).

  20. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Michael Bauman, I think we still tend to look at the boundaries too legalistically, thus the need for constant redefinition and further precision. An analogy I have been working on for some time (from many angles) and find helpful in this regard is that canons (and other boundaries) are like lines on a road. There may be very little road (followed by a large cliff) past one line, while there may be a whole parking lot past another line. I don’t think the Church or Her Saints naively assume that the road stops at any given line and I wonder why many people (especially outside said lines) are obsessed with such portions of pavement to the neglect of the road itself. The purpose of the lines is not to define the end of the *pavement*, but to mark the *road*.

    We all live by Grace. In some ways, God keeps at least the smallest fragment of broken pavement under us at all time—if He didn’t, we’d cease to exist; we have no objective existence, but only existence relative to Christ. But crawling around on crumbling asphalt is a very, very different thing from being on the Way. Sure, the lines don’t completely stop people from having terrible, even fatal, accidents on that road, but can you imagine what would happen if there were no lines? It would be even worse, by many orders of magnitude. The lines are not to define where Grace stops, but to keep us properly aligned and moving forward on the path to salvation.

    Eric Jobe, you said it far more concisely than I. That’s the paradigm we need to hold: Orthodoxy is the normal, even “plain”, Christianity. It is the normative, natural way of life.

  21. Dino Avatar

    wonderful analogy!

  22. Christopher Avatar

    I am going to swim upstream a bit and suggest that there is a way to see this idea of “A Cosmic Salvation” as something too nebulous/generalized as to be much use in our salvation.

    I read this today:

    “It is only from this soteriological perspective that we can properly understand the history of Christian dogma. As Vladimir Lossky noted, the primary concern in the Church’s dogmatic battles against the various heretical movements was always “the possibility, the manner, or the means of our union with God. All the history of Christian dogma unfolds itself about this mystical centre, guarded by different weapons againsts its many and diverse assailants in the course of successive ages” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 10).”


  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Perhaps so. My intention was to “de-institutionalize” the Church thinking a bit, and expand it to include all creation (as in the NT). As noted, I do not think the borders need no attention. Boundaries are essential. But they become everything to some as well as sometimes forgetting what we’re really all about. This article is just a bit of a reminder.

  24. Agata Avatar

    You might enjoy Clark’s podcast on this subject….


  25. Christopher Avatar


    First, thanks for the reminder. I remember when I was “investigating” Orthodoxy (a banal way to put it) I went to a talk given by Fr. Hopko. He said much the same thing in his own way as you do here. I think I have heard a form of this warning (about focusing on the borders) from just about every single parish priest I have ever had (8 if I recall correctly). I have come across these folks who “patrol the borders”, but they are usually zealous new converts in my experience – I played that role my self, and they either grow in the faith or disappear I have noticed. Now, I know the internet can magnify their voice and make it seem that they are larger than their actual influence – at least that is my assessment of the American scene, I can’t really speak to the countries that have real “old calendar” schisms and the like.

    However, for everyone of these folks I come across, I come across dozens and dozens who are either ignorant of the boundaries (partially of course), or are not sure how to apply them in the context of their lives. Michelle’s and Athanasios stories above are my story and many others. I can think of one person in my current parish (currently he is an inquirer) who I suspect could easily fall in the trap of “patrolling the borders” (I say this tentatively as I am not the priest obviously, but his eyes really lit up when I agreed to lend him my book on cannon law 😉 ). Almost everyone else has struggles with what Michelle’s and Athanaosios describe, how do we “navigate” the borders with family, friends, inquirers, etc.

    I also wonder if the anthropological issues (i.e. the real confusion for many of the faithful surrounding these issues) reveal not an over use and focus on dogma/borders, but and underuse of it. I also wonder that because of the situation the Orthodox Church has found itself (Ottoman oppression, no ecumenical councils for 1300 years, etc.) that we have not been a bit slow in responding to things with dogma when we should have been (even if it is a “tragedy” to have to do so as Clark Carlton puts it). I can’t locate the items to be discussed at the coming “great council”, but nothing lept out at me as really addressing modernity as such.

    However, you are a pastor and so you see people in a different context – perhaps this “paroling the borders” is much more common and pernicious than I see. Anyways, my 1.5 cents…

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Every living organism even at the cellular level has some sort of border patrol. When those patrols become too aggressive, the organism gets sick or dies. When those patrols become too lax, the organism gets sick or dies. In human beings there are a number of autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks too aggressively: from allergies to lupus. There are also a number of diseases in which the immune system does not function well: cancer and AIDS are but two

    It is good to have people who are sensitive to the possible attacks and can sound a warning if need be, but the ones who see a wolf in everybody and everything do more harm than good.

    It is better in our watchfulness to guard our own heart. If each of us does that, the borders will tend to take care of themselves. Yet, still we also need to be watchful in an outward manner

    We can be legalistic about not being legalistic.

    Like so much in the Orthodox Christian faith it is an antinomy. Like so much of our modern thinking we seem to go immediately to a binary solution.

    What we believe matters, thus it is important to understand heresy in general and the nature of specific heresies as well. Some over generalize and see heresy where it is not. Some seem to be willing to bend with every breath of “newness”

    How narrow is the narrow way?

  27. chad m Avatar
    chad m

    Two comments:
    1) “Permanent border control.” Thank you for this wonderful illustration.

    2) I have heard recently of an idea of the “cosmic Christ” and thought for a moment that you might be headed that direction. Can you speak to this at all?

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On the lips of most speakers, the “Cosmic Christ” is shorthand for an “inclusive” Christ (one that includes any great religious figure you want to think of). As such, it’s just New Age Syncretism. In classical Orthodox thought, the word “cosmic” refers to the entire created order, “the cosmos.” Cosmic is a word that belongs to the Orthodox. I was taking it back from its captivity.

  29. anonymous Avatar

    Michael, earlier in the comments section, your anecdote about the Protestant minister asking you a question caught my eye. If a certain belief about Mary is necessary for our salvation, please tell me what it is, or at least, what is the connection to our salvation. While I was a catechumen, I must have slept through Father’s class on that one, because I can’t recall that topic. Thanks …

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t know what Michael had in mind on the “necessary to salvation” comment. There are dogmas concerning Mary within Orthodoxy. Her virginity, before, during and after giving birth to Christ (Perpetual Virginity) is a dogma of the faith to be embraced by all Orthodox Christians. Some would say her being without sin (no conscious act of sin) would be another, but might get some argument.

    “Necessary to salvation” is not a phrase I ever use. Necessary to know the fullness of the faith in Christ Jesus, yes, that would be true.

  31. anonymous Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, that was a great help.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    She is the Virgin Mother of God. She gave human flesh to Him who is our Ssvior. And we are to call her blessed.

    The diminuation of Mary and in some Protestants even out right rejection diminishes the reality of Jesus saving work, his full humanity and therefore our participation in His life.

    Yes, he can send He does work around those barriers but not everyone will let Him.

    Nestorious was condemned as a heretic for teaching she was not Theotokos.

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