Consequences of the One Church – Unecumenism

holy_communionIn thinking through a theological question, I often engage in thought experiments. The Fathers might call it a form of theoria, but I won’t presume that word for myself. But what I do is to make a concerted effort to let go of unexamined assumptions. I look at a different set of assumptions and ask, “What if that were true?” The result many times yields a dead end. But knowledge of dead ends can be just as useful as other information. However, on occasion, the result is genuine insight, even a realization that the assumptions that have encumbered a problem are, in fact, false and unnecessary. Thinking through modernity requires many such experiments. For modernity is not a time period (even though it pretends to be). It is a set of assumptions about the world, about human beings, about history, about almost everything. And in pretty much every case, it is wrong. It is an attack on the most fundamental teachings of classical Christianity. I have written previously that there cannot really be such a thing as “modern Christianity.” It is as contradictory as Buddhist Christianity or Hindu Christianity. Modernity is its own religion.

Most recently, I’ve turned our attention to the question of the Church in modernity. For the modern world has completely re-thought the matter of the Christian Church, and the state of things today is the result. In particular, modern Christians have largely lost the ability to think of the Church as “One,” in any way that is not a vague, nebulous unity of abstraction. This is in utter contrast to the very concrete unity of the early Fathers who proclaimed the Church as “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”

So we’ll engage in a thought experiment.

Put yourself in the fourth century. There is only one Church, and that Church is One. It is united in faith, teaching, practice, communion, etc. It’s not perfect (there never has been such a thing), but it is One. If something or someone challenges that united faith, teaching, practice, communion, etc., they are themselves barred from communion. This happens not just at great Ecumenical Councils, but is the provence of each bishop and every synod of bishops. The great Councils are only necessary because the Church is One.

However, begin to think. Consider how the verse, “the Church is the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23), and what it means. In this 4th century experience, you can not only ponder this meaning in the abstract, but the very Cup you drink, and everything you tangibly know as Church, is included as well. No longer is the “stuff” of the Church interchangeable with other things. Everything about the life of the Church carries this very same fullness. You eat the fullness and breathe the fullness. When you think about the Church your conscience isn’t troubled and your sense of belonging is unshaken.

We’ll continue the experiment. Consider the word union and its cognates: union, communion, participation (it works in Greek), etc. That union means a sharing and participation but it also carries the meaning of the One. When you think of union with God (and this is the meaning of every sacramental act of the Church), you also think and understand union with the Church. The One God is made known in the One Church.

And now let’s return to the present.

The plurality of Churches (sic) makes it impossible for most people to think of the concept of the Church being One in anything other than an abstract sense. “We are one body,” cannot be said or thought without a sense of irony. And so the very word “One” begins to undergo changes. Communion (the Eucharist) is not a true communion. It can be thought of as some sort of special relation or experience of God, but if we think of it as including a true communion with His Body, the Church, that sense of irony returns and true communion necessarily disappears.

Many, of course, strongly insist on some sort of invisible reality called, “the Church.” But the Church consists solely of people, none of whom are in any way abstract. You cannot be in communion with those who do not consider you to be in communion with them, or communion becomes a form of spiritual rape. “We are One” becomes a threat or a coercive assertion. Of course, it’s easy to have communion with invisible, imaginary people. But whatever that is, it is not the Church.

And so, union and communion are largely excluded from the vocabulary of modern Christians. They are often offended by the refusal of Eucharistic “hospitality.” To visit an Orthodox Church during the Eucharist, is also to be told that you are not in communion and that something stands between you and communion with the Church. The politeness of most contemporary Christian groups creates a false communion, a participation in some minimalist version of the faith, marked by asterisks, caveats, and…irony.

There is a cosmic aspect to all of this as well, and consequences for how we think about many things of great importance. For the One Church is also the firstfruits of the One Creation. It is the single work of God “gathering together all things in One” (Eph. 1:10). That same work of union that is the “mystery hid from the ages,” is obscured in the verbal abstractions of a modernized ironic unity.

What we have to stop and see is that the churches of the modern world have been robbed of their godly inheritance. Christians in the contemporary world are simply overwhelmed by the divisions and diversity of church groups. It is completely understandable that alternative theories will appear that seek to make sense of things. Chief among these is the notion of the “invisible” Church. This account, in its various guises, simply looks at the whole mess and says that the truth is something else, obscured by human sin. “We are one!” becomes an assertion that denies our manifold divisions. But in denying them, it also relativizes them, and makes the concrete realities of our churchly existence to be of little consequence – for, after all, if we are really one, then what do all of these divisions really mean or matter?

More subtle than this, is what this abstracting does to the meaning of unity and union. Our culture has now had nearly two centuries of treating Christian unity as an abstract notion, manifest, at most, as friendliness. And this has had a concomitant effect on the meaning of union and unity elsewhere. The fact that our culture can describe a same-sex relationship as a “union” is a particularly egregious example. For such a union can have no true concrete expression. But our culture, driven by a false ideology of unity, cannot think of why such a relationship is not a union. “They love each other,” we are told. Sentiment trumps reality.

I point to this example in part to demonstrate how devastating the malformation of words and meaning can be. Union is not something that is achieved by greater and greater generalizing – it comes in greater and greater particularity and specificity. In encountering Christ, we ultimately are not asked to just do something. We are asked to do some one thing, with all our heart and soul: we die. And we do not die “in general.” Love is quite specific and concrete or it is nothing at all.

And so, I bring us to the point. My writing painfully about the meaning of union and the One Church, is not to argue about the status of various Christian “Churches.” There is no accusation nor calumny intended. Rather, it is first to return the meaning of “One Church” to its proper place, with all of the pain and scandal that attends it. The One Church is ultimately found in One Cup, and there, only through true repentance and acceptance of the fullness of the faith. And if we are not there, then at least we must say so and cry out to God. He gives grace to the humble and resists the proud. It is beyond arrogance to say we are one when we are not. There can be no communion in a lie, or only a communion of death.

Christ prayed that we “all may be one,” even as He and the Father are one. That cannot be a vague, ephemeral notion. It must be real, true, concrete and without irony. But Christ did not pray “that they all may be one someday…” His prayer was not an expression of a hoped-for reality. It is His own great Eucharistic prayer in which the Church becomes One. For what He asks, the Father grants. Just as surely as we pray for the Holy Spirit to “make this the most precious Body of our Lord, and God, and Savior Jesus Christ,” and so it is – so the Church became One in that Eucharistic Prayer of Christ Himself.

It is a prayer that will indeed have an eschatological fulfillment: “All things will be gathered together in one…” But in Christ, the Eschaton has already come. We may eat and drink of that One and become the life of the One fulfilled in this world. But it will not be true if we choose to distort the very meaning of the word.

Don’t ignore the pain.

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.



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47 responses to “Consequences of the One Church – Unecumenism”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks, Father! This makes me long to begin and finish my catechism in the Church! I hope that I am not completely missing the point.

    Union is not something that is achieved by greater and greater generalizing – it comes in greater and greater particularity and specificity. In encountering Christ, we ultimately are not asked to just do something. We are asked to do some one thing, with all our heart and soul: we die. And we do not die “in general.” Love is quite specific and concrete or it is nothing at all.

    Our society hates specificity. It generalizes everything to the point of universal inclusion in the lie. Just an observation.

  2. Nes Avatar

    I am a Catholic. My heart is broken that there is a fundamental schism between the Catholic and Orthodox, both presenting the One Cup. And to this end, I’d ask for clarification about what exactly you’re saying. Is it that those ecclesial bodies that offer communion in good faith and people who partake of it “in repentance and acceptance of the fullness of faith” are part of the one, true Church? Or is it that there is only *one* “One Cup” by which people must partake, and it is a visible cup that exists within a visible ecclesial body?

    I’m filled with a kind of existential tension over you last two entries because I read them as someone who is greatly concerned with the same issue—as one who has also conducted the same kinds of historical thought experiments—but then I’m left with a conclusion that amounts to a kind of non-conclusion. How can one tell if one is “there”? And if this is simply a matter of the person’s faith, then what keeps *any* type of Christian from being part of the One True Church?

    If what you’re saying is essentially, “ANY Christian can be part of the one true Church, but he must have true faith in such a unity,” that is precisely what the Protestant Reformers were arguing with the concept of the invisible church. The invisible church isn’t invisible in that we can’t see the real-physical believers that it consists of, rather its invisible in the sense that there is no physical unified “banner” or “authority” (i.e. the Pope, bishops etc.) under which all Christians can rally. Unity is a matter of *faith*, which seems to be what you’re getting at here.

  3. Christopher Avatar

    I was not able to do it – I could not put myself in that 4th century place, the “irony” overcomes. I will continue to try.

    “There is a cosmic aspect to all of this as well, and consequences for how we think about many things of great importance”

    Agreed, it has a profound meaning in the Eucharist “On behalf of *ALL* and for *ALL*” Can we truly understand that without the “irony”? I want to…

    Finally, my communion with others *in the Orthodox Church* is a sham. I simply am not “in communion” with those who believe that the only thing between us and the RC “is Moscow”. I am not “in communion” with those leaders in the Church (who if they truly are “not ecumenical”) are not brave enough to say so (even if it is “prudent” for their status, job, place in the Church, etc.), perhaps because “our spiritual leader” (you know who who lives in you know where) has a program (or is it a crusade?) or two. Such *communion* is with much irony, prudential “getting along – peace for peace sake”, etc. ‘One’ has more meaning than that as you rightly point out.

    Perhaps I am at a “so long and thanks for all the fish” moment…

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you are describing a sort of despair. You would quickly admit that we live in very difficult times. Part of that difficulty is manifest in the very things you describe. I am in communion with sinners, apparently. And I hear their sin very clearly sometimes. But the faith has not and is not changing. The Cup remains the Cup. I could indeed imagine yet more schisms. They have happened before and might yet again. But that is the nature of our difficult times.

  5. Fr. Antonio Arganda Avatar
    Fr. Antonio Arganda

    Well stated and truthful. The Church is one as hieromartyr Hilarion Troitsky was fond of saying.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will clarify. I am an Orthodox priest. I do believe that the One Cup is that communion of the Orthodox Church, and that Rome has separated itself from the fullness of that Cup. I pray for God’s good will to be done. But I’m not really interested in arguing the point. If you see it, then you believe it. I think that universal primacy of the people is simply an error and an invention of the post Charlemagne West and that it has done much harm.

    But, that said, I’m speaking someone apart from that. The consequence of believing One Church in the manner believed by the Apostles and the Fathers means that we cannot be vague and say that there’s really two, or three, or a dozen One Churches, or that everyone is actually in the One Church. The One Church is the One Cup. That’s part of the meaning of communion, etc. It’s also why Rome and the Orthodox do not practice so-called “open communion.” Our refusal to share the Cup is a statement about the One Church.

    What I am counseling, however, is first of all simply to live with the existential reality of what the teaching of the “One Church” really means without trying to change it or make it some vague irony. If it creates discomfort, then at least the discomfort is the truth. The Great Schism was a great sin. But it is not true that it was “everybody’s fault.” It is demonstrably not true. If it was everybody’s fault, then the gates of hell prevailed and the Church ceased to exist in 1054. For the Church can only exist as One. It is a communion.

    But just start with the discomfort. Pray and refuse the lie that One really means many. Then beg for grace.

  7. Fr. Marty Watt Avatar

    The problem that I face daily, every time I look in a mirror, is that I am not in union within myself. Part of me is in communion with the Church, while part of me wars against it and sins, rebelling against God, crying “I can do this myself!” when I know I actually can’t. I like to think of myself as a unified whole, but I’m not. Thanks be to God, He is in the process, through the Church, of healing the division within myself. I trust He is able and working to heal the division between persons as well.

    It is difficult to think about unity of persons, however, when the disunity is so real within my own person.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Marty,
    I once stated in a public talk that I was actually born Orthodox. But I lived in schism with myself for 45 years. I completely understand what it means to be in schism or not in union with oneself. But it is also important to know where we can find that union. “Our life is hid with Christ in God.”

  9. Christopher Avatar

    I almost want to say these schism(s) *need* to happen, to purge the rot and disease, these false communion(s) and unity(s) – this false “irenical” rapprochement – where IS the Cross in ecumenism, how is the “crises” going to be “lived and endured” if we continue to sweep it under the rug?

    Your right, the Cup is the Cup. I believe it (a small part of me even “knows” it- this tiny little coal that won’t leave me alone {as if I want to be alone}). Christ does break into the world. On behalf of ALL and for ALL – the profundity is inexpressible…

  10. Nes Avatar

    Ah, thank you for clarifying. I profess and hold to the same thing, but then again, my heart is broken because of implications here. Either you or I are condemned, no? It’s not just a discomfort, its a tearing at ones heart, an actual physical feeling of pain.

    I pray for grace constantly, it is my constant prayer. I pray for grace because I lack understanding—I lack everything. I rely on God as a helpless child relies on his parents. But as I understand God this way—as Father—I can’t help but trust that his grace extends beyond the walls of even this Church I profess as the One True Church. This isn’t to further/propagate a kind of watered down ecumenism where eventually everything becomes meaningless, but rather a hope for the presence and guidance of Christ in and outside the visible Church.

    I often think of Mark 9 when Jesus tells his disciples not to “hinder” those performing miracles in his name. What part do those who do such miracles play in the body of Christ? Are those who give a cup of water to you in the name of Jesus Totally beteft of communion with the saints? I can’t imagine this is the case, though there is a fundamental brokenness there.

  11. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!!!

    Perhaps, even with this post, it is very important to use the title of your blog to remind us to give ‘glory to God for all all things’….even for this state of confusion you now so effectively describe.

    One of the things I like most about your blog is the tension you maintain between the really big issues (ones that often we can only begin to see and accept) and those practical, pragmatic ways that you encourage us to ‘abandon ourselves’ and discover the God who is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves….constantly, breath by breath, day by day.

    Some wise words from your wrote that seem appropriate to me as a way to maintain this tension of what I can do today, right now….

    “Above everything we begin to move our Christian life out of the realm of abstraction and into the realm of living. We pray rather than think about prayer. We trust God rather than discussing the concept of trusting God. We act on the basis of faith rather than spending time talking about the importance of faith. We make every effort to embrace God as good and at work in all things.

    I suppose this is a return to my writing about the small things – the immediate things. But this is where we live – and it is where we are being saved. So much of the Orthodox faith has this very concrete character about it. I have come to some fairly simple practices in my life as a priest. When someone calls me at Church to ask for prayer – particularly for matters of great moment – I leave the office – go in the Church – and offer a Molieben (it’s a short service of prayer, designed particularly for just such occasions). It takes about 20 minutes – but it’s what I was asked to do – to pray.

    By the same token we bring our faith into this blessed first storey (indeed probably the only storey of the universe) by doing here what we were commanded to do – pray, give, forgive, love, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. It is in such straightforward activities rather than in the abstractions that would call us away that we will find Christ, the saints, the angels and the whole of our faith.

    God is with us.”

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think either of us is condemned. “This is condemnation. That light has come into the world and men prefer darkness.” You have to be faithful to the light you have.

    There is another thought that is true regarding the One. God is indeed gathering together ALL things into One. Neither you nor I created the Schism. When, the day after Christmas, 1054, did some woman living in Paris suddenly have no grace because the Pope with whom she was in communion had broken it with the East? (I speak as Orthodox). Surely not. But the mystery of that is in God’s hands. What we do not have is a theology and authoritative teaching (among the Orthodox) regarding what is outside the Cup.

    Frankly, all of the Westerners who might have been on holiday in Constantinople, having made confession and approached the Cup were not likely turned away…at least not for a good while.

    What is important here and my intentions in these last two articles, is to recover the meaning of “One” and rescue it from modern distortions. Doing that doubtlessly increases our pain…but that need only make us pray more truly and honestly. When I became Orthodox, for example, I broke communion with all those I had been in communion with the day before. But it also made possible the only way to a true communion…for me and for them.

    We are given to know the truth…and not the many possibilities of ways to be wrong. Just love God and His Church. You’ll be saved.

    I should add as a side note, that I have had many kind favors done for me by St. Anthony of Padua, who is a post-schism Roman saint. That was true before I was Orthodox. I still talk with him and he still does me many favors.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for posting those words.

  14. Dawit Avatar

    Was not the first major schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox? Are both groups in communion with each other even today?

    I grew up in a country where the Oriental Orthodox formed the state church. Now I do not doubt that some members of the Tewahedo Church were true Christians that both you and I, a Protestant, could accept but there was a great number of nominal church members and also a lot of pagan syncretism. People who have visited eastern European countries, with mainly Orthodox churches, tell me that the case is quite similar there. So can you be in communion with such church followers? Our denomination used to have closed communion but switched to open communion but where none believers are expected and asked to abstain. Frankly I doubt that you are in any more or less improper communion than I am. Probably you can’t tell the tares from the good seed any better than we can. As I see it the universal church idea is an attempt to form communion with other “true” Christians. We live in a broken sinful world. I have friends who are Orthodox and if they came to our church I would be quite happy for them to take Eucharist and I know others even some Protestants that I would be very unhappy if they took Eucharist with us. But still somehow we should be one visible church and it is a scandal that we are not. Somehow we tend to make too many opinions into creeds and doctrinal statements and then fight battles over them.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A quick reflection on Florovsky. I believe that he thought that the “tragedy of the West” was something that could be confronted and would be healed (possibly) as a “group” thing. And we should applaud his hopefulness and forgive the fact that he was himself a stranger in the West (and not a prophet).

    As time has gone forward, something different has happened. I think that neither he, nor hardly any in his generation, foresaw a coming conversion of so many to the Church. It was not on their radar. The crisis brought about through the “tragedy” however, is being experienced on a personal level by so very many, and in one’s, two’s, families, and small groups, they are making their way to safe harbor.

    The book I drew the quote from is Florovsky’s massive “Ways of Russian Thought.” It’s at the end of the second volume. Just as Florovsky and others did not see this, it is quite likely that you and I do not see something else yet to come. Prophets of doom (among whom I must often be numbered) are easy. You just take the bad stuff at present and project it into the future. But goodness has God as its cause and cannot therefore be projected. It is wonderful and surprising. Who would have thought?

  16. David Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Does your view on this, then, preclude and deligitimize, for you, theological dialogue aimed at unity?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It would depend on the nature of the dialog. If it is for better mutual understanding, that’s always good. If it is about reaching agreement, then it should be understood that repentance is involved. We cannot negotiate the truth. It doesn’t have to be a harsh thing.

    It’s like a husband and wife. The goal isn’t just to find a way to live together. The goal is to find a way for true union.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The doctrines of the Orthodox Church are only the doctrines that have been proclaimed in the Councils. We haven’t added other stuff. So it’s not correct to include us in such a sweeping generalization. As for so-called “nominal” members, that is for their local priest to take care of. It belongs to his ministry to help nurture their faith. And if he admits them into communion, then, yes, I am in communion with them and glad of it.

    As to the question of the Chalcedonian schism. We are still not in communion. It was not the first schism. The Novationists have that honor, but they disappeared. I have many Coptic friends whom I love dearly.

  19. Joseph Avatar

    One struggle that I have is that while Orthodox thought has been greatly illuminating for my formerly protestant mind and I do ultimately see myself going in that direction, I struggle to overcome the sense of foreignness about it all. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, only that there’s a certain comfort and familiarity regarding the trappings of Catholicism which I struggle to find in Orthodoxy. I know of course that this is not what is important, but every time I feel ready to begin a proper journey into Orthodoxy I encounter someone like Tolkien, pipe in hand and beer at the ready and I hesitate.

    Any advice in this regard Father?

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Many Orthodox smoke pipes and drink beer! But, apart from that, yes, the foreignness is very “up front.” However, having been here for almost 18 years now, it does become as familiar as an old shoe, or an old sweater worn by the fire while smoking a pipe and drinking a beer.

    And, it does matter what form Orthodoxy is encountered. My OCA experience is largely Russian in flavor, though I’m picking up a lot of spices from Romania. And, here in East Tennessee, they sometimes say we’re “Appalachian Orthodox.” Those who have heard me speak (or do podcasts) can’t help but notice the twang of my Appalachian roots that simply refuse to leave me.

    I would even say that my parish has a distinctly American feel.

    Now, having said that, it must be noted that Christianity is a Mideast thing. When people ask me why we kiss icons, etc., I explain, “Because Jesus was a Jew.” It’s just a Middle East thing, which means it was a Greek thing. Anglo’s like me have to struggle at first to deal with our terrible awkwardness of occasionally behaving like a Greek (though if I could dance like Zorba I would do so at almost every opportunity).

    I have postulated that had Christ been an Englishman, we would still have icons. But the tradition of the Church would be to enter the Nave, stand in front of an icon, feel terribly awkward and apologize. 🙂

    But I recognize that in being a Christian, there is an inevitable aspect of becoming somewhat Jewish, and since my God became a Jew, I shouldn’t disdain it. And if I kiss icons like a Greek then surely those early Christians would approve. But I strongly suggest that you learn how to cross yourself from a Russian. They are almost the only Orthodox who really do it right. 🙂

    What is actually foreign to the faith is the strange stuff of modernity. It feels very natural, for we are modern men. But I for one want to escape its dead end and return to the fullness of the faith. And if my poor beaten up and robbed self has to accept the help of some Orthodox Samaritan, so be it.

    Rome’s sort of modern comfortableness disturbs me. Though, my experience of Rome is that there are still very deep pockets of piety and devotion. Their Churches have almost always felt like places of prayer.

  21. Joseph Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. I suppose even now I’m still too modern for my own good. What you say makes good sense though. I’ve been reading a book on beauty which describes desecration as the MO of modernity and at the very least I can say that the luster is fading even if I can still be foolish enough to chase after sparkly bits of nothing sometimes.

  22. Anon Avatar

    I doubt that in eternity, when you gaze across the table at C.S. Lewis, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and my grandmother, that your first feeling will be that of spiritual rape (as you described it). Many a racist throughout history has expressed a similar sentiment about their brothers who they deemed unworthy to share a table or cup. They also had plenty of philosophies (and theologies) to justify their divisions and classifications.
    You are defending something very precious to you and I empathize with that. Modernity is no friend of faith and we all feel that. I read your blog and find it valuable not because you are Orthodox, but because Christ reveals Himself through you; I hunger and thirst for Christ. But I could say the same about a few Protestant and Catholic writers I read. Christ reveals Himself beyond our prejudices, fears and categories.
    Many of our Protestant and Catholic mothers and fathers gave their lives in the love and fellowship of faith in Christ and there are many of us who would welcome the blessing of doing the same, not because we think we do things better than the Orthodox, but because we know Christ.
    Let your love for Protestants and Catholics (or for any part of humanity) show the superiority of your ways- I have rarely seen this kind of love for “outsiders” from the Orthodox Church and I know many Orthodox believers. It is what keeps me from becoming Orthodox. I simply don’t see any more love for those around them than any other expression of Christian faith- sometimes far less. This is a sad state for a group that claims to be the right and highest expression of the Being who is Love. You may fight modernity philosophically, but lumping Protestants and Catholics under that enemy umbrella is a mistake.
    As Christians, we do not share a cup with this world, but make no mistake, we partake of the Cup of Christ with you and love you as our brothers whether you would have us at His table or not.

  23. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    ” Prophets of doom are easy. You just take the bad stuff at present and project it into the future. But goodness has God as its cause and cannot therefore be projected. It is wonderful and surprising. Who would have thought? ” I’m reminded of the stickers. “Grace happens.” The other day I was in for a stress test. While in a machine after the treadmill, I was lying there saying the Jesus prayer. And out of the blue I felt surrounded by God’s presence, something unsought but beautiful when it occurred. I rejoiced at the unbidden gift. Thank God for His unexpected dew drops of mercy and sometimes flood…as with the converts you mentioned.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Even in the 4th century there were folks not in communion. It is easy to think that the lines separating those in communion and not were clear and bright back then. I rather think they were not so clear and bright and the numbed of people in communion probably somewhat smaller than we tend to think. Christianity even in the res of one clearly visible Church was/is not monolithic

    I do have a question: was the existential meaning of anathema the same then as I tend to think of it now? Were the fathers locking folks in spiritual chains and condemning folks to everlasting hell?

    The thought experiment involves questioning both the meaning and contextualization of every word, concept and paradigm if it is to be even remotely sucessful.

    I wonder how useful it really is. Already it seems an invitation to a play ground of doubt and despair. Jesus Christ saves whom he will. I need to assume that includes everyone but me while hoping I too will be included. Or at least that is what I have been told. Despite the depravity lose in the world it is nothing more than the actual or possible depravity in my own soul and I’m a nice guy.

    The only unity I need to be concerned with is my unity with myself, my neighbor, my Church, and my God.

    I have enough invitations to despair already that are far more existentially relevant. The oneness was, is and is yet to come. The readiness is all.

  25. Byron Avatar

    Now, having said that, it must be noted that Christianity is a Mideast thing. When people ask me why we kiss icons, etc., I explain, “Because Jesus was a Jew.” It’s just a Middle East thing, which means it was a Greek thing. Anglo’s like me have to struggle at first to deal with our terrible awkwardness of occasionally behaving like a Greek.

    I, at first, found kissing icons terribly awkward. It took me some time learn to approach them as approaching a person and to pray while in the act of veneration. It helps, but it is still, at times, awkward. But I take this as part of the much needed humbling I learn as I learn about Orthodoxy and living it. Veneration is difficult for the self-centered.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would be glad to be found worthy to sit at table in the age to come with those whom you have named. The Lord will invite whom He will to that table. Jesus can do whatever He wants. But I cannot. There is an order and teaching that are for our salvation. I was ordained to that, and not to make things up in a way that I might prefer at any given moment.

    But I’m not certain you’re understanding my articles at all. I’m not trying to describe an exclusivity – much less a mean one. I’m talking about the true meaning of the word “one” in the Scriptures and how it is distorted in our modern world. It creates problems for us because it contradicts what we would like it to mean – but its true meaning is indeed for our salvation.

    The years that I attended Orthodox services and could not receive communion were extremely important for me. The not receiving was at least as much for my salvation as the receiving is.

    Catholics and Protestants are not my enemies nor have I ever said such a thing. Oddly, I have lots of Catholic readers. I have lots of Coptic readers. I even have some Protestant readers. But they don’t expect me to say something that’s not Orthodox, just because we would all like it.

    But, in defense of the term “spiritual rape.” It’s simply a matter of actually respecting people’s boundaries. The violation of a boundary is always something of a rape. I assume that if Christ seats us at His table in heaven, He will have resolved any remaining boundary issues…in truth and love.

    I do not think the Orthodox are a good as many other Christians. In fact, I think we’re an awful mess. I simply believe that this awful mess of Christians and their communion is the one founded by Christ that has persisted through history, continuously, without a break, in obedience to the canons of the Apostles and the Scriptures. There are many groups of Christians who have much newer, more improved Churches. They are far more excellent than we are. This seems to be a great mystery.

  27. Matt Avatar

    I’m not trying to describe an exclusivity – much less a mean one.

    Father, these last two articles have given me a significant amount of peace about Orthodoxy – you’re making a substantively identical point to a lot of people I’ve read who’ve made it in a way that certainly does look like a mean exclusivity, at least to those who speak Orthodox as a recently-acquired-as-an-adult second or third language.

    I’m still slowly trying to get out of the old “if you’re not a Christian in this narrowly defined sense you’re automatically going to Hell” paradigm and I suspect a couple people who’ve commented here are in the process of doing / may need to do so too.

  28. AJ Avatar

    By happenstance I began reading the Shepherd of Hermas after reading your article and its comments this evening.

    I found the imagery there to be beautiful, revealing and apropos to the subject at hand….well worth reflection…for whatever it is worth…

    “Lo! do you not see opposite to you a great tower, built upon the waters, of splendid square stones?” …myriads of men were carrying stones to it, some dragging them from the depths, others removing them from the land, …

    They were taking them and building; and those of the stones that were dragged out of the depths, they placed in the building just as they were: for they were polished and fitted exactly into the other stones, and became so united one with another that the lines of juncture could not be perceived. And in this way the building of the tower looked as if it were made out of one stone.

    Those stones, however, which were taken from the earth suffered a different fate; for the young men rejected some of them, some they fitted into the building, and some they cut down, and cast far away from the tower.

    Many other stones, however, lay around the tower, and the young men did not use them in building; for some of them were rough, others had cracks in them, others had been made too short, and others were white and round, but did not fit into the building of the tower.

    Moreover, I saw other stones thrown far away from the tower, and falling into the public road; yet they did not remain on the road, but were rolled into a pathless place.”

    The vision is later explained in the narrative…(I suggest reading it).
    The power of the allusion (vision) is that The unity of the tower (the Church) is never sacrificed while at the same time the stones that ‘did not fit’ in the building of the seamless tower will have an opportunity to be ‘transferred’ so long as they are repentant…because they have “partaken of the righteous Word”.

    But there is a dreadful catch…

    The entire narrative is conscious of the reality that “everyone will be salted with fire…” And that there is a reality of those who try to build on the foundation of Christ wrongly…
    “.he himself will be saved, yet only so as through fire.”

    For me, Rejecting the Protestant idea of being immune from judgement because of “positional” or juridical “righteousness” was key….Then understanding the ONE CHURCH becomes easier and one can be a bit less defensive about what being in or out actually might entail….because being “in” ain’t no picknick….

    I fully expect that now that I’m “Orthodox” (or think I am) I will be “beaten with many blows.” I know that I am often not… “doing his will and preparing myself”…while many others “outside” the ONE Church will be “beaten with few blows.” Being Orthodox has only upped the ante as far as I’m concerned.

    “Lord,” Peter asked, “are You telling this parable to us or to everyone? ”

    The Lord said:…”that slave who knew his master’s will and didn’t prepare himself or do it will be severely beaten. But the one who did not know and did things deserving of blows will be beaten lightly. Much will be required of everyone who has been given much. And even more will be expected of the one who has been entrusted with more.

    I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already set ablaze!”

    Let us be attentive.

  29. kLutz Avatar

    Upon re-reading this ‘thought experiment’ it seems to fall flat.
    1st. It does not respond to the intent of God that humanity be of One heart and of One mind.
    2nd. In only going back so far as the 4th century, it subordinates the union with God to the Church, in effect, making it the ‘mystery hid from the ages’. And thus, an idol.
    3rd. In claiming “the Church consists solely of people,” the Head is lopped off, the testimony of the Paraclete which draws one to union with God is voided.
    4th. Denying the “invisible Church” refutes “The Spirit breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
    5th. The inference that the Orthodox is “the One Church” is a slap in the face to all those that are refused the Eucharist therein.

    Thank-you for delving into this matter as it has triggered some exploration for me, especially in the matter of the Schism. I am reminded that whenever an ‘authority’ is established there arises its antithesis which, if not balanced by union – “sharing and participation” – will inevitably produce strife and division. See the Apocalypse.

    You said:
    “In encountering Christ, we ultimately are not asked to just do something. We are asked to do some one thing, with all our heart and soul: we die. And we do not die “in general.” Love is quite specific and concrete or it is nothing at all.”
    This is the point: unanimity with God. The Church is the consequence, not the objective. This death includes any and all presuppositions we may have re: The Church.

    Trust God.

  30. AJ Avatar


    Almost everything you wrote above is utter nonsense.

  31. Psalti Avatar

    These posts are doing a useful thing. They are recovering the language of Christ and his Church which has been hijacked by the culture.

    This is very important and I appreciate it. I’d encourage everyone who reads these posts to concentrate on their main point, which is that the meanings of the words we use when we speak of “oneness” and “unity” and “church” have been corrupted.

    To understand these words properly, to understand them the way all our forefathers did, prior to the Reformation, requires rejecting what we think these words mean.

    We’ve all been duped by the modernists in one way or another. These posts are pointing to a way out. I am grateful for that.

  32. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Well said Psalti. Amen!

  33. Dino Avatar

    very discerning!

    your comment reads/assumes quite a lot of stuff in the original article that were never there.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    1. I’m not sure where you get this. Of course it does. One mind and One heart only means something in the One Church. Two Churches means two minds, etc. Twenty thousand Churches is, well, do the math.
    2. Again. This comment makes little sense. I picked the 4th century (I could have picked the 1st century) because we have a lot of historical information for the time. We have a mixed situation with plenty of heretics and schismatics. And we have one of the great definitive periods in the history of the Church. A time of uncontested giants of theology. Frankly, anybody who doesn’t want to be in communion with the 4th century Church does not intend to be an orthodox Christian, let alone an Orthodox Christian.
    3. By saying the Church is people, I clearly intended to say there is no abstraction with which we are one. You cannot be one with the Paraclete and not one with the people of God.
    4. Nonsense. The Spirit is obviously free – but the Church is not some spooky sort of cloudy, ephemeral floaty thing. It has people. Those people eat bread and wine. Those people have elders. Those people live in love and mutual submission, etc. You’re just not dealing with the nature of the Incarnation. It’s always easier to have a spooky notion of ephemeral unity – it requires nothing more than your own personal delusion. Real love, real union, is with real people in the Holy Spirit. It is concrete and solid. That’s why it’s so hard. Modernity denies the true visibility of the Church – because it’s so inconvenient.
    5. It’s not a slap in the face. But it is a confrontation with the truth. What is in the One Cup? It is the Body and Blood of Christ – but that Body and Blood of Christ is not somehow separate from the life of the Orthodox Church. To eat His flesh and drink His blood means that you are in communion (in the truth and reality) with the others who are partaking of it. It’s not a slap in the face. But it’s an invitation that says, if you repent your sins, and are willing to be part of the fullness of the life of the Church, then there is a path to the Cup. Anything else would be to eat death (as in St. Paul) in that you would not be “discerning the Body.”

  35. Fr. Jonathan Avatar

    I wonder if you might say a word about how the oneness you describe should affect the oneness of the Orthodox Churches themselves. In other words, does not such a oneness become damaged in a situation in which there are multiple, overlapping jurisdictions that are theoretically united in faith and the cup but not in actual administrative practice?

  36. Byron Avatar

    >Almost everything you wrote above is utter nonsense.

    AJ, please be careful. Many of Father’s writings have drawn inquiries and comments such as Klutz’s. As a community we need to respond with compassion or simply allow Father to address them. To write such a dismissive comment can turn the commenter away without any understanding and/or correction. Kindness in all things. Blessings!

  37. Byron Avatar

    P.S. – And my apologies, kLutz; I mistyped your user name. No disrespect is intended there.

  38. Michael Avatar

    When I think of the 4th century church, I think of huge variety in liturgical practice, deep debates on even more foundational questions the christian church (divinity, Gnostism,Manicheasim, Judaism etc) and every bishop having a slightly personal flavor due to no standard bible codex or creed and a very young hierarchical church structure. Not quite the “one” church your talking about….

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you’re rather mistaken. There was certainly a variety of liturgical practice, as there still is in Orthodoxy to this day. The liturgies were clearly less uniform. And there were deep debates on foundational questions. We have our debates today though the foundational questions have been resolved. The One, however, is found in the Cup, and this was guarded carefully then as it is now, if not more so.

    If you are not Orthodox, you may not understand the consciousness of the One Cup but it is profound. But, interestingly, you’re describing a Church in the 4th century in which catechumens were not allowed to stay in the Church and hear the service of the faithful. There was indeed a Creed, though the Nicene Creed does not come into existence until the early 4th century. But every Church had and used something like the Apostles’ Creed. It was the Baptismal Creed. Baptismal had only one form, etc.

    There was then a tolerance for a variety of expression in the One Faith, just as there still is in Orthodoxy to this day. The Gnostics, Manicheans, etc., were not admitted to communion then, nor would they be now. They were not of the One Faith. I don’t know who you’re reading.

    A very good lecture on the topic can be found here.

  40. Brian McDonald Avatar
    Brian McDonald

    Fr. Stephen,

    A response to your earlier comment: “The Lord will invite whom He will to that table. Jesus can do whatever He wants. But I cannot.”

    Your words were exactly the point of a joke I once heard, though I doubt the person who I heard telling it (and probably the author of the joke itself) didn’t get the real point. Neither did I at the time.

    The joke involves a Roman Catholic priest describing a recent quandary he’s had to his bishop. A young Southern Baptist man has been coming every Sunday, all afire to learn all about Catholicism. On the Sunday previous, he’d apparently undergone a crisis of internal conversion and, true to the “altar-call” instincts of his Baptist roots, he got in line for Communion. As the smiling youth drew nearer and nearer to the cup, the priest was really sweating. To humiliate a young man on the verge of conversion might effectively turn him away from the Church forever! What should he do?

    “Well what did you do?” asks the bishop anxiously.
    “Just then I had an inspiration,” cries the eager priest, “I just asked myself—what would Jesus do?”
    “You didn’t!” cries the scandalized bishop.

    Of course the reason the joke gets a big laugh comes from something very good and right: an instinctive sense, shared by both the priest and bishop in different ways, that it would be just like Jesus to act that way. But for those of us who heard it for the first time, this laughter for Jesus was also laughter against the church and its supposedly pettifogging and divisive ecclesiastical nit-pickery.

    It wasn’t until years later that it suddenly struck me that the bishop was actually correct. Why? Because he had a better recognition of the division of authority than his priest. The One to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given may dispose of that authority as He will. But we like the Centurion are under authority and may not, as it were, make the kind of executive decisions that belong to “the author and finisher” of our faith.

    Seen in this new light, the joke reinforces my joyfully instinctive hope that our loving Lord will “draw all men to myself” in ways known only to him. At the same time it stands as a reminder that we are under His authority and have not been given a carte blanche to rebuild the ark of the Church or to declare it just one of many equally seaworthy vessels. In a time when all the mainline boats, with astonishing rapidity, are sinking to the bottom of the sea, this would seem a particularly urgent and yes loving task for us who are Orthodox. If we stay the course, it can only help those who are floundering around us.

  41. Christopher Avatar

    “When I think of the 4th century church, I think of…deep debates on even more foundational questions the christian church (divinity, Gnostism,Manicheasim, Judaism etc) ”

    I used to think such a thing, and to a modern christian “on the outside looking in” it appears that way. In a sense, it is correct to say it was a time of *deep* debates. In other words, you had to go quite “deep” to get at the reality of what was being debated (God, the Christian “Way”, etc.), because of there was actually quite a bit of understanding and commonality as to what the real issues were. I think of it as a time of *precision*, one had to be very self aware of ones own understandings and be quite precise. The Fathers of that era were masters of the precision needed to cut to the “deep” truth.

    What a contrast to today, where there is such a thick crust of modernity, disunity, basic confusion as to what and who God is, and to what and who a man is. Indeed, today you can assert the most outlandish, surface understanding and spend a lifetime “debating” on the surface, never getting the the basic foundations as to what Christianity is actually all about. To a modern christian, who (in his delusion) stands at the pinnacle of “historical progress” and is a product of a philosophy (namely modernity) that is more philosophically and historically ignorant than any that has gone before it, he takes his own time to be the time of things “deep”. This delusion is part of his madness…

  42. drewster2000 Avatar

    I find the process of these articles (and all the series delivered) to be very interesting.

    In the West we think very rationally about everything. There is the expectation that the teacher will say X. The listener will then hear X, the light will go on and everyone will go away happier and edified.

    In reality though it is often more complicated. When you get healed by the doctor, sometimes he has to hurt you first, to re-break the bone, to pierce the skin with needle and thread, to take care of one thing before the main problem can be addressed and so on.

    Here we speak of deep things and often there are many obstacles before those can be addressed in the heart directly: scar tissue, other loves, illusions, apathy, etc. We first have to taste X, react to it, contemplate it, take it for a test drive, try it on our friends. It is a timely process (lifelong in some cases) that does not care about our need for tidiness and efficiency. That’s how it is AND how it should be.

    Again we often touch on things of the heart here. Best practice is to either go deep or go on. There is no drive-through for this site. This is just my assessment but the only ones I’ve seen benefit from Fr. Stephen’s writings are those prepared to stay awhile.

  43. Janis Schmidt Avatar
    Janis Schmidt

    I am sorry, but I really don’t understand this. Could you give specific examples?

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    could you give specific questions?

  45. Byron Avatar

    To a modern christian, who (in his delusion) stands at the pinnacle of “historical progress” and is a product of a philosophy (namely modernity) that is more philosophically and historically ignorant than any that has gone before it, he takes his own time to be the time of things “deep”. This delusion is part of his madness…

    Well stated, Christopher. I recall a friend of mine (not a Christian), who is otherwise intelligent, asking publically on social media why we should not just jettison the past and move “forward” using our own views and knowledge. I don’t recall the answers he received, if any. I did not bother to answer or check back in. I found the question itself ridiculous and silly, and not worth paying attention to.

  46. Karen Avatar

    I have postulated that had Christ been an Englishman, we would still have icons. But the tradition of the Church would be to enter the Nave, stand in front of an icon, feel terribly awkward and apologize. 🙂

    Just rereading thru this excellent thread and had to acknowledge the hilarious resonance of this image with me (having spent a few of my formative years in said Mother Country!). Puts one in mind of Hugh Grant in one of his many awkward and apologetic roles in film.

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