Unecumenism – The Saving Union

ruinsMy recent articles on the Church drew attention to the topic of union and its importance within the life of the Church – indeed, it is the life of the Church. Orthodox theology, when rightly considered, has a “seamless” quality: everything fits and one thing enlightens another. Perhaps the single most important thread in this seamless quality can be summed up in the term union.

The word for union (ἕνωσις) does not actually occur in the New Testament, though it is common in the Eastern Fathers. It literally means “the process or product of being one.” There are other words related to the concept: communion or participation (κοινωνία), frequently and incorrectly rendered as “fellowship” in English translations. And by far the most frequent expression of this foundational understanding can be found in the phrases “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” “in Him,” etc. These expressions occur 216 times in St. Paul’s letters and another 26 in St. John’s works.

But what is union in Orthodox thought?

It does not mean being blended into God, losing our identity. We do not become “one” in the sense often described in Far Eastern religions. Rather, we become one in the sharing of a common life. It is classically stated by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century): “God became man so that man could become God.” This thought is repeated in a variety of forms by a large number of early Fathers, becoming perhaps the single most succinct statement of Orthodox theology.

To a degree, this expression of union (God with us and us with God) is a description of how we are saved, and even an expression of why we need to be saved. It is an expression as well of the meaning of worship and the whole of the sacramental life. In a word, it is the Orthodox faith.

Sin, at its root, is the lack of union with God. God, who is the Lord and Giver of life, is also the source of human existence and our well-being. In our brokenness, we have fallen from true communion with God, and so we die. “The wages of sin is death.” Instead of moving towards greater and greater communion with God, we move further from God and all things around us. We experience alienation, death, corruption and Hades.

It is for this reason that God became man. He united Himself with us, taking our very own human nature into Himself (the Hypostatic Union). His union is so complete that, “emptying Himself” of Divine privilege, He enters into our death and the very depths of Hades, filling all things with His divine life. He makes possible our saving union with Him.

The sacraments are best understood within this account. In Baptism, we are united with Him. 

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (Rom 6:4-5)

In Holy Baptism, we become what He became. His death becomes our death, and His life becomes our life. This new birth is the restoration of communion and the way of eternal life.

That same union is found in the Holy Eucharist:

 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” (Joh 6:56-57)

This is the whole of our life. It is the foundational reality and understanding of the Christian faith. It should also be the foundation and understanding of the life we call the Church. For the Church is expressed in the same terms of union. It is His Body. It is not an institution doing things in His name, nor an organization with a God-given mission. It is the communion of life in Him and in one another.

Such an understanding of our Christian life provokes problems for us. The boundaries of the communion cup are, in Orthodox understanding, the boundaries of the Church, for the very reasons described above. These boundaries are reflected in St. Paul’s admonition:

Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be liable of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and then let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (1Co 11:27-30)

This practice (the Cup as the boundary of the Church) was once a universal practice of all Christian groups. As recently as the 1960’s, “closed communion” (so-called) was the normative practice across all denominations with only minor exceptions. And it had been the single practice of Christians since the beginning.

It is not a denial of union – it is the profession of belief in union. If there is no true union, then there is no danger in the Cup. Indeed, the modern practice of “open-communion” is a denial of union and of any possible danger in the Cup. It becomes the anti-communion.

This same understanding of union is also inherent in Christian marriage. A man and a woman “become one flesh.” That union is sacramentally consummated in their sexual union, and seen as fruitful and particularly blessed in the conception of children.

And the marriage union has boundaries. The communion of a man and a woman in marriage is not open to “hospitality” or “sharing.” Their union is guarded by chastity, by faithfulness and by steadfast love. In the practice of “open communion,” no chastity is required (any doctrine may be held by the one who approaches the Cup); no faithfulness is required (people may come and go at will and accept no mutual responsibility or discipline); no steadfast love is expected. Communion becomes ecclesial politeness.

Of course, much of this recent change has been driven by the triumph of individualism within contemporary Christian life. The modern believer sees all statements of Christ and every promise directed to himself as an individual. The Church is, at most, a convenient place for learning, for sharing, and for fellowship. It is little wonder that this same period of time has seen the collapse of Christian marriage and the exploding phenomenon of casual sex. We now have “committed relationships” instead of unions. And the so-called “personal relationship with Christ” largely takes its meaning from this contemporary distortion.

The union of the Church has, of course, become historically problematic. Rampant schisms and ecclesial entrepreneurship have created a landscape of choices and decisions that believers find completely bewildering. This is made all the more problematic by the dominance of “churches” that have no sense or commitment to a “churchly existence.” The sacraments themselves, once the most intense expression of union, are reduced to religious tokens with vague psychologized meanings. It is a path of increasing “dis-union.”

But there is a path towards union. It is not a map of ecumenical diplomacy. It is the map of ecclesial faithfulness. Those who stand outside of Orthodoxy and point to the schisms between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, or the schism with the Roman Catholics, fail to understand what they see. Those schisms are real and they are indeed problems. But in each case, those involved have not renounced the reality of the One Church, nor the sacramental life of the One Cup. The schisms are something to be healed and are treated with great seriousness. But there can only be a true restoration of communion and union in the One Church. It is the very nature of that one life is being preserved and proclaimed, even in the face of schism.

If you will, the language and grammar of the One Church is spoken fluently in those ancient groups. Conversations are therefore possible. If, for example, a path of union were found between the Oriental and Orthodox Christians, it would not involve re-teaching the entire nature of what it means to be a Christian and what the character of that life looks like. Both speak the language of union.

It becomes virtually impossible, however, to have such conversations with those who reject the very notion of a visible Church that is One, or with those who have reduced the sacraments to statements of private devotion.

The path towards union requires the reacquisition of the common language and grammar of the Christian faith as given and spoken by the Apostles and the Fathers. It is, first and foremost, the language of union itself. The reacquisition of “language and grammar” means more than words. It is the grammar of our existence. Modern Christians need to renounce modernity and learn to live a Churched existence. Learn the discipline of the Cup and the life of God-given boundaries. Return to the life of asceticism and the way of the Cross.

God is in charge of history, not us. But we can live faithful to what He has given us and let Him make the path of union clear. We must be committed to the life of union with Christ. His life is our life, and our only life.

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.


25 responses to “Unecumenism – The Saving Union”

  1. Helen Avatar

    Hi Father and thank you for your post. In the book, The Orthodox Church (or maybe The Orthodox Way) by Kallistos Ware, my impression was that the west excommunicated the east and vice versa. If that’s accurate, then it seems to me that each thinks it’s the One Church. How do we understand this?

  2. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Father Bless,
    Having been faced with questions of why the cup is only open to those in union with the Church, I find your perspective unique and very illuminating. Thank you for giving the answer in such an explainable and understandable way.

  3. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephe,

    On the topic of union, and since you mentioned the hypostatic union, I have found the understanding of “interpenetration” especially that of the divine and human natures, particularly helpful. The “Tome of Leo” (the champion of the Council of Chalcedon!) should be required reading for every Christian.

    Pope St. Leo the Great says some amazing truths about union:
    “… the same who, remaining in the form of God, made man, was made man in the form of a servant. For each of the natures retains its proper character without defect; and as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not impair the form of God.” It can be found here http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xi.vii.html in its entirety.

  4. Robert D. Hosken Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I always enjoy reading your blog posts. Thank you especially for this very edifying and instructive post. One small point, however, is that “henotes” (unity) – a cognate of “henosis” – is found twice in the NT, in Eph. 4:1 & 13, a very crucial on the nature of the Church (and central to my doctoral thesis).

    Your fellow-servant,


  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. That is correct. We understand that there is a schism. From an Orthodox perspective, we wait for the Catholic Church to return to Orthodoxy. They wait for us to acknowledge the Pope’s authority.

  6. Phillip Avatar

    Love this. As one who worships in the Wesleyan/Anglican tradition, I appreciate your forthright thoughts on the One Cup and its correlation with the tragedy of failed marriages and the openness of an open bedroom so to speak. Very thought provoking and convicting. Again thank you.

  7. AJ Avatar

    Helen et al;

    The central issue which most in the West fail to understand is that of Love. Love is not some ethereal and invisible “unity” or hospitality that is emotionalized as in the West as “good will” or “moralism,” or in a more modern sense “hospitality” and conditionless welcome. Love is a specific “mode of being” within the Church which is conciliar (i.e. selfless Love)

    Patristic sources, the Scriptures and history scream this reality of parity of
    Bishops and the expression of Christian Love and unity in the One Church as consilarity.

    A Protestant Scholar, Eden Grace wrote a fantastic article linked below which expresses the differences in the Orthodox understanding of Love and its relationship to salvation and the repudiation of such a “life of Love” (the “fullness” of the Truth) in those who have broken communion (concilarity) with the One True Church.

    “…these are the apostles and bishops and teachers and deacons, who walked after the holiness of God, and exercised their office of bishop and teacher and deacon in purity and sanctity for the elect of God… And because they always agreed with one another, they both had peace among themselves and listened one to another. Therefore their joinings fit together (seamlessly) in the building of the tower.”

    Making sense of the split of the non-Calcedonians, the Latins and Protestants are seen from an Orthodox persepective as repudiations of the “law of love” established by Christ and the Apostles and maintained in Orthodoxy.


    Excerpts follow;

    Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology seemed to present a view of the church that hallowed its traditions as even Roman Catholicism did not and that nevertheless did not identify those traditions with an authoritarian and juridical institution. Likewise, Orthodoxy resists the horizontal, individualistic pietism of the Protestant church. The Orthodox church is neither overly horizontal nor overly vertical in focus; rather, it is conciliar. The Church, as an article of faith, is neither a mystical body nor an historical institution. Rather, it is an incarnational reality, an embodiment of the triune God, set in order by the Holy Spirit.

    The Church is constitutive of Christian faith precisely because of its Trinitarian, relational nature. Human life in the image of God is life in relationship: relationship with the world, other people, and God. Human spiritual fulfillment is not a moral attainment or accomplishment, it is a way of being in relationship. The Church is the place where such relational fulfillment is (or should be) most realized. Indeed, a solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms. To be a Christian is to be part of a Christian community. Therefore, the qualities of the community are anything by incidental. The way of being as Church is the way of being as Christian.

    At its most superficial level, conciliarity refers to the holding of councils for the purpose of common agreement in faith and practice. However this level of description utterly belies the theological meanings of conciliarity. Therefore, the first claim to make is a negative one: conciliarity can not be defined by describing a council. The church has experienced a variety of patterns of councils at many levels, in many historical contexts. An external description of a council — its membership, constitution, or procedures — can not provide a normative definition of conciliarity. Such an external study, focusing on the council as an institution of church government, with certain criteria necessary for validity, represents an ecclesiology of form which is foreign to Orthodox theology. The question is not “what is a valid council” but “what is a council and how does it reflect the conciliar nature of the church itself…

    Thus our second element of a definition, also in the negative, is that conciliarity is, at the core, non-institutional. Orthodox ecclesiology is an ecclesiology of content rather than form. The church is the life of grace and communion with God, the sacrament which expresses (represents, makes present, fulfills) the reality of new life. This sacrament takes a certain form, but it is not reduced to it. It is certainly not fulfilled simply by the convening of the external form of a council or synod.

    To put this is a more positive sense, conciliarity is an all-pervasive, constitutive mark of the Church. “For conciliarity is not something which the Church has — it is what the Church is” Conciliar theory begins by seeing the Church itself as council, just as the Greek word “ekklesia” literally means synod or council. “The Church’s synodal structure is a constitutive principle, which is of divine origin, essential and irreplaceable.”

    Conciliarity is not, as is sometimes assumed, an attribute of the episcopacy. It is a defining attribute of the entire Church, from patriarch to laity, for conciliarity is not something to be found in the church, it is the very nature of the church

    The deepest meaning of conciliarity is trinitarian. “Each person of the Holy Trinity lives not for himself but for the other.” Because the Trinity is council, a communion of persons, the Church is also council; the church reproduces on earth the Trinitarian mystery of unity. The conciliar Church is “an orderly communion of persons freely united in the Holy Trinity in truth and in love.” This is not due to any authoritative command that the Church “ought” to be conciliar, but because, by participation in the divine life, the Church takes on the qualities of the Trinity. “The very act of organizing the life of the Church becomes an act of worship and in this worship we participate in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

    Conciliarity is the experience of divinely restored human life. It describes an experience of synergy between God and humans, in which humans participate with God through the Holy Spirit in the formulation of Truth. “Through conciliarity, the nature of the Church as theanthropic communion in Christ is expressed.” By participating in the conciliar life of the community — unity in diversity through mutual-indwelling — we participate in the divine life, and vice versa. Thus conciliarity is found “in every act of communion among all members of the Church’s body.” Rooted in Matthew 18:20, it represents an understanding of Christian life lived in mutually accountable community.”

    From this standpoint, the excommunication of the East by Rome was a rejection of conciliar Love with the demand for singular authority. It was thus a rejection of the “mode of being” that makes the Church the Church; mutual Love in mutual submission.

    When Orthodoxy speaks of the “One True Church” this is the calling it calls all Christian back to….to that Love which is the “fullness” of the freedom of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit’s work within and among us.

  8. Dino Avatar


    I think you meant Eph. 4 : 3 (& 13)

  9. H. Ian Attila Avatar
    H. Ian Attila

    Father Bless!
    Thank you for these last few post Fr. Stephen. I have enjoyed reading them.
    I’m curious to know your thoughts concerning the popular statement: we can say where the Church is, but we cannot say where the Church is not.
    Do you think this statement is true? (Or is somewhat true?)
    Or is it very close to–if not outright– ecclesiological heresy.
    Or is it simply sopply semantics?
    Is it all the above?
    For if “the boundaries of the communion cup are, in the Orthodox understanding, the boundaries of Church,” how is it that I cannot say where the Church is not?

    Thank you for your time.

  10. Helen Avatar

    Thank you Father.

  11. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    The bishop of Rome is the first among equals. Orthodoxy has forgotten that he is first and Rome has forgotten that he is equal. And here we sit.

  12. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Seamless! That’s the word I wanted! All these years that I’ve been Orthodox I have read and meditated. One day it occurred to me that everything I was reading was somehow integrated; that it wasn’t randomness somehow made to fit together to give the appearance of continuity. The more I thought about it the more I instinctively realized that it could only be this way if it was the truth and, therefore, the Truth; that it was now for me to continue delving into it to discover it’s beauty, layer by layer. It’s wholly inadequate but I still think of it in the same terms I thought at the beginning of this realization: Genius, sheer Genius!
    Thank you Father!

  13. Robert Avatar


    “Orthodoxy has forgotten that he is first” – this is not true at all. The East readily acknowledges, and has so over the centuries, that the ancient Patriarchate of Rome is first among equals. But even the first is to be resisted should he wander; historically Rome isn’t the first Patriarch to be confronted!

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    H. Ian,
    I’ve heard the statement, too. There are ways that it is true and ways that it is not. It can indeed be sloppy but, I think it’s always ok to recognize our own limitations with regard to God. That said, most people use this to try and say that we can’t say anything. And that is not at all the case.

  15. theoldtree Avatar

    H. Ian and Fr. Stephen

    For what it’s worth, I think there are two versions of that idiom. The other is:

    “We can say where the Holy Spirit is, but not where it is not.”

    I think I recently heard someone speak of the importance distinction here (Perhaps Fr. Josiah Trenham in his “Rock and Sand” interview). The Spirit is not bound exclusively to what the Church is and does, but we certainly are (to paraphrase Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).

    This second version seems much more consonant with the claims of Holy Orthodoxy, as it rewords helpful concepts found in, e.g., John 3:8.

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for such a lovely and challenging series. Your description of the analogy between Eucharist and marriage is one of the most concise and clear articulations I have read.

    Many thanks.

  16. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Robert, yes I am painfully aware of the Pope’s wandering. That can be lumped into his forgetfulness that the other bishops are equal to him and that he can’t operate by moto proprio, in effect an executive order.

  17. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, for this blog post and for your answers to comments here in the comments section! Glory to God for All Things!

  18. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Thank you for writing.

    “Orthodox theology, when rightly considered, has a “seamless” quality: everything fits and one thing enlightens another.”

    How appropriate and expected, then, that the entire time I have been reading your “un-ecumenical” blog posts, your “un-moral” Christian posts have been brought to mind.

    I understand it now: union with Christ makes them fit together, however, I wish you would specifically address these two “uns” together.

    The drive I have seen in many evangelical Protestant circles is a drive to moral perfection – without union with Christ – and as an end in itself. It makes sense that this perhaps is one of the consequences of our lost sense of what “union” means.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    They do indeed belong together. I’ll give some thought to a linking article.

  20. rusynbyz Avatar


    For a modern westerner it would seem accepting this kind of “oneness” in the face of schism is a mental impossibility. But as +Fr. Thomas Hopko said, “Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.” I just need to accept that the Church is the Church, the spotless Bride of Christ, and leave the rest to God.

  21. Byron Avatar


    Many thanks for that article on conciliarity. Excellent excerpts; I have yet to read the entire article but will.

  22. Dean Avatar

    The casual sex comment was an interesting tangent, it’s just another symptom of how much modern life has changed for humans. The argument here is not to ever say that chastity isn’t the goal, but think of it — society and economy was structured much differently in the old world — you pretty much were married very closely after puberty for an overwhelming (90%?) part of human existence. Now you have longevity, careers, women in careers, identity issues (of course this would happen in late phase spoiled modernity where this is too much time on our hands) and ease of travel.

    I feel like a whole blog entry should be written on this. When you “look at another woman” and commit lust in your heart, that was mostly because by the time you could even lust … you were already married!

    Modernity has become all about the paradox of creating wonderful accommodations but unfulfilled people, and the evolution of technology to the extent that we figuratively and literally (atomic bomb) will destroy ourselves!

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    From time to time I have written that one of the basic thrusts of Orthodoxy is to help us become truly human. Met. Kallistos Ware has noted that although God works in us to make us “gods,” first we have to become humans. Orthodoxy is perhaps the last surviving memory of traditional humanity in the West, without modernization. Even so, it is a constant struggle. My frequent critique of modernity is not meant to be the musings of an old curmudgeon, but a cry for us to return to our humanity.

    We have created an existence that requires technology even for a sex life. Adolescence is a modern creation, to a great extent, and the least successful of all human endeavors. Who would ever want to repeat Middle School? It should be treated as a civilizational crisis.

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