An Unnecessary Salvation

One of the oddest thoughts to have crept its way into the Christian mind is the notion of what is “necessary to salvation.” The simple questions within the New Testament, “What must we do to be saved?” quickly become the stuff of bumper-stickers and a reduced version of Christianity unable to sustain a genuine spiritual life.

In my seminary years (Anglican), I had a professor who stated that he did not believe in angels. I was puzzled and asked him why. “Because they are not necessary. Anything an angel can do can be done by the Holy Spirit.” And there you have it. Only things that are necessary need to be posited as existing. It explains the apparent disappearance of the unicorn.

Here in Appalachia it is not unusual to be told, “All I need is Jesus and the King James Bible.” Of course the least-common-denominator version of Christianity is not only handy and compact, it also leaves untouched the entire remainder of a secular existence. My pickup truck, my gun, the fifth of liquor under the seat, my anger and love of reality TV have nothing to do with Jesus and my Bible. It is a very convenient version of the Two-Storey Universe.

Anglicanism (as did many other versions of Protestantism) enshrined some of this sentiment in the Oath of Ordination required of its clergy. In this they swore that they believed the “Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary to salvation.” In the hands of more extreme Reformers, this notion became a slogan with which to eliminate everything from Christianity other than those things that could be found in the Scriptures. A white-washed (literally) Christianity, devoid of ceremony and with only a hint of sacrament was the result. It is easily the primary culprit in the creation of secularism. All the “unnecessary stuff” is removed from Christianity, leaving the world with huge collections of unchristian, “neutral” things. This instinct and principle is both contrary to the Scriptures themselves as well as destructive of the very nature of the Christian faith.

A contrary principle can be seen in the affirmation: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” The same thought can be found in 1 Corinthians:

For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come– all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1Co 3:21-23)

What is this “all things”? It is precisely what it sounds like – everything that is. Our salvation won’t fit on a bumper-sticker inasmuch as it includes everything that is: everything is working together towards the restoration of our communion with God. God has created nothing that is excluded from this work. Our own efforts to narrow the scope of our salvation to a few verses of Scripture, snatched from here and there, are exercises in gross misunderstanding.

That Christianity in its classical form has always had an instinct for “all things,” is evidenced in the use of “all things” within its services and sacraments. And when those uses are examined, what is uncovered is a “seamless garment” of salvation. Nothing is “by the way.” I have made the statement from time to time with catechumens in my parish that we could begin with the smallest thing, a simple blade of grass, and go from there to give a full account of the entirety of the gospel. It could also be said that if an account of the gospel excludes even so much as a blade of grass, then it has been seriously misunderstood.

There is no imagined version of Christianity within the New Testament that exists outside the Church. Anyone who says that they have a “relationship with Jesus” and do not need the Church is in deep delusion. There is no such Jesus.

A not inaccurate polemic against this reductionist form of Christianity is to describe it as an increasing Islamification of the faith. I have written before of the influence of Islam on the notion of Sola Scriptura. Christianity, viewed as essentially an act of submission to God through Christ, is not Christianity. It is a Christianized Islam. It’s useful. It need have none of the problems concomitant with a genuine historical Church. It is quite portable and can be kept entirely private, offering no disturbance to the structures and agreements of the secular world. Individual Christians are never a problem for the world. It’s only when two or three of them gather together that they become dangerous.

The Church is the beginning and foretaste of the “all things” that are our salvation. Salvation, when understood properly, cannot be tied to an isolated verse. For example:

He who believes and is baptized will be saved; (Mar 16:16)

This in no way is meant to say that simply belief and baptism are sufficient unto themselves for salvation. “As many as are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death,” St. Paul says, “and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” Additionally, “…by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”  (1Co 12:13) Baptism is not an isolated event, or an act of magic. It is the gateway into the death and resurrection of Christ, while the Church is nothing other than the death and resurrection of Christ through time. And, in time, we shall see that everything was always the Church, from the first pronouncement, “Let there be light.”

And so we are told that God:

[has] 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. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, (Eph 1:9-11)

Salvation is “all things.” And in this good life, all things are necessary. He has made nothing without purpose.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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58 responses to “An Unnecessary Salvation”

  1. Preston Avatar

    This is brilliant, Father Stephen! As I dig deeper into the Patristic corpus, Protestant Christianity is indeed seeming more and more “reductionist”—but it never occurred to make a connection with Islam before…

  2. Byron Avatar

    Please continue to write on the Church, Father. Just recently, some of us at my parish were talking about Protestant reductionism and I immediately brought up the Church. I would love to hear more on it.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Forgive me Father but the one word in your final Scripture that lepto out at me was ‘predestined’ even though I have never been Protestant.

  4. Angie Dicken Avatar

    Oh, my heart hurts, knowing that I tossed out my Orthodox upbringing in college for a “reduced-version” of Christianity. Now, having returned to Orthodoxy, I struggle with the grief of knowing my almost-grown children missed out so much on the richness of our faith. On good days, I am comforted in knowing that only God can see their hearts and their future steps, but I confess, the effort I poured into a family centered on misunderstandings of Christian living, is a huge regret of mine. Praying that God’s grace fills the gaps in their understanding, and that my children become more and more curious about that “weird” church their mom loves so much. Thank you, Father Stephen, for your blog and recordings on Ancient Faith… I pass them on to my 21 year old since he’s the most open to the idea. 🙂

  5. Aaron Lechtenberger Avatar
    Aaron Lechtenberger

    Fr. Steven,

    That reference to a blade of grass struck me. I had an argument/discussion with my mom and my sister many years ago about the importance of a single blade of grass. I said that this blade of grass had no importance, and inside I hated that these small things had no importance (though I wonder now how much of that they could see). I felt this as an argument against God.

    My mom and my sister both disagreed with me, insisting on the importance of that blade of grass by saying, “look at what discussion this has provoked, see how important this blade of grass is?” I wasn’t convinced by the answer because I wanted that blade of grass to be valuable in God’s eyes rather than our own. It seemed wrong to call it valuable simply in our own eyes. It was around this time which I began to lose my faith in the evangelical church I grew up in (there were various other reasons for this). I’m still now exactly sure of the value of that blade of grass, but I returned to the christian faith and to the Orthodox Church in particular because I needed salvation more than I needed to be able to account for everything.

    But I am curious for how would you give an account of the gospel from that blade of grass. Could you elaborate?

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You might find my article, “Has your Bible become a Quran?” to be of interest.

  7. Cliff Avatar

    I remember seeing “Christ is the Answer” bumper stickers when I was just a kid. It caused me to ask the question, “If that is true, then why did He ask so many questions?”

  8. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It’s a good word – badly misued by some.

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Pray always for your children. God will use the whole of their experience (and yours) for their salvation!

  10. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks for this Father.

    I would also like to hear more about the Church and why Protestantism errs when it speaks of a univeral, invisible Church. This might also help me as I consider my conversation with my newly married work colleague.

    For me the lightbulb went on when I began to understand that salvation as understood by Orthodoxy is much, much different than salvation as understood by most Protestants. If people could just see, understand, and experience the salvation Orthodoxy proclaims; the salvation the Church has always proclaimed; then all those isolated verses might begin to make sense. Maybe, just maybe, Protestants would then begin to understand the error of reductionism and, consequently, the beauty of “all things”.

  11. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Another translation of Romans 8:28, highlighting the notion of synergy, reads, “in all things God works together with those who love him…”

    This rendering makes the point of the article even stronger, I think, and may reflect the Greek more accurately.

    Father, one question comes to mind. How do we integrate the truth of what you said here with Jesus’ words to Mary and Martha, “only one thing is needful”? Is this the old problem of the One and the Many?

    Many thanks.

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Christ gives the example: “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:29-31)

    The sparrow is used in the example because it seems such a small, “insiginificant” bird. Nothing is insignificant to God (not even a single hair – though there seem be less and less of these on my head).

    Everything in all of creation has its place. First, a blade of grass is living – it is a miracle beyond the explanation of science (though they imagine otherwise). Imagine if they found a single blade of grass on Mars! The grass breathes and provides (along with the trees and much else) the very things that make our own breathing possible. They provide food for various animals, and good things to the soil. And though a single blade of grass might seem insignificant, we could say the same about a human being (unless it happens to be ourselves we have in mind).

    The goodness of God is not measured in the vastness of things, but in the most singular and particular of things. His infinite love is not reserved for the “big stuff,” but bestowed on every thing and each thing.

    I could go on…forever…

    But, the gospel. What we see in a blade of grass is the goodness of God making provision for all things. It is the same that we see in Christ on the Cross. God provides for our salvation – taking all things into Himself (including us) – and making all things new.

    According to Romans 8 – that blade of grass will also be resurrected together with us – such is its place in our salvation. When it is all accomplished, we will join with every part of creation in the single song of praise that is the sound of the love of God in all things.

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The “one thing needful” refers to an action of the heart. “Mary has chosen that good part.” The truth is that Mary found that one good thing sitting at the feet of Jesus. For Martha, though she was busy about “many things,” all of the things with which she was busy were distracting her from Christ (though she could have found Him in all of those things). The blade of grass is of value because of its place in Christ. Christ is the value of the whole universe and each thing in it. Everything was created and given to us as a means of communion with Him. In my answer to Aaron, I had communion with Christ in a blade of grass…

  14. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    “All the “unnecessary stuff” is removed from Christianity, leaving the world with huge collections of unchristian, “neutral” things. This instinct and principle is both contrary to the Scriptures themselves as well as destructive of the very nature of the Christian faith.”

    I totally agree with the thrust of this article – and of the insidiousness of reductionist Christianity. However I have found that people usually do/say/think things for some good reason. Even if the surface reason is wrong, digging deep enough uncovers something honorable and true about it.

    In this case we are the people of the One Thing. That’s why those click-bait ads continue to be so successful: “Eating just this one thing will help you lose weight immediately!” Our instinct about one thing being the key isn’t wrong, but it’s not a piece of fruit or a steak that we ultimately need; it is the Bread of Life Himself.

    It is a relationship with THE One, which in turn eventually encompasses all of our life – not just my secret Jesus and the Bible to ride along with me like a favorite hunting dog in the pickup.

    But the primal instinct that just One Thing is the key is accurate. It’s then about how to set the sights of that instinct on the right One. That’s the journey. At least this has been my experience.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    To a great extent, Protestantism unwittingly became a sort of “gnostic sect.” Salvation is an idea – something that happens “off planet” in the theory of the Cross as a single moment of payment for our sins. The “idea” becomes the thing – and our assent to the idea is considered to be salvation. So, where would a Church even fit in such an account of salvation?

    The most prominent “thing” that Christ gave us (not a book – He never wrote anything) is the Church. And it was problematic from the beginning and always has been – but it is the means of salvation – that place where God dwells among us and feeds us. Protestantism became a blind rage against Catholicism. Its complete disdain for a true doctrine of the Church was a bulward against the possibility of Catholicism sneeking back in.

    Of course, that has all mellowed over the centuries (somewhat). But its legacy is an emptiness where Christ gave a fullness. For the Church (acc. to St. Paul) is the “fullness of Him who filleth all in all.” It is the Church that is described as the “pillar and ground of truth.”

    The wonderful convenience of an invisible Church is that it cannot speak, it cannot hear, it cannot rebuke, it cannot love, it cannot do anything other than occupy a gnostic space in a gnostic mind. The invisible Church is not a Church at all – it is only a place-holder that seeks to hide the shame of a doctrinal system that actually seeks to destroy the Church.

  16. Byron Avatar

    The goodness of God is not measured in the vastness of things, but in the most singular and particular of things.

    I may have to have a bumper sticker made of this! (LoL!). So obvious, so easy to overlook, so wonderful! Thanks for this, Father! Well said!

  17. Aaron Lechtenberger Avatar
    Aaron Lechtenberger

    Fr. Stephen

    I appreciate your comment, thank you very much.

  18. Byron Avatar

    It is a relationship with THE One, which in turn eventually encompasses all of our life

    Drewster, this immediately brought to my mind, “He is everywhere present, filling all things”. The discussion begins to cross into the realm of paradox….

  19. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    God is in very space between atoms, the place where scientists used to think/say was nothing.

  20. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen! Your words are definitely used by Our Lord, the Lover of Mankind, as He works in my heart. I can actually read words “predestined” and not immediately panic. (I was raised Protestant and came into the Anglican church when I married and so came into Orthodox Christian worship with my husband and children 16 years ago, what a blessing!) I also want to encourage Angie to pray the Akathist to the Mother of God Nurturer of Children. My children were mostly raised with a diluted and type of Christianity and not exposed to the Orthodox Christian Church until almost teenagers, so one has not embraced the Orthodox Christian worship in adult life but I continue to pray for all and this Akathist has helped me to orient my own life and prayers for my children, my Godchildren. Glory to God for All Things.

  21. Mims Robert E Avatar
    Mims Robert E

    I laugh at this, but not in derision… but in the seemingly uncanny timing, clarity , and beauty of this exploration of our faith in terms of Salvation. Almost every blog your write, Father, seems an immediate unveiling of truth in the hitches of spiritual beliefs and practices I experience, and illumined revelations to get past them

  22. Preston Avatar

    You might find my article, “Has your Bible become a Quran?” to be of interest.”

    I just now read it—and I’m utterly blown away. This explains so, so much!

  23. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    >The “one thing needful” refers to an action of the heart.<

    I love this, Father, thank you.

    I'm reminded of the patristic warning to not let our hearts, our attention – i.e. our love – be dispersed to the 10,000 things around us, but rather to make our gaze singular, recollecting our attention and retreating into the closet of the heart. Only then, perhaps, can we see all things as facets of Christ, as words in the Word. To a purified singular vision, the Many become the One, (noetically).

    "Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11). St. Paul writes of this mystery in the context of discovering our "new self" in Christ.

  24. Matrona Avatar

    When I was a protty, I attended a ladies’ bible study. the leader would say things like, ‘That’ snot a salvation issue.” or “that is not needed for salvation.” I think she was doing it to avoid conflict over something like head covering. I always found it frustrating. I used to think, ‘what if EVERYTHING is a salvation issue?’. As you said, Father, God made everything and it is all for us and we are for God. Who are we to exclude anything given to us from God that helps us in our journey?

  25. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, Fr. Stephen. I was wondering if you were familiar with the work of Bonhoeffer in regards to a “world come of age”. I’m not sure I fully understand Bonhoeffers thoughts on this matter, but I find myself wondering if many people, at least in the West, can be religious in the deep sense of the word in a secular age. Many people my own age are simply puzzled by religion. It’s not that they don’t like it; it simply doesn’t compute in the world as it exists today. I’ve had a number of these conversations over the years.

    Bonhoeffer himself was no atheist; he believed that God was found at the center of life, even in a world that had stopped speaking about God and he thought this represented a different opportunity to present a Jesus that was not a “God of the gaps” so to speak. I became Orthodox for a number of reasons, but I am aware of its foreign nature to modernity and that many people may simply not find what I do there. Is a re-enchantment by Christianity possible? Or will Christians have to find a new way to embody Christ in an age where religious ideas have lost their currency?

  26. Matthew Avatar

    Your thoughts about the Church are very helpful Father. Thanks so much.

  27. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for this question Laurie! I hope we can explore it more deeply.

  28. Simon Avatar

    This article is a Wisdom-streaming icon. It is saturated with wisdom and understanding.

  29. Priscilla Avatar

    Several years ago I likened the “all things” to the multiplicity of butterflies. Similar to your response about “unnecessary angels,” why did God create more than one type…so very unnecessary. But, our God loves to create Beauty and life and all these “unnecessary”avenues for seeing His Glory. Thanks be to God for every blade of grass and butterfly wing…and angels! (And beautiful icons and…)

  30. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I believe that people are inherently religious – with or without God. If they are not Christians, then their “religion” takes some other form. For example, nothing is more religious than a hyper-moral woke college student. There are, of course, very “tepid” forms of religion. The god of our present age is money (for the most part).

    I was listening to the hymns last Wednesday in Vespers, and it made a reference to being eaten by the demons. It comes up in Great Lent not infrequently. The Scriptures tell us that our adversary is like a “roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” I re-translated the word “devour” into “consume,” and realized that, as consumers, we become sort of like a demon. We consume stuff, and then it consumes us.

    I think this is a very important part of fasting.

  31. Leah Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I think my next bumper sticker will say “All things are yours.” A question – if salvation is “all things” and “that everything was always the Church, from the first pronouncement, “Let there be light,” does that mean that the Christians who say, ‘all I need is Jesus and the KJV’ are actually in the Church without knowing it?

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Laurie, children, even modern ones, understand the enchantment in which we live. Matthew 18:3

    Tolkien and Lewis wrote with that in mind. Now we have “Super Heroes,”

  33. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There’s a sense in which we can say, “Everything (everyone) is in the Church whether they know it or not.” Creation knows it already and groans. People, however, are different. Though “in” the Church, in a certain sense, their participation in that life is inhibited by their unwillingness to enter into sacramental union with it. Of course, in a world where an insane form of ecumenism is commonly spread about by the non-Orthodox, we are right to be cautious in speaking of “everyone” being in the Church, lest we be misunderstood. It’s frustrating in many ways.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Leah, I think it depends if the Jesus they know is merely an idea of a living person: fully God and fully man and the Holy Scriptures were breathed fourth from God by the Holy Trinity

  35. Rachael Avatar

    I’m reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy right now and this passage struck me as what you are saying about the stripping of the faith from “unnecessary” items.
    “The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may well call their law the “chain” of causation. It is the worth chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a mad-house.”
    Thank you for your continued wisdom

  36. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful essay, which I will read and re-read. I wonder if you could shed some light on the Protestant doctrine of “autonomy of the local church.” I recently heard a Protestant say that this doctrine was the “hill to die on” (as bizarre as that may seem). I’m wondering if this doctrine started mainly as an anti-Catholic reaction, or if it has other sources in how Protestants use Scripture. I’m also aware that the Orthodox Church uses the term “autonomous” (as well as autocephalous) for certain churches, but presumably means something quite different. Can you help shed some light on this? How would you respond to a Protestant who insists that “autonomy of the local church” is clearly “biblical”?

  37. Lisa Avatar

    I afraid I don’t know enough about Islam to know what Islamification other than that Islam seems to be the corruption of the Ancient Church of the Far East which Mohammed was a member until he revised it into the Islamic Faith.

    On another note, it is easy to think something has no purpose if we don’t know the purpose. Yet, all that exists, exists in the imagination of our God who wills it into being, perhaps even the conflict between good and evil. We may be quick to judge that even evil has no purpose………and yet God allows it to be part of the story. Yet because of the existence of evil we see the beauty of sacrifice that would be unnecessary without it. Perhaps that is why beauty will save the world. I really enjoyed your talk at the convention.

  38. sgage Avatar

    Hello Aaron,

    Where is it written that humans should ‘understand’ the ‘value’ of a blade of grass? And that they should feel somehow dissatisfied if they don’t?

  39. Pete Avatar


    To your comment to Leah, Lev Gillet has a great expression in this regard. “The world is at the narthex of the Church.” I certainly don’t experience my life in Christ and the Church as an “us and them” at all. We’re asked as Christians to see the world “as it really is.” The Kingdom has already been inaugurated (Luke 4:18) and St Paul, sensing the immediacy to this reality speaks of those groanings that all of creation experiences as birth pangs that are the gathering of creation and those children of God that are finally revealed (as they are indeed). Rom 8:19-22. To live in this reality is a great blessing. Becoming pure, we see.

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Your question sounds a bit odd to me…as if anything pondered needs to have been written somewhere. I thought Aaron’s story and question made good sense.

  41. Matthew Avatar

    Dear Kenneth,

    I know you asked for Fr. Stephen´s insight about the autonomy of the local church, but as a Protestant who is a member of a local Baptist church maybe I can shed my own personal light on your question.

    I don´t think the doctrine (as the person you spoke with called it) is generally anti-Catholic, but it is most definitely a hill to die on for most evangelical leaning Protestants. It´s a cry of freedom. A breaking away from a church hierarchy that they see as non-biblical (as they interpret the Scriptures of course). It is an idea that basically says the local church in its autonomy can govern itself as it pleases in isolation from other local churches. There is no central authority to look to for direction (although the Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S. is becoming more and more like Rome in terms of the power it wields). All the believers in the local church get “to play” linking this idea to the priesthood of all believers which is spoken of in the New Testament … no priest, no bishop, etc. It is a very low church structure that is normally not liturgical nor creedal. For many reformed evangelical Christians this kind of freedom is absolutely precious and very much a hill to die on. I am wondering, though, if the “hill to die on” remark is more informed by American ideas of freedom than it is from scriptural ones.

    I´ll leave it to Fr. Stephen to speak from an Orthodox perspective.

  42. Simon Avatar

    Aaron’s story reminded me of two quotes from The Brother’s Karamazov. The first one is regarding the necessary perception of beauty in the simplest of life’s creatures like blades of grass:
    >Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If you love each thing you will perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once you perceive this, you will henceforth grow every day to a fuller understanding of it until you come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.

    And here’s another:

    >Every blade of grass, every insect, ant, and golden bee, all so amazingly know their path, though they have not intelligence, they bear witness to the mystery of God and continually accomplish it themselves.

    Aaron’s description of his motivation for arguing, but secretly desiring to be wrong:

    >The question is still fretting your heart. . . . But the martyr likes sometimes to divert himself with his despair, as it were driven to it by despair itself. . . . [so] you too divert yourself with magazine articles, and discussions in society, though you don’t believe your own arguments and mock at them inwardly. . . . That question you have not answered, and it is your great grief, for it clamors for an answer.

    Salvation is in a moment where the mystery of God is seen in a single blade of grass. And he who cannot truly see it there does not truly see it anywhere.

    Salvation includes every blade of grass or it includes nothing. The kernel of Orthodox Christianity is in the affirmation of the mystery of God revealed in a single blade of grass.

  43. Matthew Avatar

    Hello again Kenneth.

    If I may, I would like to point you to 2 pages in the Orthodox Study Bible:

    pg. 1604 – article about the Church
    pg. 1635 – article about Church government

    While neither of these articles deals specifically with Protestant claims about the “invisible church”, I think they can be successfully used to further a discussion with a seeker coming from the evangelical Protestant world about how Orthodoxy understands Church structure, government, and sacramental function. If you don´t have an Orthodox Study Bible, I would be willing to send you PDF copies of these pages to your email address.

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The New Testament is largely devoid of information on Church governance – a vacuum that created wildly different adaptations by various Protestant groups. It’s important to note that there is not really a single “Protestantism.” From the beginning, it was “Protestantisms” (plural). Among the very first differences was Church government. The Baptists were a small minority – and with quite a checkered history.

    I can appreciate the great anxiety that produces the sense of local autonomy as a “hill to die on,” however. Over the past generation, many traditional Protestants found their Churches hijacked by rather high-handed jurisdictional authorities. The “reforms” of the late 20th century (liturgical, doctrinal, moral, etc.) were not populist movements driven from the bottom up. Rather, they were imposed from the top down, and often enforced by rules that prevented local congregations from withdrawing. To this day, I know many Episcopalians who remain loyal to their local parish (“It’s my Church!”) while despising the policies and practices of their denomination. It breaks my heart.

    Thus, local autonomy of the congregation remains a “hill to die on” for many – not that it is a great New Testament doctrine, but because it seems the last defense against a radical agenda imposed from above. Such are the times we live in.

    It is clear from the immediate post New Testament writings (such as those by St. Ignatius of Antioch) that the governance by bishops was the universal pattern. There was clearly some evolution involved in how that governance was displayed – but it quickly became the norm.

    Of course, the world of that time was not the instant universal communication thing that now surrounds us. There was more autonomy than at present for the simple fact that communication made anything else impossible. What records we have point to concerns primarily over deviations in doctrine – the prevention and cure of various heresies. For all of that – it is remarkable how uniform doctrine was prior to Constantine.

    I frequently write and point out how “messy” Orthodoxy is (even in the present time). This has always been true for the simple fact that we are sinners. For the most part, I have found Orthodox bishops to govern with a “light hand.” Local priests vary according to personality and such. It’s as though the Church were a vast collection of marriages (it is). Some marriages are better than others, some worse. The mistake is to dismiss the institution of marriage as if that solved the problem. In point of fact, the “institution” of marriage is essential as a stabilizer in marriage itself and of the societies and cultures in which we live.

    Freedom often despises the burden of reality. Reality imposes difficulties, requires compromises, etc. Freedom promises an existence without restraint. True existence is relational – it has restraints imposed by love. We only exist by love, despite its messiness.

    However, please note my sympathy for those who tout the autonomy of their congregations. They probably tout autonomy in all things – only to discover that the world doesn’t work so well that way.

    Last thought: it’s ironic to declare the autonomy of the local church to be “biblical.” The Bible itself is not a book of autonomy, but a product of the communion of bishops who declared what writings were to be accepted as canonical. But, of course, modern people know almost no history.

  45. Kenneth Avatar

    Thank you for the helpful comments and explanation. I think I had previously seen “autonomy of the local church” in terms of modern individualism extended on a larger scale to include the local church, but I now can understand better the anxieties and local circumstances that might foster this belief (and I had not thought of this in the context of the Episcopal experience).

  46. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    A modern principle that embodies much of what is undergirding this discussion is Occam’s Razor. It is a useful heuristic for our fallible minds because as uncertainties multiply so does the likelihood of mistakes and error, but it is erroneous to apply it to the perfect mind of God. Dismiss a blade of grass as “unnecessary” and by sufficient extrapolation angels are unneeded, as the Holy Spirit can do it all.

    Imagine the temerity of a professor standing face to face with Gabriel and saying, “I find you quite superfluous.” Out of self-interest alone we should desire that God values all of creation as unique and does not see anything or anyone as redundant.

  47. Matthew Avatar


    I´m wondering what I might say if I were to stand face to face with Gabriel! Probably nothing at all.


  48. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    The prophet Habakkuk saw that, at last, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” As one biblical scholar notes, “How do the waters cover the sea? The waters *are* the sea.” The Church in its cosmic context weaves all things into its seamless garment of salvation. Creation *is* communion with God – whether we realize it or not. Habakkuk foresaw a day when we all would.

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There’s a very fun follow-up to the story of the priest/professor who did not see the necessity of angels. I was working with him in a mission parish in North Chicago. We had a very wonderful Wednesday evening prayer/sharing group. In the group the night after his no angels story – I “outed” him. It was naughty of me – but I said, “Fr. _____ says he sees no need for angels.” The group responded by sharing a boat-load of personal angel stories, some of which were quite profound. An 80-something beloved parishioner sharing the story of seeing an angel standing by the bedside of her daughter who had died. And on and on. By the end of the evening – he not only changed his mind – but became evermore a great devotee of the Holy Angels!

  50. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Thank you for adding that, Father Stephen.

  51. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon, you wrote,

    “The kernel of Orthodox Christianity is in the affirmation of the mystery of God revealed in a single blade of grass.”

    That’s a truly striking statement. My own temptation in recent years has been to vacate the concrete particular in exchange for the sheer, unadorned universal. Some have spoken about the “scandal of particularity.” I have definitely experienced that stumbling block, assuming that particularity necessarily entails exclusivity. But it really does not! It’s dawning on me that the particular and the concrete are the only gateway we creatures have to the Whole. Grace takes embodied form in and as sacrament. Thus, focused attention paid – not in a critical spirit but in humble faith, free from attachment – to any one thing (a blade of grass) gives a sort of mystical access to every-thing. Orthodoxy is a very particular story about concrete, embodied love – Jesus of Nazareth – who is revealed to be the sacrament of universal of Love. And this Incarnation is prolonged in the Church, such that we who “attend” to its particular sacraments are illumined to see truly the whole world as the universal sacrament of God.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My experience has been it is important to not get lost in generalities as comforting and beautiful as they may be. As hard as I have found it to belief: Jesus Christ is found in my heart. If I do not realize that then I will not see Him in the blades of grass. It took me 35 years to really begin a life of repentance, even now I am crawling. He is in my heart despite my best efforts to deny that and pick sin.
    “God is with us” each of us or none of us.

  53. Matthew Avatar

    Owen said:

    “And this Incarnation is prolonged in the Church, such that we who “attend” to its particular sacraments are illumined to see truly the whole world as the universal sacrament of God.”

    Interesting … even as a Protestant who has not “attended” to the sacraments in years, I still feel and believe this is a reality for me.

  54. Nikolaos Avatar

    The recently canonised St Gabrielia talked a lot about the Angels.

    Her life story and teachings are remarkable and can be found in the book “The Ascetic of Love”.

  55. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew, I too have been a Protestant, and now as an Orthodox Christian, I wouldn’t dare limit God’s work to my own experience. I know where the Spirit is but not where the Spirit is not. (Indeed, he’s everywhere present and filling all things, as we pray.) But I would say the Orthodox Church has certain “tools” for accessing the inner self not found in other traditions. One of these being the continuous liturgical call, “let us attend!” That is the specific sacramental attention I was referring to. For me, paying (i.e. there’s a cost involved) attention to the concrete mysteries of the Church has opened up cosmic connections. And as I said above, just because grace is particular and concrete doesn’t mean it’s exclusive. But I think certain sacramental particulars tune our heart better to attend in this contemplative way than others do. It’s in this sense I find Orthodoxy true to life. I hope that helps ☺️

  56. Matthew Avatar

    It does help Owen. Thanks so much.

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I have her book (so edifying!) and I’m so grateful she is now canonized.

    On the side, I’m also so grateful for my Greek Orthodox parish! I’m slowly learning Greek! However our services in the US are in both Greek and English, which is helpful for my learning. I’m grateful to be learning a language that has spoken the heart of the Orthodox Church for a couple of millennia!

    Thank you for this link!!

  58. Nikolaos Avatar

    Dear Dee

    You are truly blessed ! You have embarked into learning the “mother of all languages” which the Holy Fathers masterfully enriched to express the fine elements of Christian theology.

    Be patient and pray to St Porphyrios to help you make good progress, as he valued and spoke about the Greek language and thought of it as music. It has a feast day too, the 9th of February.

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