My Church, Right

Few doctrines are as tangled as the Eastern Orthodox views of church infallibility and unity. Whereas Rome insists on the infallibility of the Pope, Constantinople gives us “the Church as a whole.” Because the church is united to God, the argument goes, it is exempt from sin. “We must not say that because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect; for the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven and cannot sin”, says Timothy Ware in his book The Orthodox Church (p. 244). So, say the Orthodox, though individuals sin, “The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this “something different” is the body of Christ” (ibid).

This distinction is completely arbitrary because no where in the Bible does it indicate that the Church as such cannot sin. When the Church at Corinth needed a warning to refrain from sin, Paul tells them “that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses….”  They ate spiritual food and drank from Christ, and still that generation of the church perished in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-6). It is precisely the church’s connection to Christ that Paul highlights in order to warn the New Testament church against the same sins. The saints have always been individually and corporately united to Christ, and this unity does not negate the real possibility, indeed probability, of both individual and corporate sin. Paul’s letter is to the church, and he addresses sins that the church is committing. To say that individuals sin but the church does not is akin to saying that members of a family tell lies but this family does not. What is the point? Of course the family is against lying and its members help one another to be honest. But for the family to say it never lies, only its members, is simply to evade reality, responsibility and to reveal a nasty bit of famiolatry. It’s not “my church, right or wrong”, which at least has the humility to admit fallibility. It’s “my church, right.”

The Orthodox doctrine of unity functions similarly to infallibility. “Unity is one of the essential characteristics of the Church, and since the Church on earth, despite the sinfulness of its members, retains its essential characteristics, it remains and always will remain visibly one. There can be schisms from the Church, but not schisms within the Church. And while it is undeniably true that, on a purely human level, the Church’s life is grievously impoverished as a result of schism, yet such schisms cannot affect the essential nature of the Church” (Ware, p. 245).  It is helpful to recognize that unity in the church is not something we generate or produce on our own, but something that we maintain: “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). And it is helpful to recognize that just because the church sins against her unity she does not destroy the foundation of that God-given unity which is provided by the Spirit. But again, to say the Church “remains and always will remain visibly one” just forces redefinition and evasion. So when Isidore of Moscow, Patriarch of Russian Orthodox church, was condemned by the church in 1441 for uniting with Rome, did this maintain visible unity? How about when the next Patriarch Jonah was elected unprecedentedly without the consent of the Patriarch of Constantinople? Visible unity is broken and bond the Spirit grieved by one or both sides, as has been common in church history. The Orthodox either has to say this incident was somehow not part of the Church, or was not visible, or they can do the usual and necessary thing and just ignore it.

Ironically, to deny the broken state of the church’s unity is a means of perpetuating the sin. The first thing someone must do to correct a problem is to admit that such a problem really exists. How do you repent of division when you deny such a thing can be visibly manifest? How can you confess error and sin when you have decided beforehand that such error is impossible? And this is the sad reality of this true but mistaken communion. In the name of exalting the church as the pillar and ground of the truth, the Orthodox enshrine its errors. In the desire to magnify the unity of the church in Christ, it refuses to put back together the pieces which are unmistakably lying on the floor.

3 Comments My Church, Right

  1. jzahller

    This is essentially an extension of their view of authority. The church, as a concept, is everything. The EO think of the “church” like a Protestant thinks of the Bible. The lofty, infallible language you quoted could have come from the mouth of Luther if you replace the word Church with Scripture. To say that the Church can sin is equivalent to saying (to a Protestant) that the Scriptures make mistakes. God’s Word is merely an extension of the living Church…a relic to be used as needed, but not truly necessary to the Christian. The living liturgy is the whole ball of wax, with it’s meaning being what the Spirit-led bishops determine. Scripture is almost an afterthought, as if St. Paul intended to leave behind a continuing succession of inspired leaders to determine things for each generation as opposed to Epistles to be read and obeyed by the (sometimes sinful) saints for all time.

  2. jwowen

    I think you’re right. They would say Scripture is necessary since the Church brought it about by the Holy Spirit, but they do place the Church above it.

  3. jzahller

    Yes. You’re wording is a bit more precise than mine. They do think it is necessary, just subordinate, and in practical church life it ends up becoming less significant.

    To complete the comparison, as a Protestant I believe the church is necessary, though it must subordinate itself to the Word. Our temptation is to do to the church what EO/RC folks do to the Word…completely neglect it’s real authority simply because it is not the ultimate authority.

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