The Church

By: Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos
PhD. of Theology, PhD. of Philosophy

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 The Church as the Body of Christ is a Divine-human (theanthropic) organism, i.e. an invisible and visible reality. The invisible dimension of the Church refers to the communion between God and man having as its model the communion between the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. With the creation of the angels the heaven­ly Church was constituted; to this Church man was added: " but ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the just men made perfect" (Heb. 12, 22-23).

Man's fall broke off his communion with the heav­enly Church. God, however, did not abandon His creature, but had already pre-eternally planned man's salvation. In order to prepare man's return to commu­nion with God He chose "the chosen people of Israel" who were the prefiguration of the new Israel, i.e. the Church (Rom. 9,7-8. Gal. 3,29).

The Apostle Paul speaks of the pre-eternal mystery of God which was revealed to man and to the angels with the incarnation of the Son and Word of God. It was the economy of the mystery that was hidden for cen­turies by God... for the multifaceted wisdom of God according to the eternal purpose which was revealed through Jesus Christ our Lord to be recognized now ...through the Church (Eph. 3,9-11. cf. Col. 1,26).

In Christ Jesus the Church has been reconstituted; angels and men united in order once again to constitute the Church:

"Through Your Cross, Ο Christ,

One fold has come into being;

Of Angels and men, and One Church.

Heaven and Earth rejoice.

Lord, glory to Thee".

The unity of the Body of the Church is realized from the one Head, Christ; "man is the head of the woman, just a Christ is the head of the Church and He is the saviour of the Body" (Eph. 5,23). This communion between God and man has an absolute character: this is why in the Old Testament God is called a jealous God (Ex.1 20,5. Deut. 5,9). Every apostasy on the part of God's people is characterized as fornication and adultery (Judges 2.17. Iez. 6,9).

In the Church the "regathering" i.e. the gathering of the scattered children of God (Jn 11,52) was accom­plished - the structuring of the one body under the head: Christ; He is the savior of the body". Christ "loved the Church and gave Himself for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to Himself in splen­dour without a spot, or wrinkle or anything of the kind - so that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5, 23-27).

"With the washing of water by the word" ("in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matth. 28,19) we are sanctified and incorporated into the body under the one Head, Christ; we become "one in Christ" (Gal. 3,26-28). Therefore, when we speak about the Church, we do not mean simply the people of God, without Christ, nor the Lord, the Head, without the body. We mean both together, the Head of the Church together with all its other members, the Chris­tians. The Holy Spirit Who descended upon the Church on the day of Pentecost abides in her, renews the faithful and incorporates them into the one Body of Christ. Christ is "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8,29); in Himself He reconciled all unto God (II Cor. 5,18. Col. 1, 18-20).

In this way we understand that the Church as the Body of Christ is equated with salvation. In her, the relationship of Christ with the Father is transferred to each one of us: "I in them and you in me, so that they may become completely one" (John 17, 23). The Church is not the workshop of man's salvation but salvation itself. The "gathering" of the scattered children of God and their incorporation into the "unity" of Christ is not a fact of secondary importance, but the very event of salvation (Jn 11, 52). One can neither be a Christian nor call himself a Christian apart from his incorporation into the Body of Christ, which at the same time is also communion with the brethren ( I Cor. 12, 12-28). The salvation of each man cannot constitute the separate concern of each individual, independent of his incorpor­ation into, and his life within, the Church. He who in "self-love" retreats and immerses into himself, hoping thereby to find salvation within himself without reference to the person of Jesus Christ and without incorporation into His Body, cannot be considered a Christian.

The Church, being the Body of Christ, is one (Eph.4,4) and Christ is not "divided" (I Cor. 1, 13); one cannot be Christ's if he is not at the same time with the brethren in Christ. This is why division or schism is a crime.

The Christian synaxis or gathering is not simply a congregation of Christian people but a gathering in which the unity of the one Body of Christ is expressed: the unity of the body with the Head. This is why wher­ever two or three are gathered there is Christ, the entire Catholic Church. They must, however, gather in Christ's name (Matth. 18,20).

This means that this synaxis must be carried out in the spirit of Christ in order that the work of Christ be performed, and not to serve human goals in the name of Christ. The work of Christ was the gathering of the scattered children of God "into one"; it is accomplished wherever the Holy Eucharist is performed as an act of unity and not division. The Apostle Paul, referring to these gatherings "in Christ's name" declares:"For I received from the Lord what also I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread...as said, 'take, eat..."(I Cor. 11,23). " For we the many are one loaf, one body", St. Paul elsewhere affirms, thereby identifying the Holy Eucharist with the return of men to the unity of "the one nature", to the "one in Christ".

The synaxis or gathering, then, "in Christ's name", even if it is a synaxis "of two or three" must realize and express the unity of the Catholic Church and not its division into small groups and fragments that have no communion amongst themselves. This unity in the Apostolic Church extended even to the point of possess­ing all things in common: "now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common...and great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4, 32-33. 2, 42). In such a gathering "in the name of Christ" schisms and divi­sions had no place. For this reason the Apostle repri­mands the Corinthians, because in their synaxes which gathered the Church together there were divisions" "...I hear that when you come together as a Church, there are divisions among you..." (I Cor. 11, 18). A synaxis then "of two or three" cannot take place in Christ's name" when it constitutes a schism or conventicle — even when those who gather together contend that their gathering is done "in Christ's name".

The Church, moreover, has its visible dimension. Jesus Christ Himself chose His twelve disciples and called them Apostles. Before His glorious Ascension He promised them "power from on High" (Luke 24 49. Acts 1,8) and He sent them forth to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to make disciples of those who would believe, incorporating them into the Church through Holy Baptism (Matth. 28,19). This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost on which three thousand souls were added to the Church (Acts 2, 41).

This first Church was a concrete community and society; it included the exercise of the holy virtues of Christ (I Cor. 11.1) and had as its centre the perform­ance of the Holy Eucharist on the Lord's day and included a common confession which was the Apostolic teaching (didache), common prayer and the communion of love, which as we have already mentioned, reached to the point of common possession of all things (Acts2,42. 4,42). Whoever participated in this synaxis was included among the Christians. Whoever did not participate was not considered a Christian. In the Apostolic Church there existed specific structures: the Apostles, the Presbyters, the Deacons and other cadres, such as Timothy, Titus, et al. Whenever serious problems concerning the faith arose, they were solved in broader councils under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as was the case with the Apostolic Council which was in some way "the mouth" or voice of the Church (Acts 15,22-29. cf. I Tim. 3,15). The Church about which Holy Scripture speaks was visible and concrete. Among its members were num­bered individuals who were very weak and even gravely ill spiritually; who were called to repentance so as not to be cast out (Matth. 13,30. 47. I Cor. 5,1; 11. Jude 12, 23).

The Orthodox Church has condemned any notion whatsoever concerning a supposed "Church of the pure" (catharoi), and declares that the "separation of the clean from the unclean" will take place "at the time of the harvest", during the Second Coming of Christ and certainly not by man; no one is to attempt such a separation before the Lord's coming, for in such a case the criteria and standard of judgment would be human and the evaluation subject to error (Matth. 13, 29-30).

The fact that in the Church there are weak members does not mean that the entire Church has fallen into apostasy. When Moses was on the mountain and speak­ing to God nearly the entire "chosen people" fell into apostasy; and yet for God it still remained His people; He did not reject them (Exodus 32,1-8).

The Church of the New Testament, the new people of God, are not simply an episode in history which took place during the time of the Apostles, but a continuous event, extending to the time of Christ's Second Coming. The Holy Spirit remains eternally in the Church and leads to the truth (John 14, 16); Christ is Head of the Church, and as the Head, He is and ever remains united with the body. He leads the body and is not led by it. This is also why the Church, the Body of Christ, can never fall into apostasy — only individual members can become independent and separate themselves from the body, fall into apostasy and be led to spiritual death. Even pastors of the Church and "stars from heaven" can fall into apostasy, but never the Church (Acts 20,30. II Thessal. 2,3. Rev. 9,1.1 Tim. 3, 15). There will always be a small "remnant" and remainder of the faithful people, united with the Head and that will be the Church, because according to Christ's promise even " the gates of Hell" will not prevail against her (Matth. 16,18).

The Church then, is unique and invisible (Matth. 16,18). It exists throughout the ages and is the "pillar and foundation of Truth"; the truth is founded upon the Church and not the Church on the truth. The Church is the Truth, because its Head is Christ, i.e. the Truth (I Tim 3, 15, Jn 6). Without Christ there is no Church (Matth. 16,18) and without the Church there is no truth (I Tim. 3,15).

Since the Church is also a visible reality, it exists throughout the centuries and is discerned by visible signs or marks. These outward signs modify and determine the identity of Christ's Church and distinguish it from self-styled "churches" and heresies.

These marks are the continuous and unbroken continuity of the Church in the faith, organization and life in accordance with the will of Christ and the praxis of the Apostles. The most visible focus of the Church's continuity is the Apostolic Succession. Here we do not have an arbitrary act which was decided upon and later enforced. Apostolic Succession has its source in the Divine will as it is expressed in Holy Scripture. Already before the day of Pentecost the ministry of the Apostle is distinguished from the specific person. The Apostles proceed to elect Matthias to assume the "episcope" of Judas, this in accordance with the prophecy of the Old Testament (Acts 1, 26. Ps. 108,8). This proves that in the Church there exists the ministry of the "episcope", for which the Apostles chose suitable believers, and conveyed to them through ordination, the gift of the Priesthood (I Tim. 4,14. II Tim. 1,6), and gave to them the commandment to undertake the pasturing of the local Church and to ordain in every city presbyters and deacons in the manner which was shown unto them (Acts 14,23. II Tim. 2,2. I Tim. 3, 8-12).

All these pastors of the Church were in an unbroken Apostolic succession, which was the guarantee and assurance of the preservation of the purity of the Apos­tolic teaching and of the one accord ("make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind" (Philip. 2,2). The Orthodox Church has all these marks and characteristics of the Apostolic Church: the Apostolic teaching and the entire hierarchic structure of the first Church, the Apostolic teaching and the Apostolic mind.

The Orthodox Church knows two different express­ions of the Catholic Church in a given place: the monas­tic coenobium and the parish. In the Orthodox monastic coenobium the primitive form of the Church is preserved inviolate, as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles and includes holding all possessions in common (Acts 2, 42-47).

The Holy Eucharist in the parish, transforms the parish synaxis into the Catholic Church (I Cor. 10, 16-17) and gives to the term "parish" a deeper meaning extending beyond its purely geographical significance. Because the synaxis "in the Church" (I Cor. 10, 16-17) is Christ and hence, there one finds the Church Catholic. This means inner - not external or geographical -catholicity; the Apostle Paul implies this in I Cor. 11, 18-23, which we have already mentioned, when he writes: "When, therefore, you gather as the Church, I hear that there are divisions among you... or that you disdain the Church of God... for I have received from the Lord that which I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night that he was betrayed took bread and having given thanks, broke it and said: Take eat..."

The term Church is used here in a dynamic sense and is identified with the gatherings of the Christians of Corinth in order to perform the Holy Eucharist. Each time that the Christian of an area (parish) gather with this purpose, the gathering becomes the Church; here the entire Church - and not just part of it - is to be found (cf. Rom. 16,23).

The catholicity of a parish is manifest also from the fact that the entire life of the faithful transpires within its boundaries. There are priests who belong to the canoni­cal Orthodox bishop of the area, who guarantees the presence of Christ in the liturgical life and the unity of the faithful among themselves and with the Head of the Church. In the parish, Holy Baptism, Holy Myrrh and all the Sacred Mysteries are solemnly performed. Here the parishioners gather together "in Church" (ei> βκκλη-σίςΟ; each member, through the parish belongs to the Catholic Church. The parish, just as a monastic coenobi­um, is not part of the Church but the entire Church, since its catholicity is inwardly determined.

The parishioners are called to realize in their daily life the experience of the one body through their partici­pation in the Holy Eucharist; this is also implied in the exhortation at the end of the Divine Liturgy: "let us depart in peace". The deep unity and peace of the one body and the one Spirit, of the one hope, of the one Lord, the one faith, the one Baptism and the one God and Father of all (Eph. 4,4-6) must be put into practice in the everyday life of the faithful. To each one of them various charismata have been granted. Thus each one has his own function within the one Body of the Church and uses his charisma for the edification of the other mem­bers and of the entire body. They were not given to be used egotistically (I Cor. 12, 7- 27. 14, 12,26). They must not be isolated from the brethren; they must use their gifts for the benefit and edification of the body (Matth. 24,45-51. 25, 14-30. I Peter 4, 10-11). This possibility of offering becomes a reality when the entire spiritual life of each believer is exercised with the specific liturgical synaxis as its centre into which it is incorporated harmoniously.

Unfortunately, in the larger cities, the large parishes with a great number of parishioners no longer function within the framework of "one in Christ" and "members of each other". It is a matter with which the Church must deal, and seek other structures. But regardless of whatever structures are to be sought, they must safe­guard the basic Apostolic organizational elements of the Church, and must not be creations of man's conception, nor human methods, and especially must not imply criteria and models "of this world" - something which would mean the secularization of the Church.

The entire organizational structure of the Apostolic Church has as its centre the Divine Eucharist and ensures the continuity of the authenticity of the Church, the continuous communion and unity with the Head, Christ, because He it is "Who is ever eaten and never consumed" as it says in one of the prayers of the Divine Liturgy. This means that the new structures are not allowed to be severed from the communion with the bishop and must have as shepherds presbyters who are in unity with the bishop. For the bishop stands in the image and in the place of Christ, and the presbyters who receive their ordinal ion from the bishop stand in the place of the council of the Apostles.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop of the primitive Christian Church, who makes the above statements, underlines the unity of the Church by saying that wher­ever the bishop is, there the multitude of the faithful must be; one cannot perform the Holy Eucharist outside the unity with the bishop.

In the communion with the bishop the unity of the entire Church is preserved. Each bishop must belong to the local synod of bishops which is recognized by all other synods of bishops of the Orthodox Church throughout the world. In this way, through the local synod each bishop is in unity with all the bishops throughout the world.

According to early Christian Tradition the local synods were presided over by the bishops of the capital of a nation and in this way the self-governing Orthodox Churches were created (Patriarchates, Archdioceses, Metropolitanates) through a more general decision and recognition in the Orthodox Church, the Patriarchate that has the "primacy" of honour among the self-governing Orthodox Churches, and serves the unity and the cooper­ation of all the Orthodox Churches is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. All the Orthodox Churches are in unity of faith and worship and preserve the primitive Christian hierarchic structures. If extremely serious matters should arise that threaten the faith and the life of the Church, they are dealt with by local or more general synods or councils.

The entire organizational structure of the Church is based upon the Eucharistic synaxis. For this reason there is no "pyrammidical" hierachal structure. The Ecumenical Patriarch is in relationship with the other presidents of the local Churches, and in general with all the bishops, the first among equals, primus inter pares.


THE ORTHODOX CHURCH Its Faith, Worship and Life
Rev. Antonios Alevisopoulos, Th.D., Ph.D
Translated by Rev. Stephen Avramides

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