The One True Church and the Partisans of Anti-Ecclesiology
I believe that the church in which I was baptized and brought up ‘is’ in very truth ‘the Church’, i.e. ‘the true’ Church and the ‘only’ true Church . . . I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the ‘Una Sancta’.
- Fr. Georges Florovsky, “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement”
It seems to be a sin in polite Christian parlance to suggest that one’s own communion is actually right about anything, and it is perhaps the unpardonable sin to suggest that one’s own communion is actually coterminous with the very Church that Christ founded. Yet it was not so very long ago (and I don’t mean centuries here, just decades) that nearly every Christian actually thought these things about his own communion—at the very least, that his own communion was right and that those who disagreed were wrong, even if that disagreement did not necessarily place other communions outside the Church.
It’s not entirely clear what has happened that caused this shift. It does seem to be the case, however, that we are willing to project a rather robust ecclesiology (though a pseudo-ecclesiology) elsewhere—on politics. One’s political opponents are not just wrong, but they are in fact evil and want nothing other than to destroy everything good and beneficial to mankind. Materialist messianism is characteristic of nearly all post-Marxist politics, and it is, I think, really the only way to do politics when you either believe or pretend as though you believe that there is no God Whose claims on man are in fact higher than the claims of the state.
That aside, have we actually advanced in some way by becoming ecclesiological agnostics? Have we gained something by effectively denying that there is actually only one Church that Christ established? Is the possibility for unity between Christians—the supposed goal of this anti-ecclesiology, the teaching that there is no true Church—actually greater now than when all Christians actually believed what they said they believed and they also logically believed that those who disagreed were wrong?
You may imagine from my rhetorical tone that I do not think so.
It should nevertheless be noted that I am not by any means calling for condemnatory statements, an attitude of triumphalism or superiority, withdrawal from inter-Christian contact, etc. What I would like to see is people who care about the things they say they believe or who have the integrity to abandon the communions whose doctrines they don’t actually believe. It’s not about becoming partisans (having “confessional loyalty” as per the Florovsky quote above) but about pursuing the truth wherever that leads and then having the guts to believe it and preach it. In short, what I really would like is for more people to call me a heretic.
If someone is willing to do that, not only to believe but also to preach with the conviction that his communion’s doctrines are true, he will of course be seen as a partisan by those who prefer the anti-ecclesiology, but that is because their own partisanship for theological agnosticism is unassailable. And it is not just an agnosticism, but a militant agnosticism, not merely “I do not know,” but “You cannot know.”
But is it indeed possible to be loving, kind, thoughtful, diligent, vigilant, pious, compassionate and serious, and also to believe that one’s own communion is not only right, but the right one? I daresay yes. I really cannot see how it can be otherwise. Does it make any sense at all to throw one’s lot in with a doctrine—even if it is a doctrine held by only one person—and then not to believe that deviations from it are wrong? Does not integrity demand such a conclusion?
I think part of what bothers the partisans of anti-ecclesiology is that they conflate the communion with the person. That is, if someone is fiercely loyal to his communion, it is because he believes himself to be always right. Indeed, I have had someone say exactly this in the midst of a discussion about theological truth: “It must be so exhausting to be right all the time.” My first thought was, “So you’re telling me that you’re wrong?” I will of course admit to vanity and pride being among my besetting sins, but that is not really the point here. The point is that this objection essentially presumes what is precisely at debate, because it presumes that there is no Church, but only the individual. I cannot say, “The Church is right, and I believe in it.” I can only say, “I am right.”
This dynamic is characteristic of how far the atomism of our age has come. We as a culture do not actually believe in communion, nor even in communions, not in the sense of a real community to which we are responsible. We only believe in a sea of opinions and competing interests, rolling about on the waves of individuality. But this erodes the truth of who man is and how he is made. Mankind wants communion. He is made for it, and even the most anti-social among us are usually so because we are bitter at our inability to attain to it.
Therefore, it is not I who am right. There is only one I Who is right, and that is the I AM Himself, Who is the Head and first Member of His Body, the Church. The Church’s rightness—her uniqueness and unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity—have never been taught in the stream of ancient Christian tradition to flow from the individual or even collective worthiness of her fallible human members. Rather, they flow directly and solely from her Lord, Who is Himself both the comprising and constituting element of the Body.
Believing in the truth and the uniqueness of one’s own communion therefore does not require (nor should it even lead to) any sense of personal superiority. It also does not necessarily require such a believer to condemn all those who disagree or who belong to other communions, particularly because the game, while surely afoot, is far from ended. Most communions with a robust ecclesiology—a sense that there are actual boundaries to the Church here on Earth that can be pointed to—would never teach that formal membership in this life is identical to eternal membership in the next. That is, the final makeup of the Church can only be accounted for in the eschaton, the age to come.
We do not have to be mean in order to believe that our church truly is the one Church, the true Church. There are people who are mean, people who are triumphalistic when they say such things, but their belief is not really being manifested in their persons, so it becomes the theology of demons, the theology which is technically true but has no incarnation in them. We should not mistake such people for being true representatives of those doctrines.
But one would also be hard pressed to find any saint—however any Christian communion might define a person who is a shining example of their communion—who did not believe that the communion to which he belonged was not only right, but was the right one. That is, the best and brightest that any Christian group has to offer is almost always one who believes in the truth of its doctrines and that what deviates from them is therefore not true. He also therefore must of necessity believe that his own communion is uniquely faithful to the truth, because he cannot help but see that all others are not only different but actually contradict those truths to which his fellow communicants cling faithfully.
I am no saint, but I believe that Orthodoxy is that true Church, the one Church, because of her faithfulness through the ages to that revelation of God in Christ given once for all to the Apostles. The truth of Orthodoxy is much larger than I and in no sense depends on me or is any credit to me. Being a member of the Orthodox Church does not make me “right” any more than being a patient in a hospital makes me a paragon of health. It only means that I am participating in that truth, even if imperfectly.
Soli Deo gloria.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.