The Church is Holy
The second attribute of the Church as found in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is holiness. Orthodox Christians believe in a Church that is not only singular and unique, but also wholly sacred and unlike any other “organization” or body in the world. Given that the Church is the true Body of Christ—with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself as its head and only foundation (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 5:23)—the Church exists as “the theanthropic workshop of human sanctification and, through men, of the sanctification of the rest of creation” (St. Justin Popovich, The Attributes of the Church).
In calling the Church “theanthropic” (the adjectival form of theanthropos, “God-man”), the Orthodox Church firmly believes that just as Christ is a perfect union of both divinity and humanity, so too is the Church a gathering that is both indivisibly divine and human. This is so because the Church is truly the Body of Christ, with Christ truly as its Head—these are not mere metaphors or pious thoughts, but a true description of reality. One could no more cause an actual division in the Church than could Christ be divided in His divine and human natures. This also means that all heresies related to ecclesiology are also Christological heresies, for the two are inseparable.
As a holy or sanctified (“set apart”) body, the Church is the locus of God’s salvation for both mankind and all of creation in this present age. Through its union with Christ, the Church is sanctified and becomes the body (or people) through which the rest of creation is sanctified and transformed, and this through the grace (energies) of God. Through the life of Christ, the people of His Body are transformed and brought into true union and communion with the all-holy Trinity: ”Having become the Church by His incarnation out of an unparalleled love for man, our God and Lord Jesus Christ sanctified the Church by His sufferings, Resurrection, Ascension, teaching, wonder-working, prayer, fasting, mysteries, and virtues; in a word, by His entire theanthropic life.” As the ”workshop of human sanctification,” it is the responsibility of those within the Church to share this holiness and life in Christ with all of creation. This reality can easily be seen by paying close attention to the divine services, as the Orthodox Church daily intercedes for the entire world—not just the earth, but the entire cosmos.
When we consider the humanity of the Church—that is, the fact that the Church is largely made up of “sinners” or those in need of God’s transforming and healing grace—it can be easy to misunderstand to what extent this human constitution detracts from the effectiveness and ministry of the Church as a whole. What we must realize, first of all, is that the Church is precisely for sinners—not the righteous. An analogy that many Church Fathers have used throughout the centuries is that the Church is a hospital, with Christ as the Great Physician—those who are in need of both healing and reconciliation with God are brought under His everlasting care within the Church. This is precisely why we repeatedly chant the refrain “Lord, have mercy” in the divine services.
Secondly, we must be assured that this gathering of “patients in need of healing” does not deny or negate the holiness of the Church:
The flow of history confirms the reality of the Gospel: the Church is filled to overflowing with sinners. Does their presence in the Church reduce, violate, or destroy her sanctity? Not in the least! For her Head—the Lord Christ, and her Soul—the Holy Spirit, and her divine teaching, her mysteries, and her virtues, are indissolubly and immutably holy. The Church tolerates sinners, shelters them, and instructs them, that they may be awakened and roused to repentance and spiritual recovery and transfiguration; but they do not hinder the Church from being holy. Only unrepentant sinners, persistent in evil and godless malice, are cut off from the Church either by the visible action of the theanthropic authority of the Church or by the invisible action of divine judgment, so that thus also the holiness of the Church may be preserved. ‘Put away from among yourselves that wicked person’ (I Cor. 5:13).
Archimandrite Justin Popovich, “The Attributes of the Church,” Orthodox Life, vol. 31, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb., 1981)
The great fathers of the Orthodox faith know that the holiness of the Church is an “essential” and immutable quality, specifically because the holiness of the Church is derived from the Trinity. Being united truly to Christ as His Body, the Church is in no danger of losing its holiness, despite the fact that, as a hospital, it has always been filled with the spiritually ill. Many are confused over this issue, and it can lead many astray and even into apostasy as a result: disillusioned by the sinfulness of the Church’s members, they may conclude that the Church itself is sinful. It seems almost impossible to understand how the Church could truly be the Body of Christ with so many struggling and sinful people within it—especially when those sinners are found in places of ministry or leadership. Nevertheless, we must always be assured that we are all sinners and that it is in the Church alone that we can find true restoration and healing—and we can’t make it on our own, apart from Christ’s Body. Through faithfulness, God’s people will see the restoration of all things in and through Jesus Christ and His Body, as we are made ”holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.