The second ‘attribute’ of the Church in the Nicene Creed is holiness.
We believe in a Church that is not only singular and unique, but also sacred and unlike any other ‘organization’ or gathering in the world.
Given that the Church is the true and very Body of Christ—with Jesus as her Head and chief cornerstone (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 5:23)—the Church exists as:
[T]he theanthropic workshop of human sanctification and, through men, of the sanctification of the rest of creation. —St. Justin Popovich
In calling her theanthropic (Divine-human), the Orthodox Church believes that just as Christ is a perfect union of divinity and humanity, so too is the Church both indivisibly divine and human. This is so (to risk being redundant) because the Church is the Body of Christ, with Christ truly as her Head—these are not mere metaphors or pious opinions, but a 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 (Nestorianism). This also means that all heresies of ecclesiology are Christological, as the two are inseparable.
As a holy or sanctified (‘set apart’) communion, the Church is the locus of God’s salvation for both mankind and all creation in this present, evil age. Through union with Christ, the Church is sanctified as the Body through which the rest of creation is deified and transformed, and this through our cooperation with the uncreated Grace or ‘energies’ of God.
Through the life of Christ, the people of his Body are transformed and brought into true communion with the thrice-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. —ibid.
As the “workshop of human sanctification,” it is a responsibility of those within the Church to share this holiness and life in Christ with all of creation. This reality can be seen by paying close attention to our divine services and prayers, as the Church intercedes for all on a daily basis—akin to Abraham’s prayers for the righteous few of Sodom (Gen. 18:16–33).
Considering the humanity of the Church—that is, the fact that the Church is largely made up of sinners, those in need of God’s transformative, healing Grace—it can be easy to misconstrue to what extent the sinful people of the Church detracts from the effectiveness or ministry of the Church as a whole.
We must realize, first and foremost, that the Church is precisely for such sinners, and not the already righteous. An analogy that many fathers have used throughout the centuries is that of a hospital, with Christ the Great Physician. Sin is a disease that afflicts our souls and bodies, and we are brought under the care of the Church-as-hospital for both our healing and forgiveness in Christ-our-Physician. This is one of the reasons why Orthodox Christians repeatedly pray: “Lord, have mercy.”
We must also be assured that this gathering of diseased ‘patients’ does not deny or negate the holiness of the Church—no more than the humanity of Christ overrides his divinity, or vice versa:
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’ (1 Cor. 5:13). —ibid.
The holiness of the Church is an essential and immutable attribute, specifically because the holiness of the Church is derived from God.
Being united to Christ as his Body, the Church is in no danger of ‘losing’ its holiness, despite the fact that it has always been a hospital for healing sinners. The Body is sanctified and perfected by the Head.
Nevertheless, many are scandalized by this—sinners dwelling among saints—and it can lead many astray or even into apostasy. “How can this be the true Church if there are so many sinners and hypocrites?” It can be difficult to understand how the Church could truly be the Body of Christ with so many struggling, hypocritical, and sinful people within it—especially when those sinners are in places of leadership or members of clergy.
But we must remember that we are all sinners, and that the Church is precisely where us sinners belong—as sinners forgiven and healed by the Head of this theanthropic Body.
Through faithfulness, asceticism, and long-suffering endurance, God’s people can see the restoration of all things through Christ and his Body, as we are re-made into a people “holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
Gabe Martini has a B.A. in Philosophy from Indiana University and works in product marketing for Logos Bible Software. He also serves as a subdeacon at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Bellingham, WA.