The Church is Holy

The Church is Holy

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Church is Holy

  1. I believe that Protestants, even Southern Baptists, would agree with your article. The Church is One, is Holy, is Catholic, is Apostolic, Christ is really the head, it is Pure. They would disagree however that the Church that is all these things is, visible. I think they would say that the Church that is these things is In-visible.

    • Scott,

      I certainly agree that most Protestants would contend that there is a single Church of God, but in an invisible (and unknowable) sense, and that the things described in the Symbol of Faith are more on an eschatological or “hope” based plane.

      However, that disagrees with both the holy scriptures and the entirety of apostolic Tradition — and it is certainly NOT what was intended by the bishops and presbyters at Constantinople when this Creedal statement was formulated (and this is all that matters, not our “spin” on it).

      For instance, if the Church is only invisible (and this is all that truly matters), then schism and heresy are of no concern for the Church. The “true” Church that is invisible will be just fine, no matter what arises, one would contend. However, the words of Christ and His apostles make it paramount that we are to do everything we possibly can to avoid schism, to purge evil doers from among the Church (so they don’t poison the whole flock), to hand some over to Satan, to exercise discipline and excommunications when necessary, and so on. None of this would be either important or necessary if the Church was only REALLY invisible.

      St Paul would not have warned the Corinthians to avoid destroying the Temple of the living God (of whom we are all a part, as the Body of Christ), out of fear of judgment and condemnation, if all that mattered was the invisible Temple.

      The earliest apostolic Fathers of our Faith (disciples of the very apostles of Jesus Christ) would not have strongly warned us to avoid schism and divisions among us, nor would the beloved disciple John have said that those who leave the Church “were never really of us.” Saint Ignatius and Saint Irenaeus would not have repeatedly appealed to Bishops ordained in faithful succession from the apostles if only the “invisible” Church mattered. In fact, it is in the Bishops themselves that we find our identity as Christians and as the people of God, for “wherever the Bishop is, there is Jesus Christ, and wherever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

      There is much more that could be said, but sufficed to say, the Church is real and VISIBLE, not some ethereal, unknown “idea” in our heads or fantasies. It is a true union and communion with Jesus Christ and with one another. The Church is not an “idea” and neither is “unity” or “catholicity” — these are all realities that find their real, tangible, visible and TRUE reality in Christ Himself. These truths (as with all truth) are Personal, in that they are of the Person of Jesus Christ.

      In peace,
      Vincent

      • Is the Church the incarnate body of Jesus Christ?….does the fact that that God became incarnate disallow for any notion of an In-visible church?….surely the Incarnation affects the this visible/invisible business?

      • The Church is united to the Incarnate God-Man (theanthropos) Jesus Christ, with Christ as Head. As such, the Church can no more be divided (or dual) than can Christ’s humanity and divinity. All Christology is Ecclesiology, and vice versa. If you mess up one, you mess up the other.

  2. Speaking of schism, how can one repent of schism if there is no visible body to be joined to? If the church is invisible, then it is of no consequence.

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