From a western standpoint, the importance of the church can be overlooked and simply amalgamated into the unseen body of believers with no emphasis on the physical visible church. The establishment of the visible church is sometimes difficult enough for those in the west, let alone that this church is infallible. Today, I seek to elaborate on Christ’s institution of the Holy Orthodox Church, and how She is infallible. I pray this is edifying to whomever reads, and God blesses the explanation to the best of my ability free from error. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What Is The Church?
It Is Not Solely Invisible
The Church is the body of Christ, the continuation of Pentecost with the Holy Spirit dwelling in each individual person as well as the communal church Herself, Pentecost which was the divine reversal of the Tower of Babel. The Church’s head is Jesus Christ, the Church is one in faith and wholly undivided. The Church is a reflection of God Himself, who is paradoxically both separate (only in Personhood) and one (in Essence) by the Holy Trinity. Orthodox have multiple autocephalous churches who seem separate but are unified in doctrine. Each of us are separate in being different persons but we are unified in our same faith (Galatians 3:28). Therefore, it can be said the Church is the very icon and image of the Trinity.
The Church is both visible and invisible, and is not limited to only those alive on earth. This is not to confuse that there are two churches, there is only one that is both visible and invisible, hence the paradox. It is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). The visible church established at Pentecost continues on today through apostolic succession, which is the Orthodox Church. The church is to maintain a unity of faith, tradition of faith, order, worship, and piety. These things must be confessed “everywhere and by all” from the beginning. The heart of the Orthodox Church is life in Christ, the Church is intimately connected with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18), so the Church is very much incarnate Herself as a visible living organism.
It’s a common belief that the church is solely an invisible body of believers, however 1 John 1:1-3 tells us our communion with God is not only spiritual but physical through Jesus Christ who took on human flesh. If the Church is a reflection of the Trinity, She cannot be solely spiritual as it would ignore the fact that Christ came in the flesh. It would remove a central aspect of Who God is and dissolve any kind of reflection of the Trinity in the Church. Denominations did not exist for the church, don’t currently, and will not for She is of one faith, one mind, etc. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” – Ephesians 4:5-6
“It behooves us, therefore, to avoid their doctrines, and to take careful heed lest we suffer any injury from them; but to flee to the Church, and be brought up in her bosom, and be nourished with the Lord’s Scriptures. For the Church has been planted as a garden (paradise) in this world; therefore says the Spirit of God…” – St. Ireneaus Against All Heresies
To acknowledge Christ established a visible church would necessitate that this church be identified. Matthew 18:17 states, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Clearly, Matthew is emphasizing a visible ecclesiastical physical church to “tell it to,” just as St. Ireneaus is speaking of a visible Church in the previous quote that is planted in the world, specifically not outside of this world (invisible). It doesn’t make sense for our apostle to tell us to speak with an invisible, undefined, and unapproachable body of believers about something. More so, Matthew is stating if a man refuses to hear the Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit, let him be to you like a heathen. These are powerful statements that would disgruntle some today, for how many would deny hearing the Church, viewing it as optional and not essential to Christian life?
To say we love Christ, who is Head of the Church, and at the same time reject His body is to deny the New Testament teaching (5). God is salvation, and this power is mediated by Christ to humanity in His body, the Church (Ephesians 5:23). Does this mean those not within the Orthodox Church are necessarily damned? Of course not. St. Augustine said, “How many sheep there are without, and how many wolves within.”
The structure of the Orthodox is similar to the Roman Catholic Church on the surface in the sense of agreement on foundations of apostolic succession, the priesthood, the episcopate, asking for the intercession of the saints, etc. However overall, it’s function is vastly different from that of the West (2). “Thus far Rome and Orthodoxy agree – but where Rome thinks in terms of supremacy and the universal jurisdiction of the Pope, Orthodoxy thinks in terms of the five Patriarchs and of the Ecumenical Council; where Rome stresses papal infallibility, Orthodox stress the infallibility of the Church as a whole. Doubtless, neither side is entirely fair to the other.” – Kallistos Ware (1).
The Church Does Not Err
Orthodoxy upholds the reality that the Church, gathered together in Council under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guided in making correct decisions and in enunciating truth. As a whole the Church cannot err, although individuals certainly can fall into error which is one reason why Orthodox cannot affirm the doctrine of infallibility for the Pope. The universal faith is preserved by the Holy Spirit of Whom was promised to guide the Church, therefore the Church is infallible, but there is no such thing as personal infallibility. God cannot err, and since the Church is Christ’s body it cannot err either. Simply put – God is truth, the Church is part of God, so the Church can never fall to falsehood. Again this doesn’t mean individuals and even bishops cannot fall into error, but that the Church will always preserve Herself in unity and truth. The universal faith is also preserved by the people itself, of whom the Holy Spirit dwells within each member.
“Among us, neither Patriarchs nor Councils could ever introduce new teaching, for the guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the people itself.” – Letter of 1848 to Pope Pius IX by Orthodox Patriarchs
Some may take issue with this consensus theory, however several councils have considered themselves to be ecumenical and speaking in the name of the whole Church but were rejected by the body of Christ. Examples such as the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 or the iconoclastic council of Hieria in 754. True Ecumenical Councils have bishops that proclaim the truth, this proclamation is then validated by the assent of the whole Christian body. What is truth? It is a person, Jesus Christ. And in John 14:26 Christ says, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Thus, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, Who points us to Christ, Who points us to the Father in perfect unison. God is constantly guiding the Church to Himself.
However, this infallibility must not be made solely exterior because it cannot be done by outward criteria alone. It must be inward also, those who do not have the truth of Christ within them will not be able to fully externalize that truth outwardly, and those who have Christ within and live in Him recognize an error of what is not Him because know Him within, not just outwardly. How this works is ultimately a mystery. This may not seem a sufficient-enough answer for the western mindset, who want to scholasticize everything and essentially put God in a box, while doing so only put themselves in said box. By putting God in a box I mean most Protestants put the ultimate authority in Scripture, most Roman Catholics in the Pope, while Orthodox in Christ Himself in the ‘conscience of the Church’, in the whole of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) of whom He is head (Colossians 1:18) and of whom He is in each of us (Colossians 1:27) and whom we are knit together with (Ephesians 4:16). The Church and Christ are intimately united, we are both in the church and the church paradoxically.
I don’t intend to misrepresent the other Christian perspective or say that either are not believing fully in Christ as truth or holding Him as authority, but simply they are limiting it into one of these “boxes” of outward criteria in the person of the Pope or the Scripture. For more on the ecclesiology topic read this. I’ll leave it at Sergia Bulgakov who may have explained it best when he said:
“It is not the ‘ecumenicity’ but the truth of the councils which makes their decisions obligatory for us. We touch here upon the fundamental mystery of the Orthodox doctrine of the Church: the Church is the miracle of the presence of God among humans, beyond all formal criteria, beyond all formal ‘infallibility.’ It is not enough to summon an ‘ecumenical council’…. it is also necessary that in the midst of those so assembled there should be present He who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.” Without this presence, however numerous and representative the assembly may be, it will not be in the truth. Protestants and Catholics usually fail to understand this fundamental truth of Orthodoxy: both materialize the presence of God in the Church – the one party in the letter of scripture, the other in the person of the Pope – though they do not thereby avoid the miracle, but clothe it in a concrete form. For Orthodoxy the sole criterion of truth remains God Himself, living mysteriously in the Church, leading it in the way of Truth.” (3).
The Orthodox Church in all humility is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides Orthodox in their relations with other Christians. There is no confusion between the visible and invisible church, we only confess their union (6). The Church’s unity is forever maintained just as God’s unity in the Trinity is forever maintained. God is truth, the Church is part of God, so the Church will always remain in truth. Further, each of us are called to have the truth within us. The truth became a person so in our own person we can become the truth.
1. Kallistos Ware – The Orthodox Church. Pelican Books, 1963, page 232.
2. Olivier Clement – You Are Peter, An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on Papal Primacy. New City Press, 2003. 3. Sergia Bulgakov – The Orthodox Church, St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1997, page 89.
4. Letter to Pope Pius IX – Orthodox Patriarchs 1848.
5. The Orthodox Study Bible.
6. Fr. Michael Pomazansky, Protopresbyter – Is There An Invisible Church?
7. St. Ireneaus – Against All Heresies, V, 20 (ANF, Vol. I).