Orthodox America

  The Unity of the Church

by Fr. Michael Pomazansky


The unity of the Church follows of necessity from the unity of God; for the Church is not a multitude of persons in their separate individuality, but a unity of the grace of God, living in a multitude of rational creatures, submitting themselves willingly to grace… A. Khomiakov


Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. Likewise, His Body, the Church, proclaims the same faith, adheres to the same dogmas and performs the same Mysteries as those instituted by the Apostles and preserved by God's grace through the members of the Church to the present day.

With so much talk today among the heterodox concerning the "unity of the Church" and the "coming together of the Body", it is important that Orthodox understand the teaching , of the Church on this matter. Below is an excerpt from the forth-coming book, Dogmatic Theology, by Fr. Michael Pomazansky which gives a concise explanation of the Orthodox definition of the "oneness" of the Church and contrasts this with popular misconceptions of those outside the Church. 

The ninth Article of the Symbol of Faith indicates the four basic signs of the Church: "We believe...in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." These attributes are called essential, that is, those without which the Church would not be the Church.

In the Greek text the word "in One" is expressed as a numeral (eh mian). Thus the Symbol of Faith confesses that the Church is one: a) it is one as viewed from within itself, not divided; b) it is one as viewed from without, that is, not having any other beside itself. Its unity consists not in the joining together of what is different in nature, but in inward agreement and unanimity. There is one body and one spirit, even as ye are called, in one hope of your, calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is above all, and though all, and in you al1 (Eph. 4:4-6).

Depicting the Church in parables, the Saviour speaks of one flock, of one sheepfold, of one grapevine, of one foundation stone of the Church. He gave a single teaching, a single baptism, and a single communion. The unity of the faithful in Christ comprised the subject of His High-Priestly Prayer before His sufferings on the Cross: the Lord prayed that they al1 may be one (John 17:21).

The Church is one not only inwardly, but also outwardly. Outwardly its unity is manifested in the harmonious confession of faith, in the oneness of Divine services and Mysteries, in the oneness of the grace-giving hierarchy, which comes in succession from the Apostles, in the oneness of canonical order.

The Church on earth has a visible side and an invisible side. The invisible side is: that its Head is. Christ; that it is animated. by the Holy Spirit; that in it is performed the inward mystical :life in sanctity of ,the more perfect of its members. However, the Church, by the nature of its members, is visible, since it is composed of men in the body; it has a visible hierarchy; it performs prayers and sacred actions visibly; it confesses openly by means of words, the faith of Christ.

More than any other aspect of the Church, the close bond between the Church of Christ on earth and the Church of Christ in heaven distinguishes the Orthodox Church from all other Christian confessions. For how can one speak of a single body if its members are not in harmony one with another?--not only with those present bodily in the Church today, but with those who have gone before and who now belong to the Church triumphant.

The Apostle instructs those who have come to believe in Christ and have been joined to the Church as follows: Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 12:22-24). We are not separated from our dead brothers in the faith by the impassable abyss of death: they are close to us in God, for all live unto Him (Luke 20:38).

The Church hymns this relationship in the kontakion of the feast of the Ascension of the Lord: "Having accomplished for us Thy mission and united things on earth with things in heaven, Thou didst ascend into glory, O Christ our God, being nowhere Separated from those who 1ove Thee, but remaining ever present with us and calling: I am with you and no one is against you."...

The holy Apostles, departing from this world, put off the earthly body, but have not put off the Church body, They not only were, but they also remain the foundation of the Church. The Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph, 2:20). Being in heaven, they continue to be in communion with believers on earth…

In this bond of the Church with the saints, and likewise in the Headship of the Church by the Lord Himself, may be seen one of the mystical sides of the Church. "By Thy Cross, O Christ, there is a single fl o c k of angels and men; and in the one assembly heaven and earth rejoice, crying out, O Lord, glory be to Thee" (Wednesday Matins, Tone 1)...

The Orthodox teaching of the Church, which in itself is quite clear and rests upon Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, is to be contrasted with another concept which is widespread in the contemporary Protestant world and has penetrated even into Orthodox circles. According to this different concept, all the various existing Christian organizations, the so-called "confessions" and "sects ," even though they are separated from each other, still comprise a single "invisible Church," inasmuch as each of them confesses Christ as son of God and accepts His Gospel. The dissemination of such a view is aided by the fact that side by side with the Orthodox Church there exists outside of her a number of Christians that exceed by several times the number of members of the Orthodox Church. Often we can observe in this Christian world outside the Church a religious fervor and faith, a worthy moral life, a conviction--all the way to fanaticism--of one's correctness, an organization and a broad charitable activity. What is the relation of all of them to the Church of Christ?

Of course, there is no reason to view these confessions and sects as on the same level with non-Christian religions. One cannot deny that the reading of the word of God has a beneficial influence upon everyone who seeks in it instruction and strengthening of faith, and that devout reflections on God the Creator, the Provider and Saviour, have an elevating power there also, We cannot say that their prayers are totally fruitless if they come from a pure heart, for in every nation he that feareth Him..,is accepted with Him (Acts 10:35). The Omnipresent Good Provider God is over them, and they are not deprived of God's mercies. They help to restrain moral looseness, vices, and crimes; and they oppose the spread of atheism.

But all this does not give us grounds to consider them as belonging to the Church. Already the fact that one part of this broad Christian world outside the Church, namely the whole of Protestantism, denies the bond with the heavenly Church, that is, the veneration in prayer of the Mother of God and the saints, and likewise prayer for the dead, indicates that they themselves have destroyed the bond with the one Body of Christ which unites in itself the heavenly and the earthly. Further, it is a fact that these non-Orthodox confessions have "broken" in one form or another, directly or indirectly, with the Orthodox Church, with the Church in its historical form; they themse1ves have cut the bond, they have "departed" from her. Neither we nor they have the right to close our eyes to this fact. The teachings of the non-Orthodox confessions contain heresies which were decisively rejected and condemned by the Church at her Ecumenical Councils. In these numerous branches of Christianity there is no unity, either outward or inward--either with the Orthodox Church of Christ ct between themselves. The supra-confessional unification (the "ecumenical movement")which is now to be observed does not enter into the depths of the life of these confessions, but has an outward character, The term "invisible'' can refer only to the Heavenly Church. The Church on earth, even though it has its invisible side, like a ship a part of which is hidden in the water and is invisible to the eyes, still remains visible, because it consists of people and has visible forms of organization and sacred activity...

All of such "uniting" and "equalizing" views indicate a forgetfulness of the principle that there can be many teachings and opinions, but there is only one truth, And authentic Christian unity--unity in the Church—can be based only upon oneness of mind, and not upon differences of mind. The Church is the pillar and ground of the Truth (I Tim. 3:15). 

Note: In speaking of the Church, we must be careful not to pass judgment either on those within her fold, nor on those still outside, for God alone knows the secrets of the hearts of men. In his book, The Church Ia One, A. Khomiakov writes:

"Inasmuch as the earthly and visible Church is not the fullness and completeness of the whole Church which the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgment of all creation, she acts and knows only within her own limits; and, according to the words of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (I Cor. 5:12) does not judge the rest of mankind, and:' only looks upon these as excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who exclude themselves. The rest of mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day. The Church on earth judges for herself only, according to the grace of the Spirit, and the freedom granted her through Christ, inviting also the rest of mankind to the unity and adoption of God in Christ; but upon those who do not hear her appeal she pronounces no sentence, knowing the command of her Saviour and Head, "not to judge another man's servant'' (Rom. 14:4).