Orthodox America

  The Ascetic Nature of the Church

Christianity, translated into life, is necessarily ascetic; It demands struggle, ascetic labor, and practice in realizing that ideal which is given by Christiania, as the norm of man's perfection. Christianity is unthinkable without the Church, or rather, it IS the Church, as the living incarnation and realization both of those new beginnings of life which Christ brought to earth, and also of those conditions necessary for the incarnation of this ideal--for which reason without the Church there is not and cannot be any Christianity in the true meaning of the word; there is only the Christianization of a certain realm of thought or some other reaIm in man's Iife.

      From the moment the State accepted the Church, we can observe this restricted 'Chnstianization' of society in the historico-cultural process in which Christianity was absorbed only into certain ideas or at certain times, which were admissible according to purely utilitarian and humanitarian interests; and even in such cases they always suffered adulteration and adaptation according to the fashion of the times. But the Church of Christ is something entirely new, existing in all possible manifestations of human life. And it cannot admit any accommodation or compromise with man. For this reason, church life and church existence demand of man a complete transformation, a complete renunciation of his former sinfulness following the ways of the world, and that he clothe himself in the new man, i.e., according to Christ, in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:24). This is so well expressed by the concept of baptism--through which we enter the Church--the meaning of which is to die to the world and to be raised up in Christ (Rom. 6:4-14). It is best revealed in the New Testament Scriptures, especially in Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Here we see that the Church, as the realization of the ideal of Christian life--or what is also normal human life - appears in essence to be the sphere and arena of that struggle between good and evil which is carried out and constitutes, from the Christian point of view, the essence of the entire world process. The Church both contains and represents that 'podvig" and struggle which man must undertake towards Christian moral perfection.

      The concept of the earthly Church is therefore inseparable, in Christian understanding, from the idea of struggle. Note how the Saviour, in defining the purpose of His coming to earth, the very purpose of His activity, said: I shall build My Church [Church, and not some kind of school which was the case with representatives of ordinary, human wisdom, as, for example, the philosophers], and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Here is the foundation of the Church, and the essential character of her life: warfare. It is very clear that the Saviour regarded these two ideas--the idea of His Church and the idea of struggle -as inseparable. And this must also be our understanding.

      In the Lord's discourses, particularly His beau tirades and the parables, in which He unfolds the life of His Church in its various aspects, we can clearly see how this idea of unceasing warfare was persistently developed by the Saviour.

      The enemy always tries to harm the growth and life of the Church; he sows tares, abducts the sheep, persecutes and provokes Christ's followers sifts them as wheat and arouses hatred--ye wilt be hated of all men for My Name's sake (Matt. 10:22). The truth of the Saviour's words concerning the nature of the life of the Church could only find a more definite expression in the works and personal experience of the Apostles, One finds that all the apostolic epistles are penetrated by this idea of struggle and podvig. The holy Apostle Paul says plainly: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness ot this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12); these are an evil substance or power which acts solely through sin in our bodily members. Concerning the devil, it is stated directly that he goes about as a roaring lion...seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).

      But perhaps this concept of the Church as an unceasing warfare is most strikingly depicted in the Apocalypse. There, Christ and Antichrist are presented as two constant principals of life, as it were, between whom there is carried out a war not only of each individual, but also of the whole world.

      We see, therefore, that in Christian consciousness this concept of the Church and the nature of her life are inseparable from the idea of struggle and the presence of this struggle in the living experience of Church life. Given this understanding, it becomes clear that if a pastor, as the continuation of the work of Christ and the Apostles, must work in the Church and for the Church, the very nature of his services its direction and its character, must define this particular nature of the Church. Inasmuch as this is inseparable from warfare and podvig (spiritual and also external), a pastor must, therefore, base all his activity exclusively on the principle of podvig and warfare.

      From this it is clear that pastoral work is not foreign to asceticism; on the contrary, it is intimately connected with it, and any departure from this, any attempt to define himself and his work on the basis of any other principle will lead to the ruin not only of the pastoral work but also of the pastor himself. The special nature of the Church and her life determines the unique nature of pastoral work, which is unlike any other kind of service, and therefore any attempt--whether through misunderstanding or through obstinacy--to make it into conventional social service will only result in the ruin of all church activity and the ruin of the pastor himself. 

(Translated from The Concept of Chrtstian Podvig by New Martyr Archbishop Feodor Pozdeyev; Monastery Press, Montreal 1976)