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Orthodox Ecclesiology

The Church of Christ


Christ the Life Giver

Christ the Life Giver

How does the Church participate in God's mystery and grace? How is metousia Theou (participation in the essence of God) achieved? How does the Church become an eikon of the Holy Trinity? The answer, in its simplest form, is contained in the phrase in and through Christ. Christ has established the bond between the image of the Triune God, and that which is made after the image, namely, the Church, mankind. In Christ we have both the eikon and the kat eikon (that which is according to the image). Hence, we must say that the Church is the Church of the Triune God as the Church of Christ. The link between the Holy Trinity and Christology, that is, between theology and economy, demands a similar link in ecclesiology. The Church is in the image of the Triune God, and participates in the grace of the Trinity inasmuch as She is in Christ and partakes of His grace. The unity of persons in life and being cannot be achieved apart from this economy of Christ, and we here encounter what the New Testament calls the Body of Christ.

Mystical Supper

Mystical Supper with Christ Facing the Apostles

Symbolizing the Divine Eucharist

Christ is the Head of the Church and She is His Body. It is from this Christological angle that we better understand the multiplicity in unity which exists in the Church. This angle of the Body of Christ is normally connected with the divine Eucharist, because it is in the Eucharist that the Body is revealed and realized. In the divine Eucharist we have the whole Christ, the Head, and the Body, the Church. But the Eucharist is celebrated in many places and among many different groups of people. Does this then mean that there are many bodies of Christ?

This is not the case because there is one Head, and one eucharistic Body (His very body which He took up in the Incarnation) into which all the groups of people in the different places are incorporated. It is the Lord Himself who is manifested in many places, as He gives His one Body to all, so that in partaking of it they may all become one with Him and with one another. In that there is one bread, the many are one Body, for we all partake of the one bread.

The many places and the many groups of people where the eucharistic Body of Christ is revealed do not constitute an obstacle to its unity. Indeed, to partake of this Body in one place is to be united with Him who is not bound by place and, therefore, to be mystically (or mysterially, or sacramentally) united with all.

This is how St. Athanasius explains the prayer of our Lord that the apostles may be
one . . . because I am Thy Word, and I am also in them because of the Body, and because of Thee the salvation of men is perfected in Me, therefore I ask that they may also become one, according to the Body that is Me and according to its perfection, that they, too, may become perfect having oneness with it, and having become one in it; that, as if all were carried by me, all may be one body and one spirit and may grow up into a perfect man. And St. Athanasius concludes: For we all, partaking of the same, become one Body, having the one Lord in ourselves. What is given in one specific place is something which also transcends it, because of its particular perfection, that is, its being Christ's risen body.

The different eucharistic localities, with the eucharistic president (the bishop), the clergy, and the participants (the people) constitute or reveal the whole Church. It is a local church, and yet she reveals the catholic mystery of one Church. The one Church of Christ is equally and fully in all these localities because of the one, perfect Eucharist, the one Lord, and the one Body. This equality of the presence of the one Christ in the local churches is the ground for what is often called Orthodox eucharistic ecclesiology and its logical implication, the autocephaly of the local bishops and churches, which is rooted in, and springs from, the equal share in the fullness of the great eucharistic sacrament. Autocephaly is not autonomy. It must be understood in terms of the equality of bishops, and the participation of all in the one Body of Christ. It is their equality in grace which binds them to one another.

Basil the Great-Bishop of Cappadocia

Saint Basil the Great Bishop of Cappadocia

In Orthodox ecclesiology there is no difference in status between the bishop of a small place in Cappadocia and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. As eucharistic churches established upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, they are equal. This order of equality and its corollary, communion in the one Body of Christ, pertains to the very nature of the Church, that is, it constitutes the ecclesiastical ontology. It is this order which gives rise to the hierarchical, or ecumenical, order (or order of seniority, ta presbeia) which pertains to the historical structure of the Church. But there is no antinomy between the order of equality and the order of seniority in Orthodox ecclesiology.

Catholicity (the equality of the local churches as participants in the grace of Christ and the Holy Trinity) and ecumenicity (the order of seniority among the bishops as participants in the mission of the Church to the world in history) are not antipodes. From the Orthodox perspective, it is the development of such antipodes which have resulted in the historical divisions within Christendom.

The Roman Catholic claim of universality and primacy on the one hand, and the Protestant claims of individual or local autonomy on the other, are, in fact, contradictions between catholicity and ecumenicity, since they claim that the integrity of the local churches of God is not guaranteed by their participation in the one grace of Christ and the Trinity, but by their acceptance of the one local church (the church of Rome) and by one local bishop (the pope of Rome) as their absolute head. The Protestants, on the other hand, in their attempt to reclaim catholicity on the basis of the free grace of God in Christ, have ignored the historical order established by the catholic churches, and, as a result, have often confused the autocephaly of the local church with autonomy.

The strength of the Orthodox vis-à-vis the other Christians is their fidelity to the mystery of the catholic Church, the Body of Christ, as it has been established and manifest in history. The Orthodox alone have kept in their full integrity both the catholic mystery of the Eucharist, and in the ecumenical order of seniority among the catholic Churches (ta presbeia) which springs out of the mystery of the Eucharist. This is why they claim to be the one Church of God, founded upon Christ, and keeping the historic canonical order of seniority which constitutes the Church's response to the challenges of history. The Orthodox believe that there is always room for development in the Church's historic response to the world, provided that it is consistent with the established canonical tradition, but they remain absolutely adamant on the essential belief of catholicity and unity.

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Church of the Fathers | Church of the Saints or Those Who are Called To Be Saints | Conclusion