On Ecumenoclasm: What Is Church?

by Paul Ladouceur

On April 22, 2016, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church issued a decision containing its objections to the draft document of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church on “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.” The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece took a similar decision on May 26, 2016. The brief decision of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which contains no theological justification for its positions, rejects the use of the appellation “Church” to refer to non-Orthodox Christian denominations; it objects to the inference that Christian unity has been “lost”; and it deplores the absence of affirmation that the only way to Christian unity is the return of “heretics and schismatics” to the Orthodox Church. Neither the Bulgarian nor the Greek decision go as far as an earlier declaration of Bulgarian clergy and monastics which postulates that “heretics are outside the ship of the Church and as a consequence, beyond salvation” – but the practical conclusion is the same.   

Concerning the term “Church,” the Bulgarian statement reads: “Besides the Holy Orthodox Church there are no other churches, but only heresies and schisms, and to call the latter ‘churches’ is theologically, dogmatically and canonically completely erroneous.” The Bulgarian statement thus identifies the Church entirely and exclusively with the current Orthodox Church. As we pointed out in another post on Public Orthodoxy (“On Ecumenoclasm: Who Can Be Saved?”), this theology reposes implicitly on a rigorist and narrow interpretation of St. Cyprian of Cartage’s famous dictum “No salvation outside the Church.” Orthodoxy has never accepted an interpretation of Cyprian’s dictum which limits the Church to a visible institution, but instead recognizes that Christ and the Holy Spirit act outside the visible limits of the Orthodox Church. As Fr. Georges Florovsky expresses this notion, the canonical and the sacramental boundaries of the Church do not coincide – the boundaries of the Church of Christ are a mystery known to God alone.

By limiting the Church to a visible institution, the Orthodox (Byzantine rite) Church, the Bulgarian approach negates the Pauline notion, taken up by many Fathers of the Church, of the Church as “the Body of Christ” (1 Co 12:12-31; Eph.4:11-13; Col. 1:24 etc.). In much patristic and modern reflection on the Church, this came to be expressed as the “mystical Body of Christ,” emphasizing that the Church extends well beyond the limits of the limits of the Orthodox Church. Christ is “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). The three characteristics form one whole. Thus wherever there is Truth, there also are the Way and Life – the way and life that are Christ Jesus. The essence of Church is the possession of Truth, the witness to Truth, and access to the means of salvation. While non-Orthodox Churches and communities do not possess the fullness of the Truth found only in the Orthodox Church, they nonetheless possess elements of the Truth, to the degree to which they witness to Jesus Christ and manifest his teachings. They thus participate in the Church of Christ and hence are indeed members of the Body of Christ, which entitles them to refer to themselves and to be referred to as “Church.”

The statement of the Bulgarian Church also repeats the affirmation in the earlier document of Bulgarian ecclesial figures to the effect that “‘Christian unity’ has never been lost, because the Holy Orthodox Church has never lost its unity and never will.” The statement cannot be refuted as such because it is a tautology: here, the “Holy Orthodox Church” is implicitly identical to “Christian unity.” By implication too, not only are non-Orthodox ecclesial bodies not “Church,” but their adherents are not Christians, since they do not figure in Christian unity.

In a broader context, the statement is, of course, historical nonsense. The ancient Coptic Church of Egypt, and the Armenian and Syriac Churches, and indeed the Church of Rome, were all part of the Catholic (=Universal) Church up to the Council of Chalcedon (451) for the first group, and until the beginning of the second millennium for the Church of Rome. These Churches are no longer in communion with what became known as the Orthodox Church. Where is the continuous unity of the Orthodox Church so confidently proclaimed in the Bulgarian statement?

The statement also conveniently disregards recent ruptures in the Orthodox Church itself, such as the 1996 break in communion between the Churches of Constantinople and Russia over jurisdiction in Estonia, not to mention the current squabble between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem over jurisdiction in Qatar. During the period when Constantinople and Russia were not in communion, was the Church of Russia no longer “Church”? Or was it the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

The Bulgarian declaration complains about the absence of affirmation in the draft document of the Pan-Orthodox Council that the only way to Christian unity is the return of heretics and schismatics to the Orthodox Church. Georges Florovsky, a leading Orthodox ecumenist for some four decades, expresses this more delicately: “For me, Christian reunion is just universal conversion to Orthodoxy.” Both Florovsky and Sergius Bulgakov, who disagreed on many issues, were united in affirming that only the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of the truth of Christ – but they never resorted to hitting fellow Christians over the head with insulting epithets (such as “heretic” and “schismatic”), which may be technically accurate, but are far removed from Christian charity. As Jesus taught: “Whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt 5:22).

The declaration of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church seeks to derail the engagement of the Orthodox Church to dialogue with other Christians. Orthodoxy must stand firm in its fundamental commitment to act in accordance with Christ’s priestly prayer: “That they may be one just as We are one” (Jn 17:22). Witness to the truth of the Orthodox Church must not proceed by hurling insults and manifesting hostility towards fellow Christians, but by humble witness to the Orthodox tradition in sincere Christian love and respect towards all seekers of Truth.

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto), and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Quebec).

Please join us June 23-25 for our “Tradition, Secularization, Fundamentalism” conference.