The Unity of God’s Church and the Orthodox Church

by Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis | български | Русский | Ελληνικά | Српски


Today, the Orthodox Church maintains cordial relations with other Christian churches and communities and participates in joint efforts with them to recover the visible unity of all God’s people. While most of the Orthodox faithful perceive the Church’s involvement in this joint quest for unity to be guided by the Holy Spirit, others express fear that the faith of the Church is somehow compromised for the sake of a unity not always grounded in truth. Why has the Orthodox Church decided to be involved in the ecumenical movement? How does this involvement relate to her claim to be the embodiment of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?

In an encyclical addressed to all Orthodox churches in 1902, the Ecumenical Patriarchate invited the Orthodox churches to move towards more dynamic inner communion, conciliarity, and cooperation to work with other Christian churches and communities towards visible unity. In 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a second encyclical addressed to all Christian churches suggesting the formation of a “league of churches” for common witness and action. It stated that the Orthodox Church “holds that rapprochement (προσέγγισις) between the various Christian churches and fellowship (κοινωνία) between them is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them.”  The Ecumenical Patriarchate had hoped that the churches could move towards greater unity if they could overcome their mutual mistrust and bitterness by rekindling and strengthening the evangelical love. This could lead them to see one another not as strangers and foreigners, but as being part of the household of Christ, “fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of God in Christ” (Eph. 3:6). In 1986 the Third Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox conference unequivocally stated that the “Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement does not run counter to the Orthodox Church’s nature and history. It constitutes the consistent expression of the Apostolic faith within new historical conditions.”

Orthodox churches understand their participation in the ecumenical movement to be inspired and guided by the Spirit of God, who wills all to be united with the risen Christ. Thus, it is not merely a response to God’s reconciling love, but a movement of the Holy Spirit in which the churches participate. The late Orthodox theologian Nikos Nissiotis stated that the churches transcend their confessional boundaries and heal their divisions whenever they let the Spirit of God guide their lives: “The Spirit is the advocate of the dynamic over the static, of the multiform over the uniform, of the exceptional over the regular, or the paradox over the normal.” When the separated churches are gathered together, affirming faith in Christ and searching for ways to actualize and experience their unity in God’s eschatological promise, it is the Spirit of God that guides their efforts.

The Orthodox church participates in the ecumenical movement without abandoning her belief to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. What facilitated her participation is the statement on “The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches,” issued in 1950 in Toronto by the World Council of Churches. The “Toronto statement” assured the churches that their participation in the ecumenical movement in no way prejudices the outcome of the ongoing quest for unity and that the Churches would not be obliged to change their ecclesiology. Membership in the World Council of Churches does not imply that the Orthodox churches must regard the other member churches and communities as churches in the word’s full sense. The churches retain the “constitutional right to ratify or to reject utterances or actions of the Council.” The Toronto statement provided an acceptable theological framework that allowed the Orthodox churches to be active participants in the ecumenical movement without compromising their ecclesiological beliefs.

While the Orthodox church may view her involvement in the ecumenical movement to be consistent with her ecclesiology, she has been unwilling to address the claims of other Christian churches and communions concerning their relation/identity with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This had immediate consequences for the Orthodox Church’s ecumenical witness, and it makes ecumenism a divisive issue within the Church. “We, Orthodox,” Bishop Kallistos (Ware) has noted, “do not at this moment have an agreed attitude towards nonorthodox Christians…Some of us [Orthodox] see ecumenism as a sign of hope, others as a pan-heresy. Some of us think Roman Catholics have a true priesthood; others consider that they should be re-baptized. When we meet other Christians, we speak with a divided voice. Consequently, our participation in the ecumenical movement has been far less effective than it could and should have been.”

Any attempt to address this problem requires that we consider the Orthodox Church’s sensitivities about the Church’s unity. The Orthodox Church is especially sensitive about maintaining its continuity with the Apostolic faith, life, and witness. Every division in the Church’s history has been viewed as a denial of her nature, separation from Christ’s body, a departure from the temple of the Holy Spirit. In coping with schisms, the Church emphasized unity and promulgated canons to fortify Her unity in faith, life, and witness. She advocated that those who separate themselves from the Church depart from the domain of God’s salvific grace. While the Orthodox Church has never refuted this belief, she has refused to accept its practical consequences. Metropolitan John Zizioulas believes the problem of the limits of the Church and of the implication for those individuals and communities who exist outside of these limits continues to be an unresolved issue for Orthodox theology. He suggests that “it is certainly not easy to exclude from the realm and the operation of the Spirit so many Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church.” He believes that baptism creates the limits of the Church and that “within this baptismal limit it is conceivable that there may be division, but any division within these limits is not the same as the division between the Church and those outside the baptismal Limit.” From this perspective, baptism constitutes the Church, and even if divisions exist within the baptismal community, one may still speak of the Church.

The Orthodox churches seemed to have adopted an ecclesiological agnosticism that resists reflecting on other Christian churches’ claims concerning their relation to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Fr. George Florovsky has challenged this agnosticism. He argued that the Orthodox churches make implicit judgments about the nature of the other Christian churches by the manner that they admit their members to the Orthodox Church either through re-baptism, chrismation, or mere recital of the creed. He maintained that the Orthodox Church needs to rethink her understanding of schism to “una sancta.” He suggested that outside of the Church’s canonical boundaries, there is no salvation that must be respected as a strong urge to maintain and respect the unity of God’s Church. Still, today it needs to be supplanted with a theology of schism. St. Augustine has suggested that schismatic and heretical communities, despite their formal separation from the una sancta, continue to maintain unity bonds. Consequently, all the separated Christian churches are related to each other and are in communion, however imperfectly, with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The recognition of this relationality and relative unity is warranted because there are many still unbroken bonds whereby the schismatic communities are held in partial unity with the One Church. In the words of Florovsky, these bonds include “right belief, sincere devotion, the Word of God, and above all the grace of God, that heals the weak and supplies what is lacking.” Thus, in every schismatic and heretical community, there is something of God that connects them with the life of God’s Church. “What is valid in the sects is that which is in them from the Church, that which remains with them as their portion of the sacred inner core of the Church, that through which they are with the Church.”

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (Crete, 2016) issued an authoritative conciliar statement on “The Relation of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.” This statement is significant because, for the first time in her history, the Orthodox Church formally promulgates a theological understanding of her active participation in the Ecumenical movement. The document reaffirms the belief that “the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The vocation of the Orthodox Church, based on her ecclesiastical self-conscience, is to be actively engaged in all Christians’ joint efforts to recover the broken unity of God’s Church.  In discussing the Orthodox Church’s relation with the rest of the Christian world, the statement acknowledges other Christian churches and confessions, not in communion with the Orthodox Church. Based on St. Cyprian of Carthage’s view, some ‘traditionalist’ Orthodox hierarchs and theologians reject the notion that there are “churches and confessions outside of the Orthodox church” since the Orthodox Church is the only true Church.  Consequently, they argue that there is no need to restore the unity of the Church except to pray for the return, through repentance, of heretics and schismatics to the only one true Church.  This limited reaction to the Council’s ecclesiological assessment of the other Christian churches and confessions outside of the Orthodox Church’s canonical boundaries has always existed in the Orthodox Church’s life and many other Christian churches. Still, the Great Holy Council’s decisions give firm theological credence to the Church’s dialogical expression of her faith, life, and witness in dialogue with other Christians who aspire to live and proclaim the Apostolic faith and strive for the unity of God’s people.

The recognition of those churches and communities’ ecclesial nature outside of the Orthodox Church’s canonical boundaries compels the Church to be in an unceasing dialogue and collaboration with them, allowing the Holy Spirit to move all into complete unity with Christ. However, recognizing the ecclesial nature of other nonorthodox Christian churches and communions does not sanction, at least for the Orthodox Church, the practice of intercommunion. The Church’s reluctance to be in sacramental communion with other Christian churches—despite the affirmation that they are imperfectly and incompletely members of the One Church of God—should not be perceived as a sign of arrogance, and neither should it be a source of Orthodox triumphalism or self-sufficiency. It does not allow the churches to become complacent with present relative unity and collaboration. It is a painful reminder to all that the unity of God’s Church requires the fullness of the Apostolic faith, life, and witness. Toward this realization, the churches are called to intensify their prayers so “that all Christians may work together so that the day may soon come when the Lord will fulfill the hope of the Orthodox churches, and there will be ‘one flock and one shepherd’ (Jn. 10:16).

Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is an Orthodox priest and theologian. He has served as the vice moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and is author of Orthodoxy in Conversation: Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements (2001) and the editor of The Orthodox Churches in a Pluralistic World: An Ecumenical Conversation (2004).