Orthodox Ecclesiology Reflection of Trinitarian Theology

Ecclesiology is the theology of the Christian faith concerning the church and church structure. Firstly, what is the church? How is unity maintained? How is ecclesiology intimately linked with Trinitarian theology? What was the Church like in the apostolic age? What is eucharisitic ecclesiology? How do Orthodox view primacy? May the words I express be correct, fruitful, and of benefit to anyone reading. Please feel free to message me if you believe I have articulated anything inaccurately. Lord have mercy upon me, whomever is reading, and Your Holy Orthodox Church. Amen.

What Is The Church?

The Church is the body of Christ, the continuation of Pentecost with the Holy Spirit dwelling in each individual person as well as the communal church Herself, Pentecost which was the divine reversal of the Tower of Babel. The Church’s head is Jesus Christ, the Church is one in faith and wholly undivided. The Church is a reflection of God Himself, who is paradoxically both separate (only in Personhood) and one (in Essence) by the Holy Trinity. Orthodox have multiple autocephalous churches who seem separate but are unified in doctrine. Each of us are separate in being different persons but we are unified in our same faith (Galatians 3:28). Therefore, it can be said the Church is the very icon and image of the Trinity.

The Church is both visible and invisible, and is not limited to only those alive on earth. This is not to confuse that there are two churches, there is only one that is both visible and invisible, hence the paradox. It is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). The visible church established at Pentecost continues on today through apostolic succession, which is the Orthodox Church.

The structure of the Orthodox is similar to the Roman Catholic Church in the sense of agreement on foundations of apostolic succession, the priesthood, the episcopate, asking for the intercession of the saints, etc. A certain level of primacy may be agreed upon as well, but it’s function is vastly different from that of the West (2). “Thus far Rome and Orthodoxy agree – but where Rome thinks in terms of supremacy and the universal jurisdiction of the Pope, Orthodoxy thinks in terms of the five Patriarchs and of the Ecumenical Council; where Rome stresses papal infallibility, Orthodox stress the infallibility of the Church as a whole. Doubtless, neither side is entirely fair to the other.” – Kallistos Ware (1).

For the Orthodox, Rome is too earthly and cannot accept the justification of such doctrines of infallibility, supremacy, the filioque, etc. For Rome, Orthodoxy is claimed to be too mystical and spiritual without a coherent ecclesiological unity. As Kallistos Ware indicates, neither side is entirely fair to the other. Even though agreement will doubtfully ever be reached, charitable discussions and love should be shown to each other.

How Is Unity Maintained?

Icon taken from Lauritz Christensen

In the Orthodox Church, unity is not simply being under the same organization under one governing authority, unity comes from Christ. Therefore unity comes from within, not from without, as Christ acts both within us and within the Church. This is not to be confused with Protestant language, just as there is only one God there is only one Church. There can be schisms from the church, but not within the church. “What holds the Church together? The act of communion in the sacraments.” (1). This may seem confusing to those new to Orthodoxy, “why is there a Russian Orthodox Church? An Antiochian one? Why are there so many different churches?” It’s actually the same faith, the same doctrines, the only difference is jurisdiction. These jurisdictions are in communion with each other by the sacrament of the Eucharist through which our faith binds us together.

“Among us, neither Patriarchs nor Councils could ever introduce new teaching, for the guardian of religion is the very body of the Church, that is, the people itself.” – Letter of 1848 from the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs addressed to Pope Pius IX. Simply put, Orthodoxy maintains unity by means of not changing the faith. “The unity of the Orthodox Church is based not on the sole, Papist principle, but on conciliarity, which is reflected in the Nicene Creed.” – Metropolitan John of Rustavi (Georgian Orthodox Church). Conciliarity is the adhere to the authority of Ecumenical Councils and to synodal church governance.

But councils of bishops can err and be deceived, so how can we know Ecumenical Councils are true? “Truth can have no external criterion, for it is manifest of itself and made inwardly plain.” (4). In other words, truth is set by God Himself, of Whom the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church towards and in truth. “But from a historical experience it clearly appears that the voice of a given council has truly been the voice of the Church or that is has not: that is all.” (5). Remember the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth, and as a whole, She is infallible. Individual members, and even local Churches may err, but it is not possible for the entire Church to teach that which is erroneous—and Ecumenical Councils are the example of what the Church as a whole teaches.

Her unity is maintained in the unity of faith. This is the expression of Cyprian, “It must be known that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop: any person who is not with the bishop is not in the Church.” The bishop and the Church cannot exist one apart from the other, in Cyprian’s view there is no possibility of discord because of the common faith and the common possession of Peter’s throne. It implies banishment of those who are not of accord with the rest, of those who wish to change this sacred tradition and faith. This keeps unity unbroken, in the same way as Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. In my personal opinion, from Cyprian’s view Protestantism separates the Church from any bishop, and Roman Catholicism elevates the Bishop above, therefore separating the bishop from the Church.

Orthodox Ecclesiology

This is a major divergence in ecclesiology in respect to Roman Catholicism. Orthodox infallibility rests on the Church and Ecumenical Councils. Rome infallibility rests on the Pope. When a synod of bishops meets this is a sign of unity in the church, and more so a direct image of the Trinity – remember the Church is the icon of the Trinity. This conciliar nature of the Church is the basic part of it’s oneness, and ultimately a mystery of how the Holy Spirit works through it just as the Trinity is also a mystery.

Perhaps the best explanation of Orthodox Ecclesiology is in Apostolic Canon 34, “The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit. Here we see regional primacy’s purpose of unity and unanimity of all bishops and all churches of the area.

As expressed, ecclesiology is inherently linked to trinitarian theology. The Church is the icon and reflection of the Trinity so should the ecclesiology also be a reflection of such. To reference from Elder Sophrony Sakharov, the Trinity cannot be subject to any form of subordinationism because even though the Father begets the Son, it doesn’t mean the Son is less equal to the Father. So the Church also cannot be subject to subordinationism as She is the reflection of the Trinity. Therefore, there can be no primacy that places a certain bishop or Church over the other Churches such as in the papacy. Likewise, the institution of autocephaly is fundamental to Orthodox ecclesiology as it expresses the consubstantiality and equality of all the local Churches and teaches us that no place and no race enjoys a greater fullness of divine grace than any other. (6).

The Church reproduces the mystery of unity in diversity shown in the Trinity (See 1 Corinthians 12). Just as in the Trinity the three persons are equal, so in the Church one bishop cannot claim to have power over the rest, and just as in the Trinity the Father has a pre-eminence as the fountainhead, so within the Church is there a concept of “first among equals” in the function of primacy. This same Trinitarian theology can be applied in the conciliar nature of councils too, it is also a reflection of the mystery of unity in diversity in many bishops come to a common mind under the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Eucharistic Ecclesiology, Primacy,
& The Early Church

Ecclesiology can also be examined and termed eucharistic (even if it is under the shadow of universal ecclesiology) because it is rooted in the sacrament of the Church, an act which realizes the Church as the Body of Christ for we are partakers of His Body & Blood in the real presence of the eucharist. “Where there is the eucharist, there is the Church; and conversely, only where the whole Church is, there is the eucharist. Such is the primitive ecclesiology expressed in the tradition of the early church and still recognizable in our canons and in the liturgical ‘rubrics,’ which to so many seem obscure and non-essential.” (8).

The nature of this ecclesiology inherently excludes the idea of a supreme power in the sense as power over the local church and her bishop. A supreme power would infer there’s a power over Christ Himself, the power lies within the Church which said power comes from the Holy Spirit (God). Orthodoxy once again does not reject the notion of primacy (local, regional, or universal), only it’s function regarding power, supremacy, and infallibility. The error of primacy of power in a universal ecclesiology is that it transforms a ministry in the Church into a power above the Church, and for a long time, the very function of primacy was understood in the context of local primacy.

It is a historical fact that the first three centuries of Christianity saw every local church as autonomous and independent, autonomous and independent means they are attributes of a whole (not in the sense of ‘parts).’ The Church did develop with more definition but no Christian would say the first three centuries of it’s existence were defective. The primitive churches were each local and each the Church of God in all it’s fullness, this ecclesiological system of the very early Church does not consist of a concept of the Universal Church at least in it’s existent form (9). The idea that there could be a power over the local churches (let alone to an individual) is not something that crossed the minds of Christians in this time period.

“In each church there fully abides and is always ‘actualized’ the Church of God; yet all together the churches are still the same one and indivisible Church of God, the Body of Christ. The Church of God is manifested in the plurality of churches; but because ontologically they are the same church, this ontological identity is expressed in a visible, living, and constantly renewed link: the unity of faith. The ecclesiological error of Rome lies not in the affirmation of her universal primacy. Rather the error lies in her identification of this primacy with ‘supreme power,’ which transforms Rome into the principium radix et origio of the unity of the Church and of the Church Herself. This ecclesiological distortion, however, must not force us into a simple rejection of universal primacy. On the contrary, it ought to encourage it’s genuinely Orthodox interpretation.” (8).

What is this Orthodox interpretation? Primacy in the Church is accepted (outside of Eucharist Ecclesiology) but is not a supreme power for it is completely incompatible with the nature of the Body of Christ and incompatible with the reflective nature of the Trinity itself, of which the Church is an image of. A local church cannot isolate herself and live by her own interests with her own doctrines lest this would turn into Protestantism, her fullness comes from her unity of faith and unity of mission that the other churches share (8). A church that does so would cut herself off from the fullness, for she must live for all and by all. Orthodox theology rejects primacy on a universal scale, but primacy is recognized at the center of every autocephalous church, a partial primacy. The purpose of primacy is to express and preserve the unity of faith unchanged, along with the unanimity of all churches. This unity of faith is the bond of peace making us one in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28).

1. Kallistos Ware – The Orthodox Church. Pelican Books, 1963, page 232. 2. Olivier Clement – You Are Peter, An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on Papal Primacy. New City Press, 2003. 3. The Orthodox Study Bible. 4. Vladimir Lossky – The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, page 188. 5. Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church. 6. Elder Sophrony, 1950 essay. 7. Iconography taken from Lauritz Christensen 2012.
8. Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff – St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1992. 9. Nicholas Afanassieff, “La Doctrine De La Primaute a La Lumiere De L’Ecclesiologie” in Istina 4 (1957).


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