BASIC DOGMATIC TEACHING
An Orthodox Handbook
by Protopresbyter Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos (1931 – 1996)
Dr. of Theology, Dr. of Philosophy
Chapter 12 – The Church : the Body of Christ
1. The new “people of God”
Sometimes, when we talk about the Church, we imagine it to be an organization that serves certain purposes in people’s lives.
This perception however is an erroneous one, because “Church” is the per se communion of people with God also, having as its model the communion of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. This is the reason that the Apostle Paul speaks of «the providence (oekonomia) of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God, Who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord» (Ephesians 3:9-11. cmp. Colossians 1:26).
In this sense, the Church was already existent, in Paradise (Eden – Genesis 3:8); however, man’s fall from that primeval communion had as a result the transfer of the Church from Paradise to earth.In the Old Testament the Church was comprised mainly of God’s chosen people – Israel – whose course passed through the desert, with the Promised Land as the final destination. This course is not unrelated to the Person of Christ; «… For Israel was an infant, and I loved him, and out of Egypt I recalled his children», said God through the mouth of Hosee (11:1), and Matthew the Evangelist applies this statement to the Person of the Lord, Who assembled the new people of God, the Church (Matthew 2:15, cmp. Numbers 23:22) . Not only the exodus from Egypt and the journey towards the Promised Land, but also the dispersing of Israel during the Babylonian captivity and the promise for its repatriation and its re-assembling, are used by the Prophets when announcing in advance the assembling of Christ’s body: the one body, of the Church.
The Prophet Jeremiah forewarns of the laments of Rachel for her descendants, who were carried away in captivity to Babylon, and he proclaims that the tears of her mother will be dried and will be transformed into inexpressible joy for the return of the children of Israel and their reinstatement in a new homeland – a permanent one, no longer in a place of exile:
«A voice of lamentation and weeping and mourning was heard in Rama; Rachel did not want to stop weeping for her sons, because they are no longer. Thus did the Lord say: Let your voice cease from weeping, and your eyes from tears, because there is a wage for your works, and they shall come back from a land of enemies; there will be permanence for your children» (Jeremiah 38:15-17. Hebrew Text: 31:15-17).
Of course the Prophet in this case had in mind the captivity of God’s people. But, this event, as well as the “coming back” of which he spoke, is the foreshadowing and the image of another event: that of the dispersal of mankind after the Fall and its re-congregating into the one and only “people of God”; that is, the eventual constitution of the Church in the Person of Christ (see also Matthew 2:18).
The same matter is treated by the Prophet Jeremiah, when speaking of that day on which the Lord shall give His people a “New Testament”, but not one that would be similar to the Covenant of Mount Sinai. This new law of God was not going to be written on stone plaques, but inside the hearts of man:
«Behold, days are coming, quoth the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Iouda. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers […] I will give my laws in their mind, and I will write them on their hearts, and I will become a god to them, and they shall become a people to me.» (Jeremiah 38:31-33; Hebrew text: 31:31-33).
Which is that New Testament, of which the prophet spoke? The Apostle Paul uses the same quote and mentions that the “mediator of a better covenant” is Christ (Hebrews 8:6-13)
According to the admission of the Saviour Christ, it is the blood of the Lord which is spilled for the sake of God’s new people – for the sake of the Church (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20). This was the New Covenantewhich the prophet had pre-announced.
In the words of the hymn of the Great Canon, «The Church acquired a Krater (ancient Greek urn) of Your life-giving side, out of which has flowed the double spout – of pardon and of knowledge – as a form of the old, of the new, of the two Testaments together, o our Saviour».
The blood of our Lord, «which is shed for many for the remission of sins» (Matthew 26:28), renders possible once again the congregating of the scattered children of God and the re-composition of His people with the “new heart”, which leads people into the unique union with the one Body of Christ – that is, the Church. This is the fruit of the presence of the Holy Spirit among this new people of His (1 Corinthians 12:3, Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:30). It is for this reason that the prophet stresses the following:
«This is what the Lord says: And I will take them in from the nations and will assemble them from the countries, in them where I dispersed them, and I will give them the land of Israel. […] And I will give them another heart, and I will impart a new spirit in them, and I will draw forth the heart of stone from their flesh… » (Ezekiel 11:17-19).
«And I will give my spirit in you and will act so that you walk in my statutes and keep my judgments and perform them» (Ezekiel 36:27. Cmp. Acts 2:33).
Thus, the Prophets pre-announce a new era – the era of the Paraclete – which is no longer the era of one people but of the entire human race. That is why Isaiah, when addressing the idolatrous peoples invites them also, in view of the day of composition of God’s new people, to likewise become a “new creation”.
«Dedicate yourselves to me, you islands! Israel is being saved by the Lord with everlasting salvation» (Isaiah 45:16-17).
The Apostle Paul names the Church “Mount Zion” and “city of the living God“, “celestial Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:21) and John sees Her descending from heaven, wholly surrounded by the glory of God (Rev.3:12; 22:10, e.a.) This is the image that the Old Testament Prophets also utilize in order to declare the lory of the Church and Her composition out of all the nations and all peoples:
«And it shall be in the last days, the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, prepared on the tops of the mountains, and it shall be elevated beyond the hills. And peoples shall hasten to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of the God of Iakob, and they will show us his way, and we will walk in his paths.” Because out of Sion shall go forth a law, and a word of the Lord from Ierousalem. And he shall judge between many peoples and shall reprove strong nations far away, and they shall cut their swords into plows and their spears into sickles, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, and they shall learn war no more […] and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Sion from now and forever» (Michaias 4:1-3, 7).
This same unity, the love between the faithful and the joy and bliss for the fact of salvation are also described by the rest of the Prophets of the Old Testament:
«…then I will change the tongue for peoples in its generation, that all might call upon the name of the Lord to be subject to him under one yoke. From the ends of the rivers of Ethiopia they shall bring me offerings» (Sophonias 3:9-10).
«…At that time the Lord will say to Ierousalem: Courage, O Sion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord your God is in you; a mighty one will save you; perhaps he will bring gladness to you and renew you in his affection, and he will be glad over you with delight as on a day of a feast.
14 Rejoice, O daughter Sion! Proclaim, O daughter Ierousalem! Be glad, and be delighted with your whole heart,O daughter Ierousalem! 15 The Lord has taken away your injustices; he has redeemed you from the hand of your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall see disaster no more. 16 At that time the Lord will say to Ierousalem: Courage, O Sion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17 The Lord your God is in you; a mighty one will save you; he will bring gladness to you and renew you in his affection, and he will be glad over you with delight as on a day of a feast. (Sophonias 3:14-17)
The cause, therefore, of rejoicing is the presence of the Lord in the midst of His new people: «Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him» (John 14:23); we shall come to Him and shall dwell with Him.
This truth is also pre-announced by the Prophet Zechariah:
«Rejoice, and be glad, O daughter Sion. For behold, I am coming and will tent in your midst, says the Lord. And many nations shall flee to the Lord for refuge on that day and shall become a people to Him, and they will tent in your midst» (Zechariah 2:10-11).
«And many peoples and many nations shall come to seek the face of the Lord Almighty in Ierousalem and to appease the face of the Lord» (Zechariah 8:22).
Malachias also proclaims the ecumenicity of the Church:
«For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the nations, and in every place incense is brought to my name, and a pure offering, for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord Almighty.» (Malachias 1:11).
But, the one who speaks with far more clarity regarding the Church is the Prophet Isaiah:
«Rejoice, O barren one who does not give birth; break forth, and shout, you who are not in labor pains! Because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her that has a husband, for the Lord has spoken. Broaden the site of your tent and of your curtains; make it firm; do not hold back; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes, because you must spread out to the right and to the left, and your offspring will inherit the nations and will inhabit the cities that have become desolate. Do not fear because you were put to shame, neither feel disgraced because you were reproached, because you will forget your ancient shame and the reproach of your widowhood you will not remember, because the Lord is the one who makes you, the Lord Sabaoth is his name, and the one who delivered you is the very God of Israel; he shall be called thus in all the earth. The Lord has not called you as a forsaken and faint-hearted woman, nor as a woman hated from youth, your God has said. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great mercy I will have mercy on you. With a little wrath I turned my face away from you, but with everlasting mercy I have had mercy on you, the Lord who delivered you has said. From the water at the time of Noe, this is my oath: Just as I swore to him at that time that I would no more be angry at the earth because of you, nor as a threat to you would I remove the mountains, nor would the hills be shifted, so neither shall the mercy that comes from me to you fail, nor shall the covenant of your peace be removed, for the Lord said he would be merciful to you» (Isaiah 54:1-10).
The «barren woman» is God’s new people, the «Jerusalem on high», which does not «give birth» in a natural manner, like «the woman who has a husband», but based on God’s promises. That is why Her children are an innumerable crowd (Galatians 4:21-31). Because, as the Apostle says in another verse, the children of Abraham (the children of the barren Sarah) are the people of the faith in Christ (Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:1-25, 9:6-8), regardless of their origin.
And that is also why God pre-announces the evangelization of the nations, through the Apostles:
«And I will leave signs upon them, and from them I will send forth those who are saved to the nations, to Tharsis and Phoud and Loud and Mosoch and Thobel and to Greece and to the islands far away—those who have not heard my name or seen my glory, and they shall declare my glory among the nations. They shall bring your kindred from all the nations as a gift to the Lord, with horses and chariots, in mule-drawn litters with sunshades, into the holy city Ierousalem, said the Lord, so that the sons of Israel may bring to me their sacrifices with music into the house of the Lord» (Isaiah 66:19-20).
2. And I shall make you my betrothed for eternity
As mentioned in the above prophecy by Isaiah, the communion between God and His people is likened to the communion of love between two spouses. This is the reason that God is characterized in the Old Testament as «zealous» (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 5:9, Deuteronomy 6:15, Jesse 24:19; Ezekiel 39:25). Hence, every infidelity on the part of God’s people is characterized as fornication and adultery (Judges 2:17; cmp 21:11, Jeremiah 3:1; 9:13; Ezekiel 6:9, 16:36, Hosee 4:11; Micah 1:7).
In order for God to make clear this close and exclusive bond of love with His people and to motivate them to return during their years of Apostasy, He gave the Prophet Hosiah the instruction to take a whore as his wife (Hos.1:2), which was intended to denote the true condition of the Apostate people.
But at the same time, God announces through the mouth of the Prophet that the bond of love between God and the unfaithful wife (that is, His apostate people), would not be broken; that God Himself would purge His people and renew the bond of betrothal with them:
«And I will betroth you to myself forever, and I will betroth you to myself in justice and in judgment and in mercy and in compassion. And I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord […] and I will sow her for Myself in the land. And I will have pity on the not Pitied one, and I will say to not-My -People, “You are my people” and he shall say, “You are the Lord my God.”» (Hosee, 2,19-20, 23).
These are the prophetic words that the Apostle Paul also uses, when describing the constitution of the Church by Judeans and Gentiles (Romans 9:24-26).
3. The head and the members of the Church
«Salvation did You work in the midst of the earth, o Christ the Lord; on the Cross did You spread Your immaculate arms, gathering together all the nations, who cry out “Lord, glory to You”».
This hymn of the Sixth Hour of Holy Monday proclaims that the new people of God – the Church – is gathered together and constituted through the crucifixional sacrifice of Christ. The Apostle Paul mentions that the Lord “acquired” the Church “through His own blood” (Acts 20:28). On the Cross, therefore, the Lord opens His immaculate embrace, in order to receive and to “gather into one” all of the scattered children of God (John 11:52).
But, we cannot isolate the crucifixional sacrifice from the other events of Christ’s life. That is why we must say that with His Incarnation and His terrestrial life, with His death and His Resurrection, His Ascension and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit, the Lord once again gathers together the scattered people of God and constitutes His Church, by giving Her the initial chastity and purity.
«Christ», says the Apostle Paul, «is the head of the Church and He is the savior of the body […] just as He loved the Church, and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish» (Ephesians 5:23-27).
«And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.» (Colossians 1:17-20).
The Church, therefore, is the god-human Body of the Lord and Christ Himself is the Head.
Saint John the Chrysostom refers to this miracle, by underlining that “Christ undertook the Body of the Church and He made the Church into His Body.”
Thus, when we speak of the “Body of Christ” – which is the Church – we do not mean ONLY the people of God, without Christ, nor do we mean ONLY Christ, without the people of God; we mean both together: Christ, together with the people of God. That is, the Head of the Church together with Her remaining members – us.
The Apostle Paul makes reference to his ministry, by saying characteristically that he desires to fill up his flesh with the sufferings of the Lord: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church…of which I became a minister” (Colossians 1:24).
In another place he adds:
“And He put all things under His feet, and gave Himself to be Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23).
4. The grafting of members
Christ’s Church does not comprise a privilege of one, specific people. It is the new people of God, wherein all people can belong – from whatever race they may originate – as long as they “receive Christ” and live, “rooted and built up in Him”:
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.” (Col.2:6-7)
“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free— and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.” (1 Cor.12:12-14; cmp.also Gal.3:28, Eph.4:4-6, Col.3:11).
The Apostle Paul speaks of the assumption of all people into the Church and characterizes Her as “life from the dead” (Rom.11:15) and as a “grafting contrary to nature” of mankind, from the “natural, wild olive tree” onto the “cultivated olive tree” – that is, onto the Body of Christ. With this “grafting”, man becomes “a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17-14), in other words, a partaker of the rich life of Christ.
Without this “grafting” onto the Body of Christ, without rebirth inside the Church, man remains attached to the old root, which leaves him unredeemed – in the realm of corruption and death. It is for this reason that the Apostle himself mentions that true life is hidden “with Christ, in God” (Col.3:3). Furthermore, the Apostle John adds that “he who has the Son has life; but he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12; cmp.also John 11:25, 14:6 and 1 John 1:2).
5. The Church is our salvation
The above help us understand that the Church is not an organization, but a living organism; She is not a union, but a Body: the Divine-human, the resurrected and deified Body of our Lord.
The Church is the god-human organism, the life of God within man and within the world. The Church is Christ together with all people who have been baptized “into one Spirit” and have become “one body” with Christ, “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free“; together with those who “have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:13).
This event – in which man becomes “one body” with Christ – brings him once again near the Triadic God, rendering him a partaker of the divine life (John 17:22-23).
This is the reason by which we believe that the Church is not a simple workshop, which caters to the salvation of man. She is something far more than a workshop. The Church is, Herself, man’s salvation.
Christ became a man and sacrificed Himself “to gather into one the children of God, which were scattered” (John 11:52). This gathering of God’s scattered children “in Christ” is no secondary fact; it is that very fact of salvation.
It is for this reason that we have said that the Church does not merely save, but that She is salvation itself.
The above are very important for our Christian way of life and for our salvation. We need to understand that nobody can – on his own, “by himself” – be and be called a Christian, while separate from his incorporation in the body of Christ, which is simultaneously a communion with brethren (1 Cor.12:12-28).
In other words, each and every person’s salvation cannot possibly be his/her own undertaking, irrespective of their incorporation and their life within the Church. That is, for man to be saved, it is not enough to merely believe in God and be certain of His existence. It is not enough to study the Holy Bible and show discipline in his life, nor to observe all the rules of morality and honesty and apply with precision all of Christ’s moral teachings. If all the aforementioned are not the result of something else – which is the most fundamental thing – they will not make a man a Christian, nor will they save him.
This is because the terms “Christianity” and “Christian” signify an incorporation in the body of Christ, participation in the life of the Christian community, in the congregating of the faithful, for the purpose of becoming built upon the foundation of “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, upon whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” and becoming “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22).
Thus, to be a Christian means to be a “fellow citizen with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19); it means to belong to the community of brethren. An abstract faith on its own, which has no consequences on everyday living and does not cost us anything, is not enough.
Furthermore, being God’s fellow citizen and household member also entails a constant endeavour, a constant struggle for each and every person, to keep him/her self clean of passions and of everything else that might offend society and the entire community of brethren, which will result in his/her remaining united with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit, and to increment, into a holy temple in the Lord.
6. Gathered together in the name of Christ
Christ’s Church is not comprised of individuals, each of whom lives his/her own “religious” life, independently of the community of brethren. The entirety of God’s people constitutes the Body of the Church together with Christ, Who is the Head of the Church’s body. Consequently, for a religious gathering to actually be a Church, it must have the essential characteristic element of unity with the Lord and with the brethren. We must also be aware that the ecclesiastic characteristic of a gathering is not necessarily dependent on the number of members present. It is mainly dependent on the presence of Christ in that gathering. The presence of Christ is ensured, even if only two or three people take place in one gathering that will take place in the name of Christ (Matth.18:20).
But when is a gathering actually effected in the name of Christ?
When it is within the Spirit of Christ and is the continuance of Christ’s opus, which is the gathering of God’s scattered children “into one” (John 11:52). Christ Himself had said that “he who does not gather with Me, scatters abroad” (Matth.12:30, Luke 11:23)
In other words, a religious gathering can be called Church of Christ, only if it has unity as its result, and not the scattering of God’s people. It was for this reason that the Apostle Paul hurried to write as follows to the Corinthians, full of concern for their salvation: “For, first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you….” (1 Corinth.11:18)
It is characteristic, how the Apostle does not condemn only those who had elected Paul himself as their religious leader or Apollo or Kephas, but also those who maintained that they are Christ’s followers without having any love and unity with the other brethren (1 Corinth.1:12). The Apostle Paul’s stance on this matter is clear: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinth.1:13)
One cannot claim to be one with Christ, if at the same time he is not also one with his brethren. This is why schism and heresy are the greatest crimes of all, within the Church.
Thus, when we speak of a Christian Church – as, for example, the Church of Corinth – we do not imply any human organization; the Christian community is the result of man’s mystical participation in the resurrected and deified Body of Christ, Who is the Head of the entire corpus of the Church. It is, therefore, a community which God Himself had instituted, and one that is realized mystically, through Baptism and the Holy Eucharist (1 Corinth.12:12-14 and 10:16, Ephes.4:4-6).
7. The first Christian community
Christ Himself composed the first Christian community, with His selection of the “twelve”, whom He named “apostles” (Luke 6:13). To them He gave “power and authority” and He sent them forth to proclaim about the “Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:1-2, cmp. also Matth, 10:5, Mark 6:7).
After His resurrection, He gave instructions to spread the Gospel to all nations, and to baptize all those who would believe (Matth.28:19, Mark 16:15, Proph.Isaiah 66:19-21).
“You are witnesses” of the fact of salvation, He said, adding “Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; however, tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49).
Shortly before His Ascension, the Lord renewed this promise: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). This opus was commenced by the Apostles on the very day of the Pentecost, which resulted in the “addition” to the Church of “about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41), thus forming the Christian community of Jerusalem.
What was the characteristic sign that marked the first Christians? The Holy Bible says that it was the communion with the twelve Apostles: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” as mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:42), which also describe the brotherly communion of the first Christians, which even reached the point of their having “all things in common” (Acts 2:43-47)
This Apostolic communion, therefore, was the chief characteristic of the community of Jerusalem.
8. A visible communality
The first Church, which was founded in Jerusalem, was not an invisible one; it was a visible and specific community, which also included the emulation of Christ’s holy virtues. The main characteristic was the Sunday gathering, with the “breaking of bread” (Acts 20:7) as its centre. Those who belonged to this specific community, who would participate in the Christian gatherings, was called – and actually was – a Christian; whoever did not belong, was not a Christian.
However, this Church – apart from the Apostles – also included other persons, who were given certain responsibilities, certain functions. They were the Presbyters (Elders) and the Deacons – or, as mentioned elsewhere – the Bishops (Overseers) and the Deacons (Philipp.1:1, 1 Timoth.5:17, Acts 20:28, e.a.). In other words, there was a specific hierarchy, which had been appointed – not by people, but by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).
Just how visible and specific the Church was, is also proven by the existence of the Apostolic Council, which made specific decisions that were respected by everyone as being decisions of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:22-29). This Council was the mouth of the Church, which was the “pillar” and the “ground” of the Truth (1 Tim.3:15). So visible and specific was the Church, that among Her members were included the weak, and even the deceased (Matth.13:30 and 47, Jude 12, 1 Corinth.5:1 and 11), which, if left uncared for, would cause the members to be expelled (Jude 23).
9. The uninterrupted continuation of the Church
The Apostolic Church is not a simple episode that took place during the time of the Apostles; it was the event itself of the Church through the ages and until the coming of the Lord. The Paraclete – the Holy Spirit – continues to remain within the Church, “forever” (John 14:16), guiding the people to the Truth – that is, to Christ, Who is the “Head of the Church” – and will remain there, “with them always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)
This Church subsequently presents an identity involving teaching, life and organization through the ages, and remains indestructible and unique (Matthew 16:18). This is a basic fact, and must be underlined specially, because there are people who doubt this, and instead believe in an invisible Church, with no visible continuation of the Apostolic era until this day.
The appointing of Apostles to be “witnesses” of Christ, “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), the presence of Christ and of the Holy Spirit “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, John 14:15) and finally, the fact that the Church, in accordance with Christ’s will, is indestructible and that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) and is also the “ground of the Truth” (1 Tim.3:15) are proof that the uninterrupted continuation of the Church in the faith, the organization and the way of life, were the steadfast will of Christ and of the Apostles. As such, the Church cannot possibly become familiar with “chasms” and “interruptions” – not in Her faith, nor in Her organization or Her way of life. That is the true mark of the Church: the continuation of Her Apostolicity as well as these three things.
The “function” – for example – of the Apostles is not something that was merely mentioned in the Apostolic era; it was something that had to continue. Already, it was obvious in an Old Testament prophesy that the “position” (bishopric) of the traitor Judas was to be “taken” by another (Psalms 108:1-8), which is why we see the Apostles elect Matthias in Judas’ place (Acts 1:26).
«It is for this reason I left you in Crete»,writes the Apostle Paul for example to Titus, «so that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you» (Titus 1:5). Then he goes on to designate the qualifications required for Presbyters, while elsewhere he mentions that the manner of their installation is ordination (1 Timothy 4:14). He in fact warns Timothy to be careful: “do not lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Timothy 5:22) without previously examining if that person is suitable for that office.
10. The full revelation of the Church
The official inauguration of the Church took place on the day of the Pentecost during which the Apostles were baptised with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 2:4), where they felt the bond of communion and love with Christ and with the brethren to such a degree, that they began to publicly preach the Gospel of “in-Christ” salvation, without fear, which had as a result the addition of three thousand souls to the Church through holy baptism (Acts 2:41).
The full revelation of the Church however will take place on the final day, in the celestial Jerusalem, when the Bridegroom of the Church will have come and God’s people – the Church – will have rediscovered their complete unity and complete communion with the Triune God. There will be no need then for Temples, because “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its Temple.” (Rev.21:22) and the Church will be illuminated by the glory of God (Rev.21:9-27)
11. The true Church
Following all that we have mentioned, the question is now posed: Where is the Apostolic Church to be found today?
The true Church is found wherever there is the continuation of the Apostolic ministry of incorporating people into the Body of Christ; it is where one can witness Apostolic teaching, Apostolic organisation and the Apostolic way of life. The Apostolic Church is found there, where there are no “chasms” and “gaps” (Matth. 28:19-20).
Wherever there is a Bishop with the Apostolic teaching and the Apostolic authority; wherever he performs the Divine Eucharist and wherever the faithful commune and are rendered “as one body and of one blood” members of Christ, that is where the Apostolic Church can be found.
This is the reason that we Orthodox Christians believe the Apostolic Church is the Orthodox Church: because only She fully preserves the heritage of the Apostolic Church unadulterated and is its true continuation, without any “chasms” or “gaps” in Her history – from the time of the Apostles and through to this day.
12. The danger of heresy
Everything that has been mentioned reveals to us that those who distance themselves from the Orthodox Church – that is, from the worship gatherings of our Church, the Divine Liturgy – are in danger of losing their salvation.
Regarding those who abandon the Orthodox congregation for the sake of heretic gatherings, the word of God tells us: “They departed from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have stayed with us; but they departed, so that it would be made manifest that not all of them were of us.” (1 John 2:19).
It is for this reason that the Holy Bible exhorts us: “I urge you, brethren, to note those who cause the divisions and the scandals contrary to what you have learnt; to steer away from them, for such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ but their own belly, and through smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.” (Rom.16:17-18; cmp.2 Tim.4:3-4).
“Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of the Lord and God, which He attended to with His own blood. For I know this: that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves, men will rise up, speaking perverse things in order to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone, night and day, with tears.” (Acts 20:28-31).
13. “Hasten therefore to congregate more frequently…”
Saint Ignatius exhorts the Christians of Ephesus to thicken their eucharistic gatherings, and he uses words that reveal how important the Orthodox synaxis is for the Christians’ salvation, with the performing of the Divine Eucharist:
“Hasten therefore to congregate more frequently for thanksgiving to God and for glorification. For when you do so more frequently, the powers of Satan are degraded and his devastation is undone, from within the concord of your faith.” It is this therefore “concord of faith” – the unity of the faithful within the Church – that annihilates every conspiracy of Satan. And it is also why it is extremely dangerous for every Christian when he relaxes his bond with the Church, or – as Saint Ignatius mentions – when he is “away from the Altar”, that is, far away from the unity of the Church whose centre is the holy Altar. “Let no-one deceive you. If someone is not found near the Altar, he is deprived of the Body of the Lord. Because, if the prayer of one or two people has such power, how much more power therefore is there, in the prayer of the Bishop and the entire Church?”
“Whoever does not come to the common gathering behaves egotistically and has condemned himself, because it is written that God is opposed to the proud (Proverbs 3:34, 1 Peter 5:5). Let us therefore be careful to not be opposed to the Bishop, so that we remain subservient to God.”
Whoever does not partake in the life of the Church, whoever is not united with the bishop (who expresses the unity of the Church in liturgical life), is the one who is nurtured by “foreign sustenance” – even if that sustenance is presented to him in the name of Christ and in the spirit – supposedly – of the Holy Bible.
“I beseech you therefore” – writes Saint Ignatius to the Christians of Trallae of Lydia – “not I, but the love of Jesus Christ, to make use only of Christian sustenance and to avoid the foreign kind, which is heresy. There are people who mingle Jesus Christ with their personal delusions and seek to present them in a credible manner, just like those who offer a deadly poison mingled with honey and wine, whereby whoever does not know this, will take it and drink it with pleasure, but will also be drinking death along with it. Guard yourselves therefore from such people. You will achieve this, only if you do not become puffed up with egotism, when you remain inseparable from God, Jesus Christ and the bishop, and heed the instructions of the Apostles. Whoever is by the holy Altar, he is clean. He who is found away from the Altar – that is, he who acts independently of the Bishop, the presbyterium and the Deacons – he is not clean in his conscience.”