This morning I was playing around with the tag surfing feature on WordPress and came across this post, which was more than 9 months old, so I might not have found it otherwise: Just an apprentice: Emerging church and orthodoxy. This linked to some articles by Scot McKnight, an emerging church theologian, which answered some of the questions I posed in an earlier post here: Notes from underground: Orthodoxy and Evangelical Protestantism. And “just an apprentice” puts a finger on the biggest stumbling block in all ecumenical discussions between Orthodox and Protestants, whether the Protestants are Evangelical, Emerging, Pentecostal, Liberal, or anything else:
This question that Scot McKnight addresses is one that I have been asking on my journey. It is a question of ecclesiology. What is the center of the Christian church? What is the prism through which we worship God, read Scripture, and interact with our culture? What is the relationship of the emerging church with the Creeds of classical Chrisitianity? The commentary and analysis by McKnight are helpful in connecting a few dots.
The stumbling block is ecclesiology.
It was this that nearly caused all the Orthodox Churches to leave the World Council of Churches recently. It is this that causes some conservative Orthodox to call “ecumenism” a heresy.
The book to read is Beyond the East-West divide — the World Council of Churches and “the Orthodox problem” by Anna Marie Aagaard and Peter Bouteneff (Geneva, Risk, 2001 ISBN 2-8254-1350-X).
If you’re Protestant and want to talk to Orthodox Christians, read this book to understand where the Orthodox are coming from. It doesn’t matter what kind of Protestant — Evangelical, Ecumenical, Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Emerging, Anglican (even Anglo-Catholic, if you believe in the “branch theory” of ecclesiology).
One can’t go into all the nuances in a blog post, so what follows is probably over-simplified, not to say simplistic, but I try to summarise the point.
Most Protestants share a common basic ecclesiology.
Methodists (for example) are quite happy to see themselves as one denomination among many within a particular religion — Christianity (which is in turn seen as one religion among many). That applies to most Protestant Christian denominations, and those that do not see it in that way are regarded by the others as sects. Even non-denominational bodies tend to think of themselves as one nondenomination among many denominations and nondenominations within one religion, Christianity.
The Orthodox Church does not regard itself as a denomination, at least in the ecclesiological sense. And even the sociological sense, for conservative Orthodox, comes too close to the “heresy of ecumenism”. The “heresy of ecumenism”, in this case, being to regard the Orthodox Church as one denomination among many.
The Orthodox “statement of faith” (to use an Evangelical Protestant term), is the Symbol of Faith, usually called by Protestants the “Nicene Creed”, though the actual Nicene Creed was a much shorter document, which says nothing about the Church.
Among the statements in the Symbol of Faith is “(I believe) in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (is mian agian kathoikin ke apostolikin ekklesian). Not in many denominations (and nondenominations), but One Church.
In what sense is the Church “apostolic”?
If we read about the day the Church began, in Acts 2, we see that the first Christian converts “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (isan de proscarteroundes ti didache ton apostolon, ke ti kinonia, ti klasi tou artu, ke tis prosevches).
The Orthodox Church believes that it has “continued” unbroken in those four things from that day to this. It is not “Wesleyan” or “Lutheran” or “Calvinist” but “Apostolic”. The “apostles’ fellowship” is maintained by, among other things, the apostolic succession of bishops. The “apostles’ fellowship” is among the key elements of Orthodox ecclesiology, and, with the “apostles’ teaching” is what makes the one holy catholic Church “apostolic”.
There are numerous denominations, especially in the Pentecostal tradition, which have the word “Apostolic” in the name of their denomination, such as the Apostolic Faith Mission (from which many of the others sprang). As David du Plessis puts it, their criterion is not so much “apostolic succession” as “apostolic success”. But for the Orthodox Church the “apostles’ fellowship” (or “apostles’ communion”) is an essential mark of the Church.
In the New Testament the word “church” never means a “denomination” or “communion” (or even a “nondenomination”). In the New Testament the word “church” refers either to the local church or to the universal church. The worldwide church is the “ecumenical church” (not in the modern sense of “many denominations together”, but in the geographical sense of “the inhabited earth”). The local churches are bound together in the apostles’ fellowship through the communion of their bishops, as they commemorate and pray for each other in the Divine Liturgy.
The church is catholic, not in the sense of being “universal” (for the Orthodox that is covered by “ecumenical”) but more in the sense of being holistic. Catholic means “according to the whole”. In a holographic image, if you divide the image in two, you get not two half images, but two whole images. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So the church is like a temple, where the building is more than just the individual bricks and tiles. But each local church is not just a brick in the building, but like a holographic image, whole in itself.
From an Orthodox point of view, therefore, the congregationalist ecclesiology resembles a pile of bricks rather than a whole building, while Roman Catholic ecclesiology resembles a monolith – a single boulder rather than a building.
So for the Orthodox, schism is not within the church, but from the church.
And for the Orthodox it makes little sense to talk of “emerging ecclesiology”, unless it means that the ecclesiology that submerged a long time ago in the West is resurfacing.
I realise that to ecumenically-minded Protestants this all looks extaordinarily arrogant, saying “we’re right and you’re wrong” (non-ecumenically-minded Protestants, like those who generated the Biola report mentioned in an earlier post, assert that far more strongly than most Orthodox). But for the Orthodox it is more a matter of being true to the Orthodox understanding of history — that the Orthodox Church has continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, for twenty centuries, and it would be false to say that it has not. The Orthodox Church participates in the ecumenical movement because it believes that it would be good to restore the apostles’ fellowship among all who declare their faith in the Triune God, but not at the price of abandoning its own ecclesiology and adopting a Protestant one (and there have been times in which there has been pressure within the World Council of Churches for the Orthodox Churches to do just that — see the book by Aagard and Bouteneff for details).
In dialogue there are four things we need to learn: you need to know who I am, and how I see you. I need to know who you are, and how you see me. We need to know the reality of both sides, and the way in which both parties perceive themselves and each other. Or if you want to be really postmodern about it, the way the self is perseived by the self, and the way the self is perceived by the other. And our perceptions of others show the others more about how we see ourselves. So the Biola report about the Orthodox tells the Orthodox a lot about Biola, and much less about the Orthodox.
So when I describe Roman Catholic ecclesiology as a monolith and Congregationalist ecclesiology as a heap of stones, that tells you more about Orthodox ecclesiology than it does about Roman Catholic or Congregationalist ecclesiology. And so we learn more about each other, even through our misperceptions.
Let the discussion continue.