Who is the Church for?

Who is the Church for? The answer to this question depends to a great deal on another. What is the Church for? When I was a member of an Evangelical congregation, and involved with various Protestant ministry drawing together people from a wide variety of Protestant groups, we had a sense that the Church was the invisible community of everyone who believed in Jesus, and that it was made up of people who believed entirely different things about the Christian Faith, and attended entirely different, and contradictory congregations and denominations. We found a shaky unity in a shared experience and service, but we had to avoid speaking about theology and spirituality, since this revealed the great differences, and even divisions, between us.

Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe in Jesus, but this does not make them members of the Church. It became clear to me even while I was studying for ministry in the Evangelical movement, that more was required than a vague belief in Jesus to make a person a Christian, and more was required of a congregation than that Jesus be mentioned on a regular basis for it to be the Church, as Christ intended and the Scriptures describe.

I have become convinced that it is the Orthodox Church which is the Church that Christ established, and that it never disappeared, and was never invisible and a purely spiritual concept rather than a reality. I have become convinced that it is the Apostolic teachings and spirituality preserved in the Orthodox Church as a life-giving Tradition, passed on from generation to generation, which represent the possibility for becoming truly Christian. I will write about this conviction another time. But, and it is an important but, that does not mean at all that I do not consider others who are not Orthodox to be also Christians. When we pray in our Coptic Orthodox Church for those who wish to be prepared in a formal manner, for baptism and membership in the Church, we call them Christians, even though they have not been baptised, and we speak of their faith, even before they have been received as catechumens or those under instruction.

Those who gather together outside the Orthodox Church are, it seems to me, Christians gathering together, to offer worship to God. I have no hesitation in saying this. But, it must also be said, that if there is a Church which Christ established on the foundation of the Apostles and by the Holy Spirit, then to gather together outside this visible community, and to have a foundation of doctrine and spirituality which is not that of the Apostolic Church, is to be in a place where the fullness of that which God desires for mankind cannot be experienced.

I am taking a roundabout route to get to where I intend to begin my reflection! I want to say that just as someone outside the visible and formal boundaries of the Apostolic Church can be truly Christian, and be on a journey into closer union with God – because we must begin wherever we find ourselves – so those of us inside the formal membership of the Orthodox Church are also on a journey into closer union with God. Our journey has not come to an end. We also may be more or less Christian. There are, indeed, those who attend Orthodox services, and have been baptised at some time in their lives, and are not, practically speaking, very Christian at all. The fulness of life in Christ, what it really and completely means to be a Christian, is to be both one who is always seeking a greater union with God, and also finding it within the spiritual life of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church. But this also means that there are those outside Orthodoxy, for various reasons, not least the fact of family background, who are truly seeking God, and that there are those within the bounds of Orthodoxy who are not. What is required is that we be living both if we wish to experience all that God desires for us and be truly Christian.

This post is about Orthodox Christians and Orthodox congregations. What I am saying is that it is possible to be more or less Christian, and the mere fact of attending an Orthodox Church and even having been baptised into the Orthodox Church is not enough to rely on, as if that was what constituted the experience of Christianity. We can attend the Orthodox Liturgy every Sunday and not be Christian at all. But this applies to our congregations as well. We may look as though we are doing the things that constitute an Orthodox congregation, and reflects the life of the Church, but we might not be very much like the Church at all. Just as we have to, each one of us, persevere in the spiritual journey of becoming more Christian every day of our life, otherwise we are becoming less like Christ. So, our congregations have to always be on the journey of becoming truly the Body of Christ, the Church, and when we cease to be engaged in being and becoming the Church, then we will inexorably be falling away from what it means to be the Church, and will be only an interest group, or a clique, or a community of Pharisees, pretending to share a spiritual life that we no longer experience.

This is where I want to begin. The Church is not a static reality. Each of our congregations is not the fulness of what it means to be the Church, simply because our Church noticeboard has the word Orthodox on it. If we wish to become Christians, and truly experience the transforming union with God in the heart, then we must commit our whole life to such an endeavour, seeking the grace of God at every moment. In the same way, each congregation must be striving with every effort, by the grace of God, to become the Church, the Body of Christ. It is entirely proper to both judge ourselves, and consider how far we have become a Christian, and also to reflect on the life of our congregation, without judging others, and consider to what extent we are truly the Church, and what more is required of us in our life together, if we are to be the Church.

What does this mean? It surely means that the Church, the life of a congregation, is always a work in progress, as in each place where we gather together, we must become what it means to be the Church. It is ever possible to say that we have arrived at our destination, it is never appropriate to insist that we will not change in any way, because the demands of becoming the Church require us always, all of us, to be growing into union with God, and experiencing a transformation in attitudes and behaviour.

So it matters what the Church is for, and therefore it matters for whom the Church exists. Because we may not be living out that purpose, even though we may be very busy with religious and social activities. We may have much happening, but little of it representing the authentic life of the Church. There is much that could be said about the nature of the Church. In this short post I will focus on the four marks of the Church which we find in the Creed – that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

If we wish to consider that our congregation is the Church then it must have these marks. It does not matter whether we call ourselves Orthodox or not. If we do not have the characteristics of the Church then we are not truly the Church at all.

The Church is One – In a congregational sense this must surely mean that there is a manifest unity among all those who gather together. St Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 1:10,

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

And in 1 Corinthians 3:3, where he says,

You are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?

If our congregations are marked by these qualities, envy, strife and division, then it seems to me that we are not properly the Church at all. We have some way to go. Thank God, it is possible to grow as a congregation in grace, just as it is possible for us to grow as individuals. But if our congregations are facing these problems then something is wrong. When these things are manifest it is a sign that we are not acting in the Holy Spirit but as mere men. All of our activities are of little value when there is no unity. This unity is one of discovering the same mind and the same judgement. This doesn’t mean simply thinking the same. It would be possible to have a small group who excluded everyone who did not share the same opinions, but this would not be the unity of which St Paul is speaking.

Our Lord Jesus Christ explains and expresses this true unity of the Church, and that characteristic which we must manifest if our congregations are to be truly the Church, when he says in John 17:23,

I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

This unity is not one of simply agreement, but is found in the experience of the indwelling of God in each heart, God in us, and this perfect unity is expressed in the love of God which he pours into our hearts and through us into the world. The solution to discord in the congregation, which prevents us being and becoming the Church, is not found so much in human organisation and effort, but in the mutual seeking after union with God, and the giving of ourselves in the love of God to each other.

If we consider WHO the Church is for, in the sense that the Church is to be One, then the congregation must be inclusive, there must be none who are excluded for any reason whatsoever. And many find themselves excluded. We exclude when we say that the congregation exists for me, and for those who are most like me. There may be some unity in such an idea, but it is the unity of the flesh which brings about division, and not the unity of God and the Holy Spirit, which brings about union with all.

When we have determined that the congregation exists for me, and for those like me, then we cannot help but exclude those who are not like us. This exclusion, conscious or unconscious, brings about division. We exclude those who have a different culture, those who use a different language, those with a different level of education or wealth, those who do not think like us or share our opinions. The unity of the Church is not found in excluding those who are different, but in experiencing with them a unity in the life and love of God. Neither does it require the elimination of all of these natural and social differences. But the Church, when our congregation is truly the Church, is always led to ask how it may find unity with the widest possible community of those created in love by God for union with him. We do not find those like us and gather together based on our similarities, but we turn outwards, to the Christian community around us, and then to the world beyond the walls we construct, and we ask how we can bring them also, in their culture and language and condition, into union with God in love, that we may be One with all, as God desires to be one with all.

The Church is Holy – In a congregational sense this must mean that there is a life of self-sacrifice and commitment towards God which is shared by all. To be holy does not mean so much to avoid sin, but to have given one self wholly and entirely over to God. A congregation may appear to be holy, if most people are avoiding the open sins that attract the judgement of others. But a congregation can be filled with secret sin that prevents it being and becoming truly the Church.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Mark 7, speaks of those interior sins which defile us and which will corrupt the life of a congregation. He says,

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,  thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, jealousy, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.

We may well feel that we have avoided adultery, but the Lord Jesus considers envy, lying, jealousy and pride just as seriously. A congregation that makes it impossible for those who have struggled with sin to remain, while allowing those whose hearts are filled with these other equally damaging sins to be held in high regard, is not being and becoming the Church. To be a holy congregation does not mean that we exclude sinners, for all have sinned. But it does mean that we have committed ourselves wholeheartedly to the will of God.

What does the will of God ask of us? It is not that we find an external purity in avoiding those who struggle. But that we judge ourselves as those who also struggle and who also sin, and in reflecting on the reality of our own heart, we turn with compassion to those around us, not only in the congregation, but in the streets and the towns and the cities where we find ourselves. It is that we do not consider the sins of pride and jealousy less deadly than adultery or drunkeness or any of the obvious sins that are so easily judged.

The holy congregation, committed to God, is also a humble congregation, since having given our life together to God in obedience we have learned to submit to one another and to all whom the Lord asks us to serve. If we are holy, and are consecrated to God, which is what holiness means, then we do not belong to ourselves, but to God and to each other. But not only to each other in whatever self-selecting group we enjoy being part of – people who are like us. But we must also become the servants of those who are not like us in the Church, and even more, we must be and become the servants of those outside the congregation, both those who we have driven away by our negligence, and those who have yet to discover the path of union with God in the streets and houses around us. What is required of us to rescue those who are lost, and those who are seeking a way and are not members of our congregation. It is to the service of these that holiness leads us, because holiness is humble obedience of God and the service of the least of all.

When we consider who the Church is for, in the light of this characteristic, it is clear that it is not for us. Or rather, it becomes the means of our salvation to the extent that we humble ourselves and refuse to act or impose our own will in anything. The Vineyard belongs to the Lord of the Vineyard. The worker who has sanctified himself to the Master’s service, devoted himself to doing the will of his Lord, does not push himself forward. As the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us,

If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.

It seems to me that this is what true holiness means, or rather how it is expressed. It is not an outward piety, but a devotion to the service of God and of all others. It is a consecration to God and is therefore made manifest by the interior union with God, and the exterior humble service of others in the grace of the Holy Spirit. If we are a holy congregation, and are being and becoming the Church in a true sense, then this character of service must be found in us. It is easy to put ourselves first and assume that what we prefer is our service of God. But when we put ourselves last and consider the needs of the least, those who are falling away from the Church, those who have felt themselves excluded, those who have not yet heard the Christian message, those outside our congregation, then we begin to be a holy people.

The holy congregation does not put its own needs first, or rather it looks to the needs of those within the congregation who are struggling and meets them as far as it is possible. But much more than that, putting our own preferences second, it looks to those outside the community and asks what service is required to give them the opportunity to discover life in God for themselves. To be the servant of all is to have become holy, for our Lord Jesus Christ,

…did not come to be served, but to serve…

And when St Peter quotes from the Old Testament and says to us,

Be holy, for I am holy… you also be holy in all your conduct.

He has in mind not only an avoidance of sin, but the positive self-sacrificing consecration of every aspect of our life to God. This is why it is not enough to do things, and then ask God to bless them. But we must seek the will of God before we act, and then ask for the grace to be obedient. The will of God might not be what we prefer. It might require some sacrifice on our part. But this is what it is to be holy to the Lord. We must be careful not to confuse those things we have willed to do in our own strength with those things that the will of God would lead us to do in holiness. And when we act in our own strength and outside the will of God, then we should not be surprised that other forms of harmful behaviour, others sins, begin to manifest themselves to bring about our will in God’s name rather than God’s will in God’s grace.

How do we discover who the Church is for in holiness? It is for those whom God calls us to serve in humility, those whom he came to seek and to serve, those who need a Heavenly Physician. Those who are on the outside of our own congregations, those who do not fit in, those we hold in contempt, those who have no Christian faith at all. The way we order our congregation to serve these is the measure of our holiness. Even the way we treat our own youth and children is a measure of our humble obedience to God. Do we offer them the opportunity to worship God in their local language? Do we take time to explain the faith and practices of the Church? Do we make ourselves available to honestly answer any question they might have? It is not enough to consider ourselves holy because we avoid the most obvious sins, while we allow pride, self-serving, and our own preferences to dominate our hearts.

The Church is Catholic – There are two senses in which the word Catholic should apply to every congregation as it is seeking to be and become the Church in an authentic manner. The word Catholic does not, of course, simply refer to the Roman Catholic Church. It means of the whole, and so it means that every congregation is an expression of the wholeness of the one Church in every place, and that is is for the whole, for all people, in every place where Orthodox Christians find themselves.

If we wish to be truly the Church, and not simply a congregation calling itself Orthodox rather than anything else, then we need to live together as a community which has a sense of being an expression of something much bigger and more universal. In the first place, our congregation should reflect a variety of ages, ethnic and social backgrounds, educational levels and class. In the West, we do not find ourselves in homogeneous societies, and it is not a healthy sign if our congregations reflect only one class, or one educational level, or one ethnic background. The Church is not ordered around ethnicity but around place. Indeed, the Orthodox Church is clear that the Church is those people in a particular place, and is not a Church for one type of person or ethnicity. I am happy when I pray in our Coptic Orthodox Churches, to find people of different ethnicities, different family backgrounds, different levels of education and employment, wealth and prestige in the world.

But the Catholicity of the Church is not being expressed when a congregation excludes others on the basis of any of these criteria. The Catholicity of the Church requires us always to be asking – How do we live out our Orthodox Faith here in THIS place where we find ourselves by the grace of God?

And if we are seeking to be Orthodox in THIS place, then we will seek to live with all others who are in the communion of the Orthodox Church with us. It may, perhaps, be necessary to have a variety of congregations worshipping in a variety of languages for a time, but we must find ways to be Orthodox together and witness to our being One Church in this place together. And we must take seriously the need to be Orthodox who are now living in the UK, or the USA, or Canada, or Australia. This is not a niche interest for a few, but it is the necessary expression of the Catholicity of the Church.

Pope Tawadros has made it clear. We cannot expect the whole world to worship in Arabic. Nor was this the case even in Egypt. St Mark did not bring the Gospel in Aramaic, and the Church in Egypt has used whatever language is common to the people, Greek, Coptic and Arabic. But now we are living together in places where the common language is English, and French, and Italian, and Spanish, and increasingly we are reaching out in mission to those whose common language is one of may African tongues, or even Japanese. The Catholicity of the Church requires our congregations to say – this is also our language, this is now where we live and our children will be born and belong, this is where we will be Orthodox.

There are many pastoral needs in the Church, which the Church must take into consideration. But we must be careful that the Catholicity of the Church is not sacrificed to a limited pastoral requirement. In our practice, we will certainly make sure that those who do not yet speak the local and common language have provision made for them. But it must be the goal of every congregation, and the Catholicity of the Church requires it, that we become a local congregation, and part of the local society. We can conduct a thought experiment to help us consider whether we are concerned for Catholicity or not, and if we are not then we cannot be and become the Church, and we are in danger of being a special interest club similar to so many others, but with a religious focus.

In twenty years time what would our congregation be like if 50% of the members were ordinary people from the wider local community? How would we worship, preserving our Orthodoxy, but in a manner appropriate to the mix of people in the congregation? How would we view the local culture? How would we bring such local people into leadership in the congregation?

Catholicity does not mean that we would be theoretically happy for local people to become Orthodox somewhere else, but it accepts as the very purpose of our congregation that this should be the case, and it requires us to work out how we need to change, what attitudes must be confronted so that we not only make local people grudgingly welcome, but rejoice in our congregation reflecting a great diversity, worshipping together, as far as is possible and appropriate in a common local language. More than that, Catholicity means that within our congregations there is also a natural diversity, not only in those filling the pews, but in every rank and responsibility in the Church. The measure of responsibility and service in the Church must be spiritual maturity and not wealth, education, employment or social position. But it must be catholic in drawing on the service of those from every ethnic, social ad educational background and attainment.

Who is the Church for, when we consider the Catholicity of the Church? It is for those who do not belong to our own narrow and comfortable groups. It is for those who already live in the places where we find ourselves. It is for those who are different from us in every measure, as well as the same as us, so that we come to represent not just ourselves, but the place where God has established us. If we wish to be and become the Church, then this has to become an important priority in the life of our congregations. We have to be both diverse, and at home where we find ourselves, not by embracing every aspect of a non-Christian culture, but by giving ourselves to see the Orthodox Church established in every place and transforming the lives of those among whom we live.

And finally, the Church is Apostolic – In terms of the life of a congregation this word Apostolic means two things. In the first place it describes the basis of our theology and spirituality, it is rooted in the ministry of the Apostles, and in their disciples. We are a church with a history and in continuity with the earliest Church. This should mean that we avoid being influenced by other and non-Orthodox teachings and spiritualities. An Orthodox congregation, if it seeking to be and become the Church, should not choose a Protestant book as a congregational study, nor introduce Protestant songs into the Liturgy. On the contrary, we should be ensuring that as far as possible the riches of the Orthodox spiritual Tradition are being made available and accessible to all the members of the congregation.

The Apostolicity of the Church must also not be narrowly identified with only one local jurisdiction in the Church either. It is not only the Church of Alexandria which is Apostolic, but the Church of Alexandria is only Apostolic together with the Churches of Antioch, Armenia, India, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Our Apostolicity is a shared experience and a shared history, and this common participation in the Apostolic Church is a necessary expression of our own Apostolicity, and our being and becoming the Church and not simply being a congregation of people with a common interest.

What are our relationships with other Orthodox in the places where we live? Are we making efforts to express our common Apostolicity? What about the quality of our life together? Is it in continuity with the great spiritual treasure we have received, and are we seeking to make this available to every member of our congregation, especially the young and our children, in a manner and a language that they can comprehend. Do they understand that we are part of one Orthodox Church in all ages and all places, and that they have everything in common with all the other Orthodox in our communion? Or have we narrowed our vision so much that it seems that Orthodoxy is practically speaking only found in our own community?

But Apostolicity means more than this. It means that we acknowledge and embrace that Apostolic commission which was given to the Apostles, and in them to us all. Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel, making disciples. If we wish to be the Church, really the Church, then we must be concerned about and engaged in mission and evangelism. We should be asking how many ordinary local people have become Orthodox Christians in our congregation, and what we are doing to try and make it possible for ordinary local people to discover and become Orthodox. We may not feel ourselves to be missionaries. But if we wish to be Orthodox Christians living in congregations which are expressions of the Church of Christ, then mission is part of the necessary expression of our life together. We may not be confident, and we may not be sue what we are doing, but if we are the Church then we must always be outward looking.

So who is the Church for, when we think of Apostolicity? It is for our youth and our children, because we must develop the life of our congregations in a manner which will allow them to become authentically Orthodox while also being at home in the society where they are growing up. It does not help our own children to become committed to our Orthodox faith and life in Christ by the Holy Spirit if we are making it seem that Orthodoxy does not belong here in the West. It belongs here because Orthodoxy is authentic Christianity, and Christianity, the Apostolic faith, belongs in all places and is for all people. We must help our children discover this in the language of their own life and experience.

But the Church is also for those outside the Church, those whom God desires to unite to himself, and asks us to reach out in love and service.  How will the people around us in the world hear the Good News of Orthodoxy, unless we are willing to speak to them in their own language, in the widest sense, and we are willing to provide the means for them to do so. More than that, how will we integrate those ordinary people around us with whom we share our faith, so that they become not only members of the congregation, but servants and leaders in the Church.

And our own youth and children also need to be evangelised. They also need to become truly Christian in their own right. Many of our youth come to leave the Church because they have not been evangelised and brought to consider the claims of Orthodoxy, and choose life in the Orthodox Church. Sometimes a congregation is guilty of thinking about what is preferred by those who are older and in authority, but the Apostolic mission requires us to think of what is required to introduce and disciples our own youth and children, and the great multitude who live around our congregations and perhaps those we have never even thought of reaching.

One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic. If we want to be truly Christian, and if we want out congregations to be authentically the Church, then we need to be thinking of others, all the time, and before we think of what might please us. The Church is not for us, at least not in the sense we often think. It is for our salvation without a doubt. But our own salvation depends on our own sacrifice of self, the humble and obedient service of others, the giving up of what we prefer for the sake of what others need, and the determination to become Orthodox in the place where we find ourselves for the sake of our children and the hundreds of thousands of people around us tat God is waiting for us to share his life and love among.

It is easy to be busy and to occupy ourselves with those things which we ask God to bless. But he asks us to seek his will, and the grace we need to perform it. When we abandon our concern for self – however we justify our self-centredness – and begin to serve those within and outside the Church in unconditional love, then we will be and be becoming more Christian ourselves, and members of congregations which are becoming truly the Church of Christ, his Body, doing his will in the world.

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