The Church is One

The Church is One

For centuries, the Nicene Creed has been used as a basis or outline for organized theological reflection. In the clause amended to the creed at the Second Ecumenical Council (A.D. 381), the faithful began confessing a belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Rather than comment on the creed as a whole, I want to touch on just this one statement regarding the ‘attributes’ (so to speak) of the Christian Church.

What does it mean for the Church to be one? Not wanting to make this definition fit certain circumstances or presuppositions, it’s important to both understand and believe this Creed in harmony with its original intent. And in the writings of the New Testament, the early Church Fathers, and the Orthodox-Catholic Church today, there has been a unanimous belief across the centuries that there is one—and only one—Christian Church.

There are many different ways of discussing ecclesiology, and even more ways to become sidetracked or confused. One helpful way of understanding ecclesiology for me is within the scope of Christology. In other words, whatever we say that is orthodox regarding the Church must also be orthodox regarding her Head, Jesus Christ—especially given that the Church is his Body (Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18).

St. Justin Popovich wrote on this at length:

The attributes of the Church are innumerable because her attributes are actually the attributes of the Lord Christ, the God-man, and, through Him, those of the Triune Godhead. However, the holy and divinely wise fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council, guided and instructed by the Holy Spirit, reduced them in the ninth article of the Symbol of Faith to four—I believe in  one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. These attributes of the Church—unity, holiness, catholicity (sobornost), and apostolicity—are derived from the very nature of the Church and of her purpose. They clearly and accurately define the character of the Orthodox Church of Christ whereby, as a theanthropic institution and community, she is distinguishable from any institution or community of the human sort.
—“The Attributes of the Church,” Orthodox Life, vol. 31, no. 1 (1981)

He rightly teaches that just as Christ is one, so to is his Body—the Church:

The unity of the Church follows necessarily from the unity of the Person of the Lord Christ, the God-man. —ibid.

If the Church is divided, she ceases to exist, being overcome by death—just as if Christ were divided, he would cease to be the God-man. And the Church is not just another human institution or organization. She is not merely the hierarchy or the authority structures in place for her order and governance. The Church is not even the walls that surround us as we worship. The Church is a theanthropic (Divine-human), indivisible Body that is indivisibly linked to her Head, the God-man Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his apostles that the “gates of hades” (hades = death/schism) could never prevail against his Church (Matt. 16:18). Paul writes that she is the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), as well as the “fullness” (pleroma) of God on earth (Eph. 1:23). The Church has one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5), and one Head, and is therefore one Body (1 Cor. 12:12–13). The oneness of the Church is derived from no other source than that of the unity of the person of Jesus Christ. The charismatic grace imbued from Christ to his apostles—and down through the centuries to their successors even today—is a testament to this continuity and unity.

When Paul tells the Corinthians that no other foundation can be laid but that of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11), we are not being granted the possibility of multiple, competing churches—whether they claim to be the one, true church or not. “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13), the apostle asks. The answer is forever “no.”

Just as the Lord Christ cannot have several bodies, so He cannot have several Churches. According to her theanthropic nature, the Church is one and unique, just as Christ the God-man is one and unique. —ibid.

While it may appear that there are times when the Church has been divided, this is an ontological impossibility as the Body of Christ. On this, the beloved apostle comments: “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). We should not mistake the tragedy of both schism and heresy as the creation of new or other, competing churches, in any formal sense of the word—for there can be only one assembly that is consecrated and set apart as the Body of Christ.

And so, St. Justin concludes:

Hence, a division, a splitting up of the Church is ontologically and essentially impossible. A division within the Church has never  occurred, nor indeed can one take place, while apostasy from the Church has and will continue to occur after the manner of those voluntarily fruitless branches which, having withered, fall away from the eternally living theanthropic Vine—the Lord Christ (Jn. 15:1-6).

Being very much aware that this is not a popular doctrine to maintain in our age of pluralism, I feel that I should make a few brief statements of qualification.

The fact that the Church is one is not due to the perfection of her people or their character and intelligence as compared to others. The Church is one because that is what she is, by virtue of the God-man Jesus Christ. The fact of the Church’s oneness is a matter of ontology and Christology, not the moral or epistemological superiority of those within.

Following on that point, this doctrine should not lead to an heir of superiority or a sense of entitlement. To confess that the Church is one is not an excuse for triumphalism. Instead, it is a doctrine that should lead to asceticism and humility, as we strive to seek and to pray for the lost. It is a doctrine that should lead one to continually pray for all people, regardless of whether or not others are part of the same parish, diocese, or even the same religion as us. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8,16), and that love is not confined to the Orthodox Church alone—our Father cares for all of creation. Noah is building his ark, but the doors are not yet closed.

So while we unapologetically confess that the Church is one, this does not mean that we know the secret counsel of God. We know that the Church is the ark of salvation, but we can never limit the Grace or love of God beyond what has been revealed to us. We know the Way, but we cannot yet see the big picture.

Our chief responsibility, therefore, is to be concerned with our own repentance, never failing to pray for the salvation of all. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), trusting and cooperating with God as he strengthens us to that end.

About Gabe Martini

I work in product marketing and blog on Orthodox Christianity. I also serve as a subdeacon at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Bellingham, WA. Follow me on Twitter or check out my other website.