Every student of Church history knows that history is messy. There was never a ‘Golden Age’ of the Church, nor will there ever be one before the Last Day.
And yet, as Orthodox Christians, we believe that the Church is the one, true Body of Christ. We believe that she is the pleroma or ‘fullness’ of God (Eph. 1:23), the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and a temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:16). We believe that the Church is built on a foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). United together in Christ—and especially through the mystery (or ‘sacrament’) of the Eucharist—we are and become Christ’s pure Bride (2 Cor. 11:2), presented to the Father without spot or blemish (Eph 5:27; 2 Pet. 3:14). Despite messiness in our past, present, and future, the Church is yet all of these things; the Church is yet triumphant (Rom. 8:37).
Importantly, we should also recognize that the triumph of the Church is not a result of our individual presence. While we each make up a part of the whole, the Church is not some human institution or business, an end result of our individual genius or intellectual prowess. No, the Church is triumphant because she is united to her triumphant Head, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:23).
Since the earliest centuries of our faith, Christians have inscribed on chalices, books, walls, and tombs the Greek word ‘NIKA.’ If you happen to own some Nike apparel, you might know that this word means ‘victory.’ Jesus Christ is the victorious one; the conqueror; he who has triumphed over death and its author, the devil (Heb. 2:14). The author of life has become the annihilator of death. And if we think about the victory won by Jesus Christ in both the Cross and resurrection, we can see that his triumph over Hades is a triumph over not only death, but also division.
When Jesus told his apostles that he would build his Church—noting, of course, that it is Christ who builds the Church, and not us—he also promised that the gates of Hades would never prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). The meaning of Hades here is not limited to physical, or even spiritual death. Going all the way back to the Paradise of Eden, we know that death is symbolic of division, schism, and a separation from both God and each other (Gen. 2:24). After Adam’s expulsion, the human race went on to kill, betray, punish, torture, and separate from one another; nation against nation, tribe against tribe. But in Christ and in his holy Church, this is all wiped away. In his Church, Christ is victorious over not only death, but also division.
In thinking about what it means to say the Church is triumphant, we are thinking about that which goes beyond any ideas, doctrines, or even institutional structures. As many wise persons have said before, the Church is a mystery with institutions, not an institution with mysteries. When we confess a belief in this triumphant Church, we are confessing belief in a Church that is uniquely and indivisibly whole. A Church that contains within her the unique fullness of the catholic and orthodox faith. Truth is personal, and our truth is personified in Jesus Christ. Because of him and who he is, the Church is whole, complete, and lacking nothing—the Church is catholic. She is ever filled and fulfilled in and through the all-holy Trinity. She is one (1 Cor. 12:12–13).
Since the advent of the Reformation, there have been a number of new and ‘alternative theories’ posited regarding the Church. Within Anglicanism, there was the Branch Theory. Among certain Protestants, there was a sort of ecclesiological dialectic, with each age bringing a new synthesis or antithesis to progress further into a yet-to-be-realized perfection. During Vatican II, the Roman church massaged, modified, and even changed its long-standing ideas regarding what constitutes the one, Catholic Church. Regardless of the finer details of each new theory, one common element can be found: there is not really a single, visible, identifiable, sacramental and mystical Church. For almost all, there is certainly a fervent hope for one—and maybe even one that exists somewhere inaccessible to us, in the ‘ether’ of eternity—but there is yet to be one here on earth. And for many, there will never be one.
Since all ecclesiology is inseparably connected with Christology—as borne out by the witness of the Ecumenical Councils and the reality that the Church is the ‘Body of Christ’—we must evaluate these theories for what they really are: Christological heresy. Heresy is not a word that should be invoked merely out of pettiness or when one feels particularly upset about someone else’s viewpoints. Heresy is not to be used as an ‘insult,’ either, but rather has meaningful, historical, and identifiable value. Even in saying these ideas are heresy, we are not saying that those who hold to such viewpoints are themselves heretics (as a heretic is someone within the Church who, through pride, excludes themselves from that communion by a refusal to repent).
These heterodox ecclesiologies are such because they divide not only the Church, but also Christ himself. Whether the culprit is Docetism or Nestorianism, the new ecclesiologies of our increasingly pluralistic age are all based upon the idea that not only was Christ inaccurate in his promise to both build and preserve his Church (Matt. 16:18), but also that Christ is divided and less-than-fully disseminated amidst the various sects and churches of Christendom.
The apostle Paul rhetorically asks, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13) As Orthodox Christians, we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And in our confession, this word ‘one’ is not over-realized eschatology or in any way superficial; it really means one, and it means one in the here-and-now.
As mentioned already, this oneness and catholicity (wholeness) is not the result of our individual efforts, but is rather such because Christ himself promises it; because Christ himself enables it, preserving it inviolate. And all this, regardless of the ‘messiness’ or human failings of each new generation. Even if only a single person remains who is willing to confess this reality, such as St. Mark of Ephesus in the turmoils of the fifteenth century, the oneness of Christ’s Church persists unchanged. No matter how bad things get—and Saints like John Chrysostom, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Maximos the Confessor can attest—the gates will never prevail.
By confessing that the Church is one, we are not speaking triumphantly, as if this is so because of us. Truth be told, I have contributed very little to the success and beauty of the Church, sinner that I am. Nevertheless, the Church is one.
The goals of ecumenism are not to reunite a ‘divided Church,’ as many erroneously describe it—for this is Christological heresy—but rather to bring home all of God’s prodigal children into the fold of Christ’s fullness; the fullness of his one, holy Church. There is one Body and one Spirit, just as we are called to the one hope of our calling. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (Eph. 4:4–6). There is one bread, and we who are many are one Body, for we all partake of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:17).
This is not—or rather, should not be—arrogance; this is not unloving; this is not ‘triumphalism.’ The triumphalism of this belief is not in our personal confession, but rather in he who is triumphant—triumphant over not only death and Satan, but also over all forms of division, schism, and separation.