09 June 2007

Emerging church and Orthodoxy revisited

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.


Rev Sam said...

That was very helpful - something I understood before, but not quite so clearly.

I have to say, I have tremendous sympathy with the orthodox point of view!

The Scylding said...


You've touched a sore point for me. I am protestant, but with an orthodox understanding of ecclesiology. Actually, you could say I'm Augustinian in soteriology, yet witha yearning for an orthodox ecclesiology. Maybe that's why I currently attend a "orthodox" Lutheran congregation - one that goes out with the understanding that it holds to the faith as historically passed down through Western Christianity. Not one that broke with the Catholic Church, but one that stopped holdingto some papally-introduced errors (indulgences for one...)

At the same time, I'm catholic - that is, I hold to the validity of Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican and even (gasp) Methodist baptism. I'm not so sure about baptist baptism (irnoical succession of words there), because I believe it to be different in essence from the baptism Christ tought. That being said, I don't count baptists etc as non-Christians.

Where would an Augustinian Orthodox go - at this point, Lutheranism seems the best answer. But again, that is an -ism, but I guess you need not hold to the terminology as a matter of faith.

You are right in your analysis of (most of) protestant ecclesiology. I like therefore to partake in discussions such as that at reformedcatholocism.com , maybe my favourite site. At least, debate an agreement is possible.

But the emerging church's assertion that they are sort of 're-discovering' ecclesiology seems to me uninformed and even arrogant. Why start a new movement when there are plenty available that strife for a better ecclesiology? A lot of that could be attributed to the individualistic nature of a lot of protestantism - it is "my" walk, "my" journey, my "discovery". It takes a huge humilty to submit to the past, so -to-speak.

For me, this is a quandry, one that has dogged me for some years now. Pray for me....

The Scylding said...

Rereading my comment, I see a lot of spelling errors etc - take it as being caused by a passionate outpouring.

Steve Hayes said...


I think what the emerging church movement is redicovering is not ecclesiology, but soteriology -- at least that's what I gathered from listening to Brian McLaren last month .

I suspect that it is a revolt against the kind of approch expressed in the Biola statement of faith I referred to earlier, and some other examples, most of which start, not with God, but with the Bible, as if the most important thing we have to decide avout is the Bible.

But as a friend of mine once put it: Either we decide about the Bible, or in the Bible Christ has decided about us.

Matt Stone said...

I have said for some time that ecclesiology was the deeper reason behind the reformation, not soteriology as protestants are generally taught.

What you've said here, that ecclesiology is also the biggest stumbling block for Orthodox Christians in ecumenical discussions, would seem to dove tail with that.

I don't have any easy solutions but its good that we have ecumenical agreement on the core problem.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, I think on the whole Catholics and Protestants were at least in the same ball game when it came to soteriology. They might argue about whether righteousness was imputed or imparted, but were broadly agreed that it was needed.

All the more surprising then, that CS Lewis in the Narnia stories presents the other view -- that of possession and usurpation.

andrew jones said...

helpful post, steve! i might buy that book.

John W. Morehead said...

Steve, thank you for these thoughts. It adds more to my understanding of Orthodoxy than I received in my seminary church history courses! It also underscores that ecclesiology is one of the key issues of our time, as the struggles of the emerging church demonstrates in part. I hope Protestants and Catholics can listen and learn from your thoughts.

Matt Stone said...

Steve, I have linked you here http://mattstone.blogs.com/journeysinbetween/2007/06/emerging_church.html

Mike Lowe said...

Reading this excellent post got me thinking about the distinction that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes between two types of authority - power and influence. www.chiefrabbi.org/thoughts/korach5767.pdf The former is more political in nature and the latter is more about ideas. Both are essential , and being Church involves both. To understand the difference, Sacks suggests a thought experiment: imagine that you have total power and then decide to share it with nine others. You then have less power. But imagine that you have influence and decide to share it with nine others. Your influence increases.

To me this is helpful when thinking about ecclesiology. Schisms have been about both political power and about ideas. The important thing is that the influence of Christ, though the Church,is not diminished - in this I agree with the Orthodox position that we maintain a view of one apostolic church. However I don't think that this neccessarily means only one political institution.

Pastor Phil said...

Darn, you is one smart guy.

Thanks for a great post, and fabulous primer on Orthodox ecclesiology.

As someone who finds myself moving toward becoming an emerg-anabapt-ecostal I am not sure how I find myself fitting with this view except to say that I too see myself as part of the unbroken chain of apostolic fellowship, and in this sense depart from the revivalist theology of my Pentecostal family.

Thanks for keeping us thinking. Perhaps you should send this to The Ooze, and see if they will post it online. It would create a nice bit of conversation I think.

Steve Hayes said...


Thanks for your comments.

I found the distinction between power and influence interesting, though a lot depends on what you mean by "power" -- is it dynamis or exousia?

I'm not sure how it applies to Orthodox ecclesiology, however, which doesn't really see the church as an institution held together by political power (as in magisterium). In that sense, what holds it together is indeed influence. That is the significance of the Apostles' fellowship. What holds the church together is communion or fellowship, and that is a matter of influence rather than power.

Secular journalists who don't "get religion" often refer to the Ecumenical Patriarch as "the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians" or something like that, which can give the wrong impression. He has inluence, but no power (again, in the sense of magisterium).

Where I find the distinction more useful, however, is in distinguishing between the "three-fold ministry" and the "five-fold ministry".

The three-fold ministry (the ordained ministries of bishops, priests and deacons) has to do with the ordering of the church, and therefore has more to do with authority than influence in some respects.

The five-fold ministry (the charismatic ministries of apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists) are more ministries of influence. Actually there are more than five, if we add the list from Romans as well.

Jeremy Priest said...

Nice post. I linked to it via the comment you posted on Scot McKnight's JesusCreed.
I think part of Pope Benedict's assertion echoes this heresy of denominationalism: the Catholic Church being one denomination among many.
I like the citation from Acts 2 and how that fellowship continues in the successors to the apostles: Joseph Ratzinger and John Zizoulas have written well on this.
I also appreciated you comments on things necessary in dialogue with each other--the truth in love.
I very much admire the Orthodox eucharistic ecclesiology centered on the local church. The Catholic 'monolith,' as you describe it, has learned much and has much to learn from this approach. It seems to me that some of this is incorporated into the Anglican understanding of their Communion as local churches. [Incidently, you might check out the article in the new First Things, “What Is Anglicanism?” written by Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi.] In the Orthodox churches it is the local church's celebration of the Eucharist around her bishop that the unity of the One Church is realized and found: "the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers."
It seems that there is an aspect of oneness that is missing in that there is no one really who can call an ecumenical council anymore. I've read Eusebius Address to Constantine (can't remember the exact title, apologies), and I understand some of how the emperor's role was seen. The emperor was able to bring to life an aspect of unity that is no longer viable for the Church, according to Orthodox ecclesiology as I understand it--I also recognize the great divisions that occurred in this period of the ecumenical councils as well. It seems to me that the emperor functioned in many ways like a father to these many churches. While the Patriarch of Constantinople was more like a mother who said, wait until your father gets home. I've read one author describe the contemporary Orthodox churches as a band of brothers who have lost their father--some of these churches recognizing different biblical canons. It seems that the Orthodox had a primacy, but it was a primacy exercised not by the Bishop of Rome, but by the Byzantine Emperor. This is a critique that I understand from my Catholic perspective. Could you point me in some directions to understand it from an Orthodox perspective? (priestermeister-AT-gmail-DOT-com)

Steve Hayes said...


Thanks very much for your comments.

I think that discussion on Scto McKnight's blog has been very interesting, and also that on the whole Orthodox have have not got upset about the recent statement by the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, seeing it rather as a welcome clarification.

You say, I've read one author describe the contemporary Orthodox churches as a band of brothers who have lost their father--some of these churches recognizing different biblical canons.

I can give a brief answer, though I don't think I'm qualified to give a full and definitive answer. The brief answer is that the Orthodox Churches see God as their father, and that we haven't lost him!


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