Archive for October 8th, 2007

Getting Saved in the Church

October 8, 2007

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I ask forgiveness for the offense the article will give to some – it is not my intent to offend. However, in the past several days, central doctrines of the Orthodox faith have been questioned in a number of quarter relating to articles or comments I have posted, most especially those regarding certain aspects of the Church. I post this article as an answer and an affirmation of Orthodox belief. 

I grew up in the deep South where “getting saved” was a part of everyday speech and we all knew what it meant. It was evangelical short-hand for “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” usually done at Church after walking the aisle at the end of the service. I did this at age seven. This action was followed by Baptism (as simply an outward obedience to Christ). It did mean I could start to take communion on one of the four Sundays a year this occurred. Though, again, communion was only meant as a meal to remember something Jesus had done once upon a time. In giving such a description, I am simply relating what I and any other member of the Southern culture at large knew. We could cite a few Bible verses that spoke of what we were doing and that seemed to make everything legitimate.

Of course in such a context, speaking about the Church in anything other than mere fellowship or accountability terms is a foreign thing. Verses such as those in Ephesians 1, where the Church is called, “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” either make no sense, or must be relegated to some Church of the eschatological future about which we can only dream.

Of course, all of this rural Protestant understanding presupposes human life defined in purely modern terms. We are individuals whose relationship to one another is at best emotional, psychological or affectional. We go to the same Church because we believe some of the same things (or for reasons much less noble).

Having been saved, there are really only two things left to do: help other people get saved (evangelism) and become a more moral citizen (sanctification). Sermons will usually talk about one or the other.

Of course, all of this is completely foreign to the Orthodox Catholic faith of the Fathers – the inheritance of the Church as given in Scripture and the writings of centuries. Anyone transported from our modern world into the 4th century and speaking of their salvation in the modern manner would have been judged a heretic (of a strange variety never seen before) and disciplined accordingly.

Several key elements here should be underlined:

1. Salvation is not something that happens to you as an individual in isolation from others.

2. Salvation is not a legal settlement between you and God in which, having your sins remitted, you are now permitted to enter heaven when you die.

3. The Church is what salvation looks like.

I’ll explain this third point in some detail. The Church is what salvation looks like because salvation is not a momentary matter, but a life-long event. It may be initiated by our acceptance of Christ, just as a battle against cancer may be initiated by a diagnosis and first dose of chemo. But the sin which affects us is not a mere legal problem – it is existential, ontological – it is deep in the core of us – and only a lifetime in Christ, bathed continually in grace, will we find a beginning to the healing of its destruction and prepare us for the life God is giving us.

What does St. Paul mean when he says in Romans 13:11:

Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

Or in 2 Corinthians 7:8-9

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.

Or most famously in Philippians 2:12-13?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

And again in 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9?

But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In none of these cases is salvation used to describe a past experience (the word has a very broad use of meanings in the New Testament). These kinds of example can be multiplied over and over to demonstrate that the parlance of many modern cultural Christians is simply not at all in line with the Gospel as proclaimed in Scripture. It is a truncated, virtual version that does not express the fullness of the faith.

The idea of the salvation of an individual qua individual is also a modern idea. It is a modern idea, for the very concept of a human being existing as a self-existent, self-contained individual is a very recent idea. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity, carefully illustrates (in over 500 pages) the slow process whereby man as an individual came into modern consciousness. It is not surprising that the concept would come to dominate popular preaching. Preaching and preparation that has been cut off from the history, doctrines, language, and Fathers of the Church, is absolutely vulnerable to every pop cultural notion that comes down the pike. Thus it is that American Evangelicalism is mostly Americanism with a Jesus veneer. In some cases it can be as unashamedly American as Mormonism, a purely American phenomenon.

These are strong words but they are meant to be. The Gospel is a precious treasure and should not be made captive to the cultural forms of any land, whether America, Byzantium or Russia. At present, the world-wide danger is the complete and total captivity of the Gospel to American culture. American culture makes the Hellenization of the ancient world seem mild. Our culture is conquering the world, even where they hate us. And our ideas are supplanting almost everything with which they come in contact.

Thus to maintain a proper Christian understanding of what it is to be human is particularly difficult. We are not purely individuals, except as the most unregenerate sinners. We were created in the image of God, and even in that creation were declared, “Not good,” until we existed as male and female. We are created in the image of a Triune God. My life is not my life alone. Indeed, sin can best be understood as the rupture of communion between myself and God and myself and others around me. And if this is sin, then salvation will be the restoration of communion – both with God and with others around me.

Thus, the Church is what salvation looks like. It is here that we are Baptized into the very life of Christ, into His body. It is here that we are fed on His Body and Blood. Here in the Church we are restored to communion with God and communion with others. And it is here that the battleground to maintain that communion takes place. Thus God has given us the means to correct one another, to heal one another, to aid in the salvation, the complete restoration of each other in Christ.

Anyone who does not know that the Church is what salvation looks like has not begun to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. We cannot love one another unless there is another to love. Indeed, the New Testament, with the exception of the Book of Philemon and the Pastoral Epistles is written only to the Church. And those exceptions are written to men only in regard to their place within the Church. The New Testament belongs exclusively to the Church. If you are reading it as an individual and not as a member of the Church to whom it was written, then you are reading someone else’s mail.

Finally, the Church has always understood itself to be One (not an abstract “one,” dwelling mystically in some second storey, but a very concrete one). Those who establish fellowships and ordain leaders have not been given authority to do what they do. Reading the letters of Abraham Lincoln does not make one a U.S. Senator. Those who have authority in the Church were appointed by Christ and by those whom Christ appointed. Apostolic succession is real – though not merely mechanical. Those who sit in the seat of the Bishops must in fact teach what the Apostles taught. But to ordain men apart from this divinely appointed means comes dangerously close to the make-believe of cult-like groups who think nothing of proclaiming prophets and the like. Of course, the Orthodox Church treats with deference and respect those who lead Christian communities, and in most cases has graciously received converts from that number with respect (though some like myself, having been an Anglican, had to submit to re-ordination – I did not take this as an insult).

According to Scripture, it is only in the Church that we will find the “fullness of Him who filleth all in all.” Why would we want less than the fullness, and how could we dare to create our own organization and claim such a Divine reality to be its constitution? Those who have inherited their Church from their own fathers stand perhaps in a different quandary. But it is still a quandary to be pondered and not merely justified because it exists.