The Limits of the Church

by Vlassios Phidas
The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 38 
, 1993, p. 119- 129

The Theological Discussions within the ecumenical movement demonstrate that the mutual recognition of the validity of certain sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry) is the basis for the view that different Christian traditions simply represent various formulations of the same apostolic faith, and that those outside the Orthodox Church hold the same essential faith despite its diverse expressions in different cultures, languages and religious contexts. Thus, ecumenical dialogue puts forth as its goal a mere theological agreement or compromise only in those areas, where division is clearly expressed in the life of the Church. The Vancouver Assembly proposed, for example, the reception of BEM as an expression of a com mon understanding of the apostolic faith: "For what the Churches are asked to receive in this text is not simply a document, but in this document the apostolic faith from which it comes and to which it bears witness." This vision of unity is based on the following requirements:

a. the full recognition of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM),

b. a common understanding and expression of the apostolic faith, and

c. common ways of decision-making and teaching the faith authorities.

In any event, it is clear that the cause of unity is poorly served through these ecumenical discussions because there is no agreement on how many theological issues there are on which a consensus should be reached before genuine unity is realized. Some churches propose that just a basic agreement on certain sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry) could be considered as sufficient theological foundation for restoring communion; others regard every theological document as simply a first step towards deeper theological consensus. In reality, there is no clear vision of the goal which should guide theologians and church leaders, because, by putting various theological traditions into a common document, numerous fundamental theological ques tions are left unanswered. If ecumenical dialogue is really "a spiritual battle for truth," then it can be better served through the spirit of the holy tradition of the ancient and "undivided" Church which of fers the key to distinguishing between the essential and secondary elements of the apostolic faith and reconciling existing diversities by recovering the integrity of the true faith.

Real unity cannot be based on an easy compromise or on a mere accommodation to pluralism, because unity cannot be regarded as a goal to be reached regardless of the principles involved. That is why the purpose of this paper is neither to offer an apology for our Orthodox tradition, nor to cover up the real ecclesiological difficulties in contemporary ecumenical dialogue: it represents an effort to describe more clearly and to point out more fully the deep rooted theological causes of the historical divisions. In what follows we shall try to show the main ecclesiological problem and its great importance for the theological dialogue within the ecumenical movement.

I shall try to use in this brief paper only the canonical language which is proper to the Orthodox tradition, and to avoid using the kind of language which is more familiar to modern ecumenical circles. This is because I have become fully aware that language is in itself part of the ecclesiological problem which exists within the ecumenical movement. The usual theological obscurities or ambiguities of ecumenical terminology, especially with respect to ecclesiological ques tions, are intended to facilitate a growing convergence or agreement of different theological frames and to express with the same terms different realities. It is impossible, however, to do this with the established canonical terminology, which expresses a specific ec clesiological background and clearly one and the same ecclesial reality. The canonical meaning of the "boundaries" or "limits" of the Church is indissolubly connected with the teaching concerning the Church's nature, essence, and mission, since the latter describe the inner unity of the ecclesial body. What is usually meant by the term "boundaries of the Church" on the one hand, is derived from the ecclesiological peculiarities of each Church or confession, while on the other, it effects the content of their soteriological teachings.

The fact that a variety of ecclesiologies exists (e.g., Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, etc.) means that there also exists a cor responding differentiation as to the understanding of the boundaries of the Church, while the relationship between the boundaries of the Church and the range of the action of divine grace determines the soteriological dimension of the meaning of these boundaries.

It is true that the variety of ecclesiologies derives from the dif ference in the understanding of the Church's nature, essence and mission, as it is also true that the ecclesiological teaching of the an cient and "undivided" Church was, in spite of certain divergences in church practice, common to all local churches. The nucleus of this traditional ecclesiology was the common understanding of the Church's christocentric ontology, i.e., the teaching concerning the Church as the historical body of Christ (corpusChristi ), which is ex tended and realized in the history of salvation.

This common apostolic tradition was expressed in the teaching of the great Fathers and was lived and experienced continuously as the common faith of the Church both in the East and in the West during the period preceding the great schism. On this common basis, related church practice was developed and corresponding decisions were taken by local and ecumenical councils. It is quite clear that this ecclesiology of the body of Christ, describing the Church's christocentric ontology, reveals also the respective ecclesial conscience concerning the boundaries of the Church. After the great schism (1054), however, christological differentiations came about which shaped new presuppositions for approaching the delicate ec clesiological question concerning the Church's boundaries.

Thus, a positive or negative evaluation of any ecclesiological development is possible on the basis of the authentic relationship of ecclesiology to christology , as this was expressed in the entire patristic tradition and in the ecclesiastical praxis of the undivided church. Theologically, it is self evident that any differentiation what soever in the patristic understanding of the relationship between ec clesiology and christology leads to a different understanding of the mystery of the Church itself and, consequently, to either a gradual or immediate ecclesiological differentiation. Every ecclesiological dif­ferentiation also affects either qualitatively (Roman Catholic) or quan titatively (Protestant) the corresponding teaching concerning the limits of the Church. This arises from the fact that every ecclesiology predetermines the identity of its own ecclesiastical body and that of the ecclesiastical bodies outside itself; at the same time it also deter­mines the acceptable framework within which the related church prac tice is to function.

In this spirit, it is possible to interpret the established differences among the churches participating in the ecumenical movement with reference to the ecclesiological presuppositions of their practice of, let us say, mutually accepting the validity of one another's baptism, or their practice of intercommunion, or even their acceptance of a unilateral practice of eucharistic hospitality, etc. It is indeed quite characteristic that the above-mentioned practices refer to the restora tion of sacramental communion, the absence of which maintains the rift in the unity of the Church. This inner relationship between ecclesiology and sacraments is an indissoluble one, because, according to the patristic tradition, the sacraments manifest and indicate the whole ecclesial body. Hence, any differentiation whatsoever in ecclesiology is fully expressed in the specific sacramental praxis of the Church, which, in its turn, expresses the corresponding awareness of the Church's limits. Here, we can only present in a schematic way the main ecclesiological differentiations, which occurred after the great schism:

a) The progressive alienation of Western scholastic theology from the ecclesiological criteria of the common patristic tradition reduced in a progressive way the importance of the Church's christocentric ontology and led to a "hierocratic" understanding of theconstitu tional basis of the ecclesiastical body (the papacy and the hierarchy). The theoretical searching of scholastic theologians shaped even the conscience of the Roman Catholic Church, which came more and more to be expressed in the Church's respective praxis. Of course the Roman Catholic Church did not sever herself from the common patristic tradi tion and certainly did not reject the christocentric basis of patristic ecclesiology. At the same time, however, along with weakening the patristic ecclesiology of the body of Christ it advanced the ecclesiology of the "people of God," in order to facilitate this "hierocratic" interpretation.

The Protestant reformers challenged the entire ecclesiological struc ture of scholastic theology and set up against it a new teaching concer ning the Church; this Protestant teaching provoked Roman Catholic polemic theology to intensify more and more its "hierocratic" tenden cies. It is quite clear that anti- reformationist theology has deeply in­fluenced all Roman Catholic theology equally until recent times. Thus, even in the official theological literature of the eighteenth and nine teenth centuries one can see that the patristic doctrine of the christocen tric ontology of the Church has been almost completely forgotten.

In fact, Christ's name is rarely mentioned even in the university manuals, which deal specifically with the systematic theology of the Church. Despite all this, however, the christocentric ontology of the Church, at least according to the scholastic "hierocratic" interpreta tion, was preserved in a latent form within the structures and con science of the Roman Catholic Church, as clearly expressed in re cent Roman Catholic theology.

b) Protestant theology, by rejecting the entire ecclesiological struc ture of scholastic theology, simultaneously rejected every concept of the Church's christocentric ontology, and stressed, in opposition to Roman Catholic theology, the absolute authority of the Word of God, the individual character of the experience of faith, the eschatological perspectives of the saving act of God, etc.

In this way, the rejection of the Church's christocentric ontology made the notion of the boundaries of the Church imperceptible and even a matter of indifference. Hence, in Protestant ecclesiological teaching the specific historical boundaries of the "visible" Church are relativized and in no way do they coincide with those of the "in visible" Church. This is because those who constitute the invisible Church, on the one hand, are known only to God, while, on the other hand, they could very well be members of "visible" churches, even different ones, as for example the Roman Catholic Church, the Or thodox Church, etc. It is quite clear that such a distinction between the "visible" and the "invisible" churches completely relativizes the entire ecclesiology of the patristic tradition of the undivided church; it rejects the manifestation of the Church in and through the holy sacraments and is undecided as to the relationship between divine grace and the sacraments of the Church.

The differentiation of Protestant ecclesiology vis-a-vis that of Roman Catholicism can be more clearly understood through the follow ing diagram:

a. According to Roman Catholic (and Orthodox) ecclesiology, the Church preexists and precedes the believers; thus, we have the follow ing pattern: Christ-Church-believers.

b. According to Protestant ecclesiological teaching, believers preex ist and precede the Church, which they also constitute; thus, we have the following pattern: Christ-believers-Church. It is evident that in the Protestant schema there is no place for the patristic christocen tric ontology of the Church.

Orthodox theology, despite some partial and periodic influences from either Roman Catholic or Protestant theology, has remained faithful to patristic tradition and has fought to preserve the authen tic ecclesial experience. According to Orthodox ecclesiology, the Church is the one and only body of Christ in the history of salva tion. This one body of Christ, which is the Church, is realized in history as one and not many ecclesial bodies: it is manifested in the holy sacraments of the Church, since the Church is "marked" (σημειοῦται) in the sacraments. Orthodox ecclesiology excludes the manifestation of the one body of Christ in other ecclesiastical bodies outside it, since the body of Christ is only one and not many. These strict ecclesiological presuppositions predetermine the content and define the specific character of Orthodox ecclesiology.

On the basis of the above ecclesiological presuppositions, we could schematically relate to one another certain conclusions concerning the understanding of the Church's limits by the above mentioned ecclesiastical bodies:

a. The Orthodox Church, preserving the criteria of an exclusive ecclesiology, strictly marks out the canonical limits of her ecclesial body and, thus, applies ecclesiological presuppositions in ecclesiastical praxis, both within its own body and in its relations with those ec clesiastical bodies outside it.

b. The Roman Catholic Church, though identifying the canonical limits of the Church with its ecclesiastical body, has developed a flex ible attitude about canonical limits of the Church, employing it in its relations with the ecclesiastical bodies outside it; hence, her ec clesiology should not be described as exclusive. This is in line with its teaching on divine grace, as we shall see later.

c. Protestant ecclesiology could be described as an open ec clesiology without canonical limits. This loose ecclesiology is in turn expressed in Protestant theology and life.

Thus, the issues mentioned in the beginning of this paper con cerning the contemporary ecumenical dialogue, i.e., mutual recogni tion of baptism, intercommunion, eucharistic hospitality, etc., are ap proached with good reason by theologians of the various churches in a variety of ways, depending upon the various ecclesiological presup positions of their respective Churches. In this case, the whole ques tion of the validity of the sacramentsperformed outside the Orthodox Church is a broader theological issue and is deeply connected not only with the inner relationship between the sacraments and the Church, but also with the indissoluble unity between the paschal mystery and the mystery of Pentecost.

5. The ecclesiological differentiation, which we have pointed out above, springs precisely from the different interpretations of the rela tionship of the paschal mystery to that of pentecost , especially with regard to the variety of ways in which the saving grace of God is related, through these various interpretations, to these mysteries.

Thus, during the period prior to the great schism (1054), the com mon patristic tradition, which is preserved by the Orthodox Church, teaches that Christ, through his overall redeeming work, is the Source (πηγή) ο f divine grace and that the Holy Spirit is the bestower (χορηγός) and operator (τό ἐνεργοῦν) of divine grace in the faithful.

Scholastic theology, which relied on Saint Augustine 's doctrine as its starting point, developed a different view concerning the rela tionship between the paschal and pentecostal mysteries. It put forth Christ both as source (πηγήand bestower (χορηγός) of divine grace, while ascribing to the Holy Spirit the mere role of the Operator (τό ἐνεργοῦν) of the divine grace-already granted in the faithful, thereby emphasizing all the more the strong christomonistic  tendencies which already existed in western theology.

The ecclesiological consequences of such a theological differen tiation were, according to our opinion, decisive for the historical pro cess which led to the divergence between the churches of the east and west, as well as to the two divergent tendencies within western Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism).

Indeed, if Jesus Christ through his overall redeeming work is not only the Source, but also the Bestower of divine grace, then, it stands to reason that, because of theuniversality of the work of Christ, divine grace, which springs from his saving work, isautomatically granted to all, irrespective of their relationship to the Church, within which this bestowed divine grace is exclusively active through the Holy Spirit.

If, however, this divine grace is granted to all, because of the universality of Christ's redeeming work, then, it stands to reason that it is bestowed also in those believers outside the Roman Catholic Church even if such persons belong to a heresy or schism. Thus, the sacraments performed outside the Church are not only real (ὑποστατά), but also valid (ἔγκυρα), because they lack only the efficacy of divine grace which is bestowed through the Holy Spirit for the edification of the faithful, and which is operative only within the Roman Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, such an understanding of the redeeming work of Christ is more or less static and exhausted within the redemptive work of Christ, accomplished once and for all (ἐφᾳ ἅπαξ); it reduces the christocentric ontology of the Church as the historical body of Christ, which is extended, realized and active in the history of salvation. If the Church is, in the words of Saint Augustine, Christ himself ex tended through the ages { Christus prolongatus), then the Church can not be distinguished from Christ as regards the bestowing of divine grace, since no separation between Christ and the Church is possible.

If, however, divine grace is granted by the Church, in which the historical body of Christ is realized, then how is it possible for divine grace to be bestowed by Christ outside his body, which is the Church?

The Orthodox Church, accepting Jesus Christ as the Source and the Holy Spirit as the Bestower and Operator of divine grace only within the community of the faithful, in no way denies the universality of Christ's redeeming work. It simply holds that this divine grace is perpetuated in the historical body of Christ, i.e., the Church, and is granted to the faithful by the Holy Spirit, which also effects divine grace in the Church for the continuous realization of the body of Christ in time and space. This christocentric ontology of the Church rules out the dilemma which western theology faces, viz., Christ or Church, for Christ becomes flesh in the Church through the Holy Spirit.

The ecclesiological consequences of such a theological tradition are also decisive for the question of the canonical boundaries of the Church, because on the basis of this christocentric ecclesiology the Church's limits are exhausted only within the Orthodox ecclesial body. It is only within this ecclesial body that the Holy Spirit bestows and effects divine grace, which flows from Christ's redemptive work.

Through such a teaching concerning the Church's nature, essence and mission in the world, one finds oneself face to face with the well known soteriological -ecclesiological principle of "extra Ecclesia nulla salus ," which strictly determines the canonical limits of the Church. Thus, the Orthodox Church, while accepting the canonical possibility- according to each individual case-for recognizing the existence (ὑποστατόν) of sacraments performed outside herself , rejects or ques tions the validity (κῦρος) of the same and certainly rejects their efficacy (ἐνέργεια). It is already well known that in its ecclesial praxis, the Or thodox Church moves, according to the specific circumstances, bet ween canonical "acribeia" and "ecclesiastical economy," recogniz ing by "economy" even the validity (κῦροςof those sacraments per formed outside her body by other ecclesial bodies. Yet, such a prac tice of economy does not overturn canonical " acribeia " which also remains in force and expresses the exclusive character of Orthodox ecclesiology.

This observation is very important, because it reveals that the canonical recognition (ἀναγνώρισις) of the validity of sacraments per formed outside the Orthodox Church:

a. is by "economy."

b. covers only specific cases in certain given instances, and

c. refers only to the validity of the sacraments of those who join the Orthodox Church, not of the ecclesial body to which those who join the Orthodox Church belong.

There is, of course, a variety of opinions or reservations concern ing this question. No one, however, could propose or support the view that the mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments among the Churches is an ecclesiastical act consistent with Orthodox ecclesiology or an act which is not rejected by Orthodox canonical tradition.

In conclusion, we can say that Orthodox ecclesiology, being "ex clusive" places special emphasis on the inner unity of the paschal and pentecostal mysteries. Roman Catholic ecclesiology, not being "exclusive," places special emphasis on the paschal mystery of Christ. Protestant ecclesiology, being very loose, places special emphasis on the pentecostal mystery.

It is quite clear that these different ecclesiological positions arise from different understandings concerning the bestower of divine grace and, more generally, concerning the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church. In this light, we can also say that the definition of a given Church's canonical limits varies, in accordance with the peculiarity of this church's ecclesiology, as well as by the peculiarity of its inter pretation of the inner relationship between the paschal and pentecostal mysteries.

This variety also indicates the related ecclesiological difficulties concerning mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments:

a. The Protestant churches have no ecclesiological problem for proposing or supporting any kind of mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments performed outside their respective ecclesial bodies.

b. The Roman Catholic Church, even though it identifies the canonical limits of the Church with her own ecclesial body, is able to proceed to a kind of mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments without abrogating her fundamental ecclesiological principles.

c. The Orthodox Church cannot proceed to any kind of mutual recognition of the validity of sacraments without further development of her fundamental ecclesiological teaching on the canonical boun daries of the Church, because according to her ecclesiology those outside her ecclesial body belong either to schism or heresy.

It is quite clear that in the ecumenical dialogue the absolute ease of Protestant theologians, the relative ease of Roman Catholics and the limited ease of the Orthodox arise from their respective ec clesiological presuppositions and are not the result of their personal preferences. Thus, the mutual recognition of the validity of certain sacraments, which for a Protestant or Roman Catholic theologian could be considered as an ecclesiologically consistent position, is for an Or thodox an act of inconsistency when assessed by Orthodox ec clesiological principles.

These ecclesiological principles of the Orthodox Church strictly manifest the organic unity of the Orthodox ecclesiastical body and differentiate all those who do not belong to her body as schismatics or heretics. The relationship of schismatics or heretics to the body of the Orthodox Church is strictly defined by canonical and patristic tradition; thus, there can be no deviation from this tradition without serious damage to her internal unity. To the body of the Church belong "the faithful throughout the οἰκουμένη , those who are such, those who become such and those who enter into such a condition... ' (1). They do not become "many bodies but one body" because "there is no other body" than "the one which is nourished." (2). The unity of the body is actualized by the Holy Spirit only in the one body of the Church, because "to be or not to be the body is to be united or not to be united" with the body (3).

Certainly, however, Orthodox canonical tradition and praxis ap praise and classify those outside the Orthodox Church into various categories analogous to their distance from the Church or deviation from the true faith. This classification concerns those beyond the boun daries of the Orthodox Church and is expressed by the differentia tion in ecclesiastical praxis for their entry into her bosom. If, for example, the Orthodox Church stands for a particular circle which deter mines the boundaries of the Church, those found outside these boun daries are said to belong to external circles, in which some form of ecclesiality analogous to their distance from the boundaries of the Church exists.

This type of ecclesiality is not easily determined, because Orthodox tradition, accepting the Holy Spirit as the bestower of divine grace which flows from the work of Christ does not recognize the "existence" of this grace outside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church. The Holy Spirit dispenses divine grace only within the body of the Church. On the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church, accepting Jesus Christ as the bestower of divine grace, can more readily define the ecclesiality of those ecclesial bodies existing outside her boundaries. Indeed, she did so through the decree " Unitatis Redintegratio " for mulated by the Second Vatican Council, even though the above men­tioned model regarding the circles of ecclesiality pertaining to those Christian outside her body, applies also to herself.

The reassessment of the Orthodox patristic tradition concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the boundaries of the Orthodox Church could offer canonical support for the more flexi ble interpretation of the canonical tradition regarding the precise content of the notion of the boundaries of the Church. In this con nection, it would be useful to employ as a criterion the 66th Canon (Greek version, 69th) of the Synod of Carthage, which accepts as possi ble the restoration of "communion" with those having different views, for the benefit of the Church, and for a more effective repentance (fxexdvoia) and salvation of those existing outside her boundaries and those who do not find themselves in full agreement with her faith:

Then when all things had been considered and treated of which seem to conduce to the advantage of the Church, the Spirit of God suggesting and admonishing us, we determined to act leniently and pacifically with the before mentioned men, although they were cut off from the unity of the Lord's body by an unruly dissent, so that (as much as in us lies) to all those who have been caught in the net of their communion and society, it might be known throughout all the provinces of Africa, how they have been overcome by miserable error, holding different opinions; "that perchance," as the Apostle says, when we have corrected them with gentleness, "God should grant them repentance for the acknowledging of the truth" (4) .

In this way, the converging tendencies in Christology of more re cent times better serve the cause of unity and could be made the basis for a converging movement in ecclesiology, where the constant criterion would be a common understanding of thechristocentric on tology of the Church and of the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church.


(1) Saint John Chrysostom , Homilies on Ephesians, 10.1.

(2) Saint John Chrysostom , Homilies, on 1 Corinthians, 24.2.

(3) Ibid. 30.2.

(4) 66th Canon of the Synod of Carthage.