Where is the Church?

Based upon my own subjective experience of growing up within the evangelical orthodox Church I have been always attracted to the question: Where is the Church? This question is one of the most politicized questions throughout Church history and efforts to answer it have been made many times. One of the most common answers is found within the doctrine of apostolic succession. Where the Church is, is guaranteed by the proven lineage of ordained bishops all the way back to the apostles. Where this lineage can be traced, there is the Church. Given that we can’t trace the physical line in the Evangelical Orthodox Church (the laying on of hands in ordination) I would suspect that I am not very objective in the following text (even though I will try).

I believe in the lineage myself. I believe that it can manifest in the physical what is a reality in the spiritual. I believe that the Church is found where this lineage is found (despite bad popes and bishops throughout history) because I believe that the Holy Spirit is bigger than human frailty. Where I differ from the canonical teaching concerning this is that I don’t believe that the Church is limited to this definition. The spiritual takes precedence over the physical. As I said before, I believe that the work of the Holy Spirit is greater than our definition of that work. Who are we to limit the work of God throughout the ages? Who are we to limit His very body the Church, into a lineage of bishops? After all I think we all agree that the Church is the Body of Christ. It is interesting, almost perplexing that the canonical Church has such rigid defined lines when it comes to Church and at the same gives so much room (and rightfully so) to the things of God we can not know. It is also perplexing that an entity, in this case the Church, can know so many things pertaining to the objective attributes of Herself (where She finds herself, what Her borders are) when Her experience is subjective. She is testifying about Herself when She says the She decides where She can be found and where She can’t be found. Maybe more to the point, how concerned and involved She is with these questions rather than just being the body (and not the head…) Now it seems that I’m contradicting myself because I am involving myself with these questions but I’m not because according to canonical law, I am not part of the Church, I am outside of it and therefor it is easier to look objectively (wouldn’t you agree? 😉 and also, in that case I should be very concerned with these questions because my salvation just might be on the line.

Often I find myself starting my thought process about God just with that, what I think about God. This is not all ‘bad’ after all, He created my mind and thirst for knowledge. But if we aim for the posture of humility, which is the posture that Christ have, then it has to start with us listening to what the Spirit ‘thinks’ about us. The revelation of God needs to be revealed to us by the same Spirit that ascended on Christ. It is not the Church herself that may make the final decision about where She is found, it would not be fitting because it is her Head that decides that by the Holy Spirit. We really need not be concerned with that. It is the Spirit Who defines and sets the boarders of where He moves and Who He uses. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the Church. It begins with God, not with us. “Out of nothing”, right? Jesus said that He could ‘make sons of Abraham out of these stones’ if He wanted to. Throughout Scriptures we have a range of examples in prophets (Nathan), judges (Samson), outcasts (Josef) and anomalies (David was not the oldest of his brothers, Paul was not given the ‘right hand of fellowship’ until after he already functioned as an apostle) who did not fulfill the legal requirements for proper succession but who God used for His purposes anyway. God, through the Holy Spirit maintains the succession despite fallen man so why can’t the Holy Spirit raise up a plant in a barren wasteland if He so chooses? Why do the plant need to fulfill the legal requirements to be named a plant if it shows all the attributes of a plant? God just might have roots of succession that we just not can’t see yet? I believe that the lineage has become a stumbling block for many in terms of recognizing Christ redemptive work in others. If the only problem the canonical Church has with other communions is that they can’t trace their physical line of succession, then maybe that communion is not the problem? Then maybe the Law is not functioning in the way it should?  Could it be that God reveals Himself when we try to see Christ in the other rather than dismissing them before we get to know them because they do not fulfill our limited definition of what the Church is? When we make ourselves the legislator of hidden mysteries then we are boarding on becoming like the Pharisees.

As I said before I don’t think that the lineage of bishops, confirmed by the Holy Spirit is something to dismiss. The Church is found there. We see great emphases on the traceability of Mary’s and Josef’s blood lines. We see it in the diligence of keeping records over who reigned where and for how long. In many regards one can compare apostolic succession to a bloodline of kings inheriting the throne in a royal succession. But the royalty is just one aspect of a thriving kingdom is it not? And the king must rule with love and justice, inviting lost and broken peoples to his land? Even the uneducated, the peasant, knows this, by heart. If this is not the case well then the king and his family maybe a royalty on paper but everyone knows that they are not royal for real.

I believe that the Spirit moves where He wants to and that He is recognized by His fruits. He can’t be contained by our definitions and legislation, praise be to God! If we limit the inheritance of Christ and His Kingdom to a lineage then we tell people that they must believe in our definition of the kingdom before they can hope to belong to it and that makes for a shrinking, nominal Church. It hinders humility towards the mysterious side of the Church which transcends our definitions of her. I think Christ wanted people to belong so that they might believe so that the Church may grow. The bloodline intact, apostolic succession, is one fruit of the Holy Spirit because only He can maintain a lineage that has been so stained by humans missing the mark. It is not the only fruit, other fruits are love (towards other communions and people), joy (in others celebrations), humility (listening to others), patience (with others lack of understanding for Gods mysteries) amongst others. To finish this post I have a short story to tell:

The Prince: Oh, I’m so hungry I wish I could find something to eat.

The peasant boy: Well, I can show you where to find some food.

The Prince: Are you talking to me? You don’t even understand what I’m saying.

The peasant boy: Yes, I do. I understood that you were hungry.

The Prince: Even if you did understand me I cannot talk to you. You are a peasant.

The peasant boy: Yes I am. It must be boring not to be able to talk to anybody. Even though you are talking to me right now if you haven’t noticed.

The Prince: Oh, well. I can talk with other nobles and my parents of course. And I’m not really talking to you. I’m more talking to myself.

The peasant boy: Well, if you are still hungry there is a farmer over there that sells the most wonderful loaves of bread.

The Prince: I cannot really get over there because I have to guard the treasure I carry.

The peasant boy: May I see the treasure? Maybe I can help you in some way?

The Prince: You may not, it is not for sharing or viewing. It is for the betterment of the Kingdom. Anyway I need to go now. So the Prince left hungry while the peasant boy tried to figure out why the Prince did not ask him to guard the treasure for a bit so that he could go and buy some bread.

In Christ,

fr. Jakob

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2 thoughts on “Where is the Church?

  1. Fr. Jakob,

    As you this is a lively topic, and has been since forever. I largely agree with your conclusions but would like to frame them a different way. On his blog “Glory to God for All Things”, Fr. Stephen Freeman was recently about how the Church sees a human being as being in the process of becoming more (or less) human. In other words each of us are continually in the act of becoming. Becoming the fully human person we were created to be. To the extent we negate ourselves, to that extent we are becoming less human. To the extent we cooperate with God’s work in our lives, to that extent we become more human.

    I belabor the point because I think the exact same thing can be said of our organizations. In the areas where a church (or communion of churches or denomination) is frustrating the work of the Holy Spirit and therefore their calling, in those places they are progressing toward not being the church. And vice versa. I think you can see how this would apply, so I won’t try to describe every situation.

    However, it’s not accurate to assume that we all start from the same point. Those who were born into Christian homes and willingly sought God all their lives have further to fall – and will take longer to reach the bottom. Applying this to churches, those who have traditionally held onto “the faith once handed down for all” are less likely to have gone as far wrong – to put it crassly, because it’s in their genes. They have all these right thoughts and practices simply because they are ingrained habits and it takes more to go wrong.

    Having said this, it’s a very simplistic view and shouldn’t be used to go around and paint particular people and organizations. In fact, further examination will expose the fact that those growing up in relatively safe environments aren’t actually free from sin; they simply suffer from a different set of weaknesses. One of the primary sins that comes to mind is pride. Think of it like this:

    The more right you are, the more you are in danger of bathing in your righteousness – and this is a danger no less sinister than lies and murder. In fact pride keeps frequent company with both of these.

    Relating back to your post, it is quite possible for those with apostolic succession to take long turns for the worse. And likewise it is quite possible for those who have grown up in less-fortunate Christian situations to take long turns for the better.

    Statements like this frustrate us because we live in a consumer society. We would like to quickly figure out who is heading the right way and join them. It is in fact much better to a) grow where you’re planted and b) look for the Lord’s guidance in all things.

    All of this needs to be taken in context and not looked at as a prescription for a Lone Ranger Christianity. So in other words, if you were born into a dysfunctional but traditional, apostolic-succession church, don’t condemn its failings and leave. Be Christ in that situation and yet be obedient His call in your life – even if He doesn’t call you to another, healthier church.

    By the same token, neither should you run screaming from a more modern, liberal church. If God calls you away, say goodbye to all you love about it and respectfully make your exit, burning no more bridges than necessary. But always seek to be obedient in every situation you’re given – even if that means staying where you are.

    I’ve rambled on too long, but hopefully these thoughts are of use to you.

    • Hi Drewster,

      Thank you for taking the time to give some thought to this post. I’m trying to improve my writing all the time so that I can better communicate whats going on ‘inside’ and comments like this really helps with that, so I am great full. /fr. Jakob

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