Ecclesiality or no Ecclesiality That Is the Question


The recently held Council in Crete brought out into the open a very important ecclesiological question. What, if any, is the ecclesial nature (ECCLESIALITY[1]) of those Christian groups not in communion with the Orthodox Church? To what extent, if any, are they Church, do they have ECCLESIALITY? All Orthodox Christians accept that their worldwide CHURCH, the Orthodox Church, the various local Orthodox Churches taken together, possesses the full and undiminished ecclesial nature. It is, they are, simply the Church of Christ, seen as a worldwide unit or as a particular, local Church. Every sacramental act carried out in and by the local Orthodox Churches is fully of and by the Church of Christ. On this all Orthodox are agreed.

The point of disagreement among Orthodox Christians turns on whether the Christian bodies other than the Orthodox Church[2] possess ECCLESIALITY. Some say they possess no ECCLESIALITY whatsoever; others say they possess some ECCLESIALITY, more or less than the full, 100% ECCLESIALITY of the Orthodox Church(es). And the debate rages on.


It is our opinion that this question cannot be answered on a strictly theological level if “theological level” means with no reference to the history of Church practices. How has the Orthodox Church—or the Orthodox-Catholic Church in the first millennium—dealt with Churches considered heretical, schismatic or both. The question is only really relevant as it deals with the reception of individual members or whole Churches into the Orthodox Church. And as everyone knows both from the canons of the Ecumenical Councils and the practices of the Orthodox Churches in time and place, that practice has varied and changed over time: sometimes requiring individuals to be baptized and sometimes just a profession of the Orthodox faith and chrismation. Certain local Orthodox Churches have at one time taken one position, then later changed their practice, and then again come back to an older practice.

Some would say that this variety is to be explained by alternating between akrivia and economia: akrivia being baptism and economia being another method. Others have said that this alternating practice shows that the Orthodox are simply inconsistent and do not have any theological principles on this question. It is simply a confused mess, and there is no guiding principle behind the variety of practices. Roman Catholic sacramental theology working on the valid-but-illicit principle recognizes sacraments performed outside the Roman Catholic Church as “real,” that is, valid, but illicit, that is “illegal” because they are performed outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. The performance of conditional baptism or ordination is also an element of this theory when there is any doubt about the validity of a sacrament. From this point of view, Orthodox practice does indeed seem chaotic, unprincipled, arbitrary, and simply a confused mess. The Roman Catholic position is at least consistent, logical, and does appear to explain the phenomenon. It allows the Roman Catholic Church to recognize the sacraments and hierarchies of the Orthodox Churches, the Non-Chalcedonian Churches, the Old Catholic Churches and maybe some others, while considering them illicit. Thus there is rarely a question of rebaptizing or reordaining any from those groups who want to join the Roman Catholic Church.

However, except for those Orthodox who have simply adopted the Roman Catholic notion of valid-but-illicit, most Orthodox Christians do not seem to have worked out a cogent, coherent, logical alternative which can clearly explain some theological principle of which the changing practices throughout history are an expression. The lack of such a satisfactory explanation gives the impression that in fact there is none. It is our position, however, that this is not the case. There is, we believe, a coherent ecclesiology with regard to the Orthodox Church’s relation to non-Orthodox communities, an ecclesiology which both satisfies our need for intellectual coherence and explains the past Church practices.

Orthodox Ecclesiology

First of all, what we call the Orthodox Church today and throughout history sees itself as possessing full, 100% ECCLESIALITY. It is the Church of Christ one earth and in any locality where it is organized around a canonical, Orthodox bishop. All its sacraments are fully, 100% “kosher,” and nothing done outside the Orthodox Church is in any way equal to what is done inside. No baptism, or any other sacrament, done outside the Orthodox Church, is seen as equivalent to Orthodox baptism. This means that only Orthodox sacraments are to be called “valid,” meaning full sacraments of the Church of Christ. That is why Orthodox Christians are not allowed to be baptized outside the Orthodox Church, or married or receive communion, etc. Those sacraments are not full, 100 % sacraments.

Once that has been stated, the question of the relation of the Orthodox Church to the other Christians bodies and their sacraments comes up. If they are not considered to have the ECCLESIALITY of the Orthodox Church, what do they have, if anything? Do they have 0% ECCLESIALITY or some ECCLESIALITY? A percentage of ECCLESIALITY? If so, how do we determine the so-called percentage? And it is here that we have an explanation of the so‑called erratic practice of the Orthodox Churches in “recognizing” the sacraments from non-Orthodox Churches. In fact, the Orthodox Church does not “recognize” them as being equal with or having the same value as those performed in the Orthodox Church, but does that mean that they have 0% ECCLESIALITY? It is here that Orthodox ecclesiology explains the practice. Although nothing done outside the Orthodox Church is equal to what is done inside, there seems to be an obvious difference between, let us say, Non-Chalcedonian Churches and Lutheran Churches, or the Roman Catholic Church and Baptist Churches. There seems to be a sliding scale of residual ECCLESIALITY, from very close to 100% in the Non‑Chalcedonian Churches down to very low percentage of ECCLESIALITY in the Baptist Churches. If we take the Orthodox Church as our model, it seems that these non-Orthodox communities are not all equal in that they are closer or farther away from the 100% ECCLESIALITY, thus the image of percentages.

To the degree that a Christian community deviates from Orthodoxy, to that degree it is—what words shall we use—darkened, handicapped, broken, heretical, sick, but it still retains some elements of Orthodoxy and therefore some degree of ECCLESIALITY. Everything that is done in that Christian community shares in the degree of darkness. The sacraments of that Christian community are darkened; its faith is darkened; its prayers are darkened, etc. and yet the light has not completely gone out.

So historically, the Orthodox Church has made the percentage judgment. Even though Christian community X deviates from Orthodox practice and belief on this or that point or on several points, it is in all other respects is Orthodox, so then when people from that group want to become Orthodox, the Church judges what can be done to heal the sickness in that group, enlighten the darkness in it. What is the best thing to do for the Church herself and for this person or group to bring them into the fullness. Therefore, it is judged, under conditions of that time, that this or that practice will be used to incorporate them into the Church. The fullness of grace in the Church supplies what is deficient, enlightens what is darkened, heals what is sick, etc. In some cases, it is decided that there is so little Orthodoxy left in a group, or nothing at all, that the only way to deal with them is to baptize them as though they were pagans or Jews. The Church is in no way required to apply economia to other Christian bodies. It may or it may not, according to what seems best at the time.

It is here that the concept of akrivia-economia comes into play. It is quite true that people enter the Church by baptism. Period. What other way can anyone enter the Church? Jews, Muslims, pagans, etc. are baptized. There is no question about it. No one would wonder if we can receive Jews into the Church by economia, but why is that? First of all because a Jew has never been baptized anywhere, so we baptize him, but also because there is no ECCLESIALITY at all in Judaism or in Islam or in the Wikan groups. We may, however, ask about what to do with Jehovah’ Witnesses and Mormons because they do have baptism, but are their beliefs and practices so divergent from the Orthodox faith as to make it impossible to use economia? The general opinion is that they are too defiant. There is o% ECCLESIALITY in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church and no doubt other fringe groups.

So we have to have discernment: we have the sliding scale of ECCLESIALITY. The Orthodox Church is 100% and Jews, Muslims pagans have 0%; they would not even claim any kind of ECCLESIALITY. But in between the 100% of Orthodoxy and 0% ECCLESIALITY of pagans, there are communities that generally claim for themselves 100% fidelity to the apostles. That is what they claim, but from the Orthodox point of view, they deviate from fidelity to the apostolic preaching in various descending degrees: Jehovah’s Witnesses have 0% ECCLESIALITY and moving on up the scale by degrees until we get to the Non‑Chalcedonians whom we would probably judge to have the highest percentage. It is to this middle group that we ask the question about applying economia, that is the possibility of not applying akrivia—baptism—and incorporating them by some other method. This is the practice of the Church throughout all the ages. Does not the use of economia suppose that there is some residual ECCLESIALITY in the group from which the converts are coming. If there were really 0% ECCLESIALITY, there would be no question of applying economia. It would be baptism, and that would be the end of it.

Is not this ecclesiology both logical and intellectually satisfying? Does it not explain past Church practices on the basis of patristic principles rather than by adopting a Roman Catholic theory or simply assuming confused chaos? It allows the Church to judge on her own principles what can be salvaged out of various shipwrecks and at the same time gives the Church flexibility in dealing with other Christian bodies[3].


I have a question, something that puzzles me about the position of those who have opposed the declaration of the Council of Crete on the relation of the Orthodox Church with other Christian bodies. If I understand their position correctly, they say, as everyone says, that the Orthodox Church possesses full ECCLESIALITY. She is the Church of Christ. However, those Christian communities outside the Orthodox Church have no ECCLESIALITY, 0%, even though they themselves claim to be fully in line with apostolic preaching. Since there is no question of applying economia to Jews, Muslims, pagans, etc., the opponents are talking about the middle group, the ones I have identified on the sliding scale. I am sure they would also agree that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, among others, even though they claim to follow the apostles, do in fact not and are so far away from the Orthodox faith as to merit a judgment of 0% ECCLESIALITY, thus needing baptism; there is not even the thought of applying economia. But do the opponents of the Council’s document believe that the other Christian communities on my sliding scale of ECCLESIALITY also have 0% ECCLESIALITY? If they are so judged, there can be no question of economia, and yet that is precisely what the Church has done through history: judged that group X can be received by economia, but group Y, only by baptism. If the opponents of the Council say there is only 100% ECCLESIALITY in the Orthodox Church and 0% ECCLESIALITY everywhere else, then it seems to me that the only explanation for the variety of practices in the past is one of faithfulness to bringing in people by baptism and unfaithfulness on the part of those who have let people in on anyone other basis, that of economia. Where there is a judgment of 0% ECCLESIALITY, there can be no question of economia, so how do the opponents of Crete’s document explain the Church’s past practices? I cannot imagine that they say that those who applied economia acted against the Church’s basic teaching. I ask them in all good will to explain to me how they square the 0% and 100% ECCLESIALITY explanation with the Church’s practice.

I believe that the document on the relation of the Orthodox Church to other Christian communities embodies the ecclesiology I have described above[4]. That document may contain certain ambiguities; that is possible. It may also be that the main complaint of the opponents of the document is its ambiguity, not necessarily its ecclesiology. I ask the opponents if the same or other ambiguities exist in the position I have described above. Is my explanation sufficiently clear as to shed light on the document itself and satisfy the opponents’ own concerns. It is my hope that that is the case, and I offer these reflections in the hope that at a future session of the Great and Holy Council, everyone will be able to agree on a single, unambiguous statement of Orthodox ecclesiology.

[1] Ecclesiality in this essay means “whatever makes a group of Christians in a given locality the Church of Christ.” It is usually thought of as containing the following characteristics: the Christians are lead by a canonical bishop in the apostolic succession; they profess the Orthodox faith as determined by the Ecumenical Councils; this local assembly of Christians gathered around its bishop lives the sacramental life administered by presbyters under the authority of the bishop. These are not the only characteristics—and more could be added—but for the moment we can work with these. Whatever makes those Christians into the Body of Christ in that locality is ECCLESIALITY.

[2] The Baptist Churches, the Methodist Churches, the Presbyterian/Calvinist Churches, the Non-Chalcedonian Churches, the Old Catholic Churches, the Lutheran Churches, the Quakers, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Churches, the Old Calanderist Churches, the Old Believer Church, etc. We could in fact almost just list the members of the World Council of Churches.

[3] Even though the question of the “validity” of Anglican orders—whether Anglican clergy are the same thing as Roman Catholic priests—has been answered by the Roman Catholic Church with “not in the slightest way,” completely invalid, the Orthodox Church has taken a different approach, one that is completely consistent with the ecclesiology outline above. The sacramental theology of the Anglican Churches has been so confused and compromised by Calvinist ideas that even though there may have been the famous chain of hands on the heads going back to the apostles, that does not mean that the Anglican Churches have the apostolic succession because there is much more to being successors of the apostles than just having this unbroken chain of ordinations. The faith of the Anglican Churches is in some ways Orthodox and in some ways not. This graying of Anglicanism, both in the past and today, has thrown such a shadow of it that the Orthodox have decided that there is only one way to deal with clergy coming over to the Orthodox Church and that is to be ordained. But what would happen if one day, all the Anglican Churches removed the confusion in their midst and unambiguously declared themselves for the Orthodox faith as we understand it? What would be the response of the Orthodox Churches? Assuming fully Orthodox doctrine, would it be possible to accept Anglican clergy en mass, in their orders, into the Orthodox Church? What was judged good for the Church under one set of circumstances could be changed under other circumstances, a change that would be in line with the ecclesiology outlined above. Such a change would be deemed perfectly acceptable or at least something to be considered. However, if the Presbyterian Church of Scotland did the same thing, There would most certainly be no question of receiving their ministers as Orthodox priests. Look at the example of the Evangelical Orthodox Church in the United States.

[4] It has been said that the ecclesiology presented here is nothing more than the Branch Theory which the Orthodox Church as always rejected. It is quite true that whenever the Branch Theory has been put forward, both Roman Catholics and Orthodox have rejected it, but I cannot agree that the ecclesiology presented above is the Branch theory. The classical Branch theory is an idea of Anglo-Catholic—High Church—Anglicans to justify their claim that the Anglican Churches are fundamentally “catholic Churches, being like the Roman and Orthodox Churches and not like the Protestant Churches. By the word catholic they mean a hierarchical and sacramental Church organically connected through history to the Apostles. Branch theory ecclesiology says that during the first millennium, the Church of Christ was united—leaving aside the Non-Chalcedonians. In 1054, that one tree split into two branches over minor matters which did not affect the fullness of the branches ECCLESIALITY. At the Reformation, the western branch split into various Protestant branches which in fact broke off from the tree, but the Anglican Church did not break off from the tree. As in the Great Schism, according to the classical Branch theory, the differences between the Anglican Church and the Roman and Orthodox Churches were minor and in no way lessened the 100% ECCLESIALITY of the Anglican Church. So there are three equal branches having each one 100% ECCLESIALITY and the differences between them are only minor and could be easily overcome if only the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox would open their eyes. The Protestant Churches are not attached to the tree because they rejected the nothing of priesthood and only have ministers as clergy. So it is obvious that the ecclesiology presented here is not the classical Branch theory. There is only one body with 100% ECCLESIALITY and no one else. The others are judged to be deficient to varying degrees. This ecclesiology can be rejected, of course, but not by saying that it is the Branch theory.

Partager sur les médias sociaux

Laisser un commentaire