Outlines of an Ecumenical Ecclesiology


by A. Edward Siecienski


Before Orthodoxy can properly address the question of the ecclesial nature of other Christian bodies, it is perhaps necessary to deal with the question of whether the True Church of Christ is found exclusively in Orthodox Church or whether elements of it exist outside of her.  Although the fathers and Orthodox tradition have wrestled with this before, both as a theological question and as a pastoral one, now more than ever a clear answer is required if Orthodoxy is to engage with other Christians in the effort to fulfill the will of Christ that “all may be one.” 

The Roman Catholic Church famously addressed this same question at the Second Vatican Council in the document Lumen Gentium, where it stated that “the one Church of Christ . . .subsists in the Catholic Church” (LG par. 8).  This was a change from the draft document, where “is” rather than “subsists” was used, which seemed to allow for elements of the True Church to exist outside the institutional boundaries of the Catholic Church to the degree that other Christians had preserved elements that the Catholic Church had maintained in its fullness.  According to this line of thinking, the Orthodox, having maintained everything except full communion with the successor of Peter, were fully a “church” who enjoyed “all but perfect communion” with the Church of Christ. 

Could a similar solution be acceptable to the Orthodox?  Could Orthodoxy affirm, that “The Orthodox Church, as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” recognizes features of that Church in other Christian bodies who have maintained, to one degree or another, elements that she has preserved in its fullness?  For example, in that Roman Catholicism contains “apostolic succession” and many aspects of “the patristic tradition” despite some important differences with the Orthodox, could the Catholic Church be described as a “church” in the proper sense of the word?  Could not Orthodoxy recognize that in preserving these elements Catholicism already enjoys some relation to the True Church of Christ, and that through dialogue on issues like the filioque and the primacy we hope to come closer to full communion with them? 

Historically the way the Church has addressed the ecclesial status of the non-Orthodox has often depended on the theological and pastoral context in which the question was asked.  Debate over the re-baptism of Christians seeking to enter the Orthodox Church is an oft-cited example, with the rigorist policies of Patriarch Cyril V and the 1755 synod considered by some to express the patristic consensus on the mater.  Even those who do not demand re-baptism often do so only as a matter of oikonomia — i.e., not because they recognize non-Orthodox sacraments as valid or other Christian bodies as “churches.”  And yet Orthodox history provides ample examples of other views.[i]  Even the decisions of the 1755 synod, which themselves were not universally applied in the Orthodox world, recognized that they were changing the longstanding practice established in 1484 by the synod that rejected the Council of Florence.  There it was stated that: “Latin converts to Orthodoxy should be received into the Church only by Chrismation and by signing an appropriate Libellus of faith which would include denunciation of Latin errors.”  

Thus it would be possible for the Orthodox Church to maintain that those Christian bodies who have maintained, in their faith and practice, key elements of the True Church of Christ, are “churches” in the proper sense even if they are deficient in other aspects.  Validly performed Baptisms carried out in these churches gives the individual believer a relationship with the True Church of Christ (and thus the Orthodox Church), despite the fact that s/he is not yet fully in communion with it.  By coming to Orthodoxy with the desire for full communion the individual seeks to move from impartial communion (established by his/her baptism and other means of sanctification found in his/her church) to full communion (established by chrismation and/or profession of the Orthodox faith) with the True Church of Christ. 

How then to proceed? I would propose that the council could, in its deliberations on the question, put forward the following ecclesiological and ecumenical truths in order to make its position clear: 

  1. That the Orthodox Church has within itself the fullness of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church 
  2. That the Orthodox Church, as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, seeks to bring all into full communion with that reality and for this reason has always been an important part of the ecumenical movement 
  3. That other Christian bodies, now separated from full communion with the Orthodox Church, still retain elements of the True Church of Christ to the degree that they have preserved those aspects of the One Church (e.g., “apostolic succession” and “the patristic tradition”) that Orthodoxy contains in its fullness.  For this reason these bodies can properly be called “churches.” 
  4. Those churches, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which have within them many elements of the True Church of Christ, remain close to Orthodoxy and through dialogue should be brought closer. 
  5. That in its practice the Orthodox, recognizing the ecclesial reality of other Christian bodies and their relationship, though imperfect, to the One Church, should accept any member of these churches seeking full communion with Orthodoxy by chrismation and/or profession of the Orthodox faith, provided they have already received valid Trinitarian baptism.
  6. Edward Siecienski, PhD, is Associate Professor of Religion at Stockton University in New Jersey.

[i] See, for example, the paper of Fr. George Dragas, “The Manner of Reception of Roman Catholic Converts into the Orthodox Church,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 44 [1999]: 235-71.