[Please note: The following are personal musings and not to be construed as *the* Orthodox understanding. If anything here contradicts the received teaching and way of life of the (Orthodox) Church, please correct me. As always: check with your priest or spiritual father.]
The Church Is Holy
In the Creed we confess our belief in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” in the same way that we confess our belief “in one God the Father Almighty,” “in one Lord Jesus Christ,” and “in the Holy Spirit the Lord, and Giver of life.” But my good friend Tripp has asked me several times, how is it that the Church does not sin when those who are members of the Church do, indeed, sin?
While it is tempting to respond by saying: We believe the Church is holy, that She does not sin. What else is there to say?–I rather suppose I owe my friend a bit more than that.
It must first be remembered that the Church is a theandric institution, at once both human and divine. The Church is Christ’s Body, and just as the communication of the divine and human in the Person of Christ was, as Chalcedon affirms, “without change, separation, confusion or division,” so, too, the union of the human and the divine in the Church is not some hybrid different in kind than either the divine or the human, yet is not separable in that either can be considered (as the Church) apart from one another or delineable into a human part here or a divine part there, nor does not the union alter either the divine or human natures. And if this be true, then if Christ the head be holy and sinless, so, too, must His Body be holy and sinless.
Yet, Christians sin. And if being Christian is only possible insofar as one is a member of the Church, then how is it that the Church is not in sin when the members are?
If I may say so, first of all, the question betrays the failure of perspective. When viewed from the vantage point of human sinfulness it is almost axiomatic to suppose that we would bring our sins into the Church, infecting it from within. But this is a view of the Church that fails, significantly, to take into account the divine nature of the Church. The Church was not adopted by God. He did not wait for the right human society to flower and then take that group under his wing. This is the adoptionist Christological heresy applied to the Church. No, God himself built the Church on those whom He himself called (prophets and apostles), with His Son being the Head that gives the Church its very life. The Church is holy, therefore, not because humans do holy things more or less consistently, but because Christ Himself is Holy.
This failure of perspective must be corrected by viewing the Church from its source in Christ. Indeed, the Church participates in the holiness of the Trinity in that God calls the Church into being, through the life and work of His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is wholly indwelt by the Trinity–it is the house of God (1 Timothy 3:15), where God lives–and therefore is holy, for otherwise God could not indwell the Church (cf. Hebrews 12:14). In Christ the fullness of God dwelt bodily, says St. Paul, and the Church is complete in Him (Colossians 2:9-10). God is greater than human sin, and his holiness drives out our corruption.
That is to say, salvation according to the Christian faith is that union with God which divinizes human nature. But that deification happens only in and through the Church. Like Christ, the Church’s humanity is deified through the communication with the divine that God accomplishes in uniting human nature with Himself in Christ. Just as Christ’s human nature was deified from the moment of conception, so, too, is the human nature of the Church deified and made holy from its inception. Just as in Christ there was no sin to be found, nor did he ever sin, so, too, in the Church there is no sin to be found, nor does she sin. Like Christ, the human nature of the Church is deified by communion with the divine, which is Christ Himself, Her Head.
However, we must make an important and fundamental distinction between human nature and our own personal mode of existence. That is to say, human nature is not replaced but restored by way of our incorporation into the Church. Our personal mode of existence, however, has been in bondage to sin, through a human nature that has been corrupted in the Fall. When human nature is brought into union with God, and therefore deified, we are made free from our bondage to sin and our personal mode of existence–where we exercise our will, or one might say, what use we make of our human nature–must be brought into conformity with God’s transfiguration of human nature. And it is precisely our union with the Church that brings about our sanctification. We are saved not as individuals and then incorporated into Christ’s Body, rather we are saved through the divine energies manifested in Christ’s Body. Because the Church is completely holy, Her individual members, who are brought into union with Christ and therefore with the Trinity by way of incorporation into the Church, are made holy by being the Church. What must happen on the personal level, then, is for the personal mode of existence to be united with deified humanity. This is done by way of repentance and the Mysteries of the Church.
So, when members sin, they are not, as it were, legal representatives of the Church, whose sin and guilt are then reckoned to the Church. Rather, they are engaging in actions which are wholly their own moral responsibility by way of their personal mode of existence. These sinful acts, which are not of the Church, orient them away from the Life of Christ in the Church. Since deification is an organic process, however, and not a fundamentally juridical one, each sin act does not necessarily completely sever members from the Church, with a requisite and proportionate act of repentance necessary to restore them to the Church (though of course such a sin is possible; cf. 1 John 5:16-17). One does not, as it were, jump in and out of salvation. But sin acts left unrepented do lead toward a disposition in one’s personal mode of existence that can, ultimately, sever one from the Church, and therefore from salvation.
So it is that the Church can be completely holy and without stain, and yet Her members commit personal sin.