Protestant Christians normally see the Church as comprised of individuals–all the individuals who are Christians add up to this thing called the Body of Christ. Protestants necessarily deny that any one group of Chrisitans can claim to be the one Church. “Churchiness” if you will does not extend to congregations or denominations except by way of the individual Christians in those congregations or denominations–if it does at all. In other words, for Protestant Christians, the Church is coterminus with individual Christians.
And, to be fair, when one looks at the New Testament there is no other option presented: If one were a Christian one necessarily was a member of the Church. The two realities were (and are) one act of salvation. In the New Testament there is no talk of a visible versus an invisible Church. One did not speak of spiritual unity over against visible divisions. There was no program to make the Church visibly unified so that the world could be evangelized. In the New Testament there was no ecumenism or ecumenical bodies like the World Council of Churches. In the New Testament, the Church’s visible unity and its spiritual or divine foundation of Trinitarian unity were bound together.
But Satan sowed discord. And the ecclesial situation 2000 years later does not resemble the New Testament very much. There are now thousands upon thousands of Protestant schisms. And if Protestants are going to claim to be part of the New Testament Church, they are going to have to significantly alter the simple New Testament ecclesiology. So now we have talk of a visible unity over against a spiritual unity. We have the invisible Church which is the true Church. And none of this, ironically, is New Testament ecclesiology.
So (he says after that long windup) to say that the one true Church is by definition the Orthodox Church is to say that Protestants and Roman Catholics are not visibly part of the Church. And for Protestants especially, that’s the equivalent of saying they’re not Christians.
In light of the modern situation of innumerable schisms among various Christian bodies, the Orthodox, as I understand it–and any time I use the phrase “as I understand it” check with your local Orthodox parish priest–have affirmed that the nature of the Church has been dogmatized but not the situation of those who come to faith in Christ outside the visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Thus, while Protestants are not, according to the Orthodox, visibly part of the one Church of God, it is not the case, according to Orthodox, that Protestants are not going to be saved. (Indeed, neither is it the case that all Orthodox will be saved. Sadly, some will be damned.)
So, after yet more long winding up I come to the point of this post–or rather the question with which I’ve often been confronted by interlocutors:
If it is possible to be saved outside the visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church, then why become Orthodox?
It’s a fair question and a good one. From Protestant evangelical eyes, if one is going to be saved without having to become Orthodox, then, really, what sort of urgency is there? It would be different if one came to believe one’s own salvation was predicated upon becoming Orthodox specifically. By all means, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! But if no real salvific crisis hinges upon becoming Orthodox, isn’t it then just simply a matter of pragmatics and preferences? If A will get you to C by its own, why go by way of B?
And this is a fairly typical Protestant minimalism, with functionality at the forefront.
But . . .
Let’s look at it from a different perspective. Let’s look at it from the standpoint of marriage. If doing A means that my marriage will be good and that my spouse and I will not get a divorce, wouldn’t that be good enough? But if doing B in addition to doing A means that my marriage will be great and that far from getting a divorce, my relationship with my spouse will be such that it inspires, encourages and builds up other couples and ensures healthy development of our children, and so on, would anyone balk at saying one should do both A and B?
Now, let’s look at that Protestant question about becoming Orthodox again, this time translated into our marriage hypothesis.
If doing A gets me to C (good marriage, no divorce), why add B (great marriage, inspires, encourages, edifies others, results in well-developed children)?
Does it really make sense to ask that question now?
For those of us Protestants who are on the way to Orthodoxy, this is what that Protestant question looks like. I know I’m one of those seemingly genetically wired to look at the arguments for Orthodoxy, and to go with the facts and the Truth. And I do not want to deny the importance of the truth of the Orthodox claims. But I am also trying to make sense for my Protestant friends and readers why anyone would be willing to do such a strange thing as become Orthodox and bring his family with him if he can? Especially if it’s possible to attain the goal without all the extras.
Doing A is minimalism, functionalism. Focus on my individual relationship with Jesus. Study the Bible, stick with Bible-oriented preaching and teaching. No sacraments. No liturgy. No spiritual disciplines.
Sure one gets saved, but it’s like munching on a rice cake (without any added flavorings).
Doing B is all that A is plus sacraments, liturgy, the disciplines, saints’ days and feast days, the union of soul and body in salvation, a Church with a biography that goes all the way back.
One gets saved, and one feasts on the tastiest of steaks (or for you herbivores, the best spinach lasagna ever).
Because for some of us, being a Christian isn’t just about getting saved or getting by. We want a faith that is full and rich and has all the bells and smoke and history and romance and tragedy and adventure. For some of us, greedy spiritual beggars that we are, we want it all.