Skip to Navigation

The Thoughts of Metropolitan Philip on Ecclesiology

- edited by Father Joseph Allen, Th.D.

The central biblical theme regarding our Ecclesiology is taken from the first Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 3:9-17:

We are laborers together with God: you are God’s field. You are God’s building. But let every man take heed how he builds; for no other foundation can man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Every man’s work shall be made manifest, for the day shall declare it. For it shall be manifest by fire, and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.

Certainly we do not organize for the sake of organization. We do organize in order to coordinate our efforts, so that our vision and dreams for a Christ-like Church might be fulfilled and realized. The purpose of all our organizations is to grow spiritually in Christ. If we fail to do so, then all our organizations and all our efforts will have been in vain. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be added unto you.”

For many years we have been administering our local parishes under a false dichotomy, under a dangerous and completely un-orthodox dualism. Thus, we have been preaching two kinds of theologies: one for the church upstairs, and one for the hall downstairs. We do not believe in this “upstairs-downstairs” theology. Nor do we believe in the existence of two classes in the parish opposing each other: namely, clergy versus laity. This kind of dualism has caused us many problems.

Some Orthodox clergy do not think that we need organizations and church councils. They think that they can administer the affairs of the parish without help from the laity. Furthermore, they believe that the councils are nothing but an American innovation in our Church and that we do not need them. We completely disagree with this trend of thinking. At the same time, there are some councils who believe that the priest can be hired or fired if he is not perfect. The question now is: what human being is perfect? If you are looking for perfect bishops or perfect priests, you are going to look, and look in vain.

We are very reluctant to transfer priests from one parish to another because someone does not like the way a priest combs his hair. We are very reluctant, also, to transfer a priest from one parish to another because his English (or Arabic) is not perfect. We are further reluctant to transfer a priest from one parish to another because of complaints that he asks questions about the financial affairs of his parish. Priests are appointed and transferred only by the Archbishop, on the basis of whether or not his ministry in this particular parish is still fruitful.

I believe that we have reached a state of spiritual maturity when we can look at the parish as the family of God, one which is bound together by the bond of love, and which works together for God’s glory.

St. Peter, in his first Epistle, chapter 2 verse 9, wrote:

You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that you should show forth the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God, which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

Thus, we are no longer living under the yoke of the law but in the grace and fellowship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There are no masters and slaves in the parish. The parish is the family of God. The priest who listens to your confessions, who leads you in prayers, who distributes to you the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, must be respected as such. At parish meetings, he must be given the place of honor. Councils must listen carefully to his comments and adhere to his recommendations. In his first Epistle to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote, “For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you have not many fathers” (4:15). The priest, then, is a father to his family and not a dictator. He is the teacher of the faith and must share in the administration of the parish. He must teach his children with love, carefulness, and patience. He must understand that the priesthood is a martyrdom for Christ’s sake.

Charity, or Philanthropia, is also critical to our Ecclesiology. In the Didache (an early Christian document), we read the following: “Thou must not refuse the needy but share everything with thy brethren. Say not that this is thy property, for if we enjoy together the eternal blessings it should be the more so with temporal ones.”

St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great were among the outspoken Fathers against social injustice and the monopoly of wealth:

Say not I am spending what is my own, I am enjoying what is my own. No, not your own, but other people’s. Precisely because you make an inhuman use of it and say I have a right for my personal enjoyment that which belongs to me. I maintain that those possessions do not belong to you. They belong together to you and your neighbors, just as sunshine, air, earth and all the rest. (Chrysostom, Homily 10 on Corinthians 1)

To this St. Basil the Great adds:

Who is covetous? He who is not content with what is sufficient. Who is a robber? He who takes away other people’s property. Are you not covetous? Are you not a robber if you make your own that which has been given you in stewardship? He who takes another’s clothing is called a thief, he who does not clothe the naked, although he could do so, deserves no better name. The corn which you store belongs to the hungry; the cloak which you keep in your trunk belongs to the naked; the shoes which are rotting in your house belong to those who go barefoot; the silver you hid in the ground belongs to the needy. (St. Basil, Homily 6:7)

The courage of the early Fathers in speaking against the indifferent and affluent upper class and injustice in society is quite amazing.

Our Ecclesiology must also include the relationship of our faith and our works. To St. James, our faith is not something abstract, nor is it an intellectual adventure, nor can it be reduced to a mere philosophy. In James’ own words, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

To this he quickly adds: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Therefore, if you have faith, translate it into concrete actions on behalf of your neighbor, for a dead faith can save no one.

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, go in peace, be warmed and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14-17).

In his explanation of the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus says, “Because faith without works is dead, likewise works without faith are dead, because true faith is tested through works.” Some Christian denominations, unjustifiably, find contradictions between James and Paul. The Church, however, does not find any such contradictions. It is inconceivable that the emphasis of James on good works excludes faith, and by the same token, it is inconceivable that St. Paul’s emphasis on faith in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 5, excludes good works. James and Paul wrote to two different communities with different needs. Concerning the “faith only” issue, I read and reread St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and discovered, once again, that St. Paul never said that we are saved by faith alone. This is a critical distinction in our Ecclesiology.

St. James was concerned with the dead and legalistic approach to faith, while St. Paul was concerned with the self-righteousness of the Judaizing elements in the early Church. Their basic teaching was that salvation can be achieved through the legal piety of the law. St. Paul emphasized that we win salvation only through Christ and in response to divine grace, apart from the Mosaic Law. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access by faith through grace” (Romans 5: 1,2). There is a fundamental difference between the old law and the grace brought by Christ. “For what the law could not do … God did by sending His own Son” (Romans 8:3).

If we claim that we love God and our neighbor, but fail to translate this love into acts of mercy and compassion, we are living a false faith, a dead faith, and our Ecclesiology is left empty.

There were other Fathers who later taught this message. For example, St. Clement of Alexandria said… “When you see your brother you see God.” Likewise, Evagrius taught: “After God, we must count all men as God Himself.” Paul Evdokimov adds: “The best icon of God is man.”

St. Anthony the Great put it this way: “From our neighbor is life, and from our neighbor is death. Therefore, if we win our neighbor, we win God, but if we harm our neighbor, we sin against Christ.”

More profoundly, St. Basil the Great expands on this theme even more graphically, when he asks:

If I live alone, whose feet will I wash? What scope will a man have for showing humility if he has no one before whom to show himself humble? What chance of showing compassion, when cut off from the fellowship of other men? The Lord washed the disciples’ feet. Whose feet will you wash?

I would like to reemphasize here that the purpose of all these quotations from the Fathers is not to impress on you that we are saved by good works alone. If good works are not a genuine response to the divine grace and an expression of our deep faith in Christ Jesus, then such good works are to no avail.

Professor John Karmiris can summarize this issue for our clear understanding of Orthodox Ecclesiology. He writes:

Generally, then, we can say that man’s justification and salvation is first and foremost an action and a gift of the divine grace; secondly, it is by the intention and free cooperation of man in the form of concrete faith and good works. While, to the contrary, a fall from faith and good works entails a fall from Divine Grace.

Our Orthodox Ecclesiology, then, entails the fullness of the Body of Christ, which means both the clergy and laity in a healthy dynamic, and then, together, fulfilling the ministry of that Body through common faith and philanthropic work.