What the Eastern Orthodox believe about the Church

Master of St. Cecilia (Italian, active about 1290 - 1320)

In reading Timothy Ware’sThe Orthodox Church, I found myself in familiar territory. I am a Byzantium history buff. Ome who cannot quite get himself to read the last book in John Norwich’s three-part historical survey again (great books BTW). Ware is a Bishop in the Eastern Orthodox tradition that has written many books describing its practices for a western audience.

I know how it ends for those poor Byzantines.

Yet, I realize that this puts me in a unique position among westerners because I have some idea about how the declines began… so my position is an informed non-neutrality on two fronts historical and theological.

Now, the Eastern Orthodox are very keen on tradition, and I found Wade no acceptation.

In this short essay, I will critically evaluate Wade’s Ecclesiology in relation to how I understand it fitting into Orthodox theology. I hope to show that the doctrine the Eastern Orthodox Church holds about itself as a “timeless entity” is definitive for Eastern Orthodox practice from what they call theological architecture to the decorative Icons they pray with.

I am not myself convinced this is not bad.

East meets West

Given the cultural divide between us a large part of my task is to strip Wade’s arguments. I do this to make the consequences of his Dogmas intelligible to an uninitiated western audience. Admittedly, such does do violence to nuance.

There are also a few critical breakdowns between Wade’s ecclesiology and the consequences that such beliefs have had in Orthodox practice where such beliefs clash with my own theology. My hope is respect both of our views as best as I can.

That said, I cannot here prime the reader on all the issues in the topic nor handle so much in so little space. So… some treatments will be brief and stereotyped for brevity.

I’ve more than a cursory familiarity with the Eastern Orthodox, having spent some time to trying their “Prayer of the Heart” and Jesus Prayer among other things, so some issues I probably am guilty of streamlining.

Apostolic succession and other common places


Starting from the top, for Ware the Orthodox Church’s practices are valid because of apostolic succession.

This is a belief that every Eastern Orthodox Church’s priest can trace the laying on of hands from their ordination back through time to the apostles themselves (Ware, 27). The Orthodox believes that by means of this “succession” that they have a special “charisma” from Jesus Christ/ the apostles themselves that grants them authority to perform sacramental rites.

In practical terms, they use it to settle theological arguments. However, it is less than effective when the opponent is the Western Catholic Church that makes the same claim. It is hard for there to have two “anointed ones!” Yet, the Eastern Orthodox are the firmer of the two on this issue importance.

Tradition is not past-tense for Eastern Orthodoxy

In Wades work, this eventually combines with a matrix of other beliefs that all seek to highlight unbroken tradition. Eventually one finds that for Ware, the historic church is just as important an expression of the church as much as the current congregations are (Ware, 251). It is within this definition and theme of unbroken tradition and continuity that Ware places all church members as an eternal group-entity within the mystical body of Christ (Ware, 240-1).

Much is familiar here to a Calvinist or other Mainline protestant (and if it’s not you need to study some more!); there is one key difference. Ware is not making an “invisible church” kind of argument. He is placing it on the “visible church” to use protestant terms.

Because Ware is forward-looking but traditionalist, in his treatment of contemporary concerns Ware does not see an urgency that immediately supersedes historical issues, expressions, or concerns. That “past” visible church is just as important as today’s “visible” church. And it’s a slightly confusing timeline even in contrast to similar Roman positions.

Greek Orthodox because of this can’t envision change to the institution

Because the Orthodox is unfamiliar to Western observers, I would like to correlate this focus on tradition to what is observable in the more familiar Roman Catholic Church.

Many heralded Vatican II  as a watershed. Yet, for those in the “know,” we know Trent and Vatican I remain in full effect. They haven’t budged an inch but in their minds ‘clarified’ positions. This is really frustrating to those hoping for ecumenical or reform efforts, and makes most of us suspicious to give Romans a single concession in debates. They haven’t changed at all really, nor will.

Vatican 2
Vatican 2 actually made the pyramid bigger as well

This is because the Roman Church does not see itself as authoritative enough to reverse the old generations of the Church’s decision. Even if times and views have changed, the church cannot. It’s a pipe dream to think one can reform/ reverse its course.

Very often published but not often understood was the strong reaction to Vatican II that came from a belief among the laity that if the church no longer conforms to the past, the current church even if Roman and Papal will lose its validity while the older church remains true.

The Eastern Orthodox have not made such moves; they still think very much like A.D. 700 regarding “divine right of Bishops.”

That’s why they dislike Protestants position on institutions as “ad-hoc”

In contrast to Roman and Eastern Orthodox views, the protestant holf the true church on earth is constituted by the “word and sacrament.” Yet, it’s not self-same with the true church in heaven.

So while we sound a lot like Ware about the eternal nature of the church, it is not the institution we are speaking of. While treasuring the past to varying degrees, Protestants do not validate their own expression of the church by conformity to past expressions nor base their ordinations from institutional continuity.

Far more important for Protestants is a living dialoged facilitated and normalized through scripture with the past. Ideally, Protestants stand as ready to impeach themselves as the past. This frees them while growing the church, reforming the church, and building the church to discontinue traditions or reevaluate positions freely if Scriptural backing can be found.

Weakness that Protestants uniquely face

This does however have the negative side effect of allowing churches great freedom in determining which traditions to scrap and keep, it allows congregations to break communion with denominations or to schism easily, and it makes the contemporary Christian the sole arbitrator of their exegesis. We play very loose and fast with doctrine!

There are in the mainline controls on such trends, and maybe a study of Ware even if we disagree with everything else might inspire us to recapture them from Holy rivalry. But enough about us.

Yet, the Eastern Orthodox make very strong claims about how correct they are

Saint Mark, late 13th century
Saint Mark, late 13th century, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Given the growing emphasis on charismatic Christianity, it is noteworthy that a common thread amongst all three positions is that all three church traditions have recently been reaching for the Holy Spirit to fill in the weaknesses within their position.

The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics with different nuances both affirm that the church magisterially is itself infallible because the Holy Spirit will not allow the councils or theologians to err to its detriment (Ware, 239).

Therefore, the past decisions seen as signed by the Holy Spirit must be right and must be followed.

That is why I feel the Eastern Orthodox is justly termed Dogmatic. Against this, Protestants affirm instead that the Church and its members are fallible, yet still say that the Holy Spirit guides all Christians as they worship, read the scripture, and live their daily lives in a way that leads to salvation… if not academic perfection through sanctification.

An institutionally minded pneumatology

Because the difference in Ecclesiastical function assigned to the Spirit, while a Protestant emphasizes the personal role of the Holy Spirit while the Orthodox focuses on the Dogmatic and Corporate role of the Spirit.

Eastern Orthodox theology holds that the Church is upheld by the Spirit and is given the Spirit as the Church’s gift (Ware, 242). As already mentioned Ware sees the Church as an eternal institution composed of all previous/future members as the “body of Christ.” Wades interpretation is not metaphorical. It is literal, and it appears throughout the entire book that he eventually equates Jesus’ incarnated body and the institutional Church.

It’s a few steps to get there, but they are not unfamiliar: The Greek Orthodox Church stresses that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and as such resides in Christ body. The Church is Christ body. Therefore, they concluded that the Spirit is a gift to the church first and only then to the individual members.

As Wade puts it, “The Church, precisely because it is the Body of Christ, is also the temple and dwelling place of the Spirit…The gift of the spirit is a gift to the Church, but is at the same time a personal Gift” (Wade 242).


It’s the same as Roman views; it’s more overt.

This pneumatology gets complicated to put into our terms by the fact Ware refused to separate the visible and invisible manifestations of the Church. (A Western convention). Instead, he claims that both realities exist within the corporate church (Ware, 245).

Ware sees the living members as a part of Christ body, being connected to the Holy Spirit and thus God. To say the living Institution Church is itself the incarnation of God on earth and thereby rendered infallible is totally acceptable (Ware, 248). So were Rome throws this into the person of the pope as the Vicar, the Eastern Orthodox place it on the entire institution.

I can see why the filoque became an issue.

The Transfiguration Orthodox Art
The Transfiguration; Unknown; Nicaea, Turkey; early 13th century, Courtesy Getty Open Project

It is in this context that the filoque debate makes sense.

The biblical view of the sole mediation of the Christ (1 Timothy 2:5/ Eph. 1:22) makes the “insertion” claims of the Eastern and Western pre-Reformation churches complicated. The biblical teaching is the connection goes Father > Christ > individual believer and the spirit flows “Through the Father and the Son.” Both Churches however have made an insertion where they place the Church as a controller on this process.

Rome which has some idea of the problems with this thinking, still like the Orthodox places its institution as an intermediary. The mechanics of the Roman “insertion” rest on the claim that the Pope stands in for the role of Christ. From there, he can distribute the Spirit/ Grace by means of the sacramental system (the focus of Rome).

In Orthodox thought, the system is similar but runs of the previously discussed ideal that the entire institution stands in for Christ. The Church being “Christ Incarnate” would with a filioque dispense the Spirit/Grace too individuals; the odd circularity of this presentation is that the Holy Spirit, as a group possession, would be mediated by the group members back to themselves.

The problem with the mechanics seems only to be resolvable with the Orthodox Christian’s incarnational claims by making dispensation of the Spirit the Father’s sole prevue.

But this is a quick gloss of a big debate.

The Incarnational idea has other issues if we consider the wider context

Beyond getting bogged in the filoque debate, one must ask if an ecclesiology that so literally translates the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) runs the risk of denying the true humanity of Jesus as a concrete historical individual (Chalcedon). This is especially true of a church institution plagued by monophysitism which denies Chalcedonian Christology. Blending God into humanity is part-and parcel of that heresy.


The Church, as they present it is so identified with the Holy Spirit and to Jesus as an incarnation of their invisible reality, it borders on identifying the Church corporate as a visible manifestation of God itself. There’s no protection of claiming an “invisible Church.” It must be literal. If the humanity of Jesus is suspect, then the separation of his Church from God becomes suspect itself.

I am not sure that charging Ware’s eschatology as one that makes the Church God is inappropriate, especially in the context of Greek Orthodox soteriology.

The different view of Sanctification in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition

Leaf from a Gospel Book or New Testament, about 1325 - 1345, Eastern Orthodox
Leaf from a Gospel Book or New Testament, about 1325 – 1345, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Sanctification/ Justification doctrine in the West loosely defined in terms of an individual being empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And some application of Christ’s grace/merit.

In the Eastern traditions, things are viewed through the lens of Theosis.

Theosis is easiest defined as the belief that a believer’s ‘unity to the Devine’ is increased in absorption in ‘the numinous.’ Basically, they see that a believer “absorbs divinity” through the Church.

I do have some critical questions about it:

Without such a strong “Church equals Jesus’ Body” or without a non-filioque pneumatology, one wonders if the Greek Orthodox view of Theosis would have emerged. Is it itself only a by-product of Orthodox ecclesiology? Or the cause for its current formulation.

Ware does a good job of sensing some immediate complaints.

Immediately apparent to me is the tendency for such a thought structure to mean absorption of individuality. God eventually edges out all humanity in a believer as they “morph.” And in the  Orthodox Christian’s sense that individuality being lost translate into “going along with” the established hierarchy. It’s a tad Roman.

Ware makes many defensive statements against this observation, “Life in the Church does not mean ironing out human variety…” (Ware 243). However, Ware still can’t avoid that the Church as God becomes unable to be wrong, “there can be schism from the Church, but no schisms within the Church.” (Ware, 245). Human variety of institutions, practice, etc. for Ware would affect variety within God.

This is to say, not only does such reiterates corporate identity overrides individuals, but by placing the Holy Spirit/ Christ’s identity within the realm of a corporate position, the Holy Spirit is withheld to all those that do not comply with the corporate opinion.

Moreover, in consequence such a view leads one to think in terms of Ware’s pneumatology, etc. that those that receive the spirit do so only when they comply within the Church and by extension within God.

Wade never counter’s the whole “Church=God” thing, and allows some folks to be more “God” than others

Per Wade’s use of Cyprian, Wade takes the trend I have been highlighting and expands it so the Bishop himself further embodies the church membership which itself embodies Jesus who embodies God (Wade, 249).

Therefore, it can be said that the church universal through the Bishops individually makes the sacraments effective. However, as the Church is Hierarchical none but the Bishop can yield the corporate “power” of the Church in this regard (Wade 248-52).

It can be fairly claimed that orthodox bishops hold that the Holy Spirit has been given foremost to them through their embodiment of the Church which received the Holy Spirit unto itself (Wade 250). Through the sacraments, the Bishops become the force through which the laity can be given or denied fellowship the Holy Spirit. The only softening of the hierarchical overtones is Wade insist this happens in the church not above the church (Wade, 250)

So it’s Rome all over, but there are a lot of Popes instead of one.

Where do Icons fit in?

Icons also play a similar role in the orthodox mind as a way to reach across the barriers of time, for as Wade states, “these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity…” (Wade, 271).

That is why the Orthodox hold they can pray for and ask the dead for prayers.

Russian orthodox Church
royalty free as I know

Yet, the icons have a secondary feature and that is acquisition of the Holy Spirit (Wade 230-2). Because the entire church body they sayto hold the Holy Spirit, venerating the Saints is like receiving sacraments from the faithful allows believers to acquire “more” holy spirit/grace through the saints.


The idea images be banned gets rejected by the Orthodox mind because the Church’s members are in fact at some level “becoming God” through theosis. So an image of the “Church” is an image of God. So why complain about an image of this or that saint.

Eastern Orthodox thought is at least very relational, and has some good points

What should become clear is that in describing Wade’s Ecclesiology the language become stressed as everything is ontologically placed in relationship to something else.


In the Western tradition the tendency was to see the platonic scales of being as an up down ladder of separated beings, while in the true eastern thought the idea was more akin to ‘spheres of being within spheres’ with an overlap analogy.


A side effect of an ecclesiology that blends ontological distinctions is that Radius and Radiation of God’s being in the Eastern Orthodox sense, strikes a balance between the transcendence that is infinitely far and that which is infinitely near. Sometimes even in a way I feel is preferable to the Latin interpretation that typically has only ever highlighted the distance.


In the Liturgy the Greek Orthodox sees various radii of being emitting though out the universe and all the church’s people joining harmoniously with the highest being (God) and through the powers (Angels, etc) down to Saints alive and Dead as celestial music in a heavenly litany (Wade, 264-272).


It is all for the sake of this image that Wade pushes every idea in his book, and I must confess the power of the metaphor under Wade is captivating and such might look very pretty.

Yet, such bleeding ontology causes to many crises

Standing in the western tradition and being reformed on top of that I do not agree with a lot of this. Specifically the ontological blending of Church, Jesus, Spirit, God, and Saint that occurs in Wade’s Ecclesiology is objectionable to me.

I also do not agree with Wade’s attempt to make only out of the collected membership of the Church a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is very clear that individual Christians bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Instead of a mysterious body of Jesus present only in the Sacrament or in the congregations community interrelationship, Jesus is really present wherever two or three are gathered in his name (Matt. 18:20).

Much of Wade’s theology strips individuality by making the delineations between individuals hazy, from a tradition that sees sin as an Alienating force between people and God both.

The Eastern Orthodox church’s problems all flow from this same water faucet

The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus took on a full humanity, one that is just like ours. It did not “bleed” into God-hood with some “circles of analogous being.”

As Gregory of Nazianzus points out, “That which he did not assume he did not save.”

As Wade places this bleeding ontology on top of everything, the Idea of a “me” and a “you” being distinct goes away… so when it comes to Christ… they always end up Monophysite in the Eastern Orthodox and similar traditions (some like Coptic and Ethiopians are openly so).

In my humble opinion, that is why the church instead of dealing with humanity (Justification/Sanctification) simply replaces it. It’s not redemption but removal. And it doesn’t go to the cross very often.

Instead of speaking to the evils in the world, the Orthodox institutions have gone to their little corners to pray.

At 1300 years out from their last major debate, the Orthodox Church might be more united than the West; it has stayed a curiosity because it cannot preach the Gospel.

Which is Christ incarnate in a unique humanity, not that his humanity becomes ours to make a church out of.

That base ideal lead to democracy, freedoms, education, etc. that the West takes for granted. The East is stuck in the ruins of Roman Byzantium’s methods of thought.

Opening the floor

Wade shows that the Orthodox doctrinal paradigm is one in which every doctrine is very interrelated.

For the most part, their doctrines are driven by an Ecclesiology that values tradition and community interrelations.

While many western scholars praise the Orthodox Church for its wide use of Pnuematological terms. Yet I find the vague reference to the Spirit to actually be counterproductive. For such aims at removing emphasis from Jesus’ mediation of the spirit to individual believers, and obscures his true humanity. Monophysit heresy dogs this church for that reason.

The Orthodox sacrifices Jesus as a mediator to gain the spirit as a comforter. In the biblical paradigm is that they could and should experience both.

Now, I would like to invite comments; I do so with the request one considers the brevity needed in this quick review. Major debates on minor points in here should be their own process.

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

You may also like

Leave a Reply