This post was born out of a question posed to me by a friend. The question is: Are other Christians truly Christian, and what does the Orthodox Church say? In other words, according to Orthodoxy does a person have to become Orthodox in order to be saved? As with my previous post regarding Orthodoxy, I must plead a general ignorance to the topic. My writing is a personal project of exploration. I welcome feedback.
Before I try to give my rather uneducated answer I want to say something about beliefs. None of us hold our beliefs lightly, though we may think we do. It is common for us to say things like, “What’s right for you is right for you,” etc. But we know that can be merely a form of quasi-good manners, a kind of “get along” attitude that keeps us out of trouble at a surface level. As Christians we know that we give in to relativism to our peril and yet, for any number of reasons, we often accept Christians as Christians whether they be Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, or non-denominational evangelical, or anything else (with a few exceptions of course). I sense this is a somewhat historically newish position–at least for Protestants.
As a boy I was given a strong sense of the dividing lines between my tradition, which was Baptist, and other traditions. All others were looked at skeptically and we essentially had nothing to do with them. Ecumenism was mostly absent from the Baptist community I was part of. The the fact that other Protestant denominations were more ecumenical indicated a potential turning from God or letting in the “leaven” of the world, and why would we want to court danger? Another example: I grew up being taught that it was possible some Catholics could be truly Christian, though most clearly weren’t, and so on. Of course I did not actually know any Catholics; my family and I had adopted the typical Baptist fundamentalist position of separation. That was how I was trained.
In short, I believed my tradition was right, that I was saved, that other “Christians” were either not saved or were nominal Christians. I saw them as being good candidates for God’s grace–something I did not need so much of (or any) because I had picked the right version of Christianity. That was how I was trained. And it can get really bad as Christians start staking doctrinal positions and then using those positions to condemn other Christians. You can see this in the comments sections of many so-called Christian blogs where the vitriol flies so thick in the name of God that one wonders if the commenters are really just a bunch of demons having some fun.
But now, from what I can gather, that Baptist church in which I was raised is much more ecumenical and broad-minded (as is much of American Christian culture). I believe that is generally a good thing. Even so, our beliefs are often more dogmatic, more down the line, even more divisive than we admit, or are capable of admitting. The fact is, we really do not think something is only true for you or him or her. If we believe something is true we believe it is universally true. If you step in front of a moving bus you will get run over. That is true for everyone. If God exists then He exists no matter if every person on earth becomes an atheist. If it’s true it’s true. If you believe in limited atonement then you believe it is universally true, not just for you. And for each of us, in our minds and hearts and souls, if we believe something is true then we cannot also believe it’s untrue. We know at a fundamental and deep level that something cannot be both true or untrue simultaneously, though we may say otherwise in casual conversation. This can get tricky when it comes to which “expression” of Christianity one ascribes to. If one is truly (unwaveringly) Roman Catholic then one must believe that the Roman Catholic church is the most Christian (I do not know how else to put it) church one can join and all the others are either somewhat wrong or mostly wrong or all wrong; the same goes if one is truly Baptist or truly Anglican or whatever. It is even truly if we attend a small, non-denominational, easy-going evangelical community kind of church. At some level we say this is right and those others are, at least, a little less right, a little more skewed in their understanding, a little less free in their faith, or a little less Godly. We adopt the habit of good manners in order to avoid conflict and let people have their space, but we don’t really think the Church we go to is wrong and theirs is right–unless we don’t care, but that’s another, and maybe more serious, issue–and maybe it’s a less serious issue.
This is all to say I expect anyone who claims to represent a particular tradition will assume and adopt the position that their tradition is best. The question then becomes what about those other traditions? And what about the individual believer? My limited experience tells me the Orthodox Christian believes his church is the true Church, that it is the church closest to The Way of Christ, and that if one wants to participate most fully in the life of the Church then one must become Orthodox. So what, then, about those other Christians?
What does Orthodoxy say?
I am not a member of the Orthodox Church–though I am willing to go where God leads though I do not know the destination. In other words, as of now I am still an American-individualist, Protestant-trained, former-Baptist, quasi-Calvinist, non-denominational, existentialist-Christian who is fascinated with Orthodoxy because it has become an interesting and fresh wind in both my thinking and in my soul for many reasons, though I still gaze from the outside. My relationship to Orthodoxy raises a big question: From an Orthodox perspective can I (or anyone) still be saved if I am not Orthodox? In other words, what about all the non-Orthodox Christians like me? Are they saved, are they going to Heaven, will they be in the Kingdom of God, are they being sanctified, are they even really Christian?
From what I can gather, the short (Orthodox) answer is yes, other Christians can be “just as saved” as Orthodox Christians.
The longer Orthodox answer is more involved and nuanced. Let’s take a look at some evidences from within Orthodoxy. Here are three sources: Orthodoxy and Heterdoxy by The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick (2011), The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware (1997), and The Orthodox Church in America web site.
Here is Fr. Damick:
It is part of the fundamental character of Orthodox theology that we do not theologize outside the Church. That is, although we have very detailed theology of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian, we have absolutely no theology about what it means not to be one. God has never told us the spiritual status of the non-Orthodox, except in only the most general terms which cannot be reliably applied to particular people. You can’t find it in the Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers, or in the divine services. All we have been given is the Way.
From this, we can look at a given doctrine or practice and say, “That is not the Way.” But we cannot say, “All of you who have embraced that heresy are therefore forever damned.” We don’t know that. (Damick, p.15)
From this we can see the focus of Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy. It is a cautionary statement, one that warns the Orthodox reader to recognize the borders, maybe even the limitations of Orthodox theology, in relation to the non-Orthodox. In other words, if someone claims that a person is un-saved or un-Christian or damned because they are not a member of the Orthodox Church, that claim is going beyond the support of the Orthodox Church. This does not mean the claim is false per se, but that the Orthodox Church cannot itself make that claim. Damick’s statement is more a warning to Orthodox Christians to be careful before he then goes on to lay out his examination of Orthodoxy and heterodoxy. For someone in my position his statement tells me that, while I know he is claiming the Orthodox Church to be the Church, the Orthodox Church is not condemning me to damnation just because I am not a member of the Orthodox Church. I also take his position to represent the Orthodox Church, which I think is fair given his careful study of Orthodoxy and the history of Christianity, and his status as an Orthodox Christian parish priest. Still, I am not taking his statement as an “out” for me. I still face the question of whether I should become Orthodox.
Here is Bishop Ware:
Orthodoxy […] teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation. This belief has the same basis as the Orthodox belief in the unbreakable unity of the Church: it follows from the close relation between God and His Church. “A person cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother.” So wrote St Cyprian; and to him this seemed an evident truth, because he could not think of God and the Church apart from one another. God is salvation, and God’s saving power is mediated to humans in His Body, the Church. “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.” Does it follow that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” While there is no division between a “visible” and and “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say. (Ware, pp. 247-248)
Bishop Ware makes a similar argument as Fr. Damick, whether someone outside the Orthodox Church is truly a Christian is something the Orthodox Church cannot say. In fact, he goes further and says that even someone visibly part of the Church is not necessarily saved. The implication of this is that mere membership in the Orthodox Church is not enough to be saved, and being outside the Church is not de facto evidence of being damned, but that all is in God’s hands and we are not privy to know all that God knows. Therefore no Orthodox Christian can claim that because he is a member of the Orthodox Church he is automatically saved (or will be saved), nor can he claim that all who are outside the Church are damned. He goes even further by quoting Augustine in saying that there are true believers outside the church. In that sense it is not merely that the Orthodox Church cannot claim someone outside is either saved or damned, but that it must be true, according to Augustine, that many outside are saved and many inside are damned. Again, I am not taking his statement as an “out” for me. I still face the question of whether I should become Orthodox. And there is still that statement that outside the Church there is no salvation. From what I can understand, Ware is saying that anyone whom God will save is a member of the Church, though some not yet visibly.
I heard once an Orthodox Christian say about a relative of his who had died having been a Protestant and never Orthodox, that the relative is “Orthodox now” meaning that they were Christian, died and gone to be with God, and in the afterlife must necessarily become fully Orthodox. Of course I have not idea if this really happened, but I like the basic idea. Certainly God can do what He wants.
Here is the Q&A section of the Orthodox Church in America web site [I have made portions of the text bold to call them out]:
You talk as if only the Orthodox who believe these things can be saved. What about other Christians and all other men in the world?
In the first place it must be made clear that it is not enough for anyone merely to believe these things, or merely to be a formal member of the Church. In order to be saved one must live by the truth and love of God.
It is the common teaching of the Orthodox Christian tradition that the Church has no monopoly on grace and truth and love. The Church teaches on the contrary that God is the Sovereign Lord who saves those whom He wills.
The Church believes as well that salvation depends upon the actual life of the person, and God alone is capable of judging since He alone knows the secrets of each mind and heart. Only God is capable of judging how well a man lives according to the measure of grace, faith, understanding, and strength given to him.
The Orthodox would insist, nevertheless, that an honest seeker of truth and love will see these things perfectly realized and expressed in Jesus Christ and will recognize God, the end of their seeking, in Him.
We all know, however, that our image of Christ is deformed both by the lives and the doctrines of those who claim him, and thus His truth and love and His very person remain obscure and hidden to those who might follow Him if they could see Him clearly.
But once again, let it be clear that every man is judged by God alone according to the actual truth and love in his life. This goes for Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. And although the Orthodox confess that the fulness of truth and love is found in the life of the church, nominal church membership or formal assent to some doctrines does not at all guarantee salvation.
Again we have an emphasis on God saving whom He wants regardless of official membership in the Orthodox Church. We also see that the focus of the believer is Christ through Whom he comes to know God. I see this statement above as saying that before we talk about being Orthodox let’s talk about seeking truth, following Christ, and knowing God. That is where we begin and end. An Orthodox will claim that the Orthodox Church plays a huge, maybe a primary, role in all this, but it is first one’s relationship to truth, Christ, and God. And once again, I am not taking his statement as an “out” for me. I still face the question of whether I should become Orthodox or not.
Work it out
Finally I want to mention an interesting distinction between the particular Protestantism with which I am familiar and the small corner of Orthodoxy that I have witnessed. For many Protestants and/or reformed-minded individuals, salvation is spoken of as a kind of singular event. One “gives one’s testimony” in the form of a story about that moment when one became “saved.” It is not uncommon to hear the question, “When were you saved?” Salvation comes from making a “decision for Christ” or some such similar idea. It is both a specific point in one’s history (“I was saved on July 17th, 1993,” etc.) and it is a mental assent to specific beliefs or doctrines (that’s when I “believed” etc.). It may be very emotional, it may be very personally profound, but it is still an “at that moment I believed” event. Sanctification, or the process of becoming more like Christ over time, is still considered very important by many Protestants, but it is often a secondary concern, or after-effect, in the economy of salvation, and even for some it has no real part in that economy. However, what little I have observed from Orthodoxy shows me that, though one may be able to point to a significant conversion event in one’s life, salvation is not a past event but a future we hope for. In fact, even the devout Orthodox, even an Orthodox priest no less, will openly say, “I hope and pray that God will save me.” There may be confidence at one level, but there is also a recognition that salvation is fully in God’s hands until the end and it has not yet happened. We cannot know whom God will save, including ourselves. We should not presume to know the mind of God, but we should trust God and seek to be like Christ. For the Orthodox sanctification, from what I can tell, is absolutely central to salvation, not merely in a logical sense, but that one pursues the Christian life in order to be saved while also knowing it is God who saves. It is taking fully to heart St. Paul’s words: “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” For many Protestants, myself included, the idea of “working out one’s salvation” sounds wrong, but there it is.
Some tentative conclusions
This is an altogether too short and too limited examination of the topic at hand. I have only scratched the surface, and I have only looked from one angle. My approach is to (hesitatingly) examine if the Orthodox Church does or might accept a non-Orthodox Christian as being truly a Christian. What I have found is that the Orthodox Church, which for so many centuries fought tooth and nail against heterodoxy, and while still believing the Orthodox Church is most fully and completely the Church of Christ founded by the Apostles, nonetheless is very open and accepting of the idea that the non-Orthodox can just as much be in God’s hands as the Orthodox. This is not only more Biblical in my understanding, but stands in contradistinction to much (though not all) of Protestantism which has tended to display its insecurities through a rather heavy-handed dogmatism and doctrinal hair-splitting.
In fact, what has surprised me is an interesting balance within Orthodoxy where doctrine is held very high, along with knowing where Orthodoxy differs from other forms of Christianity, and yet there is also a fundamental spirit of openness around the idea that every one of us is on a journey and in the hands of God. What I have seen in Protestantism is one or the other, either a high view of doctrine combined with a lack of an ecumenical spirit, or a low view of doctrine so that one can just enjoy a more social and friendly kind of church community without those pesky doctrinal hangups.
For the Orthodox concerned for their non-Orthodox relatives and friends there is some comfort and some additional concerns. First, the fact that someone is not Orthodox does not automatically mean they are not or will not be saved. Their salvation is ultimately in God’s hands and all the Orthodox individual can do is pray and love and place their trust in God. On the other hand, the Orthodox concerned for their non-Orthodox relatives or friends must also face the fact that just because they themselves are Orthodox does not mean they have a carte blanche into the Kingdom of God. They still need to pray and love and place their trust in God. And then, in the end, it is still up to God.
For me this perspective coincides with my own understanding of the Christian life. Regardless of what church I attend, in the end I too must place my trust in God. He is my creator and the sustainer of my life. Only in Him do I have a future. Only in Him can I find salvation. On the other hand, I know God is the maker of mankind, of history, of institutions, of geography, of the mind and body of man, even of his needs. It makes sense that Christ would create His Church with man in mind, not merely man’s psychology in view, but man’s whole experience, including his needs, his desires, his language, and everything else that makes man man. With that in view I must still face the question that while I seek to pray and love and place my trust in God, and while I know that ultimately it is all in God’s hands, I must also ask what is this thing called the Church and what is, or should be, my relationship to it? For me that is still an open and pressing question.
Postscript: One resource that looks promising on this topic, but which I did not consult, is the book The Non-Orthodox: The Orthodox Teaching on Christians Outside of the Church by Patrick Barnes, available as a free download here.