Caveat: As has been all-too-apparent from my previous postings, I am pretty unsophisticated in ecclesiology. I know that it’s important, and I’m trying to get my mind around the issues. But I have a long way to go: I am a Lutheran, after all, as we Lutherans are not notable for our contributions to a theology of the Church. Nevertheless, with an attitude of “fools rush in,” I offer these remarks.
In a touching and thought-provoking essay (here), Fr. Stephen, at “Glory to God for All Things,” has written about his preference for calling the Orthodox Church the “fullness “ of the Christian faith over asserting that it is “the one, true Church.” Of course, it’s not that he doesn’t believe that his Church is “the one, true.” But, as he says:
I believe it is the one, true Church, but how I understand that as an Orthodox Christian is quite different from how such a statement might be understood by a non-Orthodox Christian. Thus, I prefer the term “fullness.” It says the same thing (in a way) but also says it in a way that allows someone to ask questions and not just have an argument. The Scriptures (Eph. 1:23) describe the Church as “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Thus it is a Scriptural description of the Church.
He goes on to describe what “fullness” means to him. And I find that I resonate to his preference for usage and to his description of “fullness.” I think he’s correct that, e.g., we Lutherans experience an urgent desire to post some theses when we hear the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church assert that the RCC is “the one, true Church” and when he, even in the most ecumenical of statements, points out the ecclesial deficiencies of other bodies which claim the name “Church.” So, to my eye, “fullness” avoids much of the surface reason to raise hackles. Openness to questions, rather than a fighting stance, is a churchly posture (despite the Lutheran willingness to “take arms against a sea of [theological] troubles and by opposing, end them” – with apologies to The Bard).
But it is precisely because the term “fullness” biblically expresses “all we are meant to be” that I take issue with his or any Christian’s ascription of the term “fullness” to his or her Christian tradition, denomination, or congregation. I suppose part of my objection roots in my Lutheranism – and here, I hope, Brother Paul takes heart (for he fears, at times, that I strain against the boundaries of Lutheran understandings). We confess that all that is necessary to know to identify the Church is that the Gospel is preached there (“in its purity”) and the sacraments are ministered in a way congruent with the gospel. My reading of Lutheran theology suggests that we’ve been a lot better is saying what that does not mean than unpacking what it does. But I digress.
Part of my objection, however, also roots in a hard-headed ecumenical stance that I commend to every Christian: Because the oneness of the Church (which we Christians confess in the Creed is a reality) is too close to a gnostic dream (i.e., true in some deep spiritual reality, but far from true as far as “facts on the ground” are concerned), I deny that Orthodoxy or any Lutheran tradition or the Roman Catholic communion or any other can rightly claim “fullness.” We may claim that adjective or noun only were we to be working our uttermost to reconcile in deep, committed, formal, and Eucharistic fellowship with all other Christians – and (here I’m tentative) maybe not even then, until we have reached a state of such fellowship). The moment any tradition claims that “we are the one, true and you are welcome to join us on our terms,” we have lost fullness and substituted something else, something less.
Now, know that I confess the oneness of the Church as it is mandated by the Creed, and I do not do so in some kind of precatory or hope-filled or Gnostic way only. But that confession is also judgment on the ways the Churches have of denying their oneness on grounds of theological terminology, ethnic or national genetics, structural arrangements, or what have you.
And by these comments, I do not mean to buy into the whole “throw open the doors” approach to Eucharistic fellowship (which, lamentably, seems to be the ELCA’s posture). There are some things worth Eucharistic fasting over. (“Eucharistic fasting” is one of my polite terms for “close” or “closed” communion.) But so long as there are such issues (and I admit the dilemma inherent to my arguments here), the fullness of the Church rests in none of its incarnations.
The Church is the Body of Christ – literally, metaphorically, spiritually, economically, and all the rest. But it is a bruised and battered body – no more the “fullness” of God’s intentions for her than was the dead body of Jesus the fullness of God's intentions for him: Jesus' body -- even dead -- was most assuredly the divine-and-human Christ as confessed in Article II, but that body was not all that Jesus Christ was or was meant to be. Not until God worked the Resurrection and Ascension can we speak of the “fullness” of the Christ in the sense that Fr. Stephen wants to speak of the “fullness” of the Church, even in these "in-between times" – or so, at least it seems to me. (See: My Christology is as weak as my ecclesiology.)
I don’t have alternative terminology to suggest: What I ask, however, is terminology that preserves the dialectical tension, the eschatological sense that inheres in such pairs as “already/not yet” and “simul justus et peccator.” The mixedness of the Church's reality requires that at this time.