Professor A. I. Osipov on what the Church is, and what it means to be a true Christian
Everyone knows the words, “There is no salvation without the Church.” But what do these words mean? Just what is the Church? And who is a true Christian? Well, I go to church regularly, I confess, receive Communion… Is this all I need to become a member of the Church and be saved? Professor of the Moscow Theological Academy and theologian Alexei Ilyich Osipov discusses this theme in his video essay.
In talking about the Church, we have to note right away that it has an external side and an internal side. It is like every person: his body, even his intellect and psyche are one thing, while the state of his soul is another. And the Church is, on one side, a community of people who believe the same way—naturally, the Christian way, having the same teaching, the same life discipline, canons, Sacraments, and foundations and principles of spiritual life… It is the external side that represents, in the final analysis, the organization called the Church. This organization has its own structure and hierarchy. This is all the external side.
Who are the members of the Church in this external manifestation of it? Each person who has been baptized. Are you baptized? You are already a member of the Church. Alas, few actually think about baptism, about what it can be. In fact no one thinks about it! The main thing is whether you are baptized or not. This is, I repeat, the external side of the Church. But in this sphere, I stress: in precisely this sphere and not in a different one there exists a spiritual organism, filled only with those believing Christians who strive to live according to the Gospels. All of these Christians who are striving to live according to the Gospels are united by the Holy Spirit, in Whom they live. They are the ones who comprise, express, and materialize the very Church in and of itself.
We often say, “the Sea of life.” And our life really is a sea, in which a multitude of passions and all manner of strife roil. This image aptly shows that the Church is the place where a person can find the appropriate means for his salvation, so that he can cross this sea of life. These means are in the Church. After all, what are the Sacraments that can be received only in the Church? They are those very means that help a person to be saved. Although, as we know, many have been saved without the Sacraments—a host of martyrs, and the thief hanging on the cross to the right of the Savior, never received a single Sacrament. But Christ Himself said, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you (Jn. 6:53). But the first to enter paradise was that thief. The Lord said to him, Today thou shall be with me in paradise (Lk. 23:43). This is an example of how carefully we have to relate to words and always take them in the proper context, and not tear separate phrases out of their context and base assertions on them!
Thus, the Church is that institution, if you will, where a person can find the best possible means for salvation.
All different means might be found for any work. For example: we need to get from Vladivostok to Moscow. It can be done on foot. I know one monk (true, he wasn’t a monk at the time) who did it—there is nothing amazing about it. It can be done by car, by train, or by airplane… There are always many different means. The Church offers the most optimal, best means!
What are these means? First of all, they are of course a righteous life in Christ. If there is no righteous life in Christ then everything else has no meaning whatsoever, be you a doctor of theology, a patriarch, or anything else—without this salvation is impossible. Where can we find knowledge about the basics of spiritual life? In the Church. The Church, even the external Church, gives a person the opportunity to learn of the Church’s teachings—that is, what to believe in and how.
When is the Church the Church?
People ask, “How and by what criteria can we determine what the Church is? Are the Baptist, or Catholic Churches, Churches, or not?” There are several criteria, and of course, the first is the patristic understanding of Holy Scripture. Earlier I recalled Christ’s words about the thief and about Communion. How do they come in? We are guided by the patristic understanding of Holy Scripture. The Protestants insist, “Sola Scriptura!” We say, “No! The true understanding of Scripture can be found only in the holy fathers, who were enlightened by the Spirit of God—the same Spirit by which the Gospels themselves were written.”
Thus, the first thing is an understanding of Holy Scripture. The second is an understanding of the very truths of the faith—again, based on the holy fathers. The third is an understanding of spiritual life—again, based on the holy fathers. Do not be surprised at my emphasis; we can see what Western Christianity has come to since its departure from patristic teaching.
Take, for example, only one such case: “God has bestowed inerrancy in announcing matters of faith and life upon the Roman pope, and when he speaks ex cathedra, he is infallible.” I am paraphrasing the dogma that was accepted unofficially long ago, but officially in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. Moreover it is stated there, “with the same infallibility that He bestowed upon His Church.” When the Lord gave that to His Church, we know. But when did He give it to one person? When? And Where?
Christ gave all the apostles the authority to bind and lose sins. More than that, in Revelations Christ names to the apostle John these twelve rocks upon which the Church is built—that is, the twelve apostles. And most importantly: the stone not cut by human hands, upon which the Church stands, is Christ Himself and not some man. A man cannot be such a rock.
I recalled the dogma about the pope’s infallibility as an example of what the Catholics have come to. And what is there to be said about the West now? Only remember what is happening there around homosexuals! For now only the Protestants, one community after another, have accepted them. But now Pope Francis has published a book, “300 and something questions,” (someone called me and told me about it, I haven’t read it myself) in which he addresses the homosexuals: “Wait a little, have patience…” He says outright to them that they will soon be accepted. These are the kind of tendencies that exist in the Catholic Church. There are very many such tendencies. Take at least this one. Christ says, But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth (Mt. 6:3). A virtue that someone exposes to others is no longer a virtue. So what does the pope do? In front of television cameras he washes the feet of juvenile prisoners and refugees, he takes these twelve refugees with him… This is phariseeism taken to the highest degree! Is this the Gospel? No. The holy fathers? No. Then what is it? Yes, it is the Gospel; only it’s from the passage about the Pharisees.
On the essence of humility
The resolve to live according to the Gospel is humility. But we have forgotten the ascetical understanding of humility. So, I have resolved to live according to the Gospel, I accept Christianity, Christ; I see that this is really the Truth, that the Gospel is the path of life and I have accepted it. And if I have accepted it then how must I live? I should not deceive, not judge, not be wrathful, not envy… But what is going on with me? I know that I want to live that way, but I see how I stumble. I thought now that I’ve decided upon it I’m a saint. But as it turns out, it’s not so simple. I sit down to table already satiated, but I overeat anyway. I drink a shot, or two; but no, I have to have twenty-two. Where does humility come from? What is humility? It is this knowledge that I am spiritually incapable of becoming the ideal that I myself have chosen—not to envy, judge, or hate… This then is what humility is: the awareness and knowledge of my own damaged state, my sinfulness, my inability to become what I should be. And I am convinced of this only once I’ve made the decision to live that way. Until I have made that decision I feel pretty good.
Non-churchgoing people place emphasis on the word, “slave”, which the Church really does use continually—“slave of God”. And they understand humility as slavery, submission, oppression, passivity, the absence of all activeness, and so on. Who is to blame for this? We are—the teachers and clergy. Because we do not explain what humility is. More than that, when we say, “humble yourself”, we are calling on the person to stop doing or saying one thing or another.
But we have to explain what the word “humility” means, what the expression “slave of God” means! I am a slave of sin when I do what I know is evil, but do it anyway. I am now a slave to it. That I am a slave of God means that I have chosen sanctity, honesty, nobility, and love as my ideal; these great ideals are the meaning of my whole life, and I do not depart from them. I am their slave—yes, if you please, I agree.
And does “humble” mean “downtrodden”? Nothing of the kind! Who could have rebuked Ivan the Terrible? Who told him the truth to his face? The most humble Metropolitan Phillip, and no one else. Or the fool-for-Christ of Pskov who rode on a stick to meet Ivan the Terrible when the latter had just razed Novgorod and was about to do the same to Pskov. “Vanyushka, come to visit me!” the saint said. “Vanyushka” knew him and came to visit his hovel. He found there a table covered with a clean white tablecloth, and a dish with a piece of bloody meat. It was Great Lent. “Eat, Vanyushka, eat!” said the fool-for-Christ. “I don’t eat meat during Lent!” the Tsar replied, horrified. “A-a-a! You don’t eat meat but you drink human blood?! Get out of here, or you’ll croak, like your horse!” And at that moment the stable groom runs in pale as a sheet and says, “The Tsar’s favorite horse has died.” Ivan the Terrible did not touch a single person in Pskov. And who accomplished this? A saint. And who do we call saints? Those who have attained humility.
Without attentive prayer there can be no fruits of spiritual life
But all our religiosity turns out to be a soap bubble if there is no prayer. And there is no prayer where there is no attentiveness to prayer. That is why we do not achieve anything in our lives. That is why St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) wrote, “We have to begin to learn to pray.”
According to the writings of the holy fathers, prayer made without attention is not only not prayer—it is simply an insult to God. And God does not hear empty prattle when it is produced as a substitute for prayer, which should be done with attention, contrition, and reverence.
And there is no religion without prayer, for only in prayer does a person unite with God, and in nothing else. I can move mountains. Even more amazing: I can convert the unbelieving, bring a large number of people to faith, I can do anything outward thing, but if a person has no prayer inside, if he does not pray with his soul and mind, then all his religiosity is empty. This is patristic thought. So you see what prayer is connected with. However, it is now turning more and more into some kind of “liturgical tradition,” empty reading. They sing, read, and serve—but who is praying?
Each of us can test himself as to how he is praying. Let anyone say to himself, “Now I will pronounce ten Jesus prayers with complete attention,” and then he will see just how many times he can say this prayer with complete attention. We will know for sure what a feeble state we are in. And this is a real catastrophe.
If we look at God and the saints as no more than bestowers of earthly goods, we will differ in no way from the pagans. The whole essence of Christianity is in something else. It does not deny our needs; Christ Himself taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but we must understand that some things are of higher priority than others. And when only earthly needs take first precedence with us and we forget about our souls, then no matter what religion we have it becomes paganism. The pagans only required the material, earthly good things—nothing else mattered to them. But what do we Christians talk about? We repeat Christ’s words, Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness. And Christ promises, And all these things (that is, the material, the earthly) will be added unto you. But we get tired of waiting for these things to be added— we want them right now!
I have participated in dialogues with Protestants and have at times said to them: “Do you want me to tell you essence of your faith?” They say, “Well, tell us.” And knowing me they laugh. I say, “Listen: seek first of all what to eat, what to drink, and what to wear, and the Kingdom of God will be added unto you.” They say, “Ha-ha-ha! Exactly!” They don’t even argue with me. It’s about time we pay attention to the existence of this anti-gospel.