Question: If God is one, how can Christians have so many varying and even conflicting positions on theological, social, and moral issues?
Answer: Although the answer to this question is simple, it is not often easily accepted because it requires a little humility. God is truly one, but we are not yet fully one with Him. As St. Dorotheus of Gaza once said, we are as points along the perimeter of a circle and God is at the very center. As we draw closer to Him, we draw closer to one another, until finally we arrive at perfect union with Him and one another. The fact that we have conflicting positions on theological, social, and moral issues, should indicate to us that we need to draw closer to God, who alone can bring us closer together and make us one. This is the mission and activity of the Church, which has the Lord Jesus Christ as its center, focal point, and means of unity.
Question: I feel very strongly about my own beliefs, why should I believe as the Church believes?
Answer: Personal conviction is a key part of Christian development, however, just because we have strong feelings that we are correct does not make it so. I may feel very strongly that 2 + 2 = 4 (which of course it does) but it is not my strength of conviction that makes me correct. The real proof is found in the discipline of mathematics, and the common witness of all those who have passed the 1st grade. :)
In the sciences and in the spiritual life, we should be very careful not to verify our thoughts and beliefs by our own feelings and emotions. This is called “emotional reasoning”, an identified psychological pathol-ogy, and this can lead to spiritual delusion as well.
In the spiritual life, the safe way to truth, the sure way to acquire the seemingly intangible mind of the invisible Christ, is through the very tangible mind of the visible Church. It is only when we compare our personal understanding to the commonly held mind and consensus of the Church that we are able to discern whether what we believe is correct or not.
This is the very reason why St. Paul makes the connection between the mind of the Church and the mind of Christ; through the one we arrive at the other. This is because although distinct the two are actually intimately and perfectly connected. To show this unity, St. Paul speaks about Christ as the head and the faithful as the body. Just as a physical body has no mind without its head, so too the Church has no mind apart from Christ – the Church’s teachings are the Lord’s teachings.
It is through the unity of the Church that we can experience unity with God and with one another. But this unity only comes through the difficult road of repentance, which begins with the humility that perhaps we are not as connected to God as we might think or feel.
Question: So are you saying that the consensus of the Church cannot be wrong? I have a real problem with that.
Answer: In our fallenness, in our separation from God and one another, we all have become accustomed to going our own way, doing our own thing, and not being held in check by anyone, even at times God Himself. Although this is an unhealthy form of individuality and freedom, we justify this stance by claiming that all is relative; after all, we say, even if absolute truth exists, there is no way to verify it.
In His foreknowledge, God knew that this would be our problem. And in His love for mankind, He not only revealed Himself as absolute Truth, in the person of Jesus Christ, but He also set up His Church as ”the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) in which dwells the Holy Spirit, who will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). When we see the Church’s divinely given claim to truth as tyranny, we tragically turn away from the leadership of God Himself. This ultimately will lead to separation from not only the Church but also separation from God – the one a visible sign of the other. Such division then becomes the greatest evidence of our self-direction. Unity, on the other hand, is the greatest proof of God’s leadership. This we see in the Lord’s Church, which Christ established “that all might be One”.
Therefore, we should test our relationship with God by comparing it to the relationship the Church has with God. Submitting to such a test is not giving in to human tyranny but rather humble recognition of the sovereignty of God the Father, the Incarnation of God the Son, and the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit within the Church. The Church then is not the problem; it is God’s answer to our problems.
Question: Doesn’t the Church need to critically examine its core teachings in light of the changing world? Is the Church afraid of self-examination?
Answer: Historically speaking, remember what happened when the Roman pope reevaluated and changed core teachings, forgetting his accountability to the consensus of the Church and Christ its head. This led to the Great Schism in the 11th century – the separation of Rome from the rest of Christendom, which remained united in Orthodoxy. Centuries later, when people realized the errors of Rome, they broke away from the pope and formed their own churches in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Now, Western Christianity has some 30,000 divisions – all because of 1) not being afraid to change core teachings and 2) not being afraid to separate from the consensus.
In Orthodoxy, the core teachings are the Lord’s, who is “the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews: 13:8), and we guard these teachings through the consensus of the Church. It is incumbent upon everyone to examine the teaching of the Church not in order to redefine it according to one’s own personal beliefs or the changing fads of the world; just the opposite. Examination of Church teaching is made to make sure that the current teaching corresponds perfectly to the unchanging consensus of the Apostles, bishops, priests and laity – a unity spanning across time and space, shared between the creation and the Creator. Therefore, the reason we don’t change the teaching is because we don’t want to break our union with God and one another, not because we are afraid of self-examination. Our understanding of self-examination is much more properly placed on the personal level where it belongs. We examine ourselves to see if we are conforming ourselves to Christ through His Church. We examine ourselves to see if we are overcoming divisions through repentance (changing our minds, hearts, and lives), or conversely if we are increasing divisions through our unwillingness to be changed and conformed to Christ, who alone is the focal point of all unity.