Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Features of the Church: From Doctrine to Unity

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"...Till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ...speaking the truth in love we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head ...,Christ, from whom the whole body joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:13,15,16).


Whenever a new church is built, it behooves us to correctly pose the question as to "Who is the church?" and not "What is a church?". According to the latter, a church could be referred to as a building ranging from just a simple to a huge one. Nowadays there are many beautiful churches from the recent and past centuries that are exquisite pieces of architecture but void of worshippers. In some countries some of those gorgeous churches have been either sold to some other religious organizations, or turned into museums and conference halls. In order to understand the church from St. Pauls teachings, we need to genuinely ask ourselves: Who is the church? By definition, the church is the assembly of believers without whom there exists no church. Such a church is meant to exist forever because it is not a building made by hands but an organic one that has been constructed on the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and the faith of our holy fathers the Apostles. "Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19-20).

According to St. Pauls epistle to Ephesians, the real church emerges from the chain of spiritual truths that exist within the body of Christ. This unbreakable, dependable chain essentially starts from a foundation that has to be of certain strength in order to endure forever bearing the other components that are to be built upon it and which form the features of an imperishable eternal church.

Features of the Church

St. Paul spoke about the church in many of his letters. To the Ephesians, he mentioned six prominent features required for the church of Christ to have in order to be officially recognized as His Body, well equipped for the work of ministry; capable of keeping that body alive and growing. These features are:

1. Unity of Faith 2. Knowledge of the Son of God 3. Spiritual Maturity 4. Stability 5. Speaking the Truth in Love 6. Unity & Cooperation.

1st Feature: Unity of Faith

In the Gospel we read about the Pharisees and the scribes calling their own teachings the commandments of God; while in reality they were contradicting the Old Testament teachings. So many do not heed to the importance of faith and doctrine regarding the latter as of minor importance when placed next to major incidents in our Lords life on earth such as His birth, death, and resurrection. However, this is not true at all because the doctrine of faith is as important as anything else; because God Himself has taught us them. In the early centuries, the ecumenical councils were held to discuss matters of faith only. We have never heard of one having been held mainly to discuss political, administrative, or financial issues within the church. The first Council, mentioned in Acts 15 was held to resolve the issue concerning the Gentiles fulfilling the Jewish tradition of circumcision (along with many other traditions), before converting to Christianity. Whether circumcision is essential to salvation or not is a matter of faith for which the apostles had felt the need to hold the first Council in Jerusalem and which was presided over by St. James the Bishop there and then. The result of that meeting was a letter of doctrine to the Gentiles that they were not to observe the Jewish circumcision in order to become Christians. Later on and with the rise of more faith issues, more councils were called for. Such are that of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Constantinople. The Nicene Creed, written by St. Athanasius, an essential component of our prayers in and outside church, is the product of the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to refute Arius argument against the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. To know the sound doctrine is the first feature of a sound church. There is no church if there is no sound doctrine.

2nd Feature: Knowledge of the Son of God

St. Paul is not referring to an intellectual knowledge about Christ having incarnated by the Holy Spirit, from the Blessed Virgin Mary, was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. Rather, the knowledge St. Paul refers to is of a much deeper nature. He is alluding to our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three Hypostases of the Holy Trinity. It is true that the three are one, but They are not the same and it is wrong to say that They are so. With each having His own distinct function, we cannot say that the Father died on the cross or that the Holy Spirit was incarnated from the Virgin Mary. Our relationship with each person of the Holy Trinity is a unique relationship. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul explains the Kingdom as that of God the Father; while the Son reigns in the world until He put all His enemies under his feet; the last enemy being death after which He will deliver the Kingdom to the Father and the Son Himself will submit to the Father. From this clear distinction of posts, we come to understand that the Kingdom is the Fathers, waiting to be "inherited by His only begotten Son" Who, in His love for us, raised us to the rank of adoption by dying for us on the Cross making us heirs with Him in His Fathers Kingdom. Our relationship to Jesus Christ, the Son, is also referred to in the Holy Bible as that of a bride married to her Groom; and thus entitled to inheritance in the kingdom of the Father. As soon as John the Baptist saw the Lord Jesus Christ, he cried out "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled" (John 3:29). The parable of the ten Virgins bear the same reference to us being the bride of the Groom they had been waiting for. In the book of Revelation, we read about the supper of the wedding of the Lamb. Through this unity with the Son, we will become children to God the Father. Who will then perform the wedding? No one else but the Holy Spirit will perform this wedding between the Son and us through the Holy Sacraments. Through Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit, we "put on Christ" being born again and becoming one with the Son Jesus Christ. Similarly, in the Mystery of the Eucharist, who changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? It is the Holy Spirit, the place being the Church. Therefore, when we eat Them we become one with Him; and can boldly say that the Holy Spirit performs our wedding to the Son in the Church making us children of the Father and heirs in the Kingdom of heaven. This mysterious action that involves the Holy Trinity simply proves that there is no salvation outside the Church. "No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). So, the knowledge that St. Paul is referring to here is this unity, marriage, oneness with Christ that reveals the Son to us "that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death" (Philippians 3:10). To enter into this unity we need to have a sound doctrine without which we cannot have this sound Unity. For example, if we do not believe that we do eat the true Body and drink the true Blood of Jesus Christ, how can we become one with Him. Through the first feature of the church which is sound doctrine, we get to the second feature, knowledge of the Son of God.

3rd Feature: Spiritual Maturity

When we unite with the Son, we become one with Him, acquiring His attributes and becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) Christ-like, His icon and image. We were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There is a difference between image and likeness. Because of our sins and subsequent corrupt nature, we have lost His likeness. However, through our unity with Christ, the restoration of that likeness became possible, and maturity attainable. We will grow to the measure of the "stature of Christ" even to the extent of becoming Christ-like in our thinking, behavior, and attitude. Christs features become ours identifying us as Christians and therefore His. Thus when people see these features, they see His image in us and correctly associate us with the One we belong to. The more time we spend with Christ in prayer and fellowship, the more will we change into His image and likeness. Close friends pretty soon start to think alike and behave alike. Let us ask ourselves: Are we Christ-like? If not, then we are not in union with Him. What does maturity lead to? That is what the next feature is about.

4th Feature: Stability

Nowadays, the question of "Why does the Church not change with time?" is frequently repeated. "Change" is not the correct term to use in this context. Rather, one should contemplate "growth" based on the same foundation. A good analogy to the Church's growth and endurance over the centuries and from generation to generation is the anology of a strong building composed of twenty-one floors built on the same foundation; each floor in that building, strongly founded on the Church's doctrine represents growth in virtue that rises up to self control that rises up to purity that rises up to stability that rises up to the correct knowledge of God that rises up to brotherly love (2 Peter 1:5-7) which will never fail nor diminish and which will endure all kinds of storms and turmoil that might hit that building. When we achieve this maturity and stability, we will not be moved by the craftiness and deception of men; nor quit our Orthodox faith to join another. Hence our faith in our Church and her doctrines will remain constant. Opposite to this strongly founded building is the nowadays one-floor buildings of weak foundations that cannot rise up to twenty-one floors; but are satisfied with twenty-one rooms, each having a different style and weird decoration. That is exactly what we encounter nowadays with the different so called "Christian" denominations where so many changes are added so as to accommodate every taste and inclination; "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers" (2 Timothy 4:3) rendering Christs Salvation and hence belief in it unnecessary.

5th Feature: Speaking Truth in Love

A mature, stable person will bear witness to Christ, doing so in truth and love. Presenting truth without love is akin to cruelty. On the other hand, shunning away from saying the truth because of love alone is hypocrisy. Therefore it is essential to keep a balance between the two in order to reach the stature of Christ. Saying the truth in love is very spiritually constructive and protective. Take, for example, the Lord Jesus Christs encounter with the Samaritan woman, and model His approach in presenting Truth balanced with Love to her; thus achieving His ultimate goal of saving the womans soul from perishing. Let us be careful when dealing with each other bearing in mind St. Pauls words, "Speaking the truth in love" avoiding being either too nice or too harsh with each other keeping St. Pauls words clearly before our eyes, "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). This way we are sure to grow up in every way into Him Christ Who is the Head.

6th Feature: Unity & Cooperation

Each member in the Body of Christ, the Church, should be working properly toward the goal of keeping the body joined and knit together in order for it to grow and prosper. It is the Spirit of Love that will unite us together. So, any church that has divisions, splits, strife, contention, or conflicts simply cannot be called the Body of Christ. Christs Body is meant to be joined and knit together with each other; each member working towards unity. Sadly enough, some members are counterworking against this unity. If this opposition continues long enough, there is a great fear that the body might die. If we contemplate the human body, we will see how awesomely it has been put together so that all the organs are connected carefully and majestically to each other with the so called joints and connective tissues in such an indispensable, miraculous way which makes each part, no matter how big or small, so essential and indispensable. At the same time God has provided that if anything goes wrong with any part, the rest will take care of and compensate for that loss. In the same way, on the spiritual level, as members in the body of Christ we are indispensable to each other; yet ready to compensate and provide for the loss, shortcomings or damage caused by some members of that body. This ensures the oneness of that body. It is essentially the job of the servants in the Church to work as the joints and connective tissues in order to safeguard the unity of that body.

Let us pray to our Savior Who, though perfect in everything, became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) just to purchase back the former image and likeness we were meant to have in Him; that we may all become like Him and enjoy the oneness in Him now and in the life to come. Amen.

Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern USA

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