‘There can be no Christianity without the Church’, wrote a martyred Russian Orthodox bishop at the beginning of this century. The Church is Christ’s Kingdom, purchased by the price of His blood and into which He leads those whom He has chosen as His children and who have chosen Him as their Father.
The Greek word ekklesia, meaning ‘Church’, ‘assembly of people’, comes from the verb ekkaleo, ‘to call’. The Christian Church is an assembly of those called by Christ, of those who have believed in Him and live by Him. Yet the Church is not merely a society or fellowship of people united by their faith in Christ, it is not just a sum total of individuals. Gathered together, the members of the Church comprise a single body, an indivisible organism.
The first to refer to the Church as the body of Christ was St. Paul: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Cor 12:13; 27). Through the sacraments, and especially the sacrament of communion in the Body and Blood of Christ through the eucharistic bread and wine, we are united with Him and we become one body in Him: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor 10:17). The Church is the eucharistic body of Christ: the Eucharist unites us to Him and to each other. And the closer we are to God, the closer we are to each other; the more we are filled with love for Christ, the stronger our love for our neighbor. In being united to God through a life in the sacraments, we are united to each other, we overcome our usual lack of communication and alienation, we become members of an undivided organism tied to each other in a union of love.
The mystery of the Church was prefigured in the people of Israel, who was chosen and set apart from the other peoples. According to its own understanding, the Christian Church is the only legitimate heir to the biblical religion of revelation. This revelation is preserved and continued in the Church’s Tradition, which includes both the Old and the New Testaments, the memory of Jesus Christ’s earthly life, of His miracles and teaching, His death and resurrection. It also includes the experience of the primitive Church, the teachings of early Fathers and Ecumenical Councils, the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, the liturgy, the sacraments, and the entirety of spiritual and mystical experience, transmitted from generation to generation. In other words, Tradition in Orthodox understanding means the continuity of theological teaching and spiritual experience within the Church from Old Testament times up to the present.
It is absolutely essential for a Christian to be a member of the Church, to be connected with the revelation of God which is preserved in the Church’s sacred Tradition, in its living memory. The experience of God is what is given to individuals, but the revelation of God belongs to the whole body of the Church. The personal experience of each individual believer is to be incorporated into the collective memory of the Church. Every person is called to share his experience with others, and to examine it against the revelation which is given to people as a body, as a community. In this way the Christian becomes united with other Christians and the house of the Church is formed from individual stones.