Lesson 19: A Johannine Church

The Western Church vs. The Eastern ChurchWe always hear we need authority in order to keep unity in the Church. Those making the claim usually mean they have the proper theology to which everyone else must conform. However, this kind of authority has done little to heal the divisions in the Body of Christ and, for the most part, has led to new ones.

John’s theology is not about this kind of authority. Rather than calling for “one and only” doctrine and law to which we have to conform or get out, it speaks of us as God’s friends who live with each other in love.

The Eastern Orthodox wing of the Christian Church is based on this kind of theology, and we might gain some guidance in examining how they do it. That is not to say we should all become Greek Orthodox. They have as many political hang-ups as we do. However, when the Eastern and Western Churches split in 1054, we lost some valuable balance. The Western Church operates in the context of Roman law that stresses “right” belief and conduct. The Eastern Church emphasizes Greek philosophy that offers the flexibility of learned conversation. In the fact, the split was primarily an objection to the Pope’s abuse of power in arbitrarily changing ancient doctrine, forcing priests to give up their wives, preventing the use of common language in the liturgy and Bible, inventing doctrines such as Purgatory, and other such issues that constantly have surfaced in Western Church history.

The Orthodox emphasize John’s Incarnational Theology. Their basic tenet is “The Divine becomes human, so the human can become divine”. Unity depends on the community worshiping together even though they do not agree on all doctrine and practice, because worship enables people to share the Holy Spirit.

Revelation involves an experience of the Living God, often called his energy, rather than the knowledge of His being, called his essence. Because that experience is too profound to define with abstract concepts, you do not find Western-style systematic theologians in the East. Rather than seeking final definitions, they are content to find insight in what seem to be contradictory statements. They assume we understand as much as we need if we confess, “God is One and at the same time Three.”

The purpose of creation is not then to know who God is, but to commune with him as Adam and Eve once did. We are able to do this, because Jesus gives us the means to live again in God’s image. When he tastes death as a human being; an exchange of divine and human qualities takes place, overcoming our separation.

To be truly human is to become holy people rather than believe correct doctrine. They do not harp on sin as much as we do, preferring to focus on the benefits of salvation. They talk about the imperfections of life and the sorrows of this world that Jesus’ death heals. “Participation” is the big word. God participates in our lives, so we can participate in his.

We become holy people by living in a holy community. Sacraments are mysteries through which God participates in our lives. Baptism is not so much forgiveness of sin as the promise that we can live the Resurrection Life now. The Eucharist is sharing a meal with God that is truly a foretaste of the feast to come. Praying for each other is the basic form of love, because it makes other people’s sorrows our own, a caring that naturally leads to helpful action.

Theoretically, the Eastern Church balances the radical individualism that is damaging Western society and churches with a realistic appreciation of community. We find genuine liberty by working toward a common historical or social goal. John’s Way is too often absent in the Western Church that emphasizes individuals coming to Church for their personal satisfaction and, of course, leaving if they are not gratified. There is no loyalty to any kind of community, whether societal, church, or family.

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  1. Jill Ferguson says:

    I read that the Johnnines had given up and joined the Christian Church, mostly because they didn’t have the organization to stick together. So they became Eastern Orthodox? I find the Book of John fascinating and even want to learn Greek, so I can read more about it. Hard to learn as an old woman, but I’m trying to understand some of the concepts.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      Jill, There are a number of theories about the kind of community to which John was writing. However, I think most scholars have come to simply accept it as the one that utilizes Greek concepts to understand Jesus’ person and teachings. They usually regard it as the last one of the four to be written. It was the gospel that the early churches that started in the eastern part of the Roman Empire preferred. Many of them were wiped out by the Muslim expansion. Those that survived broke off from the Roman Catholics in 1054 and are now recognized as the Eastern Orthodox. Good luck on your Bible study. I think John is worth examining in our time.

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