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Nothing Is Stronger Than the Church

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Last month, I was on holiday with my wife in Crete. The weather hadn’t been great — it rained most of the day soon after we arrived, and someone said it was the first time in four months — but the sun was shining, so we decided to take a walk into the local town. We weren’t in a hurry, and my wife needed to buy a present for a friend, so we looked into a few of the local shops and bought a couple of things. We then headed down to the sea for the harbor and the beach, and just before we got there happened to turn past a church with an open door.

Well, holiday or not, I find it difficult to walk straight past an open church, even if I felt a little self-conscious in my tourist clothes. I wasn’t expecting much: it was a small, modern building, well-maintained, but unlikely to contain any great surprises, especially after we had visited a couple of Greek Orthodox churches already on our trip. But as I got to the door, there was one surprise after all.

Like many church buildings here in England (and I guess elsewhere), they had glass doors just inside the outer, wooden doors, which were pinned open. And on the left panel there was some text written in capitals, centered, in English and Greek. So I stopped to read it. The English (which came first) said:

Man! Nothing is stronger than the Church. Cease to fight her lest she should take away your strength. Do not try to fight him who is in heaven. For if you war with men, either you will win or you will lose. If however you fight the Church, she will win without you knowing what to do, because God is stronger than all men. Do you think we are stronger than him?
St. John Chrysostomos

My first thought was: is this normal? Is this a common thing to put at the entrance to an Orthodox church building? (Maybe some Covenant readers could help me on that.)

And then I started wondering: what’s the point being made here? If it’s in English first, then maybe whoever put it there thinks that it’s the (non-Orthodox?) tourists who need to read this most. But why? Who do they think is fighting with the church? Do they mean resisting her authority, her teaching? Is it a message for the lapsed and the unbelieving?

I had a quick look round the little church, and we left to resume our walk. But then I wanted to take a picture, so I could maybe find out some more about it and keep pondering what was so arresting about this strange piece of signage.

Could it be me, fighting against the church? Is that possible? What would it look like? I can imagine conflict with some people in the church; indeed, not much — if any — imagination would be required for that. But I wouldn’t be fighting the church. I know some people might say, and do say, I am battling the church to get justice, or to find the truth. But it wouldn’t occur to them to think they are fighting against God, as in this text. If anything, they might assume, or hope, that the God of truth and justice is fighting with them, against a flawed and even wicked institution. Perhaps, charitably: against people trying to do what they think is the right thing, and getting it wrong.

Is that the unbridgeable chasm between us and this text? That it comes from a world where people believed that the institutional church was God’s instrument in the world, but we just see an all too human institution that we may be attached to, or may be disappointed with, or both, but any strength it has is just to do with its earthly resources, and can’t possibly be divine?

I’m no expert on John Chrysostom or early Christianity generally, but I tried to find out a bit about the text. The traditional title of the work it comes from is “Homily before He Went into Exile.” It seems there are some questions about authenticity; from what I can gather, while the Greek version contains some material that is not from Chrysostom, this part probably is. I may have gotten that wrong; if so, correction would be welcome.

But still, here’s the point. The literary context is that John Chrysostom, the preacher, is about to be removed from his post as Patriarch of Constantinople after condemnation of his conduct by a synod of fellow bishops, and taken into exile by the authorities. That didn’t always end well; on this occasion, he returned soon enough to Constantinople, where he was much loved by many, but it didn’t last long and he was soon exiled again, and, according to the reference book I have to hand, “deliberately killed by enforced travelling on foot in severe weather.”

So he didn’t write those words because he had some kind of morally naïve or institutionally defensive view of the church as an institution. He knew it harbored treachery and malice that would not flinch from the arm’s-length murder of one’s enemies. He knew about its corruption by the irresistible gifts of imperial power.  He knew about the intractable conflicts tearing jagged edges through the map of Christ’s church as it spread across the earth, seeming to make a nonsense of theological talk about its unity, its catholicity, its holiness.

And yet: nothing is stronger than the church, for in Christ’s church’s action, God acts, and God’s purpose cannot fail.

Since the ecclesiological revolutions of the Protestant Reformation, it has become a commonplace to make a firm distinction between the visible church — those weak, fractured, failing institutions and communities in which we participate day by day — and the invisible one, in whose securely remote realm we can locate our theological convictions about the church as Christ’s body and bride, where they can do no harm, or real good. But it won’t do. The visible church is his body, and the visible church only becomes visible as she acts in his name, in the power of the Spirit whom he gives with the Father, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

So I ask for my eyes to be opened to see the church on earth as she is in Christ, and to rest in the strength that flows through her from abiding in him. No good will come from fighting that.

Jeremy Worthen
Jeremy Worthen
The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Worthen is the Team Rector of Ashford in the Diocese of Canterbury. He previously worked in ministerial formation and in supporting national ecumenical and theological work.

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