A slightly revised version of this essay appeared in the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of Jacob’s Well with the title “The Church as a Living Organism.” Orthodoxy in Dialogue reprints it with the author’s and the editor’s permission.
We often encounter situations that raise the question of where Orthodoxy draws its borders—how it defines what’s in and what’s out. These situations include questions about how to respond to non-Orthodox visitors to church who eagerly approach the chalice, fellow parishioners who spotlight their political views in coffee-hour conversation, or the priest whose academic work broaches topics that, were they discussed in Sunday school, would scandalize. Raised to their ultimate level, these questions impinge on our understanding of salvation itself. “Who is in the Church and who is out?” “Who will be saved?”
The conversation and controversy sparked by David Bentley Hart’s recent book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, indicates how near to the surface such questions reside for us. While I cannot, in this article, answer the question of where such borders need to be drawn, or enter into dialogue with Dr. Hart, I will attempt to say something about the spirit of our border drawing—some principles I believe should inform our perspective when, inevitably, we must draw them. I will also offer an image I find useful when thinking about how a tradition such as Orthodoxy can interact with the surrounding world while maintaining its essential identity.
We might be tempted to think of borders as concrete and static, like the markings on maps that delineate nation from nation with a sharply printed line. In actual life, though, borders usually function in a more dynamic manner. Children are sometimes surprised, when first visiting a border between states or countries, to find it marked by little more than a modest sign, on a terrain with few other features to distinguish one territory from the next. A look at how borders operate in personal relationships, in biological systems, and in Holy Scripture confirms their dynamic rather than static quality.
In personal relationships, borders are often referred to as boundaries. Many of us know the discomfort that results from having boundaries that don’t adequately serve our needs. We may, for example, find ourselves in the crosshairs of others’ expectations that we will spend unrealistic amounts of time with them, because we have not made clear the limits of our availability. On the other hand, we may wish to draw closer to someone, only to discover that our rigid focus and schedule, or the ways we guard our emotional security, stand in the way of satisfying intimacy. In general, if we don’t consciously structure our own personal boundaries, our unconscious will do so for us. Unconscious boundaries, though, tend to depend on self-protective strategies that are primitive and immature—like passive-aggression or people-pleasing—compared to those we fashion consciously, which makes it more likely they will cause hurt and misunderstanding.
The boundaries we set often prove to be inadequate because we don’t fully understand ourselves and our needs. If I were to give you an iguana and ask you to set boundaries to keep it safe and healthy (or to keep others safe from it), you would be able to do so only if you understood iguanas and their needs. Otherwise, you’d only be guessing, and would just as likely harm the iguana as help it. Our setting of personal boundaries can suffer in the same way if we’re only guessing at what healthy boundaries are. To set healthy boundaries, we need to fulfill the admonition to “know thyself.”
The world of plants and animals provides another means of seeing borders as dynamic. In biological organisms, borders preserve the conditions necessary to sustain life. With that in mind, we might imagine that impenetrable borders are best, because they can shield organisms from hostile outside forces. This assumption falls short, however. Living organisms, whether they be single cells or human communities, often require resources that come only from outside themselves. In such cases, a degree of permeability is essential. Further, an organism’s purpose and function might include more than just its own survival. It might be part of a larger biological system, in which it sustains and nourishes other organisms.
When an organism’s reason for existence does not end with itself, an exaggerated emphasis on its own self preservation can backfire, because it deprives its ecosystem of the health necessary not only for the ecosystem but for the organism’s own survival. On all levels, from the microbiological to the human, an organism’s health depends on balanced coexistence with its environment. For this reason, the World Health Organization, in developing its quality-of-life index, takes into consideration environmental factors, including “noise, pollution, climate and general aesthetic of the environment,” recognizing that “in some cultures certain aspects of the environment may have a very particular bearing on quality of life, such as the central nature of the availability of water or air pollution.”
While a review of borders in the contexts of relationships and biology confirms their dynamic quality, we might wonder whether it has any relevance for Orthodoxy’s borders. It might even seem impertinent to suggest the Church can benefit from our reflection on Her borders at all—because, as the 19th-century Russian theologian Alexei Khomiakov said in The Church is One, “Christ, her Preserver and Head, does not change,” and, “the Church and her members know, by the inward knowledge of faith, the unity and unchangeableness of her spirit, which is the spirit of God.” A look at Church history, though, including the vigorous debates that attended the Seven Ecumenical Councils—whose declarations the Church celebrates as nothing less than “the faith which has established the universe”— ought to persuade us of the role that human consideration plays in the shaping of spiritual unity and its contours.
It should not surprise us that factors important to personal boundaries hold relevance for the Church because she is, Herself, a relational being. As in our personal relationships, the uncertainty we sometimes have about Orthodoxy’s boundaries may correspond with insufficient reflection on the Church’s nature and Her needs. Like someone only guessing at how to care for the iguana, we assert boundaries that, perhaps more often than necessary, contribute to misunderstanding and hurt. Fruitful discussion of the Church’s boundaries occurs only in tandem with thoughtful reflection on Her theology and mission.
In addition to being a relational being, the Church is also a living organism. For this reason, knowing how borders function biologically can help us consider how borders serve the Church’s health. If we become too inwardly focused, oriented solely towards ecclesiastical self-preservation—constantly defining Orthodoxy against other forms of Christianity, for instance—we risk overlooking the degree to which our very reason for being, as Orthodox Christians, includes the salvation and wellbeing of the world outside. We may unduly emphasize the impermeability of our borders, and falsely imagine that we should not be nourished by anything from the surrounding world. Our aim, tragically, may become merely how to isolate ourselves from it.
When faced with questions of how to guard the Church’s purity, the instinct of some Orthodox Christians to always opt for the more stringent and rigorous approach proves inconsistent with how the Church has navigated various dilemmas of the past—including, for example, the issue of whether to readmit to communion believers who had obtained libellus certificates, verifying they had made sacrifices to gods, as was required by Decius, the third-century pagan emperor. The rigorist perspective, represented by the Roman presbyter Novatian, asserted that no earthly confessor or bishop had authority to forgive these apostates, and that they could only await their fate at the Last Judgment. A more lenient policy prevailed, however. Not only were penitent apostates granted remission, but those who sided with Novatian (now consecrated bishop over his own schismatic sect), who called themselves “pure and better”, could return to the universal fold. Though they had been administered by schismatic presbyters, their baptisms were accepted as valid when accompanied by repentance, confession, and chrismation within the canonical Church. The historian Henry Chadwick says these events “highlighted the conflict between the primitive conception of the Church as a society of saints and the now growing view . . . that it should be a school for sinners.”
Given the dynamic nature of the Church’s interaction with the world, perhaps the terminology of borders is, itself, misleading. Here, I would like to suggest an alternative approach that conceptualizes the borders of a tradition—in this case, Orthodoxy—not primarily as protective barriers but as integrative zones. I find it helpful to think of traditions as having cores and edges. In this model, the core represents the tradition’s conservative function. A healthy core both guards the deposit—its most-fixed and durable elements—that is already there, and yet remains appropriately open to new information that emerges from its edges, where it interfaces with the surrounding world. The new information is interpreted according to the principles embodied and enshrined in the core, but also nourishes the core by keeping it connected to the world in which those principles must be applied, and over time becomes integrated into the deposit that makes up the core itself. It becomes part of the tradition’s living memory—its working DNA. This model provides a tool by which we can evaluate whether traditions are, at the core, overly rigid or overly permeable. There are plenty of examples of both, and a single tradition can suffer from one excess or the other at various times.
We find precedent for this approach in Judaism’s handling of the Talmud, one of its primary sacred texts. The Talmud is arranged with the Mishnah—the Law, in a distilled, memorizable form—in the center of the page. Other sections of text, the Gemara, the Rashi, and other commentary from centuries of interpretation, appear to the side of the Mishnah, in the space between the Mishnah and the edge of the page, their increasing distance from the central text corresponding with decreasing weight in their canonical significance. The authority of the central text, in this model, is not monolithic. Minority interpretations are retained in the marginal commentaries because they are considered vital to the understanding of the tradition as dynamic and adaptive. The work is considered never to be entirely complete, because it reflects a dialogue that continues into the present.
Although the Talmud is fixed and static with regard to its central text—“a mishnah does not move from its place” is cited as a cardinal rule by the rabbinic scholar, Adin Steinsaltz—religious traditions sometimes reflect the eventual subsuming of the central text by what was once merely marginal. A prime example of this is Christianity itself, which began as an interpretive school within Judaism. The New Testament represents the codification of an oral tradition concerning the meaning of the life of Christ—in particular, how it represents the culmination of the historical development, and the fulfillment of types and allegories, present in Scripture. What is now the central Christian text, the New Testament, first stood in a place equivalent to the marginal notes of the Talmud. The edges have, as it were, been slowly assimilated into the central text, and finally become central to the tradition. However static the central elements of the Christian tradition seem to be—however much they seem to reflect a timeless, unvarying nomos—their origin reveals a process of appropriation of materials that were initially marginal. In Orthodoxy, materials such as the Philokalia could be seen as representing marginal commentary like that which appears alongside the Mishna in the Jewish Talmud.
The core of any tradition might be described in terms of the extent to which it is able and willing to allow its margins to have influence. A partial determinant of this will be the tradition’s confidence in the grounded nature of its central tenets. A tradition whose core assumes an entirely defensive posture towards its margins is often one whose central tenets appear arbitrary in the context of current realities. The authority of such a tradition is experienced, more and more, as deriving from mere edict. A tradition that ceases to receive information from its edges has absolutized perspectives and strategies that once may have had critical value for its survival.
On the other hand, when a tradition’s core demonstrates a degree of permeability towards its margins, it acknowledges the relation of its central teachings to universal truths that exist independently of its own authority. Likewise, it acknowledges the changing nature of the surrounding world for which its teachings have relevance. Such a tradition does not fear the annihilation of its own perspective upon relaxation of its advocacy for that perspective, because it considers reality to be its ally, and ultimately its vindicator. It values information from its margins because this information enables the core’s adaptation, evolution, and development—even if it initially introduces dissonance. A saying of St. Isaac of Syria alludes to the quiet confidence inherent in a tradition with this perspective towards its own teachings: “Someone who is considered among men to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like: once he has truly learnt it, he will cease to be zealous on its behalf.”
Yet another image of cores and edges might be drawn from the phenomenon of black holes, in which material that resides at their edges moves towards, and eventually becomes, their center. If, as a thought experiment, we envisage the area at the center of a black hole possessing consciousness, we can imagine it might be tempted to defend against its disappearance into a singularity, against the material pouring in from the edges by which it may eventually be supplanted. It would take a particular kind of faith and confidence for it to resist becoming merely defensive—a faith that its essential nature will remain intact, not because it resists the reality that surrounds it, but because it understands itself as integral to that surrounding reality, and as fundamentally in service to it. Orthodoxy might benefit from reflecting on its interface with the outside world as a creative and integrative zone rather than merely a defensive barrier. In the case of black holes, in fact, Stephen Hawking suggested that information at the center of a black hole is not actually obliterated in its process of swallowing up surrounding space, but retained indefinitely—confirming, by way of analogy, that a tradition’s essential identity can be enriched, not inevitably obliterated, by interaction with its own edges and the surrounding world.
Finally, we ought not overlook Scripture’s depiction of God’s relationship to borders. We might be tempted to consider borders primarily as what separates the Church from what is alien to it, but Scripture shows us that God uses them for purposes that are ultimately inclusive. As Christ says, our Heavenly Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). When God establishes borders, He sometimes appears later to disregard them for the sake of more fully communicating his intentions. As He says in Hosea (and as Sts. Paul and Peter quoted), “I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” (2:23; Ro. 9:25; 1 Pe. 2:10). While we should not naively imagine that God’s liberality implies we do not need to articulate borders in Church life, we need to remember that borders are not ends in themselves. They are aspects of a larger message of universal mercy. They are elements of the divine grammar, whose purpose ultimately is to communicate love to all creation.
V. Rev. Dr. Isaac Skidmore is a licensed therapist in Oregon, an adjunct professor in the school of clinical mental health counseling at Southern Oregon University, and auxiliary priest at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland OR. He is the author of Edge of the Abyss: The Usefulness of Antichrist Terminology in the Era of Donald Trump (see our review here). Check the archives for his previous contributions to Orthodoxy in Dialogue.
 World Health Organization. PROGRAMME ON MENTAL HEALTH WHOQOL User Manual, March 1, 2012, p. 66. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-HIS-HSI-Rev.2012.03
 Khomiakov, Alexei. The Church is One: Essay on the Unity of the Church. https://pages.uoregon.edu/sshoemak/325/texts/Khomiakov/Khomiakov%20The%20Church%20is%20One.htm
 From the Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
 L’Huillier, Archbishop Peter. The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1996, p. 131.
 Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church, Revised Edition. New York: Penguin, 1993, pp. 117-120.
 Chadwick, p. 119.
 This idea and its examples first appeared, in an altered form, in my 2017 dissertation, Inanna and the Lion: Patriarchy Transformed Through Listening to the Suffering Feminine (Order No. 10639004) [Doctoral dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute]. ProQuest Central. (1968593394).
 Steinsaltz, Adin. The Essential Talmud: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (C. Galai, Trans.). New York: Basic Books, 2006.
 Steinsaltz, p. 62.
 St. Isaac of Syria. Daily Readings With St. Isaac of Syria (A. Allchin, Ed.) (S. Brock, Trans.). Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1989, p. 61.
 Overbye, D. “No Escape From Black Holes? Stephen Hawking Points to a Possible Exit.” The New York Times, June 6, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/07/science/stephen-hawking-black-holes.html