Should bishops crosssacred boundary lines?


By David W. Virtue(2001)



… A church historianargues in a book that unity in doctrine is actually a prerequisite for what hecalls "altar fellowship," that the church has always regarded heresyas sin, and while hierarchical unity of the episcopate and orthodoxy are bothcriteria for the unity of the church, but when these two collide, orthodoxy hasunqualified pre-eminence.


German Historian Walter Elertin his book "Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First FourCenturies", argues that, "in the event of schism, altar fellowshipautomatically ceases." (Pg.166).


Elert points out thatIrenaeus (130-200) records the fact that Anicetus of Rome "granted theEucharist" to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna when he visited Rome. It was,says Elert, "proof positive of enacted fellowship between the churches ofRome and Smyrna."


"Practiced altarfellowship is proof of the fellowship between the churches of Rome and AsiaMinor. The obvious corollary of Irenaeus is that there can be no altarfellowship without church fellowship, and he could not have used this line ofargument unless he was sure that Victor of Rome held the same view."


Elert notes that while schismwas then still in its infancy in the early church it was not unheard of. Hecites Novatian the schismatic bishop in Rome (in his fight with Cornelius) thathe was not allowed under any circumstances to receive the sacrament in aCatholic Church.


"The consequence of theschism, was that a Christian could not receive the Sacrament in both the Romanepiscopal churches, the Catholic and the Novatian."


In every schism both sidescharged each other with "rending the body of Christ." Mutually togrant and practice Eucharistic koinonia would be a flat contradiction of this,says Elert. Prayer and altar fellowship were broken.


The Council of Nicea (325)tried to remove the schism, says Elert, a new ordination was required."Schism begins with a break in altar fellowship (communicatio in sacris)and ends with its restoration." By contrast, altar fellowship is proof ofchurch fellowship.


"In the great dogmaticcontroversies some time lapsed before the formal revocation of churchfellowship. Each party was trying to win over the whole church. In the Ariancontroversies there was a sort of moratorium before the complete rupturebetween the churches," writes Elert.


"Arians and Nicaeansmaintained a limited fellowship with one another. Only altar fellowship wassuspended."


When the emperor summoned anecumenical council to Ephesus in 431, the parties did not even come and meettogether. Majority and minority held separate meetings, and each attacked thelegitimacy of the other. The controversy was about the teachings of Nestorius.Cyril led the majority to declare Nestorius deposed.


One hundred years later,writes Elert, during the Persian War of Justin II and the Armenian Church hadnot accepted the dogma of Chalcedon they separated themselves with theirbishops and had services in their private houses. They even had no fellowshipwith the Monophysites there who were anti-Chalcedonians like themselves, writesElert. "Altar fellowship was possible only where there was confessionalunity."


The great schisms (Sardica343, Ephesus 431, between Rome and Constantinople 484) affected not only thedisputing bishops but also their churches, not only patriarchs but wholepatriarchates.

"Excommunication by anopponent did not remove a bishop from his church. He continued in his church inboth office and fellowship," writes Elert.


All acknowledged that thefellowship of a church can no more be piecemeal than the church itself. Itsintegrity depends on the integrity of all members. No member may overstep theboundaries of fellowship without the approval of all members. Whoevercommunicates with a heretic, schismatic, or any man that for any reason is notwithin the fellowship thereby disqualifies himself from the fellowship. He isguilty of injuring the integrity of the whole. For this reason every member musthold to the Sacrament administered within the borders of the Constantinoplebecause unqualified persons, he charged, were admitted to the Sacrament. Themodern theory that anybody may be admitted "as a guest" to thesacrament in a church of a differing unknown in the earlychurch, indeed unthinkable.




Following the Council ofNicea, the Arians, in spite of their doctrinal opposition to the"confessors of the homoousios" (the orthodox Nicaeans), participatedin their "prayers, hymns, deliberations, and almost everything else exceptin the Eucharist." Later a separate congregation was formed. Reportsshowed how doctrinal differences reached into local congregations.


Later, observes Elertattempts were made to unite the church by force, the Sacrament seemed to be theappropriate means. Get everybody to go to the sacrament together, and unitybecomes obvious - that is, you have a demonstration of it, even though in factit does not exist. "In the case of the arrangement with the Arians bothparties knew that they were not in confessional unity."


Elert noted however, thatthey could not communicate together, for church unity is not the goal incelebrating the Sacrament together but the indispensable prerequisite. "Inthis they are at one with the whole early church insofar as the understandingof the sacrament is guided by theological considerations."


Elert notes that in the firstfour centuries of the church all who partook of the sacrament had first toremove every dissension. So long as anything divided them, they were not tocommunicate (participate in communion) together. "Any disunity carriedinto the celebration of the Communion does injury to the body of Christ."


This applied to all personaldissensions. "The celebration together of the sacrament is the seal of themost close and complete relationships between men. For this very reasonconscientious Christians will refuse to receive it so long as their hearts feltdissension."


"To the early church aman was orthodox or heterodox according to his confession. He was the one orthe other according to that confession with which he was 'in fellowship.' Thefellowship in which he stood...was shown by where he received thesacrament."


Writes Elert, "Since aman cannot at the same time hold two differing confessions, he cannotcommunicate in two churches of differing confessions. If anyone does thisnevertheless, he denies his own confession or has none at all."


In light of the currentdilemma…these are hard words indeed. How would the Early Church fathers judge(modern liberals) by these standards. Would Athanasius break bread with…,unrepentant, non-celibate homosexuals. One cannot imagine they would. Onewonders if they would not be anathematized for their behavior.


One thing is certain, theChurch in the first four centuries had far higher standards for sacramentalcommunion than we do today. Being baptized, which is fast becoming the onlystandard for admission to Anglicanism, would not be considered adequate byFirst Century standards.


While there was indeed muchdisunity in the Early Church, attempts were made at union, but not at anydoctrinal cost. "They were being made constantly, for the early churchalso genuinely suffered under its divisions." Anger erupted along the way,and at one point, Marcion the heretic told the Roman presbyters who refused toreceive him into the Roman congregation, "I shall split your church andthrow a schism, into it forever." Marcion was removed not because he was apeace breaker but because he was a false teacher."



Another unifying factor inthe first four centuries was that Caesar had his finger in the pie of mostdisputes from Constantine to Heraclius. There were two successful attempts atunion instigated by the emperor. In 433 the Alexandrians and the Antiocheanswere prepared to accept a common confession. In 633 the Monophysites inAlexandria achieved doctrinal agreement with the orthodox of the establishedchurch. Both were short-lived, but it did indicate the power of the state.


"Confessionaldifferences can only be healed by confessional agreement," writes Elert.


An example of this was avisit by the Emperor Valens, an Arian, in 369 to Tomis on the Black Sea. Hevisited the church and tried to persuade Bishop Brettanion "to communicatewith those of the opposing confession." Brettanion refused declaring thedogma of the Nicaeans. He left the emperor standing and betook himself and hisfollowers to another church. The emperor had him arrested and exiled. Later hehad him brought back again.


Attempts at forcedreconciliation failed, even when Macedonius who was Bishop of Macedoniusattempted to have the mouths of the opposition propped open with pieces of woodand the elements stuffed in. Forced communion proved nothing. Putting on a showof unity, even forced, demonstrated they it did not exist.


In the end it was conceded bythe early church, "that where Holy Communion is celebrated, there ischurch fellowship. This principle was established beyond all doubt and rootedin the life and experience of the early church." In short, if a man wasnot in harmony with the confession of a church, he may not receive Communionwhen the Sacrament is celebrated there. Positively put, where men go toCommunion together, there is confessional unity.


But attempts were made tofind unity without the emperor's interference. The case of Constantine ofDionysius of Alexandria, whose office held the highest ecclesiastical powerover all Egypt. After the death of the Egyptian Bishop Nepos his chiliasticdoctrine lead to "schisms and the defection of whole churches." Theteachings paralleled those of today's Jehovah's Witness and Adventist groups.How did the presiding bishop from Alexandria bring the breakaway under control?He went to see the schismatics and heretics, gathered the Presbyters andteachers together, and talked things over with them for three days. Questionswere posed and answers given. The result was complete agreement. The schism washealed.


The state's role, writesElert was a mixed blessing. "Caesar's frontal attacks on the church didless harm than his help in putting his instrument of power at the church'sdisposal."


The direct poisoning of thechurch came in the efforts at union by coercion when it took force into itself.Unspiritual means were brought into the service of a perverted goal: extortionof an acknowledgement of being at one so that the existing disunity might becovered over."


Elert concludes by sayingthat Christians in the first four centuries knew that in the celebration ofHoly Communion they were gathered together with those at one with them in thefaith. The operative words "those at one with them." If that was notthere then union was not possible or even desirable.


The call sounded forth in theliturgy that before receiving the Sacrament together anything that divided themmust be removed, and this they did.


It is highly doubtful, then,that in the present situation an evangelical bishop could break bread with a(liberal one), or that faithful parishioners could take communion from the handof a (liberal one). Certainly the Early Church would not have countenanced thatpossibility.


"When men are pressedinto altar fellowship, it is in order to cover up disunity," writes Elert."There is no essential difference between stuffing the host into a man'smouth and applying some other kind of pressure."


Elert concludes that in theearly Church not every establishment of church or altar fellowship can beregarded as a fulfillment of Christ's prayer "that they all may beone." Coerced union came to nothing.


In the Ecclesiastical rulesof the Holy Apostles set forth by Clement, Pontiff of the Roman Church thefollowing Canon (XIV) is recorded.


"A bishop is not allowedto leave his own parish, and pass over into another, although he may be pressedby many to do so, unless there be some proper cause constraining him, as if hecan confer some greater benefit upon the personas of that place in the word ofgodliness. And this must be done not of his own accord, but by the judgment ofmany bishops, and at their earnest exhortation."


The question for the 21stcentury (historical churches) is this; Does doctrinal truth take precedenceover a shaky institutional unity?