Roman Catholics are usually more vocal (and annoying) about this than Orthodox apologists (though, of course, the latter hold to the dictum as well). The phrase in one form or another dates back to St Cyprian. This phrase offends Protestants because the way it is defined excludes Protestantism from the true church. Therefore, this means that Protestants are outside the Church. Therefore, Protestants are “going to hell” (pronounced “hae-yul” if you are from the South).
So is this true? Did God create Protestants simply to roast ’em forever? Not quite. This is an example of one taking a legitimate theological axiom–the church is the visible and physical focal point of salvation on earth–and making conclusions based on evidence a person cannot possibly have. Blessed Seraphim Rose warned against such scholastic reasoning.
My observations on St Cyrpian’s phrase:
1) Calvinists accept some form of it. Calvin said somewhere you can’t have God as your father without the church as your mother. Why then do Calvinists get upset when Orthodox say it? Similarly, most Calvinists do not believe Orthodox (or Catholics) are “saved,” so why do they get mad when others return the favor?
2) It’s not entirely clear what St Cyprian “meant” by it. Even in his own time this phrase did not always have “obvious” epistemological clarity. Who’s in the church? As St Augustine mused, it’s often hard to know.
3) Maybe it’s truer meaning doesn’t primarily deal with individuals at all. Protestant and evangelical churches have a tendency to self-destruct over generations. They simply don’t last. Either they capitulate to modernism (and by their own admission have little or nothing to do with even the vaguest forms of Christianity) or they simply lose enough members and die, even if they maintain some form of a Christian witness. Part of the problem is sola scriptura: if it is ultimately “my interpretation of the Bible,” and there are 200 million of me, then there is inherently a self-mutating motion in evangelicalism. Therefore, St Cyprian can be said to say, “outside the church, you cease to resemble a real church over the long run.”
4) I don’t think Protestants (particularly evangelicals) and Orthodox view salvation in exactly the same way. For the Orthodox, as I understand it, salvation is not reduced to a one-time moment at a Billy Graham
concert rally. Without the visible, apostolic church, you aren’t going to see the fullness of the faith.
5) On the other hand, the stupidest thing an Orthodox (or Catholic) can do is to go up to a Protestant and say, “Yup, you and your family are going to roast because you aren’t part of us.” For one, you don’t know that. The final judgment has not yet happened. Secondly, you have effectively driven them away from Orthodoxy. Good job.
Clark Carlton has a fantastic podcast on this topic.