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June 22, 2016

"Outside the Church There is No Salvation" Clarified in Light of the Fathers

King Kosmos, representing the whole world in darkness holding the scrolls of the Apostolic teaching

By John Sanidopoulos

The Latin phrase "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus"[1] is translated "outside the Church there is no salvation". This expression comes from a private letter of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century. The letter was written in reference to a particular controversy as to whether or not it was necessary to baptize applicants who had previously been baptized by heretics.

Cyprian was not necessarily expressing a theory on the eternal fate of all baptized and non-baptized persons, as Papal theology would later interpret it. He believed that those who were baptized outside the communion of the Church had no true baptism. And though many bishops disagreed with him, he never broke communion, but even went on to concede, when he wrote: "But some will say, 'What then will become of those who, in times past, coming to the Church from heresy, were admitted without baptism?' The Lord is able of His mercy to grant pardon, and not to sever from the gifts of His Church those who, being out of simplicity admitted to the Church, have in the Church fallen asleep." The key words here being "the Lord is able of His mercy."

Fr. George Florovsky has explained this doctrine as follows: "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church."[2]

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware clarifies: "Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: 'How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!' (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a 'visible' and an 'invisible Church', yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say."[3]

Fr. John Romanides even more clearly states: "There cannot be salvation outside the Church. Christ offers redemptive grace to all people. When one is saved outside the visible Church, it means that Christ Himself has saved him. If he is a heterodox member then he is saved because it was Christ who saved him, and not the religious offshoot that he belongs to. His salvation therefore is not effected by the Church he belongs to, because One is the Church that saves - and that is Christ."

Therefore, while Saint Irenaeus (died A.D. 202) wrote: "One should not seek among others the truth that can be easily gotten from the Church. For in her, as in a rich treasury, the apostles have placed all that pertains to truth, so that everyone can drink this beverage of life. She is the door of life."[4] He also said: "Christ came not only for those who believed from the time of Tiberius Caesar, nor did the Father provide only for those who are now, but for absolutely all men from the beginning, who, according to their ability, feared and loved God, and lived justly and piously towards their neighbors, and have earnestly desired to see Christ and to hear His voice." And also: ""There is one and the same God the Father and His Logos, always assisting the human race, with varied arrangements, to be sure, and doing many things, and saving from the beginning those who are saved, for they are those who love God, and, according to their age follow His Logos."[5]

Saint Gregory the Theologian took a rather broad view in his understanding of membership in the Body of Christ. In the funeral oration for his father's death in 374, Gregory stated, "He was ours even before he was of our fold. His manner of life made him one of us. Just as there are many of our own who are not with us, whose lives alienate them from the common body, so too there are many of those outside who belong really to us, men whose devout conduct anticipates their faith. They lack only the name of that which in fact they possess. My father was one of these, an alien shoot but inclined to us in his manner of life."[6]

Though there are many references in the early Church Fathers on this issue, below are a few other references to clarify things further:

Saint Nicetas of Remesiana (died A.D. 415) wrote: "The Church is simply the community of all the saints. All who from the beginning of the world were, or are, or will be justified – whether Patriarchs, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Prophets, whether Apostles or Martyrs, or any others – make up one Church, because they are made holy by one faith and way of life, stamped with one Spirit, made into one Body whose Head, as we are told, is Christ. I go further. The angels and virtues and powers in heaven are co-members in this one Church, for, as the Apostle teaches us, in Christ `all things whether on the earth or in the heavens have been reconciled.’ You must believe, therefore, that in this one Church you are gathered into the communion of saints. You must know that this is the one Catholic Church established throughout the world, and with it you must remain in unshaken communion. There are, indeed, other so-called Churches with which you can have no communion: for example, those of the Manicheans, the Cataphrygians, the Marcianites, and other heretics and schismatics. These Churches cease to be holy, because they were deceived by the doctrines of the devil to believe and behave differently from what Christ commanded and from the tradition of the Apostles."[7]

Saint Clement of Rome wrote in the first century: "Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted unto Him. Noah preached repentance, and as many as listened to him were saved. Jonah proclaimed destruction to the Ninevites; but they, repenting of their sins, propitiated God by prayer, and obtained salvation, although they were aliens [to the covenant] of God."[8]

Saint Augustine wrote: "Certainly it is clear that, when we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body, since all who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark through the same water, through which all who are in heart without, whether they are also in body without or not, die as enemies of unity. As therefore it was not another but the same water that saved those who were placed within the ark, and destroyed those who were left without the ark, so it is not by different baptisms, but by the same, that good Catholics are saved, and bad Catholics or heretics perish."[9]

Saint Justin Martyr wrote: "Christ is the Logos of whom the whole race of men partake. Those who lived according to the Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus."[10]

Saint Nilus of Sinai wrote: "In every nation, the one who fears God and does justice is acceptable to Him. For it is clear that such a one is acceptable to God and is not to be cast aside, who at his own right time flees to the worship of the blessed knowledge of God. God will not allow him to die in ignorance, but will lead him to the truth, and will enlighten him with the light of knowledge, like Cornelius."[11]

To conclude, while the aphorism is true that "outside the Church there is no salvation", salvation is possible according to God's mercy outside the canonical boundaries of the Church, since those outside the canonical boundaries of the Church who may be saved are in essence spiritual members of the Church by grace, otherwise known as charismatic members.

This echoes the theology we find in the New Testament, especially the Epistle to the Romans of Saint Paul, which can be summarized as follows: Those who follow the Spirit of Christ, the Logos who writes the law on their hearts, are Christians, are members of Christ, are members of His Church. They may lack indeed external adherence; they may never have heard of the Church. But yet, in the substantial sense, without formal adherence, they do belong to Christ, to His Church. And outside this Church, there is no salvation.


1. Letter LXXII.

2. Florovsky, George. "Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church", in The Church of God, p. 53)

3. Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. Penguin (1993).

4. Against Heresies, III.4

5. Against Heresies, IV.6, 22.

6. Oration 18.

7. Explanation of the Creed, 10.

8. Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 7.

9. On Baptism: Against the Donatists, V.28.

10. First Apology.

11. Epistle to Maximian. PG 79. 145.