What is the “Church”? This routine question pops up in Christian discussions all the time. The usual answer is: The Church is not a building; it is the people who follow Christ. I suppose that’s a decent answer so far as it goes. But it’s a bit like saying, “the sun is hot.” Though true, it’s not exactly plumbing the depth of understanding. Eastern Orthodoxy is obsessed with answering this question and the next two articles will be my understanding of what the Church is thus far in my journey with Orthodoxy.
To begin with, the Orthodox Church makes a pretty outrageous claim, the claim that they are the one true Apostolic Church. This claim nearly derailed my pursuit of Orthodoxy right out of the gates. Having left the Mormon Church as a teenager, a Church that made the same claim, I had a deep-seated interest in avoiding all doctrines of a one true Church.
But the idea that there is one Church is, incidentally, a fundamental Christian doctrine. I’ll cite two sources that settled for me whether or not this is the case. First, of course, is Scripture. Paul, after rebuking the Corinthians for having various factions among them—some claiming they were of Paul, others of Apollos, and others of Cephas—asks: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:12-13). The resounding answer (repeated in unison by all the Apostles and Church Fathers) is “God forbid!” The second source is the Nicene Creed where is says, “I believe in One Holy Catholic [universal] and Apostolic Church.”
The Nicene Creed is foundational for the orthodox rendering of the Christian faith. To remain a unified Church the early Church Fathers realized that without a uniform creed, which summarized the ‘official’ doctrines of Christianity, the Church was bound to disintegrate into nothing more than thousands of splinter groups, each opposing the other, in a mad chaotic mess of sectarianism (you know, something like what we have today).
Here is where it got tricky for me as an independent, charismatic, evangelical. The only way I could agree with the Creed (that is, with historic Christianity) was if I imagined that the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” was a spiritual abstraction. I had to convince myself that the Church Fathers meant this figuratively; that in a spiritual sense there is only One Church, and that this Church—true believers in Christ—would be revealed in last days once all was said and done. In a sense, this is true. But that is not what the writers of the Creed meant. The whole purpose of the Creed was to establish orthodoxy (i.e. “right belief” or “right worship”) and keep the Church intact, hence one made the confession that there was only one Church, both a spiritual and concrete Church.
I also had to come to grips with the Scripture that said that the gates of hell would never prevail against Christ’s Church. If Protestantism represented the authentic Church then the Church must have suffered defeat for quite some time since the Reformation happened some 1500 years into the story. And besides that, I had to contend with the 10’s of 1000’s of splits within Protestantism (which my church was one of). If Protestantism was a work of the Holy Spirit then the Holy Spirit has a serious problem promoting unity.
But this was not a proposition I was willing to entertain for any length of time, regardless of its logic, for the simple fact that the only alternative I knew of was Roman Catholicism. My studies in Church history convinced me long ago that I could never become Roman Catholic (for reasons not particularly important to this article).
And though I’m trying to avoid any “boring” historical explaining here, it is important to give an account—an overtly brief and in no way comprehensive account—of the genesis of Roman Catholicism in order to elaborate on my reasons for seeing Eastern Orthodoxy in the light I have. In short, the Roman Church split from its Eastern brother Churches for two main reasons:
(1) The Latin (or Roman) Church changed the Nicene Creed in what is known as the famous “filioque” controversy. I’ll spare you the details for time sake.
(2) The bishop at Rome believed it was his rightful place to become head over the entire Church. In contradistinction to the historic Church which had always been led by a council of bishops (specifically the five original sees: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople), Rome wanted to rule supreme.
The Eastern churches at the time (c. 1060 AD) would not suffer the Creed to be altered and would not give supreme rule to any single individual, hence the first major Church split between the Eastern and Western Church.
It is not a matter of personal opinion that for the first 1000 years of Christianity the Church ran according to councils. These councils deliberated over the great issues of the day that confronted the Church and helped to keep her the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” One finds the first Church council in the book of Acts chapter 15 followed by a number of councils that continued right up until the great schism.
What is a matter of personal opinion is whether or not the Church that remained faithful to the Apostolic tradition (the Eastern Orthodox Church) is what the Church should be today. In other words, just because this is how the Church was in the beginning does that necessarily mean that this is how the Church should always be—must the Church always resemble its roots? To this question I say “yes.” I found the Orthodox Church to be faithful both theologically to the historic teachings of the Apostles and their direct disciples (the Church Fathers) and faithful in their religious practices as providing the closest representation of the Church prior to the schism. That’s important to me because it means that I participate in the same liturgy, the same doctrine, and the same spirit/understanding that has, historically speaking, always been “Christianity.”
This article is only the ground work. The real heart and soul of the Orthodox ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) goes much deeper and I will attempt to tap into it on the next post. Thanks for reading! Hope you’ll join me on the next one.