It is always difficult in these relativistic times, when the only heresy is to speak of heresy, to present the Orthodox teaching about the completeness of our faith. It comes across often as arrogance when in fact we do not mean that we are anything special at all, we readily confess our weakness, but this spiritual treasure we have received is indeed a treasure even if we carry it in vessels of clay. We do not mean that we who are members of the Orthodox Church are right, or better than others, or uniquely special. Far from it. Those who are becoming more truly Christian in the Orthodox way are more entirely aware of their being beginners in a journey into the infinite experience of God which is undeserved and unmerited.
But we do mean that we are convinced that there is truth about what Christianity teaches and that the teaching and practice of the Orthodox Church has preserved the Apostolic teaching and practice in a unique way that is not apparent in other groups, and that it is truly the Christian Church because it has not changed what is believed or what is practiced from the beginning, and has an unbroken continuity of life through 2000 years.
Where every other Christian group has been established centuries after the time of the Apostles, even in recent times, it is Orthodox Christianity which is established by the Apostles in the first century and by no one else. This does not mean that I think that I am right. It does not mean that I think I am holy. It does mean that I believe the Lord Jesus when he says that the Church will not be overcome. That Church on which he poured out his Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecosts has not ceased to exist as a visible and coherent community, and I have become part of it, not because I am true, but because the teaching of this same Apostolic Church is true.
We would not tell someone who said that he went to the Hospital because he was ill, that he was proud and arrogant. We would not tell someone who was ill that the advice he gained from his friends was just as valuable as from a Doctor at the Hospital. To say that the Hospital provides the best and safest and most reliable treatment and medicine is not pride. And the Church which was established by the Apostles, for those who have discovered it, is indeed a spiritual Hospital. Filled with people who are sick, but in so far as they follow the treatment laid down, are finding healing.
We would not tell someone who was drowning that he was proud and arrogant for swimming towards the Lifeboat as it called out to him. We would not say that he was just as safe if he held on to a piece of timber broken off from his sinking boat. And the Church which was established by Christ, and which has preserved a coherent existence through the last two centuries, is just such a spiritual Lifeboat. Do we believe that the Church was created as such a visible and defined community in the first century? Then it is reasonable to ask what happened to this visible and defined community, and where it can be found today. The Apostles are clear in their teaching in the New Testament that there is a true Gospel, and that there is a false Gospel. They are clear that there is a truth, and that there is error. They do not allow us to say that we can believe whatever we like as long as we mention the name of Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons also mention the name of Jesus, but they are not Christian groups. Likewise the Oneness Pentecostals deny the Holy Trinity, whatever else they say about Jesus, and are not a Christian group. If there is truth, and for the first 1500 years of the Church almost all Christians believed the same teachings and followed the same practices, then it makes sense that we should begin with understanding what the first Christians, those actually taught by the Apostles, believed and practiced, and they have left us many writings which make clear what they had been taught by the Apostles. If this is what is true, then all of us need to judge our own beliefs according to the Apostolic teaching. If this is true, then we need to follow the passage of history and see what happened to the Church the followed these teachings and practices and passed them on from generation to generation.
The idea that there is no truth and that whatever views people hold are equally valid is not Christian. Indeed the Bible is clear that there are other views about Christ and Christianity which are just wrong. There is a truth which the Church has taught from the beginning and which is well described in the writings of the earliest Christians. The relativism we see today is a very recent idea indeed. Even 100 years ago Christians were very clear about what they believed. An Anglican knew what he believed, and it was not the same as a Baptist, and a Baptist knew what he believed and it was not the same as a Methodist, and a member of the Plymouth Brethren knew what he believed and it was not what any of these others believed. The very modern ideas that either we should all be free to define Christianity as we choose, or that saying that there is a Christian truth is itself not Christian are not found in Scripture or in the teaching of any Christian groups until 1500 years after Christ. It is an interpretation of Christianity that suits our modern individualistic age, but it has nothing on common with the teaching of the Apostles.
What seems to be objectionable about Orthodoxy today is that it still insists that not only does it represent particular views, but that these views are true, and others are less true or even false. I have not become Orthodox because I think I am right and others are wrong. Indeed, I am well aware of how far from being right I am. But I have found myself, that when I began with the Church that Christ established and on which he poured out his Holy Spirit there is an historical continuity only with Orthodoxy – and I see this in relation to the ancient Orthodox Church of Alexandria of which I am a priest. I do not find myself committed to this community without any critical reflection at all. I am not wearing rose-tinted glasses. I am well aware of many problems and controversial issues that the Orthodox Church of Alexandria is wrestling with in the 21st century. But I am not Orthodox because I believe that Orthodox people in general are perfect, or that the members of this particular Orthodox community are better than other people. I am Orthodox because the Apostolic teaching and practice which has been preserved from the first century, and which is the basis of this Orthodox Church of Alexandria, are teachings and practices which always judge us, and always convict us of how we fail to live them out, and always act to correct us and draw us towards authentic Christian life in the Holy Spirit.
Anyone is free to say that they see no need to follow the Apostolic teaching and practice which is described in the writings of those they taught the Christian faith. But it does not seem reasonable to me to say that one who adopts such a view can consider themselves members of the Apostolic Church. That seems simply a matter of fact. It requires no judgement at all about the seriousness of the faithful intentions of those who reject the early Christian experience as being Apostolic and therefore authoritative. Indeed, there should be no judgement of any particular people. We should be swift to judge ourselves only, and leave all judgement of others to God. But this does not mean that we should deny the truth as we find it in the earliest and Apostolic Church, and suggest that it does not matter what anyone believes. There is a truth, and the Holy Spirit was promised to the Apostles to lead them into truth. Do we doubt that this is what was accomplished?
If we do believe, then we should expect that the Church, over which the gates of Hell will not prevail, should remain in existence as a visible community, from the first century to the present, and preserve the same truth, the same teaching and practices. In my own seeking after the earliest Church I followed the path that history provided me. I saw that the Orthodox Church of Alexandria was established by preaching of St Mark, and that the bishop he established to lead the community there was a man named Anianus. More than that, we know the names of all those who have led the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, of which I am the least, from the first century to the present day and to the leadership of Tawadros or Theodore, who is the Bishop of Alexandria, and the senior bishop or Patriarch of all Orthodox Christians gathered in this community.
I discovered the teachings of these earliest Christians, many of whom had been taught directly by the Apostles and their disciples, which they had written down as an explanation of their faith. I found that these teachings and practices were preserved in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the other local Orthodox communities. The Christian group in which I had grown up, filled with serious and devout Christians, had rejected all of these teachings. Indeed, when the group was founded in 1829 it explicitly rejected the early Church and considered that it had fallen into error and apostasy even while the last Apostles were alive. That is certainly one way to avoid the testimony of the earliest Christians, but long before I became Orthodox, or had really heard of Orthodoxy, it seemed to me that it was necessary to follow the early Church, and that to suggest it had fallen into error and apostasy was to deny the Scriptures and the words of our Lord Jesus who says to his Apostles… the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth … and the gates of Hell shall not prevail over the Church.
This is why I believe that Orthodoxy is uniquely true, and why I am a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It is nothing to do with the quality of the members of any Orthodox communities. It has nothing to do with any sort of judgement about other people, there is no such personal and moral judgement intended. It is all to do with a firm belief that the Apostolic and Earliest Church is truly the model of Christian teaching and practice, as Christ promised, and that therefore to embrace this ancient faith is to embrace the fullness of Christianity without addition or subtraction. This ancient faith is preserved, as history shows clearly, in the Orthodox communities, and in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which are built on this ancient and Apostolic faith and practice, however much individuals, and myself as the worst, fail to put this teaching and way of life into practice.
If it is Apostolic Christianity which is the fullness of faith, the true spiritual Hospital and Lifeboat of souls, then it matters whether or not we are seeking to dig deep into this original Christianity. I am convinced that it is Orthodoxy which represents this Apostolic Christianity, and so if I say that it is Orthodoxy which is true, what is meant is that the teachings of the Apostles are true, and the teachings of those they discipled and who also described their faith are true, and in seeking to embrace these I find that history shows me that Orthodoxy alone, and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, preserves this teaching, and gives the best opportunity to become authentically Christian and transfigured by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
I am Orthodox, but I am not perfect. I belong to the community of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, it is also made up of imperfect people who make mistakes and act out of weakness and sin on occasion. But I am seeking to follow this Apostolic faith, and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, built on this faith, is constantly judged by it and convicted of failing to manifest it. But this Apostolic Faith is perfect. It is the faith delivered to the Apostles by Christ and taught by them to the early Church, and described by them in their writings. It is this truth which is not negotiable. It is this true Gospel which Orthodoxy preserves though imperfectly in the lives of imperfect people. But in an age of absolute relativism, where believing something for certain is the great heresy, Orthodox Christians, myself included, insist that this Apostolic faith is true and life changing, and that it is preserved not as just an option, but as the basis of this community of people, this Church, which has existed from the beginning and continues in an unbroken continuity with the earliest Church.