There are over seven billion people crowded more or less closely together on this world. About two billion consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ in one way or another. Of these two billion only perhaps 350 million at most belong to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. Among the non-Orthodox the Catholic community is largest with a membership of about 1.2 billion, while the rest, the various Protestant groups, are gathered together in anything up to 35,000 different denominations and groups. There are plenty of choices for someone thinking about becoming a Christian, often an overwhelmingly confusing variety of choices. There are just as many choices for a Christian seeking after the truth, and it can be just as confusing.
It is necessary to ask, why should anyone consider Orthodoxy?
Orthodox Christians say of their own Tradition that it is true, and that it is authentically the one Church which Christ established 2000 years ago. But this is, on its own, simply a statement of opinion, perhaps of belief, but not any sort of proof. Many other members of other Christian groups also claim that they alone are true representatives of the Church or insist that there can be no one tradition which is especially true and that all those who respect Jesus Christ in some way or another, even if they cannot accept that he is more than a great teacher, should be considered Christians.
A simple statement of the Orthodox belief that the Church is especially and uniquely found in the community of Orthodox Christians requires rather more evidence to be likely to persuade others. And this evidence must be presented, and will be briefly introduced at least in the course of this study.
Many people develop an interest in Orthodoxy through an accidental connection rather than as the fruit of any amount of study and research. Some will have an interest in Christian art and will find that the Orthodox Tradition of iconography is an area of study that leads to the first steps in participating in the Orthodox Christian way of life. Others will have an interest in Christian chant and music and will perhaps first discover Orthodoxy while acquiring a collection of liturgical CDs. Yet others will first come into contact with Orthodoxy in a meaningful way because a friend at school, or college, or a colleague at work, identified themselves as an Orthodox Christian. All of these and a great many more accidental means of making first contact have resulted in non-Orthodox Christians, and complete non-believers, becoming committed Orthodox Christians.
But these various means by which we come into contact with Orthodoxy will all require, at some stage in any thinking person’s pilgrimage towards Christ, the foundation of reasons why what is being taught is true and trustworthy. And for those whose experience of Orthodoxy is still at the stage of reading and thinking then it is especially important that reasons be given which are substantial and robust.
Even in the case of those who have been born and brought up in Orthodox households there will come a time when each person must be convinced for themselves about the value of Orthodoxy, especially when so many Orthodox from the East are now growing up in the West, with such a plurality of Christian groups, all competing for attention and all claiming authority.
As St Peter says..
Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have.
1 Peter 3:15
It seems necessary, therefore, that we should be able to explain clearly why Orthodoxy considers itself especially and authentically to be the Church which was founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. At some point an interest in various aspects of Orthodoxy, firm friendships with Orthodox Christians, and even being brought up in an Orthodox family will not be enough. We need to be able to provide evidence for the unique position which we give to Orthodoxy. We will look at just two reasons in this lecture. They are not the only reasons of course, but they are some of the most important.
The first reason why we should consider Orthodoxy is that it is able to demonstrate a continuous history back to the first century. We know that when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles in the Upper Room at the first Pentecost, the community of Christ, the Church, was established in a unique manner. Others must join themselves to this Church. They must be established by the Apostles and those who had delegated authority from them. There were others who also had a high regard for Jesus Christ. In Ephesus we read that St Paul met such a group, but they had not received the Holy Spirit and only knew of the baptism of John the Baptist. It was St Paul who taught them the Apostolic Faith, baptised them and laid hands on them so that they might also be filled with the Holy Spirit and become part of the Apostolic Church.
There were not many Churches, but only one. For the first century it was shepherded by the Apostles and those who had known the Apostles, whom they had set in place over the various Christian communities. If we are considering the wide variety of choices which are available to someone seeking Christ today, each one calling themselves Christian and the Church, then we are surely justified in asking which ones have a connection with the earliest and Apostolic Church.
I was brought up in a Christian group called the Plymouth Brethren. They were founded in the British Isles in about 1829. We know the names of those who were the earliest leaders. We know where they lived and where they died. We have copies of many of their sermons and teachings. But whatever the nature of these teachings we know that this group came into existence, with its own unique view of what Christianity stands for, in the first part of the 19th century.
Some of the early leaders of the Plymouth Brethren had been members of the Church of England, or the Church of Ireland, elsewhere in the world they are the various Episcopal Churches. But we know exactly when this Christian group was established. It was between 1531 and 1534 that the Catholic Church in England was forced to accept King Henry VIII as sole protector and Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England, with a spiritual as well as a temporal jurisdiction and thus became a new Christian jurisdiction divided from Rome in doctrine as well as in authority. We can easily see that it was a new group because those who continued to hold faithfully to the Catholic Tradition were persecuted and even tortured to death, while ancient Churches and Monasteries were destroyed and the holy remains of the saints of England were thrown out like rubbish.
If we consider the Methodists, they became a new group, separating themselves from the Episcopal Church of England in 1784 when their founder, John Wesley, began ordaining Methodist ministers to serve in the USA. After Wesley’s death the breach with Anglicanism became greater and in almost every village in England there may be found a Methodist Church holding services separately from the Anglican Church.
In the same villages there will also be a Baptist Church of one variety or another. Like the Methodists there were many subsequent divisions and the establishment of other groups after the first introduction of a movement with new ideas and practices. In England the Baptists can trace their origins back to 1612 when a congregation opened in London. One of the earliest pastors of this movement, John Smyth, baptised himself. It was certainly a new group with a new start, breaking off all connections with the past.
If the Church was founded in the first century, why would we grant any authority to those who established new groups 1500 or more years after the time of the Apostles? On the contrary, when we turn to considering Orthodoxy we find that it has those roots in the earliest Church. In 2012, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria elected and consecrated a new Patriarch, or senior bishop. He took the name Tawadros II, or Theodore, and is the 118th successor to St Mark the Evangelist whose preaching first established the Church in Egypt. The History of the Patriarchs is a volume of the lives of these 188 Church leaders and it is continuing to be written. Pope Tawadros (the bishops of Alexandria were called Pope long before the bishop of Rome) is the senior bishop of the same Church as that which St Mark established.
But if we consider other Orthodox Churches we find the same connection with the Apostolic Church. The present Patriarch of Jerusalem is Theofilos III and he is the 141st successor to St James, the brother of our Lord Jesus, and the first bishop of the Christian community in Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, the place where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, is the direct successor of the Apostle Peter, and of Evodius, the first bishop of Antioch.
There is no such connection with the Apostolic Church within the Baptist movement, within Methodism, within the Episcopal Churches, or within any number of smaller and even more recently formed groups. This seems a substantial reason for considering the claims of Orthodoxy, and for holding the view that Orthodoxy remains the Apostolic Church. History shows us that there is a continuity which cannot be ignored, and which is not present in the more recent Christian groups.
The earliest Church asked the same question when it looked around and saw various heretical groups claiming to be the Church. St Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in the second century, describes how all of the true Churches could show that they had their origins in the ministry of the Apostles and the bishops they ordained. He says..
Polycarp was not only instructed by the Apostles, and spoke with many who had seen Christ, but he was also, by the Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna. I saw him in my early youth, for he lived on earth a very long time, and, when he was a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, he departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Churches in Asia testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp as bishop down to the present time.
St Irenaeus has much to say about those who taught error in his own times, but it is enough to show that he points to the recent origins of all of these groups as a reason for rejecting their authenticity, saying..
Prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those who follow Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have described, had any existence previous to the initiators and inventors of their error. For Valentinus only came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus.
We should consider the weight of this argument as it applies today. If a Christian group has only been created in recent times then what authority does it have? How is it connected to the Church of the Apostles? St Irenaeus would reject it as being a source of error, because if it was the Apostolic Church it would have a continuity with the communities which the Apostles established.
But of course the Orthodox Church might be old, and might well have a direct historical connection with the Apostolic Church, nevertheless it might also have ceased to believe and practice as the earliest Church, and so lost any claim to represent the Church which Christ established.
This was what the founders of the Plymouth Brethren believed in the early 19th century. They read the Scriptures and interpreting them among themselves they decided that even while the New Testament was being written the whole Church fell into such great Apostasy that it ceased to exist as Christ intended. To all intents and purposes this allowed them to completely ignore all of Church History and the writings and teachings of every Church Father. Whatever had been written which disagreed with their interpretation of Scripture could be rejected as merely a sign of the Apostate nature of the early Church.
Certainly this was a radical approach. It allowed the Plymouth Brethren to start a new Christian movement from scratch, with a clean slate. Whatever was taught by them must be the truth since their interpretation of Scripture was given absolute authority.
But the same approach has essentially been adopted by all the modern groups which began breaking away from Catholicism in the 16th century, and it continues right down to the present time. Calvin and Zwingli both rejected the teachings of the Church on the basis of their own interpretations of Scripture. Most modern groups pay no attention to the teachings of past generations, especially those outside their own community.
Unless we adopt the view of the Plymouth Brethren, we must surely compare the teachings of any modern group of Christians, and the teachings of the Orthodox Church, and discover which ones are consistent with the teachings of the early Church. The Plymouth Brethren view is in fact contrary to the same Scriptures which they interpret as their only authority. It was our Lord Jesus Christ himself who said..
I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.
If this Scripture is true then we must surely believe that the early Christians were indeed led into truth and that the powers of Hell were not able to prevail over them. That being so, and there is surely no other interpretation which allows us to paint the early Church as fallen into Apostasy, we must consider the teachings and practices of the early and Apostolic Church, and ask where we best find these preserved.
Protestants are often surprised to discover that there so many documents and writings preserved from the earliest Church down to our own times. We have already mentioned St Irenaeus. He was born in about 130 AD and lived through the rest of the 2nd century. He became bishop of Lyons in what is now France, but was from Asia Minor. His own bishop, when he was young, was St Polycarp, a famous martyr who was killed in about 155 AD. St Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John, and had known many people who had seen Christ themselves, or had known those who were eyewitnesses. St Irenaeus had a deep connection to the earliest Christians, even to the time of Christ himself. Nor was he unique at all.
Another writer, Papias, was bishop of Hierapolis, also in Asia Minor. He lived about the same time as St Polycarp. Being on a major road he was able to speak with many people in his youth who had known the Apostles, or had spoken with those who had learned from them. He even had the daughters of St Philip the Apostle living in his town. The Apostolic teachings were everywhere and were transmitted into the next century because so many people had learned the authoritative Christian faith from the followers of the Apostles.
So when we read the writings of these important early Christians we cannot dismiss them, we need to treat them as the record of early Christian life and teaching which they represent. What do we read in these records of the early Church?
One writer was St Ignatius of Antioch. He was born very early in the first century, and was martyed in Rome in about 107 AD. We know that he was the second bishop of Antioch after Evodius, who had been appointed by the Apostles and who had died in 67 AD. He wrote a series of letters, in haste, while he was being taken from Antioch to Rome to face martyrdom.
Here are a few passages from his letters. They allow us to see a little of what the Apostolic Church was like.
Firstly we see that the Church had bishops, priests and deacons. St Ignatius writes..
Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest — Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1
Elsewhere he writes about the Eucharist saying…
In obedience to the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, break one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which prevents us from dying, but a cleansing remedy driving away evil, which causes that we should live in God through Jesus Christ.
Here we see that the Eucharist is described as the ‘medicine of immortality’ and that is cleanses from evil and grants life.
In another early writing, the Didache, written while some of the Apostles were still alive, we find..
Fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation day (Friday). Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever..
Pray this three times each day.
We can see that the early Christians fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, and they had a simple rule of prayer which consisted of praying the Lord’s Prayer in the morning, in the middle of the day, and in the evening.
Yet another early Christian writer, St Justin Martyr, in his Apology or Defense of Christianity to the Emperor, says..
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated….
….But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss….
….And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.
Here we see that the early Church believed that in baptism there was both the washing away of sins, and regeneration, or the new birth. We see that only those who have been baptised are allowed to share in the worship of the Church, and the prayers of the Church conclude with a kiss of peace. And we see that among these early Christians the bread and wine of the Eucharist were considered the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus, not merely a symbol, but truly changed by transmutation into his own flesh and blood.
These are enough excerpts from the writings of the earliest Christians to allow us to ask which of the ancient and modern Christian groups preserves their teachings and practices, and to ask whether the Orthodox Churches, already preserving a historical continuity with the Apostolic Church, also preserves a continuity of faith and practice.
The Plymouth Brethren, for instance, rejected priests and bishops. They taught that baptism was a means of public witness to Christian faith, rather than a means of the remission of sins and new birth. The Eucharist was considered as a memorial meal, the bread and wine did not change into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus. There was no fasting, and in fact we did not even pray the Lord’s Prayer, let alone three times a day. If we take all of these differences between the teachings and practices of the Plymouth Brethren, and the fact that they were not established until 1829, we would have to conclude that they are not the Apostolic Church.
The Methodist churches have also rejected priests, though some groups do call their senior ministers bishops. Methodism also rejects any sense that the Eucharist is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and many modern Methodists have rejected some of the other core beliefs of Christianity. The United Methodists, for instance, do not believe that baptism is necessary and they have not disciplined a bishop who rejects both the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. And of course Methodism is no more ancient than the 18th century. Just as in the case of the Plymouth Brethren, Methodism can be shown to lack both historical and doctrinal continuity with the Apostolic Church. It is a different Church altogether.
The Baptist Churches are in the same situation, and even the Anglican Church, which is allowing more and more extreme views to be held by its clergy and members neither holds the same teachings and practices as the Apostolic Church nor has an historical continuity with it. The most modern groups do not even pretend to maintain the same teachings and practices as the early Church, and they often lack any organisation which preserves a continuity even with other evangelical and protestant groups.
But if we consider Orthodoxy we do find a different condition. Orthodox certainly continues to maintain the threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons which St Ignatius described in the first century Church. We have already seen that the primates of the ancient Churches preserve a continuity with the first bishops in those places. The Orthodox Churches also keep the most ancient practice of fasting on every Wednesday and Friday. They also continue to teach that in the Eucharist the elements of bread and wine are truly changed into the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Orthodox have never failed to believe that by baptism the believer is granted the remission of sins and the new birth, not in a symbolic but in a true manner. And it is in Orthodoxy that the spiritual practice of praying at regular hours through the day is still maintained by the faithful members of the Church.
We have only looked at a few aspects of the teaching of the earliest Church but the deeper we investigated, the greater the continuity between the early Church and the Orthodox Churches would be found.
This is not accidental, and neither is it irrelevant to the search for authentic Christianity. If all other groups can be shown to have started much later than the time of Christ, and under the influence of particular religious thinkers then they should be rejected as not being in continuity with the Apostolic Church. If all other groups can be shown to have rejected significant and important aspects of the teaching and practice of the early Church then they should be rejected as not being in continuity with the Apostolic Church.
Orthodoxy, it would seem, is the same Church which was founded by Christ and which was established by the Apostles. This could only be denied if there was no historical continuity, and if the Orthodox Churches of today had rejected the teachings of the early Church. But they have preserved that historic continuity and they have not rejected the Apostolic teachings.
These would seem to be two very good reasons for considering Orthodoxy. They require us to treat the early and Apostolic Church as the standard and measure for authentic Christianity, and according to that measure only Orthodoxy can be shown to have maintained a real continuity with the Apostolic Church.
There are other reasons we will consider in due course. For instance, who gave us the Bible? Shouldn’t we trust the Church that selected the writings which we treat as authoritative Scripture? And how is it that Orthodoxy has such a developed and successful spirituality with its roots in the very earliest Church?
But it is enough to ask for now, in what way can a Christian group be considered authentically related to the Apostolic Church of Christ if it has no historical continuity and rejects those things which the Apostolic Church taught and practiced? And if Orthodoxy does have such dual continuity then surely, more than all other Christian groups with recent, and sometimes very recent origins, it should be considered with seriousness.