Why consider “Orthodoxy”

While thinking about the introduction to the blog, I remembered a recent conversation with a friend of mine on the different denominations in Christianity. My friend had been prejudiced by many Christian thoughts. He was very adamant about the fact that no matter what, ultimately all denominations praise and worship the same God. The only difference is that each has its own way of doing it, and it is very much fine until and unless we don’t move away from the true God. That’s how I decide that the introduction to this blog should be about “Why Consider Orthodoxy”. By the grace of the Lord Almighty I came across a sermon that explained very beautifully and exactly what I wanted to communicate to all my Christian friends out there. The below is an extract from sermon given by Father Peter Farrington of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, and is a missionary. He became Orthodox in 1994 from an Evangelical Protestant background and has not ceased to be concerned for the salvation of the British people. “There are over 7 billion people crowded more or less closely together on this world. About 2 billion consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ in one way or another. Of these 2 billion, only perhaps 350 million at the most belong to Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Among the non-orthodox the Catholic community is the largest with the membership at about 1.2 billion, while the rest various protestant groups are gathered together in anything upto 35,000 different denominations and groups. There are plenty of choices for someone thinking about becoming a Christian. Often and overwhelmingly confusing variety of choices. Now 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 save 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 only a statement of opinion, perhaps a 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 insisted 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 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 arts and will find that the Orthodox tradition of iconography is a 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 cd’s, yet others will first come into contact with orthodoxy in a meaningful way because a friend at school or college or colleague at work identify 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. 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 foundations of reasons of why, what is being told 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 the reasons be given which are substantial and robust. Even in the case of those who are 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 east are now growing up in the west when 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” in 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 found by our Lord Jesus Christ. At some point in interest in various aspects of orthodoxy, firm friendship 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. Let us look into just two reasons, they are not the only reasons ofcourse but they are perhaps the most important. The first reason that 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 of 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 higher regard for Jesus Christ. In Ephesus we read this and Paul met such group but they had not received the Holy Spirit and only knew of the baptism of John the Baptist. It was St. Paul who told them about the apostolic faith, baptized 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 are having the connection with the earliest and the apostolic church. I was brought up in the 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 their 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 church of England or the church of Ireland, elsewhere in the world there are various episcopal churches. 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 its sole protector and supreme head of the church and clergy of England with the spiritual as well as the temple jurisdiction and thus became the new jurisdiction divided from Rome in doctrine as well as in authority. We can easily see that it was a new group because those who continue to hold faithfully to the catholic tradition were persecuted and even tortured to death, while the ancient churches and monasteries were destroyed and the holy remains of the saints of England were thrown out like rubbish.

If we consider the Methodist, they became a new group separating themselves from the episcopal church in England in 1784 when they found that John Wesley began ordaining Methodists ministers to serve in the United States of America. After Wesley’s death the breach with the Anglicanism became greater and in almost every village in England maybe 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 Methodist, there were many subsequent divisions and the establishment of other groups after the first introduction of the movement with its own new ideas and practices. In England the Baptist’s can trace their origin back to 1612 when a congregation opened in London, one of the earliest pastors of this movement, John Smyth baptized himself. It was certainly a new group with a new start breaking of 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 to “Adros the second or Theodore” and He is the 118 successor to “St. Mark the evangalist” whose preaching first established the church in Egypt. The history of the patriarchs is the volume of the lives of these 118 church leaders and it is continuing to be written. Pope 2 Adros and the bishops of Alexandria were called pope long before the bishop of Rome is the senior bishop of the same church as that which mark established. If we consider other orthodox churches we find the same connection with the apostolic church. The present patriarch of Jerusalem is Theophilos the third and he is the 141 successor to St. James, the brother of our Lord Jesus, the first bishop of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Zakka 1, the place were the followers of Jesus were first called Christians is the direct successor of the apostle Peter and of Evodius the first bishop of Antioch. Catholicos of Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Syrian Church, Baselious MarThoma Paulose II, is the 91st in the lineage of Catholicos of the East in the Apostolic Throne of St.Thomas.  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 or 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 Lyon in the second century describes how all of the true churches could show that they had their origins in the ministry of 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 Symrna. 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 learnt from the apostles and which the church has handed down and which alone are true. To these things all the churches in Asia testified as to also those men who have succeeded Polycarp as bishop down to the present time. St. Ireneaus 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 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 the those malignant minded people whom I have described have any existence previous to the initiators and inventors to their error, for Valentinus only came to Rome in the time of Hyginus and flourished under Pius and remained until Anicetus. We should consider the argument as it implies today. If a Christian group is only being created in recent times, then what authority does it have, how is it connected to the church of the apostles, to the church of Christ. St. Irenaeus would reject it is being a source of error because if it was the apostolic church it would have a continuity with the communities which the apostles established. It seems that only orthodoxy continues this continuity into the present times and is therefore worthy of a serious and detailed consideration as being the apostolic church in our own times.

But ofcourse 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 have 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 had fallen 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 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 the 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 generation especially those outside their own community. Lest we adopt the view of 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 infact contrary to the same scriptures which they interpret as their only authority.

It was our Jesus Christ himself who said ” I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it and when He the Spirit of Truth will 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 the powers of hell will not be able to prevail over them. That being so and there is surely no other interpretation which allows us to point that the early church has fallen into apostasy we much consider the teachings and practices of the early and apostolic church and ask where we best find them preserved. Protestants are often surprised to discover that there are 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 A.D and lived through the rest of the 2nd century. He became the bishop of Lyon, in what is now France, but he was from Asia minor. His own bishop when he was young was Polycarp, a famous martyr who was killed in about 155 A.D. and St. Polycarp had been the disciple of apostle John and had known many people who had seen Christ themselves. St. Ireneaus had a deep connection to the earliest Christians, even to the time of Christ himself. Another writer Papias was bishop of Hierapolis also in Asia minor and he lived about at the same time as Polycarp. Being on the major road he was able to speak with many people in his youth who had known the apostles, who had spoken with them and learned from them, who were travelling to and from different places in the empire. The daughters of St. Philip, the apostle lived in his town and they often spoke about their father.

The apostolic teachings were there 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 lightly. We must take them as the record of the early Christian life and teaching which they represent. What 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 martyred in Rome in about 107 A.D. We know that he was the second bishop of Antioch after Evodius, who was appointed by the apostles and died in 67 A.D. 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 letter. They allow us to say a little about 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 the things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, with the presbyters in the place of council of apostles and the deacons who are more dear to me entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who is with the father from the beginning and is the last made manifest”. Elsewhere he writes about the Eucharist saying ” In obedience to the bishop and the presbytery of priests 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 is a cleansing remedy driving away evil which causes us that we should live in God through Jesus Christ”. Here we see that the Eucharist is described as the medicine of immortality and that it cleanses us from evil and grants us life. In another early writing ‘the didache’ written while some of the apostles were still alive we find ” Fast on the fourth day i.e Wednesday and on the preparation day i.e Friday, do not pray like the hypocrites but rather as the Lord commanded in his gospel like this ;Our Father who art in heaven and pray this three times each day. We can see here that the early Christians fasted twice a week on Wednesday’s and Friday’s 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 defensive Christianity to the emperor says “As many as are persuaded and believe 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 passed, we praying and fasting with them, then they are brought by us where there is water and they are made regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves regenerated, and we after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and assented to our teaching brings him to a 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 person and for all others in every place and we may be counted worthy now that we have learned the truth by our works also to be found good citizens and keep up 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 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 for the regeneration or the new birth and who is so living as Christ has taught us, for not as common bread and common drink do we receive these but in the same manner as Jesus Christ, our savior having been made flesh by the word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise we have been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of his word and from which our flesh and blood by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who is made flesh”.

Here we see that the early church believed that in baptism that there was both washing away of sins and the regeneration or the new birth. We see that only those who have been baptized 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 the teachings and practices best and to ask whether the Orthodox churches already preserving the historic continuity with the apostolic church also preserves a continuity of faith and practice.

The Plymouth brethren for instance rejected priests and bishops. They told that baptism was a means of public witness to the Christian faith rather than a means of remission of sins and new birth. The Eucharist was considered as an immoral meal, the bread and wine did not change into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. There was no fasting and infact we did not even pray the Lord’s prayer, let alone three times a day. If we take all of these 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 seniors ministers as bishops. Methodist also rejects the Eucharist as the true body and blood if our Lord Jesus Christ and many modern Methodists have rejected some of the other core beliefs of Christianity. The United Methodist for instance does not believe that baptism is necessary and have not disciplined a bishop, who rejects both the virgin birth and the resurrection and ofcourse Methodism is no more ancient than the 18th century. Just as in case of the Plymouth brethren, Methodism shows to lack both historical and the doctrinal continuity with the apostolic church. It is a different Christian community all together. The Baptist churches are in the same situation, having rejected many of the teachings and observances of the early and apostolic church and even the Anglican church which is allowing more and more extreme views to be held by its clergy and members neither holds any of the teachings and practices of the apostolic church nor has a 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 organization which preserves the continuity even without the evangelical and protestant groups.

If we consider orthodoxy we do find a different condition. Orthodox still continues to maintain the three fold order of bishops, priests and deacons which St. Ignatius described in the first century church. We have already seen that the primates of 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 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 and even the kiss of peace is still offered within the liturgical worship of the orthodox churches as a sign and means of fellowship and reconciliation between the believers. We have only looked at the few aspects of the teachings of the earliest church but the deeper we investigate we will find that the greater the continuity between the early church and the orthodox churches. This is not accidental and neither is it irrelevant for the search of 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 the important and the significant aspects of the teaching and practice of the early church then they also should be rejected as not being in continuity with the apostolic church.

Orthodoxy would seem is the 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 have rejected the teachings of the early church. Clearly they have preserved the historical continuity and they have not rejected the apostolic teachings. These would seem to be the 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 which will be discovered and considered in due course. For instance ‘who was it 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 have developed such a 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, can 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 a dual continuity then surely more than all other Christian groups with recent and sometimes very recent origins should be considered with great seriousness as representing the authentic and apostolic church of Christ.”