Resources - Which Church?
So Many to Choose From
The choice of Christian denominations today is bewildering. According to a recent survey there are no less than 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world. Over half of them are independent churches that are not interested in linking with the major denominations. In this sea of Christian disunity can we truly say that there is one Church that should command our attention above all others? Such a claim might seem preposterous and self serving, yet, if it could be shown to be true, might that not be the most important question for a Christian or an enquirer seeking out the "right" church?
Will the true Church please stand up?!
Is it possible then that there might be one true Church? How should we look at that question?
Some people say that there cannot possibly be one true Church with so many denominations around and God working in many if not all of them. There is a fundamental misunderstanding involved here. Supposing that there is one true Church does NOT mean that all the other churches are of no account, unworthy, unsound or unblessed. Far from it; God is merciful and compassionate and the Orthodox view is that heaven will be full of many surprises for Christians with tunnel vision.
However, why is it an absurd notion that God might have preserved the FULLNESS of His Church in one identifiable, visible global community? It seems much more consistent with God's care and love that he should have made that provision for humankind. He certainly did so in Israel before Christ. There was only ever one "Israel of God" and that was an identifiable visible community. This does not prove the matter for the Church after Christ but it does open up the question as a reasonable one to ask if only because there should be continuity and consistency here from the Old Testament to the New.
If such a God provided fullness were to exist in one true Church, what would be its characteristic marks? How might that Church be recognised?
Marks of True Greatness
The formula that all Christians have followed in that it neatly summarises so much of New Testament doctrine concerning the Church is that she is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. So what do these mean and what evidence is there that the Orthodox Church bears these marks of true greatness to the point we could say that: "yes, this is the one true Church of old, for ever new"?
Our Lord Jesus Christ's blueprint for His Church is substantially laid down in John 17. It is here, at the end of his earthly ministry, that he commits his Presence and His Mission to the disciples, soon-to-be-apostles. Their unity is a brotherhood with none having pre-eminent place. It is a unity reflecting the unity of Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. It is a visible unity but not a mere institutional unity. The unity of which we speak is a witness to the world of the sending of Christ to the world and the good news that He brought. Unity is implicated in the very act of Mission, the Church's essential life.
The Orthodox Church is One Church but her unity is not based on a single Christian leader, denominational or papal. Her unity is associational, a fellowship in the Holy Spirit. However, this unity is no mere symbol or ecumenical aspiration. It is a practical expression of love in the body of Christ that respects totally and utterly local culture and even nationhood without compromising the primary international and multicultural allegiance to God, the Father of all. It seems to us that the unity of Christ's Church is neither centralised (we have no Pope) nor is it expressed through independence or invisible bonds. A Japanese Orthodox Christian visiting a Greek Orthodox Church in South Africa would feel utterly at home. St. Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek, experienced no spiritual "jet-lag" when he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 668 AD. St. John Maximovitch, a Russian, felt equally at home as a bishop in both Shanghai and San Francisco.
The fundamental biblical meaning of "holy" is "set apart." This is the clear sense of holiness in John 17 where our Lord recognises that his friends will necessarily be set apart from the world whilst being part of it. Such consecration to God inevitably leads to persecution because a Christian's ultimate allegiance is to no man (or woman!) but rather to God alone. Growth in holiness, therefore, is shaped by the cross and driven by the resurrection.
The Orthodox Church will have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the powers of this world in matters spiritual, according only to human authority that which is legitimate and submitting to its blows where necessary. It is not for the Orthodox Church to claim holiness for itself but rather it is for you, reader, to judge the impact of Orthodox witness over centuries of sustained persecution. The Orthodox Church has ever been the Church of the Martyrs. If the Church is experiencing an easy life ... then she has lost her root and the branches will wither. There have been those who have fallen away from Orthodoxy ... largely through the abuse of power. The Orthodox Church has ever remained firm in its witness and humility before God. Sure, we have our stupid squabbles with each other from time to time. What family doesn't? But on this we are absolutely clear: "God first as a people called to Himself."
This much misunderstood word derives from two Greek parts, one meaning "the whole" the other "according to" (difficult to translate!). The meaning of this word is tied in closely with "Orthodox" which means, alternately, true faith or true glory/worship. The formal title of every Orthodox Church is "The Orthodox Catholic Church of ..." So what is signified by the word "catholic" and what has that got to do with John 17 and Orthodoxy?
"Wholeness" or "fullness" is the key mark here, ("universal" is a connected idea but usually more associated with "Apostolic.") The Church is Catholic because she leaves nothing out and adds nothing. That which she has received from God ... his words in faith and worship ... she receives, faithfully lives out and hands down from generation to generation. Being committed to "wholeness / fullness," she is steered by the Holy Spirit and by no human hand. The Spirit leads to a fuller understanding of the counsels of God who is not in the habit of changing his mind. It is the People of God, however, who need to refine their hearing and plumb the depths of His Wisdom and Love. In John 17 it is the word Christ received from the Father that he entrusts to his friends ... to keep and obey. Such is the nature of catholicity. It is a fidelity to revelation mediated through the Church; she who keeps the Word of God.
If the Orthodox Church has a boast it is that she has neither left anything out nor added anything to the counsels of God. Her evidence for such an astonishing claim lies in the very process of her decision making which from the Acts of the Apostles onwards have always been "in Council." (Acts 15). Truth cannot come out of division because Truth is an expression of Love. Fidelity to Christ and a commitment to the Body of Christ has, in our view, preserved the Orthodox Church from novel doctrines, heresies and unchristian practice by virtue of our insistence on consensus and debate. No one part of the Body of Christ (or individual) is allowed to exert itself over any other part. Patience, listening and dialogue characterise our search for truth and our preservation of truth. Such dialogue embraces the whole global Orthodox Church. Wholeness in doctrine and worship can only be built upon unity and consensus. Self restraint and fearless exploration together are not opposites but mutually balancing mechanisms. In this way, the Orthodox Church maintains the fullness of her faith and life without distortion whilst always being open to what God has to offer by His Spirit today and tomorrow. This process, steered by the Holy Spirit, is what the Orthodox call Holy Tradition. Tradition includes Scripture as its normative core but extends also to the fathers of the Church, the creeds, the life of the saints and even Christian art (iconography). This seamless whole, controlled by Scripture in the mind of the Church is what gives Orthodoxy its enduring coherence; its catholicity.
The root meaning of "apostle" in Greek means to be "sent." The Church is Apostolic because she is sent into the whole world. The gospel is a universal message and life for all peoples. "Apostolic" is a word that embraces all the other three words we have considered so far ... one, holy and catholic. The apostolic message and life is maintained by this continuity. Its guarantee is in the Apostolic Succession, so-called. Those who were first sent, the apostles and equal-to-the-apostles, (which includes such Christian apostolic women as Sts. Mary Magdalene and Nina of Georgia), constitute our living link with the faith of our fathers and mothers who were sent out by the Holy Spirit into the whole world to preach and live out the gospel. If there has been any historical breach in this Apostolic Succession, either in faith or the ministerial order of the Church, history has shown us just how much can, did and does go wrong. The existence of over 34,000 Christian denominations today is a sad testimony to that fact. The Orthodox Church has avoided such tragic deformations and divisions by staying within that living and life-giving stream which is Tradition. She is One, she is Holy, she is Catholic ... therefore she is Apostolic.
What might I do next?
Christianity is neither abstract nor theoretical. It is not lived by reading books, no matter how useful that might be, (and it is useful, indeed, vital for the Scriptures and the Fathers). Christianity has to be experienced and lived "in communion" which means, in the Body of Christ to use St. Paul's memorable phrase, the Church. If you are interested in pursuing your search and exploration further then you need to make contact with an Orthodox Church, preferably one that uses your native language in its services. There are many more of these around nowadays but not often well known. Please contact the Web Editor who maintains a list of churches which you may consult, (published by the Orthodox Fellowship of St. John the Baptist). Don't forget to say where you live. God bless you on your journey!
For more information, contact the Web Editor:-
Contact: Fr. Gregory Hallam firstname.lastname@example.org