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WHERE IS THE TRUE CHURCH?

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  • byakimov@csc.com.au
    WHERE IS THE TRUE CHURCH? Signs of the true Church The ever-growing number of churches and diverse sects makes it difficult for some people to resolve the
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 27, 2004
      WHERE IS THE TRUE CHURCH?


      Signs of the true Church

      The ever-growing number of churches and diverse sects makes it difficult
      for some people to resolve the issue of which one of them is the true
      Church, and of whether the one and true Church exists at all in our times.
      Perhaps, some people think, the original apostolic Church gradually became
      splintered, and the currently-existing churches possess only fragments of
      its former spiritual wealth ? grace and truth. Based upon such a view of
      the Church, some people believe that it can be reconstructed from existing
      Christian denominations by means of agreements and mutual compromises. This
      viewpoint lies at the base of the contemporary ecume- nical movement, which
      does not believe any one church to be the true Church. Perhaps, others
      think, the Church never had anything in common with official churches in
      principle, but always consisted of individual believers who belonged to
      various church groups. This last opinion has become embodied in the
      teaching that is being proposed by contemporary Protestant theologians
      about a so-called "invisible church." And, finally, for many Christians it
      remains unclear whether the Church is needed at all, since man supposedly
      attains salvation through his faith.

      All these contradictory and essentially false opinions of the Church
      originate from a misunderstanding of the central truth of Christ's teaching
      on the salvation of man. When reading the Gospel and the apostolic
      epistles, it becomes obvious that the Saviour's intention is to have men
      save their souls not singly and separately, but jointly, making up one
      grace-filled Kingdom of God. One should not forget that the kingdom of
      evil, headed by the prince of darkness, also acts unitedly in its battle
      against the Church.

      Nevertheless, despite the variety of modern opinions about the Church, the
      majority of rational Christians agrees with the fact that the true Church
      of Christ existed in apostolic times as a group of people united in
      salvation. The Acts of the Apostles tell us of how the Church came into
      being in Jerusalem, when on the fiftieth day after the Lord's Resurrection,
      the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles in the form of fiery tongues.
      From that day the Christian faith quickly began to spread to all the
      corners of the far-flung Roman Empire.

      The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles
      As Christianity spread, Christian communities ? churches began to appear in
      various towns and villages. In view of the great distances separating them,
      these communities lived their everyday life more-or-less isolated one from
      another. However, they regarded themselves as belonging to a single, united
      and apostolic Church. They were joined together by a single faith and a
      single source of grace, which was drawn from the holy sacraments (baptism,
      communion and the laying on of hands, i.e. ordination). At first these
      sacred actions were performed by the apostles themselves. However, soon the
      need arose for the apostles to have help, and so they chose worthy
      candidates from among the members of the Christian communities, whom they
      ordained as bishops, priests and deacons. The apostles imposed upon these
      bishops the responsibility of guarding the purity of Christian teaching, of
      teaching the faithful how to live piously, and of ordaining new bishops,
      priests and deacons. Thus, during the first several centuries, the Church
      continuously grew like a tree and spread throughout many countries,
      becoming enriched by spiritual experience, religious literature, church
      prayers and hymns, and later ? by church architecture and iconography, but
      always retaining its essential nature of the true Church of Christ.


      The Gospels and the apostolic epistles did not appear right away and not
      everywhere simultaneously. For many decades after the establishment of the
      Church, the source of instruction was not the Scriptures, but oral
      homilies, which the apostles themselves called "Tradition." Holy Tradition
      is an apostolic source of instruction in faith. Within the Church it was
      always of decisive importance in determining what was considered to be
      correct and what was not. Whenever any issues arose that were at variance
      with apostolic tradition ? be it in matters of faith, the performance of
      sacraments, or church administration ? they were deemed to be false and
      were rejected. Continuing the apostolic tradition, the bishops of the first
      centuries of Christianity meticulously examined all Christian manuscripts,
      and gradually collected the writings of the apostles ? the Gospels and the
      epistles ? into a single set of book that were called the New Testament,
      and which, together with the books of the Old Testament, made up the Bible
      in its current form. This process of gathering the writings was finished in
      the 3rd century. Questionable books, though being passed off as apostolic
      writings, were not included in the Bible, but were called the Apocrypha.
      Now Christians of all denominations use the New Testament, often
      arbitrarily, irreverently, without realizing that it is the personal
      possession of the true Church, a treasure which it had so carefully
      amassed.


      As a result of other testimonials that have come down to us, written by the
      disciples of the holy apostles, we know many precious details about the
      life and faith of Christian communities in the first centuries A.D. At that
      time the belief in the existence of a single, holy, apostolic Church was
      universal. Being faced with the fact of the existence of a real and single
      Church in the first centuries of Christianity, can we find a precise
      historic moment when it splintered and ceased to exist? An honest answer
      should be ? no! The fact is that deviations from the purity of apostolic
      teaching ? heresies ? began to appear even in apostolic times. Especially
      active at that time were the Gnostic teachings, which mixed the Christian
      faith with elements of pagan philosophy. The apostles in their epistles
      warned the Christians against these teachings, and directly asserted that
      the followers of these sects had fallen away from the true faith. The
      apostles looked upon heretics as dry twigs that had broken off the church
      tree. Similarly the apostles' successors, the bishops of the first
      centuries, did not accept as genuine the deviations from the apostolic
      faith which arose during their tenure, and excommunicated from the Church
      all persistent followers of such false teachings, in accordance with
      Apostle Paul's instruction: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach
      any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let
      him be accursed" (i.e. let him be excommunicated) (Gal. 1:8).


      Thus, in the first centuries of Christianity, the issue of Church unity was
      clear: the Church was regarded as a single spiritual family, carrying on
      from apostolic times the true teaching, the true sacraments, and an
      unbroken succession of grace, passed on from bishop to bishop. The
      successors of the apostles had no doubts whatsoever that the Church was
      absolutely essential for salvation, because it preserves and passes on the
      pure teaching of Christ, it sanctifies the faithful and leads them to
      salvation. Using the imaginative similies of the Holy Scriptures, in the
      first centuries of Christianity the Church was seen as a sheltered sheep
      pen in which the Good Shepherd ? Christ ? protects His sheep from the
      "wolf" ? the devil. The Church was compared to a Vine, from which its
      branches ? the faithful ? could draw the spiritual strength necessary for
      leading a Christian life and doing good deeds. The Church was understood to
      be the Body of Christ, in which each believer, as a member, performed a
      service needed for the entire organism. The Church was depicted as Noah's
      ark, in which the faithful crossed the turbulent sea of life and reached
      the safe haven of the Heavenly Realm. The Church was compared to a high
      mountain that towered above human delusions and led its travelers towards
      heaven ? to communion with God, the angels and the saints.


      In the first centuries of Christianity, to believe in Christ meant to
      believe that the mission which He had accomplished on earth, and the means
      of salvation which He had given to the faithful, cannot be lost or snatched
      away by the efforts of the devil. The Old Testament prophets, the Lord
      Jesus Christ Himself, and His apostles specifically taught that the Church
      would remain until the end of existence. Similarly we, too, if we believe
      in Christ's promise, must admit to the existence of His Church both in our
      time and to the end of the world. We have not yet indicated where it is to
      be found, but at present we are simply stating the situation in principle:
      the Church must exist somewhere in its holy, indivisible, real nature. A
      splintered, damaged, evaporated Church is not the real Church.


      And so, where is it? What are the signs that would help us find it among
      the multitude of contemporary Christian branches?





      First of all, the true Church must retain undefiled the purity of Christian
      teaching that was preached by the apostles. The purpose of the Son of God's
      coming to earth was to bring truth to mankind, as He said before His
      suffering on the cross: "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I
      into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that
      is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37). Apostle Paul, instructing
      his disciple Timothy on the performance of his bishop's duties, concludes
      with the following words: "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how
      thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of
      the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). It
      must be sorrowfully acknowledged that in the matter of teaching we see
      sharp disagreement among the contemporary branches of Christianity. In
      principle it is self-evident that those who differ cannot all be correct.
      If, for example, one church asserts that communion consists of the Body and
      Blood of Christ, while another denies it, it is impossible for both to be
      correct. Likewise, if one church believes in the real spiritual power of
      the sign of the cross, while another denies this power, then one of these
      churches is apparently in error. The true Church must be the one which in
      matters of faith does not differ in any way from the Church of the first
      centuries of Christianity. If we were to make an unbiased comparison of the
      teachings of contemporary Christian churches, we would have to conclude, as
      will be seen later, that only the Orthodox Church retains undamaged the
      faith of the ancient apostolic Church.


      Another sign which may indicate to us the true Church is grace or the power
      of God, by which the Church is called upon to sanctify and fortify its
      faithful. Although grace is an invisible force, there is, however, an
      external condition by which one can determine its absence or presence, and
      that is ? apostolic succession. From the time of the apostles grace was
      passed on to the faithful in the sacraments of baptism, communion, the
      laying on of hands (anointment and ordination), and others. These
      sacraments were first performed by the apostles, and later by bishops and
      priests. (Priests differed from bishops in that they did not have the right
      to perform the sacrament of ordination). The right to perform these
      sacraments was transferred exclusively by means of succession: the apostles
      ordained bishops and gave them the exclusive right to ordain other bishops,
      priests and deacons. The apostolic succession is like a holy flame, which
      from a single candle lights all the others. If the flame is extinguished
      and the chain of apostolic succession is broken, ? there is no more
      priesthood or sacraments, and all the means of sanctifying the faithful are
      lost. For this reason, from apostolic times the apostolic succession was
      carefully watched: a bishop would be consecrated only by a true bishop,
      whose own consecration successively went back to the apostles. Those
      bishops who fell into heresy or led unworthy lives, were deposed and lost
      the right to perform sacraments or to ordain successors to themselves.


      In our times there are only several churches whose apostolic succession is
      beyond doubt, ? these are the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and
      several non-Orthodox Eastern churches (that have fallen away, however, from
      the purity of apostolic teaching during the time of the Ecumenical
      Councils). Christian denominations which reject in principle the necessity
      of having a priesthood and observing apostolic succession, by that
      characteristic alone differ essentially from the Church of the first
      centuries and thus cannot be regarded as the true Church.


      A spiritually sensitive person naturally has no need of external proofs of
      the grace of God when he experiences its warm and soothing effect, as it is
      transmitted to him in the sacraments and services of the Orthodox Church.
      (However, Christians must distinguish between the grace of God and that
      cheap and harmful ecstasy which sectarians, such as the Pentecostals,
      artificially arouse in themselves during their prayer meetings. The signs
      of true grace are inner peace, love of God and one's fellow beings,
      modesty, humility, meekness, and similar characteristics, enumerated by
      Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians.


      Another sign of the true Church is its suffering. It may be difficult for
      people to determine which church is the true Church, but the devil ? its
      enemy ? has no such problems and knows it very well. He hates the Church
      and tries to destroy it. As we become acquainted with the history of the
      Church, we see that its history was truly written with the tears and the
      blood of martyrs for faith. Persecution was already begun by Jewish high
      priests and scribes in apostolic times. This was followed by three
      centuries of persecution in the Roman Empire by Roman emperors and rulers
      of the provinces. After that the Moslem Arabs took up the sword against the
      Church, followed by the Crusaders from the West. They so undermined the
      physical strength of Byzantium, that bastion of Orthodoxy, that it could
      not withstand the onslaught of the Turks in the 14th/15th centuries. And
      finally, the godless Communists surpassed all others with their cruelty,
      destroying more Christians than all the preceding persecutors. But behold
      the miracle: the blood of martyrs became the seed for new Christians, and
      the gates of hell cannot overcome the Church, just as Christ had promised.


      Finally, a true and fairly easy method of finding the Church of Christ is
      historical investigation. The true Church must go back to apostolic times
      in unbroken succession. In order to apply the principle of historic
      investigation, there is no need to delve too deeply into all the details of
      the development and the propagation of Christianity. Suffice it to
      determine when one or the other church appeared. If it appeared, say, in
      the 16th or any other century besides apostolic times, it cannot be the
      true Church. By this characteristic alone we can exclude all the
      denominations claiming to be the true Church of Christ, which originate
      with Luther and his followers, such as Lutherans, Calvinists,
      Presbyterians, and later ones ? Mormons, Baptists, Adventists, Jehovah's
      witnesses, Pentecostals, and the like. These denominations have been
      founded not by Christ or His apostles, but by false prophets ? various
      Luthers, Calvins, Henrys, Smiths, and other innovators.


      Our goal is to acquaint the Orthodox reader with the history of the
      formation of the major branches of Christianity and with the essence of
      their teaching, in order to help the reader see how they differ from the
      one, holy and apostolic Church founded by Christ. During the theological
      arguments that took place from the 4th to the 8th centuries, several
      heretical groups fell away from the Church ? Arians, Macedonians,
      Nestorians, Monophysites and Monophyletes (from whom evolved the modern-day
      Copts), iconoclasts and others. Their teachings were condemned by the
      Ecumenical Councils (of which there were seven), and since these heresies
      no longer represent a threat to Orthodox believers, we will not discuss
      them.


      Let us begin with a few words about the Orthodox Church. (continues......)
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