When some people think of the Church they think of the Roman Catholic Church, viewed as an institutional behemoth headed by an infallible Pope that once controlled most of the Western world. When someone’s concept of the Church is based on the Roman Catholic Church, the person may see the Church as an entity that will compromise holiness for political gain and that blurs the line between politics and religion. Isn’t the Church responsible for the brutal death and destruction caused by the Crusades and the Inquisition? Hasn’t the Church used religion as an excuse to invade countries and control people’s personal lives? The Church is deceptively dangerous, some think. Even today the Pope is the leader of the Holy See, a separate country within Italy that maintains incredible wealth and political power. Who knows what dark secrets are kept within the halls of the Vatican? Hasn’t the Church suppressed certain writings and even executed people who could call into question its official doctrine and absolute authority?
Not all Americans use the Roman Catholic Church as their model for understanding what the Church is. Protestants who belong to the multitude of denominations and independent churches don’t see the Church as a visible institution, but as an invisible entity made up of all the real Christians in the world. Protestants view the different local churches and denominational organizations in the world as separate from the Church. Ideally, the Protestant religious organizations are supposed to help the Church grow and do its work in the world. One might hear a Protestant say, "All the differences between the denominations don't matter. What matters is the Church of Jesus Christ. We need to get beyond our denominational differences and find unity in the Church."
Secular people who reject the Church because they think it’s like the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants who embrace their concept of the Church as just an invisible interdenominational entity both misunderstand what the Church really is. If the Church is neither like the Roman Catholic Church with its infallible Pope and Vatican City nor is it merely made up of the sum total of all those who believe in Jesus Christ, according what Truth they have received, then what is the true Church?
Almost 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ founded the Church. There was only one Church, the Church. More importantly it was His Church, which He built upon His Apostles. After Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church to indwell it. The Church became the temple of the Holy Spirit and, guided by the Spirit, served as the “pillar and ground of truth” on the earth. In the early days, the Church produced the New Testament and its missionaries took the Faith throughout the Roman world. The Church continued to grow, even under severe persecution, as people believed in Jesus Christ and were received into the Church by baptism.
When strange ideas surfaced within the Church, the Church held councils to defend the Christian Faith as it had been passed down and preserved since the time of the Apostles. The bishops didn’t gather together to decide what the Church would believe, but to declare with one united voice what the Church of Jesus Christ had always believed. They defended the Faith that is Catholic, that is, what had been believed by all Christians in all times and in every place. They defended the Faith that is Orthodox, the right way of believing and worshiping the true and living God. The Church of Jesus Christ also called itself The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and the Orthodox Church.
The decisions of the councils clearly defined what the Church believed. Those who introduced strange new heretical doctrines contrary to the ancient Faith of the Orthodox Church were called upon by the Church to repent of their heresies and reaffirm the true Faith. The prideful heretics who continued to trust in their own invented doctrines instead of the ancient Faith separated themselves by their actions from the Orthodox Church, the body of Christ on earth. The heretics’ churches continued to exist, but anyone who united himself or herself with one of these churches was considered to be out of communion with the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Christ.
One of the saddest events in the history of the Church took place about 1,000 years ago. During the Great Schism the churches in the West under the influence of Rome separated from the churches in the East. The Western churches formed the Roman Catholic Church while the churches in the East, including the ancient churches of Jerusalem and Antioch, remained a part of the Orthodox Church.
The Roman Catholic Church continued to drift away from the Faith preserved through the centuries by the Orthodox Church. About 500 years ago, realizing that the Roman Catholic Church had departed from the Faith of the Apostles, several Roman Catholics started the Protestant movement. The Protestant movement has produced thousands of religious groups, including Baptists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a host of other denominations, parachurch groups, and independent congregations. Unfortunately, instead of returning to the Orthodox Church founded by Jesus Christ, Protestants formed their own churches apart from the Church. (Most Protestants don’t even realize that the ancient Church of the New Testament still exists.)
Like many other Evangelical Protestant pastors before me, I once tried to create a “New Testament” church patterned after what I read in the Bible, especially in the Acts of the Apostles. Since the early Church met in homes, I tried to introduce home-based worship into the life of my congregation. Since fellowship and prayer was part of the early Church, I attempted to ensure both of those things were included. I tried to recreate the biblical Church in 21st century America. I failed. I was destined to fail. I didn’t know at the time that a person can’t follow a biblical pattern to create the biblical Church. The Bible doesn’t make a church. Instead, the Church, through the Holy Spirit, produced the Bible. It was written for the Church and can only be understood by the Church within the life of the Church.
Even if I had successfully created a "church" that looked like what I thought the Church written about in the New Testament looked like, the "church" I created would still have been outside of the real Orthodox Church. Eventually, I realized that the only way I could be part of the true biblical New Testament Church was to unite myself to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church founded by Jesus Christ Himself. As Patriarch Ignatius IV, the current pastor of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch has said, "We did not invent Orthodoxy. Churches cannot be invented. Nobody can make a Church, and Christ is the only one who spoke about His own Church. And we believe that we stick to Orthodoxy because it is His own Church" (The Ancient Church).
The Orthodox Church does not have a Pope. Our bishops share a brotherly equality. Unlike in the Western world, where the Pope often ruled over both Church and State (after the political collapse of Western Europe), the Orthodox Church believes that bishops and rulers should have a complimentary relationship. The Church deals with the affairs of the heavenly reality of the kingdom of God. The State deals with the governmental issues on earth. The Orthodox Church is not just an institution, but a dynamic community with an organic organization, a family with a hierarchy. (The word church, meaning assembly, refers to the mystical community itself. The people are the Church.) The Crusades and the Inquisition were Roman Catholic pursuits. They were not carried out by the Orthodox Church. (Orthodox Christians were actually victims of the Crusades. In 1204 the Crusaders sacked the Orthodox city of Constantinople, which eventually fell during the Islamic invasion. Pope John Paul II has offered an emotional apology for the atrocities committed by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians.) So, those who think of the Church as being like the Roman Catholic Church misunderstand what the Church is really like.
The Orthodox Church is both mystically invisible and visibly present in the world. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has preserved a lifestyle that has been lived for thousands of years. A person can walk into an Orthodox Church and experience with all five senses a 1,600 year old worship service that still maintains the traces of the Jewish worship familiar to the earliest disciples of Jesus. Our prayers, icons, songs, preaching, and way of life find its root in apostolic times. Our bishops, entrusted with protecting the apostolic faith in the churches under their care, trace their historical line of authority all the way back to the Apostles, the first bishops of the Christian Church. As our Faith has endured through the generations so has our organizational structure. The Orthodox Church is the mystical body of Christ. All members of the Church, both on earth and in heaven, are invisibly joined together as the Church. At the same time, however, the Church is also visibly united by our worship, structure, and spiritual lifestyle.
Although it's the second largest Christian body in the world, the Orthodox Church has remained relatively unknown in America, which has historically been under the influence or Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Even though I have two degrees in the field of religion, I learned almost nothing about the Orthodox Church during my formal studies. When we talked about the Orthodox Church in school, our teachers and books simply called it the early Church, so I didn’t realize the early Church still existed. During my time in an Evangelical Protestant seminary, I took a theology class that used a book called, A Handbook of Contemporary Theology, which surveyed various kinds of theological perspectives. The chapter on “Eastern Orthodox Theology” began with these words:
If any church has a legitimate claim to stand in historical succession from the apostolic church of New Testament times, it is the Eastern Orthodox. Known also as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox tradition may be said to be the mother of both Roman Catholicism and
Protestantism. And yet, this oldest tradition in which originated a huge portion of our theology is little known or understood. (103)
I didn’t pay much attention to that chapter during my time in seminary, but now I know what it means. Thankfully, I’ve met many Americans like me who have discovered the fullness of the Christian Faith in the Orthodox Church.
We hope that those who have rejected the Church, however they misunderstand it, will find their spiritual home in the ancient Orthodox Church, a community of truth, faith, and mystery. We also hope that all Christians who live apart from the Orthodox Church will come home to the Church where the fullness of the Christian Faith is found. We don’t believe that unity among Christians can be achieved by superficially agreeing on a few essential doctrinal principles, however important they may be, while ignoring the doctrines that divide us. We believe that the real union of Christians can only be achieved when we are all united together as one body in Christ’s own Church, where we stand together in the same Faith and experience the same spiritual life in its fullest and most complete expression.
Since there is only one Church and one Faith, we must all be united in the same Church that holds to the same Faith. We can only find true union within the same flock of the same Shepherd. Let us all gather around the living Christ within His Church, the community of His beloved disciples. This is the ancient Church, the Church we all need, the Church many of us have always hoped for but never knew existed.
Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Work Cited: A Handbook of Contemporary Theology by David L. Smith, “Eastern Orthodox Theology,” (Wheaton: Bridgepoint, 1992), 103. The quote from Patriarch Ignatius IV is part of an interview in The Ancient Church, a movie directed by Richard Zakka and produced by Silverline Films.)