by Philip Silouan Thompson
Phil Thompson is the author of the Silouan blog, an excellent site for information. He is also a well known iconographer in North American Orthodoxy, and this, his story, was taken from his own website.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon every soul, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
When I became a Christian in 1980, I was living with a Roman Catholic family and attending a Jesuit high school.
I attended Mass and religion classes, but on the whole I was underwhelmed by Christianity as it was presented.
I was growing more and more hungry for God, but the religion I saw seemed more irrelevant and sentimental than genuine or powerful.
So when I came to faith in Christ, I didn’t join any church at all.
I’d seen church.
It was over a year later that I was invited to a friend’s Evangelical church, and began attending regularly. Unlike the bored crowds I’d seen at Mass, these Pentecostals knew how to celebrate! I already knew how to enjoy a concert – dance to the music, wave your arms in the air, sing along, get lost in the good feeling – so I already knew how to join in a Pentecostal worship service. I loved it; here was a community characterized by enthusiasm and love for Christ, and motivated by concern for the souls of the world.
I worked with evangelistic teams in jails and street ministry, and later I moved to Washington State with the goal of training for overseas missionary work. That goal was never fulfilled, but I continued to be involved in ministry, visiting nursing homes, preaching and volunteering at the local rescue mission, and later teaching Sunday school and serving on the worship team. When I had the opportunity to attend Bible school, it seemed a natural next step.
In school we were encouraged to search the Scriptures and question everything until we found it in the Bible. Some of what I was taught I rejected; most I accepted. Every Protestant has to judge for himself what he will believe. If you’d asked, I’d have said my acceptance or rejection of any doctrine or practice was always based on the text of Scripture. What I would have meant was: based on the norms of evangelical interpretation of Scripture. After all, nobody can read without interpreting. The text of Scripture doesn’t interpret itself without our involvement. Otherwise no one would ever disagree on the meaning of
“Eat My body, drink My blood”
“you must be born again.”
So I rejected notions like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and baptism as a sacrament — and for that matter the very idea of sacraments. I was taught that since the New Testament doesn’t specify the office of the episcopate as separate from the presbytery, then there’s no warrant for any kind of authority structure besides a board of elders or pastors. (The earliest Christians were all democratic, of course.)
While studying the history of Christianity, we examined the history recounted in the book of Acts and then spent a very brief time reading excerpts from the “Early Fathers” — the Christian writers from the first, second and third centuries. The brief passages we read were selected and presented without context, to convince us that the worship and beliefs of the earliest Christians were just like ours. After our quick visit with the early Fathers we fast-forwarded over the “dark ages” so as to concentrate on the Protestant Reformation.
I couldn’t have told you in detail what those early Fathers taught, but I could pin them down by name and century. The “To The Reader” preface in the 1611 King James Bible was full of quotes labeled “Irenaeus”, “Tertullian”, “Cyril of Jerusalem” – and now I had a little historical data to attach to each of those names. Sadly, though, we never spent much time reading those Fathers’ writings in context. What did stick with me from those summaries of the Fathers was the emphasis on being in Christ. The idea was planted in me that, if Christ united creation to Himself in His Incarnation, then our life’s goal must be to participate in His Life, like branches in the Vine, partaking of the divine nature, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I was sure that Christ must be able not only to save us from hell (sin’s consequence) but actually to save us from sin.
In Evangelical Protestantism there was certainly room for that belief — but there was no concrete “therefore do this” to work out that kind of a vision of salvation. Instead, we taught people to pray a prayer, “get saved”, and then go get other sinners saved.
Over time I saw churches buy into one program after another, designed to mobilize believers to share their faith, and to “disciple” the people who responded. But while I participated in many evangelistic events over the years — rallies, revivals, concerts, street evangelism — and saw a lot of genuine desire to bring people to Christ, I became dissatisfied with the proportionately small amount of time and effort that went into what was called “follow-up.” Even the name “follow-up” reveals the underlying assumption that the primary task has been accomplished when a nonbeliever makes a confession of faith in Christ.
All that’s left (all!) is the lifetime task of uniting him to the people of God, teaching him who his Savior is, and instilling in him a whole new lifestyle. We believed the Great Commission was addressed to us, but all our effort seemed to be going into helping people start their Christian walk; we were much less successful in teaching Christians concrete, realistic ways to live out a life that increases in grace, wisdom, and holiness. I rarely ever heard any practical, useful teaching on just how to make war on the desires of the flesh so as not to be dragged away by lustful greed and crass American consumerism. Too often, new Christians were told little more than to “read your Bible and pray.” Hardly what Christ meant by “Go make disciples”!
When emphasis was given to accountability or concrete disciplines that might help a Christian persevere to the end and so be saved, there were often complaints that we were majoring on minors, getting distracted from evangelism, engaging in manipulation — and above all, that we were doing something different from standard Pentecostal practice.
Particularly frustrating was the fact that we had to invent or try out discipleship programs, since our independent-minded Protestant history had not provided us with any kind of historical disciplines. How, exactly, do we teach our new believers even basic disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, almsgiving, fasting, accountability or self-denial? What concrete, specific steps have been proven over time to develop these very basic disciplines? We hadn’t received anything like that from the early Church; outside of the Scriptures themselves, we lived as though nothing of the early Christian life had survived from those long-ago saints until today.
Our ideas of how to accomplish discipleship were all only decades old, because we really had no history. We zealously defended the faith of our fathers as we understood it, but our vision of “normal Christianity” really stretched back only about a hundred years.
In the mid 1990’s our church started a Vietnamese mission congregation. When they invited me to be their pastor, I took very seriously the responsibility to present the word of God as it is, not merely my beliefs about it; and I knew that God’s people need to worship Him acceptably. Beginning to realize the lack of historical depth or context to my Christianity, I began reading more widely, looking for wisdom and inspiration in the writings of the people who were the ancestors of our Pentecostal tradition: the great American and Welsh revivalists, the Salvation Army, the Keswick “deeper life” writers, the Pietists, the Puritans.
I visited friends’ churches — Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopal, and others. Those visits impressed me with how many very different things are called “worship”. This is when I began the study that I had no idea would eventually lead me to Orthodoxy — a study to answer the question: What exactly is worship? In the Reformation, the altar was moved from the center of attention and the pulpit took first place, reflecting a fundamental shift in the definition of worship – from personal participation in Christ, to hearing a preached sermon. And in our modern Pentecostal tradition, the pulpit could be dispensed with entirely, as the guitars and drums took center stage and music became the defining feature of what we called worship.
Amid all those changes of focus and shifting meanings of the word “worship”, I had to wonder how much of what we do in church today is just a reflection of our transient culture? How much is authentic? What is common to the church’s experience of worship through history? I didn’t want to invest time and prayer into something that would be meaningless in a generation, or irrelevant outside my cultural context.
One week, in a home study group, as we were reading through Acts, I taught on Acts 2:42-47. That passage affected me deeply — the church was just being the church and the Lord was adding to their numbers those who were being saved. People were encountering Christian fellowship and being drawn into it — and in that environment they were meeting Christ. Communal worship, prayer, and mutual submission were the methods they used to make disciples. And when they expanded outside Judea, they continued to make disciples, with this same culturally-alien, ethnic Jewish variety of synagogue liturgy. (This was not a user-friendly, seeker-sensitive church!)
As we studied the end of Acts chapter 2, I grew increasingly frustrated. I knew this kind of congregational life and devotion must be key to establishing authentic Christian fellowship — but the New Testament just does not give a divine blueprint for building the Church! Paul and Peter, James and Jude assume the Church is already established and needs only their specific corrections. I could see that we modern folks were missing the mark; I decided I had to go back and re-read the documents of the early church. I still remembered the names of those early Christian Fathers of the first and second century — surely in their writings I’d find insights I could apply to our congregation. Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple.
Like most Protestants I knew, I had been taught that the early Church was just like us …but then after the first few centuries, the church began to go all weird and liturgical and hierarchical. And then when Constantine legalized Christianity, that was the last nail in the coffin: The church became virtually extinct for the next 1200 years, till the Protestant Reformation. I figured that if my reading stayed way back in the Church’s first century or two, before the time serious corruption could set in, I should be able to read the comments of men who had been taught by the Apostles, who wrote to churches the Apostles had pastored.
They should shed some light on how our democratic, charismatic, nonsacramental congregation could live out the kind of life described in the book of Acts.
To put it mildly, these writers shocked me. After only a little reading — Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the Didache, for starters — it was evident that the early church, even in the late first century, practiced liturgical worship. To them this was the normal Christian life. I was unprepared for these second- and first-century writers to be discussing bishops and liturgy, and calling the “Eucharist” the body of Christ.
They didn’t just sit in a circle in their bluejeans and talk about Jesus; they practiced a liturgy they’d inherited from the synagogue, and they celebrated Communion – the Eucharist – gathered around a bishop and presbyters and deacons. By 150AD, Justin Martyr could describe the outline of the liturgy in order; and by the early 200’s Hippolytus wrote out the texts of the prayers everyone used.
And the rest of the Christians around them thought this was nothing out of the ordinary!
What these “early Christian Fathers” wrote was not refuted or destroyed, but rather preserved, copied, and distributed to the churches during the lifetime of the Apostles. Heretical writings were denounced and destroyed, but these writings were considered normal by Christians in John’s or Paul’s churches.
What did these early Christian Fathers have to say? Within a decade of John’s death, his disciple Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church of Philadelphia:
If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God… Be eager, therefore, to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for union with His blood; one sanctuary; as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants. So that, whatever you do, you do it in according to the will of God.
And a few years later, the Christian apologist Justin (later known as Justin Martyr) wrote regarding Christian worship:
And this food is called among us 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 new birth, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but… 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.
In fact, without exception, all the first- and second-century writers were starting to sound like they held an awfully “catholic” view of baptism, communion, and the church. Yet no one, even n the Protestant world, ever questioned the historicity of these ancient documents.