By Gavin Smith
Recently I was asked by my godfather and good friend, Nathan Lewis, to explain why I left the Church of Christ for the “Eastern” Orthodox Church, hence the title of this article. The suggestion came after he and I discussed another friend of his who was also raised in the Church of Christ who has become interested in Orthodoxy.
The young man is apparently receiving pressure from prior acquaintances to see the “error of his ways.”
Upfront, I wish to tell you, if you are happy as a member of the Church of Christ (non-instrumental), or the Church’s first cousin the Independent Christian Church and Church of Christ, instrumental, who for reasons of convenience I will group with the Church of Christ, this article is not for you. I am well aware that leaving the Church of Christ can handicap family, friend and even professional relations in many cases, and I do not want to cause you grief. I am not here to convert you if you are in that category. I do not question your salvation. However, if you are here to wonder why I left the Church of Christ, or are considering leaving for Orthodoxy or you simply question my intellectual honesty, this article may be for you.
First, I would like to state that the Churches of Christ teach a lot of truth. Among evangelical churches they may be the only, at least that I am aware, that teaches that baptism is for the remission of sins consistently with Acts 2:38, as well what I would later learn is the Apostle’s Creed. Our Baptist friends believe that baptism is merely sealing the deal, or “because of” not for the remission of sins. Exactly what Baptists believe concerning baptism is something I do not understand given the plain words of Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, as well as other verses from scripture.
I’ll freely admit that the Churches of Christ, as much as any Protestant denomination, although they detest the label denomination, attempt to model their church according to their understanding of the first century church. Additionally, they have been extremely intellectually honest in their application of the principle of “Sola Scriptura” (scripture only).
While other Protestant denominations state the Bible is their only source of authority, their actions do not always reflect that principle. It is easy to see the influence of Orthodoxy and Catholicism in many Protestant denominations, i.e. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformed Churches, etc. A common question heard in the Church of Christ is
“can you show me book, chapter and verse for that doctrine?”
To understand the distinctive practices of the Church of Christ one must understand the premise from which it generally arrives at conclusions.
They commonly refer to a principle called the “common sense” hermeneutic which means: authority must be derived from any one of only three sources, all of which must be scriptural; a direct commandment; an approved example or a necessary inference from scripture. However, the basis for many of the Church of Christ’s distinctive beliefs is based upon what I would come to understand were false premises upon further study and reflection after I began to study Orthodoxy perhaps on accident while teaching a Bible Class.
I co-taught a class on the Lee Strobel book “The Case for Christ” along with my church’s Minister, who I still consider a friend. The question was raised in class by an attendee concerning how the books of the New Testament canon were chosen. I answered the question that:
“First, the writer had to have apostolic authority. Secondly, the book had to be in general acceptance throughout the early Church. Third, the book had to be consistent with the practices of the Church.”
Not long after answering the question, I seriously pondered the implications of what I had said. Aside from the fact that I knew that a Church Council had determined the canon, I knew that I was stuck with an undeniable fact obvious to anyone. The Traditions of the early church determined the New Testament canon.
There was no original copy of the Bible per se in existence with a “proof verse,” as to what constituted the canon. For a member of a denomination that wholeheartedly rejected all “manmade” tradition I was then left to wonder then if what I knew to be scripture was to be trusted at all. I could not stop believing the gospel given the historical evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I was then left with the choice to either believe that mere man determined what books of the Bible were canonical or that that authority was somehow vested somewhere else. It fully dawned on me that it was the Church that gave us the Bible, rather than the assertion I had always heard that the New Testament provides the framework for how the church functions.
Upon studying more of the Orthodox Church, I learned that there were essentially three sources for authority, Tradition, Scripture and reason. Starting with the premise that the New Testament was a written example of the early traditions of the Christian believers, I came to much different conclusions concerning the Church than I had when I believed that the only authority was the Bible. I fully understood then what Jesus meant when he said that
“upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
The Church was not something that was lost until the “restoration” of the “Church of Christ” in the nineteenth century, or even a few centuries earlier in the Protestant Reformation that had been started by Martin Luther. It had been with humanity for two thousand years in what was the oldest and historically first body of Christians, the Orthodox Church. God had given the Church authority that was beyond my evangelical understanding.
My newfound outlook also made me take a serious look at the “common sense” hermeneutic I had been taught on many different levels. First, if common sense was common, then why was the “common sense” hermeneutic believed only by the Churches of Christ, who number anywhere from one to ten million, less than one per cent of the more than one billion people purporting to be Christians. The mere fact that the Church of Christ numbers so few rules out that the “common sense” hermeneutic is common. Secondly, for a Church that demanded “book, chapter, and verse,” where in the Bible was their “common sense” hermeneutic?
Simply put, it was not there. Finally, the “common sense” hermeneutic was hardly objective. Numerous positions could be formulated, and have been, from the “approved example” or the “necessary inference” portions of the “common sense” hermeneutic. It may be news to non-members of the Church of Christ but some individual churches do not fellowship with each other over insignificant issues such as whether it is acceptable to support orphan homes or to even have separate Sunday school rooms. Members of the Church of Christ debate each other using the “common sense” hermeneutic regardless of what side they take with complete sincerity. I had always been taught that if “denominations” were to reject their traditions and simply objectively study scripture, they would come to the conclusions of the Church of Christ. However, pure objectivity does not exist even in the hard sciences much less in the study of scripture, for all people have certain biases and prejudices.
I did not immediately leave the church of my parents despite the conclusions I had reached. First, as I mentioned earlier, societal pressures influence all people, particularly those of us raised in the Church of Christ. Many members still sincerely believe that only members of the Church of Christ are going to Heaven, as do my parents.
Additionally, I had commitments in my church such as teaching a class for high school students. Moreover, there was the emotional difficulty of leaving friends and a fellowship that I truly loved. Now that I am a member of the Orthodox Church and in the continual process of becoming Orthodox, I can only say that my journey has been less painful than the journey of many other Evangelicals. I hope that I am not taking liberties with my friend, and former Baptist, Nathan, but his was much more painful. However, please note that I am writing this anonymously, under a nom de plume because I do not wish to cause emotional harm to my parents or others who in their “Church of Christ” mindset would sincerely believe that I am hell bound because of mine and my wonderful wife’s chosen faith.