by Paul Smith
Allow me to begin this with a simple disclaimer. I do not presume to know the judgement that God holds in his own mercy, and his own providence so do not view this in that light. I do know that I have found the New Testament Church and want to share THIS one place where I know the “words that contain Life” are presented.
Salvation is a common theme in church circles, many have their concentration on it and many think their way to understand it is correct. Over the years I have progressed through many churches, belief structures all under the name of Christianity. I was consistently searching for the “New Testament Church” and always believed it existed as a physical entity, humans that were growing and learning, gaining in grace and knowledge of God.
The New Testament Church had to exist, after all, Jesus said,
“on this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hades will not prevail against it.”
I could go into full discussions as to what he was talking about, what the ROCK was that he referred, and such but to start this out, I will state my own premise for this essay. He is referring to the Rock of the confession that He was the Christ, the son of the Living God. He is also talking of the organization that HE would build on that rock. HIS Church, not just a group, but a Church. The Church could not disappear, become invisible, fall into apostasy or in some way be corrupted by man. It must still exist.
I wanted to find the New Testament Church, so I continued to search. What I found consistently was churches whose teachings were based on the New Testament. Many who organized their church on New Testament principles or on what they understood of history. All seemingly organized around their founders’ personal interpretation of a single scripture. Sometimes a church is organized around a name, sometimes a single doctrine, sometimes around a concept of Salvation, or the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” but they all claim to be part of the overall “Church” claiming that the Church is invisible. “All people who believe are part of it”, they say.
So I’m looking this over and I see some things that I cannot accept. If Jesus built His Church, and founded it on the Apostles testimony, then it must be discoverable. It cannot be invisible. It must be visible and I must be able to find it. It is the Body of Christ on the earth and as such there can only be one body. It is the Bride of Christ, and as such there can only be one of those as well.
If the Body of Christ was not defined and physical then how would I know if I were part of it. To hear it described by many in the Protestant religions one can be part of a church, “feel called” go down the road and start a new congregation and that new group is as much the Body of Christ as the group which he left. This gets real convoluted when the new group (started by someone who left the previous group) does not emphasize the same doctrinal positions as the group he came from. For instance, if the first group emphasized believing and be baptized but not much past that and the new group decides those are important but one must then receive the “baptism of the Holy Spirit and speak in unknown tongues” then are they all still the same “Body”?
So I concluded that the Body of Christ must be definable and be a group following the same doctrine. Must it be a single local group? I have to examine that question. The history of the Church shows me that there are local churches in each geographical locale. After all, Saint Paul wrote letters to the Church in Galatia, the Church in Corinth etc. I have those letters in my New Testament so there was a Church that was local but part of the whole. What could bind them together? What bound the Church together immediately following Pentecost?
To answer the question of “What bound the Church together immediately following Pentecost?” I decided to see what bound the together BEFORE Pentecost. Acts 1:14 (KJV) says:
“These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”
So I see that the Church had begun to organize and the most prominent members stayed together maintaining vigilant prayer and supplication.
In Acts 1:15 (KJV) we see: And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Why would Luke insert the parenthetical statement? “The number of the names” after all, this wasn’t like it was some hierarchy was it? This wasn’t some organization, was it? Well, while they probably didn’t hang up a sign, but they did keep a list of the people. They numbered the names. So I might be presumptuous but I really think they were more organized because they had a list of people.
My next follow-up question was, “What bound the Church together AFTER Pentecost?” In order to answer that I look at Acts 2 and I find this:
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,” (Acts 2:41-46 KJV)
I want to point out a couple things, I highlighted them. The Church continued in the apostles’ doctrine, they ate together, fellowship, and prayer. Also they continued attending the Temple, and ate together. So they were being taught the apostles’ doctrine. The apostles had their own doctrine, teachings that they passed on. The most interesting thing I noted from this is that the “apostles’ doctrine” is not explained in the Book of Acts. There’s no part of the New Testament that we can point to and say we know what the Apostles taught as their doctrine. This is important for me because it appears from this reference that it is the apostles’ doctrine, coupled with worship, prayer together, and fellowship as well as meals bound the people together. How can I determine what the “apostles’ doctrine” was? If it specifically was not explained in this account then it must be in history. There must be something to explain this.
It seems that we have clues to what happened in the first century. Unlike many of the Protestant scholars, I don’t presume that the Scriptures contain everything that the Church said, did or taught during the first century. The Acts of the Apostles was the only historical account canonized into the New Testament. The letters of Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John did not specifically identify doctrines taught. They are pastoral in nature to guide and direct the Church with specific needs.
We do have the instructions that Saint Paul gave to Timothy and to a lesser degree to Titus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2 KJV) and Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1:9 KJV). These two men were left behind when Saint Paul left, Timothy in Asia Minor and Titus in Crete, to ordain bishops, deacons, and elders. The consistency here pointed out, is that these men, those who would be bishops, were to be able to teach sound doctrine. That same doctrine that Saint Paul exemplified and taught was to be passed on to those who could teach others.
Now, if we don’t have everything in scripture that was taught, what do we have in scripture? From reading, I see many general instructions to act in a Godly manner. These are very important, teachings that we can emulate but not organizational instructions.
The history of the Church contains much of the organization of the early Church. Bishop is the title given for those men who were overseers of the Church. The word is the translation of the Greek word Episkopen. I have found only two translations of that, bishop or overseer, both words have the same connotation. We also see Deacons and Presbyters in that New Testament instruction. The apostles also ordained deacons to serve the widows and orphans in Jerusalem.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote to Polycarp several times. They were living at the end of the first century. Ignatius referred to bishops, presbyters and deacons. It would appear that there was a well established hierarchy in the Church. None of this organization was prescribed in the scriptures that we have, so history is our only record. If we were to limit our studies so that only scripture could explain these things then we would have no understanding of the organizational structure of the early Church. After all, the Church began its growth in 33 a.d. And the New Testament scriptures were not collected, and canonized (they decided what books were to be considered Scripture) until 386-389 a.d. so there’s a minimum time space of 353 years. That’s 353 years that the Church existed, ordained clergy, and had teaching of doctrine.
So then, what does this all mean? There is a New Testament Church, a Church formed in the beginning of the New Testament and living in the time written in the New Testament scriptures. It is a physical and visible Church and one that we can find. There is a structure, formed by the Apostles under the direction of the Holy Spirit and following the commands that Jesus gave them. In future essays, I will examine in more depth, as time permits, the specific teachings of the Fathers of the Church. After all, one small essay, by an even smaller writer cannot begin to probe the depth of the structure of the Church..
I’m going to try to dive deeper into some of the “Why” issues. Again I want to state, this is not to personally attack or demean anyone’s choice of religion or group, I’m not able to tell you what God, in His providence, will do in the final judgement, only what I have learned in my search.
I once was a spectator to a conversation that a topic was discussed that there exists disagreement among Christians. There is little on this topic to guide and the exact topic is unimportant right now. One person declared that they had disagreed with another then said something that brought me to listen. The person said,
“I have my own dose of the Holy Spirit and He tells me what’s wrong or right, I don’t need another person to do that for me.”
This made me think of the topic AND this attitude which says, “What’s right for one is not always right for another.” I realized the topic was less important than the concept of sin vs not sin. This brought me to a wealth of issues and I’m going to touch on a few. This isn’t going to be an exhaustive study, for that one must follow the guidance provided within but let me dive into some of this grass.
There is a belief that the Holy Spirit is like a commodity, measured out like one would share a pot of coffee with others. Once given a cup, the person has fuel in their tank and can proceed down life’s highway. The conclusion to that is simply the Holy Spirit directly tells one how to interpret Holy Scripture making the individual the final authority.
These presumptions come from teachers, misunderstanding of Holy Scripture, and the fact that most Americans read the Holy Scriptures in English. There is a place where Jesus, speaking to the twelve concerning the promised Holy Spirit said,
“He will lead you into all truth”
and to the English-only student that seems clear. This statement, like most of the New Testament proves that the Holy Scriptures cannot be understood if one reads them one sentence at a time. Context matters and understanding the audience matters in understanding the Holy Scriptures.
Interpretation of scripture cannot be accomplished in a vacuum outside of the teachings and doctrine of the Apostles as passed down through the ages. Saint Paul told Timothy to take those things he had taught and exemplified in his own life and entrust them to worthy men who could teach others also. Timothy was left behind in Asia Minor to ordain bishops, deacons and presbyters to guide the Church. The overseers, the bishops, were to be able to teach others and they sat, and still today sit, in the seat of the Apostles giving pastoral guidance to the Church. The teachings passed down by the Apostles and the writings of these worthy men also passed down through the ages, gives us great insight into how we are to interpret Holy Scripture. This is known as Holy Tradition and is necessary to understanding the things previously believed.
The passage I referred to, Jesus was talking to his disciples and said that the Holy Spirit would “lead you into all truth” would best be translated using more clear words. In the South it would read that the Holy Spirit would “lead y’all as a group” into all truth and in the North it might read “lead youins into all truth” but the statement was plural.
While we do have the Holy Spirit living in each of us, we cannot interpret Holy Scripture in a vacuum apart from the Body of Christ. We need each other and we need to be guided by the understanding of those who, from the beginning, were taught by the Apostles. Much of the Apostles’ Doctrine only exists in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. They guide us and we learn from them and just like the Great Councils of the Church, we have the men who are ordained to guide the Church collaborating and coming to consensus with wisdom.
There are many examples of the error introduced by the practice of ignoring the past. One glaring example belongs to Martin Luther and infests the modern world. The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” or Only Scripture. This teaching says that if it is not specifically documented in the Book of Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament, that it must not have happened. History records many things in the first century Church that aren’t documented by Saint Luke in his letter to Theophilus. If we take the position that only things documented in the New Testament, we so limit our understanding that we cannot even answer basic questions. How do we baptize? How do we organize a worship service? How do we serve Communion? We know the first century performed these things but specifics are not provided.
One issue that the Jews of the first century had to contend with was that the teachers, the Rabbis over the course of time, had gotten corrupt by their recognition in the public square. Jesus referred to this corruption in Matthew 23:1-12 (KJV)
“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted…”
These Rabbis, teachers, were entrusted with the original tradition from Moses. This was God’s law for his people. The teachers were to faithfully guide God’s people in obeying the Law. Unfortunately, men without the Holy Spirit to guide them, became corrupt. Each generation of Rabbis added their own opinions to the Holy Tradition and according to Jesus, heaped burdens on the people that they could not bear themselves. This is followed through to the current day where the Law has been constantly interpreted so that in Israel one cannot ride an elevator, turn on a light or drive a car on the Sabbath because of the prohibition in the Law against “kindling a fire”.
Jesus freed us from the Law by fulfilling the Law and taught us that the two greatest commandments were to Love God and to Love Our Neighbor. Those commandments existed from the beginning but had been obscured by these corrupt teachers.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus this corruption has been avoided throughout the roughly 2000 years of Church history. When Jesus asked his disciples who THEY said that he was, Peter answered for the group. This was in Matthew 16:16-18 (KJV)
“…And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar–jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it…”
Jesus told them that HE would build his Church on the foundational declaration that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God and that the “gates of hell” would not prevail against His Church. This promise was so important that the Power of God was on display to perform something specific. This promise was so clear as a prophecy that no one would be able to deny it. Think about it. If at any time in the future, the Church was to fall into apostasy, as later Jesus condemned the Rabbis of falling, then God would be shown to be powerless, Jesus would have lied, and the Holy Spirit would have been impotent to maintain the Church in True Doctrine. Certainly this does not prevent some from being misled into error but this does show that the overseers were to keep the original doctrine pure. They were to teach it because only if they were teachable and able to teach others were they to be ordained overseers of Christ’s Church.
So in my quest to find the Church, I had to keep these things in mind. I also had to know that only when the totality of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition (the Apostles’ Doctrine) are considered together do I find the TRUE Church.
I was introduced to Christianity from a righteous father, who lived his faith to the best of his ability. I have the utmost of respect for this life because of him. He raised his children in the faith that he knew and stood strong to abide by it. I tried to live according to it as well but being honest, I was a poor student. As soon as I was no longer in his house, under his control, my Baptist faith proved that I was not changed inside. I was unwilling to walk in that faith.
As an adult I realized this deficiency in myself, and returning to what I had learned as a child made a choice to walk in it. I made a profession of this faith, and I was baptized but not by a Baptist, rather I was searching for that New Testament Church. I was baptized in Gatun Lake in the middle of the Panama Canal in 1978. I studied hard, believed that experience of God was necessary and evidenced by the Glosalalia Phenomenon and followed that teaching. I made changes over the years, sought out the Church, thinking it was invisible and comprised of any “True believers” that were in any group.
I preached, taught, studied, memorized Holy Scripture, all to try to experience this Church that Jesus had promised would be founded on the Apostles’ testimony. Many claimed they were part of this Church but history did not ring true. If the Church was maintained throughout history BY GOD then I thought, there must be continuity in history.
I collided with The Church while in college in 1999. I had decided that ordinary humanities classes were just impossible for me. I could not study art history and stay awake. I looked through my college catalog for something to fill that requirement and stumbled on “Old Testament Survey” which I thought, “I could enjoy that” and looked at the name of the professor. His name in the catalog? CHRIST.
“Wow! This could really be interesting. Old Testament Survey taught by Christ!” I thought.
My professor’s name was Father William Christ (pronounced Crist with a short i) and thus I collided with the Church.
The first day of class I found out that Father Bill, as we were to call him, was the pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church right there in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I asked him “Who are the Orthodox?” His reply was simple. He asked, do you know Acts 11:26? I was proud that of everyone in the class I did and recited it to him. The last sentence in that verse says,
“And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”
He was unapologetic when he looked at me and said
“They were US”
I spent the next year studying, not just my school work, but the Church. It seemed that history was on the side of this Eastern Church. I spent months finding answers to all the nagging questions in my mind. I learned that there was truly an unbroken line of succession from the first century to the modern day of ordination. I learned how the Apostles had ordained overseers, bishops, to lead and guide the Church. I learned that they had patterned their worship in a manner quite consistent with what Jesus had shown them. I learned that these Apostles had taught the bishops how to organize and administer the Church. I also learned that the Church was visible. I could find it. I could be certain that historically it had been true to the teachings of the Apostles.
I had come to a decision point. I had concluded that, after 22 years of searching, I had found what God has put in plain sight for me to find. I had to now make myself part of the Church. This One (single) Holy (sanctified, set apart by God) Catholic (universal, applicable in all lands and languages) and Apostolic (founded on the Testimony of the Apostles and their Doctrine) Church, was now here in front of me.
I sought out Father Bill’s advice as to becoming Orthodox and was surprised that he was clearly not trying to recruit me to be part of his parish. He told me that in his parish, many were bilingual in English and Greek and some of the elderly only spoke Greek. As a result, their Divine Liturgy was in both languages. He suggested that I would be more comfortable attending the local Antiochian parish because the Liturgical Language was English. I found it interesting, after 22 years of evangelical experience where everyone was trying to recruit others to be part of their local congregation, this Orthodox priest was not doing that.
I inquired of Father Bill and found his answer to be enlightening.
“I don’t get Holy Brownie Points to collect people, I only care that you find the True Church and go where God can use you best.”
After a year of study, searching the scriptures, reading history and learning, I became Orthodox, being Chrismated at the Vesperal Liturgy celebrating the Elevation of the Holy Cross of Christ in September of 2000. My professor was not absent. I had my new pastor, Father George of Saint Antony Antiochian Orthodox Church AND Father Bill, pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church both together, in true Christian Unity bring me into the Church.
So now I have told you how I arrived in Orthodoxy, why I’m here. I hope to take time to examine other doctrinal issues and share them.