by James Kushiner
Marks of the Biblical Church
In our study of the Bible, we saw that there are certain features of the New Testament Christian life that generally are not practiced in most of the Protestant churches from which we had come. It would be helpful to give a list of things that we saw in Holy Scripture, and found in the early Church, but are not found consistently at all among the Protestant and Evangelical communities.
1. The Doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in Communion.
Many denominations downplay this biblical truth or deny it outright, saying that the Bread and Wine are merely symbols that simply help us remember the Lord. But St. Paul is emphatic about Communion:
“Whoever, therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. [He] eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Cor. 11:27–30)
Christ himself says, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:53–54)
The early Christians and Church fathers held a high view of the Eucharist: St. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr of the early second century, called Communion the “medicine of immortality,” a view that we found in the Orthodox Church. Holy Communion was treated most seriously in the early Church, viewed as a mystery of the faith. The notion of being a “mere symbol” is a modern idea not found anywhere in the writings of the church fathers.
2. Baptism as a grace-bearing sacrament for adults and children.
St. Paul, in relating the story of his conversion in Acts, says that Jesus sent him to Ananias in Damascus, who after three days, told Paul,
“Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” (22:16).
St. Peter wrote that
“baptism… now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)
St. Paul speaks of baptism in Colossians as the
“putting off of the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ,” a baptism in which we are “buried with Christ (2:12; cf. Rom. 6:1).
As to the baptism of children, there is nothing in the New Testament that would forbid this. Jesus’ invitation to bring even the infants to Him for blessing, and the baptism of entire households would seem to suggest infants were to be included. In fact, we see virtually no other practice in the early Church in the following centuries, and the Church that gave us our New Testament practiced this.
3. The anointing of the sick with the sacramental oil.
There are again very few churches that still practice this, but it is found right in the New Testament, with no reason given why it should ever be abandoned:
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14–15).
To this day, priests of the Orthodox Church anoints the sick with the blessed oil, and it is considered a sacrament of Christ’s church, an extension of His healing ministry, just as in the New Testament. Why isn’t this done in most Protestant churches?
4. The confession and absolution of sins.
Few Protestant churches have anything like the confession of one’s sins and absolution. In Matthew 18 Christ assures us that the Church has authority to bind and to loose the sins of its members, meaning to forgive their sins. After his Resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples,
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) And, following the verses in James about anointing and the forgiveness of sins, “Therefore confess your sins to one another.” (5:16)
In the Orthodox Church, there is a lively sense of confession, something that is in evidence in the early Church as well. Regular confession of our sins to Christ, with the priest as a witness on behalf of the Church and as Christ’s representative on earth pronouncing the forgiveness that Christ gives—this was always part of the regular discipline of the early Church.
5. The offices of deacon, priest, and bishop are normative.
There is no question that in the New Testament the bishops and elders (presbyter from the Greek, from which we get our word priest) are envisioned as the normal governing authorities in the Church. Titus 1:7 mentions the qualifications for bishops, and there are numerous references to elders and bishops in the New Testament, as well as deacons.
Few Protestant churches are governed by bishops, and in many cases congregations are simply independent from any external oversight, something foreign to the early Church, which recognized the regular orders of deacon, priest, and bishop as continuing an apostolic practice for the good of the Body of Christ.
In the early Church, the bishops were understood as successors of the Apostles. They ordained the priests and deacons, and provided for the sacramental and teaching ministry of the Church. It became apparent to us that we needed to “regularize” our Eucharistic worship, and have a priest to lead us, a priest ordained by a bishop who stood in direct succession back to the apostles.
6. The respect for celibacy as a means for service to Christ.
St. Paul, in what is an admittedly difficult chapter on marriage, concludes by saying that
“he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.” (1 Cor. 7:38)
Jesus says to his disciples,
“Not all men can receive this saying, but only to those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Matt. 19:12)
These are hard sayings, but by taking into account what the early Church practiced, we see both a high view of marriage as a blessed sacrament (no divorce) and the monastic, celibate life for those for whom it is a calling. Consecrated celibacy is not a feature of the Protestant churches, but it was in the early Church and remains so today in the Orthodox Church (and Catholic Church)—with no diminution of the sanctity of marriage in the eyes of the Church. It is a calling within and for the sake of the Church.
7. The discipline of prayer and fasting as a mark of the Christian life.
While all churches do emphasize prayer, the Orthodox Church also embraces regular fasting days and seasons for her members. She does so in fulfillment of Christ’s own teaching about how to fast in Matthew 6:16–18, where He clearly expected fasting to be done. Christ says as much again in Matthew 9:14–15, when asked by the Pharisees why the disciples do not fast:
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from the, and then they will fast.”
Prayer is formally emphasized by the Orthodox Church in its practice of praying the Hours, regular times of prayer throughout the day in remembrance of God’s saving acts, especially Christ’s offering of Himself upon the Cross and His saving death. Fasting is regularly practiced as community of faith during certain seasons, such as Lent and Advent.