by James Kushiner
Councils, Tradition & Mary
There were also several other features of the New Testament and early Church that to varying degrees are reflected in some non-Orthodox churches, but are worth mentioning here.
1. The leading of the church by council.
In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, we find the Church gathered to answer the difficult and divisive question of how Gentiles (non-Jews) are to be received into the Church. Must they be circumcised first? No, the apostles decided, after deliberating in council together. Paul and Barnabas came from their missionary work abroad to participate in this council, for its decision would have a direct bearing on their converts. Peter spoke as a leader at this council, and James the Lord’s brother summarized the decision of the apostles, saying that it seemed good to them
“and to the Holy Spirit.”
Ever since then, the Church has met in various local, regional, or ecumenical councils. In the Orthodox Church, there are seven major councils that are considered authoritative. The first two of these “Ecumenical Councils” of the bishops of the Church defended the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, and gave us the Nicene Creed which is recited in worship on Sundays in both the East and the West. This Nicene faith is essentially shared by all churches—Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, even Baptist, and so on, even if it is not recited in worship. The faith about Jesus is set forth there, a faith shared by all, and again, it is the same Church that confirmed for us the books of the Holy Scriptures.
But of all the churches, the Orthodox Church in particular looks to the seven ecumenical councils as the major authoritative gatherings of the Church.
2. The role of tradition in defining our understanding of the faith.
It should be clear that the Bible completely by itself cannot produce Christian unity and that the church as a whole down through the ages is necessary to not only confirmed the books of the Bible in the first place, but also help interpret it clearly when challenged by heresies, as so happened in the case of the Nicene Creed. This creed was pronounced in 325 and finalized in council in 381 against the teachings of Arius, who taught that Christ was not the eternal Son of God but was rather created by the Father, though being the highest of all creation. Arius’ teachings were influential and swayed many, for he often quoted Bible verses that many found hard to understand. But in the end the Church meeting in council declared Arius’ teaching to be in error and all churches follow the Nicene faith today.
This would seem to indicate the necessary role of the church and its “tradition”—which simply means what it faithfully “hands down” from the apostles generation after generation. The Orthodox Church has a very clear continuity in its teachings all the way back to the earliest centuries. We believe that the faith is “once for all delivered” and so one of the signs of authentic apostolic teaching is that it does not change over time.
Even in the New Testament it is clear that the churches were governed by the oral tradition of the apostles, for the New Testament and Gospels had not even been written yet: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15)
3. The veneration of the Mary
Finally, many Protestants accuse the Orthodox of being unbiblical in their veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sometimes the Orthodox themselves might be vulnerable and confused by this accusation. But the most elementary examination of the New Testament shows us that the Orthodox have the correct and biblical view about Mary.
In the Bible, it is clear that a mark of biblical faith is a respect offered to the Mother of our Lord. Such respect is not given in most Protestant churches, and one could even say that sometimes the opposite is taught: to specifically avoid any sign of respect.
What does the Bible say? In Luke chapter 1, when Mary greeted the elder Elizabeth, it says that “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
What Elizabeth says is inspired by the Holy Spirit, so we should pay attention. She calls Mary blessed. More significantly, she inverts the normal social order in which the younger would always show deference to her elder by saying expressing herself to be honored by Mary’s visit.
And why is Mary honored this way by Elizabeth? Because she is “the mother of my Lord,” by which she means Jesus Christ, the child that Mary is carrying in her womb at the time of her visit. Also, John the Baptist, who is in the womb of Elizabeth, is said to leap for joy when the voice of Mary came to the ears of Elizabeth.
Finally, Mary praises God beginning in verse 46, and in her inspired song recorded in the inspired Gospel of Luke, she says
“all generations will call me blessed.”
Therefore a sure mark of the Church that continues the tradition of the New Testament must be that it calls the Virgin Mary “blessed” and shows her honor (“veneration,” not “worship”) because she is, as the Holy Spirit said through Elizabeth, the mother of our Lord.
The Right Church?
These have been, then, some of the reasons from our reading of the Bible that led us to conclude that the Orthodox Church is the place where the Christian life as expressed in the New Testament is experienced in its fullness.
What about some of the other churches that have sacraments, worship liturgically, and have bishops that go back historically in succession to the early Church? We did look at these, but became increasingly dismayed by the growing theological liberalism and apostasy in branches of the Anglican churches (some of which ordain homosexuals) and Lutheranism. The Roman Catholic Church has the serious problem of the doctrine about the Papacy, and we found that this understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome was not evident in the early Church and became a source of division whenever the Bishop of Rome asserted it.
A sign of the authenticity of the Orthodox Church as the Church founded by Christ and his apostles was the fact that historically speaking, it is clear that the Orthodox Church does go back to the apostles in unbroken continuity. If someone were to ask a Christian of any one of number of denominations, “Who founded your church?” they might answer something like, Martin Luther, or John Welsey, or John Calvin, John Knox, Henry VIII, or even the name of a modern pastor or preacher. With the Orthodox Church it is clear than there is no one in history who founded it other than our Lord Jesus Christ, with his apostles.
Now just because the Orthodox Church is the true church founded by Christ doesn’t mean that it is without sin, that it doesn’t not suffer the pride and arrogance of men at times. But I came to understand as a Protestant that sin in a church was not enough reason to leave and join another church, for all churches have human faults.
Some Evangelical Protestants might criticize the Orthodox Church for not being as missionary-minded as other denominations, or for not emphasizing Bible study and such things. Yet we realized that it was most important to partake of Holy Communion offered in conjunction with a bishop who stood in direct continuity with the apostles. To also be in a church that honors all the New Testament practices, not just some of them while denying others, a church that holds to the sacraments of Communion, baptism, and healing and confession, to name just four.
At Home with the Saints
So in June 1993, our small community went to St. George Orthodox Church in Cicero to be received in the Orthodox Church by the sacrament of chrismation (we had all been baptized previously). When the priest blessed me with the oil of chrismation, the sacrament of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I felt a strong sense of the Holy Spirit among us, and upon me.
The congregation at St. George’s was almost entirely Arabic-speaking, but we felt entirely welcome and at home in the liturgy and worship with them, partaking in our first Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church. For members of the Orthodox Church today are found all over the world, on every continent, and even in America where Americans are joining the Orthodox increasing numbers.
What we found in the Orthodox Church was the fullness of the apostolic faith of the Bible. Why would I not want to join this Church and partake in all the fullness of grace that she offers in her rich tradition, her divine worship in which the meaning of Scripture is opened up and interpreted publicly for all the believers?
Becoming Orthodox, then, was the answer for me and many others to the very questions we asked beginning 20 years before. How could we find the true Church that is not divided? How could we embrace what the earliest Christians believed and practiced? How could we in the 20th and 21st centuries participate directly in the ministry of the apostles of Christ? Was there any modern church in which that same ministry was exercised, the same faith of the Bible proclaimed?
Yes, the Orthodox Church, even with her human faults, still carries on the tradition of the apostolic Church. By becoming Orthodox we came in to the full living fellowship of the apostles, saints, and martyrs of the church who throughout the ages have given witness to Jesus Christ, who is the same today, yesterday, and forever.
I have never regretted joining the Orthodox Church, not for one moment. Its rich spiritual treasures in the sacraments, the Divine Liturgy, the lives of the saints and martyrs, and the spiritual writings of the fathers have nourished me beyond anything I anticipated when we first joined. In the Orthodox Church I now have more deeply comprehended
“with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
James M. Kushiner is a member of All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, where he lives with his wife Patricia. They have six children and eight grandchildren. He is the executive editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. (www.touchstonemag.com)