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Attributes of the True Church.


The increasing number of churches and various sects makes it very hard to find out which is the true Church, and whether one true Church exists in these times at all. Some think that the original Apostolic Church might have gradually disintegrated, and today's church groups are just its "splinters," keeping certain fragments of its former spiritual wealth of grace and truth.

Some of those who share this viewpoint assume that the Church can be restored out of the existing Christian denominations by means of agreement and compromise. This assumption lies in the foundation of the modern ecumenical movement, which takes it that no church is true. Others think that church, probably, never had anything in common with the official churches, but has been built up from individual believers that belong to diverse church groups. The latter opinion developed into the teaching about the so-called "invisible church," promoted by some Protestant theologians. Finally, many Christians are not clear whether the Church is needed at all if man is to be justified by his own faith.

All these controversial, false opinions on the Church result from a lack of understanding of the core truth of Christ's teaching the salvation of man. Through reading the Gospel and the Apostolic Epistles it becomes obvious that, in the Savior's plan, people were called to save their souls not as separate individualities, but jointly, in order to establish an indivisible, graceful Kingdom of the Good. Even the kingdom of the evil, headed by the prince of darkness, is rallied for the war against the Church. Christ reminded about it saying, "And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?" (Matthew 12:26).

In spite of all motley, modern opinions about the Church, most sensible Christians agree that in the apostolic era there was one true Church of Christ, which was a united community of the saved. The Book of Acts of the Holy Apostles tells how the Church started to exist in Jerusalem, when, on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Ghost descended onto the Apostles like tongues of fire. Since that day the Christian faith started to spread out in different parts of the extensive Roman Empire. As it disseminated in towns and villages, Christian communities, or churches, sprang up. Because of tremendous distances, these communities were more or less separated in the everyday life. Still they considered themselves as organic parts of One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church. They were united by one faith and one source of sanctification, drawn from the grace-filled sacraments (baptism, Communion and ordaining, or imposition of hands).

Initially, the Holy Apostles performed these sacred actions. But very soon they started to need assistants, and the Apostles chose the worthy amongst the members of Christian communities, and ordained them bishops, presbyters and deacons. (For example, the Apostle Paul ordained Timothy and Titus to the bishop degree). The Apostles compelled bishops to watch the purity of Christian teaching, instruct the faithful in righteous living and ordain new bishops, priests and deacons as assistants to themselves. By doing so the Apostles themselves established the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is still in existence today. Over her lifespan, the Church, like a tree (Mark 4:31), permanently grew and spread out, getting richer in spiritual experience, religion literature, prayers and singing of the divine service, and later on church architecture and art; still she preserved her essence of the Church of the Apostolic era.

The Gospels and Apostolic Epistles did not appear all at once and all at one place. For decades after the Church was created, the Church was instructed not by the Scripture, but by the oral preaching that the Apostles called the tradition (1 Corinthians 11:16 and 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6, 1 Timothy 6:20). The Tradition is a unified custom of instruction in faith. It has always been decisive when people needed to find what's right and what's wrong. When something was inconsistent with the apostolic tradition, say in the issues of faith, conducting of sacraments or administration, it was considered false and rejected. In line with the Apostolic tradition, bishops of the first centuries checked all Christian manuscripts very thoroughly, and collected the works of the Apostles, Gospels and Epistles, one after another, into one set of books. We know it as the New Testament, and together with the books of the Old Testament it makes up the Bible we read today. This process of collecting books was finalized in the 3rd century. The controversial books, which were not in agreement with everything in the apostolic tradition (though said to be left by the Apostles), were rejected as false, or apocryphal. The Apostolic Tradition played the decisive role in the formation of the New Testament, the Church's treasure of writing. Today, Christians of all denominations use the New Testament, though often voluntarily, without piety or understanding that it is the property of the true Church, the treasure that she collected and kept safe.

We are grateful to other documents, written by disciples of the Holy Apostles and preserved until today, for the many valuable details of life and belief of the Early Christian communities that we know today. The belief in the existence of One, Holy, Apostolic Church was then universal. It is only natural that the Church also had its visible side then: the agape meals (Liturgies) and other services, bishops and priests, prayers and Church singing, canons (Apostolic Constitutions) that governed customs and relationships of churches, and generally all areas of life of the Christian communities. That is why we should agree that the teaching about the "invisible" church is a false innovation.

If we agree that one real Church existed in the early centuries of Christianity, then can we find out the historical moment when she fractured, split and ceased to exist? The honest answer is no. Deviations from the clear Apostolic doctrine, or heresies, began to occur yet in the apostolic age. Most active then were Gnostic teachings, which put together Christian belief and elements of pagan philosophy. The Apostles warned Christians against such teachings in their epistles, and stated directly that adherents of those sects had fallen away from the faith. The Apostles considered heretics as dry branches that broke off from the living tree of the Church. In a like way, the successors of the Apostles, bishops of the first centuries, renounced the deviations from the Apostolic faith, which emerged at their times, and excommunicated persistent adherents of false teachings, according to the Apostles' instruction: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed," i.e. excommunicated (Galatians 1:8-9).

Thus, the oneness and unity of the Church was not questioned in the early centuries of Christianity: the Church is one spiritual family, which has been holding the true doctrine, Sacraments and unbroken succession of grace, transferred from bishop to bishop since the Apostolic age. The Apostles' successors never had doubts in that the Church is absolutely necessary for salvation. She keeps and proclaims the pure teaching of Christ, she sanctifies the believers and leads them to salvation. We can use the images of the Scriptures and say that, in the first centuries of Christianity, the Church was viewed as a fenced sheepfold where the Good Shepherd, Christ, secures His sheep from the wolf, the devil. The Church was compared to a vine, from which believers, like branches, from the same root, received spiritual powers needed for Christian life and good works. The Church was also looked at as the Body of Christ, in which every believer is a limb that has to do some service needed to the whole. The Church was also presented as Noah's Ark, on board of which the believers cross the ever-storming sea of life and reach the shore of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church was likened to a high mountain, raised above human delusions and leading the travelers toward the Heaven, communion with God, angels and saints.

In the first centuries of Christianity believing in Christ meant believing that what He had done on earth, and the means that He had given the believers for salvation, cannot be lost or taken away through efforts of enemies of the Church. The Old Testament prophets, the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles definitely taught that the Church would exist until the last times of the world: "And in the days of these (pagan) kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed... it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever," predicted an Angel to the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:44). The Lord made a promise to the Apostle Peter, "Upon this rock (of faith) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).

In this way, if only we believe the promise of the Savior, we should acknowledge that His Church exists in our time and until the end of the world. We have not pointed out where she is yet, but only posed a principal assumption: she should exist in her holy, indivisibly whole, real essence. Fractured, damaged, evaporated she will not be the Church.

So where is she? What are the hallmarks that help to find her among many modern Christian 'branches'?

First, the true Church must maintain the Christian doctrine, proclaimed by the Apostles, in its intactness and purity. The Son of God came to the earth with the goal of bringing the truth to people, as He said before His suffering on the Cross, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice" (John 18:37). The Apostle Paul, instructing his disciple Timothy on how to fulfill the bishop's office, concluded, "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).

It is sad to recognize significant divergence in doctrinal issues amongst modern Christian denominations. In principle we must agree that all teachings cannot be correct. If one church teaches that, say, the Eucharist is the Flesh and Blood of Christ, and another says that it is not so, then it cannot happen that both are right. If one church believes in the reality of spiritual power of the sign of cross, and another rejects this power, then obviously one of the two is in error. The True Church is that which has no doctrinal deviation from the Church of the first centuries of Christianity. Should someone compare teachings of modern Christian churches impartially, then (as we will see further) he or she will have to conclude that only the Orthodox Church upholds intact the faith of the ancient Apostles' Church.

Another indication of the true Church is the grace and power of God that the Church sanctifies and strengthens believers with. Although grace is invisible, there is a visible condition that permits us to judge whether grace is present or not: the apostolic succession. Since the Apostolic age grace was given to believers in the Sacraments of baptism, Communion, imposition of hands (Chrismation and Cheirotonia, or ordination) and other mysteries. First these Sacraments were worked by the Apostles (Acts 8:14-17), and later by bishops and presbyters. Presbyters differed from bishops in that they did not have the right to ordain. The right to perform these Sacraments could be conferred exclusively in the form of succession: the Apostles ordained bishops, and to ordain other bishops, priests and deacons, was allowed to them only. The Apostolic succession is similar to the holy fire that lights many candles from one. Had the fire died out and the chain of apostolic succession discontinued, then there would no longer be priesthood and Sacraments, and the means of sanctification of believers would be lost. That is why continuity of the apostolic succession has been thoroughly watched since the Apostles' times: that a bishop is ordained only by genuine, legitimate bishops with their ordination traced back to the Apostles themselves. If bishops fell into heresy or conducted immoral life, they were deposed and lost the right to perform Sacraments or ordain successors.

Today there are very few churches that possess undisputed apostolic succession: the Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church and some non-orthodox eastern churches (which broke away from the purity of the Apostolic doctrine yet in the times of the Ecumenical Councils). Christian denominations, which principally deny the necessity of priesthood and apostolic succession, are significantly different from the Early Church due to this, and cannot be true.

A spiritually sensitive person will not need any external evidence of the action of God's grace when he or she vividly senses its warm and appeasing breath in the Sacraments and services of the Orthodox Church. A Christian should distinguish between the grace of God and the low-grade, unhealthy ecstasy of sectarians, like Pentecostals, induced artificially during their prayer meetings. Indications of the genuine grace are peace of soul, love for God and neighbor, gentleness, meekness, humbleness, and other such qualities, enumerated by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians (5:22-26).

One more indication of the true Church is her suffering. It may be difficult to people to recognize which church is true, but her enemy, the devil, understands it very well. He hates the Church and attempts to extinguish her. When we study Church history we see that it is written with blood and tears of her martyrs. Jewish high priests and scribes gave a start to persecutions already in the Apostles' lifetime. Then followed three centuries of persecutions in the Roman Empire, enforced by Roman emperors and regional rulers. From the 2nd till 9th century, Persian rulers were from time to time severely persecuting Christians. In the middle of the 7th century the Muslim Arabs raised the sword on the Church, followed by the Crusaders coming from the West. They undermined the physical power of Byzantium so much that this stronghold of the Orthodox Faith could not withstand the Turks that flooded it in the 14-15th centuries. And lately, the God-fighting Communists outdid them all in brutality, and exterminated more Christians then their predecessors killed altogether. And here is the wonder: the martyrs' blood became the seed for new Christians, and, as Christ promised, the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church.

At last, historical investigation provides a correct and relatively easy way to find the Christ's Church. The True Church must have a continuous succession from the apostolic era. The principle of historical investigation does not require insight into details of development and spreading of Christianity. It is enough to check when this or that church came to existence. If it was, say, in the 16th or other century and not in the times of the Apostles, then this church cannot be genuine. This principle is sufficient to denounce the claims of all denominations, which trace back to Luther and his advocates; neither Lutheran, Calvinist, Presbyterian, nor Mormon, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals and other similar denominations, which appeared even later, cannot be the Christ's Church. These denominations were not established by Christ or His Apostles, but by false prophets Luthers, Calvins, Henrys, Smiths and other innovators.

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