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Where Is the True Church?
Information on Churches and Sectarianism - Part I

by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

Characteristics of the True Church

Today’s numerous churches and various sectarian cults make it difficult for many to understand which of these is the true Church and whether, indeed, there exists one true Church in our time. Perhaps, some think, the original Apostolic Church gradually disintegrated, and now only fragments exist of her former spiritual richness, blessedness, and truth. With this view of the Church, some consider that she can be reconstructed from existing Christian denominations by means of agreement and mutual compromises. This point of view is notable in the contemporary ecumenical movement, which does not consider any one church to be the true Church. Perhaps, others think, the Church never actually had anything in common with the formal established churches but always consisted of the faithful believers belonging to the various church groups. This latter belief, advanced by contemporary Protestant believers, is reflected in the teaching of those who call it the "invisible church." Finally, for many Christians it is unclear that there need be any church at all if man is saved through his faith.

All these contradictions and, in reality, false concepts about the Church flow from a misunderstanding of the central teachings of Christ on man’s salvation. When we read the Gospels and the epistles, it becomes clear that, in the words of Christ, man cannot save his own soul individually and independently but rather in unison with other Christians who comprise the blessed kingdom of God on earth. Indeed, in its battle against the Church, the kingdom of evil, governed by the power of darkness, works in a unity of which the Savior reminded us, saying, "If Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?" (Matt. 12:26).

In addition, despite the diversity of contemporary thought on the Church, the majority of righteous Christians agree with the view that in the apostles’ time there existed one Church of Christ as a single community of the saved. The book of the Acts of the Apostles testifies to the existence of the Church in Jerusalem when, on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of our Savior, the Holy Spirit, in the form of flaming tongues, descended on the apostles. From that day on, the Christian faith spread quickly to various parts of the Roman Empire. As a result of the dispersion of the faithful, there developed Christian communities, called churches, in cities and towns. In their daily life, because of the great distances between them, these congregations were more or less isolated. However, they considered themselves part of the organization of the one, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church. They were united in one faith, in a single source of enlightenment, and steeped in the blessed sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and the laying on of hands. Originally, these blessed sacraments were performed by the apostles. However, soon after, helpers were needed, and among the members of the Christian congregations, the apostles selected worthy candidates chosen to be bishops, priests, and deacons. The apostles instructed the bishops in their responsibility to follow pure Christian teaching, to teach the faithful to live piously, and to ordain new bishops, priests, and deacons. Thus, the Church, during the first century, like a tree, constantly grew and spread its branches over various countries, enriched by spiritual experiences, religious literature, church services, and, later, by church choirs, the architecture of the churches, and ecclesiastical arts, but always preserving the essence of the true Church of Christ.

The Gospels and Epistles did not appear right away or even simultaneously. For many decades after the establishment of the Church, the source of teaching was not the Holy Scriptures as we have them today, but the oral preaching that the apostles themselves called "the Tradition," that is, the true religious teaching. In the Church it has always had the deciding significance in the question of what was right and what was not. Whenever something arose that was not in agreement with apostolic teaching — be it with regard to faith, administration of the Sacraments, or Church organization — it was recognized as false and rejected. Continuing the apostolic Tradition, bishops of the early Church laboriously checked all the Christian manuscripts and gradually collected the works of the apostles, the Gospels and Epistles, into one complete set, which is called the New Testament, and together with the books of the Old Testament, comprises the Holy Bible we have today. This process of compilation was completed in the third century. Books that were claimed to be apostolic but were subject to debate and were not in complete agreement with the apostolic tradition were rejected as false or "apocryphal." In this manner, it was apostolic Tradition that had the overriding significance in determining which books would be included in the New Testament — the written treasure of the Church. Today, Christians of all denominations use the New Testament — often arbitrarily, without reverence, not realizing that it is the property of the true Church — a treasure carefully collected by it. It is important to remember that "the Bible came out of the Church; the Church did not come out of the Bible."

Thanks to those writers who came before us, disciples of the holy apostles who wrote commentaries, we know many valuable details about the life and faith of the first century Christian era. At that time, the faith in the existence of the one Holy, Apostolic Church was universal. It is natural that the Church then had its own visible expression — in the "suppers of love" (liturgies) and other services, in its bishops and priests, in the prayers and church singing, in the canons (the apostolic rules), regulating life and the relations among different church communities, and in all the manifestations of the life of Christian societies. Thus it must be recognized that the teaching about an "invisible" church or one lacking any order or authority is new and false.

Having agreed with the fact of the existence of a single real Church in the first centuries of Christianity, is it possible to find a historic moment when the Church was broken up and ceased to exist? The honest answer ought to be — no! The fact of the matter is that deviations from the purity of apostolic teaching — heresies — started to crop up even during apostolic time. The Gnostic teachings, which added elements of pagan philosophy to the Christian faith, proved to be particularly dynamic then. In their epistles, the apostles warned Christians against these teachings and maintained that adherents to these sects had turned away from the true Faith. The apostles behaved toward heretics as toward dry branches that had dropped away from the tree of the Church. In like manner, the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the early centuries, also did not acknowledge as competent those who had deviated from the apostolic Faith and excommunicated from the Church persistent adherents of these teachings, following the admonition of the Apostle Paul: "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." (Gal. 1:8)

Thus, in the first century of Christianity the question about the unity of the Church was clear: the Church is a single spiritual family of believers, bringing from apostolic times the true teaching, the only sacraments, and the unbroken succession of grace, transferred from bishop to bishop. For the successors of the apostles there was no doubt that the Church is completely necessary for salvation. She safeguards and proclaims the pure teaching of Christ, she sanctifies believers and leads them to salvation. Using figurative comparisons of Holy Scripture, the Church in the first centuries of Christianity thought of itself as the guarded "fold" in which the Good Shepherd, Christ, protects His sheep from the "wolf," the devil. The Church was the vine from which believers, like branches, received spiritual strength necessary for Christian living and good works. The Church understood itself as the Body of Christ, in which each believer, like a physical member, must work for the benefit of all. The Church was like Noah’s Ark, in which believers sailed over the sea of life and reached the harbor of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church resembled a high mountain, rising above human delusions, and leading its travelers towards heaven, to commune with God, the angels, and the saints.

In the early centuries of Christianity, to believe in Christ meant to believe also in that which He accomplished on this earth, the means which He gave believers for their salvation, which cannot be abused or taken away by the devil. The prophets of the Old Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ, and His apostles definitely taught about the existence of the Church until the end times of the world. "And in the days of these 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 forever," an angel foretold to the prophet Daniel (Dan. 2:44). And the Lord promised the Apostle Peter: "Upon this rock (of faith) I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).

In like manner, if we believe in the promise of Our Savior, we must recognize the existence of His Church in our times and until the end of the world. We have not yet indicated where the true Church is but only expressed the principle precept that she must exist in her sacred, whole, and real nature. Fragmented, injured, evaporated — she is not the Church.

So where is she? In what signs can she be found amidst the numerous contemporary Christian faiths?

First of all, the true Church must support the undamaged pure Christian teaching, preached by the apostles. In offering truth to people, which consists in the coming of the Son of God to this earth, Jesus said before His crucifixion and suffering, "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, teaching his disciple Timothy how to perform his pastoral duties, writes in conclusion, "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 Tim. 3:15). With regret, we must admit that in the teaching of contemporary Christians there is much discord. In principle it is necessary to agree that not all can teach truth. If, for example, one church insists that communion is the Body and Blood of Christ, and another that it is not, then it is impossible that both are right? Or, if one church believes in the reality of spiritual power of the sign of the cross, and another rejects this power, apparently one of them has strayed. The true Church must be that one which does not disagree in the faith of the Church of the early Christians. When a person objectively compares the teaching of contemporary Christian churches (as we will further discuss), he must come to the conclusion, that only the Orthodox Church confesses the true Faith of the ancient, apostolic Church.

Another sign by which we can find the true Church is in the blessing or power of God, with which the called Church enlightens and strengthens the believers. Another blessing is an invisible strength. It, however, exists in the outward realm which can be observed by its existence or absence; it is an apostolic continuity. From the time of the apostles, blessings were given to the believers in the sacrament of Baptism, Holy Communion, the laying of the hands (anointing the clergy), and others. Those who accomplished these Sacraments were at first the apostles, then the episcopate and clergy. The right to perform the Sacraments of the laying of the hands was passed on exclusively by apostolic succession, since the apostles selected bishops, priests and deacons. Apostolic succession is like a sacred fire, from which one candle lights the others. If the fire is extinguished or the apostolic chain of succession is broken, then there are no true spiritual leaders or valid Sacraments. The means of salvation for the believers are lost. This is the reason that ever since the apostles’ time, the rite of apostolic succession was always faithfully observed, such that the bishops passed the succession on to deserving bishops. Thus, the laying of the hands comes from the first apostles. The bishops who fall into heresy or behave unfittingly were deposed and lost the right to perform the Sacraments and to participate in the consecration of new bishops.

In our time, only a few churches exist in which this apostolic succession presents no disbelief. The Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and several non-orthodox eastern churches such as the Coptic Church. Modern "Christian" denominations, in principle, reject the necessity of succession of the apostles and clergy. Thus, for this reason alone, they reject the Church of the first century and cannot be called the true Church.

Of course, the spiritually sensitive person needs no outward proof of God’s infinite Grace, since he experiences the warmth and peaceful relationship which he receives from the Sacraments and worship in the Orthodox Church. Christians must differentiate God’s Grace from the harmful spiritualism of ecstasy, which is artificially evoked by sectarians, such as the "Pentecostals" at their prayer meetings. Signs of true blessing consist of peace of soul, love towards God and one’s neighbor, kindness, faithfulness, patience, gentleness and other similar fruits of the Spirit named by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians (5:22-26).

Another sign of the true Church is seen in her suffering. If people find it difficult to determine which Church is the true one, the devil, her adversary, understands this well enough. He despises the Church and attempts to destroy her. Familiarizing ourselves with the history of the Church, we see in truth that her history is written with tears and blood of her martyrs for their faith. At first, this persecution was started by the Jewish high priests and scribes during the time of the apostles. Then came three hundred years of persecution by the Roman emperors and governors. After them, the sword was raised against the Church by the Arab Muslims, then the invasion of Latin Crusaders from the west. They ripped apart the physical strength of Byzantium to such a degree that the stronghold of Orthodoxy could not withstand the attack of the Turks in the 14th and 15th centuries. Finally, atheistic communists inflicted their cruelty, destroying more Christians than all the past enemies of the Faith combined had done. But herein is the miracle: the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed for new Christians, and, as Christ promised, the gates of hell cannot destroy the Church.

Finally, a correct comparison is an easy way to distinguish the Church of Christ from false teachings. The true Church must continue to exist from the time of the apostles. It is not necessary to delve into all the details of the development and dissemination of all of the other forms of "Christianity." Suffice to say that when some church appears in the 16th or another such century, but does not originate at the time of the apostles, it cannot be the true Church. Thus, it is proper to express a protest when other denominations consider themselves the Church of Christ, having their origin in Luther, his followers, or some other sectarian. Such denominations include the Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, and later, the Baptists, Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals and others like them. These denominations were not established by Christ and His apostles, but by false prophets: Luther, Calvin, the founders of the Church of England, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and other latter day "prophets."

The real purpose of this brochure is to acquaint the Orthodox reader with the historical development of the major contemporary "Christian" faiths and the content of their teaching, so that he might see how they differ from one holy and apostolic Church established by Christ. At the time of "Christological disputes," from the 4th to the 8th centuries, several heretical groups broke away from the Church. They included the Arians, Macedonians, Nestorians, Monophysites and Monothelites, iconoclasts, and others. Their teachings were condemned by the seven Ecumenical Councils, and their heresies, while very dangerous, have often taken new and "modern" forms in various sects, denominations, cults, and the "new age movement." We will not discuss all of these early heresies here, but will examine the current "religions" claiming to be Christian. First, though, let us examine the true Church.

Published with the kind permission of Bishop Alexander Mileant

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