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.
The Orthodox Church
Studying the history of Christianity, we are convinced that the appearance of the Orthodox Church definitely arises from the time of the apostles. The Church, small at first, like the example of the mustard seed used by the Savior, grew gradually into a mighty tree, spreading its branches over the entire world. Even in the first century, we find Christian congregations in almost all the cities in the Roman empire: in the Holy Land, Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor, Hellene, Macedonia, Italy, Galea, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, Britannia, and even beyond the empire, in far away Arabia, India and Scythia. By the end of the first century, Christian congregations were most often headed by bishops, who were the bearers of the bounty of the apostolic blessings. The bishops also directed congregations which were smaller than in the larger neighboring towns and cities. As early as the second century, bishops of large regions were called metropolitans and were responsible for the bishops in their regions. The metropolitan had the responsibility to meet regularly with the bishops to discuss religious and administrative matters.
In addition to regional episcopal sees in the Roman Empire, there were the imperial dioceses. In major centers of government there developed centers for the more widespread Church organizations, later to be named patriarchates. In the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which assembled in Thessalonica in 451 A.D., boundaries were drawn for the five patriarchal sees: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (which was not assigned administrative duties but was recognized for its spiritual significance).
With the passage of time and effects of various historical events, patriarchal regions lessened or grew in size. Great changes were brought about as the result of the attacking German nation on Europe (at the end of the 4th century) pressure from Persia, and the attack of Arabs on the eastern region of the Byzantine Empire (middle of the 7th century). In the middle of the 9th century noticeable movement is seen towards acceptance of Christianity by the Slavic nations. In the enlightenment of Bulgaria and Moravia, the monks Cyril and Methodius were especially industrious. From Bulgaria the Christian religion advanced towards Serbia. A great contribution was performed by Saints Cyril and Methodius in their creation of the Slavic alphabet, and in translations from the Greek to the Slavic language selected books of worship and devotion, and Books of the Holy Scripture. Their work prepared Russia for Christianity.
On the northern coast of the Black Sea there existed Christian congregations already at the end of the first century. Massive demands by the Christian Slavic tribes occupying Russia led to the baptism of Russia. In 988, during the reign of the Grand Prince Vladimir, the population of Kiev population was baptized in the Dniper River.
From Kiev, the Orthodox Faith spread to other parts of Russia. The greatness of the Russian Orthodox Church before the revolution can be judged by the following facts: in Russia there were 1,098 monasteries with more than 90,000 monks and nuns. In addition to the Patriarch of Moscow, there were six metropolitans, 136 bishops, 48,000 priests, and 15,000 deacons serving 60,000 churches and chapels. For the instruction of the seminarians there were four religious academies, 57 seminaries, and 185 spiritual institutions. Great quantities of bibles, various prayer books, religious literature, and liturgical texts were printed.
Beginning with the middle of the 18th century, through the labor of St. Herman of Alaska and other Orthodox Russian missionaries, Orthodoxy spread to Alaska, where many Aleutians were baptized. Orthodoxy spread in North America both through the immigration of Orthodox people from Greece and the Slavic nations and through conversion. (There are now more than three million Orthodox Christians in the United States).
Unfortunately, in time, Russia did not treasure her spiritual riches but began to delight in the western ideas. By 1918, attacks were intensified on the Church by atheists in their merciless attempt to destroy all the clergy, the faithful, and the churches. This could be seen in the light of the Book of Revelation, in which great tribulations were foretold for the Christian Faith before the end of the world.
At present, the organization of the Orthodox Church consists of churches centered in Constantinople (with a great number of believers in Europe, North and South America headed by the patriarchal clergy in Istanbul, Turkey); Alexandria (Egypt); Antioch (with its capital in Damascus, Syria); Jerusalem; Russia; Georgia; Serbia; Rumania; Bulgaria; Greece; Albania; Poland; Czechoslovakia; Latvia; and the “Orthodox Church in America.” The Finnish and Japanese Orthodox Churches are autonomous. After World War I there developed a great number of Orthodox Greek and Russian congregations (of the Russian Church Abroad) in almost all parts of the world. The total number of Orthodox Christians in the world is now estimated at about 130,000,000.
The naming of the Church as “Orthodox” occurred during the period of religious dispute from the 4th century to the 6th century when it became necessary to differentiate the true Church from heresies (initiated by Arias, Nestorius, and others who also called themselves Christians but were outside the Church). The word orthodoxy is translated from the Greek words ortho (right) and doxa (glory), meaning right glory. Other names given to the Church were Catholic, which means “whole” or “all encompassing,” meaning that in the Church resides all the Truth and that the Church calls everyone all over the world to salvation, regardless of their nationality or social status. In the translation of the Nicene Creed (the “Symbol of Faith”) from Greek to Slavic, the word “catholic” was translated as “universal.”
In the Orthodox Church, established national churches — for example, those in Jerusalem, Russia, and Serbia — are often headed by patriarchs, and sometimes by archbishops or metropolitans. To discuss religious matters concerning the Church, the patriarch or metropolitan calls a conference with the bishops. Matters of concern to the whole Orthodox include questions regarding faith (dogma) and the canons (Church laws). These are discussed in the Ecumenical Councils, of which there have been seven. These were attended by delegates from all the Orthodox patriarchates and autocephalous (autonomous) Orthodox churches. Representatives from each patriarchate, including both episcopal, priestly, and lay delegates are sent. In this manner, the system in the Orthodoxy neither unilateral nor democratic but universal.
The teaching of the Orthodox Church in condensed form took shape in the Symbol of Faith, which was established at the first and second Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 381 (in the cities of Nicea and Constantinople). This Symbol of Faith was in turn developed from the ancient creeds, developed during the apostolic period. In summing up the Orthodox teaching, we believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the Trinity one and indivisible. The Father is before all time; the Son of God is begotten of the Father before all ages; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father from all eternity. We believe in One God, worshipped in the Trinity, eternal, almighty and all-knowing; that of His own Will He created all that exists out of nothing: first, the realm of the angels, invisible to us, and then our visible and material world. God also created people, breathed into us eternal souls, imprinted in our hearts his benevolent law, and gave us free will. He created us to be eternally blessed in communion with Him. We believe that God is eternally just and righteous in His mercy. He governs the entire universe and the life of each one of us, and without His will nothing can be accomplished.
When our first parents disobeyed God’s word, He did not reject them permanently, but through the prophets began to disclose His plan of salvation, promising to send the Messiah, Christ. When the world was ripe for accepting the true faith, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, came down to earth, to save us sinners. He taught us how to believe and live righteously. He died on the Cross for our salvation and with His precious blood washed away our sins. On the third day He rose from the dead and began our own resurrection and eternal blessed life in heaven. We believe that on the fiftieth day after His resurrection the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles, who even now are present in the Church, supporting her in spirit and truth. We believe that one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is empowered with invincible power against evil even until the end of the world. We believe that the Holy Spirit, through the Sacraments of Baptism, confession, Holy Communion, the laying on of hands and the other Sacraments, purifies and enlightens believers, giving them strength to live a Christian life. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ will come again a second time upon this earth, at which time there will be the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment, in which every person will be judged according to his deeds. After the judgment, eternal life will begin; for the righteous, eternal bliss in communion with God, for the devil and sinners eternal suffering in hell.
We admit that for salvation it is not enough to have faith alone, but it is necessary to live in accordance with faith. For this reason, we admit to the necessity of fulfilling the ten commandments given by God to the Prophet Moses, and the Beatitudes in the Gospel given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:3-12). These laws command us to love God and our neighbor and even to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-45).
These laws of love place Christian Faith in a moral position above other religions, and from that point of view the Church is the only true path to peace among the nations. Without a sincere love for our neighbor and without forgiveness, wars and total annihilation are inevitable. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us all to forgive in a remarkable prayer, the “Our Father,” when we pray, “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In His sermons the Lord teaches faithfulness, gentleness, patience, and justice towards others. Among His sermons one which stands out is the “sermon of the talents” which calls us to develop within ourselves all the gifts given by the Lord, our abilities and talents. True faith must constantly develop inner growth and produce good deeds, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:6).
Christians must not be materialistic, that is, they must behave dispassionately towards material blessings, not use them for selfish purposes, but rather to meet basic necessities and to help others who are less fortunate. Pride, arrogance, selfishness and egoism are loathsome in the sight of God.
The Orthodox Church teaches that each person was created by God with a free will and is therefore responsible for his own behavior. God loves us and has mercy on us sinners. He helps us with every good thing, especially if we call on Him. He promised us: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). Earnest prayer enlightens reason, helps overcome temptation, and assist us to live according to God’s commandments. Prayer helps us to enliven our spiritual abilities which become the main purpose for our life on earth.
When the Orthodox Christian experiences misfortune or illness, he must not blame God, but remember that the Lord permits us to suffer for our spiritual benefit, for cleansing from sins and the strength to do good deeds. In troubled times, we must pray to the Heavenly Father, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We Orthodox Christians honor the saints: the Virgin Mary, prophets, apostles, martyrs, righteous monks and nuns, and other righteous servants of God. After their death the holy ones do not sever their ties to us; they pass on to the heavenly Church, the Church triumphant. There, before the throne of God, they intercede for us, as for their younger brothers and sisters and help us to reach the kingdom of God. For us Russians, we cherish the memory of the apostolic Princess Olga and her grandson, Prince Vladimir, Saints Boris and Gleb, the Righteous Sergius of Radonezh, Saints Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev caves, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Saint John of Kronstadt and many others, including the new Russian martyrs of the 20th century. Likewise, other Orthodox nations have given us many great saints, and all Orthodox Christians venerate all these saints.
Worship in the Orthodox Church is performed according to the order established over the centuries. The most important worship service is the Divine Liturgy. In a specific part of the service the sacrament of Holy Communion is consecrated, and the faithful receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine and mysteriously commune with Him. As the Lord said, “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54). Before partaking of Communion the faithful confess their sins to God through a priest in order to commune worthily and with a pure heart, as commanded by the Apostle Paul and the Church’s teaching.
Days of fasting exist to aid Christians in overcoming their love of pleasure, their sins, and their spiritual indolence. From the days of the apostles, fasting has always been the rule on Wednesdays and Fridays (to commemorate our Savior’s suffering), before the celebration of the Lord’s birth (Christmas), and especially before the feast of Pascha. This period is called the Great Fast. During fasts, one is not permitted to consume meat or dairy products or engage in frivolity, but should devote time to prayer and reading spiritually profitable literature. The Orthodox faith also calls for almsgiving which includes caring for one’s family, the elderly, orphans, widows, the sick and the poor. It also requires refraining from criticizing anyone, as the Lord Jesus Himself commanded, “judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). The purpose of our life is constant striving towards righteousness: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).