Written by Andrew Nova (HT:`HTOC)
Orthodox Christians in America are living in a very challenging era, yet at the same time are living in the most exciting age of the Church. Americans have been blessed with the appearance of the Orthodox Church and its appearance couldn’t have come at a better time. With the saturation of various religions, sects, and forms of “Christianity,” America has become a sort of “anything goes” Nation, religiously speaking. However, despite the proliferation of the vast amount of “spiritual beliefs,” many Americans are searching for truth and are asking the same question, knowingly or unknowingly. How do we know when an idea is from God (i.e. authentic)? What is authentic Christianity?
In 987 A.D. pagan Russian Prince Vladimir sent envoys out in search of a noble religion worthy of his adoption. These Russian envoys recorded their impression of the Christian worship at Constantinople’s Orthodox Cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. The envoys stated “We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth … We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” What these envoys experienced was the authenticity of Christian worship, and it is precisely this authentic element which is drawing the attention of inquirers from all walks of life. While many converts have come to the Orthodox Church through experiencing true worship, it must be noted that many are discovering the authenticity of the Church by way of vigorous study. The secularization and “watering down” of Christianity in America has forced many to seek a deeper and more robust faith in Christ and are seeking an authentic Christian Church to express their faith in. In this post-modern culture, Americans are inundated with secular thought and anti-Christian ways of living everyday. With literally thousands of sects, cults and various denominations to choose from, how can anyone know which of these ideas are from God, and how can they know which Church is God’s legitimate representative? The authenticity of the Orthodox Church is the key. The beauty of our faith is a precious gift from our Lord, evidence of the seal of the Holy Spirit given to the Church, and is the visible fulfillment of Christ’s promise to the Body of Christ found in Matthew 16:17-18.
The typical answer that we Orthodox Christians generally provide to this question is “come and see.” To many, this is a seemingly ambiguous response, or is seen as some sort of emotional coercion for conversion. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most Orthodox Christians respond in this manner because it is far easier for someone to experience the selfevident authenticity of the Orthodox Church than it is to spend laborious hours reviewing the history of the Christian faith. But this is precisely the problem for many Americans. The post-modern world stands in the 20th century attempting to look backward in time, sifting through mountains of theological opinions, hoping to arrive at some sort of consensus of what authentic Christianity is. The key to discovering authentic Christianity isn’t by looking backwards through time; the way to discover authentic Christianity is by starting at the beginning of the Church and moving forward.
Only by moving forward through Christian history can an enquirer see the authentic truths of our faith and find the answer to this troubling question. But, how does this relate to the question of knowing if an idea is from God or not?
For an idea to be from God, and therefore authentic, it must be part of, or from God Himself. There is only one way to become a part of God, and that is by becoming a member of His body (John 14:20). But which body of Christ (i.e. church) and how do we know if the ideas expressed in these various groups are from God? In this post-modern world, there are thousands of groups which claim to be “authentic” Christian churches. Contrary to many modern beliefs and myths, the early Christian Church has not ceased to exist but continues to exist today, and Acts 11:26 is our starting point. I point people to Acts 11:26 because it is the first place people were called “Christians,” paving the way for authentic Christianity. How did they know if their ideas were from God? How did they please God? In simple terms, we can know if our ideas are from God or not by simply checking our ideas against those who have pleased God for centuries: the Saints and the universal Church. The Orthodox Church calls this acquiring “the mind of the Church” and it is a stumbling block for many in the West. The “mind of the Church” is a state of being which expresses the Orthodox faith in unity and in harmony.
The mind of the Church teaches us to let go of our selfwill (ego) and stop trying to re-invent the wheel. There is no need for us to struggle with issues that have already been addressed by the Church, or the Saints. We have over 2000 years of Church history and the wisdom from our holy Fathers to guide us in our thinking. This is our “spiritual gauge” that helps us to determine if our ideas are from God or not. It’s that simple. As an example, the mind of the Church never divides itself, or divides “things” within itself. You won’t find our venerable Bishops or holy Fathers placing Tradition above scripture, or scripture above Tradition. Why? Because these are not things which we place against each other; scripture and Tradition are both holy and are both from God and are in harmony (2 Thessalonians 2:15 & 2 Timothy 3:16). The Church is not just a place we go on Sundays, but a living organism that has existed from the beginning and shares a synergistic relationship with Christ. Christ does not distinguish between Himself and the Church, and from the lips of our Savior He illumines our minds to this mystical union (Acts 9:5). When we wonder if our ideas regarding “doctrine” are sound or not, do we not have the Holy Ecumenical Councils and Saints like Saint Maximus the Confessor to help us? If we wonder how we are to “interpret” scripture, do we not hear the voice of Saint Vincent of Lerins telling us “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.”
When we think about the holy mysteries of the Church, do we divide them into “parts” or “individual” sacraments? God forbid! Just as the Church, Tradition, and scripture are Holy and share a mystical union with God which cannot be divided, in the same way the mysteries of the Church should not divided but are all interdependent. Scripture, Tradition, the Body of Christ, worship, and our aescetic life are united and binding. We hear the voice of Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos “The experience of divine grace through the sacraments is not independent of the ascetic life. Sacraments and asceticism are connected and cannot be understood apart from each other.” This constant theme of unity and harmony of all things is precisely the mind of the Church. Father Georges Florovsky states, “The ultimate authority, and the ability to discern the truth in faith, is vested in the Church which is indeed a ‘Divine institution’ in the proper and strict sense of the word, whereas no Council and no ‘Conciliar institution’ is ‘de jure divino,’ except in so far as it happens to be a true image or manifestation of the Church herself.”
Since the Church is from God and is in God, then authenticity can surely be found within Her. We just need to be willing to see the wisdom within Her and be willing to accept Christianity in its most pure and unadulterated form. No matter what the topic is, we can look to the Church for an answer. But why all of this fuss about the Church? Isn’t the Church just a bunch of Christians that worship together? The answer is an unequivocal “No.” If we begin to think in this way, we have surely departed from the faith and have adopted a secular mind. How can the Church be the Body of Christ and not be authentic? If the Body of Christ is authentic, will it not carry the authority of Christ with Her? This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Determining if our ideas are authentic is just the beginning. This entire topic is a two-sided coin. You cannot have an authentic Church without having the authority of the Church that naturally comes with it. As a former Protestant, I had doubts about the Church, as so most Protestants. However, a casual reading of Church history and a few verses brought to light fixed that right up. I even wondered if these verses were somehow added to the Orthodox bible because I didn’t recall ever seeing them before! I found it ironic that a self-proclaimed “bible thumper” missed such obvious and powerful passages. When we kiss the hand of our Priests and Bishops, are we just being polite or loving? We think not. This is proper and just reverence for the authority that comes with authenticity. I will close this paper with some very telling passages.
We need to look at 1 Timothy 4:14 and remember that the “gift” Paul is referring to is not symbolic. It is real and is a manifestation of God. In Timothy we read, “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” As a young Bishop, Timothy is then warned about laying hands carelessly in 1 Timothy 5:22; we read, “Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.” It is precisely this authority and authenticity that is conferred to the Church by God Himself, which warrants such a warning and is to be used with caution, which naturally invokes our reverence. If we still have doubts, we should look to Acts 5:1-11. As we strive to bring our minds and souls closer to God, our ideas will simply be an expression of that holy synergy. If at any time we find our ideas conflicting with the mind of the Church, it is then that we will know that our ideas are not from God.
May God have mercy upon us all and continue to illumine His Church.
Note: This short article was written specifically for The WORD magazine, and is a condensed version of “The Problem of Authenticity & Authority in Modern Christendom.”