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The Word, November 1992, Page 8-9
JUST WHO ARE WE ORTHODOX?
by Father David Hester
Every year from Pascha to Pentecost, we Orthodox read from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles at all our Divine Liturgies. This annual reading is meant to fill us, as Orthodox Christians, with a deep sense of joy and gratitude, because this book, Acts of the Apostles, is the literal history of the beginnings of our Orthodox Church. The book is not, as many who over the centuries have left the Orthodox Church would have us believe, some generic story of the origins of Christianity, but it is the account of our beginnings, from that upper room on Pentecost, through the missionary efforts in Damascus and Antioch, through Greece and Asia Minor, to Rome and the West. (We Orthodox Christians ought never to forget that for over 1000 years Western Christians were one with us before they left the unity of the Orthodox Churches.)
But how do we know that this the account in Acts — is our history, the history of the beginnings of the Orthodox Church? To answer this we must look at certain facts from history:
1. From the beginnings recounted in the Book of Acts, one finds that the Gospel message spread and that more and more people were baptized and thus brought into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Eventually, as is known from church history, by the time one reaches the early 400’s almost everyone in the Roman Empire – all the Middle East, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and Southern Europe —were Christians united in the one Church. The only exceptions were small groups of heterodox Christians, who because of their heretical beliefs had left the communion of the one Church, and the communities of Jews found in these same areas. For these Christians there was a strong sense that this united Church was the one Church which the Lord had given Himself to found, and was indeed the Church “against which the gates of Hell would not prevail.”
2. After the Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon in 451, with its teaching that Christ has two natures, one fully divine and one fully human, united in His divine person or hypostatis, there came to be the first major and enduring split from the one Church of all Christians, when large groups in Egypt and Syria, refused to accept the teachings of this Council, fearing that it compromised the unity of Christ. From this split eventually the Copts of Egypt, the Jacobites of Syria, the Armenians, and the Ethiopians came to be out of communion with all the other Christians of the East and West. It is only in our own time, as you hopefully have read in one of the previous issues of THE WORD that these Churches and the Orthodox Churches are on the verge of reestablishing communion after some 1500 years of separation, as they come to an agreed understanding of the meaning of the teachings of Chalcedon.
3. With the beginning of Islam in the 620’s, and the capture of all of North Africa and the Middle East by Islamic armies, the Christian populations of these parts of the world began to live in a new reality, no longer part of a single Christian Empire centered in Constantinople. Gradually, following this conquest, there began a process of conversion to Islam, mostly through enticement, but at times by force, so that when one reaches the 1200 and 1300’s, the absolute Christian majority has now become a shrinking Christian minority. What this means is that if you are an Antiochian Orthodox Christian today, whose ancestry traces back to the Middle East, you are Orthodox because your ancestors remained faithful to their Orthodox Christian Faith, because one of the things we know about Islam is that for a variety of reasons there is almost no conversion from Islam.
4. During this same period, tensions between the Christians of the East and West were leading to the final departure of the Patriarchate of the West from the communion of the four Patriarchates of the East. This separation was acerbated by the Crusades which tended to make the position of Christians in the Muslim world much more difficult. It was also the Crusades which showed the Orthodox Christians of the East that the Western Christians in their actions, and in their understanding of the Church and the place of the bishop of Rome in the Church, were no longer part of that common Faith for the first 1000 years, which was the common heritage of all in the one, united, catholic Church. It was after this separation from the Orthodox Churches, that the Western Church was then to fragment, beginning in the 1500’s, into numerous Protestant groups, which further distanced themselves from the common faith of the one, united Church.
5. The next stage in this process of trial for Orthodox Christians came in the 1600 and 1700’s when Roman Catholic missionaries came into those parts of the world where Orthodox Christians were and, while at first offering real help to them, gradually led to further splits from the Orthodox Church with the formation of various Greek Catholic Churches, such as the Melkite Greek-Catholics, who separated from the Antiochian Orthodox Church after 1724.
6. Then in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s — and even today — various Protestant missionaries came into the Orthodox territories and set up schools, hospitals and missions. Again they at first offered help to the Christian populations, but gradually, through their schools, they began to train both Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Christians in Protestant theology and thought, so that the number of Protestant Christians grew at the expense of the Orthodox. In fact, through the use of radio and television, as well as traveling preachers, they are continuing their efforts to bring Protestantism to the Middle East and now to the newly freed countries of Eastern Europe, often at the expense of Orthodox Christianity.
Finally, in the 20th century, one comes to the immigration of many Orthodox Christians to the new world. Here, often because of a lack of Orthodox Churches, or because of marriage with non-Orthodox, questions of economics or prestige, or involvement with heterodox Christians, Orthodox Christians leave the fold of the Orthodox Church. But know that if you are an Orthodox Christian today because your ancestors came to North America as Orthodox Christians, that you are part of a faithful remnant that is the direct descendants from those first Christians and their missionary work, which we read about in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
What we Orthodox Christians need today is to deepen our sense of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ, in that Church founded by Him on Pentecost — for that is what we Orthodox Christians know ourselves and our Church to be. This is indeed the mission of the Orthodox Church to make known clearly those Gospel truths that come from the beginning, from the Lord Himself, that are in no way the interpretations or inventions of men, as some would falsely seek to accuse me, but are in truth that which the Lord himself has given, which the Apostles received, and which the Holy Spirit has guarded as they have been passed on to us.
It is in this sense that we Orthodox have joined in dialogue with other Christians, realizing that, as the Gospel says, the “Lamp which is lit” must not be hidden, but be placed on “a lampstand for all to see:” But it is also out of this sense that last year many of the Orthodox Churches in North America suspended their membership in the National Council of Churches and also suspended their dialogue with the Episcopal church. It is our conviction that the truths of the Orthodox Faith can never be compromised, and our hope that they always be heard and heeded, so that if we sense that this is not happening, or that other Christians, by their words or actions, are showing a disregard for Orthodox Christian truth, we state clearly that we will never he unfaithful to that which we are and stand firmly by that which we have received from the beginning.
It is also out of this sense, that the Orthodox Church has never accepted the theology that tries to explain Christianity as a group of denominations —name differences — or branches in which all Christians are one, regardless of the Orthodox truth or lack of Orthodox truth which they profess. In fact, the Orthodox Churches reject the statement that “all churches are the same” because we are committed to the reality of one Gospel truth, and the need for faithfulness to that truth.
Perhaps, for us Orthodox Christians, the example for us to follow is that of the Paralytic, found in the Gospel of John — read during the Easter season —which presents the man who waited for 38 years in patience, hope and faith that the Lord would come to him and cure him. He waited and longed for the Lord, and his patience and endurance paid off in God’s good time. We Orthodox Christians are called to have that patience, hope and faith in our following of Jesus Christ in His Orthodox Church. If we tell the world that we are indeed the very Church founded by Christ Himself, and the world finds us not living out that faith or being hypocritical about our life in Christ, it will soon look away. But if our hope and faith is well founded in Christ, and our lives lived out in a patient conviction that the Orthodox Way is my way and my life, we can trust that that which we have received, will shine forth and attract others to Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and that we also will indeed pass on to future generations that which has been given to us from those first days of the Acts of the Apostles until the Lord returns again in glory.
Father Daniel Hester is pastor of St. George Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi.