What church is true?

Priest George Maximov. "A question that the Protestants never ask."

Priest George Maximov

When we – Orthodox Christians – talk about the faith with a Protestant, we can hear a variety of questions from him. Those about icons, about the baptism of babies, about the veneration of saints and so on. But there is one question that they will never touch themselves. But it is this question that is the most important, where a fundamental difference between us lies. This question is the teaching about the Church.

What is the Church of Christ? Any Protestant will immediately say that the denomination, to which he currently belongs, is the Church of Christ. Then the question is: when did your denomination appear? The range of answers will vary from the last year to the beginning of the Reformation. Well, where had the church of Christ been before that time?

Many Protestants look at the church history like this: there were apostolic times, and then there was the apostolic Church. And then, allegedly already from the II century, there were distortions in the teachings of the Church. Many bluntly say that the Church lost its apostolic creed because it brought all sorts of false practices and ideas into its purity. It may even be said that "the true Church was destroyed by paganism"[1]. So, starting from the XVI century, from the time of the Reformation, it was them, the Protestants, that allegedly returned the pure apostolic teaching. Well, from the XVI century – if we talk about the "old" Protestants: Lutherans, Calvinists. And “new” Protestants, such as the Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals, for example, appeared later. Since Protestants are known for being fond of speaking that it is them and their denomination that faithfully follow the Bible in their faith, we will consider their views on the Church precisely through the prism of the Holy Scripture. Let's see if this Protestant idea about the disappeared Church is consistent with the Bible.

The Lord Jesus Christ said: I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). That is, the Lord promises that the forces of evil will not have victory over the Church, including the way through the distortion of dogma. It will always remain the same glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but … holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:27), the house of God... the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), in the way the apostles portray it in the Scripture.

And, of course, if we believe the Protestants that the Church created by Christ had been defiled by pagan practices, it lost the truth, and fell into fallacies, then in this case we declare that the gates of hell prevailed against the Church. And through this, we declare the Lord Jesus Christ to be a liar, showing that He promised, but did not keep His promise.

There is another promise that the Lord made. He said: Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:20). The Lord does not only promise that the Church itself will be stable, He promises that He Himself will be with His Church all the days until the end of the world. Here, as we can see, it is not mentioned that the Lord is going to make a pause from the second to the sixteenth century. Far less, till the XIX century.

And Paul the Apostle, for his part, writes that glory will be given to God in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21). That is, the Church created by Christ and spread through the apostles will exist throughout all subsequent generations and glorify God. Protestant beliefs that this Church allegedly disappeared for one and a half thousand years, directly contradict these biblical words.

It is also worth recalling that Christ promised the apostles to give the Holy Spirit and said: When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth (John 16:13), teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (John 14:26) We know when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles: it was on the day of Pentecost, which is considered the birthday of the Church. That is, the Lord gives the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit preserves the Church. He keeps her from distortion, from deviating from the truth. Therefore, Paul the apostle calls the church the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Because the Spirit of truth guides it, and Christ Himself, who is the Truth (John 14: 6), dwells invisibly in it. An individual or even a group of people, of course, can fall into fallacies, and it has always been so. The apostles also warned about this (see: 2 Pet. 2: 1; Gal. 1: 6–9). But it is impossible for the whole Church to be deluded, because it means that it would have ceased to exist.

This raises another interesting question to the Protestants. You say that only the Bible is holy for you and it is based on the Bible that you came to the conclusion that since the 2nd century, the true Church disappeared, having become infected by paganism. But who and when approved the canon of the New Testament? Who decided that of the many monuments of ancient Christianity, these particular books are the Holy Scripture, the part of the Bible? Answer: This happened in the year 364 at the Laodicean Council of that same Church, which you consider fallen into paganism, and of which the Orthodox Church is a historical continuation. No one can name the earlier date of the approval of the canon of the New Testament, as we know it now. But if the True Church no longer existed at that time, then the Bible itself was also deprived of its authority, as the Bible was recorded, compiled and preserved by this historical Church, from which the Protestants later received it through the Catholics.

The mentioned Protestant ideas not only contradict the Bible, as already shown, moreover, they are not historically confirmed.

I myself, for example, when I was coming to faith, personally checked it. I read the New Testament first. After that, I began to read other Christian documents that have survived from the end of the 1st century. For example, the message of St. Clement of Rome, the disciple of the apostles. Then I passed to the documents that were written in the 2nd century. And I read them, including those written directly by the disciples of the apostles, such as St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Ignatius the God-bearer. That is, - I will emphasize - these texts were written by those who personally knew the apostles and accepted the Christian doctrine from them.

After that, I moved to the 3rd century and read all the Christian texts of that time. Then I moved to the 4th century, and so on. And I was convinced that throughout all these centuries the Church remained the same in its teaching. The wording of the dogma could be changed, but the dogma itself is now in the Orthodox Church the same as it was in the times of the apostles and their disciples. Of course, I do not ask anyone to take my word. If I chance to talk with Protestants, I suggest them to check themselves. Take the texts and check. Everything is in the public domain. As a rule, almost all Protestants are very poorly versed in the history of the Church and practically do not know it at all. What happened after the things described in the Acts of the Apostles and before their denomination arose is terra incognita for them. And it is a huge layer in the history of the church, Christianity, and the mankind in general.

And if Protestants find the courage to consider this issue without prejudice, then, of course, they will see the truth. It is easy to see that the Church described in documents of 1 – 2 centuries, is totally different from what we now see at Protestant meetings and what we observe while getting acquainted with modern Protestantism in general.

That Church of the apostolic times objectively resembles the Orthodox Church. And this is not just my impression. I will give as an example one incident that occurred in the 1960s in the American cities of Ben Lomond and Santa Barbara. A group of young Protestants came to the conclusion that all Protestant Churches known to them cannot be a real Church ... And then these young people decided to trace the history of the Church from the apostolic times to the present day in order to find out where the Church described in the book of Acts is now. And they took the same path that I later followed. That is, they consistently studied all historical documents. At the same time there were many divisions in history. And in the Ancient Church there were various heresies that separated from Orthodoxy. And at each such fork, these Protestants examined and compared unbiasedly: which of these teachings — the teaching of the Orthodox Church or the teaching of those who had separated — most closely matches the teaching that existed before them? Who exactly kept the apostolic faith, and who introduced the innovation?

And as a result of the research, which was long and painstaking and in which the Orthodox side did not participate in any way, the community became convinced that it was the Orthodox Church that created the Bible. It was this Church who preserved the Bible for the world. And the first steps of this church are described in the book of the Acts. And in 1974, the entire Protestant community — more than 2,000 people — applied to the Orthodox Church and was accepted. There are descriptions of their way to Orthodoxy written by them, everyone can get acquainted if he wants. For example, there is the wonderful book by Peter Gillquist “Coming Home”. Let me quote a passage from it:

“In our journey through history we had carefully followed over one thousand years of unbroken continuity in the Church. It goes without saying that we affirmed the Church as found in the pages of the New Testament. We found that same Church in the second and the third century, faced with bitter persecution, celebrating her liturgy in homes, caves, and even graveyards; and guided by devoted bishops who often finished the race as martyrs. We found her in the fourth century, defending the faith at Nicea, and in the fifth century at Chalcedon. We followed her through to the eighth century, studied her Great Councils, fell in love with her stalwarts, saints, and fathers as they preached the Gospel, warred against the heretics, and established holy imagery in their worship of God. It amazed us how moral and doctrinal corruption in the Church would be boldly faced, and how potential destruction was repeatedly avoided. God was with her in the ninth and tenth centuries …

But then came A.D. 1054, and we were faced with a choice. A split had come. I can still somehow recall the physical feeling that I had as I said to my cohorts, "The East is right in resisting the papacy, and they're right in rejecting the filioque clause." And then I drew a deep, new breath. "I guess that makes us ... Orthodox” ”[2].

I know of other such examples, albeit smaller in size, when people, through the study of the history of Christianity, were convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy.

Of course, not all people are ready to embark on such a serious historical study, not everyone has this opportunity. But in this case, they will be satisfied with what the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles say about the Church in order to understand that the true Church could not disappear. And, accordingly, all Protestant churches, which directly hold their gap with the preceding Christian tradition and count their history from the foundation of their denomination by mortal people, certainly cannot be the Church that continuously exists from the time of the Apostolic Church and until the Second Coming of Christ.

Some Protestants understand this problem. And to defend themselves, they say otherwise: yes, of course, the Church has been in all ages. But this real Church was invisible. It consisted of individual righteous people who could belong formally to different Christian denominations, could be among Orthodox, Nestorians, Monophysites, Catholics, etc., but they believed correctly (that is, like modern Protestants), and they all formed this invisible church of Christ. And after a certain year, it became visible via our denomination. Many Protestants may say that the Church remains invisible even now, and all “correct”, from the point of view of this denomination, people from other denominations supposedly belong to it. And it is about this invisible Church Christ said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it and that He would be with it.

Let me suppose that the “theory of the invisible Church” was also created in order to explain the crisis of inconsistency of what is observed in the Protestant world with its incessant fragmentation into new denominations, with what was described in the book of Acts of the Apostles, where The Church appears as a single organism, a single reality, a single structure that can afford to hold the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem and accepts the decisions of this Council (see: Acts 15: 6–31). In the modern Protestant world, holding something like this for all denominations is simply unthinkable. And the Protestants themselves admit it.

Does the concept of the “invisible Church” agree with the Bible? Let us recall the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, in which He indicates how to convict a person if he has sinned. He says that you need to bring witnesses. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matt. 18:17). Here is the advice that the Lord gives to all Christians, to all who want to be disciples of Him. And this advice implies that the Church will always be detectable. The Church is not something amorphous, speculative, indefinable, and invisible. No. It represents something concrete, visible and clearly distinguishable from other communities. This community has its own procedures, allowing the opportunity to ask for help in solving baffled questions. And it has always been so in the Church. As in ancient times, the first Apostolic Council was held, and subsequently all controversial issues in the Church were decided by Councils. And the ecclesiastical court also existed, it had the power of the Church to make judgments, “to bind and loose” (see: Matt. 18:18). A man can turn for resolution of litigation only to such a visible Church. And how do you turn to the “invisible Church”? It is like sending a victim of robbers to go to an “invisible court”, of which no one knows where it is and of whom it consists.

And in other places of the Holy Scriptures, we can see the same reality when it is said, for example, that the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:47). This is a very concrete, visible Church. People knew that if they want to become Christians, then they must come to this community and be baptized, they have to be with all others. And, it is described there very well that all Christians continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42). And, by the way, precisely because the Apostolic Church was visible, it could be persecuted — at that time there was a great persecution against the church (Acts 8: 1), and Saul, who had not yet been converted, persecuted the church of God, and wasted it (Gal 1:13). And how can an invisible Church be persecuted?

It is worth recalling the words of Scripture about the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ: as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till He come (1 Cor. 11:26). That is, the Eucharist in the Church will be celebrated from the time of the apostles and up to the Second Coming of Christ till He come. And the breaking of the bread, as the Eucharist is called in the Scripture, is what is performed in the visible way. Both the cup, and the wine and the bread offered for transubstantiation, and the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ take place in a visible and tactile manner. All of this is just impossible in the "invisible Church”. I should say that in the Protestant world, there is another theory that is trying to solve the problem we are talking about. It is namely the “theory of branches”. In contrast to the “theory of the invisible church,” which tries to come up with some kind of mystical unity of individuals despite the divisions between churches to which they may belong, the “branch theory” declares the divisions and differences between Christian denominations to be unimportant and claims that all people who call themselves Christians – Protestants of various interpretations, Catholics, Orthodox, and Monophysites, they all together constitute the one Church of Christ as the branches of a single tree.

But it is impossible to agree with this concept either, since the Lord Himself said that He would have one fold (John 10:16). Even with a strong desire, it is impossible to call all the communities listed above a single fold. Because in reality - and this is not a secret to anyone - they have no unity between themselves. They have neither unity of faith, nor unity in sacraments, nor unity in ecclesiastical administrative, canonical questions, nor unity in moral views. Even among the Protestants themselves, directly opposite things are often asserted.

For example, there are Protestants who claim that homosexuality is a sin, but there are Protestants who say: there is nothing like that, there is no sin here. And they even have pastors - open homosexuals and celebrate so-called homosexual marriages. This is just one of the examples, and there are other major differences, including the ones of dogmatic faith nature. Where is the unity here? But adherents of the discussed idea stubbornly say: “Yes, all this is not essential, of course, there are differences, but are they important? The most important thing is that we have something that unites us. ”

But, as St. John Chrysostom said, we can find something that unites us with any person, even an unbeliever, — only with the devil we have nothing in common. But it does not mean that we and any person belong to the same Church. And we’ll never come across the idea that the differences in beliefs are not essential, as long as people call themselves Christians, in the apostles’ doctrine. Moreover, we find there the exactly opposite thoughts.

For example, Paul the apostle says: After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20: 28–30). Elsewhere, the apostle says: I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple (Rom. 16: 17–18). And he also writes: As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1: 9).

As we see, the doctrinal differences are so serious that the apostle directly prescribes to anathematize such people, to separate them from the church body. He describes that the division itself is the result of the sin. Also, the apostle says that heresies shall not inherit the kingdom of God (see: Gal. 5: 21–22).

Therefore, it is impossible to say that it doesn’t matter what we believe in, and, they say, if we call ourselves Christians, then we are all one Church. It is not true. We are united then neither in faith, nor in moral teaching, nor in the Eucharist. Scripture says that Christians should have one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4: 5). And in the existing confessions and denominations, faith is not just one, faith is different, that is why divisions occurred: here they teach this way, and here it is different, and in another “church” - in some other way.

With the fact that all the so-called “branches” do not have one faith, even the Protestants will not argue, because it is a self-evident fact. But we need to talk more about the unity of the Eucharist. This important point, unfortunately, is not understood by our Protestant interlocutors at all, because they do not believe that the rite, which they conduct, calling it the communion, really gives them the true Body and Blood of Christ. They say these are just symbols. And they are right that they have not the Body and Blood of Christ, they really have bread and wine only. In this, they are right, but they are wrong when they think that it is not possible to unite with the true Body and Blood of Christ in communion.

Our Savior spoke of it as of not only possible, but the necessary deed: Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life ... [he] dwelleth in me, and I in him (John 6: 53–54, 56). The Lord said that without the Communion of His Body and Blood it is impossible to have eternal life in yourself, that is, you cannot be saved. And later He showed how to fulfill these His words. He showed it at the Last Supper, when, as the Gospel narrates, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins (Matt. 26: 26–28). Christ did not say: “Take, eat: this is the symbol of my body” and “the symbol of my blood.” He said clearly: this is my body and this is my blood. Although the apostles continued to see the same bread and wine, but at the same time by the power of God they became what the Almighty Lord called them, about whom the Scripture says: He spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast (Ps. 33: 9). And the Lord did this miracle not only once for the apostles. He, as we know, commanded: This do in remembrance of Me (Lk. 22:19). And in fulfillment of these words, Christians began to celebrate the Eucharist from the very first days of the Church. In the same chapter, where it is described that the apostles on the day of Pentecost began to preach, and three thousand people were converted, it is further written that they continued stedfastly in …breaking of bread (Acts 2:42), that is, performing the Eucharist.

The Protestants say ‘Yes and we all do it. Of course, we break bread and drink wine, but for us it is just a memory of Christ’s sufferings, nothing more’. But it this case, why to bother with this ritual at all? After all, you can remember Christ without bread and wine. Let's see if the Eucharist for the apostles themselves was just a remembrance of Christ? Paul the apostle says: The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16). As we see, the apostle does not say: Is it not the symbol of the blood of Christ? or: is it not a remembrance of Christ? For the apostle, it is the communion of the true Body and Blood of Christ.

And in this case, communion acquires a special deep meaning which the apostle speaks of: For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:17). And so we, being many, are one body in Christ (Rom.12: 5). And the Church itself is also the body of Christ (see: Eph. 1: 22–23). For the apostle, all this was reality — both the fact that the Church is the body of Christ, and that communion is the Body of Christ. And we become a part of this body through communion, through the Eucharist. So we become part of one Church of Christ. And in Orthodoxy for two thousand years, this uninterrupted connection through the Eucharist is preserved. For example, when I was at celebrations in Hong Kong one and a half year ago, during a divine service, I took communion from the same cup with Father Michael Lee. He is a Chinese Orthodox priest who is now 90 years old. Father Michael himself, in the days of his youth, took communion from the same cup with St. John of Shanghai. And St. John of Shanghai, in turn, in his childhood, received communion from one cup with St. John of Kronstadt. And so from generation to generation, back into the centuries, this living connection comes to the time of the apostles, who received communion from the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Through the Eucharist, the Church is a single divine-human organism that has lived without interruption for two thousand years, starting from the very apostolic times.

Therefore, it is not surprising that our saints say: The borders of the Church are the borders of the Eucharist. Whoever does not take communion in the Orthodox Church, who does not communicate with the Orthodox Church and does not partake in it, is outside the Church of Christ [3]. And, returning to the “theory of branches”, we see its inconsistency from this side as well - since there can be no completely separate communities, calling themselves churches, all equally having the true communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. As the apostle writes: Is Christ divided? (1 Cor. 1:13). Christ is one and His Body is one. Therefore, the Eucharist is one, having been performed continuously for two thousand years in the only authentic Church of Christ. Our task is to find this Church, which was founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, and which from the apostolic time, has continuously kept both the apostolic faith and the sacraments, including the Eucharist. This church is true. The rest of the communities that call themselves churches, if they are separated from it, are not true. We cannot say that all churches were created by Christ, because the Lord said: I will build My Church (Matt. 16:18), and not: “I will build My churches.” And the apostle wrote: The Church is the pillar of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and not: "The churches are the pillars of truth." The Church is one, preserving its unity over the centuries in fulfillment of the words of the Savior: they all may be one (John 17:21), and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd (John 10:16).

The uniqueness, unity and indestructibility of the true Church of Christ are often spoken of by Holy Scripture and, of course, by Sacred Tradition. And it is not something that we simply declare. It is a historical fact. Any Protestant can refer to the testimony of history to see where the truth is.

And it is precisely this feeling of the Church that our Protestant interlocutors unfortunately lack. They do not understand the reality of the Church, what it is all about. They present it as simply a human meeting: “I came to a certain city, found several like-minded people, we began to get together, read the Bible, pray - this is the church too.” But this is not the Church, but a hobby club that you yourself created. Where is the church created by Christ? Come and see that this is the Church that is now known as the Orthodox, that is, the one that truly glorifies God.

August 4, 2014.

[1] Баптисты, их задачи и цели (Baptists, their tasks and goals). Rostov-on-Don, 1909. p. 8. The same ideas are expressed by modern Protestant authors.

[2] http://waytohome.narod.ru/texts/witness/tohome/.

[3] I will quote two statements. The Monk Justin (Popovich) writes about this like “all the truth”: “The Holy Eucharist is the fullness of the Church; it is the living, all-perfect God-Man, the Lord Christ, who in His God-human fullness wholly dwells in the Church in all ages ... He is always the Same as He is in the holy Eucharist; always the Same for each participant and in each participant ... And through all this, He is our sanctification, our transfiguration, our salvation ... and all this is found in the Divine-human body of the Church through the communion of the holy Eucharistic Body and Blood of the Savior. As the Body of Christ - the Eucharist is the Church, so the Church is the Eucharist, for by it and in it we are in the catholic unity with all the saints "(Justin (Popovich), Rev. Assembly of Works. T. 3. M., 2006. S. 519). Saint Hilarion (Troitskiy) says the same thing: “The meaning of the sacrament of communion is in his churchliness. There is no communion outside the unity of the church. It is essential that in patristic writings, church unity is inseparably linked to the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ ”(Hilarion (Troitskiy), martyr. There is no Christianity without the Church).

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