Letter writer-minister compares teachings of Scripture to those of Orthodox Church

The following letter was received in November and held for this month so we could run our special Christmas column last month. The elipses [...] set apart on a line by themselves indicate an omission of approximately five manuscript pages from the letter, in consideration of space limitations.


This letter is a response to a letter that appeared in "Theophilus and Friends" in August by Jeffrey Rickard. My response is a rebuttal of several comments and suggestions made by Rickard which I believe to be in error. However honest an error is, it is still an error and as such is open to argument. My intention is to comment on each pertinent point made by Rickard, in order, from the beginning to the end of his letter.

I should like to comment on his first paragraph in which he states that you, Theophilus, "asked to learn more about evangelicals becoming Orthodox." Like Rickard, I decided to "sit down and share."

Sad as it seems, many churches, while speaking of the Word of God as the foundation, seem to somehow be, in reality, still standing upon some man. Perhaps the error is standing on the wrong man. Christ Jesus is the only stone (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6-7) and the only man upon which the church can be built.

[Rickard's} "visit" to the Orthodox church resulted in his "Journey from evangelical Protestantism to the ancient church." "The ancient church" intimates that the church he found is "the" ancient church; by which I presume he is saying it is the original church, the Orthodox Church.

Let us compare some aspects of the Orthodox Church with the written word of God, the Bible.

Did the first-century church use a liturgical form of worship? The Word of God does not indicate either way. Thus we can assume to use liturgy is acceptable.

Did the first-century church use icons and incense? Since it is generally believed that the church kept up (at least temporarily) with the usual forms of worship used in Judaism, we can expect they used incense in some way at least initially.

Icons? I doubt that the first-century church used icons as there was so much idol worship in the culture of the early part of the first century.

Priests? 1 Peter 2:9 speaks of all Christians as "priests in the priesthood of all believers" and there is no indication that there was any separate priesthood.

Eucharist? Yes, but not any mystical changing of bread and wine into body and blood, either before ingestion or after. The sign of the cross? I see nothing in Scripture that forbids it, but if there is some curative effect gained by the act I would say it borders on magic. And if the first-century church used it and it was to be used by all churches Paul or Peter or someone would have mentioned it in the New Testament.

[Rickard's letter asks:] "What was the early Christian church like? How did they do things in those first two or three hundred years after Christ?" My question here is, "Why not investigate what was done in the first century?" A short look at any history of the church will show one that the church was in dire straights long before the first century was past.

One merely has to turn to Revelation, chapter two, and the message to the seven churches to find churches already in trouble. Scholars believe it to have been penned before or just at the turn of the century. If it was this bad in the first, why wonder about and desire to copy the second or third centuries?

I detect some note of disbelief in the veracity of Scripture as [Rickard] says "Since the Bible as we have it today was not put together until well past 200 A.D., what foundation was the ftrst-century church built upon?" Well, for that one we would presume to go to the Bible which clearly states that the church which Jesus Christ instituted was built upon the Rock and that Rock was Christ (Mt 7:24-27, 16: 18).

He further questions why he "never heard much if anything about the period of church history between the first and 16th centuries?" Since he now is in the Orthodox church I expect he is hearing about the "history" of that period. Any Christian bookstore handles a number of histories of "the church." The histories that I have read describe a church in turmoil from one century to another continuous to today....

[The second part of Rickard's letter] begins: "If there is only one Body of Christ, why on earth do we have hundreds of denominations today, all believing that they have the `right interpretation of scripture'?"

It seems there are three parts to this question. 1) Is there only one body of Christ? 2) Why are there so many denominations? and 3) Why do all believe they have the right interpretation of Scripture? This is enough for a book! But in brief, 1) There is only one body of Christ (see Romans 12:4-5; Colossians 1:18, and others).

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a second Messiah. If there is no second savior, there can be only one church that is His church. 2) There are so many denominations because men decided to go astray from the word of God and that straying brings about division. Those divisions create new and separate groups. This is not the unity the apostles called for (Eph. 4: 1-16).

"So who picked the books that make up our Bible? How do we know they didn't make any mistakes when choosing what was in and what was out?" Without going to the way they were picked, I would merely ask one question. Could the God who created the universe keep it straight even though some of the men who did the choosing might not have been really righteous? God once used a donkey to give a prophet a message!

"Is there any church today that at all resembles the early church?" Perhaps not, but we try, and by His grace and our constant study of His Word we might get close to that which He designed for us in the New testament. We surely will not find the church that Christ instituted by searching through, and following the lead of, "the church fathers."

He then asks again about icons, incense, and Mary. Icons are too close to idols for my taste. Yet I find no real aversion to pictures as such. The word "icons" is one that is used by the Orthodox church with some special significance, I would imagine.

What about incense? Read Revelation 5:8, where you will find the prayers of the saints (that is, Christians) called "incense." If Jesus considers our prayers incense, why do we need to burn incense? What about Mary? She was privileged to bear the Savior and several sisters and brothers (children of Mary and Joseph) and she was permitted to live her life and join her Son and Savior, we presume, in heaven.

"Where does tradition fit in the history of the church?" See 2 Thessalonians 2: 15; Matthew 15:3 & 6; Colossians 2:8, which say, in essence, that the traditions of men invalidate the word of God and are empty deception. The traditions which were taught by the apostles are those to which we must hold firm.

Summary: There are many around the "Christian" world today who seem to be caught up in the blending of terms and misled by presuppositions formed by this blending. Such blending can be seen in the careless use of "evangelical." Why, to begin with, should anyone be "evangelical?" There are no "evangelical Christians" in the New Testament. If one is a Christian, can that be enhanced by the use of the word "evangelical?" Or, is an evangelical Christian something different from, or better than, a "Christian?"

There are many presuppositions involved in Rickard's letter which were begun in his formative years and are still working in his thinking and involved in his spiritual needs. These presuppositions have, I expect, brought about his present spiritual quest.

These presuppositions, and the blending of words, have brought his problems to the place wherein he will accept another form of worship in an effort to become spiritually fulfilled. The smoke, icons, ritualistic movements and perhaps the veneration of Mary in Orthodoxy, are so radically different from his past orientation that he presumes them to be more spiritual, and fulfilling, and the differences of Orthodoxy to be good and holy.

To be a Christian is to have a relationship with Christ. If one does not have this relationship, his life as a Christian will be only empty rituals. The seeking out of a "more spiritual" church which has a "more meaningful worship" will not fulfill.

Praying to bring clarity of the hope that is in Christ Jesus and His Church.

Raymond L. Cartwright

Rinconada Hills Christian Church, Los Gatos

Theophilus replies: My own study of Orthodoxy since Rickard's challenge to do so has given me insights to respond to some of the points the writer raises.

1. His presumption that Rickard is unsure of the Scriptures because of the questions he asks is unfounded. The answer to those questions is "leaders of the Orthodox church, following the tradition of the Apostles," made those decisions regarding the canon of Scripture, not, as the writer presumes, that the New Testament evolved or was handed down in an unreliable way.

2. The Orthodox Church teaches that all believers are priests, and the church's liturgy involves all the priests in participatory worship. That some such priests were set aside from others by ordination and given fulltime leadership in the congregations of the church is clear from the New Testament.

3. Reread the paragraph about traditions of men and of the Apostles carefully: it is the same thing the Orthodox Church teaches! I would say that denominations come mostly from personality differences and sometimes differing convictions concerning Scriptural interpretation (these can exist even among Orthodox and Roman Catholics), rather than wilful straying, but they would not end in schism (permanent division) if the interpreters would bow to the Apostles' tradition, as carried on by the church through its bishops and councils.

4. With you, the Orthodox Church believes Christ is the only head of the church; this is why there is a division between Orthodoxy and Rome.

5. Orthodoxy teaches that icons are an aid to worshipping God, but are never themselves to be worshipped.

Kissing an icon has the same significance as a soldier a thousand miles from home kissing a picture of his loved one; he's loving her with the aid of her picture, not loving her picture. Kissing an icon of a saint is always intended as kissing an icon of Christ, because saints (including all the living among us who are in Christ) are images of Christ.

6. As I understand St. John's letters to the churches in Revelation, they were pleas to get back to their first love of and zeal for Christ, not condemnations to perdition. The New Testament is unequivocal, and Orthodox Christians believe it literally, when it says "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against the church of Christ. If somehow the Orthodox Church is not that church, the gates of hell must have prevailed at some point, and that teaching of Christ himself is nullified.

7. You say potato: none of the Christians in the New Testament were evangelical Christians; I say potAto: all the Christians in the New Testament were evangelical Christians. Evangelical means zealous for the gospel, its proclamation, and the salvation of souls.

Unfortunately, most who call themselves Christians seem to have very little of that zeal—you might say they're in one or another of the stages of the church's decline described in Revelation. Those who want to reaffirm their commitment to proclamation through word and life, call themselves evangelicals.

8. As for Mary, all the records from the close of the New Testament until Martin Luther teach that she bore no other children after Jesus, and the preservation of her virginity was a testimony to His diety. Luther himself believed this, as did John Wesley, and John Calvin said that to say she was not "ever virgin" was heresy.

Later Protestants began teaching that those referred to in the New Testament as "Jesus' brethren" were children of Mary as well as of Joseph. Jesus' assigning, from the cross, the responsibility of the son regarding Mary to one who was not her blood son is taken as evidence that she had no other blood sons.

9. The paragraph on Christianity consisting in relationship with Christ, and form being dead without such a relationship, is consistent with Christ's own teachings and those of Orthodoxy (compare, for example, the notes on Romans 1:17 and 2 Timothy 3:5 in the Orthodox Study Bible).

A postscript: Though I missed it and got this from hearsay, I understand that during Billy Graham's appearance on Larry King Live the week before Christmas a caller asked, "How are we going to evangelize the Russian people now that there is freedom to do so in that country?" To which Graham replied with words to this effect: "The Russian people have a 1,000-year history of Orthodox Christianity and don't need us to evangelize them."

Published January 1995.

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© 1995 Jon Kennedy