Some Historical Considerations

Dear Bob,

In thinking about how to respond to your very engaging description of the spiritual life of Latter Day Saints, I’m reminded of a two-page hand-out that I developed for use in my teaching of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary.  And with this, the grievously vexing, impossible-to-ignore question comes rushing back: If all the various Christian groups today are following Jesus in often very similar ways (as I think this Respectful Conversation is bearing out), why are these groups splintered into thousands of different denominations? – such that they offer to our very suffering surrounding society a very sad picture of fracture and disunity, rather than of vibrant unity in Christ, their common Lord.

This hand-out took shape as a direct response to my reading about the agonizing question that haunted and tormented young Joseph Smith as a 15-year old young man living in upstate New York in 1820: Which Christian denomination is the true one?—and his subsequent conviction that none of them was the true one, so he felt compelled to start a new one.

I’ve reread, Bob, our exchanges in this Respectful Conversation back in August and early September, and once again I’m moved by the openness towards and appreciation for Orthodoxy that you expressed then.  Please forgive me for not pursuing further discussion with you back then.

I’m thinking now it might be helpful to add—in the spirit of further honest, open, and respectful sharing of information and insights—some historical background to what I originally wrote in August about how Orthodox Christians follow Jesus.

With that in mind, may I humbly offer this hand-out for your consideration, for I believe it conveys “in a nutshell” what we Orthodox Christians believe is Christ’s answer to the multiplicity of divisions in Western Christianity.  I hope it will help you to better understand the basic historical reasons why the Orthodox Church considers herself, with humbled awe and wonder at our Lord’s faithful guidance and protection through history, to be the preserver of the fullness of the Christian Faith, in spite of the countless failings and persistent sinfulness of her members—and so making clear that this assertion is not made out of arrogance, or pride, or hubris, or willfulness, or fantasy, but simply from our understanding of the facts of history.

So here is the hand-out:

“All the Protestant denominations have arisen because their founders – and their subsequent followers – became convinced that every expression of Christianity as they knew it was grievously faulty, beyond hope of repair.  Each founder became convinced that the only choice, if one were to be a true Christian, was to begin a new form of Christianity – to start all over again.

“For example, the Protestant Reformation as a whole emerged in response to the perceived hopeless corruption and apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, received his first “heavenly visitation” specifically in response to his anguished prayers about the confused state of Christianity in his day (early 19th century America), with its welter of competing, squabbling denominations (his own account is given in Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark A. Noll, eds, A Documentary History of Religion in America, vol. 1, pp. 338-341 [2003 edition]).  And Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1870s, was “a sworn adversary of historic Christianity,” according to Walter Martin (Kingdom of the Cults, p. 49 [1985 edition]).

“We as Orthodox Christians emphasize that the Christianity which the founders of all these movements rejected was indeed not true Christianity.  They were only familiar with various Western distortions of the True Faith, so to a great extent we can agree with them in their rejection of all the various forms of Christianity which they knew about.  But was it then correct for these founders of new forms of Christianity to assume that the fullness of Christian Truth and practice had been lost from the earth for so many centuries?

“Christ Himself promised about His Church, “I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  He also declared, “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come [at Pentecost], He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).  So to believe that Christ’s Church failed to preserve the truth which He gave to His Apostles is to believe that He failed to keep His promises.  This is impossible, for He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6; my emphasis).

“Besides, the New Testament calls the Church the Body of Christ: “Christ is the Head of the Church, and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23; also Col. 1:18, 1 Cor. 6:15, Eph. 1:22-23; Rom. 12:5).  Surely Christ the Lord is able to guide and keep His own Body, the Church, in the fullness of the Truth!  Similarly, the Scriptures say that the Church is the Bride of Christ, with Her members “married” to Him (Rom. 7:4; also Matt. 9:15, 2 Cor. 11:2, Is. 62:5, Hos. 2:19-20).  Surely the Lord of Glory has always been able – and is still able – to keep His beloved Bride from departing from the Truth, even in spite of all the sinfulness of Her individual members!

“The Apostle Paul states explicitly that the Church, as a visible, tangible, and identifiable place, is “the pillar and ground of the truth”: “I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).  Paul also tells us the specific means whereby this Truth of the Gospel, through the continual empowerment and guidance of Christ and the Holy Spirit, would be preserved from generation to generation down through history: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

“Now we can proceed to look at the history of the Church.  What really happened after the Book of Acts, and after the last Apostle died?  Many first-hand sources have been preserved which enable us to follow what happened through the centuries in the Church doctrinally, liturgically, organizationally, and spiritually.  If we are open to what these sources say, we will be instructed and guided by the Apostolic Fathers (beginning with St. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthian Church, written in 96 A.D.), the great Apologists for the Faith in the second century, the Lives of the Martyrs, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and the Lives and writings of the Church Fathers – the great ecclesiastical leaders and monastic teachers of the Church.

“And we will see how the Church in the western part of the Roman Empire gradually—and often not without great resistance—became subjected to the Roman bishop, in violation of the original equality of all the bishops (as strongly affirmed at the first four Ecumenical Councils); and how this part of Christianity gradually departed from the rest of the Church doctrinally, liturgically, organizationally, and spiritually.  This gradual divergence led to the Great Schism of 1054, when one portion of Christianity, the Church in the West under Rome, split off from all the rest of the Church – the Church in the East, which continued to be led by the great ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, and which expanded greatly, beginning in the 9th century, into Eastern Europe and Russia, and from there eventually across all of Asia and into Alaska.

“As we continue the story, we will be able to see clearly that while the Eastern Church – now coming to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church – continued to maintain the same doctrines, liturgical practices, hierarchical organization, and spiritual ethos of the Early Church, the Roman Church became even more divergent in all these areas, until the Protestant Reformers felt that that church had radically betrayed the Truth of the Gospel, and that therefore they needed to break away to start their own churches.  But tragically, this quite quickly led to the formation of scores, then hundreds, and later thousands, of denominations and cults – a process that continues to this day.

“And all these denominations and cults remain in disagreement with one another in various ways, even though virtually all of them claim to follow the same Scriptures and to be led by the same Holy Spirit.  But without the remarkably consistent guidance of the Holy Tradition of the True Church, within which the true interpretation of the Holy Scriptures is found, manifold incorrect interpretations of the Scriptures are inevitable.

“By an objective, open-minded and open-hearted comparison of the doctrines, liturgical practices, hierarchical organization, and spiritual ethos of the Early Church (as they had taken pretty much definitive shape by roughly the end of the fourth century) with those of all the expressions of Christianity in existence today, it becomes clear that only the Orthodox Church – through her direct, generation-by-generation, ongoing connection with the original Christian Church – has kept pure and intact, through twenty centuries, and in many different cultures, the fullness of the Truth of His Gospel, by the great love and grace of our Lord, and in direct fulfillment of His own promises.”

I would love to discuss any of these things further with you, Bob, if you’d like!

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford