Why I Am Not Eastern Orthodox

Very often, when I write about theological subjects, and especially the final judgment or the Trinity, an Eastern Orthodox believer will ask me why I am not Orthodox myself.

In answer, I will first quote a bit of a rant I posted in a comment on YouTube (on my apostolic succession video), then I will give a thorough explanation.

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First, my "bit of a rant" comment:

 ​I believe [the Eastern Orthodox] are missing the main point. The apostles started churches that in their unity constituted the one church. To be in unity with Eastern Orthodox believers, scripturally, does not involve me joining a worldwide organization. It involves the church in Selmer, TN agreeing to be in unity with churches holding the doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox. Biblically and historically, I am part of the church in Selmer, TN, not the Orthodox organization, the Baptist organization, the Pentecostal organization, or any such thing. All of those are "heresies"*(biblically, "choices that lead to factions")*. The Orthodox can claim they are the original organization and that everyone broke off from them, but no one can read the Bible, the writings of the apostles, and come away with a picture of priests in gaudy robes forcing everyone to bow to images, kiss crosses, and burn incense. That's just ridiculous. You come away with ordinary people trying to serve God together, loving one another so that the world knows that we are Jesus' disciples, being one with one another in heart and spirit so that the world knows the Father sent Jesus, and helping one another towards love and good works so that we can stand before Jesus on the last day and hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

The Greek hairesis is almost always translated "sect" in the New Testament. See its definition.

Should We Just Assume the Eastern Orthodox Are Correct?

I'm guessing that you, the reader, agree with me that this is almost a rhetorical question. Of course we shouldn't assume the Eastern Orthodox are correct. Of course we shouldn't assume they have authority to tell us what is true.

When Protestants have a doctrine they cannot defend from Scripture, they twist Scripture into an unrecognizable form or they pick a few verses and ignore the rest. The Orthodox also do that with Scripture and the church fathers when they realize they cannot defend themselves, but they have an additional option that Protestants (except the Anglicans) do not have. They claim that because Mark laid hands on the first bishop of Alexandria, who laid hands on the next down to Peter and Athanasius in the fourth century and down to Theodore II today, then the Alexandrian bishop (known as a "patriarch") has authority, along with the other patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy, to require the adherence of all Christians as long as he remains in unity with the other churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

I may not have expressed the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of apostolic succession perfectly, but that is what Orthodox apologists are implying when they tell me that I am arrogant and trusting myself when I disagree with Orthodox doctrines. The fact is, though, that absolutely no one who reads the Bible and the church fathers prior to Nicea (AD 325) will find leaders using titles like "most reverend" before their names, mentioning images in any positive way, and they won't find bishops and elders being called "priests" until after the year 200, and even then it begins with Latin writings, not Greek ones.

Yes, I'm fallible, and while my allegiance is to truth and I have had almost 40 years of learning to fight off biases, listening to even my enemies, swallowing my pride and embarrassment and admitting I'm wrong, I do still have biases ... just a lot less than the average Christian, teacher, or theologian (as attested by men of God repeatedly). Despite what biases I may still have, I can tell when something is so obvious that only the most brainwashed follower of a group could miss it. Their priests, the ornate robes, the bowing to images (icons), and the incense in their services are all obviously missing from both the New Testament and the early churches.

Apostolic Succession in the Eastern Orthodox Churches

Apostolic succession is an argument, not a right to authority (video and web article). The first early church fathers to bring up apostolic succession were Irenaeus (c. 185) and Tertullian (c. 197-205). Both were arguing against gnostic heretics.

Their argument was that the apostles had passed down only one faith to the churches (cf. Jude 1:3). This faith/teaching they called "the apostolic tradition" (video and web article). The apostolic tradition—the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3)—was to be handed down unchanged to succeeding generations.

The churches formed by the apostles could show a role of their bishops all the way back to the apostles, men who passed on the one faith, the apostolic tradition, to their successors unchanged.

The argument of apostolic succession, that an unbroken lineage of church leaders had preserved the true teaching of the apostles from generation to generation, included the argument that even gnostics could look around and see that the apostles' churches all agree with one another. From Germany to India and through the whole Roman empire, the faith had been handed down and preserved as though all these churches had one mouth, one mind, and one heart (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I:10).

In the second century, when all the apostolic churches were united and had free communication between each other, this was a powerful argument. Who has the truth? The churches of the apostles have the truth, and have preserved it unchanged, transmitted from God through Jesus to the apostles he sent.

In the twenty-first century, it's not a very good argument. Passing a body of truth from one set of men to another can be done very well by men for a century or two, as proven by recent denominations and sects like the Churches of Christ, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, but for 2,000 years?

History tells us that men cannot do that. Two fifth-century councils, Ephesus and Chalcedon, split off whole countries from the other churches (Egypt and Syria). It also alienated much of the Persian empire, churches now known as "Oriental" Orthodox churches. Later, in the eleventh century, the churches of the Byzantine Empire would split from the churches adherent to the bishop of Rome in Europe.

While the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches agree on some things that the far younger Protestants reject, and while the Protestants ought to at least consider these things, neither the Eastern Orthodox nor the Roman Catholics can successfully pull off the argument of apostolic succession anymore. There have been too many splits, too many bishops appointed by emperors rather than their church, and too many obvious additions to the faith of the apostles and their churches, some of them already mentioned.

When early Christian apologists were arguing apostolic succession against the gnostics, at least one pointed out there is one other requirement for a church being apostolic:

From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach ... no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed ... whom He sent forth to preach ... Now, what that was which they preached ... can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce [by voice] ... and subsequently by their epistles.
   If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches ... must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. ... We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth. (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 21, brackets mine)

Tertullian adds:

To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men ... yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin [related] in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. (Tertullian, ibid., ch. 22, brackets mine)

What I want you to notice in these two passages is that there are two tests that a church should be subjected to in order to prove that they are apostolic. The reason there are two is that the goal is truth, not jurisdictional authority over other churches. One test, apostolic succession, was to prove that you have a lineage that could have preserved the apostles' teaching. The other test was simply to compare the tradition, the teaching, of the apostles to what the church teaches.

Since apostolic succession is not much of an argument after 2,000 years, we are best tested by whether we hold to the doctrines held by the ancient apostolic churches. If we had no way of knowing the teachings of those ancient churches, then, and only then, would we have to lean on the faulty 2,000-year-old traditions of the Orthodox and Catholics. We are not in that position, however.

We can easily find and determine the doctrines of the ancient churches if we are willing to read their second- and third-century writings and compare them to the Scriptures. It's not that every Christian needs to study those writings, but surely every church could put one person on that effort.

To conclude in one sentence, I do not want to go find an Eastern Orthodox church to join, but I do want to hear what they know and compare it to the apostolic tradition found in the Scriptures and early church fathers.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Priests

I am astonished at the arguments the Eastern Orthodox use to justify calling their elders "priests." I have no idea why they cannot see that the Scriptures (and the second-century churches) know of only two types of priests, the High Priest, Jesus, who is after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7) and the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9).

Around the start of the third century, we see early Christians in the western Roman Empire, when Latin began to be the language in the West, using "priest" to refer to elders. I've been told that this had to do with the way elder, presbuteros in Greek, translated to Latin. I can't find a reference, though, and that explanation does not make sense to me. The Latin word for priest is sacerodos, and the Greek word is ierus. There is no connection between the three. Either way, the use of "priest" to refer to elders began around the year 200 with Latin-speaking churches. This is ancient, but not apostolic.

I have heard two reasonable arguments from the Orthodox for the apostolicity of the term priest used for clergy. One is that, even though the term was found first in Latin writings, there are no writings from Greek Christians opposing the use of the term. In other words, there are no written complaints comparable to my blog post today. This would be a valid argument if there were not such strong arguments against this new priesthood in Scripture.

The other argument is that the Eucharist is an offering, and since it is offered by bishops and elders, they are priests. This assumes that the Eucharist as an offering is apostolic, though it is nowhere even hinted in Scripture. Since Jesus was offered "once for all" (Heb. 9:26; 10:10-14), it is wrong to think that he is somehow being offered in the fellowship meal. Instead, the Eucharist can only be an offering in the sense that we offer sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, and even ourselves (Rom. 12:2). All such offerings, though, are offered by all of us, not just the bishop.

Excursus on Ignatius of Antioch and  Bishops

Recently, an Orthodox member pointed out that Ignatius, an apostolically appointed early bishop of Antioch (Paul's home church), said that the Eucharist should only be celebrated with the presence or approval of the bishop. Actually, that Orthodox person suggested that Ignatius said only a bishop could "offer" the Eucharist, which he did not say. He wrote:

Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist which is by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, let the multitude of also be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic [i.e., universal] church. It is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate a love feast without the bishop, but whatever he approves of, that is also pleasing to God. (Letter to the Smyrneans, ch. 8; only the first paragraph of the link is original to Ignatius, and so throughout the epistle)

Why "by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it"?

In almost every letter of the seven he wrote, he strongly defended the faith against the heresies of the gnostics, who denied that Jesus was the Christ, said the Christ was a spirit completely separate from Jesus, and considered all of physical creation to be a mistake by a false god. In the first chapter of Ignatius' letter to Smyrna, he wrote:

For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit ... being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, ... and was truly ... nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. (Letter to the Smyrneans, ch. 1)

The use of "both in the flesh and ... spirit"; "according to the flesh"; and the threefold use of "truly" are all polemics toward the gnostics. This kind of polemic is throughout the epistle. In the second chapter it is even more clear.

And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to exist. And as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits. (Letter to the Smyrneans, ch. 2; I changed the bracketed "be [Christians]" to the more accurate "exist.")

The point of all this is that when Ignatius wrote his letters, the gnostics were still in the churches, posing as Christians, seeking to steal away the sheep of the true Christ. Thus, it was indeed necessary to baptize and celebrate the Thanksgiving meal with the approval of the bishop, else you might find yourself celebrating it with the worst of heretics.

None of this suggests that "clergy" should be called priests.

Honorific Titles

The list of honorific titles for Orthodox clergy includes:

  • His All Holiness
  • His Beatitude
  • His Eminence
  • His Excellency
  • Right Reverend
  • Very Reverend
  • Reverend Father (reference)

There is no excuse for this utter disregard of Matthew 23:8-12.

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (NABRE)

I used a Catholic translation of the passage so that no one would think this is a Protestant twist on Jesus' words. Of course, the Protestants violate this almost as much as the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, often using "reverend" without thought. Even "pastor" is forbidden by Jesus as a title.

It is important to note that Jesus forbids "titles." Paul referred to himself as the "father" of the Corinthians because he birthed them into Christ through the Gospel. Christians can be fathers and teachers, but they should not have the title of "Pastor Smith"; "Teacher Smith"; "Minister Smith"; and certainly not "Reverend Smith"(!) because we are all brothers.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Icons

I have written on this elsewhere in detail. Here I will simply point out that the Scriptures and the pre-Nicene (prior to the Council of Nicea in AD 325) Christians wrote against the use of images. There are no positive references to images until after the Council of Nicea, during which time Constantine led much of the Roman Empire into the church. Later, during the reign of Julian the Apostate (AD 360-363), Julian would accuse the Christians of having even more hero worship than the pagans did!

It is apparent that bowing down to images of saints entered the church with the influx of unconverted pagans under Constantine and his sons, who ruled the Roman empire until the reign of Julian.

It was argued to to me recently that the pre-Nicene Christians were only speaking about pagan idols when they spoke against images. This is true only because no Christians were bowing down to icons (slightly cartoonish images of saints, Jesus, and sometimes God[!]) at the time. If they had been, the pre-Nicene Christians would have had to add "excepting our icons" to their admonitions against the making and use of images.

Personally, I find it so obvious that Christians ought not to bow down to images that it is hardly worth arguing against. The temptation to idolatry is obvious. I have never been part of an Orthodox church, but I was raised Roman Catholic, and I can tell you that idolatry was so rampant that my entire sixth-grade class, at Dominican Elementary School in Taipei, Taiwan (an English-speaking school for military children), was made to kneel and kiss the feet of a statue of Mary, each of us lining up, unknowingly, to dishonor our God one by one.

Division in the One True Church

I was part of a Christian community. During our heyday, we prayed that if we ever stopped following the Spirit of God and began following our own rules, habits, and traditions, that God would put an end to us. That end came all too soon, after only a couple decades.

The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church lasted longer, some 300 years, before being brought down, not by persecution, but by compromise.

Perhaps the most obvious evidence was that Christians, during Constantine's reign or perhaps even before, began joining the military and taking up the sword. My quote page on the pre-Constantinian Christians' opinion of war is nowhere near complete, but it is complete enough to let you see the pre-Nicene opinion of Christians engaging in war or violence. I don't have the quote, but I have seen it recently, that says that Christians would not even participate in a courtroom trial that might end in the death penalty!

I am not sure what would have happened with the massive controversy that Arius brought to the churches of the eastern Roman Empire had the churches been allowed to handle it themselves. The controversy got so large that Constantine feared for the unity of the empire and arranged a council to end the controversy. The Council of Nicea itself only made it worse, however ... much worse.

What started with a controversy of words and excommunications ended with the intervention of emperors and bloody battles between churches. (See especially my book, Decoding Nicea, the "Aftermath" chapter, but also my "Fall  of the Church" articles.) This was surely brought on by the same pagan influx that brought on the veneration of icons, but it was devastating. The Persian churches and others further east distanced themselves in the fourth century, but were almost completely split from the churches of the Roman Empire after the fifth-century councils that effectively excommunicated both Syria and Egypt.

Personally, I am convinced this was all the will of God. He did not want a worldwide Church united by rules, traditions, and rituals anymore than he wanted our small community united by rules, traditions, and rituals. He let it divide asunder so that "the approved among you may be recognized" (1 Cor. 11:19).

Jesus prayed that we would be one just as he and the Father are one (Jn. 17:20-23). It may not look like it, but his prayer was answered when the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles and their companions at the fulfillment of the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2). We who are Christ's, who all have the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9), are indeed united in exactly the same way the Father and Son are united, by the Spirit of God. We are called to diligently maintain that spiritual unity (Eph. 4:3-6), and the fact that we are ignoring and rebelling against that command does not change the fact that it is God's will and Jesus' command through Paul (1 Cor. 14:37).

With Jesus, I pray for us to be united under one head, not the bishop of Rome nor any of the Orthodox patriarchs, but under the Great Shepherd and Savior of our souls, Jesus Christ.

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