By the Very Rev. John Ealy
It is always difficult in these relativistic times, when the only heresy is to speak of heresy, to present the Orthodox teaching about the completeness of our faith. It comes across often as arrogance when in fact we do not mean that we are anything special at all, we readily confess our weakness, but this treasure we have received is indeed a treasure even if we carry it in vessels of clay.
What do we mean by ‘True Christian’? We surely cannot mean what Protestants would mean, which is that a small core of beliefs is adhered to. This is not Christianity.
The Protestant group I belonged to was full of people who loved Christ, many of them knew the text of the Bible very well. But as I look back – without bitterness or that aggression that sometimes afflicts converts – I sadly see that almost everything I was taught was wrong. I was taught error about baptism, the Eucharist, priests and bishops, saints and Mary, the church, salvation. All of it is error when I compare it with the Orthodox faith that I have been taught now by my bishop and which I read and study in the writings of our Orthodox fathers through the ages.
This did not mean that I did not love Christ nor that I grew up among people who did not love Christ. But I did not grow up in a group which I could in any sense call “the Church.” It was a human fellowship of dear people who loved Christ. We were all, in my opinion, people at the stage of the Christian life we call the Catechumenate. Not yet baptized, not yet a member of the Church, but committed already to Christ, having faith and awaiting the great and life-giving blessing of baptism into His Body, the Church.
When my son was baptized in the Orthodox Church, he was presented afterwards to the congregation, mostly made up of Protestant family members and friends, as Callum Peter, ‘now made a Christian’. Yet when I grew up, we were taught error about baptism, about the means whereby we become members of Christ’s Church. A washing with water is no baptism if all of the Orthodox meaning of that act is deliberately and explicitly removed from it. It is merely a washing with water.
What do we mean by ‘True Christians’ then? Certainly we can approve those who live better lives than us without the benefit of the great blessings we receive in the Orthodox Church. But could WE be ‘True Christians’ if we were without the benefit of new life in baptism, remission of sins and eternal life in Holy Communion? Without the guidance of the Holy Tradition and our bishops and priests walking in unity in the faith with one another and the Holy Fathers?
It is not that WE are better because we are Orthodox, rather it is the case that NONE of us can be real, true Christians without these benefits. All of the good and truth that is in Protestant groups is only a partial remnant of Orthodoxy – of RIGHT BELIEF. We are not an organization trying to take over the world. Rather we are people living a life – REAL LIFE. We have been taught that this real life is only possible within the community of faith which has its origin in the Apostles and is preserved among us by our bishops today.
We should not even ask the question ‘is such a person a Christian?’. We should be more concerned with asking ‘am I a Christian?’. What we cannot and should not say is the coherence and integrity of the Orthodox faith does not matter because some folk outside of Orthodoxy shame us by their good works.
When we consider the beliefs of the Protestants, they ALL fall short of the Orthodox faith; they are ALL deformations of the faith and therefore spiritually dangerous. But this says nothing at all about the way any person lives. Many live better lives than us without the benefits we receive from God in the Orthodox Church. However, what is taught to them is error. There is no minimum requirement that makes us Christians – that is itself a Protestant error. We don’t take SOME of the doctor’s medicine or ask what is the smallest number of tablets necessary for recovery, we follow ALL of his instructions that we might be restored to full health.
We are always bearing witness to this Christian faith and this Christian life. It is not ours. It is not a matter of pride or arrogance. It is all a gift from God and we desire to share it. When I read words that witness of a love for Christ, the Church and the Faith, I likewise try hard, but often fail, to bear witness in all I do. It is not a matter of who is Christian and who is not. We all need to keep on becoming Christians in every place and among all people. Although in different ways, we witness, because to the very end of our lives we are still BECOMING Christians, just as the folk we may admire in the other groups are also, God willing, BECOMING Christians.
But the place and the means that God has provided are fully WITHIN the Orthodox Church, this spiritual community, this mystical Body of Christ. Outside the Orthodox Church are many dangers. Wrong belief leads to a wrong spiritual life and deforms our transformation into the image of God. For example, if we love Christ dearly but believe the error that everyone who has faith will be wealthy by worldly standards, then this error deforms our spiritual growth. The Church preserves us from this. It forms in us the true image of God. We grow straight and tall within the Church, protected from every ‘wind of doctrine’.
We may have many friends and enjoy fellowship, but we are never ‘off duty’. We are always bearing witness. On one email list about 12 people have become Orthodox as a result of the witness of Orthodox list members. This need not and should not be aggressive or offensive, but we need to keep in mind that we are always witnessing. The question we need to ask ourselves is ‘to what are we bearing witness?’
If we have friends who love Christ, how might they be if they were filled with every blessing that God gives us in the Orthodox Church? How much better, how much holier, how much more saintly might they be? They should have that opportunity. This is why we must always bear witness of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Peter Theodore Farrington is a subdeacon in the British Orthodox Church (Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate) currently living in England. (October 2002)