Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy

I have recently had the opportunity to have some long conversations with Eastern Orthodox brothers. In both conversations it was suggested to me that the Eastern Orthodox church is the true church.

Now in principle, reformed Christians such as myself can accept all the arguments about the Eastern Orthodox church being the true church. Where we would differ is in accepting that the Eastern church is the only true church. This is because the New Testament shows that a church is defined by faith in Christ, as evidenced in baptism (Galatians). To make anything other than faith in Christ the defining feature of membership to God’s people (the church) is to fall into the error of the Judaisers (Acts 15; Galatians 1 & 2). Paul’s great defence of justification by faith in his letter to the Galatians arose from the divided table at Antioch. Table fellowship had been divided between two types of Christians, and Paul’s answer to this was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Thus, in its original context, justification was an ecclesiastical doctrine, since it affirmed that all who profess faith in Christ belong to the same common table. The Westminster Confession recognises this by stating that anyone with a Trinitarian baptism is part of the visible church, unless there is a specific instance of the church exercising its authority to excommunicate someone.

When talking with an Eastern Orthodox priest about this a few weeks ago, he kept coming back to the fact that the Eastern church is out of communion with the Western church. Although I initially denied this, after some reflection I realised that he had a point. The Eastern church is out of communion with the Western church. I can likewise agree on the fact that this is bad. As a consequence of these two premises, I can affirm that the Western church and the Eastern church ought to get back into communion with each other. Where the reformed tradition would differ with the Eastern Orthodox tradition is in what it means for the Western church and the Eastern church to get back into communion with each other. I would argue, on the basis of the scriptures cited above, that what is required is a joint acknowledgement of each other as fellow members of Christ’s body. On the basis of this, there could (in principle) be ecumenical table fellowship between the two traditions. Even without actual table fellowship, when we partake of the Lord’s supper every Sunday we should be conscious by being connected, through the Spirit, to Christians throughout the world in all different denominations.

The Eastern church does not accept this. Since they believe that they are the only true church, they are not allowed to have communion in other churches. Similarly, if a Protestant visits an Eastern Orthodox church, they would not be allowed to join them in celebrating the Eucharist unless they first came under their patriarchs, which in practice means joining their organisation and doing whatever they have decided that involves in practice. Once we joined their organisation they could then have fellowship with us. This means that until there is organisational unity, we are excommunicated. But on what basis has this excommunication occurred? To justify this excommunication, the burden is on the Eastern Orthodox to first prove that anyone who is not already in fellowship with the patriarchs is not part of the true church. But such an argument is a blatant non sequitur since we already accept that they are the true church (as are all who confess faith in Christ). The key is for them to first establish Biblically and historically that Eastern Orthodoxy is the only true church. That will be difficult to prove, given the decision of the first ecumenical council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and the subsequent fleshing out of that decision in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.
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