Off-the-Cuff: What about the Eastern Orthodox?

I was pointed at a blog post from a few days ago “Why Mormonism’s Claim is So Crazy to People.” The article is a very simple defense of the teaching of the Great Apostasy and a bit of pleading that the teachings of the LDS church don’t amount to an enormous fraud. I was asked to comment on it, and instead of getting into a back and forth with the author in his comment section, I just decided to start a new set of opinion posts I’m going to call “Off-the-Cuff.” In the words of Peter Pan: “Oh, the cleverness of me.”


So, for background go read “Why Mormonism’s Claim is So Crazy to People.”

First, why do LDS folks always seem to forget about the hundreds of millions of Christians that make up the Eastern Orthodox family of churches? I know Roman Catholicism is a bigger bogey-man, but come on! The Eastern Orthodox church has been around just as long; I’d actually argue it’s older. The Eastern Orthodox church claims, and can back it up pretty well, that their leaders have an unbroken line of apostolic succession. And, yet, they get absolutely no love. You can’t talk about anything like the Great Apostasy with any real, historical, credibility without dealing with the Eastern Orthodox churches. But, that has never stopped any well-meaning LDS folks. Heck, it doesn’t even stop well-meaning Protestants. So, the first huge weakness is that Mr. Trimble completely ignores a huge swath of ancient Christianity in order to make his points seem remotely valid.

Second, he doesn’t actually substantiate the claims of a Great Apostasy except to say “[t]he early Christian fathers witnessed the church fall into deep apostasy and they wrote about it.” I will commend Mr. Trimble for referring to the collected volumes of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene volumes; but, I think he may need to re-read more of those volumes before characterizing the writings the way he does. While, there was certainly in-fighting in some quarters of the church, the majority of the writings against apostasy and heresy looked a lot like the church fathers writing against teachings more resemblant of Mormonism than Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. In fact, Tertullian, writing at least 100 years before the big, bad, Council of Nicea provides us with the oldest extant formulations of what was formalized in the councils as Trinitarian orthodoxy. Even the tritheism of Mormonism was dealt with in the Post-Nicene era in connection with the Monophysite controversies of the fifth century. And, all the early church fathers were concerned with maintaining apostolic teaching, which is why they worked very hard to identify the apostolic writings and make extensive use of them in the churches. So, the Great Apostasy, as taught by Mormonism lacks a great deal of historical veracity and the writings of the church fathers can hardly be said to support such a notion.

Third, there is a huge lack of clarity in regards to the issue of apostasy. Mr. Trimble operates from the assumption that there is no grey area with regards to apostasy. He, essentially says that either there must be one church, possessing all truth, without any error; or, the church is completely absent from the earth. This is a failure distinguish between essentials and non-essentials. Even after the Great Schism of 1054, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches continued to each affirm the earlier ecumenical councils and they remained in substantial agreement about many things. Even Protestants, in the midst of the Reformation, recognized that not all that Rome affirmed was errant. And there is a really good reason for that: The Bible. Despite all the differences of opinion on all kinds of matters, the Word of God has been preserved in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament. Despite the Bible not being universally accessible for centuries, it was not lost or corrupted. The Bible has always served to organize God’s people. Some time people go beyond what Scripture teaches and invent such things as the papacy, infant baptism, purgatory or the Quorum of the Seventy, First Presidency, etc. But, God’s Word endures, and so the Church endures. The Church has from time to time been subject to error; but the Gospel has never utterly passed away because, just like in the Old Testament, God is powerful enough to defend His people and preserve a remnant for Himself. And, that remnant has always been rooted in God’s revealed Word.

But, the big question that this article begs is why would God allow a Great Apostasy? The Mormon response must be either: because God wanted to, or because God couldn’t stop it. In the first case I’d question the wisdom, charity and benevolence of God to not even attempt to preserve His church in any form. In the second case I would assert that such a God is unworthy of worship and lacks the basic abilities to be God in the first place. In either case, the LDS view of God is woefully deficient; and that’s assuming the Great Apostasy even happened, which is hard to argue historically. So, in the end I would conclude that Mormonism is a fraud, and a counterfeit Gospel. As a religion, Mormonism reveals itself to be Anti-Christian in its adoption of teachings that depart from the teachings of the Apostles and in its addition of a yoke of slavery to its adherents. It is, in the end, exactly the sort of “other gospel” that Paul warned the Galatians about and pronounced any who would bring such a counterfeit “anathema,” which means they are committing damnable error.

The people of God must always stand upon the Word of God, not upon men. There is still one Lord, one faith and one baptism; they simply aren’t mediated by merely one church, but by all the churches where the Gospel of salvation by grace, through faith in Christ alone is preached. And such a Gospel is missing from the Mormon church, revealing it to be a fraud and a monstrous one. And, no one should be surprised that such a monstrous fraud should be possible; for, as it is written: “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24 ESV).

 

A Definition of Evangelicalism

To build upon what I wrote yesterday concerning Shawn McCraney’s decision to spend 2013 going after “American Evangelical Christianity,” I thought it might be sensible to provide a definition of who it is Shawn McCraney plans to go after. I have no idea who Shawn McCraney thinks Evangelicalism is, or what unites it as a movement; but  the movement needs to be defined in order to be critiqued. I sincerely hope that Shawn spends some time on his show defining, carefully, who it is he is criticizing. A failure to do so will doom his efforts to merely being a collection of rants which can do nothing but damage.

Historically, the movement had its origins in the 17th century and was formally identifiable around 1730 with the development of Methodism and Pietism groups within the Anglicans and Lutherans of that time period. The movement found its most numerous expression in the wake of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the United States. In the United States, the movement eventually became synonymous with Fundamentalism. However, by the 1950s the distinction between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism developed afresh, in part due to the ministry of Billy Graham. Evangelicalism since the 1950s has been characterized, broadly, by a rejection of the separatism of Fundamentalism and a tend towards active social and political engagement. These traits are viewed by some as a peculiarly American phenomenon, despite the fact that one of the central elements of Evangelicalism has always been a Gospel-focussed activism that seeks collective transformation through individual transformation.

Contemporary Evangelicalism crosses denomination boundaries. Their are Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and even Catholics that can be identified as part of Evangelicalism. The four central tenets of Evangelicalism have, historically, been:

  1. Conversionism — An emphasis on individual conversion and the “born again” experience.
  2. Biblicism — An emphasis on the authority of the Bible
  3. Crucicentrism — The doctrinal centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
  4. Activism — Active individual participation in the spread of the Gospel message and seeking individual transformation

While all of these tenets have theological character, the specifics vary based on denominational traditions. In contemporary Evangelicalism there is even some disagreement about the definition and necessity of these tenets. For these reasons church historians have found it incredibly difficult to come up with a coherent definition of what it means to be an Evangelical. This matter is complicated further by the development of the Emerging and Emergent church movements within Evangelicalism. The Emergent church movement blends post-modern sensibilities with Evangelicalism and is more apt to compromise doctrinal integrity and coherency in exchange for cultural acceptance. The Emerging church movement is an expression of Evangelicalism that tends to downplay the abuses of the Evangelical tenet of Activism, particularly political expressions of that tenet, and in its place to seek to contextualize the other three tenets in a way that is intended to speak into and challenge a predominant culture.

All that to say that defining Evangelicalism is next to impossible, because there is no authority or organization that can legitimately speak for Evangelicals. The movement is multifaceted and highly variable. Certainly there are some criticisms that can be legitimately made of those who would identify themselves of Evangelicals, but those criticisms can not be rightly laid at the feet of all who would fall under the very broad umbrella of Evangelicalism. So, I hope Shawn McCraney uses caution as he heaps on criticism of this very eclectic movement. A movement, oddly enough, it appears that Shawn McCraney himself could be said to belong to.

Nulla Salus Extra Ecclesium

In the third century bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote the words that form the title of this post. The expression means “no salvation outside the church.” This idea is well understood and has been expounded upon by Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholic teachers for many centuries. But, within the Protestant and Separatist traditions this concept is not well known, nor understood, and in many quarters I would expect it to be flatly rejected and scoffed at. But, in light of the widely popular “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video and the responses that it garnered through social media, I think this phrase and its meaning are worth exploring for contemporary Christianity.

First, to understand Cyprian’s statement we must know what salvation is and what the Church is. I am going to assume that salvation is understood as a four-fold process; beginning with Regeneration, made sure by Justification, expressed in Sanctification and completed in Glorification. My understanding of salvation is monergistic in essence. But I include the life of the believer as they walk in Sanctification, not just the changing of their moral standing before God. Additionally, for clarity, I am going to seek to distinguish the universal fellowship that all believers in Jesus Christ have as “the Church,” while referring to local, visible, congregations of believers as “the church” or “churches.” The distinction I am drawing is similar to the distinction recognized by many theologians between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. As a Baptist, along with other Protestants and Separatists, I reject the Roman Catholic notion of the Church Suffering on the basis that I reject the existence of Purgatory. So, the Church Militant is seen in the earthly visible congregations of believers throughout the world and across denominational lines; while the Church Triumphant is seen in all believers, both living and dead, who are counted in the Lamb’s Book of Life and known eternally to God. This definition of the Church Triumphant is different from the Roman Catholic understanding, but I believe it is ultimately more helpful and more biblically faithful.

So, we understand the church as having two expressions: one visible and one invisible. All true believers make up the invisible Church. But, what about local churches? What about those who have membership in local churches or who claim to be Christian while not having fellowship with a local church. This is where the whole discussion gets very difficult. Because only God knows all who are truly part of the Church, it is not possible to accurately discern the spiritual condition of those who are in local churches or those who are not. But, as believers we are called to join together. Jesus Christ established both the Church and the churches. He did so most clearly in Matthew 16:18 Jesus tells Peter that “and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (ESV). He also spoke through the author of Hebrews to criticize those who were “neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25, ESV). But, Christians can meet together apart from the church, so what need does a believer have to associate with a local church?

Matthew 18:17 presents the church as the arbiter of Christian discipline when it says: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (ESV). It is impossible to present a disciplinary matter to the Church in its invisible manifestation, so this passage only makes sense as referring to a local church. Additionally, Acts, First & Second Timothy, Titus and others all speak of the organization and operations of local churches in particular detail. The New Testament presents the church as being an essential aspect of Christian fellowship. Paul instructs the Corinthian church on how to administer the Lord’s Supper as well as giving them clear instruction on maintaing order in their worship. Repeatedly, throughout the entire New Testament, the church is witnessed, identified and taught in its local, visible, form and this presentation is normative. The assumption of the New Testament is that believers would gather together in local churches and be subject to discipline, participate in worship and observe the ordinances as local church families. Never, in Scripture, is there a normative presentation of a “lone wolf” Christian or of a believer being recognized as having all that they require for a faithful Christian life apart from the local church.

So, it is normative, from Scripture, that believers should seek fellowship and participation in the local church. But, which denomination? Which local church should a believer join? As a Baptist I value the idea of Liberty of Conscience. The Baptist Faith and Message states that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it” (Article 17, BF&M 2000). For this reason I recognize that different denominations and local churches exist for a myriad of reasons. Some of the reasons are good, biblical, reasons for distinctions between believers. Other reasons are worldly, unbiblical, distinctions created by sinful men. But, ultimately, through the work of the Holy Spirit there is still unity across denominational lines in many ways. So, I am drawn to reject the insistence of some that there is only one organized, institutional, church that all believers ought to be a part of. But, I do so without compromising on the issue of whether believers ought to be a part of a local church; my unequivocal answer is that all Christians are called by Scripture to be united to a local church by clear teaching and normative example.

So, while it is reasonable to reject the notion that there is only one organized, institutional, church; it is not reasonable to believe that one can truly call yourself a Christian while not seeking fellowship, discipline and the ordinances of the local church. It is ridiculous for anyone to claim to be a Christian while rejecting Christ’s Body, the church. It is unchristian to try to simultaneously affirm that one is a follower of Jesus while refusing to associate with the organization that Jesus established, gave instruction for and left in the care of the Apostles and those who came after them. Cyprian was right to declare that there is no salvation outside the church; not because the church is the arbiter of salvation; but, because there is no obedience in the life of the one claiming to be saved who rejects what Jesus, Himself, established and which He and the Apostles gave instruction for and emphasized the importance of.