1. Orthodoxy provides the only valid reason to follow their authority.
Here is the issue: you are sitting in church (or you never got there), and the leaders are telling you the following:
1. You should be attending this church regularly.
2. You should be supporting this church financially.
But why? Who says? Catholics will say the church authority—the Pope ultimately—says you must, and he is in the line of the Apostles. (Actually, he’s not anymore. Later in this List I deal with the Pope.) Protestants will tell you that the Scriptures tell us to go to church.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. (Heb. 10:24-5)
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Heb. 13:17)
These leaders will tell you that the Scriptures are the final authority. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone” in Latin). Well, what if I don’t think the Scriptures are as clear as that guy in the pulpit asking for my money thinks? I don’t see anything about weekly services, or ten percent, or long sermons, much less anything on robes and choirs and creeds. (Or, for those in cool churches, nothing about guitars, rock music, large crowds, power point presentations, or skinny jeans.)
What if I just say, “I don’t see it the way you see it. Why should I do what you say?”
Intellectually honest seekers will rightly question why they shouldn’t just start a church themselves in their own home … or just have church by themselves.
The shallow Protestant pastor will say, “Because I’m in charge and you should obey your authority.” The more thoughtful pastor will say, “Because the Scriptures seem to teach church attendance and financial support.”
You can see how the authority is already dwindling (along with church attendance in America). Worse than that, their argument for the authority of Scripture is also weak. Why does the pastor think the Bible is God’s word and the final authority? He will say, “Because it was handed down to us from the Apostles and the Church Fathers.”
But those same Apostles and Church Fathers insisted that church attendance and support was mandatory, not suggestive. They also believed in confession, liturgy, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, icons, and a lot of other things most Protestants reject today. They also said you can’t leave the Orthodox Church. Why is their authority valid for picking the books of the Bible but not the other matters?
Ultimately, Sola Scriptura does not work. It sounds like a choice between Scripture and Tradition, but it’s really a choice between one smart Christian’s view of the Bible and the consensus view on the Bible from thousands of even smarter Christians, likely more prayerful, over a couple thousand years. The one guy inevitably disagrees with the other smart Christian that lives next door, and unity in the church becomes impossible.
The better path to authority, I argue the only path, is by sticking with ordination, the laying on of hands, and the solemn order of succession in Christianity that started with Jesus ordaining his disciples. Those Apostles ordained their followers (such as Titus and Timothy) and they continued that valid leadership—excluding the ones drummed out—until today. This is called Apostolic Succession.
I used to think I must be a Roman Catholic to enjoy this authority (see #3). As a Protestant I had given up hope for such a thing. But it is still alive and well. The Orthodox Church, with several hundred million followers, is the second largest expression of Christianity in the world.
Ultimately, this first point will be the subject of a separate blog post. (Here’s an excellent piece I will refer to.) This is the first and most important point in deciding which gathering of Christians you will be a part of, if any. I have 19 more on this list that are interesting, compelling, even humorous, but none of them ultimately matters without this first point: the question of authority.
2. The Orthodox do what the early church did.
Do some serious historical scholarship and you soon find out that the Apostles and early Christians were into bishops, liturgy, sacramental mystery, robes, and all the things that make modern Christians recoil. They did not hold ad hoc sessions with bibles on their laps using folding chairs circling the center of the room.
In 155 A.D., Justin Martyr provides a description of a baptism service where scripted prayers are recited and everyone says “Amen.” He also talks about regular fasting. The Didache, a late First Century church handbook, confirms the fasting was done by early Christians on Wednesdays and Fridays. It also provides scripted prayers for the main services, which center around the eucharist, and for individuals proscribes praying the “Our Father” three times a day.
Dr. Peter Guilquist, who attended Dallas Theological Seminary in the 60s, learned about this when he and his handful of buddies, all leaders in Campus Crusade for Christ, started studying the early church and resolved to start a church based on what the early Christians did. I had the privilege of chatting with Guillquist about it a couple years before he died in 2012. He said his buddy, a church history scholar, called them up and said, “You’re not gonna believe this. The early Christians were liturgical and sacramental!” That led them to eventually becoming Orthodox, and thousands have followed them into Orthodoxy in America since their migration in the late ‘70s.
The Orthodox structure services the same way Christians did in the First Century, which is quite similar to what Jews did in the First Century. The architecture of our services, the floor plan, the props used (Gospel book, cross, eucharist) follow the contents of the Ark of the Covenant. We chant Psalms all through the services, like the Jews did. We greet each other with a kiss. Look at the Sanhedrin in the movie The Passion and you’d think it was a gathering of Orthodox Bishops. We dress like the early church. If you want to be like the early church, be Orthodox.
3. You can have apostolic tradition without being Catholic.
I always wanted to be part of a Christian tradition that went all the way back to Christ and the Apostles. But I thought to do that you had to be a Roman Catholic. It turns out that’s not the case. The Orthodox call the Pope “the first Prostestant,” because he protested and rebelled against the original church.
Let me provide a brief church history, terribly truncated by me and certainly from my perspective: Jesus laid his hands on the Apostles and actually began the institutional church (now a dirty phrase!) and “the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.” It continues today in the form of the Orthodox Church. In around 1000 AD the Patriarch of Rome broke off from the rest of the Patriarchs because he wanted to change the Council of Nicea of A.D. 325.. And, of course, he wanted to be in charge. For a thousand years, the church had been “ruled” by hundreds of bishops coming together in a full council to decide the core truths of Christianity. No one man was in charge. They did this less then ten times in 1000 years. From these councils we crystallized the teaching of divinity of Christ and divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Christ, and other foundational Christian beliefs.
Rome’s break really screwed up Christianity. The other bishops said the councils cannot be changed, and they certainly did not believe one man should be in charge. 500 years after this “Great Schism,” as it is known, the Reformers like Luther and Calvin rightly rebelled from various false teachings and practices committed by the Roman Catholic Church that had strayed from its authority—problems like indulgences, papal infallibility, and crusades. They also invented new doctrines like the Immaculate Conception (which teaches that Mary was born without original sin). The eastern Orthodox never committed these false practices.
Unfortunately, Martin Luther let the genie out of the bottle. If one man can break away from the church, he can decide for himself what is right. He can cause a church split. He can lead church in his own home. Hell, he can just have church with himself. Who can tell him different, for the Protestant belief is that he is in charge. Instead of one pope, we now have millions of them.
The solution to all this chaos is Apostolic Succession. And you can jump on board without becoming a Roman Catholic.
4. Sound, sane morality is preserved.
Evangelical Christianity has spent a century or more fighting the good fight to keep their churches and the culture around them from sliding into moral decay. Whether the problem be divorce, abortion, sexual immorality, homosexuality, proper male and female roles, or whatever the new weirdness is, good Biblical Christians have been trying their darndest to keep the ship from splintering apart. It’s not working.
My Father, a very conservative pastor with a doctorate in theology, was terrified of the slippery slope. Allow one couple to get a divorce without the reasons being glaringly black and white obvious, and the entire church, all Christians, and the rest of the culture will slide down as well. Allow one gal to preach a sermon and women pastors will be the norm. Spend some time with a gay couple without confronting them, and their lifestyle will be considered accepted.
This paranoia is understandable if it is up to every single Christian, elucidating the proper moral precepts through Sola Scriptura, to uphold correct morality. Orthodox Christians don’t have to worry about it in that way. The Church has already made the declarations.
While Orthodoxy over the ages has had its struggles, to be sure, to preserve the true faith, we can be generally confident that the following will remain constant: marriage will be between a man and a woman, divorce, sexual immorality and homosexuality will be called sin, abortion will be considered abhorrent, and priests will always be men. These are not beliefs up for Scriptural review.
On the plus side, those struggling with their particular version of sin—these days the hot button is homosexuality—are not shunned by the Orthodox Church. They are welcomed as sinners, but they are not allowed to take communion until they go to confession, agree that their problems are sins, and start a long process to overcome their problem, just like all the adulterers, fornicators, lusters, and liars in the church, who are also sometimes denied communion.
At the point of confession and a desire to repent, they are most welcome to commune (take communion) like all the other struggling sinners in church. Before that, they are not shunned, they are not asked to stay away from church, they are simply told not to come up for communion (thus the word “ex-communicate”).
5. Orthodox leaders have cool beards, like hipsters.
Bishops and monastics tend to have long, fluffy beards. Hipsters love this. It sounds like a small thing, and it is. But it makes the point that Christians should be setting the standard, not the culture. On some points, the culture will view ancient Christian practices as weird or offensive. In other ways, Orthodox Christians will be ahead of the curve. So it’s time to quit trying to be relevent and just be authentic. Let fashion catch up to you.
6. Orthodoxy affirms art.
Attend your typical Orthodox service and you will see images everywhere. Icons on the walls, patterns on the vestments, Crosses on every neck, and a lot of color.
Cool churches these days are trying to get back to having some art and images in the service. Basic human beings, and particularly non-religious ones, are really into art. Let fashion catch up to you.
7. You get to join a traditional culture, the land of the sane.
Any good old farmer back in the day knew that a city boy with too much education can become so smart they become incredibly stupid. That pretty much describes Western culture these days.
We don’t know what a man and a woman is anymore. We don’t know that it’s better to follow God than Satan. We don’t know that it’s wrong to kill babies. We have no intellectual arguments against pedophilia. We don’t know how to grow basic, healthy food anymore. It took us five decades to figure out breastfeeding was probably a better idea all along than chemicals called formula. We are so smart and sophisticated, we can’t be basic, normal humans anymore.
Orthodoxy is a traditional culture. Many things stay the same. Thank God.
8. Orthodoxy is multicultural and international
Everybody these days wants to think globally and with diversity. Orthodoxy has always done so. While somewhat sparse in the West, the historic church is quite strong in Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia, in Arabic countries like Syria and Lebanon, the Caucasus of Georgia and Armenia, in African countries like Egypt and Ethiopia. There is a strong presence in Southern India. In America, Orthodoxy has by far it’s highest concentration in Native American Alaska.
These wonderful, millennia long Christian traditions are indigenous, not some Evangelical version of colonialism where we “go over there and make them Christians.” White Orthodox people don’t feel much guilt because we’re not a majority and we’re not in charge.
Orthodox Christians look a lot like what you’d think Jesus would want his people to look like. Multi-colored. Scroll down on this page to get a great visual of it.
9. Orthodoxy is peace-loving, not militaristic.
Just a few decades after the Roman Catholic Church left the Orthodox Church in 1054, the Pope announced the First Crusade. This is likely not a coincidence.
Eastern Christianity does not have crusades as part of its tradition. But in the West, militarism in the name of Christ has been a blemish on Christianity for a millennium, and its spirit continues until today with George W. Bush recruiting Bible Belt Christians to support the decimation of Iraq.
Undoubtedly, this is a complex matter, and Orthodoxy is not unblemished. But, generally, the Church does not support militarism or invasion but does allow for armed defense. Beyond that, the Church really does promote Jesus’s teachings to be loving, peaceful, and merciful to our enemies.
For two thousand years, the Orthodox Church has started every Sunday morning service by reciting the Beatitudes. Like, they really believe them: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is considered the foundation stone of all teaching and doctrine. In Prostestantism, it seemed to me we were always thinking, “Yeah, yeah, that stuff Jesus talked about, but let’s get to Paul’s doctrines in the Epistles and all those cool wars in the Old Testament.”
10. Orthodoxy majors on the majors, like love.
Left to ourselves, we are so quick to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph: 4:14) Protestant Christianity seems to be based on the idea of peddling a certain pet doctrine in order to justify your existence, otherwise why wouldn’t you be worshipping with the people across the street?
Therefore, the pressing need is to talk about believer’s baptism or predestination or the true sabbath day or tongues or musical instruments, et al. We could list hundreds. Orthodoxy already knows what it believes and can therefore emphasize in its services the more important teachings. Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels are read out loud and preached at every service. As mentioned, the Beatitudes are always recited. Love your enemies gets mentioned a lot. Every day during lent we ask God to help us “not to judge my brother.”
Sure, a squirrelly priest could spend time talking about less important things, or his own pet doctrines, but it’s pretty difficult to do, seeing that 90 percent of the service has already been scripted for him by the ancient church fathers.
We do have some “pet” doctrines that get hammered home constantly, but they happen to be teachings such as the Resurrection, the Trinity, and the divine and human natures of Christ.
11. You can actually point to a place for people to go be a Christian.
As a Protestant, I was always a little embarrassed by the church. I made sure that I was going to a place that was decent, and I could always recommend that someone come to MY church if they wanted. But beyond that, it was like, “well, being a Christian isn’t about going to church.”
Now, I can point someone to the Orthodox Church, whether they live in my town or in Indonesia. There is a real, physical place they can interact with, with real people and leaders. Their doctrine will not stray. If they serve Kool-Aid after the service, it won’t be spiked with strychnine. I don’t have to be there to monitor things.
Modern day notions of house churches, the “Invisible Church” and “spiritual but not religious” all sound good, but they really don’t work out well in the long run. Someone has to be in charge, other people disagree with how they run it, and before too long we’ve splintered and lost any continuity. Jesus’s prayer that we “be brought to complete unity” remains an abstract thing, an invisible church thing, not an actual thing on the ground, with real people, over many decades.
12. Orthodoxy is not a personality cult.
“Where do you go to church?” “Who’s the pastor there?” That’s usually how a conversation goes for an Evangelical. Modern day Christianity reminds me of a traditional continent with thousands of tribes. The ones with the most charismatic chiefs do the best. I like to view Orthodoxy as more like a constitutional country where things still flow somewhat smoothly even if a terrible President is in power like Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton (pick your favorite whipping boy).
As already mentioned, the lionshare of the services are scripted. So Father Clinton/Nixon wouldn’t have a lot of room to screw things up. The passage for the priest’s sermon is already chosen by the church calendar, and the sermon is a short part of the larger service. The climax of the service is not the sermon, it’s the taking of the Eucharist near the end.
The growth strategy for Orthodoxy is to plant more small parishes, not megachurches, so a dynamic personality doesn’t really even get that much of a chance to lead thousands astray.
Church splits are often the result of smarter, more gifted people in the pews getting tired of listening to pastor Joe Shmoe every single week. Not only is his sermon 75 percent of the service, but he scripts and choreographs the rest of it too. The smarter people find something better, or they create it themselves. Who’s going to stop them?
13. You get to drink wine at church.
Paradigm shift. While there a number of weird things Orthodoxy brings to the table, no longer is “we don’t drink alcohol” one of them. That was a ridiculous burr the Fundamentalists put in the Christian saddle for a century or so, but it’s fading fast, and Orthodoxy demolishes it. (Note: I like Fundamentalists in general, especially as co-laborers in the culture wars.) We drink wine at major feasts, at Easter (lots of it), and certainly enjoy it in generous doses away from church as well. Russians bring a lot of vodka to the feasts. We don’t overdo it. No one’s faculties get impaired or anything.
14. You get to drink wine at church.
Did I mention this yet?
15. You actually are allowed to know God personally.
I know this sounds crazy, but Western Christianity—starting with the Catholics and continuing with the Protestants—believe, on paper, that you can’t actually know God himself, only about him. Western Christianity’s great theologian Thomas Aquinas differentiated between “seeing the Divine essence” and “comprehending the Divine essence.” The idea was that God himself is so different from us that we can’t see him or know him, like Adam knew Eve. But you can know about him intellectually. And thus the great heroes of Western Christianity are often intellectual giants (Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, etc.) rather than martyrs and ascetics.
Great Orthodox thinkers will affirm that the biggest difference between Eastern and Western Christianity is neither papal infallibility nor changing the creed (the “filioque” controversy—Latin for “and the Son”—which lessened the Holy Spirit by attributing one of His unique qualities to Christ). Rather, it is the West’s exaltation of reason or rationality over heart and spirit. The East emphasizes mystery. One of Orthodoxy’s great saints argued against the idea that God cannot be known and experienced directly. St. Gregory Palamas affirmed what the church had always taught, that God can be known and experienced directly, not in his essence, but in his uncreated divine energies.
Palamas debated a 14th Century Western scholar who said Eastern monks would be better off studying about God instead of praying all day, valuing knowledge over revelation. Palamas said encounters with Christ like the Apostles at the Transfiguration were direct experiences with the Divine that others can also experience. Palamas was far-sighted in saying that the Roman change of the creed, harming the Holy Spirit’s uniqueness, and the subsequent inability to acknowledge encounters with God’s uncreated energies directly, would ultimately lead to atheism. Great novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski said the same. (Start at 3.00 for an excellent podcast tracing the atheism and occultism of the West to this medievil philosophical tipping point.)
The Reformers accepted this troublesome premise by default, and never rejected it. Christian movements in the last century have sought to address this real problem. Pentecostals stress a direct experience with God and Evangelicals stress a “personal relationship” with God. But neither group may be aware that they are fighting uphill against their own theological traditions.
16. Orthodoxy sets a high standard for “manly men.”
Orthodox Christianity is difficult. You stand during church. You fast for 40 days before Easter and Christmas, abstaining from meat and all dairy products. (You also do this every Wednesday and Friday.) You don’t eat or drink anything before taking Eucharist on Sunday (fellow coffee addicts be warned). You go to confession about once a month and share your dirt. If you ever get faithful in those areas, you can up your game by visiting a monastery, or even joining one!
On one level, it seems our culture loves seeker friendly churches. But on another level, don’t we really, ultimately, want to be challenged? Great athletes work relentlessly to reach the highest levels. Marathons and Ironman competitions are wildly popular these days. Those kids in the spelling bee finals read dictionaries for years. Becoming Orthodox is joining the elite, the real men and the real women. (As an aside, most Evangelical churches are dominated by females, who drag their husbands to church, if at all. Orthodox churches are often the opposite. Men usually find it first, and the women follow them.)
18. In Orthodoxy, women share the stage.
I know, women can’t be priests or bishops. But the focal point of every Orthodox church is two icons up front that surround the altar. On the right is an icon of the man Jesus Christ. On the left is an icon of Mary, Christ’s mother, holding her divine child. This is the basic setup for every church in the world, without exception.
In Orthodoxy, a woman has a lead role. Not in Protestantism. In Orthodoxy, a woman is greatly venerated (not worshipped) and greatly loved. Openly and publicly. This absolutely must make a difference on the culture. Mostly referred to as “Theotokos” (Mother of God), she provides the greatest inspiration for motherhood and the perfect model for virginity.
Notice the explosion of goddess worship in coffee shop bookstores across the Western world. Humanity senses that 50 percent of the population is female and that heaven should reflect that. Orthodoxy refers to their leading lady as the Queen of Heaven (Rev. 12, Psalm45:6-9). If this freaks you out as a Protestant, Martin Luther, who taught on Mary’s perpetual virginity, referred to her as “Queen of Heaven” his entire life.
18. Our tradition is one of much suffering.
Orthodoxy looks and smells like Christ. Most of the history of the church is one of suffering, struggle, and even martyrdom. Syria is a stronghold for Orthodoxy. Russia and Eastern Europe all persecuted Orthodox Christianity there before Communism’s fall 25 years ago. Greek Christians were persecuted by the Turks for several hundred years—impaling was the preferred form of execution—before they gained liberation in the 19th Century. Ethiopia, the poorest country in the world, is majority Nicean Orthodox and arguably the first nation to declare itself Christian.
While there are pockets of wealth and success, and seasons of history where the Orthodox “did well,” by and large Orthodoxy is not a poster child for health and wealth Christianity.
19. We believe in miracles and healings, but without the weirdos.
Modern day Pentecostals and Charismatics, to their credit, seek to follow a God who still works in miraculous ways as when Jesus and the Apostles walked the earth. The Orthodox believe in miracles. They have a tradition of wonder-working saints and healers (North America’s most recent saint, who died in San Francisco in 1966, is known as “John the Wonderworker.”) Orthodoxy has exorcists, icons that weep myrrh supernaturally, and stories of godly folks of old who levitated and transported themselves. One group of young saints fled persecution in a cave, went to sleep, and woke up 300 years later.
No Pentecostal church can outweird our supernatural weird. But here’s the bonus: our wonderworkers are under the authority of their bishops and abbots, the general church heirarchy, and the church tradition. They can’t just do anything they want. And the fact they can work a miracle doesn’t mean they are in charge or can’t be confronted or put in their place. In other words, Jim Jones will not emerge at your local Orthodox Church. But you just might experience a miracle.
20. We believe in real stuff, created things, bodies, and fun.
Modern Christianity is under a large dose of Gnosticism, an early heresy that says what really matters are spiritual things. Physical, earthly, created things are okay, but somehow lesser than the spiritual things we do. Or maybe the physical stuff is actually evil.
A recent TIME magazine poll showed that only a third of Christians who believe in the resurrection think they will have an actual, physical body in eternity.
Because of this theological error, the Fundamentalists chucked alcohol. Some Christians can’t quite relax about proper sexual pleasure. Others look down on wealth creation, politics, the arts, and other aspects of the created order that God originally pronounced “good” in the first chapter of the Bible.
The Orthodox do not do this. We constantly emphasize the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that God himself, the greatest of “Spirit,” became a man in a real human body. Forever. Heaven and earth are eternally fused together, and created matter truly matters. In Orthodox services, we light candles and kiss crosses and wear brilliant vestments and smell incense and paint pictures everywhere and eat bread and drink wine. When someone joins the church, we wash them, anoint them with oil, cut off bits of their hair, dunk them in water, and hand them a candle. When they die, we put that same candle in their hand and a scroll in their other hand pronouncing that they are forgiven. We exalt their body even after death, as it is made in God’s very image and reaffirmed by God himself becoming a human body. Creation matters and it is good. Very good.
21. Orthodoxy provides the only valid reason to follow their authority.
As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, the question of whether to be Orthodox begins and ends with the question of authority. Everything else builds from that point. I thoroughly believe that a true seeker who is intellectually honest will end up embracing Orthodox Christianity. It is the only way to answer the question, “Says who?”
My Father—God rest his awesome soul—used to shake his head at those who supported their particular belief by saying to him, “We’ve always done it this way.” Granted, the people he was arguing with were Protestants, and somewhere back there, they weren’t doing it that way. But, for me, as an Orthodox, that argument is now consistent. They really have “always done it that way.”