The following is an essay that I wrote several months ago about coming to the Orthodox Church.
What does it mean to “be a Christian?” American society has some interesting ideas to say the least. To some, being a Christian is synonymous with being abstinent: Christians “don’t smoke, drink, or chew, nor go with girls who do.” To others, being a Christian means aligning yourself a certain strand of politics such as the Moral Majority or the Progressive Left. To a growing number, being a Christian means pursuing biblical scholarship with the intent of purging the Church of historical oppression and making everyone feel welcome whatever his or her personal creed. To another growing movement, being a Christian means to follow Christ as best as one knows how usually using one’s conscience as a guide.
All of these options have some truth in them. However, they fail to address key facets of what it means to find one’s life in Christ. Living is messy business. As we try to be in the world, but not of the world, we are bound to face challenges beyond our individual ability to pray, reason, or adapt. Living in Christ means hiding ourselves in Him (Colossians 3:3). We are called to abide in Him and walk the same way in which He walked (1 John 2:6). We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds that we may know God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Most directly, Christ commands us to be holy as the Father in Heaven is holy (Matthew 5:48). How in the world are we, sinful as we are, going to approach this Christian life by our own merits and doing? The answer lies in a simple truth expressed in Acts 11:26, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”
There are four things to notice about this simple truth. Taking them in contextual order, for no reason than that an order must be presented, we see first that we are “in Antioch.” This reflects a geographical location intimately acquainted with the social and cultural framework of the day. Second, we see that there were “disciples.” Let it not go without saying that this word is expressed as a plural, representative of the unity present within the early community. Third, it is in this time and place that we have this “first” event. The necessity of the word “first” expresses that this practice spread beyond this place and time. And finally, we have the word of choice “Christian.” Why did the three elements of place, community, and practice join together to cross the biblical threshold of what it means to be Christian? Moreover, how does the life of the Orthodox Church reflect these three elements throughout history to present day?
To begin, we have a place. The Bible bears witness to Antioch as being a place where a significant number of Greek Gentiles heard the apostolic teachings of Sts. Barnabas and Paul. The inclusion of Gentiles and their customs challenged the early Church particularly when it came to the question of rites of initiation. God addressed this issue by sending Peter to see the Holy Spirit fall upon a group of assembled Gentiles in the same way of the first Pentecost (Acts 11:1-18). The Apostles and elders of the Church gathered to address these issues again (Acts 15:1-29) with the Church together making the decision. Gentiles and their customs where welcome with the noted exception of certain foods and sexual immorality. This establishes a firm precedent within the Church of extending welcome to those outside of her doors while at exactly the same time calling her people to live in holiness according to the Spirit of the Law.
This canonical precedent helps us move beyond Acts 11:26 towards the life of the Church today. The official pronouncement of welcome was not made in Antioch, but in Jerusalem. Moreover, while several bore testimony, it is not Sts. Peter, Barnabas, or Paul but St. James extends this decree. The elders came together as one body and, in good order, made a statement reflecting the life of the Church that allowed it to go beyond the first Jewish disciples. This precedent continued when Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the gospel to the Slavs. The question related to Liturgy and catechetical education. Drawing testimony from the Pentecost where those present were enabled by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of the day (Acts 2:7-11), the Church continued her practice of celebrating Liturgy in the vernacular of the people. Orthodox missiology seeks to identify intrinsic parts of culture that honor God and the places within the culture that point people towards fullness in Christ. However, the Church body as a whole extends the welcome and erects the necessary fence for that culture. This community partnership remains evident even today as the Orthodox Church extends into North America.
Community forms a central part of an Orthodox Christian experience. As noted earlier, “disciples” is expressed deliberately in the plural. The defining mark of those following Christ is the love they have for one another (John 13:35). Tertullian aptly stated, “One Christian is no Christian.” The earliest record of Christian community places apostolic teaching at the forefront (Acts 2:42); in Acts 11, we read that the community is under the instruction of Sts. Barnabas and Paul. This connection with the Apostles is essential because there were many false teachers. Sts. Paul, Peter, John, and James all warn about the teachings of false teachers. Implicit in this statement lay a belief that the new community is safe within the bounds as defined by the Apostles. Here again, the plural is essential. One Apostle on his own could be in error as evidenced when St. Paul confronted St. Peter on his fear regarding eating with Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-14); however, the unity of the Apostolic Tradition, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, empowers believers to this day.
Returning to the text again, the final pronouncement is that of being “first.” The nature of first necessitates that a continuum of second, third, and fourths are able to follow. The community at Antioch was Christ-centered, Apostolically-instructed, and mission-orientated. These communities remain and exist through to this day. The mere presence of the Holy Scriptures and ancient creeds speak to this community. Divinely inspired letters from the Apostles to various Christian communities circulated widely in the Church to provide instruction for life in Christ and were canonized to be the Scriptures we know today. As Christianity grew through the first centuries, the Creed evolved through the first two ecumenical councils to be what we confess today. The words of the earliest believers remain on our lips and permeate our hearts. The witness of the seven Ecumenical Councils guards us as believers today from falling away from the original deposit of faith. Moreover, a cloud of witnesses, faithful men and women throughout the ages who have found their rest in Christ, surrounds us (Hebrews 12).
And with this, we arrive back to the original question: What does it mean to be a Christian? Literally, to be a Christian means to be a “little Christ.” As we look for daily guidance, it is appropriate to turn to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the creed. Today, the Orthodox Church stands as one church, united through the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist. Today, the Orthodox Church remains true to the teaching of the Apostles, standing firm against all heresy and division. Today, the Orthodox Church has spread far beyond the geographical confines of the Middle East to be universal, becoming truly catholic. And today, the Orthodox Church remains true to the teaching of the Apostles.
The key feature of life in Christ through life in His body is to recognize that the only stability exists in the Church as a whole. As individuals, we fail; as a community, God promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We must all strive to become like Christ in every way, laboring together and encouraging each other along. In the Orthodox Church, we find ourselves in a continuum outside of time and space. It cannot be contained in any person, parish, or principality. The call is to follow Christ to be like Him; I am of the firm belief that the Orthodox Church gives the necessary tools for this pilgrimage towards Heaven.