Swimming the Bosporus 8: The Rock and the Raft

 

Everyone knows what “time” is but it’s a slippery concept to nail down. Religion, philosophy, art, and science all have theorized about the meaning, but I’ll stick with the old line, “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

In most variants of the three major religions (and some philosophies) God resides outside of time. He is immortal and never-changing; existing before the ages began, while they continue, and after they’re gone. He created space and time as an envelope for humans to reside within. Spending too long thinking about it can make your brain hurt (just analyze any time-travel movie) but it has major implications for one’s faith.

You can find all the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.

As noted in a previous post, church history isn’t stressed in Protestantism. At the close of the Book of Acts, the timeline is fast-forwarded 1,500 years until Martin Luther is nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg door. That millennium-and-a-half is treated as either a slow drift or a rapid descent into error until the Reformation set Christendom back on track.

The Reformers turned to the only original source they had, the Bible, and reconstructed what they considered a purer form of Christianity without the bells and whistles they figured were added over the centuries.

Several evangelical academics delve into church history, but it’s not a hot topic among the laity. Some denominations explain that there was always a remnant of Christians who adhered to Baptist, Calvinist, etc., theology, yet I haven’t found historical support for this claim.

But if God resides outside of time, why would He allow the church to drift for so many generations? He promised that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things” and that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The Spirit was as present in the year 750 as He was in 33 AD and is today.

That always bugged me, both as a Christian and as a history nerd. Raised Lutheran, I revered Martin Luther, but why would God choose to enlighten him (or Calvin or Zwingli) to figure it all out from scratch?

Raising such questions brought the response, “oh, so you think the indulgences were cool and Rome didn’t need reform?” I was hardly a fan of Vatican excesses but Luther was flawed as well, especially late in life.

Based on the Bible and logic, I believed that God had been active at all times and didn’t take a 1,500-year sabbatical. That’s why encountering the Church Fathers made such an impact. It filled in those blank spots on the timeline and provided more depth than I ever got reading the reformers.

I was hardly the only evangelical to think this way. Several movements in the ’60s and ’70s sought to restore the “early church.” Some pursued a communal, hippie vibe, while others launched more conservative home churches. All were trying to get back to what church was in the time of the Apostles.

But there’s actually an early church textbook.

The Didache is a list of basic rules for churches that was written in the first century. It was lost for many centuries until a copy was discovered in Istanbul and finally printed in 1883, long after the reformers kicked off Protestantism. (You can read the whole thing at the link; it’s only about 2,000 words.)

They baptized new believers (dunking preferred), fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, celebrated the Eucharist, and appointed bishops and deacons. Like the Orthodox Church has done since The Didache was first written.

The early church was formal and liturgical, no surprise since it emerged from Jewish synagogues with some Christian members. In the first century, observant Jews (those who followed Christ and those who didn’t) would attend synagogues on Saturdays and the Jewish Christians would hold an extra meeting on Sundays where gentile Christians would join in. Thus, the services employed many elements from the Jewish liturgy and a few from the emerging Christian liturgy. Since the New Testament didn’t exist, they mostly read from the Old (outside of a letter or two from Paul).

After a while, the Christians were, understandably, excluded from the synagogues. So, they took their same Sunday worship and liturgy to new meeting places. Pretty much all churches followed these basic practices for the next 1,500 years until the Reformers changed it. Vatican II changed Catholic worship a great deal, but the Orthodox Church maintained the ancient tradition. (There’s a growing Traditional Latin Mass movement within Catholicism working to restore the older way of doing things. For some reason, a lot of those guys follow me on Twitter.)

One prominent evangelical named Peter Gillquist was a regional director for Campus Crusade for Christ in the ’60s and ’70s and worked diligently to find the early church. After a great deal of study, he and his colleagues concluded that the Orthodox Church was it. Unwilling to totally abandon evangelicalism, they formed the Evangelical Orthodox Church.

Within a few years, they realized they needed apostolic succession to be legit. From the earliest days of the Church, an apostle would bless a bishop, that bishop would bless his successor, and that thread was to continue unbroken. This is shown in the New Testament when the apostles appointed Stephen and Paul appointed Timothy “through the laying on of my hands.”

Early church fathers such as Clement (80 AD) and Irenaeus (189 AD) confirmed that apostolic succession was essential. Otherwise, some Ricochet editor could hang up a shingle for the Church of Jon and claim divine authority. There are several strip-mall churches near me that essentially did just that.

Gillquist and his buddies wanted to do it the right way so, en masse, the 2,000-member Evangelical Orthodox Church joined the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. (Here’s a great book about it.) Late as always, I followed them 33 years afterward.

The raging river of time — with all its fads, trends, and political intrigue — keeps on rolling. I spent most of my life in churches that were a raft on that river. The music kept changing, the worship kept changing, and the terminology kept changing. Two years ago, they offered sermons about #MeToo; one year ago, about Climate Change; one month ago, about BLM.

As I was floating along, I noticed an old rock in the middle of that river. It ignored the currents and eddies and, instead, just stood its ground.

That rock is the eternal Church, unchanging as the God it worships. The rock wasn’t established to go with the flow, invent new theologies, or innovate on the fly. Instead, it is to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”

One day, the river will dry up and time will no longer be. Who knows where that raft will wind up.

But the Rock, it will remain.

Chapter 9 here.


This is eighth in the series “Swimming the Bosporus,” on my journey from the megachurch to the Orthodox Church. Installments every Sunday morning. Click here to see all the posts.

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  1. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Thanks. 

    Sincerely yours,

    a Southern Baptist who’s been feeling adrift for some time now.

    • #1
  2. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Part of the issue with church history is that it is tremendously shameful.   Reading about how people were killed for extremely fine points regarding the Trinity, something incredibly mysterious and cryptic, or the whole schism of the Filioque, feels less like an uplifting story and more like the family squabbles that led to my hometown of 3900 having no less 5 separate reformed churches.

    The story of protestants vs Catholics is much more intriguing.  You have the reformers rising against a corrupt establishment, followed by a brutal war that led to development of the modern nation-state.

     


     

    Orthodox churches are the outsider.  They are a “Greek thing”  Because orthodox churches were either under Muslim apartheid or confined to Russia for so long, there was not the degree of missionary work that you see in the Catholic or protestant churches.  I’ll be honest, I’ve never consider attending an Orthodox church, because subconsciously I was thinking they would not want someone without Eastern background.

    • #2
  3. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    I’ll be honest, I’ve never consider attending an Orthodox church, because subconsciously I was thinking they would not want someone without Eastern background.

    I would say the same thing, I guess.

    • #3
  4. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    The story of protestants vs Catholics is much more intriguing. You have the reformers rising against a corrupt establishment, followed by a brutal war that led to development of the modern nation-state.

    That’s a good story, but the problem is that it is just that: a story.  The wars of the Reformation are unclean on both sides.

    In England you have a serial adulterer who thought himself a theologian, first denouncing Luther, then winging his way through nearly two decades of church smashing, iconoclasm, cultural desecration, and burning.  Say what you will about “Bloody Mary” she was no more than her father’s daughter on the rebound, and the Anglicanism we think of today in various period-drama “cozy mysteries” is largely a compromise born of exhaustion more than a century after Hank-the-eighth’s death.

    Continental Protestantism largely doesn’t fare any better, and if the massacres of Protestants by Catholics in France is remembered with horror, the massacres of Catholics by Protestants in France is often forgotten – not because the brutality was less, but only because the population differences were lopsided.  

    And of course in Germany, the prime battleground of it all, the populations were more evenly divided, but religious affiliation was often little more than window dressing for seizing control of territory and enlarging one’s barony, kingdom, or other little state within the larger Holy Roman Empire.  The corrupt establishments were on all sides of the wars.

    Even notion of “reform” is quickly lost as each faction sought, not to reform the others (the “wrong” other Protestants and Catholics both), but to entirely “rediscover” or “re-envision” the entirety of Christianity and then either convert or entirely separate from the others.  Luther and Calvin for a time dallied with a synthesis, but each veered away from the compromises required, each convinced of his own rectitude, while other groups like the Anabaptists, Moravians, and the assorted charismatics dispensed with everything for each of their own “day zero” definitions of Christianity.

    The concepts of the Westphalian nation state and religious tolerance were only the final byproducts, the unwelcomed dross of over a century of war, destruction, and exhaustion, not end-goals of themselves, and would have been anathema to the likes of Luther or Calvin.

    The after-echoes of deep historical distrust carry even into the present day in America, with Montana’s “Blaine Amendment” law on school funding, a 19th century law intended to cripple Catholic schools, only being struck down by the US Supreme Court last month.  And 3 years ago, when the prolific Christian radio host of the “Bible Answer Man” show, Hank Hanegraff, converted to Orthodoxy, the show was dropped by (I think) about 1/3 of the Christian radio stations around the country, and Hank was denounced as a dangerous heretic from the pulpits of several large Evangelical churches.

    • #4
  5. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    Orthodox churches are the outsider. They are a “Greek thing” Because orthodox churches were either under Muslim apartheid or confined to Russia for so long, there was not the degree of missionary work that you see in the Catholic or protestant churches.

    Missionary work in Orthodoxy tends to work differently anyway.  If you look at the way Orthodoxy spread across Siberia, and then into Alaska, or how it is spreading in several parts of Africa today, it tends to be a slow and gradual process, and one that attempts to incorporate and Christianize as much of local culture and practice as it can.  

    But yes, with the centuries of Muslim oppression, fighting for survival has often been the chief goal, while working to win converts clandestinely.  I was listening to an American priest talk about a conversation he had with a fellow priest in Beirut last year.  This American priest is very keen on evangelism, and was asking the other how they handled evangelism.  “Well, we are still here” was his answer.  

    • #5