Q&R: “One True Church?”

Question

Since your conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, has that changed the way you now view the salvation/deification of your Protestant brothers and sisters?
I ask this because the theology of the Roman Catholic church scares me and the proclamation of the Eastern Orthodox to be the true church (RC´s as well proclaim this) concerns me.

Response

Before I get rolling, I would point out that from the outset, my Orthodox godfather, David Goa, taught me that I am not to refer to myself as a ‘convert’ to Orthodoxy, nor am I to permit others to do so. Why not? Because I was already a follower of Jesus Christ and had publically confessed my faith in trinitarian baptism in 1971. I have known and loved Jesus since my mother held me in her arms and taught me his name. I was a Baptist Christian then. Today I am an Orthodox Christian. Those Orthodox who cannot recognize Christ in those outside the Orthodox Church, or condemn such recognition as ‘ecumenism,’ or worst of all, turn from love, may themselves be the older brother, slaving in alienation outside the house in the story of the prodigal sons.

Now to your question:

I would certainly regard all those who surrender their lives to Christ as brothers and sisters in the faith.

We may have different understandings of ‘how that works,’ but I recognize an orientation toward Jesus Christ and the intent to follow him as participation on the Way of salvation. It is far more than ‘did you believe the right thing?’ or ‘did you say the right prayer?’ or ‘are you saved, brother?’

Salvation includes the past (Jesus’ saving work), the present (our life in Christ now), and the future (our resurrection to eternal life). And beyond that, it includes an orientation toward the Light of God’s Love, even if Jesus initially comes to us incognito (as with Cornelius).

1 John 4 is even more radical. The apostle of love says that “anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. And anyone who does not love does not know God, because God IS love” (1 John 4:7-8), regardless of one’s confession of faith. I see this love outside the church, including my Muslim friends and my 12-step companions. They would not identify as Christian but they have embraced the Jesus Way in practice and become his followers within their traditions. Jesus said that the “peacemakers will be called children of God,” even while some who said, “Lord, Lord, did we not…” seem unrecognizable to him. Therefore, I believe Jesus when he says we’ll find wheat and weeds in the fields he’s planted. So too, we find sheep and goats all across the spectrum of those who identify as Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants. Christ’s categories surely trump ours!

So, to the Orthodox who say, “We are the one and only true church,” I say this:

1. “Only true church?” Yes, two such people came to my door last week. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. And two others the week before–this time they were Mormons. Is that what we’re doing now? Reducing Orthodoxy to one of the many insular sects? Are we doing the cult thing now? SMH!

2. Rather, the ‘true’ Orthodox teaching is more like this: “We know where salvation is found [in our church] but we do NOT know where it is NOT.” In other words, it is incorrect to say that you cannot find salvation outside the Orthodox Church. That’s above our paygrade. Salvation is not limited to us, thank God. P.S. And don’t assume ‘finding it’ in your church amounts to ‘having it,’ much less owning it!

3. My great uncle was a Baptist pastor in communist Czechoslovakia. He was tortured (literally) for his faith. Simultaneously, the Orthodox Church across Russia and eastern Europe was riddled with KGB and secret police–priests included. At times, Christ might have called our ‘one true church’ a brood of vipers. So, no. No one can tell me my Baptist uncle was a second-class Christian. He didn’t cave or compromise. (Here I am prone to raise my voice and glare).

4. Orthodox believers who acknowledge these first three points may still insist that in Orthodoxy, they have found a certain ‘fullness’ that they had not experienced elsewhere. If they are referring to the abundance of mercy in our theology, prayers, worship, and that the beauty expressed bears a unique richness, etc., I would likely agree, at least as I personally experience it.

But then I would ask whether that fullness has led to an actual transformation in our experience of Christ (intimate communion), in our relationships with others (tested by forgiveness), and in our ethics (self-giving, nonviolent love for the other). I need look no further than my own household to answer that. My ‘heterodox’ wife Eden is much further along the path of theosis than I am, as are every single one of my most intimate friends. And that should arrest every impulse to judge those I am told I should see as ‘outside.’

 

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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More