The Church has considered this of central importance. That’s why the word was added to the Creed. We believe in “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
By Apostolic we mean:
1 The Church was founded by the Apostles, by those who knew Jesus Christ personally – had absorbed His teachings, been through His Crucifixion and seen His glorious Resurrection, had received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. To say we are Apostolic means we have received our Faith from Jesus Christ Himself, through His Apostles. As Saint Paul put it, the Church is “built upon the foundation of the Apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone.” Ephesians 2:20
2 The Church has continued in the Faith of the Apostles. The books of the New Testament were written by the Apostles or those who knew them well, in order the preserve the Apostolic Faith. What we say in the Creed every Sunday is a summary of the Apostles’ teaching. What the Ecumenical Councils approved was written to preserve the Faith of the Apostles and to make it clear – so there could be no misunderstanding, for people have forever been challenging and twisting it.
3 The Church has direct historical “physical” continuity with the Apostles and through them with Jesus Christ. The Church has a continuous succession of Bishops, all in Communion with each other because they recognize the fullness of Apostolic Faith in each other – a succession of “laying on of hands” one after the other, going back to the Apostles. This is what guarantees the Church’s continuity in the Faith. *
- In some Western denominations, continuity of bishops is considered a sort of end in itself, said to guarantee “validity of ordinations”, even if the Faith has been diminished. Orthodox don’t think in these categories, nor did the Fathers, so let’s not go there.
Every Orthodox church has this Apostolic Succession. For example, our Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, belongs to the Patriarchate of Antioch. Our present Patriarch, John the Tenth, left is 126th in succession from the Apostle Peter. He is in union with all other Orthodox Patriarchs in the world. Our Metropolitan Joseph of North America is in union with John. Bishop Anthony of our Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest is assistant to Joseph, and we are in union with him.
Thirty one years ago when Bishop Antoun ordained me, as he laid his hands on my head, I could feel the hands of the Apostle Peter and the weight of the Apostolic commission of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Behold, I send you out into all the world.” I was sent to Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
How I found the Apostolic Church
Many people have been through this search, each in his or her own way. This was mine.
I grew up Protestant, aware of the multitude of denominations (well over a thousand, I think) all teaching different, even contradictory things, most of it “based on the Bible” they said. Even within the denominations, various people didn’t agree. It was only after I got to Protestant seminary, sixty years ago, that I finally began to realize the obvious: “They can’t all be true”. And I began to wonder: Is there a correct Christianity? an authentic Faith? a true Church?
So I started to read and search, and came across Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (France), a second century bishop. He had been ordained by Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been ordained by John, the disciple closest to the Lord. He had also known others of the Apostles. So Irenaeus had got the straight scoop, so to speak. (Did I read all of Irenaeus? No. You try it.)
In his writing Against Heresies Irenaeus was dealing with almost the same situation we face today. In his time also there were many groups claiming to possess true Christianity, many “denominations” to use the modern term.
His question was: How do we know what is true? which is the right one? Irenaeus gave two requirements: Apostolic Succession of Bishops, Unity in the Apostolic Faith.
In this old book, printed in 1960, now falling apart, I marked some passages that guided me. (Now you can find them easily online.) Listen to Saint Irenaeus:
“Our Apostles… knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife…so…they approved men [to] succeed in their ministry…” “In the Tradition of the Apostles, manifested in the entire world it is possible for all who wish to see the truth… we [can] enumerate those whom the Apostles instituted [as] Bishops in the churches and the succession of these men to our own times, who neither taught nor knew anything like the ravings of the heretics.”
By this he meant those groups who believe things contrary to the Apostles, some of which were pretty peculiar in his time – and still are in ours. Irenaeus then gave a list of the Bishops in Rome in succession from the Apostles. The Bishop of Rome was his Patriarch, the “chief Bishop” in the West, not the Pope in the modern sense. If he had lived elsewhere he would have listed the succession of Bishops in his region.
Irenaeus summarized the Church’s teachings and practices – which sound almost as if they might have been written yesterday. Then he wrote: “The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, …carefully preserves it. She…proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet …the Tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these… nor …will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith…[is] ever one and the same…”
He goes on, but that’s enough.
As I read this long ago I thought Yes, that was the Apostolic Church, united in the Faith – but it’s gone. There’s nothing like that left on earth. Even churches that profess the Creed are not truly united in adherence to it. Look at them. Listen to their people.
It took me thirty years after that to discover the reality of the Orthodox Church – the Church that possesses not only Apostolic Succession of Bishops but also complete unity in Apostolic Faith. At first I couldn’t believe it was true. But it is: Every Orthodox bishop, every priest, every theologian, every seminary, every school, every parish, every person, so far as I have found in thirty one years – we all believe the same Apostolic Faith. If there are a few heretics hiding behind pillars, all I can say is that I’ve never met one.
God knows we Orthodox have our failings and our issues and get into spats about things. (Remember Paul and Barnabas.) Of course. We are all sinners. None of us grasps the fullness of the Faith. We all make mistakes. But, brothers and sisters, after over thirty one years here I have no doubt: This is the Real Thing. This is the Church of the Apostles.
A Final Point
Let’s go back to the definition of Apostolicity ‘way above. There is one more element to being Apostolic:
4 The Apostolic Mission. “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to every nation…” Matthew 28:16 This is why the Church exists.
Why do you suppose the Church has spread all over the world, instead of remaining a small sect at the east end of the Mediterranean? Sometimes it was by intentional missionary work, as when the Apostles went out into all the world. Sometimes it was by the hand of God, as when the Apostles were driven out of Jerusalem by persecution, or when in recent times Orthodox came to America to escape poverty and persecution. God sent Orthodox people here for a reason, brothers and sisters.
Are you aware that in America today Christianity is shrinking rapidly, especially among the young – and little wonder, but let’s not get into that now. Even Evangelicals are now barely holding their own, and are declining in proportion of the population.
Below: past stats and future projections. Roman Catholic figures are based on Baptisms; their attendance and other statistics are down significantly.
It is time for Orthodoxy to step in and fill the gap! This will not be easy. Organized religion in America (along with almost everything else in America today) has a bad reputation. But Orthodoxy has so much to offer to our discombobulated society – to discouraged and dismayed Christians, and to the many modern disbelievers. Orthodoxy has something to offer that no one else can – for we are neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, neither conservative nor liberal. We come from neither the right nor the left but from Above. We are Traditional. We are Apostolic. We are the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Our late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip (+) used to proclaim, “Come home, America! Come home to the Faith of Peter and Paul.” The world was also a mess in Apostolic times, wasn’t it? So why should that hold us back today? For the Church, all times are Apostolic times.
On the chart above, the Orthodox Church would be blue (other). We are growing slowly in America, partly because of immigration, partly because of conversion. But we are growing. Counties which thirty or forty years ago had never heard of Orthodoxy now have Orthodox churches. However, for the most part I fear that many of us Orthodox are just sitting on it, hiding our Apostolic light under a basket, inside a building, hoping maybe somebody will peek in and see it.
What can we Orthodox do to proclaim the Apostolic Faith? to reach out with the Faith of the Apostles? and make ourselves fully Apostolic.
Brothers and sisters, members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, you take it from there.