Friday, October 19, 2007

Loaded Questions Can Lead to Confusing Answers

O: “Francis, there was a great deal of obfuscation in your last answer.”

Perhaps the lack of clarity in the answer is partly due to the form of the question. It seems some of these questions are meant one way and understood another. In order to help clarify this answer, comments are interspersed below.

O: “You seemed to be saying that a Christian "must" leave a church if the Gospel is at stake (you didn't tell us how you understand that term), but you still seemed to be saying it was more than acceptable to leave for lots of other doctrinal issues.”

One wonders what “more than acceptable” means. In some cases it may be wise to leave, even when leaving is not absolutely mandated. Further, we do not have to limit these issues to doctrinal issues. If a sound church springs up nearer one’s home, perhaps it would be wise to transfer one’s membership only for geographic reasons.

And of course, there is a real difference between switching between denominations, between congregations of a single denomination, and between non-denominational congregations on the one hand, and starting one’s own denomination/congregation on the other hand. Likewise, there is a real difference between switching between “sister” congregations/denominations, switching between “acceptable” congregations/denominations, and switching between “unacceptable” congregations/denominations.

Of course, what “sister” “acceptable” and “unacceptable” mean is somewhat loose. The idea, however, is that if someone changes congregations with the approval (or at least without the disapproval) of their elders, the move can hardly be considered “schismatic.”

The question blurred those differences, and consequently, it was not only difficult to formulate an answer, the answer was probably not that useful.

Ultimately, the important question for non-elders is congregational affiliation. For elders, the question is a bit different, but it seems reasonable to infer that “Orthodox”’s question was not related to the decisions that elders must make.

O: “Of course, the issue is not if "one elder" teaches it, the question pertains to Orthodoxy where the whole church teaches it.”

In “Orthodoxy,” the “whole church” rarely has a voice to “teach” anything. This is part of the loading of the questions. I cannot go to a local Orthodox church (building) and hear “Orthodoxy” giving the homilies. It’s a serious problem with “Orthodox” tradition, that it is hard to define what is “Orthodoxy” and what is not.

Furthermore, as noted above, the issue for non-elders is the teachings of their elders. Elders have authority, and the non-elders are to submit to that authority. That’s why the teaching of one elder can be important, because the teachings of the elders are the teachings of the church, since the church teaches through her elders.

O: “To try and nail you down, let's take some specific churches.”

It seems that this is a bit at odds with the foregoing. Specific churches are not “Orthodoxy” and each of the four churches Orthodox has picked predate “Orthodoxy” as a distinguishable sect of Christianity. Furthermore, Augustine of Hippo is not necessarily viewed as “Orthodox” by many in modern “Orthodoxy.”

O: “Let's take churches of the Three Hierarchs, Basil the Great's church of Caesarea, Gregory the Theologian's church of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom's church of Antioch or Constantinople, as well as the West's favourite son, Augustine's church in Hippo.”

Augustine is certainly a favorite among Reformed Churches.

O: “Which of these church leaders taught the gospel? Which of them didn't teach the gospel?”

I’m familiar enough with Augustine to say with great confidence that he surely did preach the gospel. I’m not sufficiently familiar with Basil the Great’s or Gregory the Theologian’s writings to know one way or the other. I suspect that they did preach the gospel, even though they made many errors of doctrine. John Chrysostom’s legacy is muddied by time and various strains of thought all attributed to him, but not necessarily all his own. Perhaps the same is true of Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, and even Augustine. In any event, I suspect he did preach the gospel, though some writings attributed to him may be inconsistent with that conclusion.

O: “Is Eastern Orthodoxy's teachings different to what they taught as pertains to the Gospel? (document your answer if in the negative).”

“Eastern Orthodoxy” has not much to say about the Gospel itself in the portions of its “tradition” that are clearly identifiable. That’s one of the problems of “it is a tradition, seek no farther,” namely that it is often hard to identify what is part of the tradition, and what is not.

In theory, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that the Scriptures are true, and consequently teaches the Gospel. While it is clear that some modern Eastern Orthodox teachers do not preach the gospel, it’s not really fair (in this writer’s view) to assume that they are representative. In general, this writer has not come across any clear expositions of the gospel by modern Eastern Orthodox writers. That is not to say that such do not exist.

This probably will seem obfuscatory or at least frustrating, because doubtless “Orthodox” has some concept that he believes is the gospel of Orthodoxy.

O: “And finally, given you have given "the gospel" as the only certain criteria for leaving a church, is there any need to leave the Orthodox Church?”

There is certainly wisdom in leaving churches associated with the Ecumenical Patriarch. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that a Christian who experienced ordinary spiritual maturity would not some come into conflict with his local bishop (or if he were himself a bishop, with his local metropolitan, etc.) and be forced to choose between the Word of God and the traditions of men. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that a Christian could remain in the Orthodox Church, seeking her reformation.

Some clarification should be made, though. Abandonment of the Gospel is a reason to leave. Nevertheless, getting kicked out by the elders is another reason to leave. That is the reason that Chrysostom left, twice. I don’t mean to suggest that Chrysostom was wrong, or that the church that excommunicated him was right. I just mean to note that excommunication is another mechanism that may force a person out of a church. Excommunication was also the mechanism for the so-called Great Schism as well as the mechanism whereby many of the men of the Reformation left.

That said, the present author is unwilling to make the assertion that the Orthodox Church is apostate and irreformable, though many of her bishops would make the latter assertion, as Orthodox has done. Might it be wise to leave a church full of idolatry and superstition when there are other churches without those detractions? Certainly.

But is the Gospel the official doctrine of “Orthodoxy”? Who knows. There does not seem to be anything, for example, stopping Pelagians from teaching their doctrine, which is contrary to the Gospel, within the “Orthodox” church, as the “Orthodox” church does not accept the Council of Orange as a binding authority.

Ultimately, part of the problem in answering the question posed here is that "Orthodoxy" like Catholicism does not like to present itself as a denomination, but as the one true church. Of course, no Christian is justified in leaving the one true church, but the one true church is not defined politically, but spiritually.


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