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Tag: UCC

Memories of the North Shore

Manchester by the Sea    trailer


The movie Manchester by the Sea has been getting rave reviews.  I saw it partly because of the reviews, but also because I used to live in the adjacent village of Magnolia.  Watching the movie brought back memories of my time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  The North Shore of Massachusetts is a string of small towns: Salem, Beverly Farms, Beverly, Manchester by the Sea, Magnolia, Gloucester, Annisquam, and Rockport.  Gordon-Conwell is situated nearby, further inland, about eight miles away.  Because I lived in nearby Magnolia, I was constantly driving through Manchester by the Sea.  It was not so much the movie’s storyline, but the background scenery that brought the onrush of memories — the barren winter landscape covered with mounds of snow in the glaring sunlight against the crisp blue sky, the fishing boats floating in the harbor, and the distinctive New England style houses.  [Note: the name of the town is “Manchester by the Sea,” not “Manchester.”]


Seeing the austere New England landscape made me reflect on how this Hawai`i-born Asian-American Evangelical began his journey to Orthodoxy.  I had chosen Gordon-Conwell because of its reputation for theological conservatism and academic excellence.  I also went there because it was situated in the heartland of Puritan New England, the oldest Reformed presence in America.  This would put me in a position to meet Evangelicals and Liberals in the United Church of Christ (the present day descendants of the Puritans).  In the early 1800s, Congregational missionaries from New England brought the Christian Gospel to Hawai`i.  The original missionaries had a high regard for the authority of Scripture but by the late 1900s theological liberalism had become entrenched and dominant in the UCC.  My former home church in Hawai`i was one of the few conservative churches in the largely liberal UCC.   I was part of the Evangelical renewal movement in the UCC called the Biblical Witness Fellowship (BWF).  I went to Gordon-Conwell in hopes of eventually becoming an Evangelical seminary professor to help the BWF bring the liberal UCC back to its biblical roots.  However, in a surprising turn of events I became Orthodox!

Pantocrator icon

How did this happen?  Despite Gordon-Conwell’s reputation as a bastion for conservative Protestantism, there were already alternative currents of thoughts flowing in the seminary.  During the first week at seminary I was walking down the hallway of Main Dorm, to my surprise I saw an icon of Christ on one of the student’s door.  Jim was not Orthodox but a member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal group.  Seeing this icon would mark the beginning of the many other surprising encounters over the next three years.



Meeting Orthodox Christians

Part of my turn to Orthodoxy can be attributed to the people I met.  I was fortunate that Gordon-Conwell offered classes on early Christianity.  In that class I met Theo, a bright undergraduate from nearby Gordon College who was Greek Orthodox.  Theo introduced me to Fr. Chris Foustokos, the priest at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Newburyport.  I later had a long conversation with Fr. Chris during which I grilled him on Orthodox theology and practice.  I came away impressed that he did in fact have a personal faith in Christ.  I was also relieved to learn that he believed that those who converted to Orthodoxy would not have to undergo Hellenization.  In my second year, I sat down for dinner and saw the student sitting across from me make the sign of the Cross.  It turned out that Paul had just graduated from Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary and was up at Gordon-Conwell to study youth ministry.  A number of us Protestants got to know Paul quite well, and later that semester we accompanied him to the Orthodox Good Friday service in Newburyport.

Did these early contacts persuade me to become Orthodox?  Not really.  At the time, becoming Orthodox was the farthest thing from my mind.  Nonetheless, I was curious about Orthodoxy.  These friendly encounters encouraged me to a learn more about Orthodoxy and its ancient Faith.  So, while not decisive, these early encounters were indispensable to my becoming Orthodox.  Looking back, I would say that what was critical were the positive tone and the absence of a judgmental spirit in the Orthodox Christians I met.


Meeting Orthodox Converts

Fr. Peter Gillquiist

In my third year, I went to the Greek Orthodox church in Newburyport to hear a presentation by Peter Gillquist, a recent Protestant convert to Orthodoxy.  I asked him some hard questions about Orthodoxy and Reformed theology.  I admired his honesty, but was frustrated when he humbly admitted that he did not know enough about Reformed theology to answer my questions.  This left me on my own to work out the answers about how Orthodoxy and Reformed theology relate to each other.  In many ways this conversation was the genesis of the OrthodoxBridge blog.  Rather than leave people with similar questions to struggle on their own, I decided I would do the research and present my findings on questions relating to Orthodoxy and Protestantism.  The results of my research can be found in the Archives section of this blog.

Did the lack of answers affect my turn to Orthodoxy?  Yes, because I needed good reasons for making such a radical change.  I shared the Reformed tradition’s concern for right doctrine and the careful study of Scripture.  My sense of personal integrity was such that I could not undergo intellectual lobotomy and mindlessly accept Orthodox teachings and practices; I needed good answers, preferably biblical reasons, for becoming Orthodox.  The complexity of the issues surrounding the Orthodox veneration of icons, and Protestantism’s core doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide were such that I needed to do extensive research.  The answers are there but require thinking outside the Protestant paradigm and questioning the unspoken assumptions that underlie Protestant theology.

I also got to meet Frank Schaeffer, another recent convert, at the Orthodox church in Newburyport.  Where Peter Gillquist was more soft spoken in his presentation of Orthodoxy, Frank was very much in-your-face.  When I asked whether I had to give up my Reformed theology to become Orthodox, he answered: “Yes, because it’s theologically off the map.”  I was taken aback and a bit affronted by his blunt answer.  I know that Frank Schaeffer has caused consternation by some of his recent statements, but I do have some positive memories of his kindness.  Once a fellow seminarian was struggling with going to church so I suggested he visit a nearby Orthodox church.  He met Frank Schaeffer, who then invited him to his home and cooked him lunch!  I was envious when my friend told me this story.


Paper on Icons

Prof. Richard Lovelace

During my third year, I wrote a paper on icons and Evangelical spirituality for Prof. Richard Lovelace’s class.  For this class I read some of the Orthodox classics like John of Damascus’ Three Treatises on the Divine Images and Theodore the Studite’s On the Holy Images.  I also drove down to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline and interviewed Prof. Theodore Stylianopoulos.  I was struck by how warm and welcoming Prof. Stylianopoulos was.  I was also struck by how restricted access was at the Orthodox seminary library — a big contrast to Gordon-Conwell’s open stacks! One particularly useful book I came across was Antony Ugolnik’s The Illuminating Icon.  From this book I learned how images can shape one’s internal life and how Orthodox icons helped preserve Orthodoxy during the decades of oppressive Communist rule in the Soviet Union.  This book made me keenly aware of how modern American consumerism is suffused with icons (images).  The striking visuals of modern advertising that promote materialism are the spiritual opposite of Orthodox icons.  Protestantism’s iconoclasm has made it vulnerable to the iconography of Madison Avenue and Hollywood.  From the mass media we are inundated with images of beautiful people with “perfect” bodies who have it all and live “perfectly happy” lives (God removed from the picture).  Much of modern advertising speaks to our bodily appetites e.g., food or comfort, or speaks to our inner vanity or selfish desire to do “our own thing.”  What is being promoted is a secular worldview where God is allowed a limited role in the modern American lifestyle.  In contrast, the otherworldly quality of Orthodox icons points us to the eternal reality that lies beyond the evanescent fads of modernity and our accountability before the judgment seat of Christ.

My paper argued that the aesthetic qualities of icons can be beneficial for personal devotions and that the visual nature of icons can supplement Protestantism’s emphasis on the printed text.  This paper falls short of Orthodoxy’s sacramental understanding of icons, but I am not embarrassed by what I wrote because the gap between Protestantism and Orthodoxy is considerable.  It takes a while for a Protestant mindset to “get it” with respect to Orthodoxy.  This calls for much patience and understanding on the part of Orthodox Christians when they meet Protestants interested in Orthodoxy.


Orthodox Books

Much of my turn to Orthodoxy at Gordon-Conwell came through reading.  Two occasions stand out vividly.  During my first year, I went to downtown Boston to make travel arrangements to fly back home.  It was a cold and dark winter afternoon, and as I stood in line reading Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. I found my secular worldview shattered. In the opening chapter, I encountered Orthodoxy’s sacramental understanding of creation and how the common, ordinary meal was a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.  What I encountered was not just the idea of sacramental reality, but also Orthodoxy as a gateway into that reality.  While Protestantism affirms the reality of heaven, it tends for the most part to project heaven into the distant future or into the afterlife.  This way of thinking leaves the present life encased in a secular materialism.  I learned that in Orthodoxy ordinary stuff like water, bread, wine, and oil can become vessels of divine grace, ushering us into the kingdom of God here and now.

Magnolia rocky shore — Katie Young


During my third year I would often spend my mornings reading while sitting against a large rock on Magnolia’s rocky shore.  One of the books I read was Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way.  The chapter “God as Mystery” gave me a glimpse of Orthodoxy’s apophatic approach of understanding God through prayer.  During this time I was writing my statement of faith paper for Prof. John Jefferson Davis’ class.  This assignment was very much in keeping with Western Christianity’s cataphatic methodology, in which one seeks to learn facts about God and then express this understanding of God through words.  From The Orthodox Way I learned how in the apophatic approach, intellectual study and prayer can be integrated to advance our knowing God


The Liturgy

During my time at Gordon-Conwell, I attended a few Orthodox liturgies.  One might expect that I fell head over heels in love with the Divine Liturgy, but that was not the case.  The language barrier was so daunting that I saw Greek Orthodox worship as an obscure, intricate ritual.  It was frustrating.  My experience was like that of a hungry person drawn to a restaurant but standing with his face against the window, looking on longingly, but unable to taste the delicacies within.  It was not until I began to attend an all-English Liturgy at a Bulgarian Orthodox parish in Berkeley, California, that my journey to Orthodoxy began in earnest.  Attending the Liturgy there week after week, being immersed in the flow of hymns and prayers, helped me to understand what Orthodoxy is about and experience God as Mystery.

Magnolia village, MA   source


Looking Back

My time on Massachusetts’ North Shore was but a small part of my journey to Orthodoxy.  By the end of my three years there I was still very much a Protestant in my thinking, but the various personal encounters and books that I read had had an impact on me.  They were like little seeds planted in the ground, invisible under the surface but slowly germinating, and in due time emerging as a plant that would one day become a pleasing fruit-bearing tree.  An equally good analogy used by my compatriot David Rockett here at the OrthodoxBridge is that these early encounters were like boulders assaulting my medieval castle walls without my noticing the small cracks they were creating in my theological and spiritual foundation! Analogies aside, one take-away here is that journeys to Orthodoxy are rarely instant, dramatic flashes of light in the sky, but more like the gradual light of dawn in which many little things long hidden become noticeable and show their results much later, sometimes after several years.

Robert Arakaki


Déjà Vu All Over Again








Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick recently wrote “My Presbyterian Field Trip: A Fragmenting Tradition” in which he described a meeting at a church that was considering leaving the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) for the smaller, more conservative ECO (A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians).  The leader of the ECO was there to make the case for the move and a prominent member of the Missions Department of the PCUSA was there to urge the congregation to remain where they were.

My reaction to Fr. Andrew’s article was: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”  As I read the article my mind went back to the early 1990s when my former home church had a meeting over whether to leave or stay in the liberal United Church of Christ (UCC).  The UCC has historic roots going back to Puritan New England.  The current controversy troubling the PCUSA faithful is nothing new.  It is part of a widespread Protestant crisis-dynamic growing over the past several decades. As a matter of fact, this divisive-dynamic has been endemic to the Protestantism since its inception.


Source: Jacob Lupfer "Is the PCUSA *That* Liberal?"

Source: Jacob Lupfer “Is the PCUSA *That* Liberal?”

Questions That Cannot Be Overlooked

As an interested outsider Fr. Andrew was able to see aspects of the theological dialogue that the participants were not aware of.

The differences between the two speakers were not always stark.  For example, the PCUSA representative identified himself as an Evangelical.  He noted that the PCUSA recognizes the authority of Scripture but that question was how one interprets Scripture.  Fr. Andrew recognized this as a fundamental question that needed to be addressed but to his disappointment the ECO representative “just left it on the ground and essentially repeated himself.”

Probably one of the most insightful and probing question was the one posed by Fr. Andrew’s friend.

A related question was asked by my acquaintance (who works on the pastoral staff of the church), who inquired of the man from the PCUSA whether a tradition that has embraced as much diversity as they have can actually remain a coherent tradition. That was probably the biggest and most probing question of the evening, but it basically went unanswered.

Fr. Andrew recognized this as a crucial question that needed to be addressed, but because he was a visitor he remained quiet.  In his mind came another question:

The question I would have liked to ask (and I did not, because I didn’t think it was my place; I was just an observer with no stake in the proceedings) would have been this: “How do you know that your interpretation of Scripture is the right one?

Yet Father Damick’s question would likely have been ignored because Protestants have been trained to focus on Scripture and to ignore the critical role of tradition in our reading of Scripture.  The issue of hermeneutics is something many Protestants are not prepared to question.

The Orthodox friend (former Presbyterian) who emailed me Fr. Andrew’s article asked: Why don’t they get it?  Why aren’t they asking these questions?  I wrote back saying that the two Presbyterian speakers were speaking from within their Protestant paradigm, and to ask deeper questions about the process by which one interprets Scripture and the criteria by which we know we have the right interpretation of Scripture would be far too unsettling and destabilizing for many Protestants.



The planetary axis of my Evangelical worldview tilted sideways when I began to question the hermeneutical basis for Protestant theology.  The spread of theological liberalism in the United Church of Christ prompted me to join the Biblical Witness Fellowship, an Evangelical renewal group, and to go to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  I wanted to be part of movement that would reverse the situation.  I knew that critical to the reform of the UCC was bringing it back to its biblical and Reformation roots.  However, as I considered the plurality of interpretive traditions within Protestantism, the diversity of confessional standards within the Reformed tradition, and their discrepancy with the unity of the early Church I could sense the tectonic plates shifting underneath my theology.  








Scripture + Interpretation = Tradition

Many people assume that we just read the Bible but things are not that simple.  As we read the Bible we seek to understand what it means and in doing this we engage in the act of interpretation (hermeneutics).  Many people enjoy reading the Bible in the privacy of their own home but the fact is we all belong to a faith community (local church).  As we seek to follow the teachings of Scripture we join with others who share the same understanding of what the Bible teaches.  This shared understanding of what the Bible teaches is tradition.  Some people desire to be free of human tradition, but there is no escaping tradition.  Every local church has a shared tradition.  A shared tradition is what brings coherence to the local church.  This is a sociological reality.  If this were not the case, the local church would be like a Christian bookstore full of customers with no commitment to their fellow customers.

It is oversimplifying things to say: Our church is based on the Bible.  It would be more accurate to say: Our church is based on someone’s interpretation of the Bible.  For example, the popular “non-denomination” Calvary Chapel is based on Pastor Chuck Smith’s reading of the Bible.  As a gifted bible teacher he soon drew a faithful following that in time became a church – Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa. As Chuck Smith’s teachings were disseminated over the radio and he trained younger men like Greg Laurie and Mike MacIntosh Calvary became a denomination – Calvary Chapel Association.  Interestingly, while Calvary Chapel claims to have no theological tradition, it has a set of “distinctives.”

Every Protestant group believes their own tradition interprets Scripture rightly.  The names: Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Baptist, Holiness, Anglican, etc., all refer to a particular interpretive tradition of the Bible.  Differences in interpretations have led to new traditions and to church splits and new church groups giving rise to Protestantism’s perennial crisis.  This includes even the two Presbyterian splinter groups here.  Both PCUSA and ECO believe the Bible to  be the word of God,  they just interpret it differently which leads to the question: Who has the right interpretation?

This was the problem I faced when I took part in Evangelical-Liberal dialogues in the UCC.  Rather than resort to detailed exegesis of the Greek text – the methodology of biblical studies, I argued for the Evangelical position making use of historical theology.  I sought to show that it was the Evangelicals, not the Liberals, who were in historical continuity with the Protestant Reformers, and with the early Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils.  This strategy was to have surprising consequences for my Protestant theology.


By What Authority?

Unlike much of popular Evangelicalism which claims to be free of tradition, historic Protestant groups like the Presbyterians still see value in traditions like creeds.  Yet despite their holding to historic confessions, a critically aware Reformed Christian cannot avoid certain unsettling questions.  Fr. Andrew notes:

What exactly does a Presbyterian denominationalist point to say “This is the true Presbyterianism” or “This is the true Presbyterian church”? There are the various confessions and statements, of course, but no Reformed denomination is wholly faithful to them. After all, the ECO wants to be faithful to Presbyterian tradition by nixing homosexual sex yet wants to depart from that same tradition by ordaining women. If one element of tradition can be revised, why should another be sacrosanct? And on what authority were those original Reformed confessions ratified, anyway?

While Presbyterianism does have confessions but what good is it to have confessional statements if certain elements of the denomination disregard them for newer interpretations of Scripture?  If the Reformation began with Luther putting forward a new interpretation of Romans against medieval Roman Catholicism, what is to stop subsequent generations of Protestants from putting forward newer interpretations that challenge the current status quo?  Questions like these have caused increasing numbers of long-time Protestants to take a critical look at the hermeneutical basis for Reformed theology.


Protestantism’s Perennial Crisis

The theological crisis Fr. Andrew witnessed at his friend’s PCUSA church has been going on for a long time.  It was there in the UCC in the 1990s.  It occurred earlier with the formation of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) in the 1970s.  It came to a head in the Episcopal Church in the early 2000s when Gene Robinson was made bishop.

It is happening now in other denominations.  Two years ago in the United Methodist Church the Rev. Adam Hamilton called for the “local option” that would allow churches to “agree to disagree” on the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.  Surprisingly, it is happening in the conservative Southern Baptist denomination.  This year, a Southern Baptist pastor, Danny Cortez, called for a Third Way in which people could “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality.  Subsequent to the church’s vote to retain him as pastor, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted to disfellowship Pastor Cortez’s church.  This theological crisis is likely to go on for years to come.  On both sides are people who affirm the authority of Scripture but disagree over how to interpret Scripture.  What is a confused Protestant to do?


The Bosphorus Strait

The Bosphorus Strait

A Way Out of the Hermeneutical Chaos

When I was studying the early church I came across a statement by Irenaeus of Lyons that haunted me as a Protestant.  Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies at a time when the early Church was faced with the Gnostic heresy.

He wrote:

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house.  She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.   Source

Though it had many problems and was full of sinners, the early Church was united in faith.   This is so different from modern Protestantism which is tragically divided and confused.  In contrast to modern Protestantism’s plurality of interpretive traditions, the early Church had resources for preserving a coherent reading of Scripture.  It had the office of the bishop grounded in apostolic succession, the “rule of faith” (creed) which was taught to those about to undergo baptism, the Ecumenical Councils which settled matters of theological controversy, and the Liturgy which framed the reading of Scripture.  All these together comprise Holy Tradition.  Scripture is understood to be embedded within the Apostolic Tradition from which it emerged and safeguarded and passed on by the Church.  Holy Tradition is in reality, life of the Holy Spirit who indwells the Church founded by Christ himself (Matthew 16:18).

Like many other Protestants frustrated with Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos I began to critically reexamine sola scriptura and in the process was drawn to the early Church.  As a way of responding to the crisis spawned by Protestantism’s theological incoherence I wrote two research papers that enabled me to make the critical transition from the Reformed tradition to Orthodoxy:

Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw: Protestantism’s Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos,” and

If Not Sola Scriptura, Then What?  The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.”

Like thousands of others before and after me I crossed the Bosphorus and became Orthodox.  In Orthodoxy’s ancient Faith we have found safe haven in the Church.  For those troubled by Protestantism’s theological woes, Orthodoxy offers the stability of an ancient Faith that has withstood the test of time and cultural shifts.

Robert Arakaki


Baptist Questions About Ignatius of Antioch



Icon - Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117)

Icon – Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117)

Dear Folks, Burckhardtfan wrote some important questions about Ignatius of Antioch’s understanding of the early Church. As my answer grew longer I decided to turn it into a blog posting.Burkhardtfan wrote:

Mr. Arakaki,

Thank you for another brilliant post. I just have two questions:

1. When Ignatius says that nothing should be done without the bishop, what does he mean by the word ‘bishop’? Does it mean a local pastor or someone with authority over local congregations in a certain area? Congregationalists believe that local churches should be completely autonomous, believing that any external authority which in any way dictates the affairs of a local church is illegitimate. This is especially prominent among Baptist churches; they jealously guard their independence. Does Ignatius or any other father clarify what they mean by a bishop or describe the functions of this particular office?

2. In the same passage, what is the phrase ‘catholic church’ in the original Greek/Latin (I don’t know which language Ignatius wrote in)? Does it really mean ‘universal’ in the original Greek/Latin, or is the English translation an interpolation? I know the Greek word ‘katholikos’ means universal; if this word is present, then I know the concept of a ‘catholic’ church existed from the very beginning (some Baptists completely reject the notion of a ‘universal Church’ – and some go so far as to reject the idea that the Church is the Body or Bride of Christ!)

God bless!



1. The Office of the Bishop

In Titus 1:5 Paul reminds Titus that he gave Titus the assignment of appointing elders in every town and to “set in order the things that are lacking.” Here Titus is acting in the capacity of a bishop, and the elders playing the role of priests assigned to a local parish. It appears that there were already Christian fellowships in these towns but that they needed to be recognized and brought into proper relationship with the Church catholic. Also interesting is Titus 2:15: “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.” This makes sense if Titus is acting as a bishop attempting to bring order to a troubled diocese. Given the egalitarianism of Baptist polity I cannot imagine a Baptist pastor exercising “all authority.” More significant is the Greek word επιταγης (epitage) which Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. viii p. 37 has this to say: “…it denotes especially the direction of those in high office who have something to say.” (emphasis added)  That the meaning of the original Greek “epitage” is based on authority coming from a higher office is consistent with the office of the bishop as a hierarchical position.

Acts 14:23 indicates that only qualified men were appointed (ordained) to office of elders. The verse also notes that this was the standard practice for local leaders to be appointed by those with apostolic authority. This was not an independent action by an autonomous congregation but a church under the authority of the Apostles. Baptist churches are self-organized, not by an external authority; this is contrary to Acts 14:23.

The following chapter (Acts 15) shows how the early Church responded to a theological crisis. In response to the controversy over whether Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to become Christians a council was convened in Jerusalem. This set a precedent for future Ecumenical Councils. (For those unfamiliar with church history, the Seven Ecumenical Councils defined the parameters of orthodox Christology and Trinity.) From the Jerusalem Council came a letter showing how the issue was resolved. This decision had binding authority on the churches. This is quite different from the Baptist polity.

Another indication of the bishop as the leader of the city can be found in Revelation 2 and 3 in which a letter was sent to the respective “angel” (bishop) of the cities of Asia. In Revelation 2:5 Jesus warns the bishop of Ephesus that he would be removed from office (remove your lampstand from its place) if he did not amend his ways. So when we look at Ignatius’ letters we see them addressed to the church of a particular city. This points to the local church as the unified gathering of congregations in one particular city or area. Ignatius could have addressed it to a particular home fellowship but he did not.

The word “bishop” is derived from the Greek επισκοπος (episcopos). It comes from “epi” (over) and “skopeo” (to pay attention to, be concerned about). The modern English word “supervise” is similar in meaning coming from “super” (over) and “vise” (to see) thus to “oversee.” Some denominations have superintendents instead of bishops but the overall function is similar. One critical difference is that Protestant superintendents cannot claim apostolic authorization for their office. See my posting on the office of the bishop and apostolic succession.

Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117) was very familiar with the polity of the early Church. He came from Antioch the home church of the Apostle Paul. According to the book of Acts Antioch was where Paul received his missionary calling and it served as his home base for his missionary journeys (Acts 13 and 14). Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch after the Apostle Peter and Euodius, whom he succeeded in AD 68. Thus, Ignatius’ letters cannot be ignored as a later development but must be treated as a direct witness to the early church.


2. The Church Catholic

Regarding the Greek word καθολου (katholou) that Ignatius used in his letters, the Liddell-Scott Lexicon gives the following meanings: (1) on the whole, (2) in general, and (3) in the negative – not at all. Etymologically, “katholou” comes from “kata” (according) and “holou” (whole, all) and thus can mean: according to the whole. An excellent discussion of the emergence of the idea of the church catholic can be found in JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines (p. 190):

If the Church is one, it is so in virtue of the divine life pulsing through it. Called into existence by God, it is no more a mere man-made agglomerate than was God’s ancient people Israel. It is in fact the body of Christ, forming a spiritual unity with Him as close as is His unity with the Father, so that Christians can be called his members.

So to answer your question is: No. The word “catholic” is not the same as “universal.” The word “universal” has more of the sense of geographic dispersion, being everywhere. The better word for that is the Greek word οικουμενη (oikoumene).

Let me give you an analogy to illustrate the notion of “according to the whole.”


US Embassy in Manila, Philippines

US Embassy in Manila, Philippines

Imagine a US embassy located in a far off country in Africa or Asia. That embassy is not the United States but it is definitely a part of the USA. An action taken there is applicable elsewhere in the US and American embassies around the world. This is because that embassy and its staff work under the authority of the US government.

In a similar manner, the Orthodox Church through apostolic succession exercises authority from Christ and his Apostles.  What unites the local parish to the entire Church is the Eucharist in which we feed on the body and blood of Christ. The Orthodox parishes around the world shares in the same worship and doctrine. What one sees at one parish will be the same as other parishes around the globe. This liturgical and doctrinal unity is proof that Orthodoxy is the Church Catholic.

Imagine also a group of natives in the area who love the United States and want to be US citizens. They form an American club, read the US Constitution every week, eat hamburgers often, and celebrate the Fourth of July once a year. Would that make them US citizens? Of course not. They could pass for Americans but the key thing is whether they have the right to vote. This is the quandary of Protestants; they think that just holding a copy of the Bible in their hands make them a church. Early Christians like Ignatius of Antioch would strongly disagree. The key here is the Eucharist under the bishop.  Ignatius wrote:

Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints (To the Smyrneans VIII)

A Protestant might object: “What’s the big deal about the Eucharist? It’s just a symbol.” The answer to that is that historically Christians have always since the beginning affirmed the real presence in the Eucharist. The symbolic understanding is something that surfaced on the radical fringes of the Protestant Reformation. Because the Eucharist links the local church to the Christ’s death on the Cross, the Eucharist is the source of the Church’s covenantal authority. Thus, the way Baptists and Congregationalists celebrate the Lord’s Supper makes visible their disconnect from the early Church.


A Reminiscence

I used to belong to a congregational church. Once I was on the church by-laws committee. The moderator wanted to do some minor updating to the by-laws. I persuaded the rest of the committee to put everything up for review including the church’s statement of faith!   I recommended some changes to the statement of faith that were approved. And ironically, the by-laws revisions led to my old church moving away from pure congregational polity to an elder model. As a congregational church we were free to do as we pleased. As an Orthodox Christian I look back on all this with amazement, amusement, and horror.

Kalihi Union Church – Photo by Joel Abroad

I understand and appreciate congregationalism’s emphasis on local church autonomy. It’s a very useful defense against a denomination attempting to impose strange doctrines on the local church. My former home church (Kalihi Union Church) was staunchly evangelical in the liberal mainline United Church of Christ. Over time I became concerned by the fact that that local church autonomy, while it provided some protection against liberal theology also made for a highly dysfunctional ecclesiology. Unity becomes more a mirage than a reality.

When I became Orthodox I found a sense of relief when I learned that the Orthodox bishops are constrained by Holy Tradition and that the entire Orthodox Church, including the laity, have a responsibility for guarding Holy Tradition. Just as reassuring was the fact that the Orthodox Church has kept the Faith without change for the past two thousand years.


Closing Question for Baptists and Congregationalists

The question I have for any Baptist or Congregationalist reading Ignatius of Antioch’s letters is: If the polity and worship practice described by Ignatius is at odds with your congregational polity and practice, whose church more closely resembles the early Church founded by the Apostles? Ignatius of Antioch’s which lives under the bishop and celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday or the Baptist/Congregational church which has no bishop and celebrates the Eucharist infrequently?

Robert Arakaki