Show Me in the Bible: An Invitation to Protestants

By Servus Christi

Thank you for reading this short essay, my brothers and sisters. Glory to Jesus Christ! My purpose in writing this is twofold: (1) to challenge the normal method and assumptions people employ when they critique the Orthodox Church; and (2) I will give an extremely brief apologia (defense) for the Church.[1] It is not possible here to offer a comprehensive case for the Orthodox Church, but I hope to gently challenge you and open the door for further inquiry. If you have made it this far, doubtless you have read about Orthodoxy or witnessed something about this faith. If you consider yourself to be a Protestant, Evangelical, biblical Christian, Jesus follower, or any combination of these terms, then maybe you have had some questions. Why are there icons (the paintings of Jesus and the saints)? What’s with the chanting? Why does the Orthodox worship seem so formal and extravagant? Do they believe the gospel? A bishop, vestments, Mary…

Show me in the Bible!

If you are seeking biblical support for ecclesial practices then your heart is in the right place. You want to make sure that you worship God rightly. We are talking about the Triune God of majesty! Jesus said, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24, ESV). God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). Because the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word of God, you want to make sure that all you do as a Christian is God-sanctioned in Holy Writ. This desire shows your love for God and aim to conform to His will. Maybe you have asked an Orthodox Christian, “Where in the Scriptures does it say that? Show me in the Bible!” The following tract is meant to be a challenge, a defense of the Orthodox position, and, above all, an invitation to join the Church “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20).

  1. Assumptions and Methodology

I want to reiterate that a desire to see biblical support for something is a good thing. The Bible is God-breathed and profitable for us to grow up into full maturity in Christ (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 4). However, when you require an Orthodox Christian to show the validity of a spiritual practice in the Bible, you are making some assumptions. You are assuming that the Bible serves to be a comprehensive guidebook for all practices, but where in the Bible does it say that every practice must have an explicit example or command? Furthermore, where is this methodology commanded in the New Testament? Of course we receive God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures. Paul said of the Old Testament tragedies that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11); “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (11:1). However, the idea that one must validate every Christian practice from Bible is, well, not in the Bible.

Another assumption that is even more fundamental is the content of the Bible. To make it an interrogative, where in the Bible does it say what comprises the Bible or how to read it? It is beyond our scope to recount the process by which the Church recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, but, suffice it to say, the contents and canonical limits are not explicit in the Bible. The Church must operate with the Scriptures to identify the literary and hermeneutical parameters for the texts; this ecclesial operation is an organic process with no explicit command in the Bible! In summary, to ask “Where is this in the Bible?” is actually not an explicitly biblical practice and the idea rests on many extra-biblical activities of the Church. Obviously, the church’s practices cannot go against the Scriptures, but there is no command from Jesus and the Apostles that everything the Church does must have a clear, explicit statement supporting it.

  1. Tradition and Rules in Churches

            Because you and I both love the Scriptures, let us look at them together. There are actually many verses that speak about apostolic traditions and practices that are unwritten.[2] The Apostle Paul received the Gospel from Jesus and then delivered it to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-4). He also mentions traditions: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (11:2). Like what Paul? One tradition is how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread…About the other things I will give directions when I come” (11:23, 32). Probably the most amazing verse that mentions oral, apostolic tradition is in a letter to another church: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thes. 2:15). It is not my goal to fully exegete these passages or list every oral tradition. All I want us to see is that the Apostle Paul delivered oral traditions that were binding on these churches just like his written letters. Therefore, there were commands and traditions that were extra-biblical but certainly not anti-biblical, theologically speaking. While the Bible is absolutely precious and life-changing, we must listen to it when it teaches us that churches received traditions outside of Scripture.[3]

There is more! Listen to what else Paul told the struggling Corinthian church: “That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17, my italics). Paul had rules and regulations in every church that he planted (1 Cor. 7:17; 14:33, 36). Of course, we find much of this in the Holy Scriptures. Paul does reiterate his doctrine as a “preacher and Apostle and teacher,” but we must remember that the Apostles passed on Tradition through both written letters and spoken word (2 Thess. 2:15). Many believe that the canonical letters of the New Testament are the extent of what the Apostles entrusted to their successors. Unfortunately, this is an unbiblical notion. As we have seen, there were oral teachings and practices handed down to churches.

One last example of this delivery of Tradition is between Paul and his spiritual son, Timothy. The Apostle gave Timothy (and Titus) spiritual authority to strengthen churches and appoint overseers/elders (1 Tim. 1:3, 3:1-7, 4:11-16, 5:17-22; 2 Tim. 1:6). Paul imparted both the faith and the charismatic gift of authority.[4] Regarding the teaching, the aging Paul urged the young leader to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim. 6:20), but this was not exclusively written instruction. In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul commissioned the young bishop: “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). Just as Paul entrusted the apostolic teaching to Timothy, the latter also entrusted the teaching to others: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:1-2). Timothy heard things from Paul and entrusted these things to others. The Bible teaches that the Apostles both wrote and taught binding Tradition.

  1. Being a Biblical Church, a Church Like the Book of Acts

            As a pastor, I have thought a lot about merging with other churches or replanting ours. Once I met with a successful pastor who spoke to me about replanting (the idea of a local church closing and starting over with a new vision, mission statement, leadership, etc.). In essence, he said that if we replanted, we would take the book of Acts and figure out what we thought was the best way for the church. At that moment, I realized that his approach was unbiblical, an impossibility; no one employed that methodology before the Reformation. The idea that people can start new churches as they desire is not biblical, apostolic, or safe! Just think with me, brothers and sisters, about the Church in Acts. Where do we see them trying to figure from the Bible how a church should be? Where is the full blueprint? They did not have a New Testament canon! Let us look through the book of Acts and see the one Church of Jesus Christ. If we believe that we are part of that Church and want to follow the Apostles, then let us read about them.

What could be so wrong with wanting to be like the Church in Acts? There is nothing wrong as long as one realizes that the New Testament writings are not the exclusive apostolic information we have for the Church.[5] We should want to model our faith and piety on the early saints who preached the Gospel, loved one another, and even gave their lives for Christ (e.g. Stephen in Acts 7). During my seminary training, the theological circles that encompassed me had a focus on being a biblical, Acts-based church. There was and is a push for primitivism in some denominations.[6] In fact, there is a church-planting network called Acts 29.

The desire to return to the church’s infancy, however, is problematic. To begin with, there is no apostolic command to do so. We have no biblical command to “rethink” church or restart the Church. This is due to the nature of the Church as the fullness of Jesus and His body (more on this later). Another problem is that the Church in Acts had no Bible. If we want to model ourselves on the Church in Acts exclusively then there is no bound canon, church buildings, instructions for worship services, or dogmatic hermeneutic. How should the Church use the Scriptures? Should every person interpret the Bible with the same amount of authority? Should the Church own property? These are important questions for those who desire to focus on the New Testament alone.[7]

As we saw above, the Apostles delivered authoritative and divine Tradition through Scripture and oral teaching. For now, let us look at the Church in the book of Acts. After receiving instruction for forty days from our risen Savior, and then praying another ten days, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ was filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 1-2). According to Saint Peter, it was the risen Lord who poured out the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father (Acts 2:33). Many heard Peter’s sermon, received the Gospel of Christ, repented, and joined the Church through baptism (2:41). Listen to what these early Christians did: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). As the translation shows, there is a definite article before each one of these elements: The apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.[8] Each aspect of the spiritual life of the Church was something divine and authoritative to which new converts submitted. Jesus gave His church structure. There was only one Church, and no new believer had any authority to determine if it was a “biblical church.” There is no example or command that Christians could/should come together and design a church. These penitent souls at Pentecost submitted to the body of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, the Church who received the Spirit at Pentecost.

It makes sense that many Christians desire purity and think “going back to the church in Acts” is the way. The problem for those who espouse this theological goal is that they are not entirely consistent with this standard. When God saved new believers in Samaria, the Jerusalem church sent Apostles to lay their hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). There was an apostolic authority in place; those whom the Lord appointed are the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 12:28). Even after Saul saw the risen Lord Jesus, he still submitted to the Church (Acts 9:17-19).The risen Jesus did pour out the Spirit suddenly on Cornelius and his family (10:44-46), but it was only after hearing the apostolic gospel (10:34-43). These Gentile believers who had the Spirit submitted to baptism (10:47-48). Saul and Barnabas were in liturgy (Acts 13:2) when the Holy Spirit called them to leave Antioch for missions. One fact of church history that should challenge all Protestants is that when the Church was struggling with a tremendous theological issue, they met in council (15:1-21). In their letter to the troubled churches, those in Jerusalem described their conciliar process this way: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (15:28). Paul and Silas delivered the letter from Jerusalem to the churches. More specifically, they delivered the dogmas for observance (Acts 16:4).[9] Consider this: the Apostles and elders, led by the Spirit, found the answer to a theological problem. Then they sent these statements to other churches as something that was theologically binding. This is the biblical Church, the Church in Acts. When the saints received the Holy Spirit, they were being baptized into the Spirit of Truth who would lead them into all Truth (John 16:13; 1 Cor. 12:13).

In closing this section, brothers and sisters, I want to ask some serious questions. After Saul and Barnabas ministered to those in Cyprus, what did they leave them (Acts 13:4-12)? They gave them no bound Bible. How did the apostles establish these churches in a rather short period of time and leave them without a copy of Scripture and no indication that they would receive one? Were the new believers supposed to guess at how to worship the living God? It is obvious that Saul and Barnabas proclaimed the Gospel to these people, entrusted to them the apostolic deposit of faith, and, with the authority of Jesus Christ, set up leadership in each local church. Acts describes this:

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23)

We have no example of people starting their own churches apart from involvement with the Apostles directly or one of the spiritual successors of the Apostles (e.g. Timothy).[10]

  1. An Invitation to Join the Church of Acts

I have purposefully tried to stay in the Scriptures rather than quoting early church fathers at length. Here is my challenge to you, dear reader. Keep reading Acts and the epistles. Then, go and read Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Augustine. Ask yourself these questions: Is my church organized with the same authority structures that I see in these writings (and Acts!)? Does my church meet in council to decide matters? Do we believe the same about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and salvation that all of these church fathers taught unanimously? When you read these writings, my friends, you will see the Orthodox Church. The church has grown in maturity, written many creeds, battled various heresies, endured persecution, and, by God’s grace, received peace to worship more freely at various times and places. When you read Justin Martyr’s and Hippolytus’ descriptions of the Divine Liturgy, you will see the same worship today. When you read the teaching of the Fathers—their focus on martyrdom and holiness, their explication of Scripture and robust theology—you will see the Orthodox Church.

You might retort, what if the church fathers were wrong? We see error in apostolic churches, why would we believe that others cannot err considerably? These are really good questions. People and local churches can err, that is true. However, the entire Church cannot fall into heresy because Jesus said he would build His church (Matt. 16:18). He is the Head of the Body; the church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Jesus is the Bridegroom, and the Church is His bride (Eph. 5:22-33). Brothers and sisters, the Church is His lovely bride and body—He said he was with her until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20)! How can she be a light to the world if she is in spiritual darkness? The Church is the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) because she is filled with Spirit of truth who leads her into all truth (John 16:13). How can we know that the church has understood the gospel correctly, rightly identified the inspired books of the Bible, interpreted biblical texts correctly, and been a light to the world? Jesus promised to preserve his church from death and lead her into all truth. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and the Church is seated with him in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). The Lord’s promises to the Church apply to his Church not man’s church. Glory to Him!

As I said in my introduction, this is not a full defense of the Orthodox position. I do hope that our time together has challenged you to consider your assumptions and look afresh at the Scriptures. Now I say with the Apostle Philip: “Come and see” (John 1:46).


[1] The arguments in this paper could support the Roman Catholic position as well.

[2] Let me clarify that many of these oral traditions were initially unwritten. Now we have written record of these oral apostolic traditions delivered to churches. For example, Basil the Great writes this in his treatise On the Holy Spirit: “For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?” (66) This and all other patristic quotes are from newadvent.org.

[3] I am indebted to and highly recommend Edith Humphrey’s Scripture and Tradition, especially pages 25-44.

[4] It is mistake to take “the laying of hands” as a mere symbol (1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6). Even in the Old Testament, Moses imparted authority to Joshua through the laying on of hands (Num. 27:18-23; Deut. 34:9). There was an actual delivery of spiritual power and authority. How much more under the New Covenant with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:8-12)!

[5] I urge people to read the Didache, the letters of Ignatius, and both Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians and account of his martyrdom. These are some of the earliest witnesses of apostolic tradition—both written and oral—front and center in the life of the Church.

[6] David Anders, a once-Calvinistic now-Catholic scholar, argues that the Protestant desire for primitivism actually began with Pope Gregory VII. See his lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwpWmXClzv8.

Obviously, some of the successors of the magisterial reformers would take this primitivism thesis to extremes that would have scandalized the first Protestants.

[7] Another great challenge to the sufficiency of the New Testament for all of Church life is from Fr. Josiah Trenham. In his video interview about his book Rock and Sand, Trenham argues that it would be preposterous for a church who learned from Paul for years to suddenly only be bound by his written letters. Those interviews are available in two parts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piVdrtgo7Xw&t=2781s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xs0ExgnRMqc.

[8] I think it was the church historian Michael Haykin who first showed this to me.

[9] They phrase from Acts 16:4 is παρεδίδοσαν αὐτοῖς φυλάσσειν τὰ δόγματα (SBLGNT).

[10] We know that Paul imparted more than just theological knowledge to Timothy and Titus because these two young man had apostolic authority to “appoint elders” (something only the Apostles did in Acts. See 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 5:17-22; Titus 1:5). Paul told Titus to “exhort and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15).

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Show Me in the Bible: An Invitation to Protestants

  1. jennacar

    You write: “How did the apostles establish these churches in a rather short period of time and leave them without a copy of Scripture and no indication that they would receive one?”

    The assumption was, reflecting James’ counsel to the church, that gentiles would forsake four abominable practices AND go visit the synagogue to learn the Scriptures (shorthanded to “Moses being read” Acts 15),which we know they were doing as they clamored to hear Paul there (Acts 17:2). They knew to keep the Sabbath along with the other commandments, to keep feasts (as Paul mentions “unleavened” as well as hurrying to get back for a feast), and the dietary instructions (Peter’s vision coming almost 20 years post-resurrection and not about food at all). Paul made a point of saying he was an Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee–and in the “way” called a heresy, loyal to the torah and the prophets. We can presume from that that that’s what he taught from the Scriptures that existed at the time.

    It was only when Rome wanted to make nice that the non-Jewish-led assemblies were invited to Nicaea and things got thoroughly off the rails.

    Like

  2. thesurrenderedone

    Although one can postulate the importance of Apostolic Succession for the reason and theology, both oral and written of the Early Church; we have no evidence other than tradition that “Catholic” was ever used as a word to describe the Early Church. Apostolic Succession or not, again, this is how “tradition” records history. Protestants, or those of the “Reformed” Faith are being asked to accept the ‘absolute’ authority and “infallibility” (error-free) status of the Pope. Jesus did not make Saint Peter or any Apostle “infallible” or error-free! Mary, is called “sinless” due to a divine grace granted to her. Hence, not in need of salvation from Sin. She is called Co-Redeemer, Co-Mediatrix, and the Mother of God whereas Jesus only called her “woman”. These and other dogmatic issues are why “Protestants” broke away from the ‘Roman Catholic’ authority over their minds, hearts, lives, and souls. This is not your apologia (defense) of one faith over the other here. This is self-evident. Modern-day Biblical Theologians would do well to look up the definition of “cult”. It can be applied on both accounts. Let us all seek the true worship “in Spirit and Truth” and stop this infighting among us. God Bless all those who are in Christ Jesus! Timothy

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s