1

I understand that Christianity is a religion founded in a collective ideal, but at what level is the individual considered, specifically within the Orthodox church as compared to Protestantism, in the context of salvation and the individual responsibility to the body of Christ?

The text that follows will give some context to my question but is not strictly necessary to answer it satisfactorily.

Based on my knowledge of scripture, the individual responds to the call of God and accepts the gift of salvation along with the responsibilities to the body of believers.

I recently got into a very frustrating conversation with an orthodox Christian who kept repeating phrases to the effect, "You're poisoned by American individualism", etc. and did not illuminate so much as simply naysay the ideas I was putting forth.

In the tradition I was raised in, it is commonly understood that the scriptures are to be the sole authoritative source for knowledge about God and the practice of the faith (sola scriptura). That is to say that tradition and wisdom from other sources can be very valuable, but must be tested against the solid foundation of the scriptures before being accepted as true or wise.

In Orthodox practice, it seems that "to accept the books of the canon is also to accept the ongoing Spirit-led authority of the church's tradition, which recognizes, interprets, worships, and corrects itself by the witness of Holy Scripture".

To me, this seems that both philosophies are fundamentally getting at the same idea. If not for the idea that the church can correct itself and its traditions 'by the witness of the Holy Scripture', I could see a wide rift, but it seems from my perspective that the American Protestant tradition I'm most familiar with doesn't reject the leading of the Holy Spirit or church tradition, but is mindful to constantly test practices against the scriptures themselves.

Of course, in practice, many professing Christians don't have much of a grasp on these foundational principles and begin accepting many odd ideas that are far outside the example that the Holy Scriptures give us. And some faiths, like a traditional American Church of Christ, follow the examples of the scriptures so strictly that they do not allow for musical instruments to be used in the organized worship of God. (That seems patently ridiculous to me, but that's another topic)

I feel as though I'm misunderstanding or completely missing some aspect of Orthodox Christianity, and given that I've been more and more dissatisfied with the culture of many congregations in the more familiar tradition, am trying to explore different understandings of my own faith. To be more clear about my background, my early influences were primarily from a Church of Christ background and I have been a 'member' of a few different Southern Baptist congregations over the years. From a doctrinal standpoint, I find very little to object to, but from a practical standpoint, I have been very frustrated with the isolation of generations from one another, the gossip and politics, and what I perceive as people putting on a front and being unwilling to be trusting or vulnerable about what is actually going on in their lives, even in small group settings.

  • 1
    Are you asking for a comparison of the setting of doctrine between Orthodox churches, (where the church is considered the repository of faith, doctrine, and interpretation of scriptures) and an American Protestant model where every person gets to decide what the interpretation of scriptures is for themselves? (An oversimplification of each position, I'm aware). – DJClayworth May 3 at 19:47
  • Well, yes. I get those concepts in broad strokes but am more interested in how they play themselves out at a more granular level. Protestantism seems to emphasize individual responsibility to chase down the truth, but doesn't neglect the aspects of responsibility to the community of believers, e.g. I'm almost entirely ignorant of the Orthodox tradition, and am trying to find a point to peel back the mystery to some degree. – Jeff H. May 6 at 19:01
  • 1
    Your question is dealing with interesting things, but as it stands is too broad to be answerable in a reasonable time. Can I suggest editing it to focus on one specific aspect of church life etc., such as maybe asking how doctrine is decided in the Orthodox church? – DJClayworth May 6 at 19:05
  • That would be perfectly reasonable and acceptable to me. – Jeff H. May 6 at 19:05
  • 1
    It's probably best if you edit the question to what you want to ask. – DJClayworth May 6 at 19:06
2

A major difference between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Baptists (since you mention them in particular) is the view of the church. Dr B. H. Carroll, the first president of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a paper on "Distinctive Baptist Principles", which describes the (Christian) church as

a particular congregation and not an organized denomination. ... the Baptists hold that the New Testament church is a particular congregation and not an organized denomination. According to the New Testament: “In Christ, each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord.” Each congregation is a complete temple in itself, and has final jurisdiction over all its affairs. (emphasis in original)

Baptist churches have a very individualist view of humanity as related to God as well, according to Dr Carroll:

This New Testament law of Christianity segregates the individual from his own family, from society with all its customs and requirements,... then isolates him from every external influence, strips him of every artificial distinction arising from wealth or poverty or social status, and then shuts him up in an exclusive circle alone with God. ... May I not seek the guidance of my priest and put on him the responsibility of interpreting this book? Nay, verily. Do thou interpret. It is God’s letter to thy soul. Thy right of private judgment is the crown jewel of thy humanity.

Finally, as far as the importance of Scripture to the church:

All the New Testament is the Law of Christianity. The New Testament is all the Law of Christianity. The New Testament will always be all the Law of Christianity.... Baptists [are] distinguished from many Protestants in rejecting the equal authority of tradition as held by the Romanists. But when Baptists say that the New Testament is the only law for Christian institutions they part company, if not theoretically at least practically, with most of the Protestant world, as well as from the Greeks [i.e. the Orthodox Church] and Romanists.

For the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, the Church is

a unique entity comprising the Revealed Truths of the Christian religion.... the whole strength of faithful and pious Christians. These people constitute the "royal priesthood" by their sanctification and dedication.

("The Fundamental Teachings of the Greek Orthodox Church", website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

The Church, then, is a single body, whose members are the entire population of the faithful. Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, speaks of "the People of God" in a way that Baptists would not. And this "People" have a continuous way of life, a continuous following-out of Christ's teaching, which the Church calls "Holy Tradition". This Tradition includes the Scriptures, but it goes beyond them.

Among the elements which make up the Holy Tradition of the Church, the Bible holds the first place. Next comes the Church’s liturgical life and its prayer, then its dogmatic decisions and the acts of its approved churchly councils, the writings of the church fathers, the lives of the saints, the canon laws, and finally the iconographic tradition together with the other inspired forms of creative artistic expression such as music and architecture. All of the elements of Holy Tradition are organically linked together in real life. None of them stands alone. None may be separated or isolated from the other or from the wholeness of the life of the Church.

(The Orthodox Faith, Volume I: Doctrine and Scripture, reprinted on the website of The Orthodox Church in America; emphasis added)

This last is very important. It is not simply that a statement is "checked against the Scriptures" but that it is tested by its coherence with the whole body of Holy Tradition, including the Scriptures. Because this Tradition is properly the Church's, it doesn't belong to any individual to interpret it themselves:

Jesus Christ remains forever in His Church by the Holy Spirit to open men’s minds to understand the Bible (Jn 14.26, 16.13). Only within Christ’s Church, in the community of faith, of grace, and of truth, can men filled with the Holy Spirit understand the meaning and purpose of the Bible’s holy words.

("Fundamental Teachings")

For the Orthodox Church, then, the Scriptures are not (in your words) "the sole authoritative source for knowledge about God and the practice of the faith". Rather, they are part of (the central part, but only part of) what the Church knows. And the emphasis in the Orthodox Church is not on "the individual [who] responds to the call of God and accepts the gift of salvation along with the responsibilities to the body of believers". Instead it focuses on the individual as a member of this community of faith, grace, and truth.

  • I appreciate this answer. My understanding of the view of "the church" from a protestant point of view is slightly different but perhaps it's contextual. It's true that every congregation is independent of any external earthly leadership, i.e. the Pope, but protestants (and baptists in particular) do generally believe that every Christian is part of the big C "Church", as in the larger body of faith worldwide. The excerpt above seems to miss this distinction. Also, belonging to and being active in the community of faith is also emphasized, despite salvation being seen as an individual event. – Jeff H. May 21 at 19:53
  • Furthermore, it's interesting to me that it seems that the baptist or protestant view as represented here seems to miss some of the other fine distinctions that I have seen taught most of my life. Seeking wisdom, guidance, and mentorship from other Christians is something taught and practiced very frequently, with community emphasized very strongly, for instance. And I'd be hard pressed to find anyone that would disagree with the idea the Christ through the Spirit opens men's minds to the bible either... it seems more about church governance (rejection of the papacy) than spiritual practice. – Jeff H. May 21 at 20:03
  • Is there a better forum for a fuller discussion? – Jeff H. May 21 at 20:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.