Posted by: Shawn Ragan | May 11, 2009

Encountering the New Testament Church

I don’t know if I was really looking for the New Testament Church.  Perhaps in some abstract, intellectual way I was, but my Protestant upraising had taught me the New Testament Church did not really exist in a tangible way.  My search then, was for something that resembled the early church – not for it itself.  And I was searching – I knew there was something missing, that church had to be more than what I was seeing and experiencing.  I saw the gap between the Christianity of the first century that I read about and the Christianity I saw all around me.  I was looking for something, I just cannot say I was looking for the actual New Testament Church – something I did not believe really existed (outside of the all believers of whatever denomination that are saved view).  Never did I expect to encounter it.

Studying history is one of my favorite things to do.  My wife hates it.  She is bored to death as I excitedly talk about something that happened along time ago.  History is what I am being trained to do in college.  When I am bored and want something to read, I turn to a history book and I read it.  I also love to teach, and I happened to be teaching a class on the early church. As I read and as I studied, I kept coming across some nagging ideas.  My worldview had taught that Christianity apostatized sometime before Constantine, and that the only church from that first century or so on was the Roman Catholic Church, and that was the case until the Reformation.  My paradigm was a Roman Catholic-Protestant understanding of history.  What was this Eastern Church, that did not become Roman Catholic?  All these churches mentioned in the New Testament – what became of them?  I knew someone who was in the Eastern Church…I had taken a class from him…I thought I’d get some information, more for my class than for me – something to help me understand.

My first real contact was in a Church service – a Saturday evening service.  It was dark, there were candles, incense, chanting.  Where in the world was I?  Afterwards, Fr. Patrick sat down with me and told me that there was only One Church, and that this was it.  A bold statement, and not one I was ready to accept.  Before I go on, let me say I have heard those statements before.  Serving on the town ministerial fellowship, I knew of Protestant churches that made the claim to being the Church.  Yet I also knew history, and knew they had no real connection to the early church, that in fact they did not exist until after the Reformation, and that their doctrines and beliefs continued to change.  I also knew that when they said this, most were saying that unless I belonged to their church, I could not be saved.  Their claims resounded with arrogance, yet Fr. Patrick’s statement, though authoritative, remained humble.  Nor was he saying that only people who belonged to his church were saved.  While he used some of the same words, he was saying something very different from those Protestant churches I mentioned.

I will be honest and tell you that I did not leave as a believer in what he had said that night.  On the other hand, I knew something was there.  There was something in those services, in the people, in the feeling of the place, in the liturgy and incense, in all of it that cried out to me.  I left knowing that I would come back again and check these things out, but a long ways from accepting the claims.

Historically, the claims were not hard to see.  The Church of Antioch still exists.  These churches are still there, and they are Orthodox.  My study of the Western Church (Roman Catholic-Protestant) had already shown some of the problems the West faced in the last millenium.  As I joked with a Lutheran pastor friend of mine: “There was a reason the Reformation took place,” towhich he replied: “Yeah, it was just a group of guys sitting around drinking a beer and thinking what do we do tonight.”

But there was much to deal with.  Orthodoxy was very different.  Fr. Mark, hieromonk, has told me on several occasions that the further you go into Orthodoxy, the more you realize and learn that it is not the other thing (for me, Protestant).  There was a lot I had to overcome…many, many questions: “Why do you do this?” “What do you believe about this?” “How in the world can you believe that?”  I struggled to understand how the Church held to certain ideas, but the more I looked at it, the more I saw it was Truth.

It would be a year or more of coming to services, testing and evaluating, and seeing the life of the Church and the people before I knew that Fr. Patrick’s claims were true.  The New Testament Church did not die out or disappear.  It was still here, and could be seen and experienced.  By then, I had come to realize and actually understand what our Lord meant when He spoke of “the pearl of great price.”

I never blanket-accepted everything, or really anything.  I did not follow blindly.  There was Truth in these things I came, saw, and experienced, but I was not easily convinced.  The experience of being the services and experiencing this divine worship continued to draw me back.  The life of the people and their faith spoke to me.  The humility of our priest and the realness of all that we did – all of these things revealed to me a hunger for Christ that was yearning in my soul.  In my heart, I had accepted the Truth of Orthodoxy before I did in my mind.  Over a year, maybe a year and a half, after that first experience my mind caught up with my heart.

Since then, as I have travelled down this path, I have known even more that the Eastern Orthodox Church was the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”  My wife, who was running away from Christianity and Orthodoxy, has come to know this truth – the Truth.  There was a lot we both had to wrestle with – to test and see “Is this for real?”  Yet those tests were passed beyond anything I ever could have imagined.  I remember those struggles, especially now as I have friends who are looking at this Holy Faith.  They struggle, question, and doubt.  Perhaps they will never see it, perhaps they will – that is not in my hands.  Some only looked from a distance for a moment, and then with ready-made excuses expressed why they could not believe.  Others have come, but continue to struggle with certain points of doctrine – something I did until I came to the point that I trusted the Church.  For us, that trust has continued to grow, just as Christ promised when He said that even if we are not faithful, He will always be faithful.

Other just look at me funny, as they try to connect Orthodoxy to Protestantism as just another path – something I cannot agree with.  While I believe God is at work everywhere trying to bring all people to Truth (Christ), I cannot accept that all churches are the Church, nor can I accept that the Church does not exist except as a spiritual body.  Any attempt at conversation on this will always become akward, so I try not to talk about it.  It puts itself in the arrogant category, and I do not have the humility and love of Father Patrick to say it in such a way that that is not the case.  I know that this claim does not make us superior, just more responsible.  Yet I also know it is true.

I can never adequately, even semi-adequately, put into words this journey and what it has meant in our life and for our family.  It is everything…literally the totality of life.  And it is the cure, and the healing, and the answer to the questions I had been asking.  It is the fullness of the Faith, and as much as I can say it here, it will convince no one.  The only way to know is to struggle for yourself: to encounter the New Testament Church and wrestle with her life, her doctrine, her practice until your mind catches up with what your heart will tell you very early on.

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