Holy Trinity Cathedral - Ecclesiology

The True Church of Christ

Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich

What is the Orthodox Church? The Orthodox Church is a body or community of people who, 1: correctly believe in Divine Revelation; and, 2: who obey a lawful hierarchy instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, through the Holy Apostles. In order to belong to the Orthodox Church two principal conditions are required: First, to accurately accept, rightly understand, and truthfully confess the Divine teaching of faith; and secondly, to acknowledge the lawful hierarchy or priesthood, to receive from it the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments, and generally to follow its precepts in matters concerning salvation.

Let us now consider the question regarding the true and divine doctrine of holy faith.

The divine teaching of our holy religion is contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments, and in Holy Tradition. The principal dogmas are laid down briefly in the Creed, which commences with these words: "I believe in one God, the Father," and which was compiled by the Holy Fathers of the first two Universal Councils in the fourth century. The moral truths of the Orthodox Faith are contained chiefly in the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which were completed and explained by our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel and especially in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.

The doctrine that does not agree with the true understanding of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition which is preserved in the Orthodox Catholic Church from the Apostle’s time, is termed heresy; translated from the Greek language this word signifies separation. Certainly it is to be understood that such who separate or draw others away from the body of the Church by false teaching, thereby excommunicate themselves from her fold.

Heresy, or injury to the reaching of Christ, began as early as the times of the Apostles. St. Paul wrote to Titus, who was bishop on the island of Crete: A man that is a heretic after a first and second admonition refuse, knowing that such a one is perverted, and sinneth, being self-condemned (Titus 3:10-11). The holy Apostle wrote to the Corinthian Christians thus: For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you (I Cor. 11:19). The bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, endeavored from the earliest times to transmit accurately the teaching of Christ, which they received from the Apostles. Thus our faith was carefully, even to the letter, transmitted by Tradition. It is plainly understood how Holy Tradition became a channel by which truths were conveyed to rising generations, as the first bishops received the word and also necessary instructions from the Apostles, not only in writing, but also orally, face to face; therefore, it is clear that this Apostolic Tradition was in itself an explanation of the Holy Scriptures and, as it were, a supplement.

In regard to holy writ the bishops were careful that no false books be counted in with the genuine collection which was left by the Apostles, and also that the original writings of the Apostles themselves be not injured or marred by heretics through the least addition or omission. And if a false teacher be found, his teachings were at once examined by the bishops, and they declared before the Church Universal that such and such a doctrine was not known to them, that they did not receive it from the Apostles, and that it did not agree with the doctrine of the Apostles. Heresy caused the gathering of local and general councils, in which the false teaching was compared with Holy Scripture and Tradition and then rejected. In the course of time the Apostolic Tradition, which was transmitted orally at first, was gradually, as the necessities of the Church demanded, committed to writing; and it is found in the works of the Holy Fathers and teachers of the first several centuries.

The principal dogmas of our religion are these: 1 – The doctrine of God as He is in His Being; One God in substance, but in Three Persons; the Trinity consubstantial and undivided: the Father unoriginate, the Son begotten of the Father before all ages, and the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father. 2 – The doctrine of the Son of God, as the Saviour of the human race; the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Who was incarnate for our salvation of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Who suffered and died in the flesh, arose again, ascended into heaven, and shall come again to judge the living and the dead. 3 – The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, as the Sanctifier and perfecter of the salvation of mankind; that He is sent on earth by the Father and abides in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, preserves in her the Orthodox teaching of the faith unimpaired, and saves the faithful chiefly by means of the Holy Mysteries, regenerating, enlightening, edifying, and strengthening in the spiritual life. Upon these truths are founded also the other dogmas of the Christian religion, namely: that of the Mother of God, the veneration of the Saints, sacred images, the administration of the Church, etc.

We have learned that the true confession of faith by itself is not sufficient for salvation. Of necessity another condition is required; to belong to the Orthodox Church, and that is the recognition of a lawful hierarchy or priesthood, the reception of the Sacraments from the same hierarchy, and obedience to it in matters concerning salvation. In a community of Christians in which there is no lawful bishop, who is the dispenser of the gifts of saving grace, there are no sacramental gifts of the Holy Spirit, there can be no Mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ; and where the Holy Spirit and Christ are not present, Who sacramentally abide in Christians, there can be, of course, no Church. Sacred Scripture testifies to this very decidedly.

Let us turn our attention to the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. What do we read there? At the time when a great persecution arose against the Church in Jerusalem and the holy Archdeacon Stephen was stoned to death, then the Christians, excepting the Apostles, scattered in different places of Judea and Samaria. The Deacon Philip, who came into the city of Samaria, preached Christ there. The people with one heart gave heed to what Philip said, seeing the miracles which he worked; for the unclean spirits came out of many; some they left with wild cries, and many who were impotent or lame became whole. And there was great joy in that city. There was a man in that place, one Simon by name, who before this practiced sorcery and confounded the people of Samaria, giving himself out as someone great. Many followed him, saying that he had the power of God. But when they believed Philip, who spoke to them of the good tidings of the Kingdom of God and of the Name of Jesus Christ, they received baptism of him, both men and women. And so did Simon believe, and after being baptized he remained with Philip, and seeing the great powers and signs which were manifested, he wondered. The Apostles, who were in Jerusalem, having heard that Samaria received the word of God, sent to them Peter and John, who, having come, prayed over them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Upon seeing that, by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, the Holy Spirit was given, Simon brought them money, saying: Give me this power, that upon whomsoever I lay my hands the same will receive the Holy Spirit. But Peter said unto him: Thy silver perish with thee, because thou hast thought to obtain the gift of God with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter.

From this history it can be seen that during the time of the Apostles there were grades in the hierarchy. Philip, who was one of the seven deacons, notwithstanding that he received grace for the office of deacon from the Apostles, notwithstanding that by the Holy Spirit, Who was with him, he performed many great works, yet he could not bring down the Holy Spirit on the Samaritans, whom he had baptized. But when the Apostles Peter and John had come they prayed and laid their hands upon them. Then the Holy Spirit came down upon them and was manifested in signs and miracles. The Apostles transmitted the power of conferring the Holy Spirit only to bishops. In other parts of the same book of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles of St. Paul to Timothy, the Bishop of Ephesus, and to Titus, the Bishop of Crete, there are plain statements pertaining to the grade or office of presbyter, which is a middle one, between the episcopate and diaconate.

Which hierarchy is the true and lawful one? It is the priesthood, which has retained and continues to follow these conditions:

1. In the first place such a hierarchy is true, which has received the grace of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles themselves in an unbroken line of succession from one to another. If, for instance, in a certain locality bishops and priests were found to be wanting, the succession being broken, and in their absence the laity elected new ones and laid their hands upon them and proclaimed them to be bishops and presbyters, such a hierarchy would be unlawful and without grace, as the laity cannot transmit that which they do not possess themselves – the grace of the priesthood. In the time when the erring Church of Rome spawned the Protestant sects, the Protestants commenced to elect and establish presbyters themselves, and these ministers not only baptize, but they officiate at a so-called "communion service," which of course is not a valid sacrament, as the ministers have no apostolic ordination and are not presbyters.

As we learn from history, only that hierarchy is authentic, which received the grace of the Priesthood from the Lord Jesus Christ’s Apostles themselves, through an unbroken succession of the lawful heirs of this Sacrament. And this is necessary. As the inclination to sin is transmitted successively from one to another by inheritance in the conception and birth of the body, thus also grace, that is the power of God, which wipes away sin and gives strength in struggle with it, being bestowed, is transmitted uninterruptedly by the laying on of episcopal hands in the Priesthood, by anointing all Christians with the Holy Chrism, and also through sacred acts and visible forms in other Sacraments.

2. Secondly, an authentic hierarchy is such, which confesses all the truths of holy religion, for there are heresies, which entirely deprive bishops and priests of their ministerial grace.

3. Thirdly, a Priesthood to be lawful must administer the Sacraments orderly, according to the rules of the Holy Church Catholic, not changing essential actions, as there are acts and conditions in the rites of Mysteries that are essential, without which a certain Sacrament may not be valid. Should a sacred minister violate an essential rule he is subject to degradation, if the violation has been intentional, or at least, the Mystery is void of power. The seventh rule of the Apostolic Canon enjoins: "Should anyone, bishop or presbyter, administer not three immersions in Baptism in commemoration of the death of the Lord, but one, let him be cast out." And those who were baptized by one immersion, it was ordered that they should be rebaptized. If a priest should consecrate chrism himself, and anoint the newly-baptized with it, such an act would not be the Mystery of unction with chrism, because it would be the usurpation of the rights and power of a bishop, and such a thing is forbidden presbyters by the sixth rule of the Council of Carthage. Should a bishop or priest use only water in place of wine in the Mystery of communion, as some heretics do, such an offering would not be a true Sacrament.

4. Fourthly, to be a lawful and true hierarchy, the same must be governed and govern its spiritual charge according to the rules of the Holy Apostles, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and other laws which are accepted by the Orthodox Church in general. Having apostatized from these universal or catholic regulations, the Roman Church invented a doctrine concerning the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome over all. This has been one of the chief causes of the Roman schism or separation from the Orthodox Catholic Church.

5. A fifth condition necessary for proving the lawfulness of the Priesthood is its unity with the Orthodox Church in the spirit of peace and love. Whoever destroys this unity, except for a genuine and important cause, and bishops and priests together with Christians who follow them, that separate themselves from the higher Church authorities, are excommunicated from the Church, according to the rules of the Apostles and the canons of the Councils.

The Orthodox Church, which is one, is one spiritual body, animated only by the Holy Spirit, having only One Head – the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Orthodox Church is holy, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing (Ephes. 5:27). She sanctifies sinners by her teaching and sacraments.

The Orthodox Church is catholic, because she was organized by the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of all people in the whole world, and she is the gathering of all true believers in all places, times, and peoples.

The Orthodox Church will continue on earth until the Second Coming of Christ, "imperishable and not conquered by the powers of hell." In regard to holy doctrine, she is blameless and will ever remain unchangeable, as she has abiding in her the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. Therefore, she is, according to the Apostle, the pillar and foundation of the Truth (I Tim. 3:15). The existence of the lawful hierarchy and the administration of the Holy Mysteries will never cease in the Church.

The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said: I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her, and again: Behold I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Therefore, it is the duty of Christians to obey the Church, for outside of her there is no salvation. If thy brother neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as heathen man and a publican (St. Math. 18:17), saith the Lord.

May God, Who is glorified in the Trinity, help us by His grace to become, through our membership in the Church Militant on earth, members of the Church Triumphant in heaven, that we may glorify His All-honorable and majestic Name with the angels and saints forever, without end. Amen.

From the Lectures and Sermons by a Priest of the Holy Orthodox Church, San Francisco, 1899

Last modified: November 30, 2000 - webmaster@holy-trinity.org.