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*Synaxis (Greek) : gathering, congregation
The first Christian Church
The first Christian Church was set up by Christ Himself, with His selection of the "twelve", whom He named "apostles" (Luke6:13). To them, He gave "power and authority" and He sent them forth to preach to all the nations about the reign of God, and to make "preachers" of them (go forth and preach!), baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Luke 9:1-2, 28:19 and Mark 6:7). Thus was Isaiah's prophecy fulfilled, regarding the dispatching of the "saved ones" to "all the nations" for the purpose of gathering them all into the "holy city" (Isaiah 66:18-20); cmp. Mark 16:15)
The Apostles were called upon to "testify" to the event of Salvation, which was completed with the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ. However, the commencement of their work was to take place after the day of the Pentecost, because prior to the Pentecost, the disciples had not yet been vested with the "power from above" (Luke 24:48-49). Their preaching was not going to be dependent on the persuasiveness of human wisdom, but would be "evidenced by the Spirit and by power" (1 Cor.9:4), which is why they had to wait: "You shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit descends upon you and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all of Judea and Samaria and up to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)
The work that Christ assigned to the apostles began on the very Day of the Pentecost, resulting in the "addition" to the Church of "about three thousand souls" (Acts 9:41) and the formation of the first community in Jerusalem. The characteristic identity of the first Church was its unity around the apostles: "And they remained faithfully attached to the teaching of the apostles and to the communion and the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). That society of the first Christians even reached the point of communal ownership. (Acts 9:43-47)
A visible community
The first Church was also a visible reality - and not only an invisible one (just because Her Head, Christ, was invisible). It was a specific community and society, which also observed the practicing of the holy virtues of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). The focal point of Her interests was the Sunday Synaxis, with the "breaking of bread" (Acts 20:7) at its center. Whoever belonged to that specific community and participated in that Christian synaxis was called a Christian, and was in fact a christian. Whoever did not belong to that synaxis, was not a Christian. That the original Church was a visible reality is also proven by its overall structure. Apart from the Apostles, within Her were other persons also, to whom specific functions had been allocated. There were presbyters ("elders") and deacons, or, as referred to in other parts of the Holy bible, bishops and deacons (Philip. 1:1, 1 Tim.5:17, Acts 20:28, etc.). In other words it had a specific Hierarchy, which however was not instated by people, but by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).
Whenever certain problems arose that pertained to the faith, a synod (council) of apostles would convene and would arrive at specific decisions which were respected by all the Christian communities as decisions of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The apostolic synod was the voice of the Church, and the Church was the "pillar and the foundation of the truth" (Acts 15:22-29, 1 Tim. 3:15). The Church that is referred to in the Holy Bible - the proto-Christian Church - was so visible and specific, that its members also included the weaker - even the "dead" members - who were called to repentance so that they would not be cast out (Matth. 13:30, Judas 12:23, 1 Cor. 5:1-11).
The uninterrupted continuation of the Church
The Apostolic Church was not an isolated episode of the apostolic era, but is an uninterrupted event over the centuries, and up until the day of the Lord's Coming. The Paraclete - the Holy Spirit - resides inside the Church "eternally" (John 14:16) and He leads to the Truth, in other words, to Christ Who is the Head of the Church and Who is always "with us", "until the end of Time" (Matth.28:20). This signifies that the Church, which was founded by Christ, presents us with an identical teaching, an identical lifestyle and organization throughout the ages, and has remained indestructible and unique (Matth.16:18). The Apostolic Church therefore has a continuance and is discerned by Her visible characteristics which are the determinants of Her identity and which make Her stand out from other, self-proclaimed "churches" or heresies.
This indissoluble continuance of the Church, in the faith, the organization and the lifestyle, was the steadfast will of Christ and of the Apostles. Thus, Christ chose the Apostles so that they would become the "witnesses" of Christ "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit inside the Church is perpetual, "until the end of Time" (Matth.28:20, John 14:16). That is why the Church is indestructible; that is why "the gates of Hades shall not overtake Her" (Matth.16:18) and why "She is the consolidation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). As such, the Church cannot therefore have any chasms and interruptions - not in the faith, nor in Her organization or in Her way of life. The true characteristic of the Church is the continuation of apostolicity in each of these three areas.
The function of an apostle was not a mere reference within the apostolic era; it was something that had to be continued. Following the Ascension of Christ, the Apostles fulfilled the prophecy of the Old Testament regarding the "episcopacy" of Judas (Psalms, 98:8) and elected Matthias in his place (Acts 1:26). Therefore we see that the rank of bishop does indeed exist in the Holy Bible, but "episcopacy" (bishopric) likewise exists in there. The ministry of "episcopacy" (epi-skopos, Greek: supervisor, overseer) was undertaken by the faithful who were chosen by the Apostles themselves, and who were posted in various territories and cities - as for example was Titus, in Crete. Their mission was to provide "in every city presbyters" - not in the manner that each one preferred, but in accordance with the guidelines of the Apostles (Titus 1:5). In fact, the Apostle Paul does not omit to define even the qualifications of presbyters, while elsewhere, he also describes the manner of their instatement - in other words, their ordination (1 Tim. 4:14). He actually cautions Timothy to "not place his hands" on anyone in haste, without having previously examined if that person is suitable for that office (1 Tim.5:22).
Thanks to their ordination, the pastors of the Church are therefore a part of the unbroken Apostolic succession, and are also guarantors of the apostolic teaching of the Church.
The full revealing of the Church
The official inauguration of the Church took place on the day of the Pentecost. The Apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 9:4) and were enabled to perceive the bond of communion and love - with Christ and with the brethren - to such a degree that they began to preach the Gospel of salvation "in Christ" fearlessly thereafter. As a result, three thousand souls were added to the Church that day, through sacred Baptism (Acts 2:41).
However, the Church has not yet been fully revealed in all Her splendour. This will occur, upon the arrival of the "Bridegroom of the Church" - during the second coming of Christ. That is when the people of God - the Church - will have re-attained the final union with the Triadic God. That is when there will no longer be any need for Temples, "for Her Temple will be the Lord God Almighty, and the Lamb". That is when the Church will be flooded by the glory of God (Revel.21:9-27).
The True Church
The true Church is found wherever the apostolic ministry of the incorporating of souls into the corpus of Christ is continued, and wherever apostolic teaching, apostolic succession and organization and way of life are witnessed. The apostolic Church - that is, the true Church - is found wherever there are no "chasms" and "blanks" in apostolic teaching and in the apostolic way of living (Matth.28:19-20).
Wherever there is a bishop with apostolic succession and the apostolic teaching is preached, wherever he or one of the presbyters whom he has instated performs the divine Eucharist and wherever the faithful partake of the Body and the Blood of Christ and are rendered "co-corporeal and co-blooded" members of Christ, that is where the Apostolic Church is. The Orthodox Church has preserved unadulterated the entire heritage of the Apostolic Church and constitutes the continuation of that Church, without any chasms and blanks in Her history, from the era of the Apostles and through to this day.
That is the reason we point out the danger of heresy, which alienates the faithful from the Church in which is salvation. To those who alienate themselves from the Church, John the Apostle says: «They departed from us, however they did not belong to us, for if they did belong to us, they would have remained with us. Instead, they went away, so that it would be made evident that not everyone is one of ours» (1 John 2:19).
Paul the Apostle urges the faithful to remain united with the Church and with the teaching of the Church and to avoid the congregations of people who have no communion with the Church and do not follow Her teaching. «I implore you my brethren, to be wary of those who create dissent and scandals, as opposed to what you have been taught. Distance yourselves from them, for people such as them are not the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ but of their own desires, and who with their sweet and pleasant words, deceive the hearts of people» (Rom.16:17-18, cmp. 2 Tim. 4:3-4). The same apostles cautions the shepherds of the Church in his era: «Look after yourselves and the entire fold, over which the Holy Spirit has placed you as bishops, and shepherd the Church of the Lord God, which He acquired with His blood. For I know this: that, after my departure, there shall infiltrate among you savage wolves and they shall not spare the flock; and even from among you, there shall rise men who will distort the truth in order to mislead the students in order to make them follow them. For this, you must remain alert» (Acts 20:20-21).
Staying inside the Apostolic Church will therefore guarantee the salvation of the faithful, while enlistment in heretical groups is catastrophic, which is why it is likened to the snatching of sheep by wolves.
Churchgoing for the faithful
The most fundamental element in the synaxes - congregations - of Christians, which transforms a simple gathering into what is referred to as "the Church", is the performing of the sacrament of the Divine Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23 and Hebr.13:10)
Saint Ignatius urges the Christians of Ephesus: "Hasten therefore to congregate more frequently for the Eucharist (=thanksgiving) of God and for glorification. For when you are all together frequently for this, the powers of Satan are annulled, and his destructiveness is dissolved within the accord of faith". The unity of the faithful within the Church neutralizes every conspiracy by Satan.
For one to loosen his ties with the Church - to keep himself "away from the sacrificial altar" as expressed by saint Ignatius - is dangerous. That is why the same saint underlines the following: "Let no-one deceive you. If someone is not near the sacrificial altar, he becomes deprived of the Body of the Lord. Because if the prayer of one or two before God has such power, how much more power does the prayer of the bishop and the entire Church have? Whoever does not come to the common synaxis behaves selfishly and has condemned himself, for it is written that God is opposed to the proud (Proverbs 3:34, 1 Pet.5:5). Let us therefore take care that we do not oppose the bishop, so that we might be obeisant to God."
Whosoever does not participate in the life of the Church, whosoever cuts himself off from the bishop (who expresses the unity of the Church in liturgical life), is nourished by "foreign sustenance", even if that sustenance is given to him in the name of Christ and in the spirit -supposedly- of the holy Bible. Saint Ignatius writes something relative to the Christians of Trallea of Lydia:
"I beseech you therefore - not I, but the love of Jesus Christ - to use only Christian nourishment and avoid the foreign kind, which is heresy. They are people who mix Jesus Christ with their personal fallacies and seek to present them to us as something reliable, just like those who serve a deadly poison mixed with wine and honey: the unsuspecting will accept the offering with pleasure and will drink death along with it. Guard yourselves therefore from such people. You will be able to, only if you do not become puffed up with your ego, only when you remain inseparable from God, from Jesus Christ, and from the bishop and the instructions of the Apostles. He who is near the sacrificial altar is clean. He who is far from the sacrificial altar, that is, whoever acts independently of his bishop, the presbyterium and the deacons, he is not clean in his conscience."
In closing, I would like to underline that the Church is not an organization for services rendered, nor is She a union; She is the new "people of God" , which comprises one Body, under one Head - Christ. In this sense the Church is invisible, but She is also a visible reality and remains inseparably joined to Christ, Her Head. This communion between the Body and the Head is the "image of" the community, between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and, in a way, the extension of that Triadic, divine communion. She is the pre-eternal "unrevealed mystery" which was revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the incorporation into the body of the Church is for mankind his return to "living according to nature" - to the life of unity, harmony, love; to his return to the "one human nature, with the tens of thousands of faces" - that is, to the original state from which mankind had fallen.
This "gathering together" of the scattered children of God and the coming together of one Body under one Head was realized, "in Christ". The children of God were not cleansed with the blood of sacrificed animals, but with the Blood of Christ, with which the new Covenant between God and mankind was sealed. Each one is now cleansed, with the "bath of water", through the Baptismal declaration ("in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"). The Holy Spirit, Who remains in the Church from the Day of the Pentecost, provides "rebirth" to the faithful, and incorporates them in that One Body of Christ.
Christ is the "first-born"; He has reconciled everything with God "in Him", and thus, each one of us who becomes incorporated in His Body, is "grafted" and transformed from a wild olive tree into a fruitful, tame one, and is called upon to remain rooted and edified "in Him". This in itself constitutes "life out of death" - a revitalizing of each member by the Body of Christ, Who is Life.
In this way, the Church per se does not save, but is Herself salvation, because it is inside Her that the relationship between Christ and God the Father is conveyed to every single member of the Body ("I am in them, and You are in Me"!). The faithful person becomes a "domicile of God, in the Spirit".
"Church" therefore is a twofold unity and a communion-unity: with Christ, Who is the Head of the one Body, and a unity with the brethren who comprise the other members of the One Body. A synaxis of the Church expresses that twofold unity, and that is why Christ is ever-present, wherever a synaxis takes place in His name, even if with two or three faithful only. Of course that synaxis must not only take place in the name of Christ, but also in the name of the Spirit of Christ. It must also constitute the continuation of Christ's opus. It is under these prerequisites that the Christian synaxis expresses the reality of the Church, and in fact Her "catholic" (overall, universal) dimension, since that is where Christ is.
The "re-summoning" of the scattered children of God "into one" naturally began with the summoning by the Apostles, however, the official "inauguration" of the Church was realized on the day of the Pentecost. This obviously is not a case of an "invisible church" and a communion of saints; the Church of the Pentecost also manifested itself as a visible reality, especially in the liturgical area, during the performing of the divine Eucharist.
Apart from the performing of the divine Eucharist by the eucharist synaxis of the Church - which is the visible reality - the Church also has visible Hierarchic structures, which have their foundations in the will of Christ and the Apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit Who is present and Who incorporates the faithful into the Body of Christ and leads to the truth.
In apostolic times, the "mouth" of the Church was the apostolic synod (council). In the Church there are not only saintly members, but sinful ones also - who are constantly invited to repentance and a conscientious "participation" in the life of the Body. This is yet another proof of the visible character of the Church.
The invitation to salvation is not extended to the people of a specific era only, but to all the generations of mankind. That is why the church incessantly prolongs Her sacred existence and mission. The teaching, the organization and the life of the Church are the Sacred Trust that is delivered throughout the ages, and is known as the "Apostolic Succession". The veridicality of the Church is consolidated with apostolic succession, in other words with the function of the apostles that continues through Time, in accordance to the will of God. The Church in this sense comprises the great mystery that was revealed "in Christ" - not in its fullness, but "in part". The revealing of the full splendour of the church will take place with the Second Coming of the Lord.
To the question therefore, which is the true Church of Christ, our reply is that the true Church is found wherever Apostolic succession is continued and the Apostolic teaching is preached, and wherever Apostolic Hierarchic structures exist and man's "participation" in the life of Christ is realized.
The Orthodox Church has all these characteristics of the Apostolic Church, which is why the Fathers of our Church point out the danger of heresies in their sermons.
To enlist in a heresy denotes an alienation from the Church, which is salvation. The propagandists of heresies are referred to as "wolves" in the Holy Bible, because they do not provide the pure apostolic "nourishment"; they mix the teachings of Christ with their own personal fallacies and lead people "away from the sacrificial altar" - that is, from a place where there in-Christ salvation does not exist (Hebr.13:10).
Article published in English on: 14-9-2009.
Last update: 14-9-2009.