[Disclaimer: I am an atheist now, but in the past I was several different flavors of Protestantism, and then I was Eastern Orthodox Christian for 2 decades. When I write I am referring to HISTORY, not to THEOLOGY.]
I love the illustration of the game of Telephone, and have used it many times.
I was a devout Christian 40 years, and especially as a Protestant, I know how crucial it was that we understood theology and doctrine correctly. Often I heard people express a wistful longing: If only we could go back in time and see exactly how the early church worshipped!
Yet there IS a bona fide early church, the "original church," and it exists to this day essentially unchanged since about the 3rd Century -- but Protestants don't seem very interested in it.
Instead they prefer to remain at the end of a 2,000-year-old game of Telephone: and if you are talking about salvation, that seems awfully chancy.
See my handy, TOO-simplified chart below.
Although there were always points of disagreement, there was only one Christian Church for 1,000 years.
In 1054, the church split in two, because those located in the West wanted to make some big changes that weren't cool with those located in the east.
They wanted to add the Filioque to the Lord's Prayer (long story). They liked Augustine's concept of Original Sin. They wanted priests to be celebate. And they didn't like that there were a half-dozen bishops around the world -- they wanted one Bishop to oversee all (the Pope).
So the Western part that broke off became Roman Catholicism and the part that refused to implement the changes became known as the Eastern Orthodox.
Catholics usually take the claim as being the original church, but historically this makes no sense to me at all. It's the Catholics who made the changes, and the Orthodox that remained the same.
Even the liturgy sung at every Orthodox service dates back to the first few centuries. And the Catholic dogmas of Original Sin and Substitutionary Atonement have always been disregarded by the Orthodox because they were new at the time.
The Orthodox haven't "modernized," nor have they had a Vatican I or II. So objectively, Orthodoxy stands as the living time capsule of early Christianity.
Then in the 1500s, Martin Luther nailed his 99 thesis to the door, and over the next 500 years Protestant denominations multiplied faster than rabbits on Viagra. Today the number if Protestant denominations is estimated at 40,000 -- possibly 60,000.
Each claims to be "based on the Bible." But they have irreconcilable differences over some really important dogmas:
+ How did Christ save us? There are at least a dozen theories of Atonement.
+ Will only Christians be saved or will all mankind?
+ Will there be a Rapture? At what point? And will the world be transformed or destroyed?
+ Should babies be baptized, or must it wait until people are old enough to decide?
+ Is the Bible to be read literally, or allegorically?
+ How does one become a Christian? Must he be confirmed and take the Eucharist or is saying the Jesus Prayer enough?
* Must the Eucharist have real wine, or can grape juice be used?
* Is speaking in tongues proof of the indwelling of Christ, or proof of demonic possession?
Questions like these aren't simply about opinion. They are important enough as to make many denominations believe the others aren't Christians at all.
For believers they mean the difference between heaven and hell.
The Protestants no longer give credence to the oral tradition of the early church. They looked to the Bible to find "obvious" descriptions of dogma.
Most Protestants act as if the King James Bible fell out of the sky in book form in 33 AD, written in the King's English. They oddly proclaim that the Church was "based on the Bible."
But they couldn't be any more off. It took hundreds if years to choose which 66 books of thousands of options would make it into the Cannon, and it took over 1,000 years for them to be assembled as a unit.
Even then, until the printing press, most "Bibles" were made up of 66 separate scrolls, and these were expensive. So each church only had the scrolls it could afford.
The Scriptures were important, but oral tradition (and iconography, which is symbolic) were as, or more, important for most of the life of the Orthodox Church.
Meanwhile, the Protestants were trying to duplicate the early church -- and this is where it gets funny. I don't know if they were aware Orthodoxy existed -- in Greece, Russia, Armenia, Syria, etc. -- or whether they ignored it for some reason. But they used the Bible in order to find a model of the early church, and rejected anything that was not found in the Bible.
This is like saying William Shakespeare wasn't a playwright because he never made his plays into films.
Many of the most bizarre "imitations of the Early Church" are barely seen as Christian by the Orthodox today -- and if Early Christians traveled to now inside a time machine, they would not see modern denominations as any sort of Christian display whatsoever.
For example, the Apostolic Church considers itself a replica of early Christianity. But they interpret the Bible literally, something the Orthodox (like the Jews) and never done.
A huge thing is that so many Evangelical churches base almost their ENTIRE theology on The Book of Revelation ... which really ought not be in there. It was accepted by a narrow vote by Western Christians. The Eastern Christians suspected it was heretical, and the Orthodox don't read Revelation in the church to this day. Later, even Luther questioned its validity and thought it should be removed!
The phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" had always referred to the miracle of speaking in actual foreign languages that one had never learned. The gibberish, the nonsense syllables that is "speaking in tongues" in charismatic and Pentecostal churches today, appeared suddenly from a single woman in Kansas in 1901.
And then there is the Rapture, first put together by William Darby in 1830. Believers say a couple of Bible passages make the concept "obvious," but if it was obvious, I don't know how the early church, those who actually defined Christian dogma and assembled the Bible, managed to miss it!
If there had to be a religion, and it had to be Christianity, I would prefer it be Orthodox because it's missing some of modern Christianity's most dangerous dogmas:
It sees hell as a state, not as a literal place of fire; it does not assume there is no salvation outside the church; it's not fundamentalist and never had issues with science; it does not believe we are born with the guilt of original sin; it does not believe in total depravity; its priests are married, and in and on.
But the CURIOUS thing is that to Protestants, having the "right faith" is all-important. If you are saved by faith alone, you had better have your dogma perfectly correct.
Yet I was married to an Orthodox priest for 18 years and never saw a flicker of interest in a Protestant's eye when I told them about our church.
In fact, once they understood the jyst, they would turn it around on me:
+ But do you believe in Jesus?
+ How can you claim Adam and Eve are allegorical but claim to be early Christianity? That's New Age.
+ I can't find it in the Bible, so...
It still seems crazy to me that Christians who want to feel safe in their beliefs believe in a woman in Topeka who started shouting out gibberish a century ago over a Church that is still the same as it was almost 2 centuries ago.
If the church had gone away and been reinvented hundreds of years later, that would be one thing. But not only has it always existed, it has positions of major importance to Christianity today.
For example, every Christmas we see the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, dating back to Constantine, on TV. It's affiliated by five churches: the Roman Catholic, as well as the Greek, Armenian, Syriac and Coptic Orthodox Churches. Does that count for anything?
If you wanted to be "correct" in your Theology, if you want to recreate the early church, why wouldn't you play the game of Telephone backward and find the actual source?
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