Worship In The Congregation

The basis for the life of the Church, once we understand that the authority of the Church comes from the setting in place or ordination of the leaders; and once we understand that sound doctrine emanates from the totality of Holy Tradition and was not just conjured up from someone’s interpretation of scripture; then Worship is the outcome. What about worship in the Congregation?   

Congregation, as used in the Orthodox Christian Church, refers to the assembly of faithful, a Eucharistic community, associated with a specific ecclesiastical community: a parish church, chapel, mission, or such. This is the accepted description as recorded in Orthodox Wiki as commonly used. The life of the Church comes with gathering together of the faithful for the Divine Liturgy. From the earliest time of the Church, worship was focal in the life of the Church. “…And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers…” Acts 2:42 NKJV

As the Church grew, the Apostles ordained (set in place) bishops to oversee the Church. The Apostles also set in place Deacons to handle some of the more rudimentary functions such as caring for the widows and orphans, and serving the Church with the table of the Lord, or communion. While it is mentioned rarely, from history of the Apostolic Fathers, presbyters were also ordained from among the people. The leaders of the Church were not imposed from outside the local congregation but rather were those who had shown themselves to be faithful and were already leaders in the family of God.

The Didache, the teachings or doctrine of the twelve Apostles, the earliest record we have of teachings not contained in the Holy Scriptures, concerning ordaining Bishops, says, “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers. And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.”

These bishops were set in place or ordained to lead the Church and the Church was instructed by Saint Ignatius of Antioch to do nothing without them. In his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius said, “As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.”
Saint Ignatius also exhorted the Church of the Ephesians to meet frequently for the Worship of God, “Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.

The Didache, has various instructions for the Church. It says, “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.””

Let’s not forget that in Hebrews we are encouraged this way, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:23-25 NKJV

So what is this worship, this gathering together? Is it simply a planned time to hang out? Can we just do anything in this gathering?

From the earliest time of the Church, we see throughout our history, this gathering to be liturgical. This gathering we also see as sacramental. Sacrament denotes something Holy. In the Church, everything done in and by the Church is considered sacramental. While the English word sacrament is derived from the Latin word “sacramentum” which is defined as “a consecrated thing or act” and that was derived from the Greek word “mysterion” for mysteries. They are mysteries, according to Saint John Chrysostom, because what we see is different from what we believe is happening. Let’s look at that in this way: when there is a baptism, what we see is a priest dunking someone in water, a ceremonial bathing. What we believe is what Saint Paul said was happening when he wrote, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4 NKJV and in another place Saint Paul wrote, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” I Corinthians 12:13 NKJV

The mystery in this is, while we see a priest immersing someone, God the Holy Spirit is really baptizing the convert, burying the person with Christ as a dead man because he is dead to sin, raising the Christian from that death to walk in a new life, and making that person part of the Body of Christ, the Church. In Orthodoxy, the baptizer is simply the instrument God uses to accomplish His will. While in some newer traditions, the baptizer declares “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit” in Orthodox baptism the baptizer declares “The servant of God IS Baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Recognizing that it is God who baptizes not the man; the man is the instrument that we see. So this is a mystery or a sacrament.

I use baptism as an example but there are several sacraments, all part of the life of the Church. The life of the Church is where the mysteries are practiced. They are mysteries because what we see is not what we believe is happening. Communion is another mystery; what we see is bread and wine, what we believe is that they become the body and blood of our Lord. We don’t try to come to some scientific or even theological explanation of how this happens, we just accept that it does happen.

From the Apologies of Justin Martyr:

“Chapter 67. Weekly worship of the Christians

And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”

Today, our Liturgy mirrors this description. The Divine Liturgy celebrated today was written in the fourth century by Saint John Chrysostom. The best description is that it is prayers and readings of scripture separated by hymns. Justin described the Church assembly reading from the memoirs of the Apostles known as the Gospels or the writings of the Prophets, taking communion, and taking an offering to care for the poor, widows and orphans. Justin also discussed why the Church met on Sunday also.
When we enter worship, it’s not anything less than entering Heaven. In the book of Revelation chapter four we see, “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.”” Revelation 4:1-11 NKJV

This worship is going on, according to John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ, all the time. The four living creatures “do not rest day or night” and when they worship God, the elders fall down and worship God. Since worship is continuous then when we enter our temple here to worship, we are entering a worship service already in progress. There is only one Church, not a visible one on Earth and an invisible one in Heaven, the one Church worships continuously. So where do we start? If we are spontaneous then we will be disruptive. I see now why the liturgical style of worship has been so orderly for us. The priest and the people face the Altar together, and the priest leads us into a heavenly experience.
In Orthodox Church Worship, it appears chaotic at times because while the attitude of worship exists, some are involved in prayer or reconciliation with others, perhaps in prayer for friends or family as they seek the intercession of a particular Saint. The only time that no one moves is during the reading of scripture. The order for each service is clear. In the early days of the Church, as missions spread throughout the world, the missionaries gave more attention to translating the Services into each language rather than translate the Scriptures. Since most people didn’t have advanced education, the services were used to teach the scriptures and theological truths.

Incorporated into the services, the worship of the Church, are truths about repentance (Psalm 50 is prayed during the censing of the Church by the priest, for instance) there are prayers of repentance to prepare the people to receive Communion as well. There are scripture readings assigned to the day that teach us principles and the hymns for each Saint, feast, and some about specific stories also teach the people. We use candles at times, when a specific Saint’s intercession is requested by a person, that person might light a candle in front of the Saint’s icon to remind the Saint of their need. That brings me to Icons.
What is an Icon? What about the prohibition on graven images? Why do the Orthodox bow and kiss the Icons? Are the Orthodox worshipping the Icons?

Icons are a Holy art form, two dimensional and they are either depicting a person, or an event in Church history. The very first icon that we know of was of the Theotokos, the mother of our Lord, and was created by Luke the Evangelist. We even sing about it in the Supplicatory services when we remember the Dormition of the Theotokos.

Icons are now consistently part of Orthodox worship and have been since 787 when the Second Council of Nicea settled the issue for the Church. Previously the Emperor Leo III had prohibited the display and veneration of icons about 726. We celebrate on the first Sunday of Great Lent the Sunday of Orthodoxy to commemorate the return of icons and the use of icon. Most people who reject icons do so misinterpreting the prohibition of idols. Icons are not idols, we do not worship them. Interesting that those who reject them citing the commandment refuse to acknowledge that the Jewish Tabernacle and later Temples were decorated with images and the Tabernacle itself was an image. Icons are often viewed as windows, a place where we can view a Saint, or an event where we can teach the theological truth.

From orthodoxwiki.org we find this: “Veneration (gr. doulia) is a way to show great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Veneration is distinct from worship (gr. latreia), for worship is a total giving over of the self to be united with God, while veneration is showing delight for what God has done. There can be confusion because one may venerate what one worships as well as venerate others. Veneration is part of worship to the Orthodox faithful, but they show love and respect to more than the God they worship.”

We venerate Icons, we bow and kiss them, recalling the person or event depicted in the icon. They are like windows into Heaven where the Saints are seen and where the “great cloud of witnesses” might view us and our communication. We do not worship them nor do we worship the Saints depicted in icons. The distinction might be a fine line to those outside but not to the Orthodox. When we communicate with the Saints, since they are part of our Church, we aren’t “Praying To Them” but rather asking for them to pray for and intercede for us with God. Since Saint Paul said, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” II Corinthians 5:8 NKJV

Since the Saints are present with the Lord, we trust that they can, and will pray for us knowing that they will pray according to the Will of God and by joining us in prayer there will be at least two in agreement asking God for something according to His Will. The promise that Jesus made was that if there were supplications in agreement with God’s will and there were two in agreement that God would grant our request. So we ask for prayers from people we see and from the Saints whom we do not see, all within our worship life in the Church.

Worship provides us experience of Heaven, the ability to interpret scripture, understand and communicate sound doctrine and to receive from God his blessings. Jesus said, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” John 6:56-57 NKJV so when we worship, and we take Communion, Jesus is consumed and becomes part of us and we abide in him by this action. This is another mystery, what we see and what we believe is happening is different but nevertheless it is our reality.

So we see that worship unites us with each other because we are instructed to make sure not to have disagreements therefore not to profane the sacrifice of the Church. Worship unites us with the WHOLE Church including those who have preceded us to heaven. Worship instructs us in theology, biblical truths, historical facts and in scripture. Worship opens us up to receive God through faith each time we gather, and by doing that we are able to give alms to care for those in need. Worship is the life of the Church and therefore the life of the Christian.

Sound Doctrine: What is the Basis?

I saw recently a statement that caused me to pause and think. Someone said, “The New Testament is the only book people read one sentence at a time.” This seems accurate. What seems to be the problem with this? Context matters. If one reads the Bible in context then the whole seems to be full but not as easy to connect with bumper sticker-type slogans.

Interesting in itself, the interpretation of Holy Scripture within Orthodoxy has many accepted guidelines, one such guideline is “Only within the community of the Church can the Bible be understood. It was written by the Church, in the Church and for the Church. Thus, it is a “family document” which is the highest point of Holy Tradition, taken with faith alongside the writings of the Fathers, the Liturgy, the Icons, the Lives of the Saints, and so on.”

Slogans are often part of our life here in the USA and they might work well for tee shirts or bumper stickers but doctrine was never that simple. Doctrine, teachings, are collective in nature that the Church has developed over time. When the Church began in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost 33AD we see that the new converts “continued in the Apostles’ doctrine” but nothing is said to define what that was. Many will declare what that was but really nothing in scripture has ever defined the Apostles’ Doctrine.

The Church existed for 353 years with the only scripture being what modern Christians call “The Old Testament” and if we look into history we find that the one version the Church had was the text called the Septuagint. This text was translated about 299BC during the reign of Alexander who was trying to subdue his entire empire. He knew that as long as the Jews had their ancient language their culture wouldn’t completely submit to his rule. As dictators do, he tried to eliminate the sacred writings that were in Hebrew by translating them into Greek. After the 70 scholars (some records say 72) translated the Jewish scriptures into Greek, he ordered the Hebrew language scriptures to be destroyed. To a great extent that was accomplished. The common scriptures in use in the first century Israel was the Septuagint.

When the Apostles read scripture, when they taught scripture, when they worshipped, the scriptures they used was the Old Testament and was the Greek Septuagint. None of the Apostles knew that anything that they wrote would be called scripture. Saint Paul did not sit down and declare “I’m going to write scripture, okay God, give it to me.” On the contrary, he was giving pastoral guidance to his children. He said to the Corinthians, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” I Corinthians 4:15 NKJV

What are we to say? Is the New Testament not the inspired Word of God? Of course it is. We have known it to be scripture since approximately 389AD. That was when the council of bishops, after three years of consideration, filtered through writings from all over the known world, that had been collected by the Church. Judging them by objective standards that all agreed to, the bishops canonized what we now know of as The New Testament.

What many people do not realize is that the written New Testament scriptures we have today, for 353 years was the oral Holy Tradition of the Church. Today many disrespect the title “Tradition” and some even reject the title outright. Tradition is not evil, nor is it to be rejected simply because of the name. Tradition is simply something handed down from one generation to another. The disrespect for the term “Tradition” comes from the 15th chapter of Matthew where Jesus was calling out the hypocrisy of the Jews who had nullified the commandments of God, specifically “Honor your father and mother…” by the tradition they had erected over the course of time. Odd how this one line, taken out of context, is often used to disrespect Holy Tradition that was taught by the Apostles.

So what is the basis for doctrine? How do we understand doctrines? Where does scripture fit? If scripture is used, how do we interpret scripture?

Many people in today’s religious world follow the doctrine or teaching first popularized by Martin Luther, Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone. To simplify it, this doctrine declares that the only basis for doctrine is the Holy Scriptures. This can be quite a circular discussion because nowhere in Scripture does it say this. Therefore the DOCTRINE that declares that doctrine is only valid if it is taught in Scripture is not taught in scripture.

It is interesting, only as a side note, that Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic Friar and Priest, and since he originated the doctrine of “Scripture Alone” he also took it upon himself to decide what WAS scripture. He didn’t like the Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate and wanted scripture in the common vernacular of his native German followers. If you teach that doctrine can only be derived or discovered from scripture you must provide a way for everyone to have scriptures that they can read. Martin Luther decided to translate the scriptures himself. This gave him an amazing opportunity to decide what books were accepted and even the language of the text that he translated. One other item of note is that Tyndale used Luther’s German Bible as a comparison text when he translated his English Bible. Anything introduced into the text by Luther would likely also color the English Tyndale Bible.

The Church used the Old Testament in the Septuagint text, a Greek text. Luther chose to use the Hebrew text, most notably originating in the 8th century AFTER Christ. In the “Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs” of 1848, which was a reply to the epistle of Pope Pius IX, “To the Easterns,” the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, along with the other assembled bishops stated: “Our Church holds the infallible and genuine deposit of the Holy Scriptures: of the Old Testament a true and perfect version, of the New the divine original itself.” And so we have always held that the Septuagint is the authoritative version of the Old Testament.

The Apostles had doctrine. In the book of Acts we see, “…And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2:42 KJV. So we see that the Apostles had doctrine the new converts continued steadfastly in this doctrine and try as we might, we never see anywhere in the New Testament the clear statement that this or that was the Apostles’ doctrine.

I have extensively searched the New Testament and was really interested. Nowhere is there step-by-step instructions, clear teaching on the following subjects that most Churches have doctrine concerning: baptism, weddings, communion, funerals, ordination, or even how to worship.

From 33AD the Church took what was passed down by the Apostles directly and passed it from bishop to bishop for centuries. Timothy was left behind in Asia Minor to ordain (set in place) bishops. He was given instructions about how to identify the men that were qualified to be bishops. These bishops were to come from among the people. They weren’t to come from outside the area. They were to have a good reputation and to have only one wife. They were to be able to teach others. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2:2 KJV

These bishops, received doctrine from the Apostles, some directly, others received doctrine from other bishops but I believe that we can expect that they were faithful. These men were judged by those close to them. The community testified, by their words and actions, that these men were faithful. So to accept that, I must also conclude that they were able to teach others. Over the years and centuries these bishops were faithful to teach exactly as they were taught.

In 325AD the Church was faced with a heresy that said Jesus was a created being and NOT God. The ramifications of this heresy would dismantle the Church. To deal with this heresy, the bishops met in a council in Nicea. Each bishop declared what he had been taught from the beginning. In reading the text from the Council of Nicea we see a record of consistency that the Church had passed down sound doctrine from the beginning. The conclusion of the Council of Nicea found the Church bishops writing the first two sections of what came to be known as the Creed. It was the first written doctrine published throughout the Church.

The first two sections of the Creed say:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;

And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;

And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father;

And He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.

In 381AD due to another challenge of a heresy in the Church, the bishops met in a great council again. This time it was held in Constantinople. The latter half of the Creed was written and the Creed was finalized. The bishops, after prayer, consideration and discussion declared the Creed finished. They also decided that the CREED itself was not to be edited further, no additions or subtractions were to be allowed. The last part of the Creed reads as follows:

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Live, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets;
And I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sin.

I look for the Resurrection of the dead;

And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

This is an example of doctrine, that was consistent with Holy Scripture, and has been written down and included in the Church teachings.  This Creed forms the basis of the Church and is a collection of the teachings passed down by the bishops over the centuries. Saint Paul held that his oral teachings were to be taught equal to his written epistles placing oral tradition on equivalent stature when he wrote, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” II Thessalonians 2:15 NKJV

After the Council of Constantinople the bishops commissioned the collection of writings that the Church revered in various places and the bishops were to judge what text was scripture and what was not. The canonization of the New Testament was finalized in 389AD and ultimately distributed throughout the Church.

So then, how do we interpret scripture? Many will say “scripture interprets scripture” but really is that enough? Can we interpret scripture in a vacuum? Outside of the life of the Church can we truly understand scriptures? The Divine Liturgy provides us clarity to understand scripture. We read the scriptures in the context of the worship of the Church, this is the primary interpretation of scripture. We don’t interpret scripture apart from the life of the Church otherwise trying to do so will lead to much error.

The Fathers of the Church wrote, as they had been taught, the wisdom that had been passed to them. Some, like Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp were with John the Theologian on Patmos where he was exiled. Later Fathers had only what was passed down through writings and by word of mouth of the bishops that taught them. They also were able to confer with each other, bishops could check each other for sound doctrine and like in the larger councils they could pray and compare pastoral guidance. The pattern is consistent throughout the history of the Church.

Outside of the body, without guidance from those who have been entrusted as overseers when we find scripture passages that are not clear, it is good to get guidance. The Fathers’ writings give us much guidance. Can’t we understand it without them? Sometimes but when looking for the account of an event that I was not alive to remember I would trust someone who was there or knew someone who saw it rather than trust the word or recollection of a guy that knew a guy that knew a guy whose mother’s father thinks he worked with a guy that read a book about it or heard a sermon about it once.

So for doctrine, sound doctrine, the basis should be and can be anything in Holy Tradition. The highest form of Holy Tradition is the Bible, but there are the deuterocanonical books of the Apocrypha which was part of the Old Testament that Jesus read. History shows us that the pattern of worship from the Church of the first century is recorded, Justin the Martyr who was martyred in about 125AD in his apologetics to the Emperor described the worship of the Church. The Divine Liturgy currently celebrated in our parishes was written in the fourth century and with only minor changes remains the same. The life of the Church, its worship, its iconography, the writings of the Fathers, its bishops, and the congregation of the people all work together to build sound doctrine. This sound doctrine requires that in order to properly interpret Holy Scripture, one must be progressing toward Godliness. It’s not simply a work of literature, and while many will read it as such, proper interpretation requires us to be progressing toward Theosis. If we are not applying it, the interpretation is simply empty exercise of mental gymnastics for the vanity of the individual.