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The Threefold Witness of the Church

October 29, 2009 

The Catholic Peter, the Orthodox John, and the Protestant Paul

Louis Markos

Louis Markos

Louis Markos

As an Evangelical Protestant who came to know Christ in the Greek Orthodox Church, as a non-denominational “product” of the para-church movement, and as an avid supporter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, I have always harbored mixed feelings about the divided state of the Body of Christ. When God ‘looks down’ from heaven on his Universal Church and sees her split into three main branches—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (not to mention the dozens of subbranches)—does he smile, frown, or just shake his head stoically? Are these divisions the blessed fruit of God’s Spirit working or merely the workings of human pride and stubbornness? Speaking theoretically and theologically, do the divisions expand our vision and understanding of the Triune God or do they disguise a multitude of errors, apostasies, and even heresies? Speaking pragmatically and missiologically, do they multiply the evangelistic opportunities of the Church or do they compromise our witness before the watching eyes of the world? And perhaps the most important question: should we be working to eliminate all denominational differences and establish a single Christian communion?

Whatever work is done to achieve partial unity within the sub-branches of, say, Protestantism, the essential division between the three main branches will almost surely remain intact until Christ returns. Aside from divine intervention, the best we can hope for (and it is a good hope indeed) is that the fully biblical and credal segments within each branch will communally assert their firm and firmly shared belief in the tenets of the historic faith, and, in so doing, affirm their threefold commitment to the Gospel. Much good work has already been done in this area. Above I mentioned Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which has produced many statements of faith affirming the shared faith of those involved while recognizing the divisions that must be sustained. I might also mention the impact of C. S. Lewis’s ‘mere’ apologetics, the ecumenical writings of Pope John Paul II, and the bracingly long list of Christ-centered, inter-denominational conferences, from that which drew up the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 to the Touchstone conference, “Christian Unity & the Divisions We Must Sustain,” held in Illinois in 2001. Of course, the success of such conferences and para-church organization has been aided by the fortuitous (yet troubling) fact that traditional believers within the three branches have been distracted from fighting each other by the growth of a common “enemy”: the “liberal” sections within each branch. Many deny the supernatural elements of the faith, reject the full deity of Christ, downplay the authority of Scripture, and treat the Crucifixion and Resurrection as but one of many vehicles for reconciling the sinner with God. It is here, we have finally learned, between those who embrace the traditional core of the Christian faith and those who do not, that the real division lies.

The road toward a unity that maintains denominational integrity while affirming the Christcentered, Spirit-led nature of all three branches has gotten off to a good start. Both the will for such a unity and the administrative structures for bringing it to fruition are already in place. What is still lacking is a vision that will allow us to see this unity as a desirable and workable reality. Nearly all believers (instructed by Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 12) have the ability to view the members of their own churches (or denominations) as various and diverse members of a single Body of Christ. What we have yet to learn is how to see the denominations themselves as members that can and must work together to fulfill the Great Commission. And to do this we need a metaphor that will provide us with both a biblical justification and an image. I would like to propose just such a metaphor, one that has not yet to my knowledge been suggested, but which will strike the reader by its mundane truth and simplicity.

The Inner Circle

The Apostles Paul, John, Peter

The Apostles Paul, John, Peter

In order to carry out his mission on earth, Jesus chose for himself twelve disciples. They were to bear his message out to the surrounding world. Out of those twelve, the Gospels suggest (e.g., Mark 5:37,9:2, 14:33) he further chose an inner circle of three disciples to whom he revealed more of his power, plan, and Passion: Peter, John, and James, the brother of John. After the Resurrection, Peter and John, as key players in Acts and the authors of several New Testament books continued to hold a central place in beginning the fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission. James, however, is only mentioned one time in Acts, and then only to record his martyrdom under the hand of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2). Oddly, though tradition tells us that all eleven apostles (except John) were martyred for their faith, only the death of James is recorded in the New Testament. I would suggest that Luke chose to include the death of James for a very specific reason. The account of James’ martyrdom is book-ended by Paul’s conversion in Chapter 9 and the beginning of his First Missionary Journey in Chapter 13, and, as such, subtly posits Paul as the successor to and replacement for James and, by extension, as the new third member of the inner circle. Indeed, along with Peter and John, Paul too emerges as both a key player in the spread of the gospel and a major author of the New Testament.

More than any others it is these three apostles who stand at the very center of the fledgling church and her divine mission. Though they all served the same Lord and their biblical writings provide a unified testimony to Christ and Christian doctrine (Peter even commends Paul’s letters in 2 Peter 3:15–6), their manner of witness and their relative strengths and weaknesses are markedly diverse. They complement rather than simply overlap each other’s ministries. Indeed, so diverse were their ministries (and personalities) that the church would have suffered a great loss if any of the three had not served her. Both the nature and witness of the church would be almost inconceivable without the threefold witness of Peter, John, and Paul.

The same remains true today. We need all three apostles—the complete circle—if we are to embody the richness of God’s presence in the world and engage the nations with the fullness of the Gospel. We need, in fact, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches, for they carry within them the unique legacies of Peter, John, and Paul. In Cantos 24–26 of his Paradiso, Dante presents the inner circle of Peter, James, and John as allegories for, respectively, faith, hope, and love. If I may be allowed to alter the letter of Dante’s model while yet remaining true to its spirit (by replacing James with Paul and then reassigning two of the virtues), I would submit that in Peter, John, and Paul (and the Churches that most closely bear their imprint) we find the purest, most vital embodiments of the three theological virtues of hope, love, and faith (1 Corinthians 13:13). Apart, each of these virtues possesses great power and is capable of mighty deeds, but when brought together in a complementarian (rather than egalitarian) fashion, their power and ability is multiplied threefold.

With this then as the preface, let us now study closely the unique strengths and weaknesses of each apostle and his corresponding branch of the Body of Christ. This will enable us to see the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches not only as diverse members in a single body but as three branches of that one eternal vine which is Christ our Lord.

The Catholic Peter: Passionate Extremes

Central to the belief system of every Catholic is the identification of the apostle Peter as the first Pope, and in that first Holy Father we see displayed in full all the virtues and vices of the Church of Rome. Peter is a passionate man of almost violent extremes. Out of all the disciples, it is he (inspired by the Holy Spirit) who is the first to recognize Jesus as Messiah. In response, Christ praises him highly and even promises to place in his hands the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16:15–20). And yet but a brief time later the same Peter who boldly proclaims Christ’s status as “the Son of the living God” attempts to prevent him from fulfilling the Father’s plan. The confessing disciple now receives one of Jesus’ strongest rebukes: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt 16:23; NIV throughout).

At the Last Supper (John 13), Peter first tells Jesus that he will not allow him to wash his feet and then insists that he wash not only his feet but his head and hands as well. After dinner, Peter pledges before Christ and the other disciples that he will lay down his life for his Master. Indeed, he even “makes good” on his pledge at the Garden of Gethsemane when he draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of those sent to arrest Jesus, an action sure to cost him his life if he is captured. And yet later that very night he denies three times that he even knows Jesus. During one of his Resurrection appearances, the Risen Lord extends to Peter the blessed opportunity to supersede his triple denial by affirming three times his love for Jesus (John 21:15–19). Peter does so and Christ, after prophesying that he will die a martyr’s death, calls on Peter to follow him. Peter, being both humbled and triumphant, sets out to follow. Yet, even here the old Peter slips through, and he cannot help but question Jesus as to what the fate of the apostle John will be (verse 21).

Throughout her long and bumpy history, the Roman Catholic Church has been the church that has most fully engaged the world around her. While Orthodoxy withdraws and Protestantism divides, The Catholic Church wrestles and grapples and gets her hands dirty. She makes mistakes (lots of them) but presses on nevertheless—ever struggling and yet ever maintaining her integrity and identity. Like Peter, she grows and learns without ever quite losing that rashness and impulsiveness that defines her. When God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (“he who wrestles with God”), he surely meant it as both a compliment and a criticism. The Israelites born out of Jacob’s loins proved (like Peter and the Catholic Church) to be wrestlers with God: now embracing his Word and with it setting the world on fire; now resisting that same Word and running after the world. When at her best, the Catholic Church (like Peter at Pentecost) stands boldly before the crowd proclaiming the message that is a stumbling block to the world. At her worst, she elicits the very rebuke that Jesus gave to Peter: “you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Yet still, ever and always, she persists and remains herself— a rock thrown in the river to trouble the waters.

One of the reasons that John Henry Cardinal Newman converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism was because he feared that the Bible alone was not enough to stand against what he called (in Chapter V of Apologia Pro Vita Sua) the “wild living intellect of man.” To combat this “universal solvent,” God ordained and appointed an institution (the Roman Catholic Church) “happily adapted to be a working instrument . . . for smiting hard and throwing back the immense energy of the aggressive, capricious, untrustworthy intellect.” The non-Catholic attacks Rome for being stubborn and inflexible and slow to change, but to level this (often just) criticism is simultaneously to praise Rome for that inner, God-given nature which she shares with her first Pontiff.

Part of the result of the Fall is that evil not only exists in the world but is inextricably intertwined with the good that remains. We, both people and churches, are all “package deals”— amalgams of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. Indeed, our strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices are so closely woven together that they cannot be separated from each other. This is a truth that every married couple must learn if they are to remain married.

God has, I would submit, chosen the Catholic Church to keep alive the spirit and witness of Peter in all of its paradoxical extremes. If she is to complete her mission, if she is to continue to stand (to quote Newman again) as “proof against the energy of human skepticism,” if she is successfully to rescue the freedom of thought “from its own suicidal excesses,” then she is going to have to be a bit stubborn and stiff-necked. That is not to absolve her of guilt when her stubbornness falls into pride and sin and disobedience, but it is to assert that her flaws and frequent slips are part and parcel of that divine mission which she, and she alone, has been given the grace to fulfill. Just as every parish needs at least one Peter to be both its rock and its rabble-rouser, so the Universal Body of Christ needs its Catholic branch, which both centers and disturbs it.

I linked Peter above to the theological virtue of hope, and indeed the older, wiser, chastened Peter of the epistles begins his first general letter by praising God for giving us a “new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). To read 1st and 2nd Peter is to peer into a mind and a heart that have learned patience, humility and fortitude. Tame he is not (cf. his condemnation of false teachers in 2 Peter 2). But his years of ministry and persecution have taught him to look ahead and to trust in the promises of the Lord: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness” (2 Peter 3:9). His eyes are trained forward and he has learned finally what it means to be in the world but not of it. Throughout that long theological and sociological experiment we call the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church strove to find the right balance between full investment in the world and radical disengagement. Her Petrine vision of hope taught her to live in a suspended state of tension poised between her political and aesthetic attempts to perfect society and culture as well as her more monastic impulse to dismiss this earthly field as a vale of tears to focus only on the Kingdom to come. These two extremes are kept in perpetual tension by a Church that never ceases to wrestle with man and the world. “There are an infinity of angles at which one falls,” writes G. K. Chesterton (that other great Anglican convert to Catholicism) in Chapter VI of Orthodoxy, “only one at which one stands.”  Perhaps Rome’s greatest and most vital legacy is that she has continued to stand when she should have fallen flat on her face a dozen times. And in this above all is she truly the living theological and institutional embodiment of the spirit and witness of St. Peter.

The Orthodox John: Glory in Isolation

There is an old legend (which is probably true) that in the late 10th century Grand Prince Vladimir, seeking a national religion to help unify his lands and peoples, sent out envoys to inspect the various faiths of the surrounding nations. Accordingly, they attended the Muslim rites of the Bulgars, the Catholic mass of the Germans, and the Orthodox liturgy of the Greeks. When they returned and were questioned by their Prince as to which of the religions they thought the best, they answered boldly that whereas they found neither joy nor glory in the ceremonies of the Bulgars and the Germans, when they entered the sanctuary of the Greeks, they did not know whether they were in heaven or on earth. “For on earth,” they explained, “there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty” (the Primary Chronicle). Vladimir accepted their testimony, and the Russian Orthodox Church (which in 1988 celebrated its Millennium) was born.

Like Western Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy is strongly liturgical, built around the celebration of the Eucharist. However, though the Catholic Mass, with all its attendant vestments and music, is undeniably rich and strange, it cannot hold a candle to the overwhelming mysticism of the Orthodox liturgy. Do you recall the sense of awe and wonder you felt when you fi rst read the Prologue to John’s Gospel or Chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation? Th at same sense of the sacred brought to earth (or, better, of the earth lifted up to the sacred) is what one feels when one first participates in an Orthodox liturgy. Indeed, in accordance with Revelation 4, the Orthodox believe that when the liturgy is performed on earth, it is being simultaneously performed in the Throne Room of God. What is more, the aesthetic beauty and sacramental mystery of that liturgy have neither changed nor been lost since the envoys of Vladimir were enraptured by it, or for that matter, since St. John Chrysostom committed it to parchment in the late 4th century.

There is a reason that the beauty and mystery of the liturgy have persisted unchanged for so many centuries, but that reason has little to do with the external accoutrements of Orthodox worship. At the heart of Orthodox liturgics lies a seminal faith in and love of the Incarnation. And, as the apostle John is the New Testament writer who most fully explores the Incarnation, it is to him more than any other biblical figure that Orthodoxy owes its identity and mission. Whereas the Synoptic Gospels begin with genealogies, with the ministry of John the Baptist, or with the nativity narrative, John’s Gospel begins with a theological and philosophical disputation on the Word that became flesh. In all of John’s writings, heaven and earth are in a state of constant interchange. Physical objects like bread and water, shepherds and lambs are continually being drawn upward even as the glory of heaven streams down from above. It is only in John that we hear Jesus compare himself to Jacob’s Ladder upon which the angels of God ascend and descend (John 1:51); only in John that we find clear and resounding testimony that the Son of God (contra the Gnostics) was fully incarnate in the flesh (1 John 1:1, 4:2); only in John that the veil is ripped away and we see what was really happening in the heavenly regions during the earthly nativity of Christ (Revelation 12).

There is an intimacy in the writings of John, the “apostle of love”, that rests not on sentiment or romance but on incarnational mystery—the mystery of the two into one. There is something wonderfully and essentially Orthodox about the apostle John racing to the tomb of the Risen Christ, his enthusiasm so powerful that he outruns Peter, and then pausing at the entrance in a state of quiet rapture while the more headstrong, physically passionate Peter rushes in (John 20:3–9). And, in case we missed the contrast, one chapter later we have John quietly recognizing the person and glory of the Lord followed by Peter impulsively jumping into the sea and swimming to Christ (John 21:7).

The Orthodox Church, like John, seems perpetually poised on the threshold between heaven and earth, spiritual and physical. Like the poet John Keats, she feels comfortable dwelling in the midst of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Both John and Orthodoxy rest on Jesus’ breast. Though she shares with Catholicism a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, her theologians have never thought it necessary to offer either a philosophical or scientific explanation for how this is so. They rest in the belief that it is so, because they love and trust him who said it was so.

Such are her strengths, but what are her weaknesses? Exactly those of the brother of James and son of Zebedee. Though he matured into the apostle of love, John was given a nickname by Jesus that points perhaps to a different side of his character: the Son of Thunder (Mark 3:17). Though we all know the story, we often forget that it was James and John who asked Jesus if they could sit on his right and left hand when he came in his glory (Mark 10:35–7). Likewise, it was James and John who asked Jesus if he would like them to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village of hostile Samaritans (Luke 9:54). Again, it was John who boasted to Jesus of how he had stopped in his tracks a ‘rogue’ miracle worker unaffiliated with the ‘official’ disciples: “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38).

Behaviors like these might at first seem inconsistent with the more mystical and meditative side of John. Yet we find the same union of seeming opposites in the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Egypt, etc. To anyone who has experienced the Orthodox Church (either from the inside or the outside), her central fl aw of ethnocentrism is glaringly obvious. Just as the Judaizers of the Book of Acts wanted to freeze the growing Christian Church and keep it a perpetual sect within Judaism, so too many Orthodox see their faith as linked by an unbroken chain to their ethnic identity. Like the Son of Thunder, they jealously guard their prerogatives as a special people who must ward off all rivals. Though Orthodox converts who do not share the same ethnicity as their Greek or Egyptian brethren (e.g., Timothy Ware, Peter Gillquist, Patrick Henry Reardon, Frederica Matthewes-Green) will often engage in ecumenical dialogue, the ethnic old guard generally looks on such dialogue with suspicion. In fact, in an extreme display of the Orthodox tendency toward spiritual balkanization (one that makes Mark 9:38 seem tame in comparison), many Orthodox leaders in former Soviet countries have actually worked together with Muslim leaders to keep the Protestant ‘sects’ from invading their territory.

Of course, there is a historical reason for Orthodoxy’s ethnocentrism. For the better part of a millennium, most Orthodox Christians have been virtually enslaved by the Ottoman Turks or a Communist government. Persecuted and marginalized by generations of Muslims and Atheists, the Orthodox learned to bond together and to guard fiercely their identity and their culture. Indeed, just as the Black Church in America functioned as both the spiritual and political center of Black resistance to oppression, so the Orthodox Church has fulfilled the same function in Greece, Armenia, and Russia. And with the growth of Muslim extremism she will eventually be forced to do so in Egypt.

Oddly enough, just as John shares with the Orthodox the temptation to exclude and to claim an identity exalted above the rest of the ‘lesser’ apostles, so too did he come to share in their isolation and exile. John on the island of Patmos is a type of those Orthodox Christians who were first cut off from the West by the conquering Muslim militias, eventually to be incarcerated in their own countries by the Turks or Soviets. Still, for all their ethnocentrism, we of the Universal Church desperately need the witness of the Johannine Orthodox. We need their acceptance and celebration of mystery as well as their two-thousandyear-old love affair with the Incarnation that is embodied not only in their rich liturgical theology but also in their incarnational iconography. Like John, the Orthodox are the mouthpiece through which Christ invites us to come to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev 22:17), to that great incarnational event where Christ and his Church become one.

The Protestant Paul: Purity and Division

Anyone who has read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion cannot help but be struck by his unabashed and cavalier attitude toward his theological forbears. Calvin makes it quite clear that between St. Paul and himself there was really only one other theologian, St. Augustine, who “got it right.” Even Augustine himself is subjected to some revisions. Indeed, aside from some passing references to Bernard, the entire theological output of the Middle Ages is polemically ignored. Such an attitude would be unthinkable in either Catholicism or Orthodoxy; in Protestantism it is common fare. There is in classical Protestantism a yearning for doctrinal purity, systematic theology, and exegetical preaching, the type of which makes everyone else look like first-year Bible students. In a long line extending from Luther and Calvin to Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, Moody,Sproul, Stott, and Packer, the various denominations that make up the Protestant Church have brought to the Body of Christ a passion for the Word of God that is essentially Pauline in its intensity and scope. The purifying spirit of Protestantism is like a two-edged sword hacking away at every limb that grows too far from the central trunk of the Bible. The heirs of Luther are those who, to borrow a line from an old Sunday school song, “stand alone on the Word of God.” Whenever the Universal Church strays from its grounding in the written testimonies of the apostles, whenever the Catholics venture too far into the ways of the world or the Orthodox rest too smugly on their historical or ethnic prerogatives, Protestantism is there to restore, re-purify, and reconnect. And in fulfilling this ministry, the Protestant Church embodies fully the legacy of St. Paul.

First, as Saul of Tarsus, he studied and defended the Torah with a passion and fury that led him to persecute the Way. Later, as Paul of Asia, Greece, and Rome, he not only laid down the foundations of Christian theology but ripped away the veil covering the Old Testament. This allowed Christians to perceive in the Law and the Prophets the seeds and promises of God’s great work in Christ. And once he laid it down, he stood by it with a tenacity almost super-human. He would brook no compromise with the Judaizers in the Jerusalem Church; the central Christian doctrine of salvation by grace through faith was to be preserved and preached even if James (the brother of Jesus and leader of the Church) resisted him. Indeed, had all the other apostles deserted him, I am quite confident that Paul would have continued on, a lone Church of one, to preach the pure message of grace.

Of course there was a down side to Paul, the same we find in the Protestant Church, of which he is the true founder. Just as those who constantly seek purity in their church, home, career, or discipline tend often to become irascible and to attack anyone they perceive as an enemy, so Paul (the apostle of faith) very often lashed out in a particularly unloving spirit whenever he felt that his fellow Christians were not staying true to his program. And that darker side of his legacy has persisted as well during the last five hundred years of Protestantism. If you think the plays of Shakespeare or rap videos are the greatest source of insults and slander, then you obviously have not read Calvin’s Institutes or Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Though they have sought to fulfill the Great Commission more than any other branch of Christianity, the Protestants have often fallen short when it comes to the Golden Rule and especially in love of neighbor. The story of the low-church Puritans, who fled from religious persecution under the Church of England only to persecute the even-lower-church Quakers, is alas a story replayed too often in the ever-dividing Protestant world.

Division is the most besetting sin of the Protestant branch of Christianity, a sin that begins with Paul himself, who broke violently with Peter (Gala-Galatians 2:11–21) and Barnabas (Acts 15:36–41) as a result of two disputes that could certainly have been resolved by a little bit of patience and diplomacy on the part of Paul. Of course, many a Protestant will argue that Paul’s break with Barnabas was really ordained by God and was ultimately a good thing for the Church. I would beg to differ. Indeed, I would not only argue that the division was an unnecessary one, but that Paul was the one at fault. Consider the following three aspects of the division between Paul and Barnabas, which was initiated by Paul’s refusal to let Mark accompany them on their second missionary journey since Mark had abandoned them during their first. 1) Had Barnabas taken the same attitude toward the newly-converted Saul that Paul was now taking to Mark, he never would have extended to Saul the right hand of fellowship and introduced him to the apostles who were suspicious of Saul’s anti-Christian past (Acts 9:26–30); 2) Contra the low expectations of Paul, Mark went on to be one of the “mega” Christians, serving both as a co-worker with Peter and an author of one of the Gospels; 3) Paul seems to have learned his lesson, not only taking under his wing another young, untried Christian (Timothy), but also requesting in his last epistle from prison that Mark be sent to him (2 Timothy 4:11). Did the early Church survive the split between Paul and Barnabas and continue to thrive? Yes, but that does not prove that the split was therefore ordained by God. It only reminds us that God’s love is so great that he can bring about his ends even in spite of us.

Still, for all their divisions, the Protestant Church continues as a much-needed force for renewal and purity. The Protestants, especially when they remain true to their roots in Paul, Luther, and Calvin, keep us on track, preserving for us those essentially (mostly Pauline) doctrines that not only make Christianity distinct but also empower her to bring the message of salvation to a dying world.

The Fourth Branch: The Charismatic Marys

I have written thus far as if there were only three main branches of Christianity but there is, arguably, a fourth. Though it began as an off shoot of Protestantism, the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement has grown so rapidly over the 20th century and is so distinctive in its beliefs and practices that it really demands to be treated as its own separate branch. In their ecclesiology and sacramental life most Charismatics are so low as to be off the radar of any traditional conception of Church. However, it must be admitted that the vast majority of these Charismatics ascribe to the principles of the Nicene Creed, believe in salvation by grace through faith in the Incarnate Christ, are dedicated to missions and discipleship, and are committed to the necessity and centrality of the worship of the Triune God. While not part of any discernible Church, there is no doubt that most Charismatics are Christians.

Throughout the history of the Church, God’s grace has worked through individuals and communities that lay outside the sphere of the Church proper. Many separatist groups, such as the early monastic movements, have invigorated the identity and integrity of the Church. As outsiders, freed from the traditional authority structures of the institutional Church, such movements have often found their way back into the mainstream, bringing with them theology and practices that the Holy Spirit has used as a catalyst for change and renewal.

Though it may still be too early to say for sure, the Charismatics may prove to be a wild olive shoot that by being grafted into the Church tree will render it both stronger and more resilient. And if that is so, if the Charismatic movement represents a legitimate (if “wild”) branch of the Church, then it calls as well for its own apostolic forebear whose witness and personality it can embody. That forbearer is not to be found in any of Jesus’ twelve disciples but in those vital female followers who though outsiders to the traditional power structures of society and religion, often showed a faith and a courage that surpassed that of the Twelve. I speak specifically of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus) whose passionate love of Christ and whose excessive piety finds its fullest expression in the Charismatic branch of Christianity.

There is something powerfully feminine about Pentecostalism that surfaces both in its focus on the less rational, more intuitive spiritual gifts (tongues and prophecy) and in its commitment to nurturing the emotional. With a passion that yearns for a more direct understanding of revelation than can be contained in systematic doctrinal statements, and with a piety that would take such revelation and inject it back into the life of the congregation, Charismatics show the rest how to make the Spirit alive here and now in a community of believers. Ideally, the Charismatic woman who speaks in a tongue does not displace the Psalmist, but simply adds her voice to the greater chorus of praise. The Pentecostal man who exercises his gift of prophecy properly does not add a book to the Bible, but brings God’s living, active, convicting Word into a specific, congregationally-focused situation. This is not akin to the endless genealogies that Paul warns the Church against, but a desire to draw closer to the heart of Christ in the idiom of the age.

What scene could be more wonderfully Charismatic than that of the sinful woman, traditionally identified with Mary Magdalene, bursting into a staid dinner of Pharisees and weeping all over the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36–50)? Or Mary of Bethany breaking open and thus wasting a jar of expensive perfume in order to anoint Jesus for his coming burial (John 12:1–8)? In the first story, Jesus defends Mary’s ‘disorderly’ conduct by explaining that the greatness of her love was inspired by the greatness of her forgiveness. In the second, Jesus justifies the extravagance of the wasted perfume by emphasizing the special status of the recipient of that extravagance. By so doing Jesus thus silences two of the main objections to Pentecostalism: that it is disorderly and/or chaotic; and that it takes focus away from weightier matters.

Of course, Pentecostalism too has its flaws, the most central of which can be found in a second incident from the life of Mary Magdalene (John 20:10–18), a story which includes one of Jesus’ more puzzling sayings. The setting is Easter Sunday just outside the tomb of Christ. The Risen Jesus appears to Mary, but she thinks that he is the gardener. Jesus then speaks her name and Mary’s eyes are opened. Immediately, she falls to her feet and grabs ahold of Jesus, who commands her: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father” (verse 17). If there is one central sin in Pentecostalism, then it is surely this: the desire to keep holding on to and reliving the same experience. There is a greedy desperation in Charismatic worship and theology that grabs and grabs, both at the things of the Spirit and the things of the world: a grabbing that too often gets in the way of God’s greater plans.

Nevertheless, for all their grand health and wealth excesses, we need the Charismatics, for they alone bring to Christianity a perspective and a ministry only partly developed by the Universal Church before Schisms and Reformations set in. Just as Western medical doctors are finally opening themselves, however slightly and cautiously, to holistic medicine, so are the more rationalistic and masculine branches of the Body of Christ becoming receptive to the more intuitive, feminine message of the fourth, Charismatic branch. And well they should, well may we all learn from one another so that the Gospel should penetrate our world.

I asked at the outset whether God smiles or frowns on our divisions and whether Christianity would have been better off had the divisions never occurred. In Chapter Ten of C. S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, Lucy asks a similar question of the Great Lion. She has disobeyed Aslan by not coming to him despite the unbelief of her siblings:

“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right [if I had come]—somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy.
“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me—what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”

None of us knows (or can know) what would have happened had the Orthodox and Catholics not split in the 11th century. Nor what would be if the Protestants and Catholics had remained together in the 16th century. But if we let go of such unanswerable questions and instead press forward so that we may all be one, then there is one thing we can know: God will smile. Who knows, perhaps, if I may invoke again Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, he will even laugh!


8 Responses to “The Threefold Witness of the Church”
  1. David Sanders says:

    Although I agree with Mr. Markos that the division within Christendom is regretful, and find his associating each division with a particular apostle interesting, I have a few questions:

    1. Is there not one Church, that has remained “unscathed” doctinally since the time of the Holy Apostles? If not, does the mean “the gates of hell” HAVE “prevailed” against Her? The idea that the Church is the “invisible body of believers” is a rather recent Protestant teaching, actually gnostic in nature.

    2. How can the Protestant Church, which is continually dividing over the meaning of scripture, keep either Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy scripturally “on track”? Besides, the latter two appeal to Holy Tradition, something completely alien to Protestantism.

    3. This article presents the idea that no one church has the “fullness of the Faith.” If this is so, can a Christian be complete? Is this not a contradiction of I Tim. 3:15 and Eph. 1:21-23?

    Christ calls us to be one in John 17. How this will be done is rightly stated in the beginning of the article:

    “Whatever work is done to achieve partial unity within the sub-branches of, say, Protestantism, the essential division between the three main branches will almost surely remain intact until Christ returns.”

  2. Louis Markos says:

    Thanks for your excellent questions, David. I find them convicting, esp. the one about gnosticism–for I, like you, try to be watchful about the church falling into gnosticism.

    Let me just share a few thoughts in response to your questions:

    1) You are right that the “invisible church” is not really a biblical metaphor, but I think it could be argued that the biblical metaphor of the “remnant” (those who have not bowed their knee to Baal) can be applied instead. I’d suggest there is a remnant made up of folks from all the different branches.

    2)I can see your point that some of Protestantism’s claims to being the original church are not too strong, but, even if we “dismiss” Protestantism, we run into a serious problem if we want to identify one true Church whose sacred tradition is somehow pure. As far as I can see BOTH the Catholic and Orthodox churches can make equally strong claims to being that original church. I do not really see that one can discount the other’s claim to supremacy on the basis of sacred tradition. Remember too that if we return to the remnant metaphor (and if we remember what’s more that God continually purifies the OT church of the Jews), then we CAN add in the claims of Protestantism to be the original church.

    3) Although I think you DO make a strong argument for Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 as being a confirmation that there should be one single institutional church (say, the Catholic), I don’t see it as too much of a stretch to see his prayer as pointing to a remnant of true believers from across all divides. We must remember that there was much division in the early Church, esp. between Paul’s Gentile Church and the Judaizers.

    4) But let me back up and be honest here. Part of the divide between Catholic/Orthodox one one side and Protestants (esp. low Prot.) on the other is that they define “doing Church” in such a different way.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful, David. I continually struggle with these things myself and found your questions stimulating. Please do feel free to visit my webpage at to download (all for free) more of my essays. Blessings,


  3. Fr. John A. Peck says:

    Just as a gentle and loving correction, St. Vladimir’s envoys did not visit the Greeks in Constantinople – the inhabitants of that city were all Romans – who happened to worship in greek. I’m pretty sure that none of them ever thought of themselves as Greek, nor would have called each other Greeks.

    By the way, you should give Vladimir Soloviev credit for first positing the Peter, John and Paul idea.

  4. David Sanders says:


    Thank you for your response. I would like to respond if I may.

    1. I understand what your trying to convey in using the term “remnant.” It still begs the question, “Does the NT Church still exist today?” I agree wholeheartedly with you that there were divisions in St. Paul’s time, which I believe included those who had minor doctrinal issues and those who were completely “out of communion” with the Church. As a convert from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, I no doubt believe the Orthodox Church to be the true Church. Her teachings regarding those outside of Her, are in my opinion, very reassuring: “We know the Holy Spirit is in the Orthodox Church. Where the Spirit is not we do not know.” Here it is plain to see that although the Orthodox Church regards Herself as the True Church, it does not condemn those outside of Her. Up until Vatican II, Roman Catholicism condemned all of those who were not confirmed members. And before pluralism became accepted in Protestantism, various denominations condemned each other. So, “remnant” might be applicable in the western Church, but not in the East.

    3. Each of the three have a different ecclesiology, well I dare say how many ecclesiologies exist in Protestantism.

    I understand that you do not want to deny any of these bodies membership in the Body of Christ, we cannot judge. That is for Christ alone. Yet we must speak up for that which we believe God would want us to.

    In Christ,

    David Sanders

    2. It is precisely because of sacred tradition that either Orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism is the true Church. Something to think about is a quote from the great Protestant theologian Philip Schaaf’s History of the Christian Church: “The East had no Dark Ages therefore it had no Reformation.” What does this imply? I am not saying there is nothing good about Protestantism. I am saying however, they cannot keep either Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism “in line” with scripture. They cannot even present a united front, if you will.

  5. R. Scott Pennington says:

    “I have always harbored mixed feelings about the divided state of the Body of Christ.”

    There is a gulf that separates Protestant understanding of Christianity from the understandings of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. In a Protestant church, you might hear the Church defined as, “the body of baptized believers”; i.e., the collective body of all Christians.

    This is not the way the Orthodox Church (OC) and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) define “Church”. I will try and confine myself to Orthodoxy since Roman Catholicism may be in a state of flux on this point.

    To the Orthodox, the OC is The Church – – unqualified – – period. There are many Christians outside the Church who either schismatics or heritics. However, the Church (the OC) is the Body of Christ and cannot, by definition, be divided.

    What this means is that at the very essence of being Orthodox is that the fulness of Christianity – – all that could possibly be necessary – – is present in the OC.

    Now, that does not mean that other churches do not have their good points or that they do not possess some degree of truth. It certainly does not mean that heterodox Christians can’t be saved. They can. “There are wolves within and sheep without.” However, if they are saved on the last day, it will not be by virtue of their own confessions.

    A similar dynamic applies among traditional Roman Catholics except that, of course, for them the locus of “the Church” is the Roman Catholic Church.

    What all of this means is that such metaphors and analogies as Peter – John – Paul are best applied within Protestantism where each of these Apostles might represent different Protestant denominational tendencies. This metaphor really doesn’t resonate with the Orthodox since we cannot look at ourselves in the way you posit since it is contrary to the foundations of our faith.

  6. Chase says:

    I had this exact thought, and decided to Google it. The comparison is so evident and clear when you think about it, and your article eloquently demonstrates this. What a beautiful illustration of the body of Christ. Creation is truly a magnificent work of art.


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