On the seventh Sunday of Pascha, the Orthodox Church commemorates The Holy God-bearing Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, a feast which has been celebrated from ancient times.
Historically it seems that when external persecutions of the Church subside, heresies and false teachings arise within the Church itself. So on this day when we commemorate the First Ecumenical Council of the Church which took place in 325 A.D., we ask ourselves:
“Does it really make any difference what we believe?”
In consideration of this question, I suggest five key scriptural passages:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV).
How many things could be left out and still fulfill this command? Would fifty-percent or seventy-five percent or even ninety percent qualify for everything? The words of our Lord to His followers clearly commanded the Church was to teach and observe one hundred percent of Christ’s apostolic doctrine.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NIV).
Claiming allegiance is insufficient. Saying is no substitute for obeying. How much of God’s truth can be compromised or rejected and still meet the standard of doing the Father’s will?
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32 NIV).
Since only the truth sets free, how much error can be mixed with truth before it ceases to be the truth? Can we change any of the doctrines of the apostolic Faith? Let us recall that the devil added only one word to God’s original command in Genesis 3:3–4, but it ruined Eve. Rat poison is deadly although it is ninety-nine percent wheat and only one percent poison.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-8 NIV).
Different gospels bring a curse. The fullness of truth delivered to the apostles and preserved in the doctrinal teachings of Christ’s Church is grace-filled and salvific; false teachings or false gospels are not.
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Revelation 22:18-19 NIV).
In light of this, should we accept any new doctrines or omission of any doctrines that contradict the apostolic teachings of the original Church? Is it safe to change, add or omit what has consistently been taught throughout the centuries by the Church established by Christ?
Throughout history, the Church has passed through difficult struggles against the enemy of our salvation. During times of persecution, holy women and men have endured great hardships and suffered immeasurably to preserve the truths of the apostolic faith. Many have paid the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the purity of faith, dying as martyrs rather than compromising truth. Such sacrifices have been particularly witnessed during the Roman persecutions during the first three centuries of the Church, during the communist persecutions in the twentieth century, and during the persecutions in our own day, especially now being witnessed in the Middle East.
And so, we return to the importance of today’s Commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council of the Church in 325 A.D., where 318 bishops representing the early Church from various lands gathered together at Nicea. Among the assembled bishops were many confessors who had suffered during the persecutions and who bore the marks of torture upon their bodies. The emperor Constantine presided over the sessions of the Council. In his speech, responding to the welcome by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, he said:
“God has helped me cast down the impious might of the persecutors, but more distressful for me than any blood spilled in battle is for a soldier, is the internal strife in the Church of God, for it is more ruinous.”
In the Nicean Creed, the holy Fathers set forth and confirmed the apostolic teachings regarding Christ’s divine nature. After resolving this chief dogmatic question, the Council also issued twelve canons on questions of ecclesiastical administration and discipline. Also decided was the manner by which the date for celebrating Holy Pascha, the Lord’s Resurrection, was to be determined.
Based upon the foregoing, I think it is safe to conclude that it really does make a difference what we believe!