What is the Church of the East?
The term “Church of the East” refers to a number of separate denominations that have a common tradition stretching back to the time of the Apostles. Ancient traditions with a lot of historical support hold that the Apostle Thomas went to India and started Churches there, that Peter went to Babylon before going to Rome and that Thaddeus also preached the Gospel in the East. Addai (possibly Thaddeus) and Mari, one of the group of 70 (or 72, see Luke 10) that Jesus sent out to evangelize were also very heavily involved in the beginnings of the Church. It is the branch of the early Church that spread east from Jerusalem outside the Roman Empire. Its common language was Aramaic, the language that Jesus and His Disciples used for ordinary speech. This fact has given the Church of the East a distinctive character that draws heavily from Hebrew and Semitic culture. Aramaic was the trade language of the Persian Empire as Greek was of the Roman Empire.
It is useful to think of the early Church as having three major branches that may be identified by language and culture: the Western, Latin-speaking Church, the Greek-speaking church of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Aramaic-speaking Church of the East outside the Roman Empire. Out of the Western, Latin-speaking Church have come the Roman Catholic Church, all the Protestant denominations and those that developed from them. Out of the Greek Church (also known as the Byzantine Church, named after Byzantium, the ancient name of Constantinople, modern Istanbul) have come the various Eastern Orthodox denominations such as the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and others. There are a number of other churches that separated from the official church of the Roman Empire (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) that continue to today such as the Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia and the Armenian Church.
Just as the Church of Jesus Christ within the Roman Empire and that spread from there has been through centuries of struggle and division, so, too, the Church of the East has had its own troubled history resulting in the existence now of several independent denominations within this common tradition. Currently, many members of this ancient church, frequently referred to as Assyrian Christians, are suffering grievously at the hands of ISIS. Many have been martyred rather than abandon their ancient faith.
The Church of the East is sometimes referred to as the Nestorian Church. This is really a misnomer attached to the Church by Roman Catholic missionaries hundreds of years ago. Nestorianism is considered to be a heresy in the Western Church (both Roman Catholic and Protestant). It is important to understand that the doctrine labeled “Nestorianism” was never held by the Church of the East. In fact, this was recognized formally on November 11, 1994 when Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos of the Assyrian Church of the East, and Pope John Paul II jointly signed the statement Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East. This statement declared that even though the Western Church and the Church of the East had different ways of describing the Incarnation, their understanding of the nature of the Incarnation is the same: Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man from the moment of His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The differences that arose and led to charges of heresy came about through a combination of linguistic differences (the Western Church’s languages of Latin and Greek are closely related while Aramaic is a Semitic language very different from Greek and Latin) and great misunderstanding aggravated by political agendas.
A bit of history: The Church of the East was represented at and accepted the theological statements of the first two Great Councils of the Church: the Council of Nicea, AD 325, and the Council of Constantinople, AD 381. The Council of Nicea issued what is known as the Nicene Creed. This creed was slightly modified and finalized at the Council of Constantinople. It became the primary statement and standard of faith throughout the Church of the Roman Empire and the Church of the East. Following the split between Rome and Constantinople, the Western version was changed slightly; however, many Protestant churches are returning to the original wording which was never changed by the Byzantine or Aramaic Church.
By the time of the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, political and linguistic barriers had permanently separated the Church within the Roman Empire from the Aramaic Church outside the Empire. Representatives of the Church of the East were not able to participate in that council so only the first two are considered fully ecumenical by the Church of the East. It was the Council of Ephesus that condemned Nestorius and the doctrine that was called after him as Nestorianism. Because the Church of the East was not part of that council and did not considered Nestorius’ teachings heretical, they never accepted his rejection by the church of the Roman Empire. Because of this, they became known much later as Nestorians even though the Church was not founded by Nestorius nor did he ever have any official position within the Church of the East nor did it teach what was labeled as Nestorianism. Twenty years after the Council of Ephesus, in AD 451, the representatives of the Church within the Roman Empire met again in general council at Chalcedon. This council did not rehabilitate Nestorius but it did add a corrective to the extreme position taken at Ephesus and actually proclaimed what Nestorius really believed and taught except that he had been misunderstood because of the language that he used. This is what was recognized in 1994 in the Common Christological Declaration. So, even though the Church of the East recognizes only two Great Councils as truly ecumenical, its theology and Christology are consistent with the statements of Chalcedon.
The Aramaic Church spread throughout the Persian Empire, Siberia and Mongolia, entered China in the Tang Dynasty, Korea in the Silla Dynasty and even got as far as Japan. It spread throughout Central Asia including Tibet, Afghanistan and northern India. One of the most ancient communities still exists in southern India in the State of Kerala. This community looks back to the Apostle Thomas as its founder. The Christians there are also called Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians
In AD 781, a monument was erected in Xian, China commemorating 150 years of Christianity in China. It stated the name of the Church to be the Great Syrian Luminous Way. This monument was labeled the “Nestorian Monument” by Jesuit missionaries after it was discovered in AD 1625. It is currently in a hall of monuments in Xian. Exact replicas were made in the early 20th Century. One is on Koya San in Japan, the other is thought to be in the Diamond Mountains in North Korea. There also still exists in Xian a tower dating from the Tang Dynasty that was part of a Church of the East monastery there. It was renovated recently by the Chinese government and recognized as an ancient Christian church.
By the 12th Century, the Church of the East had grown to some 17-20 million members; however, over the next generation or so, it shrank down to a few hundred thousand mostly in the mountains of Kurdistan, northern Iraq and southern India. This shrinkage was caused by Muslim persecution, complacency, apostasy and other factors. In the 20th Century, at the time of the well-known Armenian Genocide, there was also an Assyrian Genocide. Now, under ISIS, the Church continues to suffer persecution and martyrdom.
There are now communities of Assyrian Christians in the United States, Australia and Europe.
The official liturgy of most of the Church of the East is or is based on the Liturgy of Addai and Mari. This is the oldest known Eucharistic liturgy in the world. It is celebrated in Aramaic (also known as Syriac) or is translated from Aramaic into the vernacular. It is based on the ancient Hebrew synagogue prayers and meal prayers.
A Servant Church
The Church of the East has never had any sort of political or national authority such as the Roman Catholic, Byzantine, Anglican, Lutheran, Puritan, Calvinist and other churches have had. It has always been a church that lived under governments that followed other religions such as Zoroastrianism, Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism. This has bred into its fabric a certain humility. Throughout much of its history, Eastern Christians were known for their scholarship, honesty and work ethic. As a result, they often rose to high positions of service in non-Christian governments. This sense of being a servant church in but not of the world has shaped its culture and ethos in important ways.
In the 8th Century, Caliph Harun al-Rashid founded the famous library in Baghdad known as the House of Wisdom. He brought scholars from around the Abbasid Empire to share their knowledge. Many of these were Aramaic Christian monks and scholars who brought knowledge of the Greek classics, mathematics and history. Their knowledge was preserved there and passed on to Arab scholars then eventually made its way back to Europe leading to the Renaissance. Europe owes its knowledge of the Greek classics, mathematics, etc. to these Church of the East scholars.
In AD 410, at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon that accepted officially the results of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, the Church of the East asserted its independence from the rule of Rome. A letter was sent to the Church in the Roman Empire asserting that both the Church of the Roman Empire and the Church of the East serve the same God and believe in the same Jesus Christ; however, they have different languages, liturgies and customs. Both were sister churches with neither controlling the other. From that time on, the Church of the East had a much more open attitude towards other churches than was found elsewhere. Church of the East missionaries served in cooperation with missionaries from Rome, Armenia and other traditions. The Church of the East continues to have an understanding that it is not the whole Catholic Church but only one part of the universal Body of Christ. This is reflected in the names that the various parts use such as Church of the East, the Assyrian Church, the Syro-Chaldean Church, etc.
Understanding of Marriage
The Church of the East, similar to the Byzantine Church, views the sacrament of marriage differently from all the Western churches, Catholic and Protestant. In the West, the ministers of the marriage are the man and the woman, the husband and wife. They marry themselves through the exchange of vows. The Church, through the priest or pastor gives words of exhortation and encouragement as well as blesses the union and proclaims it publicly. The Eastern churches view it a bit differently. The vows are exchanged during the betrothal, either at the beginning of the ceremony or at a previous time. The actual marrying of the couple is done by the priest as the representative of Christ and His Church. The priest is the minister of the sacrament, not the couple. He prays a prayer of consecration over them and over a marriage cup that the two then share together. This prayer of consecration is very similar to the prayer of consecration in the Eucharist. It is understood to transform sacramentally the two individuals who came to the marriage into a new unity, a family, a complete image of the Trinity (cf. Gen. 1:27). Crowns are placed on the heads of the couple denoting their authority within the domain of their home. They are also understood to be crowns of martyrdom since, in marriage, each partner must die to himself or herself, laying down all selfish desires. The priest concludes the service with copious blessings on the man and the woman drawn from Scripture.
This Eastern perspective places the responsibility for maintaining the marriage not on the weak ability of human beings to keep their vows but upon the transforming work of Almighty God through the Holy Spirit acting within His Church. Of course the vows are important. In fact there can be no marriage if the couple have not already pledged their vows to each other. And, of course, they are responsible for doing all that they can to keep those vows. However, the Eastern churches understand that the whole Church has a vested interest in helping them keep those vows, in preserving, supporting and strengthening the marriage as an image of God and a parable to the world of the relationship of Jesus Christ to His Bride, the Church. Only the priest who is the actual pastor of the couple is allowed to perform the marriage. Marriage is seen as a sacrament of ministry in the same was as the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The married couple have a ministry to raise their children to love and serve the Lord, to spread the image of God in the earth (Cf. Gen. 1:28). They also minister to the Church through providing stability and support as a family within the Church. They minister to others in need by taking them into the home, taking younger people under their wings, and so forth.
Fr. Ben’s Testimony and the Church of the East
I first learned of the Church of the East from my father, Fr. Archer Torrey. He had learned of it as a young man living in China. He had obtained a rubbing of the Monument in Xian and was very interested in the Church of the East as being very close to the early Church. He was also attracted by its Eastern origins and history in China.
While I was in college, my father visited me and stayed in the home of a professor who participated in a small Bible study that we had at the school. His name was Bert Schlossberg, a Jewish believer. (He is now my bishop). My father helped Prof. Schlossberg to understand the baptism of the Holy Spirit that he had actually received when he first gave his life to Jesus Christ at the age of 18. He had spontaneously spoken in tongues but did not understand what it was so stopped doing so. My father led him back in to a new and fuller appreciation of the baptism and work of the Holy Spirit.
Prof. Bert Schlossberg later became part of a prayer group outside of the college that including several other Jewish believers as well as people from other traditions, Catholic and Protestant. This group came to discern that they were to start a church that had connections to the ancient church but that would not lose its special identity through being absorbed into another church existing in the area. My father introduced Prof. Bert Schlossberg to an American bishop who had been consecrated in the line of the Church of the East from India through England in the 19th Century. He ordained Prof. Schlossberg as a priest and established a church in the tradition of the Church of the East. He eventually left the church that had been established leaving it without direct connection to the “Mother” Church (the Assyrian Church of the East). At that point Bert Schlossberg had been consecrated a bishop. He and others reorganized the churches and established the Syro-Chaldean Church of North America as an independent church within the tradition and Apostolic Succession of the Church of the East.
While this was going on, Bishop Schlossberg approached me and my wife about joining the local parish that had been established. My wife and I then prayed to the Lord for guidance and received a very clear call to not only join that particular parish but to commit ourselves fully to what God was doing through this ancient church in the modern era. Fr. Archer Torrey had spoken of how God had preserved the succession of the Church of the East for two thousand years much as He preserved the line of David until the time of Christ. I have come to treasure this ancient tradition and its distinctives. We all believe that God has a distinct purpose for this church in the modern world. When God called me to return to Korea to prepare for the opening of North Korea, I immediately started to ask if the church that I am now a part of has some special place in His plan for a New Korea. After all, it is the church that was in this land over a thousand years ago. It is also a church that was never caught up in the controversy between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. As a church with an ancient tradition of partnering with other churches, of open communion and an ancient ethos of service, I cannot help but believe that God does have a special plan for the Church of the East as it returns to Korea.
I will be glad to answer any questions about all of this or discuss it further with anyone who is interested.
October 22, 2015