Eastern Orthodox Apologists have been drawing away evangelicals over the last generation with bait and switch tactics. They bait evangelicals by promising them the worship of the early church. If you bite on the bait, what you’re hooked with is quite different.
Eastern Orthodox Apologists (EOAs) claim that about half of their nearly 1 million followers are converts and many of those are former evangelicals. In 2017, the “Bible Answer Man,” Hank Hanegraff, joined them. Eastern Orthodox apologists on-line vociferously try to win evangelicals. Robert Arakaki runs the “Orthodox-Reformed Bridge” web-site which claims to “A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians.” Arakaki is himself a former student of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and his site is, in fact, a repository of EOA propaganda, including two disingenuous attempts to respond to my 2018 Themelios article “Answering Eastern Orthodox Apologists regarding Icons.” Contrary to the claim to be interested in “dialogue,” my attempts to respond in the comments section were censored.
Nevertheless, some evangelicals are persuaded by the shell game. They are especially attracted to the Orthodox claims of historical roots back to the early church. That’s the first bait: the claim that the Eastern Orthodox have preserved the pristine worship of the early church. The Orthodox are attractive to evangelicals who are tired of the showmanship and the superficiality of some evangelical worship. Rod Dreher, who wrote The Benedict Option, himself originally a Methodist who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, claims, “Many evangelicals seek the early church; well here it is, in Orthodoxy.” That’s the bait.
But watch for the switch. As soon as they unveil their claim that they are the early church, then they uncover icons. Yet the early church strictly prohibited icons. I proved that in the 2018 Themelios article above and in a 2021 Westminster Theological Journal article, strictly on the early church: “The Early Church on the Aniconic Spectrum.” Recently, Gavin Ortland has been doing a spectacular job describing how icons arose after the early church on his “Truth Unites” YouTube channel.
EOAs claim archeology shows the early church using icons. One ancient church discovered by archaeologists in Dura-Europas, Syria has some images on the walls. But, tellingly, there are no images in the main room where the church actually met. More importantly, there is no evidence that the images that have been found are anything more than decorations, never becoming icons used in worship. They bait people with claims of archeology that actually hide the reality that the early church had no icons.
EOAs bait you with the claim that the “early church” theologian John of Damascus espoused icons. That’s true, except that he wasn’t from the early church. He lived around 675 to 749. The early church ends with either the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, or rounded up to AD 500. John of Damascus was a medieval theologian, as close to Christ as we are to the beginning of the 100 Years’ War in 1338. He’s bait.
A genuine theologian of the early church was Epiphanius (c. 310–320 – 403). He was bishop of Salamis, Cyprus, and is considered a saint by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. As he was traveling through Palestine, he found a church that had a curtain on it with an image, of Christ or some saint. It may have only been a decoration. He tore it down and ripped it into shreds. He wrote to the local bishop, John, that such images are “contrary to our religion” and to instruct the elder of the church that they are “an occasion of offense.” While EOAs boast of having preserved the practices of the early church, they don’t want their prospects finding out about “Saint” Epiphanius and, if they do, will insist, without evidence, that the story was made up centuries later. The reality is that Epiphanius shows that the early church was so strict in opposing icons that they wouldn’t even allow images as decorations. Epiphanius’ action was in perfect harmony with the council of Elvira (c. 305), meeting at the other end of the Roman Empire, in Spain, earlier in the century. It concluded, “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.”
The bait that the early church shows the Christians using icons is switched to containing fiction, later pagan practices smuggled in, and the errors of a medieval theologian.
The second piece of bait the EOAs dangle in front of unsuspecting evangelicals is the claim that any image, like a decoration, is an “icon.” The Eastern Orthodox speak in two voices about icons, depending on who they are talking to. If they’re instructing their own people, they’ll insist an icon is “a sacred image.” It’s not any art. It doesn’t belong in a gallery. It’s a special image for a special purpose. The primary purpose of the icon is to aid in worship.” (That’s the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America teaching their own.) But, if they’re talking to people outside their sect who are questioning about their icons, whether they are idols, how it could possibly be acceptable in light of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4) prohibiting images in worship, they will claim that all images are icons; that the Greek word “eikon” means any image (technically true) and so respecting images is no more idolatrous than cherishing family photos. That’s the bait: all images (like the decoration in the Old Testament temple) are icons and since you have images, like the pictures on your wall or in your wallet, then icons can’t be bad. But if you bite, you’ll get hooked on the definition of an idol.
Watch for the bait and switch. Some will bait you with fake history. Some EOAs throw the names of early church fathers around that are foreign to most of us evangelicals. It can sound impressive, like they’ve preserved the worship of the early church, especially if we’re discontent with some shallow evangelical practices. But use your common sense. Since the Word of God says not to bow before images, then when someone says it’s fine because, supposedly, his church inherited it, he says, from the early church, realize you’re being baited. They will switch to a hook of icons, incense, and rituals that are, in reality, the concoction of superficially converted pagans flooding into the church in the Middle Ages, bringing their pagan practices with them. Don’t bite on the bait. Stay with the Bible.
Image credit: Dmitry Boyarin from Russia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons