Orthodox Christianity and The “Branch Theory”


In an answer to the question “Is the Orthodox church anti-Roman Catholic” you stated that: “We continue to pray for unity while, at the same time, rejecting any notion that Orthodox Christianity is just one of many ‘branches’ or ‘expressions’ of Christianity. To believe this would be to reject our understanding of Orthodoxy as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

With all due respect, this strikes me as highly prideful. The apostles were dispersed throughout the world, and those they taught to follow them were dispersed yet further. Clusters of Christians organized churches where the Holy Spirit led them, and according to their own character, the environment and cultures in which they found themselves, etc. The tree of life indeed has many branches, and the only trunk and root is Christ and Israel (“I am the vine…”). That you should presume that Orthodox Christianity is the trunk and not one of the oldest and thickest branches is an extremely heretical position, as heretical as the Roman Catholic claim that Peter and his successors are infallible. (Did not JESUS say to Peter, his rock: “Get thee behind me satan” when the latter attempted to hold him back from His passion?)

Indeed, the paradox which all Christians (including the Eastern rite branch) must live with is that while Peter is indeed the rock on which God’s church is founded, he is also called ‘satan’ by his Master, and he denies Him three times. This should be a comfort for our human frailty, fear and lack of faith.

The certainty with which you express that Orthodox Christianity is the only true catholic and apostolic church is no doubt based in the deeply felt understanding that yours IS a true and living branch on the vine of Christ. But dear friend, it is just another bitter branch grafted onto the rootstock of sweet truth.

Doctrinal differences are caused by the persistence of human sin and error, to which we are all subject as sinners. The truth cannot be expressed in doctrine alone, because it is Jesus Christ who is the truth; the Gospels are an expression of His truth and our interpretations are expressions of our desire to understand His truth. But verily, the only Truth is to be found in Himself, as the very Son of God.

I have nothing against special garments and titles, but I do have something against those who do not perceive the vanity of such things.


Thank you for your enquiry. Without wishing to enter into a lengthy debate, I must say that I think you were reading a bit more into the answer than what is there.

The statement to which you take exception is not a statement of pride; it is a statement of fact that Orthodoxy indeed rejects the “branch theory,” for very good reason—namely that not all who refer to themselves as “Christian” possess the fullness of Christian truth. To say that “it’s all the same, there’s only one Christ, there’s a variety of different ways to express our belief in Him,” is to flatly ignore the history of Christianity, specifically the first two Ecumenical Councils, which discerned once and for all the truth concerning the person and mission, the humanity and divinity, of Jesus Christ—and which, incidentally, in no way subscribes to the branch theory.

While I would wholeheartedly agree with your statement that “the truth cannot be expressed in doctrine alone,” it must be stated that not all expressions of belief in Jesus Christ constitute the truth. There are some Christians to this day who deny His divinity. There are others who deny His humanity. And there are others who have distorted His teachings on everything from fasting to the centrality of the Eucharist to the role of His Mother in the life of the Church. To say that all of these are different “expressions” of the same “truth” is a lie at worst, a distortion at best. If Christ is both God and man, for example, one who would affirm that He is only God or only human would not be proclaiming the same truth as one who would affirm that Christ is both divine and human. Are we to affirm that those who believe that Jesus is the manifestation or incarnation of the Archangel Michael hold the same truth as those of us who believe that He is the only-begotten Son of God Who took on the human nature without relinquishing His divinity? Are we to see those who deny the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as holding the same truth as those of us who believe that the Eucharist is the very Body and Blood of Christ? Are we to claim that those who deny the ever-virginity of Mary hold the same truth as those of us who believe that she was a virgin before, during, and after the incarnation of Our Lord? These are hardly different ” expressions” or “nuances” of the same truth. And, as such, they are not seen by Orthodox Christianity as being a part of the same trunk, founded upon the rock of Peter’s faith [and not on Peter himself, as Orthodox Christianity understands the “upon this rock” passage], since the teachings of some traditions are diametrically opposed to the fullness of truth as discerned and defined by the ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, to which Orthodox Christianity looks as definitive for all time, and not just for “part” of the time.

Of course, as you rightly assert, Jesus Christ is the truth. Of course, the Gospels are an expression of His truth, a revelation through the written word of God of the Living Word of God Himself. And of course, the only truth is to be found in Jesus Christ, the very Son of God. But are we to say that those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God hold the same teachings as we hold, or that those who reject certain teachings found in Scripture or who reject the Holy Mysteries or who reject the ongoing Tradition of the Church believe and hold the same truths as we believe and hold? Are we to agree with those who insist that, in venerating icons, we are “worshipping wood and paint and varnish,” even though the seventh ecumenical council in 787 AD affirmed that worship is accorded to God alone and that the Church does not “worship” icons? Are we to imply that those who insist that Mary had other children hold the same faith as those of us who insist on her ever-virginity? Are we to accept that those who believe that God is a single person with three “modes” or “expressions” known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” believe the same as those of us who believe that God is in fact three separate, equal and distinct persons rather than a single person who merely reveals Himself at some times as Father, at other times as Son, and still at other times as Holy Spirit? Are we to say that those who believe that good works are meaningless in the process of salvation hold the same faith as those of us who accept St. James’ precept, namely that “faith without works is dead”? Are we to acknowledge that those who are convinced that the episcopacy is not scriptural [even though the New Testament makes clear reference to the “episcopi”] hold the same truths that we hold? And what about those Christians who believe that the white race is God’s chosen race, that all other races exist out of God’s punishment or anger? Do these Christians hold the same truths as we hold? Can one reconcile this notion with the faith of St. Paul, who says that “in Christ their is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek,” and, by extension, “black nor white nor red nor yellow”? Would Roman Catholicism hold that those fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Pope of Rome is one and the same as Anti-Christ hold the same faith that they, as Roman Catholics, hold?

The Church struggles to preserve the “fullness of Truth.” As such, there is no room for “relativism” in the sense of “all Christians being grafted to the same trunk.” Clearly, there are those who’s branches have completely fallen from the trunk, who have severed any and all connection from historical Christianity. Are you aware that there are those who literally believe that from the time of the apostles until the first stirrings of reformation, the “true” Church simply did not exist—for some 1400 years! It is patently ridiculous to imply that Orthodox Christianity should acknowledge as “branches” those who reject the “trunk” from which they supposedly sprout, or who deny that the “trunk” even exists in the first place.

While the Church preserves the “fullness of Truth,” it does not imply that everyone else is completely and utterly devoid of all truth. As Fr. Georges Florovsky once said, nothing is 100% wrong. Wherever life exists and love is experienced, God’s presence is found, even if those who live and love reject His presence. Even if a tradition preserves but one percent of truth, it is not totally devoid of truth. But one must not forget that one percent of the truth is certainly not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And to imply that traditions that believe in “truths” that are diametrically opposed to those held by the Church in all places and at all times are merely expressing the same faith but in different terms or from different perspectives is not a principle of Orthodox Christianity; it is the hallmark of relativism.

There is no “relativism” or “varying perspectives” or “nuances” in the truth as revealed by Christ. For example, He did not say, “This is My Body, but it is equally true that this could be My Body, or that this symbolizes My Body, or that this is My Body if you believe it is but not My Body if you don’t.” He said, “This IS My Body.” Not much room for discussion or alternative “expressions” here, or anywhere else in His words and actions.