What to think of the Non-Orthodox? What a Second Century Bishop says about those who are outside of “the Church.”


I cannot believe how applicable this second century bishop’s words are to the present time. I challenge all of you to read this and not be at the least intrigued, or like me, be extremely moved by what he has to say.

He teaches fundamental truths that we Orthodox have too often slowly forgotten or are willing to do away with for the sake of being more “accepting.” Acceptance of people does not also require accepting their errant teaching.

To make this Church Father’s writings more accessible, I’ve provided his words in the form of a Question and Answer conversation/interview.

Let me first set this up for you. Unlike today, the early Christians knew of only one Christian Church. But like today, there were many who proposed variations to the faith and started small sects.

The overseers of the Church, inheriting what was handed down to them by the apostles, did their best to keep everyone orthodox in their faith. One overseer, Bishop Irenaeus, of the second century, wrote at length to overcome such intrusions on Christianity. He offers us the mindset of the early Church; he lived so early in fact that he personally knew another bishop and martyr, Polycarp, who personally knew many apostles, including specifically St. John the evangelist and disciple of Christ.

What Ireneaus said about those who deviate from the Apostolic-founded Church still applies today.


Q: Bishop Irenaeus, from where should we learn the truth?

A: Find a Church with apostolic succession.

“Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant dealings and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?”


Q: But I have the Bible! I don’t need the Church to tell me about Christianity, do I?

A: What if there was no Bible! Where would you turn then? The Church!

“For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom these did commit the Churches?”


Q: What then is “The Church?”

A: The place where a lineage of overseers [i.e., bishops], down to the present time, were appointed one after another, beginning with an apostle, to oversee the faithful.

“It is within the power of all … who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times….

By this succession, the ecclesiastical [i.e., Church] tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us.

And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”


[Note that right now I could give you a list of 118 bishops of the Coptic Church, the Church of Alexandria, where the first to establish it was the evangelist St. Mark (writer of the gospel, whose gospel is said to have been mostly formulated by St. Peter’s direction), and at present it is led by his successor Pope Tawadros.]


Q: But what if somehow we have gotten it wrong, and the Christianity preached by non-Apostolic churches is right! 

A: If the apostles knew something important they would have said it, and if they haven’t, new theologies of today must revert to the teachings handed to and through the Church.

“[The Church, by means of] the succession of these men to our own times … neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [who teach other theologies] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries… they would have delivered them especially to those whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to those men.”

[Notice what he says here. Why trust the Church? Because its leaders were personally hand-picked by the apostles, and each successor continued to be hand-picked, down to the present time. Every overseer was carefully chosen from among Christians, vetting them first as St Paul told St Timothy and St Titus to do when choosing leaders. Yes, some bishops didn’t turn out so grand, but as time went by the Church clarified for you who is orthodox and who isn’t. That is why we should trust those who are regarded as legitimate Fathers of the Church more so even than a person who, without apostolic succession, professes themselves a leader among Christians, in the past or at present.]


Q: Bishop Irenaeus, what makes you so special that you can say all of these things that many do not want to teach, let alone hear.

A: I knew a man who knew apostles and others who saw Christ in the flesh.

“Polycarp … whom I saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] for a very long time … was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia [the ancient locale in modern-day Turkey where so many of the familiar biblical cities like Ephesus were], appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna… And when a very old man, [he] gloriously and most nobly suffered martyrdom, [and] departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.”


Q: Well, what do you think if I attend non-Apostolic worship services? Or read their books, listen to their music, hear their preachers? Don’t worry, I’ll believe in my Church doctrines but I’d still like to obtain what I can from them.

A: We should avoid seeking from them, and instead should teach them the truth we have properly inherited, by leading them to the true Church, leading them to the water of life.

“Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church;

since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth; so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her water of life. For she [i.e., the Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.

On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth.”


Q: That seems a bit harsh Bishop Irenaeus. How am I supposed to feel about the non-Orthodox? It seems like you are so hardened against them.

A: Not at all. Actually, we love them and pray for them, and although it seems harsh, it is truly out of concern for their salvation.

“We do indeed pray that these men . . . being converted to the Church of God, may be lawfully begotten, and that Christ may be formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all.

We pray for these things on their behalf, loving them better than they seem to love themselves. For our love, inasmuch as it is true, is salutary to them, if they will but receive it. It may be compared to a severe remedy, extirpating the proud and sloughing flesh of a wound; for it puts an end to their pride and haughtiness. Wherefore it shall not weary us, to endeavor with all our might to stretch out the hand unto them.”


Q: Okay, but what is so special about “THE CHURCH” you speak of? You make it seem like your Church is the only place to find God. God isn’t so closed-off like that, is He?

A: Christ designated THE CHURCH as THE SOURCE of the keeping of the Faith and also the source of the passage of the Holy Spirit for salvation.


“[It has been shown], that the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples . . . through the entire dispensation of God, and that well-grounded system which tends to man’s salvation, namely, our faith; which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also.”


“For this gift of God [i.e., the Holy Spirit] has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man, for this purpose, that all the members receiving it may be vivified; and the [means of] communion with Christ has been distributed throughout it, that is, the Holy Spirit, the earnest of incorruption, the means of confirming our faith, and the ladder of ascent to God. “For in the Church,” it is said, ” God has set apostles, prophets, teachers,” and all the other means through which the Spirit works; of which all those are not partakers who do not join themselves to the Church, but defraud themselves of life through their perverse opinions and infamous behavior.”


For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth. Those, therefore, who do not partake of Him, are neither nourished into life from the mother’s breasts, nor do they enjoy that most limpid fountain which issues from the body of Christ; but they dig for themselves broken cisterns out of earthly trenches, and drink putrid water out of the mire, fleeing from the faith of the Church lest they be convicted; and rejecting the Spirit, that they may not be instructed.




Blog Image: Christ and the Apostles, Catacombs of Domitilla, 4th century C.E., Rome.

All writings by Bishop Irenaeus come from his third book Against Heresies.

19 thoughts on “What to think of the Non-Orthodox? What a Second Century Bishop says about those who are outside of “the Church.”

  1. @abel joshua…ur church in no way is an Orthodox Church. The Marthoma Church is just another Protestant Church which broke away from its mother church ie The Indian Orthodox Church

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  2. Pingback: An Interview with St. Irenaeus of Lyons · Preachers Institute

  3. This is a good presentation however it is a little misleading to apply it to mainline protestantism in general. We do not know a lot about the church that St Irenaeus pastored nor it’s liturgical life, vestments, icons, ceremonial etc. The Saint is defending the faith against gnostic heretics most of whom are anti-trinitarian and hold many other spurious beliefs. To simply lump these folk with protestants is misleading. His great theological battle is with Gnosticism with it’s apocryphal gospels and bizarre demi gods etc. The protestant churches largely speaking are trinitarian. Whilst many of the Saint’s arguments are useful for refuting protestantism I simply wish to make the point that some things that we think of as Orthodox and traditional may well have been u known to the church of St Irenaeus.

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  4. I’m protestant, and it seems that there may be suspicion that “protestant” churches aren’t saved because we’ve “left” the “Holy Catholic Church”. I’m wondering where this idea comes from? Is there a scriptural foundation? As Fr. Patrick stated above, we must understand the context in which Irenaeus wrote and who were the “heretics” about which he wrote? I find many, if not all, my beliefs being orthodox and i can trace these same beliefs back to the early church fathers. For example, we believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, Full divinity and full humanity of Christ, the Holy Scriptures being the divine word of God, and the Gospel that Paul reminds the church of Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15 1-6 by which all men are saved. So where do you see “protestants” that hold to these core truths being anathema?


    • Hello Jab!

      That’s actually a common, false, assumption that protestants would make due to their concept of soteriology…

      Properly Orthodox do not believe anyone is “saved” but in the process of being saved by their cooperation and union with God. This can certainly happen outside of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, however, God has given His Church the sacraments as medicine to assist in our salvation.


    • Hey there. Thanks for your important question.

      I’ll answer your question in short, and then provide a more extensive answer below.

      In short:

      This idea has been around for 2,000 years, and is absolutely Scriptural, and was the way the Christians believed until it was abandoned a few hundred years ago due to the Protestant movement.

      Longer answer:

      First, I am not the judge of this world. Christ is. However, because He is the judge, I am acutely attentive to what HE established, not what man has taught us. Now, may God surprise us and make exceptions that He never expressly declared? Like letting good non-Christians into heaven, etc? Well, that’s up to God. But I am not interested in exceptions but rather the rule, because the Teacher of the rule is also the Judge.

      To figure out what Christ established, I look to the past, beginning with the Bible, and then the immediate disciples of the apostles, their immediate followers, and so on. So, the closer in time to Christ, the more weight I generally give to the guidance of the Christians who provide it.

      You mentioned the “Holy Catholic Church.” This is not THE Catholic Church you know today. The word Catholic means universal, and it referred to the one Christian Church that existed throughout all regions, not headed by one person, but which was overseen by several equal individuals spread throughout.

      Before Christ ascended, did He leave the Church on its own, to be run by any one who wanted to assign themselves a leader of a new Christian community? Did He just leave it without any order or structure or hierarchy? Did He just say, “Okay, I’m ascending. Now you all just figure it out?” No. Christ established certain individuals with the responsibility to oversee the Church. An “overseer” couldn’t just spring up out of nowhere, without the other overseers knowing about it and without them approving of a new overseer of a new Christian flock. The Bible teaches us that Paul was assigned as an overseer by the other apostles who were overseers. He teaches Timothy and Titus about how to choose overseers, and tells us that he himself chose Timothy as an overseer. What was the manner that such oversight authority was given? By the “laying on of hands.” The laying on of hands is one of the “fundamental principles” of Christianity that Paul speaks about in his letter to the Hebrews, along with faith in Christ and belief in the resurrection. This laying on of the hands is not just a symbolic gesture, but was THE MANNER OF CONFERRING THE HOLY SPIRIT of God upon others for particular mysteries.

      Overseers, therefore, were not just assigned to oversee a flock. They were also granted, by action of God (the Holy Spirit) through the medium of other overseers, the ability to further confer the Holy Spirit upon others. This notion is both BIBLICAL and HISTORICAL. The reason why Protestants today are not aware of or understand this fundamental principle is because the Roman Catholic Church overseers overstepped and abused their authority, which led to Protestants doing away with the belief that such authority is important at all, although it had always been that way before the Protestant movement.

      The word “overseer,” is equivalent to our modern day word “bishop.” In Greek, Episkopos (Bishop, in English), is the word we find in the bible translated as bishop, and literally means overseer.

      The leaders who were handed the responsibility of overseeing the Christian communities throughout the world were granted that authority by the apostles. Those bishops, such as Irenaeus, often left us writings related to matters they were handling in overseeing their congregation. If you read those writings, you will find the importance of the bishopric. The early Christians repeatedly said, “There is no salvation outside the Church.” How come?

      Because, Christ said that to be saved, not only do you have to believe in Him, but you must be baptized by both water and Spirit, and you must take His body and blood. How does some bread and wine become His body and blood? By action of God (the Holy Spirit), at the behest of one who has been given by God (through His overseers) the authority to do so. How does one receive the Holy Spirit after baptism? Again, by action of God (the Holy Spirit), at the behest of one granted such authority.

      THE WAY overseers OVERSAW the Church, is by being centrally responsible for the induction of new members into the body of Christ (through baptism and the conferring of the Holy Spirit), and by giving them the life-giving mysteries of Christ’s body and blood.

      Again, this is BIBLE 101 and EARLY CHURCH HISTORY 101. Where in the Bible do we see this? My favorite passage where you can find it is in Acts Chapter 8. Read that Chapter, and ask yourself, “Why couldn’t Philip?” Why couldn’t Philip do what? Well, Philip was a deacon (not the disciple, see Acts 6), and he was doing miracles, and he preached to a bunch of Samaritans and they all converted and were baptized in water. End of story, Hallelujah, new Christians, story ends? NOPE. Philip, just a deacon, was not an overseer, was not a bishop, and was not granted authority to do something else that Christ told Nicodemus was NECESSARY for salvation. Receiving the Holy Spirit. He could not confer it upon the Samaritans. So you know what happened? Two overseers come from Jerusalem, two-day journey, to do one thing: LAY HANDS ON THE NEWLY BAPTIZED. Why? Why would they do that? Why couldn’t Philip? The Bible tells us, the purpose of this was so that they may receive the Holy Spirit! One Samaritan convert named Simon was really impressed by this special thing that the overseers could do that even the miracle-working Philip couldn’t. So you know what he did? He offered money to Peter, one of the two overseers who came to confer the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands, and Peter rebuked him! He didn’t say, “Simon, come on, don’t you know that you are a Christian now and you have the same powers I do? We are all the same!” No. He said, and I paraphrase, “How dare you think you can BUY this gift of God?” Why did Peter say that? Because that GIFT is one conferred upon Him by God, and one which the apostles entrusted other overseers to oversee the flock. This gift resides in the Church, in its overseers, in its bishops, if passed on legitimately from the apostles down to the present overseer conferring it upon others.

      For more on this subject and other facets of why “There is no salvation outside the Church,” send me a note through the “contact me” page and I’ll email you the eBook I put together, which goes into even more depth with verse references and early Christian writings on the subject. We can carry our conversation off-line by email if you’d like.

      Bottom line: I am not condemning you or any Protestants. I am simply pointing ALL to Christ and what HE established, seeking to show you the rules rather than rely on the hope that He may grant an exception.

      Today, the Orthodox Churches are, in my view, the most trusted bearers of the gift of oversight. Overseers established churches thousands of years ago in regions throughout the world. Alexandria, Egypt (where the Coptic Church started) was started by the overseer St. Mark the evangelist, and there have been 117 overseers since him. The city of Antioch had an overseer and today they are known as the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Of course you know from the Bible that Paul established many Christian communities in Greece and the Greek Orthodox Church is the result of those efforts. One overseer was commissioned to go to Russia about 1,000 years ago and now most Russians are part of the Russian Orthodox Church. An overseer, at the best of the Church of Alexandria, went to Ethiopia and today we have an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The list goes on and on.

      The Roman Catholic Church broke ties with the Orthodox Churches because of a few reasons, not the least of which is that they wanted to impose primacy of their overseer over all the others. They claim this is historical and biblical, but the Orthodox don’t see it that way, and consider each jurisdiction’s overseers to be equal, but simply overseeing a different flock.

      Sorry for my long-winded answer, but to answer a question such as yours that touches upon salvation, requires rectifying a lost “fundamental principle” of Christianity that has been directly and intentionally opposed for just the last few hundred years, but which has stood on the pillars of the apostles’ and their followers’ teachings virtually uncontested for 1500 years from the time of Christ.

      God bless you.


      • To add, at Irenaeus also points to the apostolic succession as evidence of The Church…

        Also bishop isn’t English, but the Latin. Many protestants will argue that bishop and priest aren’t in scripture and that’s why they aren’t relevant, ignoring the fact that these are the Latin equivalents to the Greek. The western world being under Rome uses the Latin terms 🙂


  5. Columbcille, you are misrepresenting the Protestant position. Overseer is the same as bishop. It was used identically for the same office as pastor/shepherd and presbyter/elder. No knowledgeable Protestants argue against the position of pastor/shepherd/presbyter/elder/overseer/bishop as one single position. They also recognize that each church should be led by a group of elders who are equals—as they were in apostolic times. They only disagree with a hierarchical structure with one over the others, much less one over multiple churches. These are innovations that occurred over centuries. Many Protestant churches also require all the requirements to be fulfilled: elders as older men who have only been married once (even windowers who remarried are often disqualified) with grown and Godly children. They also allow for preachers/ministers who are not qualified to be elders (like Paul). They cannot administer the church.

    Priest is not a biblical term in the New Testament. Neither is Father. Brother is. Sister is. Saint is. Deacon/deaconess are. Prophet is (though most Protestants are cessationist). Teacher is. So is a person leading prayer.

    Sola scriptura, for truth. But there is value in traditions as a physical connection of the ancient church to the modern and the early Fathers (a human term!) can certainly guide one’s understanding of how those who listened to the apostles understood what was meant then. Tertullian was no Paul, for instance. He was a pretty nasty bigot sometimes. But his arguments show us how he understood things. This has value.


  6. This seems to have gotten eaten…

    I’m afraid you are very mistaken that people are not excommunicated from Protestant churches. I have been a member of two churches. One excommunicated three people (two events) and one excommunicated two (one event). These churches had thousands of people between them, by the way. All three cases were sexual impropriety with a refusal to repent. In two of the cases, the adulterers married those they cheated with. (Legal under American law, of course.) I am forty. The expulsion from the second church happened about 5 years before I joined.

    It isn’t given the fancy name of excommunication because that’s not a strictly biblical term. Same reason we use the words “elder” and “Lord’s supper.” It’s called church discipline and expulsion. And most Protestant churches have it.

    Imagine for a moment that he was not a fringe sort of guy but gained a great many followers for his innovations. Imagine that he convinced many people that his innovations reflected a greater sense of greater sanctity and dignity and enhanced the spirituality of the church. He has the same apostolic succession of any other priest.

    Just a thought.


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