Many Protestant Christians in America grow up without so much as hearing about Orthodox Christianity, let alone having the chance to authentically experience it. And those who do know about the Eastern Orthodox Church often hold to misconceptions they hear from other Western Christians. In this post, we address and correct some of those myths circulating about the Church.
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
Misconception #1: The Orthodox Church is the same as the Roman Catholic Church
Many Protestants object to the Orthodox Church because they conflate it with Roman Catholicism. While there are indeed certain similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, there are far more differences between our confessions.
For instance, we view Church authority differently, especially when it comes to the infallibility and supremacy of the Roman pontiff. Additionally, the Eastern Orthodox Church views sin, salvation, marriage, grace, what happens after death, and even the relationship between the Three Persons of the Trinity, differently than the Roman Catholic Church.
We may both have liturgical worship, clergy, sacraments, apostolic succession, and intercessory prayer to Saints; however, a deeper look at our faiths shows just how dissimilar they really are. We are so different, in fact, that our churches are not in communion, and haven’t been for nearly 1,000 years now.
Misconception #2: The Orthodox Church is an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church
This second misconception usually stems from ignorance of Church history, as it implies Roman Catholicism precedes Orthodoxy. Not only that, but it also implies the Orthodox Church is nothing more than a “protest” movement against Roman Catholicism. Neither of these implications are historically accurate.
For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, only one Church existed. And it was “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” (per the Nicene Creed). The early Church was:
- conciliar: relying on Ecumenical Councils to distinguish doctrine from heresy
- collegial: all Bishops, in all Patriarchates of the Church, possessed equal authority
In the early Church, there were five major Patriarchates: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Because of his connection to both Sts. Peter and Paul, the Patriarch of Rome received the title of Primus Inter Pares (“first among equals”). However, he possessed no more authority than any of the others. In fact, a Bishop with a diocese the size of Buford, Wyoming, had the same “authority” as a Bishop with a diocese the size of Texas.
When Rome ceased being Catholic
Over several hundred years, the Greek East and Latin West drifted apart. This ultimately resulted in the Great Schism of AD 1054. Some 40 years prior to that official break, the Orthodox began to remove the Roman Patriarch’s name from the diptychs (prayers for Orthodox bishops). This indicates that whatever the Roman Patriarchate had become, it was no longer regarded as what the other Patriarchates remained. It had departed from Orthodoxy, no longer being conciliar and collegial in some way.
In AD 1054, the Pope “excommunicated” the Patriarch of Constantinople in one last effort to assert “authority” over other Patriarchates. Of course, all the other Patriarchs ignored this, as the Pope had no such authority. Therefore, to distinguish themselves from the radical changes being implemented by the newly dubbed “Roman Catholic Church” (a religion that now had only one head and had begun having its own innovative councils), the other Patriarchs adopted the term “Orthodox” from the Church’s own tradition. For the Orthodox, Roman Catholics are indeed the first Protestants.
Misconception #3: The Orthodox Patriarch and Catholic Pope are pretty much the same.
Many people unfamiliar with Orthodoxy tend to think our Ecumenical Patriarch (EP) is the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Pope. However, there are a number of important differences between the two.
Perhaps most importantly, Orthodox Patriarchs do not have the right/power to make dogmatic pronouncements for the Church as the Pope does. Only a properly organized Synod (Church Council made up of several hierarchs) can make those kinds of decisions. Of course, a Patriarch can influence members of the Synod, but he can’t unilaterally decide anything on his own. In fact, Orthodox Patriarchs can’t even order Orthodox Christians to vote for a particular politician. Their leadership is limited to internal, managerial decisions of the Church hierarchy. Everything else is in the hands of the Synod.
Misconception #4: You must be a certain ethnicity to be an Orthodox Christian.
This misconception is actually quite understandable; however, it is untrue. Many people have not heard about the Orthodox Church in this country. And if they have, they have more than likely seen a church affiliated with a particular ethnicity (ex. the Serbian/Russian/Greek Orthodox Church). This affiliation consequently leads people to think that church is only for Serbians/Russians/Greeks. And in many cases, this assumption often reflects reality, because the demographic of that church happens to be majority Serbian/Russian/Greek.
When Orthodox Christians immigrated to the United States, they formed churches under the jurisdictions of their home countries. Naturally, they sought to worship together and preserve parts of their culture and heritage in the musical tradition and iconography in their parishes. However, that did not mean others were not welcome or that one needed to share that ethnicity to seek membership.
The truth is everyone belongs in the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church, because Christ calls all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.
Misconception #5: The Orthodox Church is a “federation” of nationalistic churches.
Unfortunately, you can often find this misconception perpetuated in some encyclopedias of religion, and by some Orthodox Christians themselves. This myth, however, is based on the heresy of phyletism, which the Church condemned in AD 1872 when the Bulgarian community of Constantinople attempted to create a bishopric of parishes open only to Bulgarians.
There is only one Orthodox Church, with several jurisdictions or Patriarchates. These are not different “denominations”, as most Protestants assume. Rather, all Eastern Orthodox Christians may commune in any Eastern Orthodox Church, regardless of the ethnic and cultural tradition of that Patriarchate. Every Orthodox church believes the same dogmas, professes the same Faith, and celebrates the same divine services. The religious designation of Russian/Serbian/Greek/etc. in Orthodox practice denotes an administrative distinction, not a religious or doctrinal one, as is quite normal in the Protestant world.
In other words, there is a Russian Orthodox Church in that Russia has a Patriarchate for localized governance, but not in the sense that it has a Russian doctrine. The same with Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Bulgaria, Georgia, Serbia, and Romania.
Misconception #6: Orthodox Christians worship idols.
Someone simply taking a cursory glance at the Orthodox Church may find our spiritual practice of venerating icons, relics, and Saints a bit off-putting. Many Protestants accuse the Orthodox of idolatry, of making gods out of and worshiping the objects and people that occupy an important place in the life of the Church. However, we do not make gods out of anyone or anything aside from the One True God. Nor do we worship icons, relics, or the Saints from whom we ask intercessions.
In the Second Commandment, our Lord forbids us from creating idols (this is literally what “graven image” means in Exodus 20:4) and worshiping them. Many mistakenly take this to mean that any image we create is automatically an idol and therefore has no place in the spiritual life of a Christian. However, we see icons in use in the Old Testament itself. And churches with icons that date back as far as the third century have been found in archaeological digs.
Read More: Does The Second Commandment Forbid Icons?
At the Seventh Ecumenical Council (before the Great Schism), the Church made incontestably clear the Church’s position: Icon use is not merely acceptable, it is the correct way in which to worship. For the Orthodox, icons are a connection between earth and the heavenly reality beyond our comprehension and reach. When we venerate an icon of Christ by kissing it or bowing to it, we pass our devotion and love to the One depicted within that icon. Not to the wood and paint.
Because Christ became incarnate for our sake, He sanctified all matter. He became a physical person who could be seen, touched, embraced, and kissed. Therefore, we can create an image of Christ because He was a real person. By using icons in worship we affirm the real, physical, Incarnation of our Lord.
What puzzles the Orthodox is the Protestant insistence on rejecting the Seventh Ecumenical Council, while unanimously accepting the majority of the other Ecumenical Councils and their teachings about Trinitarian theology and the two natures of Christ.
A note about the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
Many Protestants are also quite uncomfortable with the Orthodox Church’s esteemed view of the Virgin Mary. Partly because of a distrust of Catholicism and partly from a deep (and honorable) desire to ascribe glory only to God, they often believe that we worship Mary.
However, we do not worship her; instead, we honor her as the Theotokos (Gr. “God-bearer”; cf. Third Ecumenical Council, AD 431) as our highest exemplar of the faith, and as our most faithful intercessor. The title of God-bearer is aptly appropriate, as it demonstrates the reality of the Incarnation and the proper view of the Trinity. The Virgin Mary’s womb became the temple of the uncontainable God, and she literally bore God in the flesh. As such, she is worthy of our respect and honor.
Keep Reading: Was the Virgin Mary Always A Virgin?
This ancient hymn summarizes our view of Mary beautifully, “It is truly meet and right, to bless you. O Theotokos, who are ever blessed and all-blameless, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious, beyond compare than the Seraphim. Thou who without defilement did bear God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!”
Misconception #7: Orthodox Christians Believe they Earn Their Way to Heaven
Another misconception many have is that Orthodoxy teaches a works-based salvation. In other words, that we can somehow earn our way to heaven. However, this is not what Orthodox Christians believe, nor has the Eastern Church ever taught this.
Just as the Scripture tells us, we believe we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), and that only because of God’s mercy. We do not deserve it, nor can we earn it. However, we also acknowledge that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26), and that we must actively live the life of a Christian if we expect to one day attain salvation. In other words, God gives His grace to all mankind, fully and completely. However, it is up to us whether we decide to cooperate with it and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, or not.
Misconception #8: Orthodox Christians don’t believe in the Bible.
Because of the strong emphasis on Sola Scriptura, most Protestants falsely accuse Orthodox Christians of not believing in, respecting, or reading the Bible. More often than not, this assumption also comes from a place of ignorance, from those who have not experienced the divine services or studied the canonization of the Scriptures and their use in the early Church.
Read More: How To Refute Sola Scriptura
While some Orthodox could definitely benefit from developing a much deeper relationship with the Holy Scriptures, as a Church we revere them just as much as our Protestant neighbors. We believe the Bible is the Word of God, given to the Church, interpreted by the Fathers, and lived out in the world by the people.
The Divine Liturgy – which the Church celebrates every Sunday – overflows with love for the Scriptures. If you listen carefully to the prayers and hymns, you will hear references to and passages from the Psalms and other books of the Old Testament. Additionally, passages from the Epistles and Gospels are read, in accordance with the Church’s liturgical seasons and ecclesiastical calendar. Our services may look different from those of Protestant churches. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love or believe in the Scriptures!
Moreover, when Orthodox Christians read the Bible, we tend to approach it differently. We don’t typically hold to the “my Bible and me” mentality. Rather, we read the Bible through the interpretive lens of 2,000 years of Church history. As part of the history and Tradition of the Church, the Holy Scriptures must be interpreted within that context. Doing so helps to guard against heretical interpretations and false teachings.
Misconception #9: The Orthodox Church is a Dead Religion
Yet another misconception about the Eastern Orthodox Church is that our faith is “dead”. Because her worship is liturgical in nature – focused on ritual prayer – many Protestants interpret Orthodoxy as a dead religion; however, they fail to see the importance of ritual in other parts of life.
For instance, Americans have a ritual for graduation from high school or college. Additionally, we go through a ritual when we want to inaugurate a new president, and we almost always shake someone’s hand when we meet them.
Rituals define the things that are important to us. Therefore, it makes sense that rituals would also define worship of the One True God, which is the reason we exist! Far from being a dead religion, Orthodoxy is very much alive with sights, sounds, and smells designed to transport us temporarily to heaven.
Of course, half-hearted Orthodox Christians who just “go through the motions” can make Orthodoxy a dead religion. I’m sure we’ve all experienced shaking someone’s hand and we knew that they didn’t really mean it. But that doesn’t mean shaking hands is a bad/dead ritual. It is good and has meaning; it just has to be done with the heart.
Misconception #10: There is no way to know if the Orthodox Church is the True Church founded by Christ. Everyone else claims that, too.
The final misconception we’ll explore in this post is the belief that we cannot possible know if the Eastern Orthodox Church is the True Church. Contrary to popular belief, not every church claims to be the True Church. Instead, most of them claim to be living in the same manner as the first Christians, to have adopted the same beliefs, or to be likewise following Jesus. They do not, and cannot, credibly claim to be the actual physical, historical Church founded by Christ.
To do so, they must present evidence that:
- Christ actually founded a Church
- that Church is historical, not one of mere personal affinity, attitude, and intellectual belief
- every consecrated Bishop of that Church serving today can trace his position back in a line of legitimate succession from Christ, through the Apostles, their successors (e.g. St. Timothy), their successors, and so on.
This is why the Orthodox Church has always – and will continue to – keep meticulous records of the line of Apostolic succession of Her Bishops and the very real physical component of the Church.
The Church as the “Israel of God”
Many people, including some Orthodox, believe that Orthodoxy came into existence only 2000 years ago. However, while Protestant churches often distinguish between themselves and Israel, the Orthodox Church denies this distinction. In fact, it is heresy to claim that the Jews continue to be the “people of God” based purely upon their ethnicity, since Christ has come and become the fullness of all mankind. Orthodoxy is the original religion of man (e.g. Sts. Adam and Eve), the continuation of the Israel who awaited and received Jesus who is called Christ.
The Orthodox understanding of our history isn’t a mere 2,000 years old. We hear God talking to us in the person of Moses of the coming Christ. Israel received her King, and therefore we are His people. The ancient genealogical succession at the beginnings of our Gospels is fulfilled in Christ, who creates in Himself the apostolic succession fulfilled in the Church. Therefore, we do not merely “trace” our lineage to the beginning; we have never once ceased to actually, continually be the people of God.
As Orthodox Christians, we need not go around “claiming” this; we need to simply keep being as we are. And if people don’t wish to believe that, history stands firmly in opposition to them.
If you have questions about how to respond to the misconceptions and objections of others, your spiritual father or any Eastern Orthodox priest would be the best resource.
What other misconceptions about the Orthodox Church have you come across in conversation? Are there some of these misconceptions you once held yourself? Let us know in the comments below!