On one hand, she is the oldest Church in Christendom. On the other hand, she is unknown to most people in North America. Over 250 million people worldwide practice her doctrines, but less than six million do so in the United States. So, what exactly is the Orthodox Church? Where did she come from? What are her beliefs? And why are there so many people who know nothing about her?
- What is the Orthodox Church?
- How did the Orthodox Church begin?
- How is the Orthodox Church different?
- The Orthodox Church in North America
What is the Orthodox Church?
The word Orthodox was coined by the ancient Church Fathers, the Christian writers from the first centuries of Christian history. It is a combination of two Greek words, orthos and doxa. Orthos means “straight” or “correct.” Doxa means at one and the same time “glory,” “worship,” and “doctrine.” So, the word orthodox signifies both “proper worship” and “correct doctrine.”
During the early centuries of its history, when it was united, the Church was both orthodox and catholic; in other words, it was the Church of “correct praise” and was “universal” (which is what catholic means). The Church used the term “orthodox” to separate itself from other groups that held false doctrines about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the Church. Those groups were called “heterodox” or “heretics.”
How did the Orthodox Church begin?
The Orthodox Church has an organic and continuous 2,000-year history spanning from the time of Jesus’ apostles to the present. What we now call the Orthodox Church was simply the Christian churches of the eastern Roman Empire where the Christian faith originated – Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, etc. Today it has a presence all over the world, including the United States and Canada, England and Western Europe, South America, Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Japan, China, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
All other Christian communities can trace their history back to the Orthodox Church. Contrary to popular belief, the Orthodox Church is not a denomination of Christianity; it pre-dates the existence of denominations by at least 1,500 years. The Orthodox Church is the original Church that wrote, compiled and canonized the Holy Scriptures. It is the Church that formulated the traditional doctrines of Christianity. And it remains largely unchanged to this day.
Orthodoxy continues to live on in most of the places where the Apostles first preached the Gospel, and has spread throughout the world.
What about the Roman Catholic Church?
In the year 1054 a fissure occurred between the Western churches under the jurisdiction of the bishop (“Pope”) of Rome and the Eastern churches represented by the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. For centuries before that, the two halves of the Church (which corresponded roughly with the Eastern and Western halves of the former Roman Empire) had growing differences. This break, called the “Great Schism,” eventually led to two distinct bodies.
Why did the Eastern and Western churches split?
Two major disagreements brought the united Church to this schism — a separation that created the Orthodox Church in the Eastern part of Christendom and Roman Catholic Church in the Western part.
The first involved how the Trinity was to be understood. Orthodoxy stayed with the traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit as coming from God the Father, while the Roman Catholic Church adopted new language (often referred to as the Filioque). This new language said the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father “and the Son.” It is hard for us to see today that this was far more than a debate about a word or two. As with so many debates over terms, something seemingly small contains within it radical differences.
A second disagreement between the churches arose over the authority of the Pope, the bishop of Rome. Orthodoxy viewed the bishop of Rome as the “first among equals.” This means the bishop of Rome was the senior and most highly respected of all Christian bishops of the Church. The Roman Catholic Church, however, considered the Pope sole head over the entire Christian Church. The Catholic Church insisted on the “supremacy” of the Pope, while the Orthodox Church believed this bishop of Rome to merely have “primacy.” Since the split between East and West, the Patriarch of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), has been considered the “first amongst equals” of the bishops of Orthodoxy.
How do the Protestant churches fit in here?
Some 500 years after the Great Schism of 1054, certain Roman Catholics broke from communion with Rome in hopes of returning to a more pristine Christian faith. This is known as the Protestant Reformation. The reformers hoped to find agreement by using the Bible alone. Even in this first generation, however, they could not reach agreement, leading to several divergent branches of Protestantism. The splintering continued rapidly, multiplying the number of differing Christian bodies. Today an estimated 30,000 denominations exist, each claiming authority in the Bible.
The Orthodox Church never experienced a reformation and continues in the beliefs and practices of the first 1,000 years of Christian history. It is unified worldwide in doctrine, worship, and spirituality.
How is the Orthodox Church different?
The easiest way to understand the difference between the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and numerous Protestant churches is this. Orthodoxy maintains the New Testament tradition without change; Catholicism added to it; and Protestantism subtracted from it.
The Orthodox respectfully differ with Roman Catholicism on the questions of papal authority, the nature of the Church, the approach to salvation, and a number of other consequent issues. Historically, the Orthodox Church is both “pre-Protestant” and “pre-Roman Catholic” in the sense that many modern Roman Catholic teachings were developed much later in Christian history. For example, Rome added the filioque to the Creed and introduced indulgences and purgatory.
Catholic visitors to Orthodoxy will find many similarities in Orthodox worship and belief to their own. Both communities accept the same seven sacraments as the means by which Christ is present in His Church (baptism, confirmation, confession, Eucharist, ordination, marriage, holy anointing), and both believe that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (Communion) is a real, and not a symbolic, presence. Both communities also hold to the traditional meaning of apostolic succession; that is, that the current priests and bishops were ordained by a line of previous bishops that goes back to the original apostles and to Christ Himself.
Protestant visitors to Orthodoxy will find certain similarities: both communities reject the authority of the Pope, as we have said. Protestant visitors might also find Orthodox Liturgy to be especially beautiful, as the service is based upon scores of Biblical passages — perhaps, something like a spoken and sung “stream of scripture.” Protestants can also often relate to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on a personal experience of faith and on the Holy Scriptures.
What makes the Orthodox Church so special?
The purpose of the Orthodox Church is to bring about the salvation of every human person, uniting each of them to Christ in the Church, transforming them in holiness, and giving them eternal life. This is the Gospel, the good news, that Jesus is the Messiah, that He rose from the dead, and that we can be saved as a result. The Orthodox Church protects this Faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”
The Church continues to uphold the Apostolic Faith. She views the clergy as servants of Christ and His people and not as a special privileged class. Orthodoxy preserves the Apostles’ doctrine of the return of Christ at the end of the age, of the last judgement and eternal life. She encourages her people to grow in Christ through union with Him.
She is the living Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Therefore, this makes her special in the eyes of God, and reviled in the eyes of the world.
The Orthodox Church in North America
When the Orthodox finally arrived in North America toward the end of the Colonial period, Western colonists, who had already been there for nearly one hundred years, ignored them as a “foreign” minority. The religious and cultural climate of the New World was already deeply entrenched. Rather than mingle with that culture, Orthodox Christians tended to maintain their Old World ethnic identity. Several communities even retained their native languages in their worship. Thus, people who visited their churches often could not understand what was said or done. This is also why you will not find an American Orthodox Church, but rather the older ethnic classifications (Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Serbian, etc.).
But times are changing. In the twenty-first century, many people devoted to Christ now find themselves upset. They are frustrated by the directions being taken by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. They desire a fuller worship and spiritual life. Little by little, God is guiding them to His changeless Church, where many of them end up discovering the fullness of the Faith.
The Church which brought Orthodoxy to North America is now bringing North America to Orthodoxy. Constantly, people are learning about the faith and worship of the Orthodox Church. New churches are beginning in cities and towns from coast to coast. With renewed vision, many established churches have made the transition to English-language services. Not surprisingly, many university students seem increasingly interested in the Orthodox Church. They are discovering Orthodoxy as a place where the search for spiritual reality finds fulfillment.
In conclusion, Orthodoxy is a beautiful secret hidden in plain sight. Her doctrines are pure, her goal unchanging. But we have barely skimmed the surface of understanding what the Orthodox Church is.
The Church is not just its chronological history, but also its beliefs and traditions. One could read all the books in the world about Orthodox Christianity, and yet never truly understand it. In order to fully understand the Orthodox Church, one must experience it for oneself.
If Orthodoxy intrigues or speaks to you, consider visiting a local parish and exploring the faith further. You will be amazed just how much a simple visit can teach you. If you find yourself in Beaver County, we welcome you to visit and worship with us, to “come, taste, and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).