What is the Orthodox Church?

Many people in North America know very little (if anything at all) about the Orthodox Church. She is the oldest Church in Christendom, with over 250 million people worldwide practicing her doctrines. In this article, we explain what the Orthodox Church is and where she came from. We also dive into some Christian history, to give you a bit more context.

When did the Orthodox Church begin?

Orthodox Christianity began during what we call the Apostolic Age. On the day of Pentecost (c. 33 A.D.), the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in Jerusalem. After witnessing the Apostles’ preaching, 120 believers gathered to create the first Christian church. Not long after this, Christ’s Disciples continued their missionary efforts throughout the world, starting churches in Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Constantinople, and elsewhere throughout the eastern Roman Empire. These churches were, and still are, the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox Church wrote, compiled and canonized the Holy Scriptures. She formulated the traditional doctrines of Christianity. And she remains largely unchanged to this day, preserving the Traditions passed down to her by the Apostles themselves, many years ago. In other words, Orthodoxy has an organic and continuous nearly 2,000-year history spanning from the Apostolic Age to the present. Every Christian community in existence can trace their history back to the Orthodox Church.

Today, Orthodoxy has a presence all over the world, including the United States and Canada, Eastern Europe, England and Western Europe, South America, Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Japan, China, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

What does “Orthodox” mean?

The word Orthodox was coined by the ancient Church Fathers, 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 “glory,” “worship,” and “doctrine.” So, the word Orthodox signifies both “proper worship” and “correct doctrine.”

The Church uses the term “orthodox” to separate itself from other groups that hold false doctrines about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the Church. Those groups were called “heterodox” or “heretics.”

What about Roman Catholicism?

For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, the Orthodox East and Latin West managed to maintain communion with one another. But over that millennium, the two churches steadily grew apart, disagreeing on several theological and political issues, including papal supremacy and the filioque. Around 1054 A.D., historians mark the official separation between the Western churches under the bishop (“Pope”) of Rome and the Eastern churches under the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  This break, called the Great Schism, led to the birth of what we now know as the Roman Catholic church.

Why did the churches split?

Many factors contributed to this separation, which we won’t get into here. We will, however, discuss the two major disagreements that brought the united Church to this schism: the filioque and papal authority.

The Filioque. Orthodoxy preserved the traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit as coming from God the Father, while the Roman Catholic Church claimed the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father “and the Son”. While this might sound like a really trivial difference, those three additional words carry a lot of theological weight. When taken to its logical conclusion, the filioque paints a picture of a completely different God.

Papal authority. The second disagreement arose over the authority of the Pope, the bishop of Rome. Orthodoxy viewed the Roman bishop as the “first among equals,” who held primacy of honor*. The Roman Catholic church, however, considered the Pope sole head over the entire Christian Church. In other words, the Catholic church insisted on the pope’s supremacy, while the Orthodox Church insisted on mere primacy.

At one point, Catholicism used to be part of Orthodoxy, but that is no longer the case. The two faiths no longer resemble one another, as the Roman church fell into innovations and heresies over time.

How do Protestants fit in?

Some 500 years after the Great Schism, certain Roman Catholics broke from communion with Rome in hopes of returning to a more pristine Christian faith. These reformers hoped to find agreement by using the Bible alone to refute many Roman Catholic practices. Even in this first generation, however, they could not reach agreement, leading to several divergent branches of Protestantism. The splintering continued, 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 Orthodoxy different?

The easiest way to understand the difference is this: Orthodoxy maintains the New Testament tradition without change; Catholicism added to it; and Protestantism subtracted from it.

The Orthodox disagree with Roman Catholics on a number of issues. Historically, the Orthodox Church is both “pre-Protestant” and “pre-Roman Catholic” in the sense that many Roman Catholic teachings developed much later in Christian history (i.e. 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 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 especially beautiful, because it’s based upon scores of Biblical passages. One reformer described it as a spoken and sung “stream of scripture”. Protestants can also often relate to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on a personal experience of faith.

What makes Orthodoxy 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 views the clergy as servants of Christ and His people and not as a special privileged class. Orthodoxy preserves the Apostles’ doctrine. 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.

Orthodox Christianity 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. So, Orthodox Christians tended to maintain their Old World ethnic identity. Several communities even kept 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 won’t find an American Orthodox Church, but instead Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Serbian, etc.

But times are changing. Many people devoted to Christ now find themselves frustrated by the directions 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 they discover 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.

The beauty of the Orthodox Faith

To sum up, 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. We 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, you must experience it. 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!



*Since the Schism, the Patriarch of Constantinople holds the title of “first among equals.”