About Orthodox Christianity

 

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth.  We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men….”

The words above were written in the 10th century after a first experience with the majestic worship of God in the Orthodox Church in Constantinople.  They express a great truth which has always been at the heart of the Orthodox understanding – that Christianity is first and foremost an encounter with the living and personal God.  It is through prayer and worship that God is not merely known about, but known and experienced.  And through Jesus Christ, the Church – Christ’s Body – has become this place of encounter with God, heaven on earth (Eph. 1:10).  We invite you to “come and see,” as Philip said to Nathaniel (Jn. 1:46), to experience the beauty, glory, and holy splendor of this same Orthodox Church in the 21st century.

What is the Orthodox Church?

The Orthodox Christian Church is a worldwide body of believers who confess and worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as Lord and Messiah.  This body has a tangible and continuous history of Christian faith and practice from the time of Christ’s Apostles.  The use of the adjective “orthodox” to describe the Church dates back to the earliest centuries and was applied to those Christians who maintained the tradition transmitted by Christ’s Apostles (1 Thess. 2:15). 

The word “orthodox” does not mean strictness or rigidity.  A literal translation is “proper glory” and is concerned with giving glory to God – both in formal worship and in way of life – in a way that is faithful to His self-revelation, His majesty and being.  As implied in words such as “orthopedic,” the emphasis is on a corrective balance that brings healing.  In the spiritual realm, an orthodox way of life brings healing to the soul so that it may find union with God.

The Orthodox Church is therefore not a “denomination” and predates both denominationalism and non-denominationalism.  She has been labeled as “Eastern” or even “Greek” by historians to acknowledge that Christ’s Church began and flourished initially in the Eastern, Greek speaking portion of the Roman Empire, and to distinguish Her from what eventually became separate church bodies in the western hemisphere.  However, the Orthodox Church is not reserved for certain ethnicities (e.g. Greek, Russian) but is for all people. 

The Orthodox Church is currently the second largest body of Christians in the world with 225 million adherents across the globe.  The 1995 Encyclopedia Britannica noted the Orthodox Church as the fastest growing Christian Church in America as many are rediscovering the depth and riches of the ancient Christian tradition that remains steadfast and unchanging in regard to the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Whatever their national or regional origins all Orthodox Churches share the same faith and are united to one another in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Eph. 4:5).  The Head of the Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ and her only infallible Guide is the Holy Spirit.  There is no earthly head of the Orthodox Church.  All bishops are equal, sharing the same ministerial grace and forming a brotherhood to whom each is accountable.  It is not an earthly leader that holds the Church together but adherence to the Orthodox Faith – in the words of St. Vincent of Lerins (4th-5th c.), that which “has been believed everywhere, at all times, and by all.”

Since “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever” (Heb. 13:8), the Church has no need to conform to the newest fads, philosophies, and doctrines.  She does however adapt to new circumstances, adopts the language of the indigenous people, and embraces everything godly and good in the culture She finds herself.

Jesus Christ

The first and central doctrine of faith for Orthodox Christians, upon which all else hinges, is that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word and Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity, who was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.  He is therefore both fully God and fully Man, making possible the union of human beings with God.

Because Jesus Christ took upon Himself our humanity, all that He does also happens to us:

  • By His incarnation He joined our fallen human nature with the divine nature, opening the way to real participation in the life of God. 
  • By His suffering and death on the cross He destroyed the power of death and released mankind from bondage to an endless cycle of corruption, sin and death. 
  • By His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father He exalts our nature, making us partakers in divine glory.

 The Holy Trinity

Through Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself to be Trinity, a communion of three divine Persons existing in perfect unity and love.  While God the Father is the unique source of the Trinity, the Son and Spirit come forth from Him from all eternity and share perfectly and fully in His divine nature.  God the Father is indeed love.  He is not a lone ranger in the sky, but by His very nature lives continuously in loving relationship with His Son and Spirit.   The unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the source and model for the unity that is to be shared among persons in the Church:  “That they may be one, even as We are one” (Jn. 17:22).  

Sin

The Orthodox Church teaches that Adam’s sin broke man’s natural communion with God and tragically brought death into this world.  Those who came after Adam however are not guilty of his sin, but are rather affected and infected by all the consequences of the fallen condition.  In Greek, sin means to “miss the target.”  Sin is not the breaking of a moral code but the breaking of relationship, to miss the target of love, of likeness to God.   Sin is a misdirection of man’s energies and will from their true target and yearning: life with God.    In God’s Church it is possible to overcome sin,

Salvation

It is helpful to make a distinction between redemption and salvation.  The Orthodox Church teaches that God alone has redeemed mankind through the cross.  Salvation is the process of accepting and incorporating that act of redemption personally.  Salvation is therefore a process of transformation (Rom. 5:12).  It is not merely a matter of being declared “not guilty” by legal decree, it is an organic restoration to union with God, a process of “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15) by God’s grace.

The Greek word for salvation designates “healing.”  The Orthodox understanding of life in Christ views sin and salvation in terms of illness and healing of the soul.  The whole life of the Orthodox Church is given as a means to this restoration of spiritual health, i.e. to bring the human person into an authentic union with God, to become Christ-like, and to be more and more open to the Spirit of God.  The life of the Church is nothing other than this life of salvation and grace accessible to all who would avail themselves of it.

copyright 2010: Fr. Michael Shanbour

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