I remember fondly a dear elderly man in my congregation growing up who often lamented the fact that the Orthodox Christian Church is, in his words, “The best kept secret in America.” Although the 1995 Encyclopedia Britannica listed the Orthodox Church as “the fastest growing Christian church in America” – it remains a mystery (if not a secret) to many. And mystery can lead to misunderstanding.
Here are some of the most common questions asked about the Orthodox Church.
How did the Orthodox Church begin? Is it a denomination?
The Orthodox Church constitutes the second largest body of Christians in the world. It is not a denomination; it pre-dates the existence of denominations by at least 1,500 years. The Orthodox Church has an organic and continuous 2, 000 year history spanning from the time of Jesus’ apostles to the present – a verifiable fact affirmed by historians. 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 England and Western Europe, South America, Mexico, Guatamala, Indonesia, Japan, China, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania.
What are the origins of various denominations?
In the year 1054 a fissure occurred between the churches of the western Roman Empire under the jurisdiction of the bishop (“Pope”) of Rome and the Eastern churches represented by the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Eastern churches rejected the claim of the Pope to a universal authority over the whole Church. This break, called the “Great Schism,” eventually led to two distinct bodies.
Some 500 years later 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.
Who is the head of the Orthodox Church? Who makes the decisions?
The Orthodox insist that Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church. There is no singular or unilateral authority in Orthodoxy like a Pope. All bishops are equal and equally responsible for guarding the faith. They are accountable to one another and to all Orthodox believers. No one is considered infallible. The Church is unified by a common faith, not by a central authority. The Orthodox believe the Holy Spirit is the authority that guides the Church. In times of crisis or new circumstances the local bishops gather to articulate what the Church has always believed (see Acts 15).
But aren’t the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches two different things?
No! They are simply the Orthodox Church from different countries of origin. The faith is identical. Just as in New Testament times, the churches of Ephesus and Thessalonica and Philippi were all one, the Orthodox Church is a communion of regional churches united in one belief and practice. Unfortunately Orthodox Christians in America have often retained the name of their country of origin, giving the impression they are distinct from other Orthodox churches. They have sometimes been slow to let go of the language of origin as well (Three Hierarchs uses English exclusively). However all Orthodox churches share the same creed, sacraments, and liturgical services and form one Church in America and abroad.
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What does “orthodox” mean? Are you Jewish?
Not unless Jews worship Jesus as the Messiah! Orthodox Christians confess and worship Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior, the incarnate Son and Word of God. Also the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was espoused and defended by the Orthodox from earliest times. The word “orthodox” is an adjective meaning “proper belief or worship” and was used from the 2nd century onward to designate Christians who maintained the teachings as transmitted by the apostles.
But the Orthodox Church is Eastern, not Western, right?
Yes, No, and Maybe! It depends on our perspective and what one means by “Eastern.” Ready for a shock?: Christianity is an “Eastern Religion”! It began in the Middle East by eastern, Semitic peoples. Out of 44 local churches personally founded by the apostles of Jesus, only 2 were established in Western Europe. The west was not the center of the Christian Church but the mission field.
What would we see if we walked into a church in Ravenna, Italy in the 6th century? We know because they still exist. We see “Byzantine” architecture and “Byzantine” mosaic iconography everywhere. We would have heard “Byzantine” chant, adapted later by Pope Gregory in the 7th c., i.e. “Gregorian” chant. Monasticism too was imported from Egypt and Palestine to the west by John Cassian (“the Roman”) and others.
What we now understand to be “western” is the result of the “Renaissance” which was based on a fascination for…Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. With the Renaissance came a transformation of the western Church: new ways of thinking and theologizing, new music, new art. All of these were departures from early Christianity.
While some describe Orthodox Christian worship as “different” or “foreign,” what they are actually experiencing is something more ancient and otherworldly. Early Christian worship was patterned on heavenly worship, such as that seen in Isaiah 6 and Revelations 4 and 5. It is meant to be otherworldly. It is meant to be “foreign” to the fallen man and appeal to something greater.
So the Orthodox Church is old. Doesn’t that mean boring or out-of-date? Why doesn’t the Church change with the times?
Orthodox Christian worship is anything but boring. It is profound and rich. It is challenging and engaging, grace-filled and majestic, overflowing with scriptural reading and imagery. The testimony of the early Church Fathers confirms that this worship has been largely unchanged. But it’s not “entertainment”! It’s not meant to be an experience of this world, but of the world to come. It is an encounter with the living God. There’s nothing in Scripture that suggests we should “modernize” the worship of God. Instead it tells us “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).
This is not to say the Orthodox Church does not adapt to what is good in every culture. It has done so in taking the gospel to Slavic peoples, to native Alaskans, to Japanese, Africans, and others. But it does so with discernment and prayer.
What is the mission of the Orthodox Church?
There is only one mission: To bring human beings into a personal union with God, now while yet in this life, through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is salvation. Salvation is not merely “going to heaven” when you die. It is not a legal arrangement brokered by God. It is a real transformation of the heart by the grace of God through repentance, which can heal the human person and bring them into communion with God.