What is the Orthodox Church?

The Orthodox Church is the oldest Christian Church and is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, founded upon the teachings of the Holy Apostles. It is the Church that received the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost in A.D. 33/34. It is also the Church out of which came the writings of the New Testament. All other mainstream Christian churches can trace their origins historically back to the Orthodox Church. It is the second largest Christian body in the world with approximately 225 million members worldwide, of which nearly six million live in the United States and Canada.

Is the Orthodox Church Catholic or Protestant?

In the true meaning of the word, the Orthodox Church is the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” of the New Testament. Here the word catholic is used in its original sense of something that is “whole, universal, not confined to one area.” But in the common understanding of the word Catholic (meaning Roman Catholic), the Orthodox Church is neither Catholic nor Protestant.

To better understand this, it is necessary to comprehend the timeline of Church history. For roughly the first thousand years of the Church’s existence, there was but one Church — the Orthodox Church. Indeed, the word orthodox means straight or correct teaching. Though there were various heresies that the Church encountered throughout its early history, the Church itself held to the “straight path,” or to Christian orthodoxy. It wasn’t until the year 1054 when the Roman Church separated itself from the path of Orthodoxy that there existed any major division within the Body of Christ on earth. But after leaving the True Path, Roman Catholicism itself later began to experience through the Protestant Reformation the same kind of division it originally visited upon the One Church. Most of the early Reformers (and many who followed after them) had become disenchanted with the direction the Roman Church had taken, and these great men of faith made valiant efforts to return to the True Path of the Christian faith. But having been separated from Orthodoxy for 500 years or more, many of these Protestant leaders in the West were not even aware that the Church in the East had maintained the original doctrines of the Church since the beginning. While we applaud the noble efforts of many men and women of faith through these centuries, they did not return fully to the original Orthodoxy the Western Church had left centuries before.

To someone looking at Orthodoxy from the outside, it might appear that Orthodoxy is closer to Catholicism than to Protestantism. But this assumption would be based principally on the externals of Orthodox worship. Because Roman Catholicism came directly out of Orthodoxy, it retains some of the same outward forms that were present in the ancient Church, particularly in the area of corporate worship. But in truth, as one nineteenth-century Russian theologian described it, the Catholic and Protestant churches have more in common with one another than either do with Orthodoxy. Because Orthodoxy is the original Church, it must be examined on its own merits and not so much in comparison with other faiths.

Which Orthodox Church is the true one?

Excepting a few churches of modern invention that have incorporated the word “orthodox” into their names but bear no relationship to the ancient Church, there is not the kind of division within Orthodoxy as one finds among the various Protestant denominations. Although one can look about and see names like Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and so on, these do not represent different faiths within Orthodoxy. They all are names for one and the same Orthodox faith and practice. There are some cultural differences among these various Churches, but these differences do not touch on the essence of faith. Just as St. John was asked to address seven different churches in the Book of Revelation, those churches were named because of their geographical locations. Certainly each of the seven churches maintained some slightly different cultural customs or even different languages, but they all were part of the One True Church of the New Testament. In the same way, all the various Orthodox Churches today simply comprise the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the first century.

What do Orthodox Christians believe?

In a short introduction such as this, it is impossible to delve into the rich depths of Orthodox belief and practice. At its core, however, the true faith of the Orthodox believer can be summarized in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; The third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the Life of the world to come. Amen.

This statement represents the essence of Orthodox Christianity and is perhaps the greatest articulation of the Christian faith ever devised. In it we find our theology and the foundation of our doctrine defined in every detail. So important is this statement of faith that all Orthodox Christians recite it at every Divine Liturgy, and most incorporate it in their daily prayers and devotions at home.

In regards to all other Orthodox beliefs, the New Testament and the Creed are thoroughly consistent with the life and practice of the Holy Church. Unlike many churches of today that have embraced liberal theology and deny the authority of Holy Scripture, Orthodoxy reveres the Bible as the Holy Word of God. But we do not hold the Bible in a vacuum — it is God’s Word that was given to the world through the Church, and it is within the Church (which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit) that we must interpret Scripture. This does not mean, of course, that the Church can manipulate Scripture to make it say whatever it wants; but it does mean that we believe the only way to interpret Scripture properly is through the eyes and understanding of the Holy Church and the Apostles, Saints, and martyrs who have lived it throughout the ages. In light of that, the Orthodox Church does not see a need to choose between Scripture and Tradition, for we accept both Scripture and Tradition since Scripture itself teaches us to “hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (II Thessalonians 2:15). Our Holy Traditions are as much a part of our Christian walk as are the Holy Scriptures, for they do not contradict but rather complement each other.

Does the Orthodox Church recognize the Pope?

Historically, the Pope was recognized on a collegiate level as the Patriarch of Rome and as “first among equals” with the other Bishops and Patriarchs. But since the Schism of 1054 when the Pope attempted to assume supreme authority over the entire Church, Orthodoxy cannot honor that claim. Nor does the Orthodox Church acknowledge other innovations of the Roman Church such as papal infallibility, indulgences, purgatory, or the doctrine of the immaculate conception. These were all later additions to Christian doctrine and practice and are not part of Orthodox dogma.

What is the Orthodox view of the Protestant churches?

Orthodoxy looks kindly on all who seek the way of God, and it does not deny that many great men and women of faith have contributed notable and beneficial things to a dark and sinful world in search of the light of God’s truth. And while the Orthodox Church believes that it is the One, True Church, this does not mean that it believes all other churches are utterly without Grace. What it does mean is that it believes no other church can claim the fullness of Christ’s Church. This fullness can be found only in Orthodoxy. After all, the Orthodox Church is the original Church instituted by Christ Himself and has maintained the teachings of the Apostles since the earliest days. Where else can one go to find a similar claim? Truth may indeed be found in many Christian denominations, but the whole truth rests in Holy Orthodoxy.

Where can I learn more?

As stated above, it is impossible to express the deep riches of Orthodoxy in a short introduction such as this. Indeed, one cannot discover the true richness of Orthodoxy merely by reading about it, just as no one can ever learn what love is simply by reading books on the subject. Orthodoxy must be experienced and lived before it can become genuinely real.

Nevertheless, there are many things that can be learned about Orthodoxy that can help lead one to a fuller understanding of its precepts. There are many web pages that offer more extensive background information, and for these you might want to consult our Other Links page. There are also many books and pamphlets that can help you learn more about our ancient faith. Below is a brief description of just a few that we recommend.

An excellent little book that has started many people on their journey toward Orthodoxy is one titled Becoming Orthodox by Fr. Peter Gillquist. This book tells the story of a movement that brought literally thousands of Evangelical Protestants to embrace Orthodox Christianity. Two other excellent introductions to Orthodoxy that also compare Orthodox belief to both Protestant and Catholic theologies are Common Ground by Jordan Bajis and Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick. These are among the most scholarly yet readable and compassionate books available that deal with the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western Christianity. The “Faith Series” by Clark Carlton is also highly recommended. The titles in the series are: The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity; The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church; The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church; and The Life: Orthodox Doctrine of Salvation.

A fairly short and very readable account of an Evangelical minister’s journey to Orthodoxy can be found in Fr. Charles Bell’s book, The Rich Heritage of Orthodoxy. Another title that describes conversion experiences of many former Protestants is Coming Home, edited by Fr. Peter Gillquist. Though chiefly a book of personal experiences, a number of various religious topics is covered in this book as well.

Among the more academic titles recommended are two books by Timothy (Kallistos) Ware: The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. Benjamin Williams and Harold Anstall have co-authored an excellent treatise on worship titled Orthodox Worship. And perhaps one of the best books on systematic theology from an Orthodox perspective is Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.

In addition to books there are also several smaller tracts that address issues dear to many who approach Orthodoxy from a Western perspective. Among these are Jack Sparks’ “Apostolic Succession” and “No Graven Image,” the latter dealing with the question of the veneration of icons in the Orthodox Church. “Scripture and Tradition” by Raymond Zell covers its topic very succinctly, as does the slightly longer treatise “Sacred Tradition in the Orthodox Church” by Lazarus Moore. “The Presence of Mary” by Alexander Schmemann is a classic dissertation on the question of Mary, and “Heavenly Worship” by J. Richard Ballew deals with Orthodox liturgy and worship from a Biblical standpoint. Speaking more directly to those with a fundamentalist background is Jon Braun’s little tract, “Finding the New Testament Church.”

Anyone seriously interested in further study of Orthodoxy is strongly encouraged to begin his library with these titles. Several of these are available through the All Saints parish library and bookstore, or can be ordered online from various sources.

Of course, the best way to learn about Orthodoxy is to experience it firsthand. Come visit our fellowship or come worship with us in the Divine Liturgy. It could well be that you will discover the home you’ve been yearning for throughout your spiritual life!

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