The Orthodox Church, also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, is a communion of Local Churches worldwide bound together by apostolic succession (from the Apostles), history, faith, creed, Ecumenical Councils, canons and liturgy. It is the second-largest Christian group in the world after the Roman Catholic Church, unless you consider Protestant groups and denominations as one entity.
Estimates of the number of worldwide Orthodox Christians range from 250 million to 350 million. Estimates of American members are between one and two million and the Orthodox Church is one of the fastest – growing Christian churches in America, drawing a rising numbers of converts from Evangelical and other Christian faith traditions.
Where did the Orthodox Church originate?
Jesus Christ founded His Church through the Apostles. By the grace received from God at Pentecost, the Apostles established the Church throughout the ancient world. St. Paul founded the Church of Antioch; St. Peter and St. James, the Church of Jerusalem; St. Andrew the Church of Constantinople; St. Mark, the Church of Alexandria; St. Peter and St. Paul, the Church of Rome. For one thousand years the Church was one (East and West), unbroken and undivided! After the Great Schism of 1054 A.D., when the Latin or western church tragically separated from eastern Christendom (at Constantinople), the eastern non-Oriental churches became known as the “Eastern Orthodox Church”, to distinguish them from what subsequently became known as the “Roman Catholic Church”.
Isn’t the “historic Church” Roman Catholic?
The “headquarters” of the ancient Christian faith was in fact not Rome but in the Eastern world! The apostles founded the majority of Churches in the Eastern world (and only two in the West). It was from the East (not from Rome) that the apostles and Paul were sent out with the Gospel. The West was not a center of the early Christian movement – it was the “mission field”! For over 1,000 years, with the exception of Rome, all the major centers of Christian belief were found in the East – in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.
All the fundamental dogmas regarding the faith were formulated and defended in the East – essential dogmas like Christ being “of the same essence” with the Father; that Christ is fully God and fully human; that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person; and the nature of the Trinity.
The first schools of Biblical interpretation, Antioch and Alexandria, were in the East. Their perspectives of interpretation still influence much of our understanding of the Scriptures today.
The East was the site for all the Ecumenical Church Councils (that is, the first seven from 325 to 787 A.D.) which formulated doctrines which Christians of all orthodox traditions accept as normative. The overwhelming majority of the bishops present at those councils were Eastern as well.
Do Orthodox Christians have a “Pope”?
The Roman Catholic Church tragically broke from the Eastern churches in 1054 A.D. largely over the issue of the encroaching authority of the Roman Pope by the western church. The eastern churches consistently rejected this encroachment for 1,000 years of Christian history (and continue to today). The Orthodox Church does not have a single leader. It is organized into “jurisdictions” following national and historic lines, based on the early Church model of conciliar church leadership seen in the Book of Acts (Chapter 15). Each group is governed by synods (councils of bishops) who have equal authority and who do not interfere in one another’s affairs. The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the “Ecumenical” (or universal) Patriarch, and since the schism has enjoyed a position of honor among the Orthodox communities. But, he does not have the right, for example, to interfere in the internal affairs of other churches. His position resembles that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
What is Orthodox Christian hope based on?
Our entire hope is Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul says: “…by the commandment of God our Savior, and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). We receive and will receive everything through him. Our Lord Himself teaches: “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13) Our hope is based on the sovereign grace of God, since it was given through Christ, as Scripture says: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
But we also have our part to play! First, there is the following of God’s will, that is, the commandments. Christ himself tells us: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14: 21). Second, through the communion of the holy mysteries of the body and blood of Christ, through which Christ the Lord abides. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56); and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6: 53). And third, through persevering prayer, as the Apostle Paul teaches: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude: 20-21).
How does the Orthodox Church understand “salvation”?
Eastern Orthodox theologians contend that Western Christian doctrines of sin and salvation have been overly dominated by legal, juridical and forensic language and categories. By this they mean the West’s almost exclusive use of terms of divine law and justice to describe salvation; ideas that are perhaps taken from the context of Roman civil law. While we affirm the use of legal metaphors by Saint Paul, the eastern church fathers contend legal concepts should not dominate (as they have in the West), but should be balanced among the many other biblical metaphors used to describe the redemptive work of Christ. An example of how far removed the Christian East and West are in this area is the fact that the doctrine of justification by faith (how guilty people can stand before a just God or Judge), which is so prevalent in the West, is almost entirely absent in the East! Eastern theology does not focus so much on guilt, as on mortality (i.e. death!) as the main problem of humanity. We tend to see the work of Christ more in therapeutic, healing, renewal, or rescue terms than on exclusively or primarily juridical, legal, forensic terms.
Psalm 82:6 says, “I say, ‘You are gods’; you are all sons of the Most High’.” 2 Peter 1:4: “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Saint Cyril of Alexandria commenting on this passage tells us that we are all called to participate in divinity, not just a few “saints”. Although Christ alone is God by nature, all people are called to become God – like, “to participate in the divine nature” (without of course becoming what God is by nature!). To “participate in the divine nature” is how Orthodox Christians understand the full meaning of salvation. Salvation is more than simply saying a “sinner’s prayer”, or belief in or adherence to a set of doctrinal or moral premises. A person becomes the perfect image of God by discovering his or her likeness to God, which is the perfection of the nature common to all human beings. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, salvation is understood as direct union with the living God, the total transformation of the human person by divine grace and glory – what the Greek fathers termed “deification” or “divinization”.
Orthodox Christianity and the Bible
Orthodox Holy Tradition, Orthodox theology and the Holy Scriptures are intertwined. They all speak of the same Orthodox Christian life and faith. They come from the same apostolic and patristic sources of the early Church. Frankly, it is barely possible to fully understand the Bible without understanding the historic, ecclesiastic, liturgical and theological context of the early Church. For example it was on the basis of a common knowledge of “authentic” Church Tradition that the church fathers of the pre-Reformation Church were able to agree on the content that became the New Testament biblical canon we have today. The canon was compiled from myriad ancient text sources, many of which were spurious or even heretical. As we affirm, the Bible was given to the historic Church.
Orthodox “Tradition”– equal to or above the Bible?
The Orthodox Church sees the Bible as inspired by God and authoritative. However, Saint Paul in Thessalonians (2:15) wrote, “Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” A Bible-Only (“Sola Scriptura”) criterion is therefore in conflict with the Scriptures! Orthodox Christianity sees the Christian faith in light of the whole tradition, that is, in terms that encompass the entire tradition of understanding of the faith (oral and written) from Apostolic times. This was called “The Rule of Faith”. Western Christianity (especially Protestant) often understands Christian faith through its interpretation of certain parts and interpretations of the Bible, retrospectively. The Orthodox Church affirms that authentic Apostolic Tradition comes from the Holy Spirit in the Church. This is the same Spirit who inspired the Bible and the teaching of the Apostles, whether oral or written.
Sources of Orthodox “Tradition”?
There are five basic sources that comprise “Orthodox Tradition”, passed down from one generation to the next, from Christ to the Apostles, in written and unwritten forms. The first is Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The second source is the Liturgy, which includes the entire body of the Church’s common and public worship (including the sacraments of the Church). The third are the councils of the Church, the first one recounted in the Book of Acts (Acts 15), and their subsequent creeds and canons. The fourth are the Saints of the Church, especially the writings of a particular group of saints called the “church fathers”. The fifth source of Church Tradition is Church art. Saint John of Damascus said that words written in books are “images”, as are material images like icons. Art is the use of the material to express the intangible and the revelation of God.
How ancient are the Orthodox liturgical services?
Eastern Orthodox services trace their beginnings back to the Old Testament liturgical rites and services of the Hebrews. They are a treasury of Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and canons composed by the Saints and pious Christians throughout the ages. Like our Jewish predecessors, Orthodox services are liturgical, sacramental, and ceremonial. Many of the hymns you hear come from the Psalms. Most of them are sung or chanted, as has been the tradition since the days of Jewish – Christian practice. Some of the ancient document sources of the Orthodox liturgical order of service go back to the second (Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150) and third centuries (Hippolytus, c. 215 A.D.). Eastern liturgies went through development in the fourth and fifth centuries. They became stabilized in the sixth century, and by the eight century were so fixed that they have not changed even today.
What is the content of Orthodox liturgical worship?
One of the striking characteristics of Orthodox worship is its near total integration with its theology. It is this blending of theology and worship that gives Orthodoxy its thoroughly liturgical character. From the Orthodox Christian perspective, Western Christianity exhibits a breach or rupture between theology and liturgical experience. In Orthodox Christianity they are a single, inseparable act. Participate in the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church and you will hear and see its theology, through its text, chant, hymnography and iconography.
Why does Orthodox music often sound “sorrowful”?
Orthodox music is dynamic and its style varies, depending on the liturgical cycle, the liturgical calendar and the text being sung or chanted. It also varies according to the culture from which it developed! Some music is written to lead us to repentance and is therefore somber. Other music is celebratory and joyful. Orthodox music expresses the Orthodox “ethos”, which has been described as “joyful sorrow”. Like The Psalms from which much of our musical text derives, there is a full range of human emotion expressed in Orthodox liturgical music.
-Article taken from St Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church, Salt Lake City, UT
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