Note to the Reader
This one web site is too small to cover Orthodox Christianity except in the most introductory way. What follows is a brief introduction intended for the "typical" American with a basic familiarity with Roman Catholicism and/or Protestantism.
One should understand that the Orthodox Church has no copyright on the terms "Orthodox" or "canonical" and many other groups which we do not recognize and which have no historical standing within the Orthodox Church as described herein, use such terms for themselves. To visit a list of the Church bodies that have historically recognized each other as canonical Orthodox Churches, see the Canonical Churches page.
Origins and Early History
Church in America
Historical Relation to Western Christianity
The Orthodox Church shares a common history with Western Christianity for roughly the first 1,000 years of the Christian experience. However, during the Middle Ages, developments in Rome and Western Europe led the Latin Church to drift away from the Church in the East. Some fundamental and previously shared understandings were lost. For example, the authority of local bishops was largely supplanted by the universal claims of the Roman papacy. Also, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed -- used since the early 4th Century throughout Christianity -- was unilaterally changed in the Latin West to say that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the son" (contrast John 15:26). These and other changes in the Roman Church led it to an increasing sense of alienation, culminating in its breaking away from the Eastern Church in 1054 AD, severing itself from communion with the rest of Christianity in East, leading down the path of unique development even until today. (Article on this subject.)
As a result, the Orthodox Christian Church is commonly understood as the normative and historic "Church of the East"-- of Biblically significant places such as Jerusalem and Palestine, Antioch, Corinth, Thessalonika, in addition to most of the southern and eastern Slavic lands, etc. However, Orthodoxy is not bound intrinsically to any historical territory.
The Orthodox Church has a strong tradition of missionary evangelism. Unlike certain missionary endeavors by western-minded Christians, the Orthodox missionary tradition does not include attempting to impose or promote the specific culture of the missionaries because "God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34-35). Orthodoxy affirms and utilizes the local language in worship and prayer. Orthodoxy enters into the culture, embracing all those aspects of a culture that are compatible with the Gospel, thereby "baptizing" the culture with its citizens.
In this way, Orthodoxy was first established in North America-- through the independent missionary activity of pioneering Russian fur traders in Imperial Alaska. Their early effort was rapidly followed by an official mission sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church. That mission, through the activity of the humble lay-monk, St. Herman, led to the conversion of thousands of Aleuts, Eskimo, Tlingit, and other indigenous peoples of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. (See biographies of St. Herman.)
(A "false start" for the Church was made by Greek immigrants near St. Augustine, Florida in 1768, whose community withered and left no lasting church community.)
Another significant and more recent point in American Orthodox history was in 1987, when about 2,000 Protestants -- led by several former leaders of Campus Crusade for Christ, after each completed searches for the original Christian Church -- joined together in choosing to enter the Orthodox Church, understanding it to be the original, Biblical Church. (See Becoming Orthodox in the Bibliography section below.)
Tradition of Worship
Orthodox doctrine and tradition are harmoniously held together as mutually supportive parts of the single whole of Christian Truth (2 Thess. 2:15). Orthodoxy, which has never undergone a Reformation, sees no conflict between Scripture and Tradition, between hierarchy and laity, between local custom and universal commonality. Orthodoxy also sees no conflict between personal piety and corporate worship. Orthodox worship is liturgical and fasting is a fundamental part of Orthodox piety, both of which were prominent in the early Church. See Acts 13:2 where the Christians are fasting and engaging in liturgy and see The Didache page 1:3; 7:4; 8:1 where fasting is discussed and see chapters 7 through 9 where baptism and the liturgy are discussed.
The Orthodox Church is a single Body, with Christ as the head (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:12-14). And as "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Heb. 13:8), so too the Church's faith in Him must be the same throughout time, and not changing with the times. When viewing the earliest expressions of the Christian Church -- as seen in the writings of the early Church Fathers such as Saints Clement, Justin Martyr, and John Chrysostom, or the late first-early second century Christian handbook, The Didache (see The Didache page) -- and compare them to the writings of our own contemporaries in the Orthodox Church, we find (and demand) the same confession of faith.
In the Church, various countries and peoples are united in their common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. However, the administration of the Church is done locally, by self-governing Churches (such as the Russian Orthodox Church administering the Church in Russia or the Church of Antioch governing the Church in Syria). All of the Orthodox Church jurisdictions share the same faith, doctrines, scriptures, canons (guidelines), sacraments, and mutual recognition of clergy and laity as members of the Church. No self-governing local Church can exercise authority over any of its peers or unilaterally involve itself in the other's local activities (compare Rom. 15:20, 2 Cor. 10:13-16). There is, however, an order of honor accorded to the various churches, with the "Archbishop of Constantinople" (the "Ecumenical Patriarch" in Istanbul) being recognized as "first among equals" and having the right to convene and chair synods of his peers.
In short, the Orthodox Church is the singular Body of Christ constituted by the Holy Spirit; it is the Church of the Apostles. It is their continuous lineage, not bound by any historic period, language or culture (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col. 3:11; Heb. 13:8).
In this day and age of ecumenical dialog and interdenominational communion, we should point out two fundamental points about the Orthodox understanding of Communion.
1) Reality of the Sacrament: We believe that Christ spoke truthfully when He said, "Take eat, this is My body" (Matt. 26:26, etc.) We do not read it as mere symbolism, for if He were speaking only metaphorically, He would not have said, "Truly, truly (literally, Amen, amen) I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). Nor would He have said, "For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed" (John 6:55). And again, the Gospel points out that this was not euphemistic symbolism, rather it is "a hard saying" which led many of His disciples to stop following Him (John 6:60-66). Furthermore, St. Paul could not have claimed that many have become weak, sick, and even died from profaning a mere symbolic representation (1 Cor. 11:23-30).
2) Fidelity with the Sacrament: Since we confess the consecrated bread and wine to be truly the sacramental Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, we treat the Sacrament as most-holy. We affirm the unity of His body, the Church, just as St. Paul takes it for granted that Christ -- and therefore His Church -- is undivided (1 Cor. 1:11-13). Similarly, there ought not be divisions within the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-20).
In Ephesians 5:29-32, the Apostle Paul compares Christ's relationship to the Church with that of man and wife. From this, we can say that for the Orthodox Church to offer "open communion" to people who are not members of the Orthodox Church would be analogous to adultery. Indeed, the words adultery and harlotry are used in the Old Testament to describe Israel breaking fidelity with the Lord (e.g. Ezek. 23:37; Deut. 31:16).
Also, our understanding of Jesus as the new and holy, mystical Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7) leads us to share this Sacrificial Lamb only with fellow members of the Orthodox Church, just as the Lord commanded that only official members of the congregation of Israel were allowed to eat the Passover. Neither the sojourner, the hired servant, nor even the live-in servant could eat it, unless and until they were formally made to be members of the congregation of Israel through circumcision (Exo. 12:43-48).
So, from the Scriptural perspective, the Orthodox understanding is that we may not offer communion to those from whom we are divided: Those who confess any other creed, those who are not members of the Orthodox Church. Thus, the Church maintains its fidelity to Christ, in part, by sharing the Sacrament only with persons who are members of the undivided Orthodox Church.
Recognizing the reality of divisions among our fellow Christians, however, we pray for the day that we all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among us, but that we be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). Along this line, at almost every service, we pray "for the union of all" and in the ancient liturgy of St. Basil the Great, we explicitly ask the Lord to "reunite the separated."
To add just a bit of clarity -- or, perhaps, confusion -- there is another Church Body that goes by the term "Oriental Orthodox." The Oriental Orthodox Churches (e.g., the Egyptian/Coptic Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches) maintain great similarity with the Eastern Orthodox in their organizational structure, canons, sacraments, etc. The reason for the distinction between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox is that in the year 451 there was a great Church Council regarding the nature of Jesus Christ. Those who are identified as Oriental Orthodox did not recognize the Council and since that time, there has been a schism between the Oriental Orthodox and the rest of Christendom.
This 4th Ecumenical Council refuted a new theology that said Jesus Christ was of one hybrid nature (monophysite) made from His divinity and from His humanity. The Council declared that Jesus Christ, though one Person, is of two natures: both perfectly human and perfectly divine. However, the fact that the Oriental Orthodox rejected this Council and left the communion of the rest of Christianity is not necessarily to say that they believe Jesus Christ to be such a hybrid of the two natures. For more information on the Oriental Orthodox where they can more properly define themselves, visit Copts - an introduction.
Informative Web Links
Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, Peter E. Gillquist, (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992).
The Faith We Hold, Archbishop Paul, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980).
The Orthodox Church, Timothy (Callistos) Ware, (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1963).
The Orthodox Faith: Vols. 1-4, Thomas Hopko (New York: Department of Religious Education, The Orthodox Church in America, 1981). Read it online!
The Orthodox Study Bible: Vol. 1: New Testament and Psalms (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1993).
John 15:26 But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. (Return to the article.)
Acts 10:34-35 Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. 35 But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him." (Return to the article.)
2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (Return to the article.)
Acts 13:2 As they ministered [leitourgountõn] to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."
The Greek original of "ministered" -- leitourgountõn [leitourgountwn] -- literally says that they were performing an act of service to the Lord. The Greek Old Testament Septuagint frequently uses the same word (for the Hebrew shârêt [trv]) when discussing priestly-Levitical ritual worship in the tabernacle of the Lord and in the Temple. (For example, Exodus 28:35; Numbers 1:50; Deuteronomy 10:8; 1 Chronicles 15:2; 2 Chronicles 5:14; Ezekiel 40:46; Joel 1:9; and, in the same fashion, Hebrews 10:11.) (Return to the article.)
1 Corinthians 12:12-14 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free -- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many. (Return to the article.)
Romans 15:20 And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man's foundation.
2 Corinthians 10:13-16 But we will not boast beyond limit, but will keep to the limits God has apportioned us, to reach even to you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you; we were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ. 15 We do not boast beyond limit, in other men's labors; but our hope is that as your faith increases, our field among you may be greatly enlarged, 16 so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another's field. (Return to the article.)
1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free -- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.
Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Colossians 3:11 where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Return to the article.)
Matthew 26:26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." (Return to article.)
John 6:60-66 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" 61 When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend you? 62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father." 66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. (Return to article.)
1 Corinthians 11:23-30 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. 27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (Return to article.)
1 Corinthians 11:11-13 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. 12 Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (Return to article.)
1 Corinthians 11:18-20 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. 19 For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. 20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper. (Return to article.)
Ephesians 5:29-32 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. 30 For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. 31 "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Return to article.)
Ezekiel 23:37 "For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. They have committed adultery with their idols, and even sacrificed their sons whom they bore to Me, passing them through the fire, to devour them.
Deuteronomy 31:16 And the LORD said to Moses: "Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. (Return to article.)
1 Corinthians 5:7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (Return to article.)
Exodus 12:43-48 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "This is the ordinance of the Passover: No foreigner shall eat it. 44 But every man's servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then he may eat it. 45 A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat it. 46 In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it." (Return to article.)
1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (Return to article.)
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