The Eastern Orthodox Church is a Christian body whose adherents are largely based in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with a growing presence in the western world. It claims to be a continuation of the original Christian church founded by Christ and the Apostles, and traces its lineage back to the early church through the process of Apostolic Succession. Eastern Orthodox distinctives include the divine liturgy, sacraments, organization into national or "territorial" churches, and an emphasis on the preservation of Tradition, which it holds to be Apostolic in nature.
The Eastern Orthodox approach
Eastern Orthodoxy is in general, "Christocentric", viewing Christ Jesus as the head of the Church, and the Church as his body; with authority derived directly from this relationship. Eastern Orthodoxy has an extensive oral tradition that predates the actual texts of the New Testament, hence, it does not consider itself to be "bibliocentric"; which is the case with most forms of Protestantism. This, however, does not in any way diminish their respect and devotion toward scriptures, but rather puts it into perspective as the texts accepted by the Church as most important. The Orthodox Church considers the Old Testament (Septuagint) to a lesser degree of importance with the exception of the Psalms (which are a part of daily services) and the prophecies leading up to the incarnation of Christ. While many parts of the Old Testament are considered edifying (teaching moral lessons about hospitality and the result of sin) it is not a requirement that everything be taken literally. The Orthodox Church does not seek any conflict with science. It tends to consider truth to be seen in the "Consensus of the Fathers" (the golden thread of agreement that runs back through the patristic writings of the Church Fathers back to the early Church and the apostles). All theological concepts must be in agreement with the consensus of the Fathers in order to be considered truth. Rules and laws are deemphasized in the Orthodox Church in favor of guidelines with love, compassion and mercy considered in all things.
The Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church are not legalistic in their views of sin. Sin does not exist as an abstract entity and must be approached on an individual basis. Likewise, the prescription for sin must be filtered through human understanding in order to be effective. There is nothing within the Church that is automatic (latae sententiae). What is a sin for one man may not be for another; neither does the Orthodox Church see all sin as being the same. The traditional practice of the Orthodox is to have a spiritual father (or mother) to whom one confesses and who treats the sin on an individual basis. An experienced spiritual father will know how and when to apply strictness in dealing with sin and when to effectively "bend the rules." This relationship (father and son) is a reflection of our relationship to God and is pervasive in the church—see the section concerning the Mystery of Repentance.
Note: It is fairly common in the West to use the term "Greek Orthodox" to refer to any national group of Orthodox (Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Georgian, American, Syrian [Antiochian], etc., in addition to Greek). This stems from the historical identification of Orthodoxy with the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire in the east, as opposed to the Latin-speaking Roman Catholic Church in the west. However, in modern usage, the term "Eastern Orthodoxy" has a wider circumference.
Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism
The Roman Catholic Church shares many of the same characteristics as the Orthodox Church especially in reference to the early church because of their common origin. For nearly 1000 years, the two churches were united, with the Roman Pope being counted as one of the five major hierarchs, along with the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople. The division of the Church into separate churches is regarded as having occurred in 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism, though their divergence began as much as two centuries earlier. Both churches claim to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and reject the other's claim to this title. The term "Orthodox" was adopted by the Eastern Church to signify its adherence to, and preservation of, the original apostolic traditions, teachings, and style of worship. Both churches, to signify the universality of the church, retain the term "Catholic". Both churches also continue to claim apostolic succession. The churches differ, however, in their ecclesiology: the Orthodox Church views all bishops as equal, and rejects the idea that one patriarch may have authority over another's jurisdiction. The Patriarch of Constantinople currently enjoys the honorary title of "First Among Equals"; which simply means that in council, he occupies the position of president in what is otherwise a democratic organization. This, in the view of the Orthodox, is the same position held by the Pope before the Great Schism. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, views the Patriarch of Rome as the head of the Church and ascribe to him all-encompassing—indeed, infallible—authority on Christian matters.
To date, however, there has not been a final statement on behalf of the whole Orthodox Church, with regard to the status of Rome. This is not surprising, since such general, authoritarian statements are simply unheard-of within Eastern Orthodoxy, even upon issues with little to no internal disagreement. Therefore, a lack of a definitive, authoritarian, "Church-wide" statement cannot be taken to mean that the Eastern Orthodox Church necessarily espouses or rejects a specific belief. This sort of centralized communication is neither typical of nor appropriate to Eastern Orthodoxy. Because of its conciliar nature, in order to make such a pronouncement, the Orthodox Church would be required to convene another ecumenical council, the last of which was held in 787 AD. There has been talk in recent years of doing exactly that in order to clarify the church's position on certain modern issues though nothing definite has been set.
The primary causes of Orthodox differences with Rome include the addition to the Symbol of Faith (Nicean Creed) of the Filioque clause, papal claims to authority over all Christians (papal primacy), and other doctrinal and liturgical developments approved by the See of Rome. After the split, Roman Catholics defined other dogmas that the Eastern Orthodox also considers heretical, among them papal infallibility, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, and purgatory. The See of Rome considers the Eastern Orthodox churches to be in schism. The general Eastern Orthodox consensus is that Roman Catholics are both schismatics and heretics, although a minority of Orthodox Christians believe that the difference in reality is smaller than it appears superficially.
Eastern, Oriental and Assyrian churches
The Great Schism was not the first division to occur in the church, though it was by far the most significant. The earlier conflict between the Imperial Church and what are now called the Oriental Orthodox churches was established many centuries before at the fourth and fifth ecumenical councils. And, in some fundamental aspects, the Oriental Orthodox churches are as dissimilar from the Eastern Orthodox churches as they are from the Roman Catholic Church. Oriental Orthodox churches include the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church. These are all labelled 'monophysite' by some of the Eastern Orthodox, although they reject this label, preferring the term 'miaphysite'. The Assyrian Church of the East is also often included among this group, although it does not belong to the Oriental Orthodox Communion, and indeed, adheres to the doctrine of 'Nestorianism', directly opposed to the doctrine of the Oriental Orthodox. The main theological problem is usually traced back to the 5th century, with Saint Cyril's referring to the nature of Christ as being "One Theandric Nature". The term "Theandric" was taken by the main body of the church to mean "God/Man" and therefore really two natures, God and Man unified, while the remainder thought of it as one single nature. At first glance this may seem a trivial disagreement, but ultimately the question took hundreds of years to solidify because of its extreme complexity and eventually lead to this early split.
Eastern Rite Catholicism
There are also churches, referred to as Eastern Rite, Eastern Rite Catholics, or Eastern Catholic churches. Like Eastern Orthodox Churches, Eastern Rite churches also use some form of Eastern Rite, or liturgy, rather than the Latin rite used by the rest of the Catholic church. However it is important to note that they are not part of the Eastern Orthodox Church as these churches are in communion with Rome and submit to the supremacy of the Pope, many of them having gone into schism from the Eastern Orthodox Church or one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Eastern Rite churches are often referred to by term Uniate by Eastern Orthodox Churches, which some Eastern Rite Catholics consider a pejorative term, though it has been used historically by official papal documents, such as the Ex Quo of Pope Benedict XIV and appears on some older Eastern Catholic church buildings, such as Ss. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Simpson, Pennsylvania , whose cornerstone reads "Russian Orthodox Catholic Uniat."
Eastern Rite Churches include the Armenian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, Eparchy of Krizevci, Italo-Albanian Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Romanian Greek-Catholic Uniate Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Union of Brest.
Internal differences in Eastern Orthodoxy
The various jurisdictions of the Eastern Orthodox Church are distinct in terms of administration and local culture, and for the most part, exist in full communion with one another. Most importantly, these groups recognize that the Grace of God is present and working within the other. The term "full communion" can be misleading in this instance since there have often existed within the church legitimate groups that for legitimate reasons disagree with another jurisdiction's position. In such a case the normal response is to refrain from con-celebration of the services and communing mysteriologically (sacramentally); they do not, however, consider the other groups to be without Grace and outside the body of the church. An example of this is the lack of communion between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the Soviet-controlled Patriarchal Church of Russia (Russian Orthodox), the conflict arising early in the 20th century due to a serious distrust of the soviets. Another example is the philosophical differences between the New Calendarists and the Moderate Old Calendarists.
In administrative power, all bishops of the Orthodox Church are equal. There is no Orthodox equivalent of the Roman Catholic papacy. Jurisdictions and positions of authority are administrative only. There is no single leader of the Orthodox Church. Therefore attachment to a single, specific hierarch, such as the Ecumenical Patriarch (of Constantinople) is not a litmus test for Orthodoxy, as there have been heretics and schismatics in even that venerable position. The measure of the legitimacy of a Bishop and his jurisdiction is in how closely and carefully he upholds the teachings of the Orthodox Church, and how well he maintains its traditions. Obedience to a bishop is required only if he, in fact, does his job properly. It is therefore, the responsibility of the laity to reject a bishop who begins to turn toward teachings other than the ones the church supports. This places a fairly heavy responsibility on the laity to educate themselves on the teachings of the church.
From its founding the church spread quickly throughout most of the Roman Empire, despite much official opposition. The Apostles traveled in different directions spreading the witness of Christ Jesus throughout the empire. Much of their history is preserved by the church including their eventual martyrdom. The only Apostle to survive into old age and die a natural death was St. John. The Apostles created bishops through the laying on of hands and taught the traditions of how this power could be passed on. In its early years thousands died under persecution only to increase the strength and witness of the church. Widespread, organized persecution finally stopped in 313 when Emperor Constantine the Great so ordered it in the Edict of Milan. From that time forward, the Byzantine emperor exerted various degrees of influence in the church. Sometimes this was seen as positive, as in the calling of the Ecumenical Councils to resolve disputes and establish church dogma on which the entire church would agree. Sometimes this was seen as negative, as when Patriarchs (usually of Constantinople) were deposed by the emperor, or when the emperor sided with the iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The Orthodox Church reached its golden age during the Byzantine Empire and continued to fluorish in Russia after the fall of Constantinople. It holds true to the pronouncements of the first seven Ecumenical Councils, and its numerous autocephalous jurisdictions share a spiritual unity that transcends any minor differences in style they may have. They trace their lines back to the Apostles through a number of important ancient centers of Christianity: the cities of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, and the country of Greece.
The Orthodox jurisdictions with the largest number of adherents in modern times are the Russian and the Romanian Orthodox churches. The most ancient of the Orthodox churches of today are the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Georgia, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
The Church within the Empire
There were several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards. Some of them led to the calling of Ecumenical councils to try to resolve them. The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups following the Council of Chalcedon (451), owing to a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Eventually this led to each group having its own Patriarch (Pope). Those that remained in communion with the other patriarchs were called "Melkites" (the king's men, because Constantinople was the city of the emperors) [not to be confused with the Melkite Catholics of Antioch], and are today known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, until recently led by Pope Petros VII (who was killed in a helicopter crash on September 11, 2004), while those who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Chalcedon are today known as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, led by Pope Shenouda III. There was a similar split in Syria. Those who disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon are sometimes called "Oriental Orthodox" to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox, who accepted the Council of Chalcedon. The Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as "monophysites" or "non-Chalcedonians", although today the Coptic Orthodox Church denies that it is monophysite and prefers the term "miaphysite", to denote the "joined" nature of Jesus.
Note: The term Pope is simply an affectionate term for the lead bishop in a major patriarchate. Any of the original Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Rome, or Alexandria can be called Pope as it is not an official title. The more common term today is Patriarch in order to distinguish them from the Pope in Rome who is not an Orthodox bishop.
An important symbol for Eastern Orthodoxy and its spread north to the Slavic peoples was the construction in the 530s of the Church of the Holy Wisdom ("Hagia Sophia"), a most impressive church building in Constantinople, under emperor Justinian I.
Muslim conquest and Iconoclasm
In the 7th century the areas administered by the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were conquered by Muslim Arabs, and the native Christians were treated as second-class citizens, or dhimmi. Westerners tend to think of Christianity as the dominant social force for a long period of history, but Christians in three of the five ancient churches have been in Muslim-dominated societies for 13 centuries. It was the Muslims who first opposed the Christian use of icons, though many Christians held a similar doctrine, based on Judaizing tendencies within the Church. The use of icons was defended and upheld at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD also referred to as the Second Council of Nicaea, called by Patriarch Tarasius and presided over by Empress Irene, where it was dogmatically established that Christians give honor not to the image itself but to the person the image represents. The end of that council is still celebrated as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" in Orthodox churches today, and icons remain a central part of Orthodox faith and practice.
Conversion of the Slavs
In the ninth and tenth centuries, Orthodoxy made great inroads into Eastern Europe, including Kievan Rus'. This work was made possible by the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who translated the Bible and many of the prayer books into Slavonic. Originally sent to convert the Slavs of Great Moravia, they were forced to compete with Frankish missionaries from the Roman diocese. Their disciples were driven out of Great Moravia in 886 AD.
Some of the disciples, however, reached Bulgaria where they were welcomed by the Bulgarian Tsar Boris I who viewed the Slavonic liturgy as a way to counteract Greek influence in the country. In a short time the disciples of Cyril and Methoduis managed to prepare and instruct the future Slav Bulgarian clergy into the Glagolitic alphabet and the biblical texts and in 893 AD, Bulgaria expelled its Greek clergy and proclaimed the Slavonic language as the official language of the church and the state. The success of the conversion of the Bulgarians faciliated the conversion of other Slavic peoples, most notably the Rus', predecessors of Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians.
Slavic missionaries had great succees in part because they used the people's native language rather than Latin as the Roman priests did, or Greek. Today the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of 70 years of persecution under the atheistic government of the USSR, is the largest of the Orthodox Churches.
The Great Schism
In the 11th century the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, to become distinct from the Churches of the East. There were doctrinal issues like the filioque clause and the authority of the Pope involved in the split, but they were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences (Greek East and Latin West).
The final breach is often considered to have arisen as a result of the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. This Fourth Crusade had the Latin Church directly involved in a military assault against the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, and the Orthodox Patriarchate thereof. The sacking of the Church of Holy Wisdom and establishment of the Latin Empire in 1204 is viewed with some rancor to the present day. In 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204; the apology was formally accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. (Many things that were stolen during this time: relics, riches, and many other items, are still held in various Catholic churches in Western Europe and have yet to be offered back to the Orthodox Church. This is one of the reasons why nearly all Orthodox view the Pope with extreme suspicion.)
Something also must be said about modern terminology in reference to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The term Roman applied to all members of the Roman Empire. Even after the Emperor Constantine moved the capitol to Byzantium, any common man would have referred to himself as Roman. Long after the Great Schism the Orthodox East continued to refer to itself as Roman Catholic, however, what we in modern times refer to as the Roman Catholic Church they would have called the Frankish Church, referring to Charlemagne’s supposed re-establishment of the Roman Empire. As far as the Orthodox countries were concerned, they were the Roman Empire, and that empire did not fall until the 15th century. The Orthodox argues that they remain the same while the Frankish church had fallen into heresy. But because of the ascendancy of western ideas in modern literature, the Roman Empire of that period is now referred to as the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Catholic Church is now the Orthodox Church, Charlemagne’s Frankish empire is now called the Holy Roman Empire and the Frankish church, the Roman Catholics.
In 1453, the last of the Roman Empire (with its capital at Constantinople) fell to the Ottoman Turks. By this time Egypt was also under Muslim control, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia; and so Moscow, called the Third Rome, became a new major center of the Church at that time.
Orthodoxy and the Reformation
Orthodoxy did not undergo the Reformation, and attitudes of the Protestant churches towards it have been ambiguous since the beginning. Lutheran bishops led by Melanchthon sent delegates to the Patriarch of Constantinople to explore ecumenical possibilities, but the discussions went nowhere. Both sides remained cordial and brotherly, but fundamental doctrinal differences came to light, specifically regarding Holy Tradition, the Procession of the Holy Spirit, free will, divine predestination, justification, the number of sacraments, baptism by immersion (Orthodox) vs. sprinkling or pouring (Lutheran), and the immediate performance of chrismation and the giving of the Eucharist to those baptized (Orthodox), the meaning of the change in the Eucharist, and the use of unleavened bread, infallibility of the Church and of the Ecumenical Councils, veneration, feasts, and invocation of saints and their icons and relics, fasts and other ecclesiastical traditions. Ultimately, the dialogue was broken off (see 16th Century Lutheran & Orthodox Exchange in External links below).
Structure and organization
Bishops, priests, and deacons
Since its founding, the Church spread to different places, and the leaders of the Church in each place came to be known as episkopoi (overseers, plural of episkopos, overseer - Gr. Επίσκοπος), which became "bishop" in English. The other ordained roles are presbyter (Gr. Πρεσβυτερίος, elder), which became "prester" and then "priest" in English, and diakonos (Gr. Διάκονος, assistant), which became "deacon" in English (see also subdeacon). There are numerous administrative positions in the clergy that carry additional titles. In the Greek tradition, bishops who occupy an ancient See are called Metropolitan, while the lead bishop in Greece is the Archbishop. Priests can be Archpriests, Archimandrites, or Proto Presbyters. Deacons can be Archdeacons as well. It should also be noted that in the Orthodox Church the position of Deacon can be and often is occupied for life.
The Orthodox Church has always allowed married priests and deacons, provided the marriage takes place before ordination. In general, or ideally, congregational priests should be married, as they will be dealing with married couples; unmarried priests should normally be in monasteries. Widowed priests and deacons are not allowed to remarry. It is common for such a member of the clergy to retire to a monastery. This also applies to the widowed wives of clergy, they do not remarry and usually become nuns. Bishops are always celibate as they are selected from the ranks of monks (who are celibate). Bishops, priests, and deacons have always been men only because they represent Christ, who chose to be male. Nevertheless, Orthodox consider men and women equal before God. A priest's wife is therefore called “Presbytera” (Gr. Πρεσβυτερα, literally Priestess) and a deacon's wife “Diakonissa” (Gr. Διάκονισα, literally Deaconess) for the same reason. A married man cannot accept ordination without his wife's approval, and it is common for these dedicated women to be just as busy ministering to the faithful as their husbands. There also existed in the early church the official position of deaconess. The deacon/deaconess also acted as an assistant to a bishop and indeed even today bishops always travel with deacons accompanying them. It is not known why the position of deaconess has mostly fallen out of use; there is no official reason why a woman could not occupy that position. Modern examples do exist: Saint Nectarios, Bishop of Pentapolis established a Convent on the Isle of Aegina in Greece in 1904 and reportedly had a female deacon.
Main article: Eastern Orthodox Church organization
The first thing to consider when dealing with "jurisdictions" is that they apply to the clergy, not to lay persons. The different Orthodox jurisdictions are united in faith and in liturgy, but not necessarily in polity. There is only One Church regardless of nationality or culture. Laypeople do develop loyalties to the particular jurisdiction they grew up with, or were first accepted into, but should the person choose to “switch jurisdictions” there is no penalty. Jurisdictions govern the priesthood and its administrative policies thus, bishops do not interfere in one another’s territories; as their authority does not extend beyond it. There is no single bishop or similar office that corresponds to the Roman Catholic Pope, nor is there a standing synod of bishops or patriarchs. In general, the church is organized along national and regional lines in hierarchical fashion, with the "top" hierarchs or patriarchs recognizing one another's validity. From about the fourth century the churches with the largest administrative base were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Today there are approximately 15 separate autocephalous jurisdictions who recognize the validity of each other (though this relationship may be complicated); these are the "canonical" Orthodox Churches. Churches that call themselves Orthodox but are not recognized as valid by this group are termed "non-canonical" Orthodox Churches (though this too can be a complex relationship).
Orthodox Christians believe that they have preserved apostolic succession from the first Apostles. While Rome traces its papacy back to the Apostle Peter, Orthodox Antioch traces its Patriarchate to an even earlier foundation by the selfsame Apostle. Alexandria, for example, traces its papacy back to Mark the Evangelist, who founded the church in Alexandria in AD 40. (In Alexandria, two primates call themselves "Pope" and claim to be the successor of the apostle Mark: the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, also called the "Pope of Africa", and the Coptic Pope. Those two lines of succession separated from each other in a schism in AD 451. Coptic Catholics (one of the autonomous Eastern Rite Catholic churches) also have a high-ranking bishop called the "Patriarch of Alexandria" in that city, but he does not claim the title of "Pope".)
Orthodoxy in North America
The Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to Alaska beginning in the 18th century. Among the first was Saint Herman of Alaska. This established missionary precedence for the Russian Orthodox Church in the Americas, and Eastern Orthodox Christians were under the omophor (Church authority and protection) of The Patriarch of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution. One side effect was the flood of refugees from Russia to the United States, Canada, and Europe. Among those who came were Orthodox lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops. In 1920 Patriarch Tikhon issued an ukase (decree) that Orthodox Christians under his leadership but outside of Russia should seek refuge with whatever Orthodox jurisdiction that would shield them from Communist control. The various national Orthodox communities thus were permitted as an emergency measure to look towards their immigrant homelands for ecclesiastic leadership rather than be tied to Russia. Some of the Russian Orthodox formed an independent synod that became the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). Some of the Russian Orthodox remained in communion with Moscow and were granted autocephaly in 1970 as The Orthodox Church in America (TOCA). However, recognition of this autocephalic status is not universal, as the Ecumenical Patriarch (under whom is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) and some other jurisdictions have not officially accepted it. The reasons for this are complex; nevertheless the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other jurisdictions remain in communion with TOCA.
Today there are many Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada that are still bound to the Greek, Antiochian, or other overseas jurisdictions; in some cases these different overseas jurisdictions will have churches in the same U.S. city. However, there are also many "panorthodox" activities and organizations, both formal and informal, among Orthdox believers of all jurisdictions. One such organization is SCOBA, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, which comprises North American Orthodox bishops from nearly all jurisdictions. (See list of Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.)
There is a general acknowledgment that the situation should not continue as it is indefinitely, and that at some point all the Orthodox churches in the U.S. will need to be united under a single Metropolitan or Patriarch. There is also a general acknowledgment that this can be taken care of slowly over time. In June of 2002, the Antiochian Orthodox Church granted autonomy to the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. Some observers see this as a step towards greater organizational unity in North America. Note that this future American Orthodox Church will be a church of Americans, for people who consider themselves Americans and speak primarily or only the English or Spanish languages; people who retain their original nationality and/or whose primary language is not English will most likely remain members of their churches, and their churches' activities will continue.
During the past 50 years there have come into existence so-called Western Orthodox Churches (a term not in use by the majority of Orthodox Christians, including those within Western Rite Orthodox parishes) in North America. These are Orthodox Christians who use the Western forms of liturgy yet are totally Orthodox in their theology. The Antiochian Orthodox Church, The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of America (formerly connected with the Vicar Bishop of the (Western) Orthodox Church of France-ECOF), all have Western Rite parishes. The last jurisdiction has no canonical ties to the majority of Orthodox Christianaity and at best would be considered a fringe schismatic group by them.
Eastern Orthodoxy has had a history in China and East Asia as well.
In general, the Orthodox Christian approach to scriptural interpretation and theology is patristic. That means that every effort is made to continue believing and practicing the same theology that Jesus gave to the Apostles and that the Apostles gave to the early Church Fathers. Theological innovation is always met with suspicion; if an idea is truly different from what the Church has always believed and taught, it is likely heretical. It is acceptable to elaborate and more fully explain traditional theology, however. The last major theological milestone took place in the 14th century at the Hesychast Councils. There, Saint Gregory Palamas explained how God can be both utterly transcendent, yet make himself known to men.
Phronema refers to how something "smells" or "feels". The Western church (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) generally has a legal flavor to much of its theology. Sin is understood primarily as a legal violation, and salvation is legal forgiveness for the legal offenses. Also, the West tends to first look at God in his unity, then in his three persons. The Eastern church generally has a much more relational flavor. Sin leads to relational separation from God, and repentance involves restoring the relationships between the penitent and God, and between the penitent and humanity. God is viewed first as three persons in perfect relationship with each other, then as a unity sharing a single divine essence. The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for most if not all of Eastern Orthodox theology.
It should perhaps also be mentioned that the Western churches have been especially influenced by Augustine and, to a lesser extent, Tertullian. Although Augustine was an early church father, writing in the fourth century, he had very little influence in the East. First of all, he wrote in Latin rather than Greek. At the time, Latin was commonly spoken in the West, but Greek was the main language of the Byzantine Empire. His writings weren't translated to Greek until the fourteenth century. Consequently, Western doctrines that are based on Augustine's views are typically not shared by the East. Eastern theologians tended to rely more on Greek philosophers than did the west, often borrowing their categories and vocabulary to explain Christian doctrine, though not necessarily accepting their theories. In the first few centuries after the fall of Rome, knowledge of Greek in the West dropped considerably, and so the Western church was generally less aware of the Greek philosophers. On the other hand the East did not experience the surge of interest in Aristotle that has markedly influenced Roman Catholic theology since the High Middle Ages. These gradual differences contributed to the growing gap between the Eastern and Western churches.
Asceticism and Theosis
Asceticism is the set of disciplines practiced to work out the believer's salvation, and further the believer's repentance. Ultimately, it is believed, salvation comes only by the grace of God, but God's grace and right belief are expected to produce changes in behavior. Changes in behavior can also influence beliefs. Asceticism can include anything from taking part in prayers with the church, fasting, almsgiving, or even working hard not to lose one's temper or similar acts of restraint and self-control. Corporate prayers are generally prayed as a "liturgy", which literally means a "work of the people." One prayer that is very widely used and is the subject of much discussion of spirituality is the Jesus Prayer.
Theosis, or divinization, is the process of becoming more like God and more united with God. This "becoming more like God" is to be understood as becoming more like Jesus Christ (who is God), not as the wish for power and knowledge that motivated Adam and Eve to sin. Theosis is the goal of the Christian life. It means becoming all that people were originally created to be. It is not something to wait for passively, but something to be taken by force, by hard work done in one's soul.
The chief activities of the believer are:
- The Mystery of Repentance (or confession)
- The Mystery of the Eucharist
- The Acquisition of Virtues
Mystery of Repentance
In the earliest days of the Church, Christians confessed their sins to each other publicly, and publicly forgave each other, announcing God's forgiveness. This was possible in part because only believers were meeting together, and they were close-knit communities in which everyone trusted each other. As time went on, and more people came into the Church, some people attending were seekers or catechumens rather than faithful members, and believers began to feel uncomfortable confessing in public. Then the practice developed of members quietly confessing to God (typically in front of an icon of Jesus blessing the icon's beholder) in the presence of an elder or priest, who would offer counsel and confirm God's forgiveness. This would take place in the context of a series of prayers said by the priest and penitent together, often including Psalm 51 and other scriptures and prayers. However, it should be noted that anyone with sufficient experience and knowledge, if given a blessing from a Bishop, can hear confessions. Thus, a confessor might be a priest, monk, nun, man, woman, etc. It may make sense that married couples confess to a married person, or a woman confess to another, more experienced, woman. Such things are not unusual. However, Only a priest can read the prayers of forgiveness over the person in preparation for communion. Repentance is essential preparation for receiving the Eucharist. The Orthodox Church has never bothered with the concept of anonymity in confession the way the Roman Catholics have. Orthodox confession often takes the form of a discussion between the confessor and the penitent concerning his or her sins and the best course of action to take in overcoming them. Penitence is not handed out in the same way as the Catholics either. Usually all that is required is the attempt in overcoming the sin or making restitution with the person wronged. Sin is not viewed by the Orthodox as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, but rather as a mistake that needs correction. Thus one should feel sorry for one's mistakes because one has failed to reach the goal. Because of this approach, guilt has never been a strong motivator with the Orthodox, nor has shame. The recognition that we are all human and occasionally make mistakes and that all we have to do is change our direction and correct the problem is more in line with the true meaning of Repentance: "to change one's mind."
Mystery of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is at the center of Orthodox Christianity. In practice, it is partaking of the bread and wine in the midst of the Divine Liturgy with the rest of the church. The bread and wine are believed to be the genuine Body and Blood of the Christ Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never described exactly how this occurs, or gone into the detail that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have in the West. The doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated after the Great Schism took place, and the Orthodox churches have never formally affirmed or denied it, preferring to state simply that it is a mystery and sacrament. Long before the year 1054 it was the practice to in some way hide the mysterious process within the liturgy. In the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite, this was achieved through the use of Ecclesiastical Latin; in the Orthodox churches the altar area was surrounded by pillars with curtains in between. This structure called a templon represented the Temple and the Holy of Holies. Later, it became a solid wall covered with Icons and is in modern usage called an iconostasis (literally "icon stand").
Traditionally preparation for communion involves a strict fast, abstaining from animal products and sexual relations from Wednesday through Saturday, and the addition of a number of preparatory canons to ones evening prayers. Also, a complete fast (no food or drink) should be kept from sundown Saturday until after communing on Sunday. One should have one's confession heard and receive a blessing from the priest prior to receiving communion. Because of all this preparation, the average layperson does not usually commune every Sunday, but rather waits until some special holiday to commune so that he or she can properly prepare. The Orthodox take the mystery of communion very seriously because they believe this is the true Body and Blood of Christ Jesus. To receive the Mysteries unprepared would be spiritually damaging. Monastics, on the other hand, receive communion every day because they continually fast, have long prayers, and remain celibate. Because of the purity issue when considering preparation for communion, men, even monks, will abstain from communion if they have experienced a nocturnal emission, and women will abstain during their monthly cycle. (see below - Fasting) In modern practice, especially in the US, the seriousness of the experience of communion has been lost for the practice of many jurisdictions of communing every Sunday. It is the opinion of the Traditionalists that such practices are very dangerous spiritually, that this reflects a lack of piety in approaching the most significant of the Mysteries, and that this is damaging to the soul.
For the Orthodox who truly believe in the mystery of communion there are a number of very good and pious practices that stem from the realization of this truth: The very idea that a particle of Christ’s Body and Blood might be discarded is unthinkable. At the end of the Divine Liturgy one of the clergy always remains behind in the altar in order to consume what remains of holy communion; he is very careful not to leave behind even the tiniest stray particle. For at least a day following communion, anything that enters the mouth and is then removed (e.g., olive pits, grape seeds, etc.) is not thrown into the garbage but is burned. The napkin used to wipe the mouth after the meal is also burned. Orthodox should not spit, or smoke, or chew gum for the same reason. Orthodox also are careful if they are injured soon after communion to treat their own blood with the same care (since their blood and the Blood of Christ are united), burning it in the cloth used to stop it. In general, this way of dealing with the Mystery applies to anything sacred that needs to be “removed from use” due to its being damaged. The ashes of such items are usually sprinkled in a place where they will not be walked on (under a bush, in a flower garden, etc.).
The practice of fasting is one of many Jewish practices the earliest Christians kept, and which Orthodox Christians continue to keep to this day. The Orthodox approach to fasting is quite different from the Latin West who see fasting as a penitence for sins, almost a punishment and burden. The Orthodox, on the other hand, are reminded that perfect man, as in the garden of Eden, ate only vegetables, and sexual relations did not occur. The Orthodox seeks to recapture paradise through fasting, to regain a measure of purity. It is never looked on as a hardship or punishment, but rather a great privilege and joy. Fasting typically involves differing levels of abstinence depending on the day or season and ranges from a complete fast from all food and drink to abstinence from all animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, etc), olive oil, and wine. Shellfish and vegetable oils are permitted on certain days and weeks of the fast as is wine. Thus, most fasting guidelines resemble vegan vegetarianism with all frying/cooking done simply with water (no oil), and most vegetarian recipes are appropriate during fasts. In addition to restrictions on food, it is generally understood that married couples abstain from sexual relations during a fast. Monasteries typically have additional fasts; although there can be a great deal of variation between monastaries, they typically abstain from all animal products on Monday as well as Wednesday and Friday; and they never eat meat or poultry, fish being the only exception. The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians living within a particular jurisdiction; the times of fasting are part of the ecclesial calendar. In this way, the whole church fasts together, and the whole church feasts together (when the fast is broken). Infants, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with other medical needs are often encouraged not to follow the usual fasting guidelines, but to work out alternatives with their priest or spiritual elder. Also, if someone wishes to follow a stricter fast, they are generally encouraged to do so only under the guidance of their priest or spiritual elder. Fasting without prayer was often called the "fast of demons" by the Church fathers, since the demons neither eat nor pray. Therefore, fasting should always be accompanied by prayer and almsgiving.
There are four major fasting periods during the year. They are:
- The Nativity Fast (Advent or Winter Lent) which is the 40 days preceding the Nativity of Christ (Christmas).
- The Great Fast (Lent) which consists of the 6 weeks (40 Days) preceding Palm Sunday, and Great Week (Holy Week) which proceeds Pascha (Easter).
- The Fast of Saints Peter and Paul which varies in length from 2 to 6 weeks depending on the date of Pentecost which itself falls 50 days after Pascha. It extends from the week following Pentecost to the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th.
- And the two-week long Fast proceeding the Dormition (death or repose) of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary)
In addition, except during feasting weeks, members of the Orthodox Church fast on every Wednesday in commemoration of Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and on every Friday in commemoration of his crucifixion. Monastics often include Mondays as a fast day in commemoration of the Angels.
Because of the movable nature of Pascha, the number of fast days varies each year, but in general the Orthodox Christian can expect to spend at least 1/3 of the year fasting.
"Almsgiving" refers to any charitable giving of material resources to those in need. Like fasting, it is a practice carried over from Judaism and reinforced by Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, and has remained a prominent teaching. It is often coupled with fasting (see above), as consuming less food and less expensive food should free up more resources that can be given. It is also connected to the Eucharist, in which thanks is given for all things, and it is acknowledged that all things ultimately belong to God. Almsgiving is one of the most practical of Orthodox Christian practices.
Salvation and the afterlife
When one speaks of salvation it is important to understand what the word means. In the Christian West it has come to mean “Going to Heaven”, but for the Eastern Orthodox it refers to the change in Human nature that occurred because of Jesus' life and death. Man was originally created perfect, but through his own actions he embraced evil through disobedience to God. Because of man’s fall he was condemned, when he died, to go to Hell (Hades), indeed, it is believed that from Adam to St John the Baptist, all men went to a place of separation from God. But when Jesus came into the world he himself was Perfect Man and Perfect God united. Through his participation in becoming human, human nature was changed allowing us to participate in the divine, thus paving our way to heaven. This process of salvation worked retroactively back to the beginning of time, thus saving Adam and Eve and all that followed after them.
Salvation, therefore, means being saved from this original fate of Hell. In this sense, all mankind is saved. This does not mean, however, that all men will continue to preserve that state. It is possible to separate oneself from God once again and to embrace evil. Such people place themselves in Hell; it is not God who punishes them. In the question of who is “Going to Heaven”, this rests upon the mercy of God. No man is perfect, but also no man is so corrupt that God, in his infinite mercy, cannot forgive him. The privilege of going to heaven cannot be earned; men do not “deserve” heaven. One cannot say, “I kept all the rules and regulations therefore God must let me in”; such an idea is called Pelagianism and was rejected by the church as heresy. God’s mercy alone is the key to our eternal happiness; the efficacy of this mercy, however, is contingent on our accepting it. God will not force us into salvation. Orthodox Christianity does not teach that one must be Orthodox to be saved; rather, it teaches that its traditions and practices are the very same traditions and practices taught by Jesus and the Apostles, and therefore offer the best possible road to follow to salvation. If one seeks the fullness of the Christian experience one can only find it within the Orthodox Church.
As to the Afterlife and what we can expect; heaven is not a static state. Mankind will be restored to perfection, but perfection is not an ultimate end in and of itself. While it is true that all adverse traits will be gone from the human race and man will be as originally intended, it does not mean that we shall suddenly gain infinite knowledge, but rather that we will be able to swim unhindered into the infinite depths of God’s Knowledge, Wisdom, and Love. Unending progression in understanding and love is equated with unending happiness. This is the reward that awaits us. For those who reject the love and mercy of God, though, the experience of His presence will be as a painful fire. The same fire that purifies the saints will be a torment for the damned. It is the state of the soul that determines how it will experience the presence of God.
Eastern Orthodox churches
Churches with "irregular" status
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russian, (AKA. the Russian Church Abroad, the Russian Synodal Church, the White Russian Church, ROCOR) is that part of the Russian Orthodox Church that exists outside the borders of Russia. Since the establishment of Communism the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia remained free and an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and it's persecution of the Christians in Russia. Since the fall of Communism the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate and Russian Synod) have begun talks on re-union. For more on the history of the Soviet-inspired schism in the Russian Church, please visit:
History of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the Wonderworker
The Meaning of the Russian Diaspora by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco
On the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad by Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain
The Life of St. John the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco
Homilies and Writings of St. John the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco
Churches in Resistance
Not everything in the Orthodox Church is labeled or defined, quite the contrary. There have often been issues within the Church that caused differing opinions about an aspect of the Church's beliefs. Those that were greatest among these controversies led ultimately to a general council where the heresies were uprooted and the truth of the Church reestablished. One of the aspects of the Church that has been called into question in this modern day is the question of Tradition especially in regards to the Calendar. Since the 1920s when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Meletios Metaxakis adopted the New Calendar (Gregorian "Papal" Calendar) there have been a number of reactionary groups within the church, usually called Old Calendarists. These Old Calendarists can be divided into two main groups based on the scope of their argument; The Zealots and the Moderates. Both groups are regarded as schismatics by some within the Church, however this may not be a valid label for the Moderates.
Moderate Old Calendarists
The Churches in Resistance are following the example of St. Maximos the Confessor (662 A.D.), who stood alone against the majority of the Church in opposition to the Monothelite heresy. Likewise claiming to be functioning within the established canonical boundaries of the Church, the Churches in Resistance have chosen to react to the perceived ecumenism in modern Orthodoxy by refraining from concelebrating the Divine Liturgy with those whom they regard as ecumenists. It should be understood, however, that they do not condemn the New Calendarists for their position but seek rather a general council to clarify this conflict.
They will commune the faithful from all the canonical jurisdictions and are recognized by and in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (who themselves use the Old Calendar). Their canonical status is often questioned by the mainstream Orthodox for failure to comply with the majority of the Church, while the Traditionalists point out that compliance with Church refers to the entire Church stretching back 2000 years to Christ, not the New Calendarists that have existed for only a few decades. The example of the arguments of St. Maximos are proof that compliance with the majority is not a requirement of the Church, nor can a local church be justifiably removed from the Church without a general council. It should also be noted, in the case of St Maximos, that he was also considered to be a schismatic and outside the church while at the same time he never condemned the church, thus he followed the proper procedure in holding his position. Had he declared himself to be the sole remaining Orthodox then he would have truly been a schismatic. It might be said that the Moderate Old Calendarists have been especially careful to retain a position that both champions their traditional point of view while not being radical enough to constitute a break from rest of the church.
Isolated Orthodox jurisdictions
The Old Calendar Church of Greece represents a group of Orthodox who claim to be the sole remaining True Orthodox left in the world, e.g., "Paleoimerologites". They are not in communion with any other group. Other groups are not in communion with other Orthodox jurisdictions due to recent political upheavals or due to hierarchical schisms that do not necessarily reflect doctrinal disagreement.