Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church,[note 1] and also referred to as the Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy, is the 2nd largest Christian church in the world, with an estimated 225–300 million adherents, primarily in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It is the religious affiliation of the majority of the populations of Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine; significant minority populations exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, Lebanon and Syria. It teaches that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission to the disciples almost 2,000 years ago.
The Church’s structure is composed of several self-governing ecclesial bodies, each geographically distinct but unified in theology and worship. Each self-governing body (autocephalous jurisdiction), often but not always encompassing a nation, is shepherded by a Holy Synod whose duty, among other things, is to preserve and teach the apostolic and patristic traditions and related church practices. Like the Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, Assyrian Church of the East, Oriental Orthodoxy and some other churches, Orthodox bishops trace their lineage back to the apostles through the process of apostolic succession.
The Orthodox Church traces its development back to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles, through the ancient Roman Empire and its continuation the Byzantine Empire. It regards itself as the historical and organic continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and His apostles. It practices what it understands to be the original faith passed down from the Apostles, believing in growth and development without alteration of the faith. In non-doctrinal, non-liturgical matters the church has always shared in local cultures, adopting or adapting (conventional) traditions from among practices it found to be compatible with the Christian life, and in turn shaping the cultural development of the nations around it, including Greek, Slavic, Middle Eastern, North African, British, Saxon, and Celtic peoples. (For an example, see Yule log).
Through baptism, Orthodox Christians enter a new life of salvation through repentance, whose purpose is to share in the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage in which each person, through the imitation of Christ and hesychasm, cultivates the practice of unceasing prayer. This life occurs within the life of the church as a member of the Body of Christ. It is through the fire of God’s love in the action of the Holy Spirit that the Christian becomes more holy, more wholly unified with Christ, starting in this life and continuing in the next. Born in God’s image, each person is called to theosis, fulfillment of the image in likeness to God. God the creator, having divinity by nature, offers each person participation in divinity by cooperatively accepting His gift of grace.
The Orthodox Church, in understanding itself to be the Body of Christ, and similarly in understanding the Christian life to lead to the unification in Christ of all members of his body, views the church as embracing all Christ’s members, those now living on earth, and also all those through the ages who have passed on to the heavenly life. The church includes the Christian saints from all times, and also judges, prophets and righteous Jews of the 1st covenant, Adam and Eve, even the angels and heavenly hosts. In orthodox services, the earthly members together with the heavenly members worship God as one community in Christ, in a union that transcends time and space and joins heaven to earth. This unity of the Church is sometimes called the communion of the saints.
Almost from the very beginning, Christians referred to the Church as the “One, Holy, Catholic [from the Greek καθολική, or "according to the whole"] and Apostolic Church”. The Orthodox Church claims that it is today the continuation and preservation of that same Church.
A number of other Christian churches also make a similar claim: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Assyrian Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox view, the Assyrians and Orientals left the Orthodox Church in the years after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, in refusal to accept some of that council’s doctrinal decisions. Similarly, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox split in an event known as the East–West Schism, traditionally dated to the year 1054, although it was more of a gradual process than a sudden break. While the Orthodox Church rejects several elements of Anglican doctrine, the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, not from the Orthodox Church (for the 1st time in the 1530s, and after a brief reunion in 1555, again finally in 1558).
To all these churches, the claim to catholicity is important for multiple doctrinal reasons that have more bearing internally in each church than in their relation to the others, now separated in faith. The meaning of holding to a faith that is true is the primary reason why anyone’s statement of which church split off from which other has any significance at all; the issues go as deep as the schisms. The depth of this meaning in the Orthodox Church is registered 1st in its use of the word “Orthodox” itself, a union of Greek orthos (“straight” “correct” “true” “right”) and doxa (“glory” as in Doxa Patri, “Glory to the Father”).
The dual meanings of doxa, with “glory” or “glorification”, especially in worship, yield the pair “correct belief” and “true worship”. Together, these express the core of a fundamental teaching about the inseparability of belief and worship and their role in drawing the Church together with Christ. The Russian and all the Slavic churches use literally the title Pravoslavie, meaning “glorifying correct”, to denote what is in English Orthodoxy, while the Georgians use the title Martlmadidebeli. Several other churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa also came to use Orthodox in their titles, but are still distinct from the Orthodox Church as described in this article.
The term “Eastern Church” has been used to distinguish it from western Christendom (the geographic west, which was at 1st the Roman Catholic Church, later also the Protestant and Anglican branches). “Eastern” is used to indicate that the highest concentrations of the Eastern Orthodox Church presence are still in the eastern part of the Christian world, although it is growing worldwide. Orthodox Christians throughout the world use various ethnic or national jurisdictional titles, or more inclusively, the title “Eastern Orthodox”.
What unites the Orthodox is the faith, whose base is Holy Tradition, inspired through the operation of the Holy Spirit. That faith is expressed most fundamentally in worship, and most essentially in Baptism and the Divine Liturgy. The faith lives and breathes by God’s interaction in communion with the Church. Inter-communion is the litmus test by which all can see that two churches share the same faith; lack of inter-communion is the sign of different faiths, even though some central beliefs may be shared. The sharing of beliefs can be highly significant, but it isn’t the full measure of the faith.
The lines of even this test can blur, however, when differences that arise aren’t due to doctrine, but to recognition of jurisdiction. As the Orthodox Church has spread into the west and over the world, the church as a whole has yet to sort out all the inter-jurisdictional issues that have arisen in the expansion, leaving some areas of doubt about what is proper church governance. And as in the ancient church persecutions, the aftermath of modern persecutions of Christians in communist nations has left behind both some governance and some faith issues that have yet to be completely resolved.
All members of the Orthodox Church profess the same faith, regardless of race or nationality, jurisdiction or local custom, or century of birth. Holy Tradition encompasses the understandings and means by which that unity of faith is transmitted across boundaries of time, geography, and culture. It is a continuity that exists only inasmuch as it lives within Christians themselves. It isn’t static, nor an observation of rules, but rather a sharing of observations that spring both from within and also in keeping with others, even others who lived lives long past. The Holy Spirit maintains the unity and consistency of the Holy Tradition within the Church, as given in the Scriptural promises.
The shared beliefs of Orthodoxy, and its theology, exist within the Holy Tradition and cannot be separated from it, for their meaning isn’t expressed in mere words alone. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed. To be a theologian, one must know how to pray, and one who prays in spirit and in truth becomes a theologian by doing so. Doctrine must also be lived in order to be prayed, for without action, the prayer is idle and empty, a mere vanity, and therefore the theology of demons. According to these teachings of the ancient church, no superficial belief can ever be orthodox. Similarly, reconciliation and unity aren’t superficial, but are prayed and lived out.
The Orthodox Church also has many associated traditions (sometimes referred to simply as customs), compatible with its life and function, but not necessarily tied so closely to the faith itself. These aren’t generally regarded as a part of Holy Tradition, though no strict dividing line is drawn. As long as compatibility is maintained, general practice often tends to the permissive rather than the restrictive, with the local priest or bishop resolving questions.
Many of these customs are local or cultural, and some aren’t even especially religious, but form a part of the church’s relationship with the people in the time and place where it exists. Where outside customs affect church practices such as worship, a closer watch is kept for guarding the integrity of worship, but suitable local differences are welcomed and celebrated joyfully. The local church customs, especially liturgical ones, are referred to as differences in typica.
Locality is also expressed in regional terms of churchly jurisdiction, which is often also drawn along national lines. Many Orthodox churches adopt a national title and this title can identify which language is used in services, which bishops preside, and which of the typica is followed by specific congregations. In the Middle East, Orthodox Christians are usually referred to as Rum (“Roman”) Orthodox, because of their historical connection with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
Differences in praxis tend to be slight, involving things such as the order in which a particular set of hymns are sung or what time a particular service is celebrated. But observances of the saints’ days of local saints are more often celebrated in special services within a locality, as are certain national holidays, like Greek Independence Day. In North America, observances of Thanksgiving Day are increasing.
Members of the Church are fully united in faith and the Sacred Mysteries with all Orthodox congregations, regardless of nationality or location. In general, Orthodox Christians could travel the globe and feel familiar with the services even if they didn’t know the language being used.
The permanent criteria of church structure for the Orthodox Church today, outside the New Testament writings, are found in the canons of the 1st seven ecumenical councils; the canons of several local or provincial councils, whose authority was recognized by the whole church; the Apostolic Canons, dating from the 4th century; and the “canons of the Fathers” or selected extracts from prominent church leaders having canonical importance.
The Orthodox Church considers Jesus Christ to be the head of the Church and the Church to be his body. Thus, despite widely held popular belief outside the Orthodox cultures, there isn’t one bishop at the head of the Orthodox Church; references to the Patriarch of Constantinople as a leader equivalent or comparable to a pope in the Roman Catholic Church are mistaken. It is believed that authority and the grace of God is directly passed down to Orthodox bishops and clergy through the laying on of hands—a practice started by the apostles, and that the unbroken historical and physical link is an essential element of the true church. However, the church asserts that Apostolic Succession also requires Apostolic Faith, and bishops without Apostolic Faith, who are in heresy, forfeit their claim to Apostolic Succession.
Each bishop has a territory over which he governs. His main duty is to make sure the traditions and practices of the Church are preserved. Bishops are equal in authority and cannot interfere in the jurisdiction of another bishop. Administratively, these bishops and their territories are organized into various autocephalous groups or synods of bishops who gather together at least twice a year to discuss the state of affairs within their respective sees. While bishops and their autocephalous synods have the ability to administer guidance in individual cases, their actions don’t usually set precedents that affect the entire Church. Bishops are almost always chosen from the monastic ranks and must remain unmarried.
There have been a number of times when alternative theological ideas arose to challenge the Orthodox faith. At such times the Church deemed it necessary to convene a general or “Great” council of all available bishops throughout the world. The Church considers the 1st seven Ecumenical Councils to be the most important; however, there have been more, specifically the Synods of Constantinople, 879–880, 1341, 1347, 1351, 1583, 1819, and 1872, the Synod of Iaşi (Jassy), 1642, and the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem, 1672, all of which helped to define the Orthodox position.
According to Orthodox teaching the position of “First Among Equals” gives no additional power or authority to the bishop that holds it, but rather that the person sits as organizational head of a council of equals. His words and opinions carry no more insight or wisdom than any other bishop. It is believed that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through the decisions of the entire council, not one individual. Additionally it is understood that even the council’s decisions must be accepted by the entire Church in order for them to be valid.