The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the three major branches of Christianity, along with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It has over 200 million members worldwide and is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ as passed down through sacred tradition. Here is an overview of the key beliefs and practices of the Eastern Orthodox faith.
History and Origins of the Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church traces its origins back to the beginnings of Christianity itself. It believes that its bishops are the successors of the apostles who were chosen by Jesus to carry on his teachings after his ascension into heaven.
The Great Schism of 1054 formally divided the church into Eastern and Western branches, with the Eastern church becoming known as the Orthodox church and the Western church becoming the Roman Catholic church. This split was precipitated by disputes over papal authority and doctrine.
Some key events in Eastern Orthodox history include:
- 49 AD – Apostle Paul spreads Christianity to Asia Minor and Greece
- 330 AD – Roman Emperor Constantine moves capital to Constantinople, empowering Eastern Christianity
- 451 AD – Council of Chalcedon affirms doctrine of dual nature of Christ
- 7th century – Islamic conquests reduce power and territory of Eastern church
- 988 AD – Conversion of Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity
- 1453 AD – Fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Turks
Throughout its history, the Eastern Orthodox church has played an important religious and cultural role in countries like Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere.
Orthodox Beliefs and Doctrines
Eastern Orthodoxy shares many core tenets with Catholicism and Protestantism but has some distinct doctrines and theological emphases. Here are some of the key beliefs of Orthodox Christians:
Bible and Sacred Tradition
The Bible is considered the supreme authority and source of doctrine in Orthodoxy. However, sacred Tradition is also held in high regard as a carrier of the faith handed down from the apostles. Tradition consists of doctrines, prayers, councils, and events not found explicitly in scripture but upheld by the ongoing life of the church (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Creeds and Councils
Eastern Orthodoxy accepts the Nicene Creed formulated at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD as an authoritative statement of faith. It also recognizes the validity of the first seven ecumenical councils held between 325 and 787 AD. Councils were gatherings of bishops to decide matters of doctrine and church governance.
Nature of God
God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and beyond human comprehension. Yet God is also immanent, actively involved in creation and human affairs. The Orthodox doctrine of God emphasizes his transcendence while also allowing for mystical union between God and creation.
God is understood as a trinity of three distinct divine persons – God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit – united in one essence. Each is fully God, but there is only one God (Matthew 28:19).
Incarnation of Christ
Jesus Christ is the eternal Son and Word of God who took on human nature for our salvation. Christ is fully divine and fully human at the same time, the hypostatic union. His divinity was not diminished or compromised through his incarnation as a man (John 1:1-14).
Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
Mary is revered as Ever-Virgin and as the Mother of God or Theotokos because she bore the Son of God. Mary is viewed as the supreme example of obedience to God’s will. Orthodox Christians do not accept the Catholic doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception or bodily assumption.
Resurrection and Second Coming
Eastern Orthodoxy believes that Christ physically rose from dead and that there will be a second coming when he will usher in the kingdom of God in its fullness. All human beings will be bodily resurrected and undergo judgment by Christ after his return (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
Salvation and Theosis
Humans are saved from sin and death by God’s grace, not simply by merits or good works. Salvation involves the process of theosis, becoming united with God. Through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection, the divine and human natures are reunited, healing the divisions caused by sin.
Holy Mysteries (Sacraments)
The Orthodox church recognizes seven holy mysteries or sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Communion, Marriage, Ordination, and Unction. Through these sacraments, God’s grace and power are active in the lives of believers.
The Orthodox church is the one true church established by Christ through the apostles. It is unified by apostolic succession through the bishops, the Ecumenical Councils, and the faith handed down through Holy Tradition. The Patriarch of Constantinople is regarded as the primus inter pares or “first among equals” in Orthodoxy.
Liturgy and Worship
Worship in the Eastern Orthodox church centers around the Divine Liturgy, a eucharistic service with roots in the ancient Christian practices of the first centuries AD. Here are some key elements of Orthodox liturgy and worship:
The Divine Liturgy is the main worship service in Orthodoxy, analogous to mass in Catholicism. It includes hymns, bible readings, a sermon, petitions, the recitation of creeds, an offering, and the Eucharist. The liturgy is meant to reflect worship of God in his heavenly kingdom.
The Eucharist or Holy Communion is considered the focal point of each Divine Liturgy. Bread and wine are consecrated by the priest and offered to the congregation. The Eucharist is believed to truly and mysteriously become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Church Architecture and Icons
Orthodox church buildings often have a central nave leading to a sanctuary and altar. The interiors are covered with iconography – sacred images of Christ, Mary, and the saints used to aid worship. Icons are venerated but not worshipped as idols.
Vestments and Rituals
Elaborately decorated vestments are worn by priests during Orthodox services. Candles, incense, processions, bowing, crossing oneself, and prostrating are common rituals. Music is vocal only, usually chanting and choruses without instrumentation.
Monasticism is an important institution upheld by the Orthodox church. Monks (male) and nuns (female) withdraw from the world to devote themselves fully to prayer and spiritual discipline away from worldly distractions.
Fasting is regularly practiced, including total abstinence from food before receiving communion. There are fasting periods before major feast days and weekly fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting helps focus spiritual desires over physical ones.
There are over a dozen self-governing Orthodox churches that make up the broader Eastern Orthodox communion worldwide. Here are some of the largest and most prominent:
Greek Orthodox Church
The Orthodox church of Greece has around 5 million members. The Patriarch of Constantinople is given honorary primacy in the Orthodox church hierarchy.
Russian Orthodox Church
With over 100 million members, the Russian Orthodox church is the largest and most influential in Orthodoxy. It gains autocephaly (self-governance) in 1589 and is led by the Patriarch of Moscow.
Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Tracing its roots to the 4th century AD, this Orthodox church has been the dominant Christian tradition in Ethiopia. It retains many Jewish elements and practices no longer found elsewhere in Orthodoxy.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The independent Orthodox church of Ukraine was established in 2019 and is in the process of gaining greater international recognition. Its establishment was opposed by the Russian Orthodox church, which had previously overseen Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
Other National Orthodox Churches
Distinct Orthodox churches exist for Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Albania, Poland, Czech Republic & Slovakia, and America. These churches govern themselves but remain in communion with other Eastern Orthodox bodies.
Comparison to Other Traditions
Eastern Orthodoxy has similarities with Catholicism and Protestantism but remains distinct in key ways. Here is how it compares:
- Both have apostolic succession through bishops, seven sacraments, and highly developed liturgy.
- Catholics accept the Pope as final authority while Orthodox reject papal supremacy.
- Catholics accept Augustine’s theology of original sin while Orthodox think Adam’s sin just weakened human nature.
- Catholics believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from Father and Son (filioque) while Orthodox say the Spirit proceeds only from the Father.
- Both uphold the supreme authority of scripture and necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.
- Protestants believe in scripture alone (sola scriptura) while Orthodox value sacred tradition.
- Protestants teach salvation by faith alone while Orthodoxy sees salvation as a process of God’s grace.
- Orthodox use more elaborate liturgy, rituals, icons, and sacraments than most Protestant denominations.
The Orthodox Church Today
Despite the rise of Islam and Communism, Orthodoxy has shown amazing resiliency in modern times. Here is a look at Orthodox Christianity in the world today:
There are over 200 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, with most concentrated in eastern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Growing immigrant populations have increased Orthodox adherents in western Europe and North America.
The Orthodox church engages in the ecumenical movement to foster better relations with other Christian groups. However, internal tensions remain over how to approach Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Orthodox church faces persecution and martyrdom in some regions today, especially under Islamist regimes in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians have fled from the persecution in Iraq and Syria.
Orthodox scholars and theologians are rediscovering and re-emphasizing aspects of early church teachings and practice, spurring a modern revival of interest in Orthodoxy. Converts have helped grow Orthodox churches in the west.
Overlapping ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the west has hampered Orthodox unity and cooperation. Questions remain over the status of the Orthodox church in America and Ukraine’s independence from Russian oversight.
Despite these challenges, Orthodoxy continues to retain its distinct theological and liturgical character in a rapidly changing world. The rich spiritual heritage of the Eastern church remains intact even as it spreads to new cultures worldwide.