The Eastern Orthodox Church is also referred to as The Orthodox Church. It is the second-largest Christian group in the world after the Roman Catholic Church, unless you consolidate all 20,000 + Protestant denominations and non-denominational groups. Estimates of the number of worldwide Orthodox Christians range from 250 million to 350 million. Estimates of American members are over one million and the Orthodox Church is one of the fastest – growing Christian churches in America, drawing rising numbers of converts from Evangelical and other Christian faith traditions.
Saint Innocent Orthodox Church is a local parish within the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The North American Antiochian Archdiocese is currently comprised of over 300 parishes in the U.S. and Canada, with our Archbishop in the New York City area. It is historically and spiritually connected to the ancient See of Antioch, one of the five historical centers of ancient Christendom (along with Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria). You may recall the text in Acts 11:26, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The Antiochian Patriarchate traces its historic roots all the way back to this pre-New Testament church founded by St. Paul himself. In fact, the Patriarchate still sits on a “street called Straight” (Acts: 9:11).
Jesus Christ founded His Church through the Apostles. By the grace received from God at Pentecost, the Apostles established the Church throughout the ancient world. St. Paul founded the Church of Antioch; St. Peter and St. James, the Church of Jerusalem; St. Andrew the Church of Constantinople; St. Mark, the Church of Alexandria; St. Peter and St. Paul, the Church of Rome. For one thousand years the Church was one, unbroken and undivided. After the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. when the Latin church tragically separated from eastern Christendom (at Constantinople), the eastern, non-Oriental churches became known as the “Eastern Orthodox Church” to distinguish them from what subsequently became known as the “Roman Catholic Church”.
The “headquarters” of the ancient Christian faith was in fact not Rome but in the Eastern world. The apostles founded four Local Churches in the East (and only one in the West). It was from the East (not from Rome) that the apostles and Paul were sent out with the Gospel. The West was not a center of the early Christian movement – it was the “mission field”. For over 1,000 years, with the exception of Rome, all the major centers of Christian belief were found in the East – in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.
All the fundamental dogmas regarding the faith were formulated and defended in the East – essential dogmas like Christ being “of the same essence” with the Father; that Christ is fully God and fully human; that the Holy Spirit is a divine Person; and the nature of the Trinity.
The first schools of Biblical interpretation, Antioch and Alexandria, were in the East. Their perspectives of interpretation still influence much of our understanding of the Scriptures today.
The Eastern Roman Empire was the site for all the Ecumenical Church Councils (that is, the first seven from 325 to 787 A.D.) which formulated doctrines which Christians of all traditions accept as normative. The overwhelming majority of the bishops present at those councils were Eastern as well.
The Roman Catholic Church tragically broke from the Eastern churches in 1054 A.D. largely over the issue of the encroaching authority of the Roman Pope by the western church. The eastern churches consistently rejected this encroachment for 1,000 years of Christian history. The Orthodox Church does not have a single leader. It is organized into “jurisdictions” following national and historic lines, based on the early Church model of conciliar church leadership (meeting in councils or synods) seen in the Book of Acts. Each group is governed by synods (councils of bishops) who have equal authority and who do not interfere in one another’s affairs. The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the “Ecumenical” (or universal) Patriarch, and since the schism has enjoyed a position of special honor among the Orthodox communities. But, he does not have the right, for example, to interfere in the internal affairs of other Churches. His position resembles that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Eastern Orthodox find that Western Christian doctrines of sin and salvation have been overly dominated by legal, juridical and forensic language and categories. By this we mean the West’s almost exclusive use of terms of divine law and justice to describe salvation; ideas that are perhaps taken from the context of Roman civil law. While we affirm the legal metaphors used by Saint Paul, we contend legal concepts should not be allowed to dominate as they have in the West, but should be balanced among the many other biblical metaphors used to describe the redemptive work of Christ. An example of how far removed the Christian East and West are in this area is the fact that the doctrine of justification by faith (how guilty people can stand before a just God or Judge), so prevalent in the West, is almost entirely absent in the East. Eastern theology does not focus so much on guilt, as on mortality (ie. death) as the main problem of humanity. We tend to see the work of Christ more in therapeutic, healing, renewal or rescue terms than on juridical, legal terms.
Psalm 82:6 says, “I say, ‘You are gods’; you are all sons of the Most High”. 2 Peter 1:4, says, “Through these He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that though them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Saint Cyril of Alexandria commenting on 2 Peter 1: 4 tells us that we are all called to participate in divinity, not just a few “saints”. Although Christ alone is God by nature, all people are called to become like God, “by participation”. This process of transformation or renewal into God’s image and likeness (“by participation”) is how Orthodox Christians understand the full meaning of salvation. A person becomes the perfect image of God by discovering his or her likeness to God, which is the perfection of the nature common to all human beings. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, salvation therefore is not seen primarily as an adherence to certain dogmas, or not merely an external imitation of Christ through moral efforts, but union with the living God, the total transformation of the human person by divine grace and glory – what the Greek fathers termed “deification” or “theosis”.
Orthodox Holy Tradition, theology, Liturgy and the Holy Scriptures are intertwined. They all speak of the same Orthodox Christian life and faith. They come from the same apostolic and patristic sources of the early Church. Frankly, it is barely possible to fully understand the Bible without understanding the historic, ecclesiastic, liturgical and theological context of the early Church. For example it was on the basis of a common knowledge of “authentic” Church Tradition that the fathers of the first millenium Church were able to agree on the content that became the New Testament biblical canon we have today (the final form of the Bible didn't appear until the 4th century). The canon was compiled from myriad ancient text sources. As we affirm, the Bible was given to the historic Church.
Orthodox services are saturated with the Holy Scriptures. The daily liturgical cycle of prayers of the church (“the hours”), beginning at evening Vespers through morning Matins, are primarily readings from the Psalms. The Divine Liturgy includes text and readings from the Epistles and the Gospel. Individual Orthodox devotion includes scripture reading, study and meditation.
The Orthodox Church sees the Bible as inspired by God and authoritative. However, Saint Paul in Thessalonians (2:15) wrote, “Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” A Bible-only (Sola Scriptura) criteria, is ironically in conflict with the Scriptures. The Orthodox Church affirms that authentic Apostolic Tradition comes from the Holy Spirit in the Church. This is the same Spirit who inspired the Bible and the teaching of the Apostles, whether oral or written.
There are five sources of what Orthodox call “Holy Tradition”. The first is Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The second source is the Liturgy, which includes the entire body of the Church’s common and public worship (including the sacraments of the Church). The third are the councils of the Church, the first one recounted in the Book of Acts (Acts 15), and their subsequent creeds and canons. The fourth are the Saints of the Church, especially the writings of a particular group of saints called the “church Fathers”. The fifth source of Church Tradition is Church art. Saint John of Damascus said that words written in books are “images”, as are material images like icons. Art is the use of the material to express the intangible and the revelation of God. These five basic sources are what comprise “Orthodox Tradition”, passed down from one generation to the next, from Christ to the Apostles and all the way to us in the 21st century, in written and unwritten forms.
Eastern Orthodox services trace their beginnings back to the Old Testament liturgical rites and services of the Hebrews. They are a treasury of Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and canons composed by the Saints and pious Christians throughout the ages. Like our Jewish predecessors, Orthodox services are liturgical, sacramental, and ceremonial. Many of the hymns you hear come from the Psalms. Most of them are sung or chanted, as has been the tradition since the days of Jewish – Christian practice. Some of the ancient document sources of the Orthodox liturgical order of service go back to the second (Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150) and third centuries (Hippolytus, c. 215 A.D.). Eastern liturgies went through development in the fourth and fifth centuries. They became stabilized in the sixth century, and by the eighth century were so fixed that they have not changed even today.
Wall icons and artwork appeared in Jewish temples early in ancient history (note: Duros Europos Temple destroyed in the mid 200’s) even before their use in Christian churches. Because the Son of God took on human flesh and became incarnate as man in Jesus Christ, the Church decreed (not without much debate!) it was appropriate to portray the glory of God incarnate visually through icons. Icons are not idols or graven images (which depicted images of false gods), and their place in Christian worship and piety was clearly articulated, defended and approved at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church in the 8th Century. Byzantine icon style may seem austere and strange at first. They are not meant to depict the natural beauty of the material world, but rather the spiritual beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven and its inhabitants (Saints). Icons are venerated, but not worshipped, by Orthodox Christians. This is a misunderstanding by some in modern Christendom, especially those who have been influenced by Puritan and Anabaptist traditions, and the Muslim tradition, which rejects any and all images.
In our services and in our piety we praise those who were with Christ on earth and whom we know to be “alive” in Christ’s presence now, although departed from the body (the saints)! Hebrews 12:1 writes, “…we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” In God and His Church there is no division between the living and the departed. As we pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so we ask the faithful departed to pray for us and we continue to pray for them out of love.
We especially praise the Mother of God (Theotokos in Greek), the Blessed Virgin Mary. This honor has a biblical basis (Luke 1: 28; 42-43; 48) and is due her because of her unique role as the “birth-giver” of God and the “bridge” (by giving Our Lord his physical birth and nature) between this world and the Kingdom of God. By giving honor to the Mother of God we honor the Son whom she bore. We never forget that Our Lord was truly incarnate, that He truly had a human Mother, and a real family history. As Saint Basil taught, we reject any notion that Mary was simply some sort of pipe or conduit through which water passes, which could be discarded after being used. Mary the birth-giver of God was specifically chosen by God before all time to bring forth, nurture and raise the Son of God. She is with Him now in the Kingdom of God. However, having said all that, Orthodox Christians definitively do not blur the line between God and the Mother of God, and worship is offered only to God.
The faith-works divide in the Protestant west reflects a decisive change in Christian theology that was largely a reaction against the use of “indulgences” by the Roman Catholic Church and their proper rejection by Martin Luther and the Reformers. The Orthodox Church believes the Reformers’ theology went too far, however, by driving a wedge between faith and works. The faith-works dichotomy does not exist biblically, or in the eastern Christian spiritual tradition. We are clearly called to have faith in God: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). But we are also exhorted to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And we are finally reminded that “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Perhaps the most sobering warning comes from Saint Paul who warns us of “the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds” (Rom. 2: 5-6). Orthodox theology and spirituality therefore emphasize a balance between faith and works.
Since “…without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb. 11:6), a Christian who wants to please God and be assured his works will be accepted by God, must first have faith in God and then form his life and activity accordingly. It is on the basis of our faith and our works that we will be judged!
The early Church called the Sacraments of the Church, Holy Mysteries. Mystery is the reality through which the invisible grace of God is effected in or conferred upon the souls of the faithful under a perceptible form (sanctified matter). It was established by Christ as the means through which the faithful appropriate the grace of God.
There are seven primary sacraments recognized in the Orthodox Church: Baptism. Anointing with Chrism (Chrismation). The Holy Eucharist. The Priesthood (both spiritual and sacramental). Penance-confession. Holy Matrimony. Healing consecration with oil (Unction).
Saint Irenaeus said where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church. We believe there is only one earthly Church (“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” – the Nicene Creed). We know where the earthly Church is, but we cannot know for assurance where the Spirit of God may be outside of His Church. Orthodox Christians must not therefore presume to pass judgment on non-Orthodox Christians or their communities, think or speak triumphalistically about the Orthodox Church; but rather strive to live out their faith without compromise.
Free will is man’s unrestricted ability to decide from reason, which leads to doing good and evil. This reason was complete in its perfection during the state of man’s innocence (before the Fall), but became damaged on account of sin. However, although the will remained inclined to evil (after the Fall) it is still nevertheless able to choose to do good. St. Basil the Great: “From one’s intention and free will anyone can be holy or the opposite.” And in the Gospel of St John: “’But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God…”‘ (John 1:12). If this were not the case (use of free will) it would not be possible for St Paul to write of “the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds.’” (Rom. 2: 5-6).
Orthodox priests may only serve the Holy Eucharist to baptized members in good standing of the canonical Orthodox Church, who have recently confessed, and fasted before partaking of the Holy Eucharist. This is the ancient tradition of the Holy Church for the 2,000 years of its history. The Orthodox Church understands the Holy Eucharist as a mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, not simply as a memorial, or merely in a spiritual sense, as many other non-Orthodox Christians do. Rather than trying to accommodate to often varying “interpretations” or revisions of this and other doctrines of the ancient faith, we simply ask that you respect the ancient, apostolic tradition. All are welcome to join us in receiving the fellowship bread at the veneration of the cross, at the end of the Divine Liturgy.
The Orthodox Church is the original and historical church established by Jesus and His Apostles. Many Americans are looking for a sense of living continuity with the Church of ancient times. A stable faith rooted in apostolic tradition, apostolic succession, and the Bible! In fact this Church, which Jesus Christ Himself said would “prevail against the gates of Hades”, has in fact continued in unbroken succession, through the transmission of her faith and the succession of her bishops, from the day of Pentecost to the present. The Orthodox Church has survived steadfastly despite persecution and martyrdom and has never accepted any kind of change or innovation which contradicts earlier established doctrine, reached in consensus with the universal Church and led by the Holy Spirit. Her doctrines were clarified (and consequently, certain heresies were defined) at seven ecumenical councils held between the 4th and the 8th centuries. If you are looking for the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, you found her! It is the Orthodox Church!
Adapted from the website of St. Barnabas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa, CA.