What is the Orthodox Church?
The Orthodox Church is the oldest Christian Church and is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, founded upon the teachings of the Holy Apostles. It is the Church that received the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost in A.D. 33/34. It is also the Church out of which came the writings of the New Testament. All other mainstream Christian churches can trace their origins historically back to the Orthodox Church. It is the second largest Christian body in the world with approximately 225 million members worldwide, of which nearly six million live in the United States and Canada.
Is the Orthodox Church Catholic or Protestant?
In the true meaning of the word, the Orthodox Church is the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” of the New Testament. Here the word “catholic” is used in its original sense of something that is “whole, universal, not confined to one area.” But in the common understanding of the word “Catholic” (meaning “Roman Catholic”), the Orthodox Church is neither Catholic nor Protestant.
To better understand this, it is necessary to comprehend the timeline of Church history. For roughly the first thousand years of the Church’s existence, there was but one Church — the Orthodox Church. Indeed, the word “orthodox” means straight or correct teaching. Though there were various heresies that the Church encountered throughout its early history, the Church itself held to the “straight path,” or to Christian orthodoxy. It wasn’t until the year 1054 when the Roman Church separated itself from the path of Orthodoxy that there existed any major division within the Body of Christ on earth. But after leaving the True Path, Roman Catholicism itself later began to experience through the Protestant Reformation the same kind of division it originally visited upon the One Church. Most of the early Reformers (and many who followed after them) had become disenchanted with the direction the Roman Church had taken, and these great men of faith made valiant efforts to return to the True Path of the Christian faith. But having been separated from Orthodoxy for 500 years or more, many of these Protestant leaders in the West were not even aware that the Church in the East had maintained the original doctrines of the Church since the beginning. While we applaud the noble efforts of many men and women of faith through these centuries, they did not return fully to the original Orthodoxy the Western Church had left centuries before.
To someone looking at Orthodoxy from the outside, it might appear that Orthodoxy is closer to Catholicism than to Protestantism. But this assumption would be based principally on the externals of Orthodox worship. Because Roman Catholicism came directly out of Orthodoxy, it retains some of the same outward forms that were present in the ancient Church, particularly in the area of corporate worship. But in truth, as one nineteenth-century Russian theologian described it, the Catholic and Protestant churches have more in common with one another than either do with Orthodoxy. Because Orthodoxy is the original Church, it must be examined on its own merits and not so much in comparison with other faiths.
Which Orthodox Church is the right one?
Excepting a few churches of modern invention that have incorporated the word “orthodox” into their names but bear no relationship to the ancient Church, there is not the kind of division within Orthodoxy as one finds among the various Protestant denominations. Although one can look about and see names like Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and so on, these do not represent different faiths within Orthodoxy. They all are names for one and the same Orthodox faith and practice. There are some cultural differences among these various Churches, but these differences do not touch on the essence of faith. Just as St. John was asked to address seven different churches in the Book of Revelation, those churches were named because of their geographical locations. Certainly each of the seven churches maintained some slightly different cultural customs or even different languages, but they all were part of the One True Church of the New Testament. In the same way, all the various Orthodox Churches today simply comprise the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the first century.
What do Orthodox Christians believe?
In a short introduction such as this, it is impossible to delve into the rich depths of Orthodox belief and practice. At its core, however, the true faith of the Orthodox believer can be summarized in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; The third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the Life of the world to come. Amen.
This statement represents the essence of Orthodox Christianity and is perhaps the greatest articulation of the Christian faith ever devised. In it we find our theology and the foundation of our doctrine defined in every detail. So important is this statement of faith that all Orthodox Christians recite it at every Divine Liturgy, and most incorporate it in their daily prayers and devotions at home.
In regards to all other Orthodox beliefs, the New Testament and the Creed are thoroughly consistent with the life and practice of the Holy Church. Unlike many churches of today that have embraced liberal theology and deny the authority of Holy Scripture, Orthodoxy reveres the Bible as the Holy Word of God. But we do not hold the Bible in a vacuum — it is God’s Word that was given to the world through the Church, and it is within the Church (which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit) that we must interpret Scripture. This does not mean, of course, that the Church can manipulate Scripture to make it say whatever it wants; but it does mean that we believe the only way to interpret Scripture properly is through the eyes and understanding of the Holy Church and the Apostles, Saints, and martyrs who have lived it throughout the ages. In light of that, the Orthodox Church does not see a need to choose between Scripture and Tradition, for we accept both Scripture and Tradition since Scripture itself teaches us to “hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (II Thessalonians 2:15). Our Holy Traditions are as much a part of our Christian walk as are the Holy Scriptures, for they do not contradict but rather complement each other.
Does the Orthodox Church recognize the Pope?
Historically, the Pope was recognized on a collegiate level as the Patriarch of Rome and as “first among equals” with the other Bishops and Patriarchs. But since the Schism of 1054 when the Pope attempted to assume supreme authority over the entire Church, Orthodoxy cannot honor that claim. Nor does the Orthodox Church acknowledge other innovations of the Roman Church such as papal infallibility, indulgences, purgatory, or the doctrine of the immaculate conception. These were all later additions to Christian doctrine and practice and are not part of Orthodox dogma.
What is the Orthodox view of the Protestant churches?
Orthodoxy looks kindly on all who seek the way of God, and it does not deny that many great men and women of faith have contributed notable and beneficial things to a dark and sinful world in search of the light of God’s truth. And while the Orthodox Church believes that it is the One, True Church, this does not mean that it believes all other churches are utterly without Grace. What it does mean is that it believes no other church can claim the fullness of Christ’s Church. This fullness can be found only in Orthodoxy. After all, the Orthodox Church is the original Church instituted by Christ Himself and has maintained the teachings of the Apostles since the earliest days. Where else can one go to find a similar claim? Truth may indeed be found in many Christian denominations, but the whole truth rests in Holy Orthodoxy.