The Orthodox Church? What’s that?

Answers to questions often asked about the Orthodox Church

Are you Jewish? No. We’re most definitely Christians.

Oh, you mean like “Eastern Orthodox”? Yes, except that we as Americans are very much in and of “the West”. Ironically it is from the West that the Eastern Orthodox Church came to these shores some two hundred years ago through Alaska and California. Since that time Orthodox Christianity has been flourishing in the Americas.

Is that like “Greek Orthodox” and “Russian Orthodox”?

Yes, but … The Orthodox Church is One Church. Currently, however, Church organization in North and South America is divided among several different “jurisdictions”, or governing bodies of varying national origin with the One Church.

The doctrine and worship of each jurisdiction and parish
is the same
, though in some, languages other than English  continue to be used in the services. Clergy and people, however may easily transfer from one jurisdiction to another. Two of the three largest jurisdictions, the Orthodox
Church in America, and the Antiochian Archdiocese, have made great strides in becoming expressions of Orthodoxy in American terms, with worship services in English.

Orthodox Christianity in a number of ways is quite different from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

The following questions and answers point out some important points of contrast and similarity.

1. I thought there are just two kinds of Christians, Protestant and Catholic. How can you claim you are neither?

From the Orthodox point of view, Roman Catholicism is a medieval modification of the original Orthodoxy of the Church in Western Europe, and Protestantism a later attempt to return to the original Faith. To our way of thinking, the Reformation did not go far enough.

We respectfully differ with Roman Catholicism on the questions of papal authority, the nature of the Church, and a number of other consequent issues. Historically, the Orthodox Church is both “pre-Protestant” and “pre-Roman Catholic”, in the sense that many modern Roman Catholic teachings were developed much later in Christian history.

The word catholic is a Greek word meaning “having to do with wholeness”. We do indeed consider ourselves “Catholic” in that historic sense of the word, that is, as proclaiming and practicing “the Whole Faith”. In fact, the full title of our Church is “The Orthodox Catholic Church”.

We find that Protestants readily relate to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on personal faith and the Scriptures. Roman Catholics easily identify with Orthodoxy’s rich liturgical worship and sacramental life. Roman Catholic visitors often comment, “in lots of ways your Liturgy reminds me of our old High Mass.”

Many of the “polarities” between Protestants and the Roman Communion (i.e., “Word versus Sacrament”, or “Faith versus Works”) have never arisen in the Orthodox Church. We believe Orthodox theology offers the “western” denominations a way in which apparently opposite differences can be reconciled.

2. Why do you call yourselves “Orthodox”?

The word orthodox was coined by the ancient Christian Fathers of the Church, the name traditionally given to the Christian writers in the first centuries of Christian history. Orthodox is a combination of two Greek words, orthos and doxa.

Orthos means “straight” or “correct”. (It is also found in the word “orthopedics”, which in the original Greek means “the correct education of children”.) Doxa means at one and the same time “glory”, “worship” and “doctrine”. So the word orthodox signifies both “proper worship” and “correct doctrine”.

The word orthodox was coined to distinguish the Faith of the One Church in ancient times (i.e., in the first centuries after the coming of Christ) from the various heretical sects which had sprung up, teaching doctrines foreign to the Faith found in the Bible. Orthodox as first used referred to those who hold the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as defined by the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The Orthodox Church today is identical to the undivided Church in ancient times. The Protestant Reformer Martin

Luther once remarked that he believed the pure Faith of primitive Christianity is to be found in the Orthodox Church.

3. Then you must be a very conservative Church, right?

In current American usage, the words “conservative” and “liberal” indicate a variety of often conflicting viewpoints. Usually we don’t really fit either category very well.

On seven major occasions during the first millennium of Christianity leaders of the worldwide Orthodox Catholic Church, from Britain to Ethiopia, from Spain and Italy to Arabia, met to settle crucial issues of Faith. The Orthodox Church is highly “conservative” in the sense that we have not added to or subtracted from any of the teachings of those seven Ecumenical Councils. But that very “conservatism” often makes us “liberal” in certain questions of civil liberties, social justice and peace. We are very conservative, or more accurately, traditional, in our liturgical worship.

4. Which do you believe in, the Bible or Tradition?

A good short answer to this question is “Yes”! The question implies precisely a kind of polarity (i.e., “Bible versus Tradition”) which is not found in the Orthodox Christian worldview.

“Tradition” or in Greek paradosis, is used very often in the New Testament both as a noun and as a verb. (See I Corinthians 11:23, where literally translating the original Greek, Paul says “for I received of the Lord that which I also have traditioned to you…”. See also I Corinthians 11:2, and II Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6) Tradition means “that which is handed over”. The New Testament carefully distinguishes between “traditions of men” and The Tradition, which is the Faith handed over to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit. That same Faith was believed and practiced several decades before the New Testament Scriptures were set down in writing and given canonical (i.e., official) status. We experience the Tradition as timeless and ever timely, ancient and ever new.

We distinguish between The Tradition “with a capital T”, which is the Faith/Practice of the Undivided Church, and traditions “with a little t”, which are local or national customs. Due to changing circumstances, sometimes cherished traditions must be altered or respectfully laid aside for the sake of The Tradition.

The New Testament Scriptures were set down to be the primary written witness to the Tradition. Orthodox Christians therefore believe the Bible, as the inspired written Word of God, is the heart of the Holy Tradition. In the New Testament all basic Orthodox doctrine and sacramental practice is either specifically set forth or alluded to as already a practice of the Church in the first century A.D.

The Tradition is also witness to by the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Concise, the Nicene Creed, the writings of the Father of Church, by the traditional liturgical rites of the Church, and in the lives of the Saints.

5. Do you mean you Orthodox believe your elaborate worship is based on the Bible? I’d like to know where.

The Christian Church learned to worship in the Jewish Temple and in the Synagogues. Again and again the New Testament tells us that Jesus, Paul and the others worshipped regularly in Jewish houses of worship. (See for instance Luke 4:16; Acts 3:1; Acts 17:1-2). We know from archaeology, and from modern Jewish practice, that Synagogue worship was and is highly liturgical, i.e., communal, organized, using common forms of hymnody and prayer (such as the Psalms), ceremonial, and done decently and in order (I Corinthians 14:40).

The French Protestant biblical scholar Oscar Cullman demonstrates very convincingly in his little book Early Christian Worship that when John describes heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation he is following the Hebrew custom of portraying Heaven’s worship in terms of earthly liturgy. The writers of the Bible thought of earthly worship as a “shadow” or “type” of Heaven’s liturgy (see Isaiah 6, Hebrews 8:4-6). In other words, a biblical passage such as the fourth and fifth chapters of the Book of Revelation gives us an accurate picture of a very early Christian worship service. That service very much resembles modern Orthodox worship.

Orthodox worship is also very Scriptural in the sense that it is a kaleidoscopic mosaic of Scriptural quotations, paraphrases, references, and allusions. The heart of Orthodox worship is “the Lord’s Service on the Lord’s Day”, that is, the service of worship ordained by the Lord Jesus Himself at the Last Supper. (See Matthew 26: 26-28, John 6, I Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:2326, Acts 2:42, 20:7) Apart from the fact that more and more American Orthodox parishes worship in English, and the fact that we often use modern harmonies with our ancient melodies, our services are basically identical to those of the early Christian Church. For that reason our worship sometimes seems a bit “strange” to Protestant and Roman Catholic visitors. We often hear, “Your services are just beautiful, and the music is outstanding, but the feel sort of different.”

6. It sounds as if you are rigidly bound by your Tradition. You mean it can’t change?

The Tradition as a set of basic principles outlining our worldview is a constant. Its very constancy, however, sometimes will even demand change. As a simple instance of this, by Tradition our worship is to be celebrated in a language understood by the worshipping congregation. This means the Tradition not infrequently requires a change in liturgical language. As another instance, the Tradition also requires constant change in ourselves as, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we grow spiritually and respond ever more fully to the call of God in Jesus Christ.

7. “Do you have the Virgin Mary, Saints, pray for the dead, have confession, and believe in transubstantiation like the Catholics?”

There are points of contact between Orthodox belief on these issues, and modern Roman Catholic practice. There are also significant differences. To discuss them in depth is beyond the scope of this short summary. The following is a brief statement of the Orthodox point of view.

We honor the Virgin Mary as “higher than the cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim” because she is the bearer of the eternal Word Who is God (See John1:1) The Greek term for “Bearer of God” is Theotokos, a title given to Mary by the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 A.D. We call Mary blessed (See Luke 1:48), and think of her as the greatest of missionaries, for her unique mission was to deliver the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to the world. (See also Luke 1:43; John 1:1, 1:14; Galatians 4:4)

We likewise honor the other great lights of the Church, as polished images of the Lord. We believe that in Christ, prayer transcends the narrow stream of death, and that those who have gone before us pray for us, as we also remember them in our prayers. In Christ, we are one family. (See Hebrews 12:1; II Timothy 1:16-18).

As indicated in John 20:21-23, and James 5:14-16, we practice sacramental confession and absolution of sins. The presbyter (priest) is the sacramental agent of Christ. The priest sacramentally conveys Christ’s forgiveness, not his own.

We find that open confession of our faults is a great aid in spiritual growth, helping us to own responsibility for our decisions.

We believe that when Chris said “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood”, he meant precisely what he said. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) For that reason, the Lord’s Day celebration of the Lord’s Service (called in I Corinthians 11:20 “The Lord’s Supper”) is the very center of our lives on earth. We believe an objectively real “change in the elements” is effected by the Holy Spirit in the consecration of the Gifts (the sacramental Bread and Wine), but this change takes place at a depth of reality beyond the ability of physical sense perception to perceive. Transubstantiation is a Roman Catholic attempt to describe the mystery of Holy Communion in terms of medieval scholastic philosophy. The Orthodox Church traditionally makes no attempts to explain the sacramental mysteries.

8. Does your Church practice “Open Communion”?

In the strictest sense the Communion of the Orthodox Church is open to all repentant believers. That means we are glad to receive new members in the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox concept of “Communion” is totally holistic, and radically different from that of most other Christian groups. We do not separate the idea of “Holy Communion” from “Being in Communion”, “Full Communion”, “Inter-Communion” and total “Communion in the Faith”.

In the Orthodox Church therefore, to receive Holy Communion, or any other Sacrament (Mystery), is taken to be a declaration of total commitment to the Orthodox Faith. While we warmly welcome visitors to our services, it is understood that only those communicant members of the Orthodox Church who are prepared by confession and fasting will approach the Holy Mysteries.

9. Why do you have all those pictures in your church?

Icons are not pictures in the sense of naturalistic representations. They are rather stylized and symbolic expressions of divinized humanity (see II Peter 1:4; I John 3:2). Icons for the Orthodox are sacramental signs of God’s Cloud of Witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). We do not worship icons. Rather, we experience icons as Windows into Heaven. Like the Bible, icons are earthly and material points of contact with supernatural Reality.

In the original Greek of the New Testament Christ is called several times the icon (image) of God the Father (See II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). Man himself was originally created to be the icon of God (Genesis 1:27). Although the Law of Moses did forbid most artistic images (with a number of significant exceptions: see Numbers 21:8 and John 3:14; Exodus 25:18; I Kings 6), when God became incarnate in Christ, the Law was renewed in Him, resulting in some specific changes. God is now fully manifest in human terms in His Perfect Icon, the Incarnate Christ, who is the New Adam. For that reason, from the beginning Christians have proclaimed their Faith in words and images. There are first century Christian artistic icons in the Catacombs and elsewhere. Graphics have been used by the Church since New Testament times.

10. Isn’t all your old-fashioned doctrine and worship a bit irrelevant to modern American life?

We believe that God quite literally does exist. He is not a figment of pious fiction or wishful thinking. God and his will is therefore is our “top priority”. we believe He quite literally became Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. We believe the Lord Jesus literally rose from the death in a real though transfigured and glorified physical body. We believe that life apart from God is hollow and meaningless.

We notice that people today talk often of “meaningfulness”, “the meaning of life”, “meaningful relationships”, “the common good”, “the good of humanity”, “hope for the future of humankind” and so on. Also, various cults continue to attract many followers in all parts of our land. All this indicates to us that people today are hungry for the answers we believe God has revealed to us through His Word, who is Jesus Christ.

We are “for” modern science; we see no necessary conflict between science and religion. The Orthodox Church numbers among her most active members many scientists and scientifically-trained people. Science tells us much about how things come to be and function: but Science cannot tell us why. Science as such doesn’t give us values. Scientists do not derive their values from Science.

While there exists the possibility that some “religious point of view” might “block progress”, the danger also exists that a reputed “scientific point of view” can be equally or even more dangerous. Humanity’s recent experience with the Third Reich is but one vivid example where advanced technology has been employed in the service of values we regard as diabolical.

We believe ultimate human values are revealed to us by God, and serve as constant guides in the use of our steadily expanding scientific knowledge. We seek to evaluate technological advances in the light of those basic values.

It is our experience that our venerable Liturgy and the ancient Christian doctrines about God and the meaning of human life, which it expresses, are just as relevant today as yesterday. These define our basic values. We know the whole ancient Christian Faith as that which makes more sense than anything else in this world of constant change, confusion and conflict.

11. What is the Orthodox position on controversial issues, like war and peace, divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, women’s lib, and so on?

Orthodox moral teaching is never arbitrary. It always depends directly upon what we believe about God. We believe God has created Man (meaning generically humanity) with an ultimate purpose. There exists a given “good of Man”. No amount of wishful thinking or destructive human designs can alter that given. Anything that goes against that given good is by its nature evil. The following is a basic outline of the Orthodox vision of the given good of Man.

In view of that good, war is obviously evil. So is racism, social injustice, oppression of the poor and denial of civil rights. In a “fallen world” one sometimes can choose only between a lesser and a greater evil; the civil authority may on occasion need to use force to enforce and defend justice, if there is no other practical recourse. While the moral principles here are clear, questions of their practical implementation, of course, are highly complex.

We believe all human persons have the God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This includes unborn human beings (see Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1;15, 41, 42). Constantly during the nearly 2,000 years of her existence the Orthodox Church has condemned abortion as the taking of a human life.

Man (i.e., humanity) is created male and female. A number of recent scientific studies in the organization and function of the human brain clearly indicate the distinction between male and female is rather more than “externally biological”. In a number of significant ways a male human being cannot substitute for a female, and vice-versa. While some differences are “merely cultural”, others (such as the real distinction between motherhood and fatherhood) are rooted in human nature.

Man and woman are both distinct and equal. Neither sex has the moral right to disrespect or defraud the other. Male and female complement one another.

By the Creator’s design the male/female complementarity finds truly fulfilling sexual expression only within the love-commitment of Holy Matrimony. Those who for a variety of reasons cannot or who choose not to marry are challenged by the Gospels to live a life of dedicated celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of god (see Matthew 19:10-12; Mark 10:28-30; I Corinthians 7:7-8).

The Orthodox Church highly prizes the family. She encourages all her members to live in community, either as man and wife, or as monastics (monks and nuns). The parish itself also functions as a family, of whom the pastor is father, and whose wife is honored as mother. Older members are likewise accorded an informal respect as fathers and mothers in the family.

In accord with the whole biblical Tradition, Paul and the other New Testament writers teach that loving sexual union within Matrimony is holy (see I Corinthians 7:5; Hebrews 13:4). It serves not only for procreation, but also to bond man and wife. (See Genesis 2:24)

Within marriage, sexual union is to be abstained from only as a form of fasting for the sake of prayer. (See I Corinthians 7:5) Procreation (pro-creation; i.e., participating in the act of creation) is a good of the highest order, and is not to be avoided in marriage without sufficient reason, serious consideration, and fervent prayer.

Because of human sin and weakness, and in order to foster homelife for the sake of the children, the Church from the earliest times has pastorally allowed a second marriage to laypersons after divorce or death. The first evidences of such pastoral concessions are to be found in the New Testament, Matthew 5:32, and I Corinthians 7:15. Members of the priesthood are required to follow the strict letter of the law.

Together, Orthodox theologians and scientists are currently studying a number of newly developing issues in nuclear energy and medical ethics, including questions of procreation. Orthodox answers to these and other new moral questions will be consonant with our beliefs about God and his self-revelation to Man.

12. You keep talking about your beliefs in an about God. What do you believe about God?

God is our human word for the Timeless Force, the Cosmic Energy, the Eternal Mind, who exists beyond space and time, God is the Source and Ground of everything that exists, but totally distinct from all created things. All that which exists depends from instant to instant on Him for its very power to be. Through this creative and sustaining energy, God is immanent (present) in all created things.

God is the Source of all Meaning; we believe that “mankind’s noble ideals’ such as truth, beauty, freedom and love, are not “merely ideals”, but real properties of a real Lord.

This Eternal Cosmic Force is invisible, unspeakable, and indescribable. God is beyond every human description of Him. Since Man, however, is a created reflection or image of God, we believe the Eternal Lord has real properties that are imaged in (or analogous to) our human properties of “will”, “personhood”, and “love”. for that reason we may speak of god accurately in human terms as a personal Being, and we may talk of God’s will and of God’s love. But we need to remember these properties of God remain beyond our comprehension. “His ways are not our ways”.

In and through Christ Jesus, God reveals Himself in human terms and in human terminology as One who is at the same time Trinity of Persons. The word “person” as used in classical Christian theology is not the singular form of “people”: God is not “three people”. Person here means something similar to “I”, or “Subject”, as in the subject of a sentence. The One God is revealed as having three personal “Centers of Being”. God is therefore neither alone nor lonely, for the One Lord is also perfect Communion of Persons. God as Trinity is the model and source of human interpersonal communion and fellowship.

Man was created capable of communion (mystical union) with God. Human matrimony is a favorite biblical image of this communion-relationship. Our created capability for divine communion was soon damaged by human error, stubbornness, and evil (i.e. sin). Because of God’s infinite love, our potential for communion with God has been restored, renewed, and transfigured by Christ Jesus.

Through Christ, we are able to know God intimately. Christ communicates His very life to us through His Word and Sacraments. In Christ and the Holy Spirit we can and do experience varying degrees of mystical union with God now in this life, and on a regular basis.

We believe that the purpose of human life is for us to become partakers of the divine nature through the grace of the Holy Spirit, in prayer, sacrament, study of the Word, silent meditation, fasting, self-discipline, and active love for others. All other human projects and purposes, however noble and important, remain secondary to that, which gives ultimate meaning to human existence.

This brief outline of the Orthodox Faith necessarily but touches upon a number of more involved issues. If you would like to find out more, you are invited to visit or call an Orthodox church.

There are many recently published books on the subject of the Orthodox Faith. we recommend especially the following:

The Orthodox Church, by Kallistos Ware.

The Orthodox Faith, by Thomas Hopko.

For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann.

These books can be purchased from SVS Press, 575 Scarsdale Road, Crestwood, NY 10707, or Holy Cross Press, 50 Goddard Avenue, Brookline, MA 02146.

This pamphlet is a reprint from the Pentecost 1987 issue of DOXA magazine. For more copies, write: DOXA, P.O. Box 16286, Santa Fe, NM 87506, or call (505) 986-1709. Twelve or more copies are available at a discount price of 20¢ each, postage paid. Make checks payable to DOXA.

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