The Orthodox church was said to be founded in the year 33, about 2,000 years ago. I decided to start researching the practices of the Orthodox church.
What is Greek mythology in the Orthodox Church? Orthodox comes from two Greek words, (ortho) meaning right, and (doxa) meaning belief or thinking. Thus the word orthodox means “correct belief” or “right thinking.” It is the belief that Christ is the head of the church, and that once saved through faith, one enters into a lifetime covenant of “working out one’s own salvation” to enter into the Kingdom of God one day.
Some believe it is the oldest church that has not changed since that time. For this reason, some believe the Orthodox church is the one true apostolic church. However, others believe it wasn’t until the institutional separation in 1054 between the Eastern Church and Western Church that it actually got distinguished.
In this blog post, I’ll go over:
- What the Orthodox Church Believes About their Church
- Origin of the Orthodox Church
- The First Church
- Before the Early Church
- Christianity from the Start
- The Spread & Division in the Church
- The Great Skism of 1054
- The Orthodox Church Today
- Common Beliefs
- Orthodox View of Salvation
- Orthodox Christian’s Practices & View of Evangelism
To start, here is what the Orthodox church says they believe is to be true about their church.
What the Orthodox Church Believes About their Church
Those who belong in the Orthodox church say that Orthodoxy, “the Church of the Apostles and the Fathers” is considered the true “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
An Eastern Orthodox priest states,
“We did not event orthodoxy, churches cannot be invented and nobody can make a church; Christ is the one who spoke about his own church…we believe that we stick to orthodoxy because it is his [Jesus’] own church.”
Another Greek Orthodox priest says, “We do not go to church for a lecture or sermon, we go to church to be sanctified, to experience holiness which is in the divine liturgy.”
He says, “If you go to church without experiencing this sense of holiness, then you leave the church without any spiritual experience… We go to church to have this spiritual experience and be in communion not only with God but with each other.”
Some converts to Orthodoxy say they were not set out to discover orthodoxy but were set out to discover the ancient church, and in doing so discovered orthodoxy.
So where did the Orthodox church originate and when was it started?
Origin of the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox church is Eastern in origin and often called the Eastern Orthodox church consisting of over 300 million people.
The main majority come from the Balkans in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Albania, and Russia. Some also come from Poland, Czech Slavica, and the Republics.
But there is a number of Orthodox people all over the world, America has approximately 5 million people. The Greek orthodox has approximately 2 million people.
In the first century, Christianity was primarily an Asian-African religion. Only by the 4th century did the Roman Empire become increasingly Christian. The growth of Christianity in the early period was in Palestine, Syria, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Libya. These were the earliest churches.
Christianity was considered the official state religion of the Roman Empire in both East and West; it wasn’t a certain religion or denomination at the beginning, it was just Christian at the start of the first church after Christ.
Only 2 out of 37 Apostolic Churches ended up being strictly Western, though the Orthodox Church claims to be the true successor of all these Apostolic Churches.
So when was the very first official church started after Jesus’ ascension?
The First Church
The first church was founded in Antioch (Acts 11:20–21). This was recorded where the disciples were first called Christians.
And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.Acts 11:26
It was fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were together in
Jerusalem. It was then at the time of the spring harvest festival of Shavuot, seven weeks after the feast of Passover, that they experienced the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that would make them a new community.
It was in Antioch that believers in Christ were first called Christians and became a church. Church in the Greek translates to community. The church is a body of believers “wherever two or three are gathered” in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20).
The church is described as “the body of Christ” as Paul puts it.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.I Corinthians 12:12
In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, written toward the end of the first century by the author of the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of the early church, beginning with this event.
There in Jerusalem, where people gathered from many lands for the festival, the new community experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to speak the good news of Jesus in all the languages on earth.Acts 2:4
That day became known as Pentecost in the Christian church and celebrated as
the “birthday of the Church.”
It was at this event that the experience of the Holy Spirit transformed and empowered a fearful and somewhat confused group of disciples into apostles. These men now “sent” to give testimony to their faith.
The book of Acts (2:44-47) goes into the life of this first Christian community.
All who believed were together and shared all things in common, sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day attending the temple together, breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.Acts 2:44-47
The church’s center was around those who believed – taking care of each other, glorifying God, and the Lord added people to the church who were being saved.
So what about before the early church? What did they have before the church?
Before the Early Church
They had temples and synagogues.
If we look before Jesus died on the cross and ascended back into heaven, we can see temples and synagogues as religious places where people would meet for the support of spiritual and physical needs in their community.
The Jerusalem temple, before the Romans destroyed it, was the major focal point of Jewish religious life, in the synagogues.
The earliest evidence we have of synagogues is from inscriptional references in Egypt from the second and third century BC. These assemblies were not always for religious purposes though. In this early time period, the term synagogue referred to a gathering for the purpose of conducting community or public affairs.
It wasn’t until centuries later the primary purpose of synagogues centered on religious activities.
There was physical evidence of Palestinian synagogues near the time of Jesus being on earth. Four locations in Palestine present archaeological evidence that they once contained a first-century Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem, Gamla (in the Galilee), Masada (the Herodian fortress near the Dead Sea), and Herodium (another Herodian fortress about 7.5 miles south of Jerusalem).
During Jesus’ time, these synagogues were known primarily for religious purposes.
Important men who were known as Pharisees, Scribes, and other religious leaders would spend much of their time in them. They would know the scriptures well and would go over the Old Testament laws to abide by them and make sure others abide by them.
Even though the religious leaders studied and knew the scriptures well, and people of the synagogues thought highly of them, the Bible talks poorly of most of these men. They were so caught up in the law and their statues, that when Jesus came, and in their eyes, he broke the laws that God gave them. They were petrified and hated him for getting more attention than them.
Christianity from the Start
Jesus came to not break the laws that God himself had made, but to fulfill them in Scripture. He wanted to show the people that it is not about abiding by all the rules, but about loving God and others.
It would be about abiding by all the rules if Jesus hadn’t come. Because we are sinful creatures we can not talk to a holy God.
Once Jesus died on the cross he was the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus fulfilled the law, and now we don’t have to strive to live by the law to come to God or make sacrifices for when we mess up. We are now free to come to God through faith in his grace.
This is Christianity- this is the good news, that we no longer are slaves to our sin, or trying to do good deeds to make up for our sin, but are free from the law, free from sin, and free from death and eternal separation from God.
We are free because Jesus paid the ultimate price on the cross by shedding his blood for us, in our place.
It is by faith alone in His grace that we are able to come to the Father and learn what he really wants for our lives.
It is Christianity that has been here from the start. Ever since Jesus came to earth, taught, led his disciples, died for the sins of the world, gave his last commandment, and ascended back into heaven, that is when the option of becoming a follower of Jesus or Christian became real.
When Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to us to all those who believe to be our comforter before Jesus returns again one day, that is when the church of the very first Christian community began.
The last commandment recorded Jesus left for all believers is to make disciples of all nations, going into all the world preaching the good news of salvation to all people- the Jews and Gentiles.
Jesus made it possible for not just the Jews to be free from the law, but also the Gentiles (everyone else) to become apart of God’s family.
The Spread & Division in the Church
Through the preaching of Paul and other missionaries, the new Christian faith grew quickly, spreading throughout the Mediterranean world. Its primary competitor was the cult of the emperor, to whom all were required to honor.
The new Christian community refused to worship another as “Lord” and they were seen as subversive because of their refusal to participate in the cult of the Roman Empire.
When Constantine himself became an early Christian in the 4th century, Christianity was made legal and soon become the official religion of the Empire.
The Eastern family of churches, today called the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches, do go back to the earliest days of Christianity. During the first four centuries of the Common Era, Christianity had spread not only into the Roman and Byzantine Empires,
but also into the present-day Middle East, North Africa, and India.
They were united through a pentarchy in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome. Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, however, the first major schism in the church (influenced by Christological controversies Nestorius and Cyril) began.
The Great Skism of 1054
A group of communities that eventually became known as comprising the Oriental Orthodox Church rejected the decree that the nature of Christ was united as one and instead promoted the idea that Christ’s human and divine natures remained distinct.
The institutional separation was in 1054 between the Eastern Church of the Byzantine Empire (eventually becoming the Eastern Orthodox Church) and the Western Church of the Holy Roman Empire (eventually becoming the Roman Catholic Church).
1054 is the official date of this separation and distinction from one another, but the division went on for centuries as the result of several different issues.
The Eastern church disagreed with the Western church when they introduced the Nicene Creed (which was the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from the Father alone – as earlier Church Fathers had taught – but from the Father and the Son).
They agreed more with the Apostle’s Creed that dates back to about 400 AD, the statement of faith that is now used by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and even some Protestant churches.
The Apostle’s Creed gradually replaced the existing baptismal creeds and got an acknowledgment as an official statement of faith by the entire Catholic church in the West.
The Protestant Churches ended up breaking off from the Roman Catholic in the 16th century and continuing later.
The distinctive theologies and liturgies of the Orthodox churches have continued to develop into the twenty-first century. One particularly characteristic theological stance of the Christ event from an Orthodox perspective is the emphasis on the incarnation of Christ as a means to raise human nature to the Divine.
As Athanasius put it in the fourth century, “the Son of God became man so that man might become God.” This emphasis on theosis, “becoming divine,” stands in contrast to the heavy emphasis on human sinfulness present in much of the theology of the Western churches.
The Orthodox Church Today
Today, the Eastern Orthodox churches constitute a family of related churches, including the Greek, Russian, Bulgaria, Romanian, and Syrian churches, each with a rich history and distinctive liturgical forms.
The Orthodox today are mainly categorized into two families:
- The Oriental Orthodox family, to which the Indian Orthodox Church belongs
- The Byzantine Orthodox family, which is four times as large
The Oriental Orthodox family has five Churches: India, Armenia, Syria, Egypt, and Ethiopia (three in Asia and two in Africa).
The Byzantine Orthodox in English usage is referred to as the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church. These terms are sometimes misleading, especially when applied to Russian or Slavic churches and to the Orthodox communities in Western Europe and America.
The total of people in the Orthodox community/membership is over 300 million.
The types of Orthodox churches are often unique to their own ethnicity, sometimes adapting their own culture in the church.
Those churches were established by those ethnicities to serve those ethnic communities. When these people immigrated to places like America or Canada, they brought their faith with them.
They would often send their national pastors or priests from back home to serve and shepherd them. They derived their religious authority from that was established in metropolitan areas like Antioch or Alexandria or Jerusalem.
In 2001, a council of bishops representing both the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches declared their Christologies effectively consistent, citing linguistic and political factors for the historical disagreement. While the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches are not yet fully reconciled they, like the Eastern Catholic churches (those who are in communion with Rome but who follow Eastern traditions of worship) share very similar theology and practices. Reconciliation efforts continue today.
The Orthodox church has many common beliefs to evangelical Christians when it comes to God as the creator of the world. These things they say are the basis of their faith.
- The belief in God as the Creator of the Universe and all humans made with a purpose.
- God entered into the world and became apart of his own creation (Jesus) to restore what he has already made.
- God gives himself by the holy spirit to those who seek after him, and experience union in the church with God in the church as the beginning of what will become an imaginable fullness in the age to come.
- This is good news for us they say, and for all mankind, this is their orthodoxy. There are consequences if we accept this belief it will change the way we live. There are also consequences if we reject these ideas or opinions, and teaching this rejection will also change the way we live. Our response is life-changing.
- God created the world with love to have union with man, He became a man (Jesus Christ) without ceasing to be God to restore and renew this relationship between God and man.
- The belief that God became man, died, buried, and ascended back into heaven. There is evidence for this when the church that was established from the beginning had 10’s and 1000’s in it who met Jesus and the apostles themselves who were willing to die for these beliefs.
- The belief that they are the same church, with the same beliefs as Jesus’ original church.
As Evangelical Christians, we also believe in creation created by God with the intent of humans knowing God.
We believe God gives the Holy Spirit when we believe in the gospel and put our faith in Jesus. Their view seems to be more on the seeking aspect and seeking the Holy Spirit continually, then he will come.
Our view is that we place our faith in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit comes after to be with us for the rest of our lives as comforter until Jesus returns. We don’t have to seek him in order that the Holy Spirit stays, he is just there and in order to be sensitive to him, we have to listen.
Now, what about salvation? How does the orthodox church view being saved? And what exactly do they believe we are being saved from?
Orthodox View of Salvation
Orthodox Christians claim they believe salvation is the work of God. They say it is both a gift and a challenge to follow Jesus through a life of faith and works; that they coincide.
It is through Christ and the Holy Spirit, who has the divine power to rescue humans from the forces of evil, sin, death, and the enemy. They say and I totally agree- without Christ, none could even think about coming to the Father.
They say they believe:
- It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit who provides salvation, this unceasing gift, to those who sincerely seek him according to an Orthodox priest.
- Being saved is being saved from hell and eternal separation once one dies. If we sincerely seek him, we can enter into the Kingdom of God after we die one day.
- Sincerely seeking him is apart of the covenant of salvation when honoring him.
- It is not a one-time thing, but believe the reception of the gift of salvation is a life-time process.
They get this idea from Paul who uses the verb “to save” (sozesthai) in the past tense, “we have been saved,” (Romans 8:24, Ephesians 2:5), as well as in the present tense, “we are being saved,” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 15:2), and in the future tense, “we will be saved” (Romans 5:10).
Evangelical Christians believe that when we come to faith in Jesus, we enter into the Kingdom of God right now. That we are dead to sin, and alive in Christ.
They think when Paul uses these different tenses of “to save,” “have been saved,” and “will be saved.” He is referring to us, being saved from living a life of blindness in sin.
Evangelical Christians believe that it is not just us being saved from the punishment of hell once we die, but that we are being saved in the present moment of blindness and misery being enslaved to our sin. We are now citizens of the Most High and our life is a continual example of Jesus saving us every day from a life of being enslaved to our sin.
Orthodox Christians have similar beliefs, just different in a few things that actually make a big difference. We read in Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . .”Ephesians 2:8
They point out further down into the chapter that it says, “we are created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). And we are, it but it is not what gets us to be right with God. We cannot do anything ourselves (through good deeds or sacrifices to be right with God) only through Jesus can we be right with God.
But then they also say that neither faith nor good works can be presented as merit before God, but only as return gifts in “humility, love, and thanksgiving.” James says, “Faith by itself if it has no works, is dead.” From James 2:17,22, and 24, they say a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
So it almost seems they go back and forth. But their main point seems to be that in order to be saved, one has to be continuous in their effort to do good works for God.
“By free will, faith, and earnest labors, we work together with the grace of God in the awesome gift and mystery of salvation” an Orthodox priest quotes.
They also look to this verse, as Paul puts it:
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure.Philippians 2:12-13
God obviously desires we do good works for his glory. I think as long as we know that it is not what gets us to enter the kingdom of God, but that it is Jesus who grants us to heaven and be communion with the Father right now.
So what are the main differences then, from the Evangelical Christians and the Orthodox Christians?
I think the main difference is the idea that faith and works bring salvation through God making it an ongoing thing, versus the idea that faith alone in God’s grace brings salvation as Evangelical Christians believe.
But we’ll look closer at that in a moment, and first, let’s look at the practices and other beliefs of the Orthodox church.
Orthodox Christian’s Practices & View of Evangelism
I think one of the main differences in the lives of the Orthodox Christian and Evangelical Christian lives, is how we see salvation and evangelism.
There are some similarities in the way we see God and this world, as well as the trinity, and work of Christ. There are some differences in the things we do, the motives as to why we do it perhaps, and the beliefs of salvation.
The evangelism of the Orthodox church focuses on showing their lives as living examples of what they believe.
“Orthodox evangelism is served by our visibility as Orthodox Christians in the world.”
This can be in their own home by hanging up crosses in their offices at work, in their cars, and in the church (by making the building a beautiful and respectful place, wearing modest clothing and head coverings in the church, and performing prayers, tasks, and celebrations on a consistent basis in the church and throughout daily lives).
- The orthodox church believes in baptism full immersion at a young age.
- They don’t preach the message of salvation on street corners or in rural places of the earth, they believe God should bring people into the church. They believe he should be the one who convinces them to enter. Their job is to be there consistent and have it open. It is to be a welcoming place of beauty and symbolism.
- Orthodox evangelism focuses almost entirely on the Church – the beauty of the building, the beauty of the services, the frequency, and availability of the services, and prayers, songs, and rituals performed. “Orthodox evangelism is served by beautiful icons, gold onion domes and crosses rising against the sky, the smell of incense, the pious and holy singing of the services.”
- They also believe they should bring that symbolism of the church into their own homes and lives (through hanging up crosses, and preforming the sign of the cross as one prays at each juncture of their lives – the beginning and end of a task, before eating a meal and after a meal, and before starting and finishing a trip)- this is considered their evangelism. Keeping these things, and keeping their fast, without excuses or compromises. It is about setting their priorities for what they believe.
- They believe evangelizing is modeling what they believe and loving their neighbor by being hospitable, providing shelter and clothing, or food for those in need. They believe it is about giving money to the poor without asking what they will use it for, volunteering in soup kitchens or charity events, and loving their enemies.
- They believe overall, their ultimate task is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit (St Seraphim), the working out of their salvation, repenting and weeping for their sins, the main goal being able to enter the Kingdom of God.
It is a lifetime commitment of serving God by serving the church.
For Evangelical Christians, evangelism is seen in a different light.
Evangelical Christian’s View of Evangelism
We believe we are also to obey God’s commandments and to be a testimony for those around us. We believe God calls us to love him first and in order to love him, we are to keep His commandments (that includes loving our neighbors and enemies as ourselves).
The difference is, we don’t think by doing these things throughout our lives, is what determines us entering the Kingdom of God.
We actually believe the Kingdom of God enters us as soon as we receive his free gift of salvation by calling on him as Lord and Savior.
The last commandment Jesus leaves his disciples and other believers with is the Great Commission, which is Jesus telling all believers to proclaim the gospel, baptize, and make disciples in all places.
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.Mark 16:15
Because this is the last commandment given in the Bible before Jesus returned back into heaven, Evangelical Christians believe this is a calling on all believers’ lives. Jesus’ disciples who became apostles, were martyred for their faith. They did all they could to tell everyone that the Messiah had come and fulfilled God’s promises.
We believe that all Christians should share our faith with others – that it is a calling on all of our lives whether that be in our hometown, or overseas, or in places where no one has heard.
Jesus’ desire is that none should perish. He does not want division in the church, and I believe that it is actually the enemy’s tactics to divide the church and believers. I also think that we to be respectful of each other and love others before trying to argue with anyone.
I think that we must search the scriptures for ourselves and really try to have an open mind to what God is saying in the Bible.
I do not think the Orthodox church is the only, one church. I think it is Christianity from the start, and any body of believers (who have put their faith in Jesus as the only one who saves) gathering together is the church.
It can be so easy for me, and anyone else to have biased views of how we see Scripture. We are to search it out and ask God to take away pride in our hearts, so we can see clearly what he is saying.
No one knows it all, and no one knows the Bible perfectly. However, once we know the main truths of scripture we are to stand firm by it – God is clear on certain matters. Some things we may know as solid truth in scripture, and on other matters, it might not be so clear.
We should abide by what we know is truth in Scripture and live by it to the best of our ability for the sake of the gospel.