What is the Eastern Orthodox Church? A Brief Study in Church History

I’ve mentioned a certain affinity for the Eastern Orthodox Church a few times over the course of this blog, and it occurred to me recently that some of my readers may not know what I’m talking about when I reference it. The fact that I’m effectively in dialogue (in a way) with said church right now as I read Authority and Passion leads me to believe there’s a need for clarification.

On that note, what is the Orthodox Church?  They are a church body that formed around 1054 at a period known as The Great Schism, where, due to internal conflicts, the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches split apart and formed separate bodies and both heads of the respective churches excommunicated each other.  The internal conflicts leading up to the split involved a number of issues, including doctrinal understanding of the Holy Spirit (wherefrom the Spirit proceeds in particular), the nature of the elements of the Eucharist (leavened vs. unleavened bread), the positioning of the Bishop of Rome as the Pope (and the granting of universal jurisdiction to the Pope), and multiple other disagreements.  Both sides claim the one split from the other.

However, I think it poor practice to define a church by how it was formed (case-in-point: Henry VIII forming the Anglican church in order to divorce his wife), but by how it functions today.  Therefore, let’s look at the doctrine surrounding the Orthodox Church and how it defines the chief aim of Christianity (and how it looks at other churches that may or may not disagree with it).

Much of Orthodox theology is the same as Catholic and Protestant classical theology; they’re trinitarian (Belief in a three-in-one God), they affirm Jesus as fully God and fully Man, the Bible (with the Apocrypha) as inspired by God, and anything you might find in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds; there is a great emphasis on church teaching and tradition to supplement the teachings of scripture as well.  They believe themselves to be the one true Church, and all other churches, though Christian in nature, are defined as heterodox, or different in belief.

Within the Orthodox church, each bishop is granted authority over a territory (or a See, as it is termed), and exists to maintain the traditions of the Church within his See, of which there are fifteen, all of which are universally recognized by the other sees (except the Orthodox Church of America; see article for details on the dispute). Bishops are not allowed to marry or be married due to the nature of their busy work, but priests can be married if the ceremony takes place prior to their ordination.

There is no position within the church comparable to that of the Pope; the Patriarch of Constantinople is often considered to have the highest position, but exists more as what is termed “first among equals” and neither possesses nor exercises more power than the other bishops.  In the Orthodox Church, Christ is seen as the leader of the church, and the Holy Spirit unifies all sees as one.

Church services are highly liturgical; lots of “smells and bells,” as I heard one Orthodox Christian refer to it.  The service will feature a rigid, but rotating liturgy, and nearly the entire procession is chanted (except for church announcements and the sermon), and leads up to Holy Communion, which is strictly for baptized Orthodox Christians who have fasted from midnight prior.  Communion follows the practice of co-mingling the bread and wine (body and blood) and is presented to the recipient by the priest on a fork. For those visiting there is what is known as the “common bread.”

If there were a way to sum up the goal of the Orthodox Church, it would be to continually draw nearer to Christ through the process of theosis, and is a spiritual pilgrimage that all Orthodox Christians take from baptism on until united with the fire of God’s love at death. For the Orthodox Church, salvation is a gradual process that comes to fruition through the imitation of Christ and the cultivation of an inner life of unceasing prayer.  Monks in the Orthodox tradition seek this same process through what is known as hesychasm, or Constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). The ultimate goal is union with God.

So, hopefully, this has given you a clearer picture of the Orthodox Church.  For more information, here’s the Orthodox Church in America website.

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