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Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker

Introduction to Orthodox Christianity

Introduction to Orthodox Christianity


with Orthodoxy links


The origin of the Orthodox Church

Orthodox Christianity is a living continuation of the early church found in the pages of the New Testament of the Holy Bible. As Jesus' early followers -- the Apostles -- spread throughout the world, preaching the gospel of Christ and baptizing believers, they planted churches and ordained bishops (overseers) and priests (elders) for them, as recorded in the New Testament. The Orthodox Church today is a direct descendant of those early churches.

The head of the Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ

Orthodoxy acknowledges only Jesus Christ as the head of the Church. The patriarchs or archbishops of the various autocephalous ("self-headed") churches -- such as the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, or the Church of Greece -- are of equal authority among themselves, and are individually the highest spiritual authority in their jurisdictions. The "Ecumenical Patriarch" of Constantinople, the "first among equals" of Orthodox bishops, carries this title as one of honor, derived from the time when Constantinople was one of two capitals of the Roman Empire and Christianity was the dominant religion. The title does not designate superior spiritual authority. Patriarchs, archbishops, metropolitans and bishops do have varying administrative duties, but "a bishop is a bishop" - spiritual authority is the same among them all. One's administrative superior often provides spiritual guidance, though.

Greek Orthodox vs. Russian Orthodox, etc.

Orthodox Churches around the world comprise the One Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church. The language used by a parish or the parishes under a particular bishop do not split the Church into pieces. It is one church.

In the United States, the ethnic character of many congregations reflects the fact that the churches were started primarily by immigrants who brought their precious Orthodox faith with them, rather than by missionaries (except Alaska, which was missionized by the Russian Orthodox during the period of Russian ownership, and has a large indigenous Orthodox population). These early congregations often hired a priest from the homeland and prayed in their native tonguse, rather than in the local language. Little by little, individual churches employ more of the language of their adopted country. Some churches already hold their services entirely in English, notably some parishes of both the Orthodox Church in America and the American parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, of which this author is a part, uses varying amounts of English corresponding to the needs of the parish, generally as determined by the metropolitan bishop.

In the meantime, most churches have side-by-side translations of the services available, so all can participate in the worship. One does not have to be Russian or Greek to attend an Orthodox Church! All are welcome to come and become a part of Christ's Church -- to "taste and see that the Lord is good." Despite the ethnic character of some Orthodox parishes, they are in doctrinal agreement and (mostly) in full communion with one another.

Orthodox Christian beliefs

The Orthodox Christian's statement of faith is the Nicene Creed, adopted by the early church to clarify the deposit of faith, in response to continued attacks of heresy upon the church. The Creed pays particular attention to the Holy Trinity and the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In a very tiny nutshell, Orthodox beliefs summarized from the Creed are:

  • There is one God:
    • God the Father created the universe.
    • The Lord Jesus Christ is begotten of the Father
      • is God the Son, not a creation
      • was the agent of the Father's creative work
      • took on human form from the Virgin Mary via the Holy Spirit
      • was crucified for our salvation, died and was buried
      • rose from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven
      • will return to judge us all, both living and dead
      • his kingdom will never end.
    • The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (alone)
      • is the creator of life
      • is in truth God, not a creature or an idea
      • deserves the same honor as the Father and Son
      • spoke through the prophets of old.
  • The Church is one.
  • Baptism is for the remission (forgiveness) of sins.
  • The resurrection of the dead is yet to come; we will live again.

Orthodox worship

The worship of the Orthodox Church is liturgical, following a predetermined order that is a great many centuries old. It is based on Jewish synagogue worship patterns naturally inherited from the early Christians' Jewish heritage, adapted, of course, to Christian usage. On any particular day, the services are nominally identical in all Orthodox Churches -- with some minor local variants -- but the services can vary considerably in content from day to day.

The primary worship service of the Orthodox Church is the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the core of which dates to the 4th century AD. This liturgy is an abbreviation of the Liturgy of St. Basil, which is still used during Lent, and which is itself a version of the Liturgy of St. James, which was instituted by St. James, the brother of the Lord, and leader of the church in Jerusalem.

The Eucharist (Greek "thanksgiving" -- or Holy Gifts, or Holy Mysteries, or Communion) is offered every Liturgy. Communion, rather than the sermon, is the central feature of Orthodox worship. The Holy Gifts are the true body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, changed by the Holy Spirit during the prayers over the bread and wine. By partaking of them, we are united with Christ. "This is my body..." "This is my blood..."

Due to the sad divisions within Christianity, only Orthodox Christians may partake of the Eucharist; the practice of "open communion" is not followed. Communion is not a vehicle for generating unity; it is an acknowledgment of existing unity. The Church prays for the day that all Christians are united in faith and belief, which may then be expressed in the context of communion.

Did the Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church?

That is a popular conception (especially in the Rome-influenced west!), but the east sees it quite differently. We were one united church -- the Catholic Church -- with Rome until roughly the 10th-11th centuries. A major doctrinal change by Rome (the addition of the filioque "and the Son" to the Creed) and Rome's increasing insistence that it alone was the sole Christian leader both lead to the division. But at no time did the Churches that now comprise the core of Eastern Orthodoxy ever say, "We're done with Rome. We're starting our own Church" in the manner of Protestanism. No, the churches in the east simply continued being the Catholic Church -- the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church -- that they'd always been; sadly, Rome left our company. The appellations "Roman" and "Eastern" were added later to distinguish between these two separated bodies. Rome has continued to pile on changes that the East finds unacceptable: purgatory, indulgences, the infallibility of the Pope, the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

A whole lot more...

A great number of links to Orthodoxy-related information are available on the Internet. For starters, see these:

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Orthodox Christian Foundation
Antiochian Archdiocese
Orthodox Church in America
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Ancient Faith Internet Radio
Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker Page, maintained by this author

This page was last updated on March 17, 2016, Saint Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland

Copyright �1998-2016, Stephen Parsons. Please send comments or questions to