Lord’s Library editors compiled this resource to provide a snapshot of Orthodox Christian beliefs about the Bible and key practices.
The Orthodox Church (sometimes referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church) consists of a group of congregations that follow Holy Tradition. Holy Tradition shares elements of the seven ecumenical councils, the Bible Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church Fathers. The church is governed by a group of bishops, believed to be the successors of the apostles. The Orthodox Church is one of the oldest surviving faith institutions in the world, is the second-largest of the many Christian denominations (behind only Catholicism), and touts more than 250 million baptized members.
Orthodox Christianity is growing in popularity among many in the Western world, particularly those in the younger age groups. The internet, along with an expanding list of Orthodox thought leaders, is one of the main reasons why. There’s also a growing collection of church members who have written noteworthy Orthodox books for anyone to buy. As a result of these conditions, more people now are interested in Orthodoxy than perhaps at any other time in history.
It’s with these things in mind that Lord’s Library editors decided to create this resource highlighting Orthodox Church beliefs on key topics, as well as notable differences when compared to other branches of the faith.
Orthodox Church Beliefs
Orthodox Church Beliefs and Practices: Overview
Church services in the Orthodox Church typically follow the Divine Liturgy. This liturgy was created in the 300s A.D. by St. John Chrysostom and is centered around the Eucharist (communion). The Divine Liturgy is unique among Christian transition, as they believe that their time in the liturgy transcends both time and the world around them. This belief is apparent in practice, as you’ll notice two very prominent things the first time you visit an Orthodox Church. First, the services are long; the Divine Liturgy is given all the time needed. Second, the liturgy is filled with chanting and singing.
In most Orthodox Churches, everything except the homily is chanted; even the reading of the Scriptures. This style emphasizes their belief that all Orthodox are united in worship in the Kingdom of God, even the saints long past. In this way, the Divine Liturgy is unlike anything else in the Christian tradition. Everything in the liturgy is symbolic. According to Eastern tradition and belief, the liturgy’s roots go back to the adaptation of Jewish liturgy by Early Christians. The first part, termed the “Liturgy of the Catechumens”, includes a synagogue-like service, the reading of the Scriptures, and in some places, a sermon or homily.
The second half, which was added later, is based on the Last Supper and the first Eucharistic celebrations by early Christians. Eastern Christians feel that the Eucharist is the central part of the service in which they participate. As they receive the elements, they believe the bread and wine truly become the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. By partaking in it they believe they jointly become the Body of Christ, the church. Each liturgy has is different from then next, but most are very similar but with adaptations based on tradition, purpose, culture, and congregational theology.
The Orthodox Church follows its own calendar. This calendar dictates worship, as special holidays and feast days are commonly celebrated. Every day has a different saint assigned to it in which to celebrate as well. A prominent difference in the Orthodox calendar has to do with the celebration of Easter. The Orthodox celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar, which the secular world uses since its introduction by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Not only that, but the Orthodox celebrate much more than Good Friday and Easter Sunday; they have different services throughout the week, each with its own focus and worship style.
The Orthodox Church practices sacraments, known as the “Holy Mysteries.” While the Roman Catholic Church numbers seven sacraments, and many Protestant groups list two (baptism and the Eucharist) or even none, the Eastern Orthodox do not limit the number. However, for the sake of convenience, catechisms will often speak of the seven great mysteries. Among these are Holy Communion (the most direct connection), baptism, Chrismation, confession, unction, matrimony, and ordination. The term can apply to other sacred actions like monastic tonsure, the blessing of holy water, fasting, almsgiving, and more.
Orthodox Church Beliefs: Differences Within the Church
While the Western church is split into many different denominations, the Orthodox Church remains quite unified. There are a few different types of Orthodox Churches around, but their differences can be almost impossible to notice by mere observance. The contrast which is easies to notice are in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. That is because these churches practice the Divine Liturgy in the respective languages after which their church is named.
The Greek Orthodox churches are descended from churches that the Apostles founded in the Balkans and the Middle East during the first century A.D. The Greek Orthodox Church is also responsible for maintaining many ancient church traditions. Since many Greek-speaking people practice Orthodoxy and Greek was the original language of the New Testament, the Greek Orthodox Church thrives as a branch of the larger Orthodox Church.
According to tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church is what came of a community of believers founded by the apostle Andrew, who visited areas along the northern part of the Black Sea, including Scythia and Greece. While on his missionary journeys, Andrew eventually reached Kiev, the current home of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the story goes. Later, Princess Olga of Kiev converted to Christianity, and eventually, her grandson, Vladimir the Great, made Orthodox Christianity the official religion in Kiev. This marked the birth of what became the Russian Orthodox Church, a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
What’s important to note here is that the Russian Church it is still part of the Orthodox Church at large.
Differences Between Orthodox Church Beliefs and Western Christianity
There can be found nuanced differences between the Orthodox Church and Western Christianity. In the following section, we break down the five major points of comparison.
Only baptized and faithful Orthodox may partake of the elements of Holy Communion, which are believed to become the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is commonly known as transubstantiation. This differs from Protestant or Evangelical Christianity given the fact that Protestants believe the bread and wine to be symbols of Christ’s body and blood and not a literal manifestation.
Veneration of Saints
The Orthodox Church looks toward the examples of the saints that came before them so much so that they strive to emulate the saints through example. However, the saints are not worshipped. See the Orthodox Church’s official statement on the matter: “The Orthodox Church worships God alone. Yet, she does offer veneration to individuals who have been important human instruments of God in the history of salvation. Among those so venerated is Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos.”
The Orthodox Church claims that salvation is by faith in Christ. However, Orthodoxy differs from the Evangelical concept of faith by adding, “Orthodox Christians throughout their lives receive salvation and renewal through faith, works, and the sacraments of the Church.” They teach that the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection was so that we could become divine as He is.
The Orthodox state that “Holy Spirit is the agent of deification whose task it is to incorporate us into the life of the Holy Trinity.” They practice that baptism “introduces the believer into the life of the Kingdom.” Therefore, the Orthodox baptize infants, stating that “holy anointing grants the Holy Spirit which prompts growth into the image and likeness of God.”
The Orthodox Church uses the same Bible as other Christian denominations, but with the twelve books of the Apocrypha included. On par with Scripture is the “Holy Tradition,” which includes “the writings, teachings, and acts of the apostles, saints, martyrs, and fathers of the Church, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils.” The Orthodox state that, “All of this collective wisdom and experience through the centuries are combined to form this second great source of sacred authority.”
Feasts and Holy Days
Orthodoxy resembles ancient Judaism in its designation of holy days, feasts, and remembrance celebrations. These feasts and holy days celebrate important figures and events from the Scriptures and church history. Many of these holy days are also held in celebration of prominent saints.
Orthodox Church Beliefs vs. Catholic
At first glance, one would notice many similarities in belief and practice between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. After all, they are much more alike than their Protestant counterpart.
The largest divide between them stems from a certain moment in history that split the Eastern and Western churches until this day. While the church was unified for nearly 1,000 years, there started to form distinct cultural, political, and ceremonial differences between the churches. This led the Western Church to practice that the Pope had authority over the church while the Eastern Orthodox churches stuck to the Council of Equal Bishops. In 1054 A.D., the Orthodox Church denied the authority of the Pope. This led to the Western, and now Catholic Church, to excommunicate the Eastern congregations which caused a formal separation. The western Church became known as “Catholic” while the Eastern Church became known as “Orthodox.”
Far removed from that event, today we see three distinct differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches:
- The Orthodox do not hold to the authority of the Pope, but instead a Council of Bishops which all hold equal weight. The Council of Bishops must unanimously approve any changes made in the church.
- The majority of Catholic Church Priests are not allowed to marry and are bound by an oath of celibacy. The Orthodox Church allows Priests to marry as long as the marriage occurs before entering into Priesthood.
- The Catholic Church views Mary Magdalen as sinless because she was chosen to bore the sinless Son of God. While the Orthodox hold Mary in high regard, the church confesses that she was human and tainted by sin just like the rest of us.
Orthodox Church Beliefs vs. Roman Catholic
The most notable difference between Orthodox church beliefs vs. Roman Catholic is how they understand the nature and identity of Jesus Christ. While it’s common for Orthodox Christians to emphasize Christ’s humanity, the Roman Catholic Church is known for emphasizing His divinity. Both denominations
The biggest key difference between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches is in how they speak and comprehend the true nature and identity of Jesus. The Orthodox Church tends to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, while the Roman Catholic Church emphasizes His divinity. They both believe that He was both fully God and fully man, yet they each focus on a different aspect of His identity.
The focus on Jesus’ humanity in the Orthodox Church leads to a deeper personal connection with Jesus. Also, it sheds interesting importance on the nature of His ascension. The Orthodox celebration Ascension as a feast day of the church, with significance placed on Jesus’ elevation of humanity as He re-enters heaven in His human form. The Roman Catholic emphasis on Jesus’ divinity puts less emphasis on these things and more on Jesus’ identity as God Himself in the flesh, making Him perfect in every way.
Orthodox Christian Beliefs About the Bible
While the Orthodox Church does believe in the divine authority of the Scriptures, they believe it to be part of a larger tradition they call the Holy Tradition. The Bible is held in high regard and read during every service, just as you’d expect at any Christian church, yet they hold the writings of the Church Fathers and the traditions of the early church on an equal level with the Scriptures. Together, the Holy Tradition is the standard for Orthodox belief and church practice.
Orthodox Christian Beliefs About Death
The Orthodox Church firmly believes in Jesus’ statement that God is a God of the living and not the dead. Thus, they celebrate fallen believers and the saints of the past as if they are still alive in God’s Kingdom. When they worship, they believe they enter the spiritual realm of God’s Kingdom where all believers past and present are united in worship of their heavenly Father.
Orthodox Church Beliefs About Hell
The Eastern Orthodox Church believes hell to be a place of eternal torment and separation from God. Spending eternity in hell is believed to be a choice each individual makes, as each person has the ability to accept or reject God in this life. The Orthodox Church encourages all to share in the divine life of Christ so that they can spend eternity in God’s Kingdom rather than in the fiery torment of hell.
Orthodox Beliefs About Purgatory
The Orthodox Church has never recognized or used the term “purgatory.” That term is from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and did not originate in Orthodoxy. In Orthodoxy, there is no middle place between heaven and hell. Though we are all sinful, even after we accept Christ, the Orthodox believe that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ before entering heaven and thus have no need of a purgatory.
Orthodox Christian Beliefs About Salvation
Like evangelical Christianity, the Orthodox Church believes in salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. They also likewise believe that after that initial conversion one goes on a path of spiritual maturity through Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship. But they tend to speak of it in a different language than we do.
The Orthodox believe in a process called “deification.” Deification is the process of spiritual maturity in which a believer conforms more and more to the image of God in which they were created. They believe that sin has tainted that image within and that as believers mature in their faith it becomes more whole again. This brings Orthodox Christians closer to God and more in line with His will. To the Orthodox, this is all part of sharing in the divine life of Christ while striving to emulate Him in every way.
Final Thoughts: Is the Orthodox Church, In Fact, Christ’s Church?
This resource covering the Orthodox Church leads our editors to one final question: Is the Orthodox Church, in fact, Christ’s Church? It depends on whom you ask. The Orthodox believe there can only be one true church, and it has led to debate among the different Christian denominations.
The Bible was written before these denominational distinctions were present in the church, which makes this question a difficult one to answer for anyone not baptized in the Orthodox Church.
Perhaps the biggest argument for the Orthodox Church being the “one true church” is in its history. It is the oldest Christian Church following the most ancient traditions we know of. Many will feel comforted by this knowledge and believe in the teachings of the church because it is the closest thing we have today to the early church. It’s in this mindset some see Orthodoxy as the “better bet” since the Orthodox Church is seemingly the church founded by Christ.
Many argue against this premise, however, using the notion that Orthodox tradition is dated and even changed over time. And from the perspective of the Orthodox, Western Christianity has adapted to change to modern times.
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