10 Things Orthodox Christians Would Like You to Know

10 Things Orthodox Christians Would Like You to Know  by Dn. Charles Joiner

1) We don’t worship Mary.  We hold her in a place of esteem because of her singularly unique role as the birthgiver of Jesus Christ.  Orthodox Christians state and affirm over and over again throughout the worship services that God alone is the only One to Whom worship is due.
2) We don’t worship icons.  Icons are like a family photo album.  Just as in our own families, where we keep the pictures of our loved ones who have departed this life on shelves and hanging on walls, we also keep the pictures of the members of our larger Christian family around, particularly those members of our Christian family who have led exempliary lives.  The word icon only means “image” or “picture”.
3) When we talk about tradition, we don’t mean the traditions of men, we mean Holy Tradition.  The traditions that the Church has taught have always been those that have been led by the Spirit.  It was the tradition of the Church that gave us the New Testament and, the New Testament also continues to inform that traditon.  It is cyclical and not mutually exclusive.
4) Orthodox Christianity is not “works” based.  It always takes the grace and will of God to bring about our salvation.  We do good works because it is the outpouring of the joy that we experience through living Christ-centered lives and because it is an expression of righteous living and of love for God and neighbor.  There are no “points” earned by doing good works.
5) There’s no such thing as the Byzantine Empire.  This was a term invented by French scholars retroactively during the rennaisance.  Constantine moved the capital of the empire to the east and Constantinople became known as New Rome.  Though portions of the Western half of the Roman Empire fell, the Eastern half continued for over a thousand years after the Goths sacked Rome.  Those living in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire did not think of themselves as “Byzantines” or even Greeks.  They were Romans.  Even today, the Turks still refer to Orthodox Christians living in Turkey as “Roman”.
6) “True” Christianity did not disappear when the Church received legal recognition from the Roman Government.  Faithful, pious and righteous Christians continued to live in faith and suffer martyrdom and persecution.  The Church thatwas founded by Jesus Christ, and its theology, remained intact.  Those who became frustrated with government intervention in Church life struggled to maintain the purity of the church’sdoctrine and life.  However, since the Church continued to adhere to its basic teachings without dilution, it was necessary for pious believers to continue their struggle within the church.  It was believed that no person had the right to create or invent his or her own church.  It is also significant to mention that the Orthodox Church continues to bear much fruit.  If losing one’s life, or martyrdom, is the ultimate expression of one’s devotion to Christ, there has never been a more fruitful time within the Church.  There were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than all previous centuries of Christian history combined.  Most of these martyrs were Orthodox Christians who refused to renounce their faith.
7) The Orthodox Church is not a denomination nor is it “non-denominational”.  It is pre-denominational.  The Church was without break or separation for more than 1,000 years.  The Orthodox Church did not break away from any other group.  The Orthodox Church continued right along up to this day.  In fact,groups that refer to themselves as “non-denominational” because they are free standing churches, not connected with any larger mainline protestant confessions, are, in fact, denominations.  Since a denomination means a breaking down of the whole or a separation, they are simply denominations consisting of one parish.
8) Yes, the Orthodox are “Bible believing” Christians.  Almost everything within Orthodox worship comes directly from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  There is probably more Bible read on a single Sunday Morning in Orthodox Worship than in an entire year in most other churches.  (Editor’s note: This may be an exaggeration but the point is still valid, there is a lot of Bible in Orthodox worship)
9) Orthodox Christianity is not an exotic form of Roman Catholicism.  While both Churches have organized worship, the life, practice and doctrine of the Roman Catholics and The Orthodox are quite different.  The Orthodox view the Pope as the bishop of Rome, not a supreme leader of the entire Church.  And, because, in the eyes of the Orthodox, the Pope has stated that his authority is over the entire Church, The Orthodox are not currently in communion with Rome.  Roman Catholic doctrinal principles such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Papal Infallibility, Transubstantiation of Holy Communion, and Original Sin are absent from the Orthodox Church.  These perspectives took root in the Roman Catholic Church after East and West went their separate ways.
10) Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is the head of the Orthodox Church: not Luther, not Calvin, not Wesley.  The Orthodox Church can trace the lineage of the ordinations of its clergy all the way back to Christ Himself with unbroken continuity.  Orthodox Christianity has remained faithful to Christ not only doctrinally but also historically.
With these things said, The Orthodox are not trying to convert you. (Editor’s note: We do believe in conversion and mission and engage in ongoing efforts but the 20th century Protestant programs of mass evangelism may not be suitable for Orthodox Faith which is more of a lived experience than a single moment of decision.)  We believe in tolerance (respect) of other faiths, and this has been written so that those of you who may come from other backgrounds might be more tolerant of us.  Please don’t write us off.  Learn what we really think, do and believe before deciding without sufficient knowledge.  We’re believers.  We don’t preach false doctrine.  We accept the Bible as the Word of God.  Simply put, we struggle within the boundaries of the church to always be as good of an expression of the Kingdom of God on earth as possible.  This is because Christ created one Church and prayed that It would remain one.  We believe it is our sacred duty to preserve this oneness.  We are not allowed to whimsically create a new church whenever we are upset.  If we don’t like what’s happening in our Church, we don’t leave.  We risk persecution, even to death, to protect the faith because that’s what Christ did when He created The Church.
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45 thoughts on “10 Things Orthodox Christians Would Like You to Know”

  1. This Lutheran knows all 10. What I don’t know is just how much bible reading is done at home by the Orthodox.

      1. Perhaps I should have said it differently. Are Orthodox encouraged to read their bibles as much as other faiths?

      1. “Reading your Bible doesn’t save.” What about receiving baptism? Or partaking of the Supper? Of course the mere outward human act of reception doesn’t save, but is that the whole picture? Don’t we all as Christians want to affirm God’s potential saving action in each of these cases?

      2. Yes. For Orthodox the word “Salvation” doesn’t mean just that which it takes to, as it were, get in the door, but rather encompasses every aspect of our continued life of Faith in this world. We see ourselves as constantly being saved and being transformed by God into what He would have us be.

    1. That is as individual as people are individual. We have organized bible study, but like every thing else the degree of participation up to the individual. You only get out of it what you put into it.

    2. Yes, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to read the Bible. Also, if you were to come to morning or evening prayer service, which happen daily, you would hear mostly passages from the Scriptures, particularly the Psalms. My children have essentially memorized the Psalms just by attending these services at least three times a week for the last 9 years. Many Orthodox Christians read these services at home and also pray the Hours, which are also full of Scripture!

  2. I can’t speak for all Orthodox but I, as a Priest, encourage Orthodox Christians to read the Bible regularly.

  3. As a Byzantine Greek Catholic, I have never heard a negative word said about the Orthodox, but I have heard many Orthodox say negative things about the Catholics. On top of that, the two churches excommunicated each other, so bitterness has existed and does continue to exist. Much about the Orthodox faith appeals to me very much, but I do find extreme rigidity in some of its teachings, rigidity that was not modeled by Christ. Christ accomplished his mission on earth with love rather than harshness against parts of humanity which many in today’s churches decry.

    1. He made a whip to use on the moneychangers. His love wasn’t Precious Moments. It was the purest love, and had some rigidity and “harshness” (as you put it). The Orthodox Church is “rigid” because that rigidity has something to do with Jesus’ teaching of love. Love and truth (“rigid” truth) cannot be separated — ought not to be, at any rate.

  4. Great article, but why do I detect pride here? So many Orthodox believe they are the true Church, disregarding the Catholics and everything Protestant.. I am an ecumenic and I love the Orthodox Church, and have attended many great services. But as Hans Küng said: ““But the specific danger of Protestant belief in particular is biblicism, the danger of Eastern Orthodox belief is traditionalism, and the danger of Roman Catholic belief is authoritarianism. All these are defective modes of belief.” Religion is approached in the Orthodox Church through liturgy – and herein lies its weakness, do you really know the power of the Holy Spirit? There is almost no room for the Holy Spirit to move in an Orthodox Church, because the Spirit doesn’t only work through liturgy, hence the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.

    1. I think the characterization of the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit as working only in the liturgy is mistaken. One of our prayers to the Holy Spirit is as follows “Heavenly King, comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things come and abide in us and cleanse us from every stain and save our souls O gracious Lord.” We most certainly understand that the Holy Spirit is present, alive, and working in every aspect of our lives.

      1. I do not know all of how the Holy Spirit works but I trust that He is present with and in us and, by God’s grace, me so I seek His guidance and strength.

      2. Padre, Oops! My comment was directed toward Jurgras, not you! I really take offense at the idea that the Holy Spirit “can’t” work in liturgy because it assumes the Holy Spirit ONLY works spontaneously, which is a modern view and not backed up either by Scripture nor tradition. I’m Orthodox, I agree with you. 🙂

    2. I don’t see the pride anywhere in this article. Forgive me but I do see it in your comments and also seem very judgemental. We do not claim to know how the Holy Spirit works in us at all. We just know He is there.

  5. In the early 1990s Phil Collins sang in irony, “I’ve been talking to Jesus and he knows I’m right.” I am afraid that just about captures the tone of this article.
    It’s too easy to say, “We are pre-denominational, we never broke away from anyone.” If disunity is a problem in the church, it is your problem too.
    It’s too glib to say, “There is probably more Bible read on a single Sunday Morning in Orthodox Worship than in an entire year in most other churches.” If I were an Orthodox priest I would be concerned about the level of Biblical understanding and knowledge in Orthodox liturgies and parishes, not parading these as examples for Protestants to envy.
    And can you not see the conflict between the following two statements, “Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is the head of the Orthodox Church: not Luther, not Calvin, not Wesley. The Orthodox Church can trace the lineage of the ordinations of its clergy all the way back to Christ Himself with unbroken continuity.” I assume you are accusing Protestants of placing Luther, Calvin or Wesley as the head of the church (of course you know Protestants confess only Christ as head of the church). Which is it for you: Jesus or the lineage of ordinations?

    1. Its not an either/or but a both/and. The lineage is important only because it is connected to Jesus who breathed on His apostles and said “Receive the Holy Spirit…” We do have gifts in Orthodoxy but those gifts are given to us by grace and if we do not personally avail ourselves of them they are useless to us.

    2. I’m making no accusations in posting this article. Every group of Christians has a tradition, a matrix of how they understand their life, faith, sacred texts, and practice. One of the single largest differences between Orthodoxy and the various Protestant communions is that the Protestant Communions, while acknowledging Christ as Head of their community express their understandings of that and much of how they see the Faith and what they do through the works and writings of various reformers or charismatic leaders. So there are such things as “Lutheran” churches or communities that identify themselves by their various polities or practices such as Baptist, Presbyterian, or Methodist. While we have influential writers and teachers in the Orthodox church there is no equivalent identifying ourselves by any particular polity, founder, or practice in Orthodoxy. Our founder and head is literally Christ and His teachings and there is no asterisk or further explanation or definition either wanted or needed.

  6. The biggest problem I have with Orthodox Churches is their ethnic division. It might as well be denominational division. I was received into an Orthodox Church in another city and that church said their services in English (even though they were Romanian Orthodox). Many Orthodox Churches, (Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Greek) in my current city for example, insist on worship in their ethnic language. The one church I attended (once) was in Russian and English and not one person spoke to me in English or Russian during the after service lunch. I felt like an intruder. Not much good to a Canadian English speaking Orthodox Christian. I suppose I could have prayed for the gift of tongues…….

    1. First of all, all churches are ethnic its just that we don’t recognize our own ethnicity in church because it is simply “our: church and familiar to us. We tend, then, to label the culturally unfamiliar as “ethnic”. And yes, you will find churches comprised of immigrants, especially first generation immigrants, where the old country language is spoken in the service and among the people. It is quite possible, for example, that the people in that parish you describe may not have spoken to you simply because they were embarrassed about their limited ability in English. Imagine, for example, as an English speaker if you were plopped down in the middle of China knowing next to no Chinese. You would seek out people who spoke English and they would be come your community as you struggled to make sense of your new home. If you had a church full of English speakers, because you had not yet mastered Chinese, a person fluent in Chinese but not English would be hard pressed to make a “connection” with you or you with them. In time that would change, of course, but in the present there would be difficulties. Some Orthodox parishes, do, however cling to a non local language for sentimental reasons and when they do so they are committing a sing called phyletism, condemned by the Church, which basically means an unhealthy clinging to ethnic languages or customs to the detriment of the Faith. Please understand, though, that the ethnic titles of the various parishes like Bulgarian or Greek Orthodox only refer to the jurisdiction to which they belong, the extension of that particular Mother Church in the new world and all canonical Orthodox bodies are in complete communion with each other. I have served, for example, as an Orthodox Priest from Alaska to Africa and everywhere there are Orthodox I am part of them and they part of me regardless of the ethnic label on the door.

  7. Please don’t forget to click on the link for the blog that originated this post. I’ve been getting many hits but the source of this post is a blog worth visiting as well.

  8. Interesting article but my question would be what is it rather than what it is not. Does the orthodox. Church preach the need to be born again…..or believe and be baptised….or having a living relationship with Jesus Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Does it believe in praying to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ the only Mediator between God and man. In the OT the commandments say not to even make an image (icon) so why the kissing of icons if it has no benefit. Reading the bible which is highly recommended and wonderful yet without living the truth of what God says has little value. The Holy Spirit is our Reminder, Guide, Teacher, Comforter. Does the Orthodox Church have assurance of salvation (eternal life) through repentance of sin and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ and the evidence of righteous living by the power of the Holy Spirit. Does it believe in the healing power by faith in the Living God as promised in His word? I ask these questions in sincerity as my experience has been that the Orthodox lay person does not have much knowledge of Who God really is or what He says…and He speaks on just about everything to do with living.

    1. Wow, lots of questions. Yes, born again in baptism and committed to having a living and personal relationship with Jesus. Yes, Christ is the mediator between God and humanity but we also understand that Saints are alive in the presence of God, have an awareness in a mystical way of the world (see the story of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about things to come at His transfiguration) and can intercede for us like those who love here also do. We have icons, images that call to mind the life of Christ living in His Saints, they are images, not idols, they are venerated (similar to the way a person has respect for a nation’s flag) and not worshipped. The universal Church approved their use in the last of the church wide council because since God came to us in matter (flesh) in Jesus we can depict Him in matter such as an icon. Please note, that the law about images in the OT did not preclude, for example, the golden angels on the ark of the covenant, tapestries, and beautiful designs. None of these are prohibited in the commandment regarding images, only the representation of God in material form for the sake of worship. The early Christian community had many different kinds of images that is used and venerated and we simply continue that practice. The answer to all of you other questions is essentially yes but often we Orthodox will express such things in terms that do not fit an evangelical Protestant tradition. The other thing I would caution is the tendency to see Orthodoxy in the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy. Eastern Orthodoxy can be quite different, in some places, that either and where it does share commonalities can express them in terms that may be unfamiliar to people approaching it from a purely Western understanding.

  9. Hello Padre, thank you for this most informative article, as I had no idea. I am a person who 18 years ago was suicidal and begged Jesus to help me. What happened next was an epiphony. I felt how God felt all the sudden. And I could feel the pain he had with humanity. And our sin. And i began to see that although i had been thinking i was forgiven, what i had been lacking was true remorse. And you can bet that set in like an earthquake. I fell to my knees and began to apologize profusely. I was in such pain at seeing how beautiful God is in comparison to my actions. I pleaded mercy. I knew he loved me so much all the while. I felt his loving hand on my head saying it’s ok my child, you are forgiven. And then boom. I felt this extraordinary light and love enter my body like a possession. It was the holy spirit, and i knew it. My life has never been the same, and my eyes have never seen the same. When i read articles like this, i appreciate the effort a priest puts into explaining to the masses their love and passion for the teachings, and oh how i respect it so. What i would ask though, on behalf of the holy spirit that lives in me, is to never lose the joy of the child. For it is the child who says, momma, daddy, I’m so sorry i hurt you. As adults, we grow out of that. So let us only remember one thing: to beg to have and feel remorse, for it is only then we shall find the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who experience feeling how God feels, for it is then they will find life.

  10. The Bible doesn’t prohibit the use of holy images at áll – that is a Protestant/Calvinistic myth. The Bible simply say do not worship false gods (1 st Commandment), an do not make images of these false gods and worship them (2 nd Commandment). Also, as far as I know, Orthodoxy does actually believe in the concept of original sin? May I ask, in a nutshell, if you do not believe in transubstantiation, what do the Orthodox believe about the Eucharist?

    1. Transubstantiation is a Western term born out of the Western Enlightenment period and a “need” to define everything specifically. What you will find in the Orthodox Church is that we do very little defining. We are a church of both/and, not either/or. We believe that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. How? We don’t know. It’s why the other word we use for “Sacrament” is “Mystery.”

      1. The term transubstantiation dates back in the West at least until Thomas Aquinas (13th century), not in 17th century when the Western Enlightenment began (maybe you meant to refer to the age of medieval scholasticism).
        Also, in the 17th century various Orthodox church councils (eg 1672) ruled on the Eucharist, using the term transubstantiation (μετουσίωσις). This term is also used in the XIX century Orthodox catechism of Philaret.

      2. The term is and was used by some Orthodox for the sake of needing a term in certain situations, but doctrinely, it’s not our official stance as far as the Eucharist is concerned. I was also referencing the Enlightenment because much of Western Christianity is today still heavily influenced by it and a large reason why so many western Christians insist on using such terms.

      3. I hear what you are saying (I have heard this many times before), but with respect, whatever your opinions/convictions, we are dealing with hard, historical facts here:
        1) Transubstantiation was the *official* Eastern Orthodox stance (not just ‘some Orthodox’). How more official can you get than a Church council (1672 Bethlehem) or the official catechism of the Russian church (19th Century, Philaret)?
        2) Whatever influence the Enlightenment might have in western Christianity, the use of the term transubstantiation predates the Enlightenment by four centuries and the debates of the Reformation were likewise pre-Enlightenment.

  11. You’re right in saying that the word “transubstantiation” can be found in the Synod of Jerusalem. So are several other words. This was in an attempt to define the Eucharist as a response to Protestantism. You will not find an Orthodox church that chooses to use the word or specific terminology of “transubstantiation” anywhere. That’s because it is not the stance of the Orthodox church. Just because you have a couple instances of “hard, historical facts,” doctrine is best understood in the life of the church. If it’s is not in the liturgy, it’s not the doctrine. This isn’t my opinion. This is how the Orthodox Church works. There is also no official catechism of the Orthodox Church, nor is the Synod of Jerusalem actually considered an Ecumenical Council. I’m having a hard time figuring out if you’re Orthodox or not. If you’re not, I understand why this seems wrong.

    1. Let’s try to get to the bottom of this.
      1. In 2015 there isn’t a single Orthodox church – so you affirm – which uses the word ‘transubstantiation’.
      2. In the 1600s and later in the 1800s the Orthodox church did, officially, in a Council and in a Catechism use this term.
      How do we square these two facts?
      1. Your answer, as far as I can see, is that there is no official catechism, that Bethlehem 1672 wasn’t an Ecumenical council (but then that would rule out any Council since the 8th century, right) and that the test is whether or not something is in the liturgy.
      2. My answer would be that just as the Orthodox Christians of the 17th and 19th centuries could basically get something wrong or off-balance, so today’s consensus in the Orthodox church is likewise not as absolute as it might seem. Doctrine means what you teach. In the 17th and 19th centuries official Orthodox teaching included the term transubstantiation, even if it wasn’t in the liturgy. In the 21st century the Orthodox church teaches theosis. Correct me if I am wrong, but theosis isn’t in the liturgy either, right?

      1. The word transubstantiation was used in response to the Calvinist belief that communion is nothing more than a symbol. The Church essentially was forced to use Western language to communicate with the Western Church. “In the liturgy” doesn’t mean in the words of the liturgy, it means in the life of the Church. The Sacraments and asceticism are the two-fold path to theosis. In the daily life of the Church, ie, the liturgy, you will never see or hear affirmation of transubstantiation. And where one council may have used that term, there is no evidence that the life of the Church has ever included that belief. I’m still confused about why you are arguing with Orthodox Christians about what they believe. Unless you are Orthodox and in that case I’m even more confused. Tradition is not an archaeological project, nor is orthodoxy a museum reconstructed of historic Christianity. It’s a living entity. The life of the Church is the rule of faith. Period. Your insistence that only what has been transcribed on paper as doctrine, is just false. You’re correct, doctrine is what is taught. The Church teaches its doctrine through liturgy. Through the life of the church.

  12. For the record reformed Christians (‘Calvinists’) believe that the Lord’s Supper is Communion with the body and blood of Christ, that we feed on Christ’s body and drink his blood as we partake of the bread and wine.
    As for what you say about the life of the church being the rule of faith, I guess that simply redirects the same questions to the practice of the church. How do you discern which bits of ‘the life of the church’ are Orthodox and which bits are not, if the rulings of Councils and statements in Catechisms are not authoritative? Or is everything in ‘the life of the church’ by definition Orthodox?

  13. Thanks for your your thoughts. Both the Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church believes in and teaches the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. You are right kayladevitto, how it really happens is a mystery.

  14. Thanks for the great dialogue on this article. I am Roman Catholic and didn’t realize how the Orthodox Church beliefs were so close to ours! In response to Jurgras’s last comment …. yes, in fact, right after the bread and wine are consecrated into the body and blood of our Lord, the priest make the statement “The mystery of faith” and we sing “we proclaim your death O Lord and profess your resurrection until you come again”. Peace be with you all!

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