Most American Christians are familiar with Catholicism and Protestantism as the two major Christian traditions, especially in the West. But do you much about the third major branch of Christianity?
Ever heard of Orthodoxy?
Eastern Orthodoxy is actually the second largest Christian communion after the Catholic Church. It is predominately found in, well, the East, including Eastern Europe, Greece, the Caucasus, and especially Russia—with as many as 40% of the world’s Orthodox. But communities can even be found around the world, including the United States. In fact, there is a small Orthodox community in my hometown of Bowling Green, KY.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is a collection of independent churches, often based along national or ethnic lines—like the Russian Orthodox Church, for example. These autocephalous, or self-governing, churches are headed by patriarchs and other bishops. Above all, what matters is the common faith shared by these churches. Eastern Orthodoxy is distinguished from still other Eastern churches, such as those that broke off in the fifth century (like the Coptic, Ethiopian, and other so-called “Oriental Orthodox” churches), as well as those Eastern churches that form part of the Catholic Church.
The Orthodox Church understands itself to be in direct continuity with the early church centered on the Apostles. And indeed, Orthodoxy is ancient, sharing a common heritage with Catholicism. While the Orthodox Church and Catholic Church each claim full continuity with the first-century church, a more balanced view would recognize that these two groups were actually united for the first thousand years of Christianity—only to gradually split along geographic lines due to cultural, political, and even theological reasons.
Similar to Catholicism
Those familiar with Catholicism, then, will find many similarities between the two churches. For starters, each has a common understanding of how we know the Christian faith: through sacred scripture, apostolic tradition, the church’s liturgy, and the church’s bishops. This means that, like Catholicism, Orthodoxy looks to sources in addition to the Bible in order to answer questions about faith. In particular, Orthodox Christians greatly admire the early figures known as the Church Fathers, who were formative in developing Christian theology. In addition, Orthodox adhere to the first seven great councils of the church, which developed core doctrines on the Trinity—doctrines accepted even by most Protestants. Both churches also celebrate the same seven sacraments (or “mysteries”), including the Eucharist, which is believed to be the true body and blood of Christ. They have similar leadership structures, with bishops having the most authority and priests and deacons serving under them. Orthodox, like Catholics, honor the saints, especially Mary (or Theotokos—the “God-bearer”).
In the practice of the faith, there is also much in common. Anyone who’s been to a Catholic Mass will have experienced liturgy, public worship accompanied by specific prayers and rituals. Historically, liturgy developed in reference to local culture, so there are different traditions between, say, a Western Latin service and an Eastern Byzantine one. But ultimately, both East and West developed liturgies centered on the Eucharist, the focal point of communal worship. Orthodox churches also have liturgical calendars, centered on Pascha (or Easter) and twelve other great feasts celebrating the lives of Christ and Mary. While many feasts are shared by the Catholic Church as well, interestingly, the two churches sometimes have different dates—even for Easter, for example. Orthodox observe an intense period of fasting during Lent, which is more rigorous than what many Western Christians are used to. Both Orthodox and Catholics encourage devotion to the saints, including asking for their prayers and celebrating their feast days. Both also appreciate monasticism, communal living focused on prayer and asceticism. While Orthodoxy never developed religious orders like in Catholicism, the monastic life is very integral to the Orthodox faith. Bishops are often chosen from monks, for example.
Division between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church
Seeing that they hold much is in common, one may wonder why the Catholic and Orthodox churches are, in fact, separate Christian communions. Probably the greatest factors leading to the division were political and cultural—not theological, though there were some differences there, too. For starters, there was a geographical divide. Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East grew apart, especially when the capital of the Roman Empire moved to Byzantium, or Constantinople, in the East. Also, because the the seat of the empire moved to Constantinople, Eastern Christians sought to advance the prestige of that city’s bishop. Over time, Constantinople rose to the second see in the church, second to Rome and ahead of the two other ancient sees of Alexandria and Antioch. So while Rome maintained its position of leadership in the West, Constantinople became an important center of Christianity in the East.
Such political and cultural factors unfolded into the more theological issue of the papacy. The Catholic Church understands the bishop of Rome, the Pope, as having a critical leadership role in the Church. As successor to the Apostle Peter, the leader of the Apostles, Rome’s bishop continues this “Petrine” role as shepherd of the church. Historically, the Roman church always understood itself as having primacy among the churches, and it had typically defended this primacy in terms of its apostolic foundation in Peter. Constantinople and its defenders, however, sometimes suggested that Rome’s primacy was based on its position in the Roman Empire. Hence, according to them, Constantinople should have an increased place of authority since it is “New Rome”. While admitting of Rome’s “primacy of honor,” Orthodox would say that the Pope does not have a primacy of jurisdiction over other churches. Additionally, to Orthodox, this primacy of honor can be transferred—and is currently held by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Catholics, on the other hand, consider the office of the Pope to be of divine foundation, originating in Christ’s will to make Peter head of the universal church.
The separation of East and West did not occur overnight, then. For convenience, some place the schism in the year AD 1054, when members of both churches excommunicated each other. In reality, though, the estrangement started hundreds of years before, and the formal separation would not be finalized until years later. For Catholics, complete reunion with the Orthodox would need to involve recognition of the pope’s role of leadership in the universal church. Such has happened with individual Eastern communities in the past few hundred years, creating the Eastern Catholic churches—though some never separated from Rome, in the first place. Reunion would also have to consider respect for each church’s theological, spiritual, and disciplinary traditions (instead of making the East “more Latin” or the West “more Greek,” for example).
Differences of Culture
A significant difference relates to the creed professed by Catholics and Orthodox—and many Protestants as well. The Western church added filioque (“and the Son”) into the Nicene Creed after the declaration that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” While seemingly a bit technical nowadays, it was a huge deal in the past. However, many now agree that this issue is merely one of semantics, and that “and the Son” can also be understood as “through the Son,” which the Orthodox accept. It no longer seems to be a great obstacle to reunion. In fact, many Eastern Catholic churches do not say the filioque in their recitation of creed.
Most other differences are simply a matter of culture, yet many of these differences have been greatly exaggerated over the years. For example, the Western Catholic use of unleavened bread was once deemed heretical by those Eastern Christians who insisted on leavened bread in the Eucharist. While celibacy has always been esteemed in both traditions, married priests are the norm in Orthodoxy—while celibacy is the requirement for most Catholic priests. Orthodox tend to baptize, confirm, and administer first communion all at once—usually infants—while Catholics tend to delay Confirmation and the Eucharist.
With nearly one thousand years of independent development, the two churches have developed different—though not necessarily contradictory—theological and spiritual approaches. As one should expect, the churches have faced their own problems, reached different insights, and emphasized different aspects of the faith. On the doctrinal side, this is expressed well in the beliefs of the Immaculate Conception, Transubstantiation, and Purgatory. Orthodox will sometimes say they reject these Catholic beliefs. Actually, they are typically only rejecting the Western theological language used to define them. In reality, Orthodox also believe in Mary’s sinlessness, the substantial presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and even the notion of praying for the dead. Eastern Orthodox tend to emphasize the mystery or mystical nature of Christian faith, while Catholics have developed a more intellectual or rational approach. Again, not contradictory, but they’re different emphases nonetheless.
One Orthodox practice I especially appreciate is the devotional use of icons, or religious images of Christ, Mary, and other saints. They have a unique artistic style and are very beautiful. Sometimes called “windows to heaven,” icons are aids to worship and are meant to uplift the Christian in prayer. Of course, the images themselves are not worshipped. They are reverenced, though, and form an integral part of Orthodox liturgical practices. One may kiss an icon, for example, as an act of respect for whomever is depicted in the painting.
Attending an Orthodox church for the first time may be a bit of a culture shock, especially for many American Christians. But we should remember that Christianity has spread throughout the world and in relationship with different cultures. Different cultural approaches to the faith can cause misunderstanding, to be sure (again, think of the East-West Schism). But we ought to try our best to understand another culture before judging it. And besides, in my opinion, Orthodoxy has maintained many essentials of what it means to be Christian—essentials which have been lost by many Western denominations, including the Holy Eucharist, the liturgy, respect for tradition, the communion of saints, the importance of apostolic succession, and a sense of community.