What is this Orthodox Church? What are her roots? What are her beliefs? And why are there so many who have never heard of her?
The literal meaning of word Orthodox is «straight teaching» or «straight worship,» being stemmed from two Greek words: orthos, «straight,» and doxa, «teaching» or «worship.» As the encroachments of false teaching and division multiplied in early Christian times, threatening to obscure the identity and purity of the Church, the term «Orthodox» quite logically came to be applied to it. The Orthodox Church carefully guards the truth against all error and schism, both to protect its flock and to glorify Christ, whose Body the Church is.
The Orthodox Christian Church, sometimes called the “Eastern Orthodox”, or simply “the Orthodox Church,” (Greek or Russian) is the oldest Christian Church in the world, founded by Jesus Christ and with its beginnings recorded in the New Testament. All other Christian churches and groups can be traced historically back to it.
With roughly 250 million members worldwide, Orthodoxy is second in size only to the Roman Catholic Church. Yet being the oldest Church in Christendom it is still new to most people.
Immersed in rich Biblical tradition, the Orthodox Church has deep and lasting roots in Christian ancient times. It has been the way of living for millions of Christians for almost twenty centuries. Yet one cannot understand the Orthodox Church simply by reading about it therefore Orthodox Christianity must be experienced personally to be understood.
Even though Orthodox Christianity must be experienced directly to realize the fullness of its life, there are questions which are commonly asked when first visiting an Orthodox Church that can have some light shed upon them with a few brief words.
So, what is Orthodox Christianity? — It is the life in faith of the Orthodox Church, inseparable from that concrete, historic community and constituting its whole way of life. The Orthodox Christian faith is that faith “handed once to the saints” (Jude 3), passed on to the apostles by Jesus Christ, and then handed down from one generation to the next within the Church, without adding anything or taking anything away.
The purpose of Orthodox Christianity is the salvation of every human person, uniting us to Christ in the Church, transforming us in holiness, and giving us eternal life. This is the Gospel, the good news, that Jesus is the Messiah, that He rose from the dead, and that we can be saved as a result.
Historically, the Orthodox Church is the oldest of all Christian churches. Ultimately, all Christian communities can trace their own history back to the Orthodox Church. In the pages of the New Testament we read the beginnings of the Orthodox Church, and even today Orthodox Christianity continues to live on in most of the places mentioned in the New Testament where the Apostles first preached the Gospel. This is the Church that wrote, compiled and canonized the Holy Scriptures, that formulated the traditional doctrines of Christianity, and that has believed and lived the same faith for 2,000 years.
The Orthodox Church is sometimes referred to as “Eastern Orthodox,” but the best term is simply Orthodox Christian. So what do Orthodox Christians believe? And how do they live?
I believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life,
who proceedeth from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
The Orthodox Christian Way of Life
To live the Orthodox Christian way of life there is obviously much more to learn. You must remember, being an Orthodox Christian is to be on a path of continual growth. As we come closer to God, we learn more clearly what he expects of us. As we grow closer to Him, He provides us with greater ability to practice His teachings. We are all sinners and the Church is the place we come for spiritual direction and forgiveness. In God’s eyes it is never too late to change our ways. Not only does He expect us to be perfect as He is perfect, but He is Most Merciful to those who are the greatest sinners.
- Reading the Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers
- Holy Mysteries
In recent centuries, the Orthodox Church has recognized seven mysteries for sacraments: baptism; chrismation; the eucharist; penance; the priesthood; marriage; and the anointing of the sick.
While the New Testament does not specifically enumerate the holy mysteries, it is clear that the Apostolic Church received people through baptism and chrismation (confirmation); celebrated the eucharist at least weekly on the Lord’s day; readmitted penitents through an act of penance; selected and ordained her ministers; sanctified the union of husband and wife; and extended the healing ministry of Christ to those in need of divine succor. It is evident, therefore, that the Church gave special attention to these acts from the beginning, despite the absence of explicit testimony from Scripture, the early Fathers or the Ecumenical Councils.
The mysteries are founded upon the words and actions of the Lord in Scripture and are, in a particular way, a continuation and an extension of his saving ministry. Among them, baptism and the Eucharist hold a dominant position. While emphasizing the importance of the holy mysteries, Orthodox theology is careful not to separate or isolate them from the Church’s many other rites of blessing, consecration and passage. «Between the wider and narrower sense of the term ‘sacrament’ (mystery) there is no rigid division: the whole Christian life must be seen as a unity, as a single mystery or one great sacrament, whose different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts, some performed but once in a man’s life, others perhaps daily» (Kallistos Ware).