With around a quarter of a billion adherents, the Orthodox Church considers itself to be the only true church and claims apostolic succession passed down from generation to generation from the apostles chosen by the Lord Himself. ‘Orthodox’ simply means ‘right doctrine’ in the same sense that theologians sometimes use the term ‘orthopraxy’ when referring to ‘right practise’. The greatest number of Orthodox believers reside in Russia, then Ukraine, followed by Romania and of course Greece. There are a significant number of Orthodox Churches worldwide, with noticeably about 7 million followers in the United States.
Services are sung or chanted, usually unaccompanied and the attendees usually stand for the duration of the service. Seven sacraments known as ‘mysteries’ are approved, consisting of baptism, chrismation (eastern equivalent similar to confirmation), the Eucharist, repentance or confession, holy orders, marriage and anointing of the sick.i
In terms of doctrine and practice, in many ways there is a great deal of similarity with the Roman Catholic Church although amongst other differences, the Orthodox Church rejects papal infallibility. Comparisons between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church will be provided throughout this article. In addition, reference will be made frequently to Timothy Ware’s book ‘The Orthodox Church’, which is a classic introduction to the Orthodox Church.
For ease of reference, the main section will follow ten subjects, in alphabetical order to include Apostolic Succession, Baptism, Confession, Deification, the Eucharist, Icons, Mary, Prayer to the Saints and Communion with the Saints, Relics and Scripture and Tradition.
In 330AD Emperor Constantine established the new capital of the Roman Empire in Byzantium, which was later named Constantinople after him. The Great Schism between east and west occurred in 1054, following the mutual ex-communication of Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael 1. To this day, the Orthodox Church is not governed by a single centralised leadership, but consists of autocephalous, independent churches of equal standing. Within the Orthodox Church framework, there are four ancient patriarchates including Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem ranked accordingly because of their historical importance.ii
Before the turn of the millennium, Frank Schaeffer, the only son of Francis Schaeffer, formerly identified with evangelicalism, converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church and authored ‘Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions’. The Greek Orthodox Bishop of Boston perceived Schaeffer’s work to be a missionary tool for the Orthodox Christian faith. iii
More recently Vladimir Putin’s close involvement with the Orthodox Church has hit the headlines in both the religious and secular press. An interesting article in the American Thinker written last year entitled, ‘Who will save Middle East Christians: Obama or Putin’, recalls his willingness to establish himself in the advancement of Russian Orthodoxy and also his personal religious experiences.iv Another article published in Christianity Today this year examined the interwoven link between the Russian Orthodox Church and State between the Patriarchate Kirill and President Putin.v
Apostolic succession has been a major issue since the second century, viewed as pivotal to the preservation of the faith since false teachers advocated themselves as being authoritative, sometimes on the basis of special revelation or even invented lineages,vi though the Orthodox Church claims not only to be the true church, but outside the church there is no salvation.vii The unity of the Orthodox Church is maintained by the act of communion in the sacraments since the church is infallible and this is expressed and demonstrated through the ecumenical councils.viii
Thus Orthodox Priests may question the authenticity of evangelical beliefs as commencing after the Great Reformation, though may fail to recognise, the significance of believers and important movements who were faithful throughout Early Church History and in the Middle Ages and who opposed Catholic doctrine prior to John Wycliffe. Whilst Evangelicals would appeal to the Bible, the Orthodox Church considers itself the guardian of Scripture.ix Therefore from an Orthodox perspective, they have the authority to interpret Scripture, and the Bible actually derives its authority from that Church body.
Whilst both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church claim that their respective churches have the authority to interpret scripture, the Bereans weren’t commended for blindly believing what they heard but ‘searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.’ Also, salvation is not dependent on being a member of a particular church body but by believing in the Lord Jesus (John 3:16; 36; 6:47; Acts 16:31).
Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17)’.Therefore doctrine should be established through what the Bible actually says rather than what a church organisation wants to say about the Bible.
According to the Eastern Orthodox Church, baptism should be administered by full immersion and is the means by which one is united to Christ and experiences salvation (baptismal regeneration), sins are forgiven and sanctification begins. They would appeal to the reference in relation to being buried with Christ and the likeness of His resurrection in Romans 6:1-6 and also equate the ‘water’ with regard to regeneration in John 3:5 as the waters of baptism. x Essentially because salvation is obtained through baptism, they believe in salvation by works.xi
Whilst we are commanded to be baptised, baptism is a symbolic act demonstrating and identifying as in Romans 6:1-6, what has taken place in the life of a believer. The sacrament of baptism is not mandatory for salvation. Needless to say the thief who died on the cross and who asked the Lord Jesus to remember him wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be baptised. To distinguish between the physical act of baptism and the finished work of Christ on the cross in relation to being saved, Peter writes ‘There is also an antitype which now saves us-baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).’
Confession in the Orthodox Church is frequently made to a priest and involves receiving assurance that even the worst sins are forgiven. The practise differs slightly with Catholicism in that confession doesn’t occur in a closed confession box but in the church. According to Orthodox doctrine, it is impossible to purge your soul from sin without confession.xii
In contrast, Paul wrote to Timothy ‘For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5).’Clearly we can boldly approach the throne of grace of the Lord Jesus who is the High Priest rather than being required to confess to a priest in a church (Heb. 4:14-16).
Also, Hebrews 10:11-14 teaches that it is actually Christ’s death that perfects the sanctified.
‘And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices which could never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.’
In some respects deification, or to use the Greek term ‘theosis’, is similar to the Western doctrine of sanctification, though there are some peculiar distinctives.xiii Although deification involves union with God and becoming more like Him, the aim isn’t glorification, but theosis, that is becoming a god. Scriptures typically appealed to in support are Genesis 1:26 with regard to being created in God’s image and John 17:21 with respect to union with Christ and 2 Peter 1:4, relating to partaking of the divine nature.
‘Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, ‘deification’ or ‘divinization’.xiv
The idea of becoming a ‘god’ is inherent in some cults including Mormonism, plus the New Age, and even in dominion theology more commonly known as the health and wealth gospel, where it is sometimes claimed that Adam’s dominion is regained either now or in heaven. Dominion theology basically elevates humanity beyond the parameters of what the Bible teaches. Scriptures that are offered in support and in addition to Genesis 1:26 are usually John 10:34 and Psalm 82:6, which Timothy Ware included in his work ‘The Orthodox Church’, see the quote below. However they are both passages that are rarely considered in context.
‘To acquire the likeness is to be deified, it is to become a ‘second god’, a ‘god by grace’. ‘I said, you are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High’ (Psalm lxxxi, 6; cf. John x, 34-5)’.xv
The references in Psalm 82 and John 10 are by no means encouraging humans to seek to attain godhead in this life or the next. In fact Psalm 82 is condemning those who set themselves up as self-appointed false gods. The word for gods is ‘Elohim’, meaning judges, mighty ones or gods. Originally and ironically, Satan originally tempted Eve with the idea of eating the fruit to become like God. Furthermore and interestingly the lamentation for the prince of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:1-10), again speaks of arrogance in claiming to be a god, though actually a man, not a god (Ezekiel 28:2). Though ‘gods’ are mentioned in Scripture, this is never in a positive context and is not linked positively or specifically with the work of sanctification or glorification.
Orthodox believers are in agreement with Roman Catholics that when they share the bread and wine, they partake mystically of the Lord’s body, taking the Lord’s Supper in a very literal sense. The Eucharist is central to worship. They reject transubstantiation, that the elements become Christ’s body and are being re-sacrificed and maintain that their participation relates to the original sacrifice of the Lord’s body.
This is a peculiar variation of the Catholic Eucharist; nevertheless Jesus has risen and proclaimed it is finished! One sacrifice was sufficient (Heb. 10:14) so whether one argues whether they are partaking of the original sacrifice or a continual sacrifice, the fact remains that the work of the Lord Jesus Christ has been accomplished and nothing needs to be added to it. Communion was to be administered to be done in remembrance of the Lord Jesus, not as a repeated or an over- literalized re-visited offering.
The presence of icons is both noticeable and prominent within Orthodox churches. At the seventh council of Nicaea in 787AD, former controversy surrounding the use of icons between the iconoclasts (those who viewed icons as a form of idolatry and destroyed icons) and the iconodules (those who supported there veneration) was settled in favour of keeping them after a struggle for 120 years; hence the notion of Byzantium being known as “the icon of the heavenly Jerusalem”.
At that time and still today, the Orthodox prostrate themselves in front of icons and kiss them. If questions concerning idolatry are raised, they may well appeal to the icon being symbolic as opposed to an idol and stress that the worship is not directly towards the object but to the person represented. They may claim from Scripture that since no one has ever seen God (John 1:18) and that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) and because the Son is the express image of the Father (Heb. 1:3); they therefore understand the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Image or Icon of God.xvi
The above arguments are in effect word games. One could argue with that line of argument, that since humans are created in the image of God, anyone could potentially become an icon. But if we take the third commandment in context and allow Scripture to speak for itself, it is clear that the use of idols or images is expressly forbidden. The use of icons has been established by tradition, neither through biblical precedent nor doctrine. Scripture never advocates the use of icons.
The Eastern Orthodox view of Mary has some parallels with Catholicism; they affirm that Mary was a virgin before and following the virgin birth and for her whole life and pay special attention to venerate her, though they would deny that she was born without sin or is co-redemptor with Christ. Mary is understood to be an image of becoming Christ-like.xvii Mary is referred to as the ‘Theokotos’ meaning ‘Bearer of God’. Orthodox Christians may take issue with Christians who never refer to her as blessed or honour her. Typically they capitalise references to her (the Mother of God/the Virgin Mary) in a similar way that some Protestants may capitalise references to God, but never to Mary.
Whilst Mary was blessed and highly favoured to be the mother of our Lord she clearly did have other children because of the reference to our Lord’s mother, brothers and sisters (Matt. 13:55-56) and she recognised that her Son was also her Saviour (Luke 1:47). In short, Mary should be respected as one would be encouraged by the godly example of other heroes of the faith, but certainly not idolised.
Next time we look at Saints, Relics, Scripture and Tradition
iEditor J.D. Douglas The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Zondervan, 1974; Grand Rapids), p323
iiiGeoff Thomas Evangelical Times Dancing Along. The Journey to the Orthodox Church February 1995 http://www.evangelical-times.org/archive/item/1099/Cults-and-other-religions/Dancing-Along–The-Journey-to-the-Orthodox-Church/
ivFay Foshell Who Will Save Middle East Christians: Obama or Putin? 6th October 2015 http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2015/10/who_will_save_middle_east_christians_obama_or_putin.html
vMark Woods How the Russian Orthodox Church is backing Vladimir Putin’s New World Order 3rd March 2016 http://www.christiantoday.com/article/how.the.russian.orthodox.church.is.backing.vladimir.putins.new.world.order/81108.htm
viAMG’s Encyclopaedia of World Religions, Cults and the Occult (AMG, 2006; Chattanooga), p61
viiMatt Slick CARM Orthodox Church quotes on Marriage, Ordination, Orthodox Church https://carm.org/quotes-orthodox-church-marriage-orthodox-church2. (Grube, Fr. George (2012-08-19). The Orthodox Church A to Z (Kindle Locations 6008-6013). Light and Life Publishing, http://www.light-n-life.com. Kindle Edition., emphasis original) and 5. (Ware, Timothy (1993-04-29). The Orthodox Church (p. 247). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)
ixIbid, 6. (Grube, Fr. George (2012-08-19). The Orthodox Church A to Z (Kindle Locations 4486-4490). Light and Life Publishing, http://www.light-n-life.com. Kindle Edition.)
xiT.A. McMahon Is being Orthodox a Paradox? https://www.thebereancall.org/content/being-orthodox-paradox
xiiMatt Slick CARM Orthodox Church quotes on Church Fathers, Communion, Confession https://carm.org/quotes-orthodox-church-fathers-confession
xivTimothy Ware The Orthodox Church New Edition (Penguin, 1997; London)p231