As Steve and Bill, over at Our Life In Christ say, “The Orthodox Church is evangelical but not Protestant. It is orthodox but not Jewish. It is Catholic but not Roman. It isn’t non-denominational – it is pre-denominational. It has believed, taught, preserved, defended, and died for the Faith of the Apostles since the Day of Pentecost 2000 years ago.”
Most people have heard of Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, etc. (Brenda and I attend an Antiochian Orthodox church.) All of these groups are expressions of Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy naturally settles into the culture in which it exists, so nearly every country with a long history of Orthodoxy has a native Orthodox Church (ie, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiochian – ie, from Syria, Lebanon, and beyond). But all these different churches believe the same thing, use the same liturgy, and even sing the same hymns, although the hymn tunes and tones vary from culture to culture. Even though Brenda and I are Antiochian, we worship very comfortably in Greek, Russian, or Romanian Orthodox churches.
For the first thousand years of Christianity there was pretty much only one church. It considered itself the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church (this phrase comes from the Nicene Creed) that held to the Orthodox faith as expressed in the great ecumenical councils. For reasons that are both tragic and too complicated to get into on this page, the Patriarch of Rome and the other four Patriarchs (located in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople) had irreconcilable differences and the Bishop of Rome went his separate way. Europeans became known as Roman Catholics and the rest of the church continued to be called Orthodox.
Five hundred years later things had degenerated so badly in the Roman Catholic church that two reform movements occurred. The first was the Reformation. That is where the Protestants got started. In response to that there was a Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church where many of the abuses were corrected. For those of us in Europe and North America, this is what we think of when we think of church history.
But during this time the Orthodox church continued to worship, witness, and live as it had always done since the Day of Pentecost. But it was a life of suffering. The Orthodox Church has lived most of its history under oppression from various groups (the Saracens, the Muslims, the Communists, etc.) Because of ecclesiastical complications (at this point we might repeat what was said earlier: “For reasons that are both tragic and too complicated to get into on this page”) when Orthodox people began to move to the New World (North and South America, Australia), it was never practical to form an indigenous form of Orthodoxy. It is a situation that continues to this day. So rather than American Orthodoxy, we still have multiple jurisdictions in North America.
Orthodox worship services are somewhat similar to a Roman Catholic service. But the Orthodox have several profound disagreements with the Roman Catholics on issues such as the pope, the sacraments, and the role of Mary. As a result, even though the Orthodox look like exotic Catholics to most Protestants, Orthodoxy and Protestantism have a great deal in common. Orthodoxy is also very conservative, defending the sanctify of marriage and life, maintaining a high view of scripture, etc. Because of this, they have far more in common with the Evangelical Protestants than most mainline denominations.
But it isn’t possible to define Orthodoxy on paper. It is something that must be experienced and lived, not defined. So in the end, the only adquate answer to the question, “What is Eastern Orthodoxy?” is what Philip said to Nathaniel about Jesus: “Come and see.”
If you are curious and want to “come and see,” drop me a line and will do my best to put you in contact with Orthodox people near where you live.
[Okay, I know I just said it isn’t possible to define Orthodoxy on paper. But I write essays, so I couldn’t help at least writing about it. I have written a series of essays on some of my initial experiences and responses to Orthodoxy on my legacy site. Here’s a link to my Essays on Eastern Orthodoxy.]